Extraordinary Birds, Bayshore Edition

In search of avian wonders out of the ordinary, we turn now to the sparkling shores of the Delaware Bay. A large expanse of sandy beaches and saltwater marshes along the New Jersey side of the bay attracts many feathered marvels.

I went to the Bayshore one sunny May day to see migrating shorebirds. I’m easily distracted. A side trip to Cape May Point State Park occupied most of my morning.

You’d be distracted, too, by the Glossy Ibis I found at the edge of a pond. His deep burgundy plumage shimmered in the sun as he stalked, slow and stately, along the shore.

Everything about an ibis is long: long legs, long neck, long bill. All the better to eat with, my dear!

Distracted again, this time at Heislerville WMA. Bald Eagles, once endangered, are now common in some areas of the region. But an eagle posing on the roof of a nearby house? Extraordinary!

Alongside the road, a gravel, shell and grass area serves as a parking lot for visitors. It also serves as a nesting area for the local Killdeer population. We didn’t see this little mother when we pulled in; three feet to the right would have been disastrous.

The Killdeer was incubating eggs right there in the parking area. She was none too happy about our near-miss and our presence, so I took my photos quickly and left her in peace.

Wait, that’s not a bird! Did I mention I’m easily distracted? Clouded Sulphur.

Well, finally! Distraction-free at Reeds Beach.  There was no shortage of shorebirds.

And gulls. Laughing Gulls are quite common in my neck of the woods. The sheer numbers of them clustered at the water’s edge was extraordinary. Extraordinarily noisy, too.

And comical. Heads down to feed, the gulls resembled a tail-feathered basket-weave fence. One poor guy in the middle had a complaint.

“Hey! Quit stepping on my toes!”

Ruddy Turnstones were dramatic in russet, brown and black plumage.

The stars of the show were the Red Knots. This little shorebird travels immense distances every year from wintering grounds at the tip of South America, to breed in the far north. Along the way, having lost much of its body weight to the rigors of flight, it joins other long-distance migrants at the Delaware Bay, to feast upon the fat-laden eggs of the horseshoe crab.

Horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs at the same time the shorebirds arrive. Unlike this unfortunate crab, most remain right side up and survive to breed another year. Their numbers are dwindling though, due to sustained over-harvesting. Bad news for the shore birds, especially the Red Knots.

Hey, wait! Was it something I said? Come back!

And back they come, in a big hurry to get to those eggs.

There is concern for a number of shorebird species, but the Red Knot population is in the worst shape. In an attempt to protect and conserve these birds, scientists have been tracking their numbers and movements. Spotters were posted at Reeds Beach, recording band colors and numbers. Only time will tell if conservation efforts succeed or fail.

This Red Knot has been captured, weighed and released, and wears some distinctive jewelry to commemorate the experience. Green is the color used for birds in the United States. I saw orange bands as well. Those birds were banded in Argentina!

From Argentina to New Jersey, and on to the far north, shorebirds undertake extraordinarily long journeys, twice, every year. The horseshoe crabs along Delaware Bayshore provide the fuel they need to keep going. Its sandy shores are the perfect places to savor the wonder of these extraordinary birds.

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Extraordinary Birds, Woodland Edition

Extraordinary (adjective): 1. beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established. 2. exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, etc.; noteworthy; remarkable. SYNONYMS: uncommon, singular, rare, phenomenal, special. (Dictionary.com)

If the commonplace birds that frequent our everyday world are “ordinary”, then “extraordinary” birds must be those that are unusual or rare visitors in our lives.

What’s ho-hum to one birder might be remarkable to another, however. Here are a few of the extraordinary birds I saw in the woods this spring, each one more special than the last.

I see Yellow-rumped Warblers like the one above all the time. Common, yes, but far from ordinary.  Because there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. Yellow-rumps in breeding plumage are quite striking.

Yellow Warblers are also at Heinz NWR in large numbers in the spring. They’re plain, but very bright. And they are always cheerfully singing their little heads off.

In the Pine Barrens, a Prairie Warbler spent a long time perched  at the top of a pitch pine in the sun.

Then he started caroling. Prairie Warblers are more frequently heard than seen, for me at least.

Back at Heinz, an Eastern Kingbird at the water’s edge.

I see Baltimore Orioles from time to time in the spring. If one oriole is good, two must be better!

Spring migration brought the warbler hit parade to Heinz. Magnolia Warbler.

I don’t see Black-throated Green Warblers too often, and had never photographed one before. Catching this one was tough. It hung around for a long time, but like most warblers, it never stayed in one place, and was always just a little too far away.

Canada Warbler. Another bird new to my photo collection, though not my life list.

I can’t show you my favorite warbler of the spring. There was a brilliant Blackburnian Warbler in a treetop at Heinz. I’ve only caught brief glimpses of Blackburnians in Michigan. This time I got a good look at the bird, but you’ll have to take my word for it. He didn’t come close enough for a portrait.

Rarer still was this bright confection in Higbee Beach WMA in New Jersey. It’s a Yellow-breasted Chat, only the second one I’ve ever seen. I was shooting here from a tall observation platform at treetop level, the perfect perch from which to watch this warbler sing and dance.

Walking along the path at Cape May Point State Park, I spotted a flash of bright blue. Bluebird? Blue Jay? Tree Swallow?

Nope!

At the edge of the woods, a Blue Grosbeak was feeding on grass seeds. I’ve never seen one before. That makes this a life bird, the first one of its species I’d ever spotted.

Warblers to orioles, kingbirds to grosbeaks, there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. They’re all special in their own way.

How extraordinary!

Ordinary Birds

Ordinary (adj): 1. of no special quality or interest; commonplace; unexceptional. 2. plain or undistinguished. (Dictionary.com)

Ordinary bird? There’s no such thing.

Sure, there are birds that are commonplace, or plain and undistinguished. Pay them no mind.

Spring is the time to see migrating birds, the brilliant warblers and splendid shorebirds. After all, they’re only here for a short time as they pass through on their way to breeding grounds farther north.

Those other birds? The ordinary birds? We can look at them later; they’re not going anywhere.

Life doesn’t always work out the way you plan. Want to see and photograph crisp russet and black Ruddy Turnstones or flame-colored Blackburnian Warblers?

Here, have a Gray Catbird. They’ve descended on the area in droves. One day, there were none to be seen. The next, the woods were full of them. Commonplace? Maybe “ubiquitous” is a better word for them. Noisy, too; there’s one keeping up a steady stream of chatter outside my window as I type.

Sparrows are often considered “ordinary” birds. “Little brown jobs”, or LBJs, they’re called. Plain, drab. Yet this jaunty little fellow is anything but! A pair of Chipping Sparrows hopped along the sandy road, all pink feet, striped heads and bright eyes.

Sometimes a bird is “ordinary” because it is out in open view frequently. This juvenile Red-tailed Hawk is a city-bred bird, and far from shy around people. It refused to be ignored, demanding we cast our glance its way. It perched on this pole so long everyone got a good look at its exquisite feathers and piercing eyes.

Looking for the imperiled Red Knot? Perhaps something more common instead.

Take, for example, a Mallard. The quintessential duck, he even says “QUAAACK!” Mallards are common wherever there’s water, but how often do we truly look at them? Iridescent green head, mottled breast, bright orange feet…

This duck has been banded. Birds are banded so that researchers can learn about a population’s abundance, distribution and health. Someone must think Mallards are important enough to study and learn from.

Egrets are plentiful enough that, despite their beauty, I frequently will pass them by in search of less “ordinary” birds. Until one of them decides to do something interesting; say, catch a fish. A Snowy Egret, snack, wears its breeding headdress of long lacy feathers.

A Tree Swallow is a commonplace bird, and plainly adorned in blue and white. But, oh! That blue! And it’s wearing an expression that can only be called endearing..

Some days, in search of the extraordinary, you get lucky and find it. Other days, life gives you something even better – the chance to look anew at the wonders of our ordinary birds!

The Third Time’s the Charm

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Confined as I was to plant and rock photography all winter, I ached to go somewhere known for wildlife. Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware beckoned. My Facebook feed had been full of close-up photos of the wonders to be seen there. Foxes. Owls. Meadow birds like Bobwhites, Horned Larks and Meadowlarks. Raccoons. Foxes. Bald Eagles by the dozens. Glossy Ibises. Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Did I mention foxes?

Getting to Bombay Hook felt jinxed. Something always went wrong. In January, a trip was planned with a group of photographer friends – and it was too rainy. In March, a trip was planned with another friend – and he was under the weather.

Finally, in mid-April, all the stars aligned, and I made my much-anticipated visit to Bombay Hook. The landscape was still wearing its winter coat of dried tan grasses. No Bobwhites or Horned Larks lurked in the meadows and grassy areas.

I set out on the Wildlife Drive to see what I might find further afield.

My first bird was – a Grackle. Common, I think. Not usually what one would consider a pretty bird, but look closely at the iridescence of the feathers.

A handful of American Avocets graced Raymond Pool. Most of them were too far off to photograph. One of the downsides of wildlife photography on a budget. I was lucky that two wandered a little closer.

Photography at this distance is marginal at best with my 400mm lens – I’m really stretching the limit here. But I do love this bird. Avocets are one of the bird species that we don’t see at John Heinz NWR, but they are common just a little farther south in Delaware. These birds alone are worth the trip. I also saw two Black-necked Stilts, another mid-sized sandpiper that are a Bombay Hook specialty. They didn’t want to pose, however.

No sign of foxes yet. I wondered what I might see on the Salt Marsh boardwalk trail.

Ah, a Great Egret, at the top of a tall tree. I’m always startled to see an Egret in a tree. Seems far too big to be perched on that thin branch. Wading in shallow water is a much safer place to be.

Nearby a pair of Tree Swallows were bickering over a tree cavity. Swallows argue a lot. There’s never enough housing on the market.

Back on the road, I came across another bird not known for its beauty. Usually I see dark-faced Black Vultures at Bombay Hook, but this one’s a real turkey – a Turkey Vulture.

Sunbathing in vultures serves two purposes. At night, they keep their body temperature at a lower level, and so often spread their swings in the sun to warm up. It was one o’clock in the afternoon, though, so it seems more likely this fellow was drying his feathers.

Bald Eagles flew past, the juvenile chasing his elder. They say imitation’s the sincerest form of flattery. I doubt the adult appreciated this expression of adulation.

Far across Raymond Pool I saw several Bald Eagles standing in the shallow water, looking down. This was curious behavior. Were they looking for fish? Admiring their reflections?

Maybe, like me, they couldn’t get enough of the deep blue water sparkling in the sun.

On the ponds, there were large numbers of Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals. Again, out of range of my camera. On the bay side, however, a small flock of Ruddy Ducks bobbed close to shore.

Ruddies are neat little ducks. Males sport a blue bill and marvelous cinnamon plumage in breeding season.

Did I ever see my fox? Nope. I drove through the meadows near Finis Pool, hoping to see one, or perhaps a Horned Lark or Meadowlark. No such luck. Nor did I see owls at Bear Swamp Pool.

All is not lost. A Lesser Yellowlegs pranced near Parsons Point.

Wildlife photography is challenging. You have to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Then you have to be patient enough to wait in one spot until the critters get within camera range. That means ignoring all of Bombay Hook except that one spot, something I can’t bring myself to do. I might miss something!

So I make the most of the opportunities that present themselves. Like this Lesser Yellowlegs, doing a little yoga. After a winter spent too close to home, it was good to stretch my wings a little. Just being at Bombay Hook, watching the critters do their thing, was enough for me.

The third time’s definitely the charm!

A Shore Thing: A Day For the Birds

160928_nj-oc-sunrise_9034acsThe sun rises on a new day, setting the sea aflame in glittering gold. This beauty is of no consequence to a Herring Gull. Neither is the turbulent surf. Just another day at the office.

160928_nj-oc-sunrise_9062acsTaking wing and then diving, he expertly snatches breakfast on the go.

160921_nj-devils-island-kayak_9281acsOut on the marsh, Great Egrets congregate. Three stand watch while others attend to their beauty routine. Behind them, Snowy Egrets look for a midmorning snack.

160921_nj-devils-island-kayak_9348acsRuffled by the wind but not the bridge traffic in the distance, a Great Blue Heron surveys a wide expanse of saltmarsh cordgrass.

160926_nj-middle-thoroughfare-kayak_9652adsOn the mudflats, Yellowlegs forage.

Greater Yellowlegs? Lesser Yellowlegs? Or one of each? Who’s to say?

(Yellowlegs identification is a challenge. For the record, I think these are Greater Yellowlegs. At least the one on the left with the long bill. But I could be wrong.)

160928_nj-strathmere-point-birds_9566acsThe beach is a ballroom brimming with tuxedoed birds. Black and white with orange-red accents, these Black Skimmers (front) and American Oystercatchers (rear) await the next dance.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_9376acsMy, what big eyes you have, grandmother! The American Oystercatcher enhances its clownlike appearance with oversized pink feet and a long red bill.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_9793acsAhhh, lunch! Oysters are not on the menu today, but crabs are. This Oystercatcher carries his entrée into a nearby puddle. Apparently, it’s considered good manners to wash one’s food before one eats it.

How to tell these birds apart? The American Oystercatcher has an all-black head, red bill, and those marvelous red-rimmed golden eyes. The Black Skimmer in the background is a stockier bird with a white chin and unremarkable dark eyes.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9761acsBut then there’s that bill. Razor thin, with a lower bill much longer than the top. Skimmers feed by flying over the water, bill open and lower mandible cutting through the surface. The bill snaps shut as soon as it touches a fish. Gotcha!

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_0350acsAfter lunch, it’s time for preening. An American Oystercatcher goes to great lengths to keep those feathers clean.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9917acsAlso a contortionist, the Black Skimmer turns upside down to get those hard to reach spots.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9491acsThere go the Skimmers. Evening is the time for them to feed along the ocean’s edge, knifing their bills through the calm water in search of fish.

160918_nj-oc-beach_8353acsJoining the Skimmers on this lovely evening are the Sanderlings. These small shorebirds chase retreating waves down the beach, while probing for tiny invertebrates and crustaceans.

160918_nj-oc-beach_8485acsOnly to flee from the incoming wave in a blur of constant motion. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

…in the sunset glow of another fine day at the beach.

Stilted

160610_DE Bombay Hook Stilt_0946acsStilted [stil-tid]: Stiffly dignified or formal.

Hmmm. Ok, this bird could be described as “dignified or formal.” This is a Black-necked Stilt, a slender shorebird with long red legs. In his black and white attire, he seems ready for a formal affair.

I coaxed my friend Don into a trip to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge along Delaware Bay in Delaware on my birthday a few weeks ago. I’m not sure what I was hoping to see. Ospreys, Harriers, Egrets.  American Avocets, if we were lucky. Foxes, maybe.

We weren’t expecting Black-necked Stilts. And we certainly weren’t expecting to see the behaviour we witnessed. I’ve only seen Black-necked Stilts at this Refuge, and only a couple of times.  Always it’s been one or two birds, far across the impoundments, difficult to see and impossible to photograph.

Yet, here they were, Stilts close enough to the Wildlife Drive to see and photograph. We were thrilled to watch these elegant and formal birds.

160610_DE Bombay Hook Stilt_1273acs“Stiff” is not a word that describes the Stilt, though. On land they tip forward on those long legs to forage for invertebrates and small fish, then agilely twist to groom themselves.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts_1951acsIn flight they are graceful and airy.

160610_DE Bombay Hook Stilt_1015acsA little further down the road, we found more Stilts, and things began to get interesting. Two pairs of birds were flying in a looping, elaborate aerial dance.

160610_DE Bombay Hook_0981acs2A dance it was indeed, as these couples were clearly engaging in a courtship display.

160610_DE Bombay Hook_1332acsTurning and wheeling with long legs dangling, they put in mind ballet dancers in tuxedos leaping across a stage.

160610_DE Bombay Hook_0819acsWe also witnessed another pair mating.

160610_DE Bombay Hook_1451acsYet another Stilt, sitting on a nest, incubating eggs. Stilt nests are scrapes in soft ground. Often they are on small islands surrounded by shallow water.

In the course of a few hours, we saw the entire range of breeding behavior, from courtship display to mating to nesting. We felt lucky to get this little glimpse into the lives of Black-necked Stilts.

But wait. If there’s a nest so easily viewed from the road, might there be babies to see in the future?

Two weeks later Don and I found ourselves back at Bombay Hook, hoping to see Black-necked Stilt chicks. We weren’t disappointed!

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts_1911acsWe found the Stilt family on a low island of green grasses in one of the Refuge’s pools. Two adults, and three chicks. They are all visible in this photograph, although you have to look hard for the third chick. Its head is barely visible just in front of the right-hand adult’s feet, nearly lost in the green grass.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts_2221acsCuteness Alert! This little ball of fluff is irresistible. A pom-pom on two long slender sticks.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts_2239acsStepping out. Stilt chicks are able to walk and forage on their own with hours of hatching. It will be some time before they grow feathers and learn to fly, though. Until then, this tiny island is their entire world. Their parents are vigilant, constantly on guard for any possible threat.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Stilts with Egret_2400acsLike a Great Egret that landed too close for the Stilts’ comfort. One parent took several passes at the Egret. When it moved even closer, the Stilt had seen enough, and aggressively chased the intruder away. Never underestimate the smaller bird if it has chicks to protect.

160610_DE Bombay Hook Stilt_0941acsDon and I had thought ourselves lucky to witness the breeding behavior of Black-necked Stilts. We felt positively privileged to spend time with the adorable fluffy offspring of these elegant and distinguished birds.

My Big Day

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9311acsA “Big Day” in bird-watching parlance is a day when a group of birders try to see as many different species of birds as they can. Recently, I had a different kind of Big Day.

My life list on May 13 consisted of 211 different bird species. On May 14, it was up to 217. That’s a big jump. How?

I saw six new birds in ONE day, that’s how. My BIG DAY.

But do I have photographic evidence? No!

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography: Go out, camera in hand, in search of stunning photographs of the brightly colored migratory warblers that appear like magic every May, and either:

a) there are no birds, or

b) there are plenty of birds, but they are moving so rapidly deep in the dark treetops that all of your images are rubbish.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Birds_8263acsLike this Common Yellowthroat, so buried in the foliage that its light underparts look green from the reflection of the leaves.

Common Yellowthroats, as their name implies, are pretty common. One hopped across my porch while I was reading one evening. I enjoy seeing them each year, but this was not a new species, a “life bird”, for me.

160428_PA HNWR Warblers_6824acsHere’s a bird in the open, an American Redstart. Great bird, horribly distracting background, too bright. Another common warbler I’ve seen before this year.

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is a hotspot for migrating warblers, flycatchers, vireos and other birds in the spring. Many of the local birders said this was the best spring migration we’d had in some years.

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #1: Go birding WITHOUT the camera, and the birds will sit in the open in beautiful light, singing their hearts out.

See the above incident on the porch. Great bird, really close, no camera.

160515_PA HNWR Warblers_7779acsHere’s the one life bird I saw this spring I managed to capture, a Cape May Warbler. I first saw it the day before at eye level, in the sun, singing away. But, alas, no camera. I found it again the next day with camera in hand; this time it was hidden in the trees. I finally caught it in a blur of motion. This nicely illustrates one of the habits that make warblers so difficult to photograph: they never stay still!

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #2: Have a Big Day, in which you see SIX new species of warblers, and your only passable images will be of the ubiquitous Yellow Warblers. All thanks to Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography or Corollary #1.

160428_PA HNWR Warblers_6688acsHere’s that ubiquitous Yellow Warbler. Notice how all of my images are of the birds’ tummies? Another warbler habit: Most species like to hang out high in the trees. To see many of them you need to tilt your head way, way back. There’s a reason warbler fans complain of “Warbler Neck.” Most of my images are of birds that hang out a little lower in the canopy.

For those curious to know, my new birds this May were the Blue-winged, Cape May, Wilson’s, Blackpoll, Chestnut-sided and Canada Warblers and the Northern Parula. All but the Blue-winged seen in one day.

Murphy’s Law of Bird Photography, Corollary #3: Have a bird pose in the open for you to photograph, and that’s the bird that might have been a lifer, but you’ll never know for sure what it was.

160515_PA HNWR Warblers_7861acsI was with one of the Refuge’s finest birders, and she wasn’t willing to say definitively which flycatcher this was without hearing it sing. Despite posing for a long time in the open, it never opened its mouth.

It was a real treat to bird with Edie, though. Birding with friends was the only reason I was able to add so many new life birds to my list. I wouldn’t have found some of them if other pairs of eyes hadn’t been searching too. I wouldn’t have been able to identify some of them if others hadn’t helped me out.

There are other birds at the Refuge that are easier to see and photograph.

160516_PA HNWR Oriole_7952acsBaltimore Orioles are stunning at this time of year.

160428_PA HNWR Swallow_6499acsBarn Swallows are everywhere. Trying to capture them in flight is nearly impossible. But they’re not shy when they’re sitting on the boardwalk railing.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Birds_8554acsRed-winged Blackbirds are another common bird that I keep hoping to capture in flight. Sitting among the cattails will have to do.

Speaking of common birds in flight at the Refuge, that’s a Great Blue Heron at the top of this post.

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9265acsI’ve been trying to photograph male Wood Ducks in their elaborate breeding plumage for a long time, not particularly successfully. I’ll take the ducklings any day of the week, though. They’re hot on Mama’s tail as she paddles for the safety of the spatterdock.

Every day’s a Big Day for Mama Wood Duck.

Every day that I am outside observing and enjoying Nature is a Big Day for me.