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?


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!

Cape Henlopen

151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_6988acsBlack Friday dawns at Cape Henlopen State Park. Nearby, shoppers are crowding the Delaware outlet stores, looking for bargains. Away from the maddening crowd, there is only the cry of gulls and the crash of the waves for company. Ah, sweet sandy serenity!

151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_6994acs 151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_7009acs 151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_7101acsThis is what a healthy dune ecosystem looks like. Trees, shrubs, plants and grasses. Not row after paved row of houses, shops and hotels.

151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_7134acsCape Henlopen panorama. At the far left is the Breakwater Lighthouse, which sits on the inner breakwater. The cylindrical building at the center is a WWII fire control tower. The spit of sand behind the tower is Cape Henlopen Point. Beyond that is the Harbor of Refuge Breakwater, with the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse at its right end. Photographed from the Cape Henlopen Fire Control Tower.

151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_7176acsCape Henlopen Point, the Delaware Bay to the left.

151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_7267acsTwo ferries for the price of one!

151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_7187acsBarnacles.

151127_DE Cape Henlopen State Park_7237acsWhat is the well-dressed mermaid is wearing this season? A mermaid’s necklace, of course! A mermaid’s necklace is chain of egg cases laid by a whelk, a predatory sea snail. Each egg case can contain up to 99 eggs, and there can be more than 150 cases in a chain. That’s a lot of baby whelks.

151128_DE Indian River Lifesaving Station_7627acsEven a mermaid needs a handbag – it’s not like she’s got pockets! So she carries a mermaid’s purse. This is an egg case of a skate. Similar in appearance to rays, skates are cartilaginous fish whose skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone. Egg cases of most skate species contain a single embryo.

151128_DE Delaware Seashore State Park_7515acs 151128_DE Delaware Seashore State Park_7525acs 151128_DE Dewey Beach Sunset_7692acsThe sun sets over Rehoboth Bay, singing a lullaby of tranquility.

151128_DE Dewey Beach Sunset_7745acs

Ducking Out Of Winter

Barnegat Harlequin_3017 a It’s my fault, I admit. The snow, I mean. Two years in a row I lamented my lack of good snowy photographs to use for Christmas cards, and those years were marked by a decided lack of snowfall. Be careful what you wish for! This year Mother Nature had the last laugh. We’ve had just about 60 inches of snow, when the winter norm averages 22”. And March can still bring some big storms, so we may not be done yet.

I’m done, though. I loved the snow in January and early February, but I have all the snow photos I need, thank you very much. Enough already! I’ve had it with hiking on slippery, ankle-turning ice.

So the last three weekends I have escaped to the southeast, once to the Pine Barrens, twice to the Jersey Shore. No white stuff, and lots of ducks. I love ducks. They’re so colorful and varied, and they are always doing interesting things. In the winter, places like Barnegat Light and Avalon draw sea and bay ducks in droves. Great places to duck out of the snow.

Barnegat Harlequin_3002 acsAbove and below are perhaps the most gorgeous of ducks, male Harlequins. Lots of birders take the adventurous trek atop the Barnegat Light jetty just to admire these beauties.Barnegat Harlequin_3189 acs

Barnegat Longtail_3455 acsI have a soft spot for Long-tailed Ducks. They have such endearing expressions.1 Avalon Long-tailed_3891 acs

1 Avalon Long-tailed_4062 aMales are comfortable enough with their masculinity to sport pink on their bills. Females stick to earth tones. Barnegat Longtail_3458 acs

1 Avalon Scoter Black_3912 aThe Scoters are new birds for me this year. They tend to hang out farther off-shore, so they’re not as easy to photograph. Here’s a large raft of Black Scoters in Avalon, above, with a few Long-tailed Ducks and gulls amongst them. Black Scoter, male, below.1 Avalon Scoter Black_3953 a

1 Surf Scoter at Avalon_4348 acs This fellow with the colorful proboscis is a male Surf Scoter. My first life bird of the day.

Barnegat Loon_3298 aThis is a Common Loon, transitioning into breeding plumage.

Barnegat Merganser_2858 acs Female Red-breasted Merganser at Barnegat Light, above and below.Barnegat Merganser_2909 acs

1 Avalon Sandpiper Purple_4378 acs Purple Sandpiper on the rocks at Avalon.

3 Bonaparte's Gull at Higbee_4492 acsI don’t usually take photos of gulls, unless they’re flying or doing something really interesting. Gulls pose identification problems, and usually I’m seeing the same species over and over. This particular gull flew past in West Cape May, and I’m glad I took the shot. When I got home, I realized I had something different – Bonaparte’s Gull, a life bird for me. It was my second lifer that day.

In popular birding places, you often run into other birders who are happy to share news of interesting birds. Two guys I met in Avalon suggested I go to Stone Harbor Point to look for the Smith’s Longspur that had been seen there. “Just look for a big group of people; that’s where it will be.” Sure enough, out in the grassy meadow between beach and bay was a group of people with binoculars and scopes, chasing a cryptically colored, sparrow-sized bird around. I never would have found it, much less identified it, by myself. Lifer #3 for the day.2 Smith's Longspur at  Stone Harbor Point_4421acsSmith’s Longspurs hang out in the middle of the country, and are quite rare in the East, which is why so many people wanted to see it. I’m sure this poor bird was wondering if he’d ever get a break from the crowds to eat in peace.

5 Ross's Goose at Seagrove Ave Cape May_4769 aI also heard from two different people of another unusual sighting, a Ross’s Goose in a field behind some homes in Cape May Point. Sure enough, there it was. A great way to end a day of birding at the Shore.

Barnegat Harlequin_3119 acsIn the last week or two, the weather has warmed enough that the foot-thick snow pack has all but disappeared. My crocuses are blooming, the first rays of sunny gold heralding the inevitability of spring.

The Bald Eagles at Heinz Refuge are incubating eggs. Geese have been migrating north for some time. Soon these winter ducks will take off for their breeding grounds to bring new life into the world. Flowers and trees will bloom, and baby animals will be born.

It won’t be long before spring is off to a flying start!

The Critter Radio Sports Update

HNWR Painted Turtle_6615 aHey, hey, hey sports fans! This is Shelly Zuppa with your sports update here on KRTR 99.9 FM – Critter Radio. Today we have a real treat for all you sports fans – live coverage of yesterday’s hotly contested Herp Swamp Hockey match. Nothing like the timely coverage you’ll get here on Critter Radio! Let’s throw it over to our play-by-play announcer.

Hi, folks, I’m Myrtle Turtle the Dapper Snapper, and welcome to the Marsh Arena. For the Herp Swamp Hockey novices out there, let’s review the game. The league is restricted to herps – reptiles and amphibians, in other words. No fish, no fowl. No rules, no referees, no holds barred. Four teams for all the marbles, competing on land and in water.

HNWR_5624 a Looks like we’re all set for the match to start. The crowd is trembling with anticipation…

HNWR_9701 a…as their favorite players from the Tinicum Turtles take the field.

CM Higbee Beach_9885 aRight off the bat, the Higbee Beach Fence Lizards take the offensive by going on defense. These guys would lead the league if the game were Freeze Tag. At the first whiff of an opponent, they become motionless. “If I don’t move – you can’t see me!” is their battle cry.

HNWR Snake_7379 ACSThe strategy must have worked, because we can see they’ve got this Garter Snake player from Serpents United on the rocks.

HNWR Bullfrog_7722 ASMeanwhile, this American Bullfrog is mired deep in his own zone. Maybe water polo is more his game.

HNWR Tadpoles_5187 aHalftime entertainment keeps to the water with a nice display of synchronized swimming by three baby fish. Yes, folks, there’s nothing we Snapping Turtles like better than a good fish fry. Or three…

Tinicum_6389 Alt 2 AS OrigBack to the action, these Painted Turtles from Heinz seem to have been benched. The Tinicum Turtles try to overwhelm other teams with sheer numbers, but spend most of the game sunning themselves on the sidelines. It’s enough to make a fellow turtle weep.

CM Higbee Beach_9945 aWait, folks, what’s this… There’s a Spider Crab on the field and creeping away with the ball… Oh my gosh, we have a streaker! Don’t look, Ethel!

CMPSP Snake_9767 aThe Cape May fan contingent is not happy with this turn of events, as a Ribbon Snake shows his displeasure.

HNWR_2233 aWith time running out, Serpents United have taken a risky strategy by sending a Garter Snake player deep into the opposition’s Thistle to try to score. It’s a highly unusual place for a snake – but…

CM Higbee Beach_9942 aYES! He scores!


And the Serpents take the match!

Well, folks, it’s all over but the shouting. This Horseshoe Crab spectator seems overwhelmed with emotion. What an exciting game!

The rematch is bound to be a barn-burner. Be sure to tune in again to catch all the action right here on KRTR Critter Radio.

Blimp_3787 a copyI’m Myrtle Turtle the Dapper Snapper from the Marsh Arena – good night!

Aerial coverage provided by the Goodyear Blimp.

FUN FACT: Most crabs that walk on land do so sideways, but the Spider Crab usually goes forward. It’s particularly fond of draping itself with all sorts of adornments, including living sea plants, bits of shell and other oddities. Presumably this is for concealment, but maybe the crab’s just really fashion forward!

Coming up: Independence Day: Wissahickon Wanderings

Warblers and Waxwings

HNWR Yellow Warbler_1244 aI was really looking forward to spring migration season at Heinz Refuge – lots of guided walks with veteran birders, warblers everywhere, lots of cool things to photograph. Events conspired against me, and the hoped-for images of migrating warblers in stunning breeding plumage eluded me. Actually, the warblers eluded me. Not that they weren’t here, only that they are so small and so quick that they’re REALLY hard to photograph. That they hang out in dark woodlands doesn’t help.

Here are a few I managed to capture. Yellow Warbler (top) nests at Heinz.HNWR Yellow Rump_8547 a

CM Higbee Beach_9926 aYellow-rumped Warbler (above) was just passing through.


Prairie Warbler (right) at Higbee Beach WMA in Cape May.


More Yellow Warblers, wet and dry. Our cover boy has a lot to say for himself.HNWR_2406 aHNWR Yellow Warbler_1245 a

Bird List_2477 aFamily and friends know that I am an incorrigible list maker. So it should be no surprise that when I started watching birds, I became a “lister”. Birders often keep lists of the different species they see. The most common is the life list, but there can be year lists, trip lists, location lists… you get the idea.

Since last October, when I started going on the guided bird walks at Heinz Refuge, my life list has more than doubled.

HNWR_2449 aOne bird has eluded me for too long. I saw my first Cedar Waxwing in 2001. I got a really good close look, too. Unfortunately it was dead. It had flown into a window at my house, which happens to birds all too often. I’ve waited 12 years to finally see a live one.

They’ve arrived at Heinz in force now, and I spent a long time one evening happily watching a flock fly in and out of the trees. They have a subtle, silky beauty that appeals to me. I love the blush on the chest fading to a soft yellow belly, all set off by that wonderful black mask.

HNWR Cedar Waxwing_1119 aFUN FACT: Note the waxy red wing tips. (Not to be confused with the yellow tail tip.) The number of these red tips increase with age; juveniles don’t have them at all. So it’s been speculated that the amount of red helps Cedars to sort themselves out by age during breeding season. Cedar Waxwings eat predominantly fruit, and have been known to overindulge on overripe berries. It’s possible the bird that flew into my window years ago was intoxicated. Flying under the influence!

HNWR_2457 aAt last!

Coming up: Wee Furry Beasties

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