Archive for Recent Sightings

Feb
26

At Liberty on a Chilly Morning

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Liberty State Park

Fifty-five minutes in to my twenty-minute drive, I remembered why I don’t bird Liberty State Park that often.

Ten minutes in to my two-hour walk, I remembered why I should.

Liberty State Park

There weren’t all that many birds, and any rarities that might have been hanging around managed to avoid detection, but even on a cold, dank, breezy morning, I always found something to look at, from harbor seals out in the water to American tree and song sparrows taking advantage of the snow plow’s imprecisions.

Song sparrow

I should be seeing plenty more tree sparrows in Nebraska in a couple of weeks, but here in New Jersey, they will disappear with the snow cover — a fact that creates more than a bit of psychic tension in birders, like me, who wouldn’t half mind seeing the ground again sometime soon.

American tree sparrow

There was a nice little flock of 35 horned larks in the parking lot when I arrived. They stayed just long enough to confirm that they were alone; I’d expected snow buntings, and hoped for longspurs or pipits.

I didn’t walk far enough to see if the usual wintering gang of ruddy ducks was in residence. On glimpsing a distant flock of scaup, though, I did venture out onto the open fields for a closer look. The great hope is always that an Aythya flock contain at least three species, and this one did. Not, unfortunately, the tufted duck I’d been crossing my freezing fingers for, but a drake redhead, a nice enough find by local standards.

Redhead

I’ve had a good winter for redheads here in New Jersey; I think today was the third day this calendar year I’d seen the species in the state– not quite like “the old days” of the 1980s, when you could almost count on finding redheads on the North Shore ponds. I often wonder, when I do run across these handsome ducks nowadays, whether the decline of winterers here in New Jersey is perhaps connected with the end of the New York introduction program, begun, if rightly I remember, in the 1950s and continuing into the 1980s.

After a couple of hours outside, the cold got to me; but I justified my early departure by the chance of running into even worse traffic on the way home. I didn’t. So maybe I’ll forget what a bear that drive can be, and try Liberty again one of these days.

Atlantic brant

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Feb
15

Brooks’s Blackbird

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Allan Brooks

Today marks the 146th birthday of Allan Brooks, the Anglo-Canadian painter and ornithologist. One of the most widely traveled collectors of his (or any other) day, Brooks shot and sketched birds from Ottawa to Auckland and most places in between.

In March 1928, Brooks and J. Eugene Law were in Arizona. On the 14th, they discovered an odd icterid at a tank in southern Pinal County; Law was able to kill the bird the next day.

In the hand the bird proved to be about the size of a male Yellow-headed Blackbird…. iris dark brown… entire plumage black, slightly glossed with bluish purple, wings and tail more greenish… tail with thirteen rectrices, strongly graduated… quite flat without trace of plication….

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Before Law collected the bird, it had

walked about sedately, frequently posing with its head thrown back, the bill pointing straight up and the neck slightly extended.

Brooks sent the specimen east to the Smithsonian, where the skin and trunk skeleton are now USNM 313651 and 322691. After examining the bird, Charles W. Richmond was of the opinion that it was most likely “a very new species” of grackle; Alexander Wetmore agreed. “Neither,” Brooks adds, “considered it to be a hybrid.”

Today, no one really believes that Brooks and Law discovered a new blackbird on that spring day in Mammoth. Jaramillo and Burke — Canadians around every corner here! — report that an analysis of the specimen’s mitochondrial DNA identified its female parent as a grackle of one species or another; more DNA was removed from the bird’s foot in 2004, but I don’t know what the results, if any, were of that study.

The BNA account for the great-tailed grackle identifies the Arizona bird as a hybrid between that species and the red-winged blackbird, an unexpected pairing given the care female great-tails take to avoid mating with even the much more closely related, much more similar boat-tailed grackles.

Whatever it was, whatever it is, the Pinal County nondescript remains testimony to the good eye of Major Allan Brooks. And to the good aim of Gene Law, of course.

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Jan
30

Yard Sparrow

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Yes, I’m grateful that the bitter cup of whatever last week’s blizzard was named passed us more or less by. But that doesn’t make the dribs and drabs of powdery snow — an inch here, two inches there — we’ve been getting any more enjoyable.

Until this morning, that is, when the weather brought a sweet little field sparrow to the feeders.

Field Sparrow

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Jan
23

Merganser Love

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Red-breasted merganser

A bright winter’s day, and the mind of the red-breasted mergansers turns to love.

Click here to watch a video from Shark River this morning. (Mute the sound.)

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Dec
30

Strange Birdfellows

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DSC00751

Alison had spent something like sixteen hours getting home from Canada the day before, but she was as chipper as could be expected when 4:00 came Sunday morning. The three of us piled into the car and headed south, meeting up with Frank pre-dawn for our first Barnegat Light Christmas Count.

Gellert couldn’t have been happier when he heard our assignment: to walk the beach south and the duneside back. Oh boy, Papa, a long stroll and saltwater, too!

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I know few places where the sky and the sea are as consistently beautiful as New Jersey’s barrier islands. It was warm, the sand was well packed, and there were plenty of birds to be seen; the featherless bipeds had nearly as much fun as the dog. A nice flock of northern gannets fed its way south early in the morning, and that other black and white specialty of the outer beaches, snow buntings, flicked and flittered above our heads and in the wrack. I’d warned Alison not to expect any shorebirds — our “territory” was south of the rock jetties where they all hang out — but I had to eat my words when we found some 300 dunlin working the beach; with them were black-bellied plovers, sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, and a small handful of purple sandpipers, that last a bird I don’t often run into on the open sand.

The morning’s big surprise came an hour and a quarter into our walk. As we admired the long-tailed ducks’ speedy flight and laughed at their bumbling landings, I did a double-take when a tiny black and white football buzzed down the surf: a dovekie! Neither of us had ever seen one from shore, or even in sight of shore, in New Jersey, and I told Alison, more than half serious, that I wasn’t looking forward to reporting something so unusual at the midday tally.

But we announced it anyway. The responses were not what we’d expected: “We had one, too.” “Us, too.” “We saw two.” Some inscrutable alchemy of wind and wave had driven dovekies onshore, to everyone’s surprise and delight. And best of all, it wasn’t a “wreck” by any means; all the birds seen were happy and alive, whirring up and down the beaches and no doubt exchanging expressions of their own startlement: “Why, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a human before!”

That little alcid was far and away the highlight of my CBC season this year. But it got better.

After the noontime conviviality, Alison and I did a bit of poaching, walking out Barnegat Inlet for a closer look at the common eiders and harlequin ducks riding what was by then a considerable swell. Just as we turned around, as nearly sated on sea ducks as one can be, another little black and white bird flew close overhead. This one was a swallow, a fine tree swallow, and in company with four more. Even as far north as Ocean County, that hardy frugivore is not entirely a surprise in late December, but the tree swallows’ presence was still exciting — and it created a combination I had never witnessed:

Tree swallows and a dovekie on the same day from the same beach. Not a bad way to end the birding year.

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