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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Cape May Potpourri

CM Point SP Bluebird_9640 aEarly in May, a friend and I went to Cape May in search of migrating warblers. First stop: Cape May Point State Park. Surprisingly, we had no luck in the warbler department, although we got this obliging Eastern Bluebird to pose for us.

CM Higbee Beach Towhee_9902 aCM Higbee Beach_9823 a

Our next stop was Higbee Beach WMA, along the Delaware Bayshore. This is a wonderfully confusing tangle of woods, meadows, dune scrub and beach. We got lost at least twice. It was worth it though, as we did find the warblers we’d been seeking, as well as this Eastern Towhee (above). Flowering trees drew swarms of bees, but I was more bothered by the jumbo mosquitos. Some of them were bigger than the birds!

CM Thompsons Beach Rail_0160 comboNext up: Thompson’s Beach, further north along Delaware Bay. Our sole purpose here was to see the elusive Clapper Rail. We searched first from the observation deck at the end of the road, then took a long walk out to the beach and back. For the duration of our trek we could hear the constant laughing call of the bird, but we didn’t spot a single Rail. Finally back at the deck we saw one, who gave us a good look while he was preening. Imagine my joy when my camera suddenly declared “Card Full”… Fortunately I came away with one good shot. Here you can see why they’re so hard to find (above). Not only do they blend in so well, they are usually are deep in the grass.

CM Matts Landing Rookery_3189Our last port-of-call was Matt’s Landing Road at Heislerville WMA. There’s an island there covered with trees – and Cormorants. And Egrets. And Herons… Basically it’s a rookery, a place for birds to roost and nest. I was happy not to be too close – I can only imagine the smell. CM Matts Landing Night Heron_3291 acsOn the drive around the impoundment we spotted this Black-crowned Night Heron (above) in a tree, and a Snowy Egret in the wonderful evening light. CM Matts Landing_3339 Egret a

FUN FACT: The male Eastern Bluebird chooses the nest site, in tree cavities or nest boxes. He entices the female to nest there by displaying and carrying nesting material in and out of the hole. That’s it! The rest is up to her – building the nest, and incubating the eggs. She keeps him around though, as pair bonds last for several seasons. A male will defend his nest sites against any bird he considers a threat, so maybe he’s good for something after all!CM Point SP Bluebird_9657 a

Coming soon: Ready or Knot