Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Memorial Day Hike Full of Surprises

Beth and I decided to go on a hike to celebrate having a day off and no place else to be for once. We debated on going to Raccoon Ridge, but didn't feel up to a 6.5 mile round-trip hike that was "challenging" as the Appalachian Mountain Club put it in their book. Instead, we headed for Kittatinny Valley State Park. It's a place I'd heard about due to its prevelance of many hard-to-find butterfly species and a good host of breeding birds.

We arrived at the trail around 11:00 AM and quickly became aware of the armies of biting and buzzing insects that would follow us for the rest of the day. I always say the only thing worse than a buzzing insect in your ear is one that buzzes quickly and then becomes silent. You know you're getting munched on then. So, we began our walk on a lovely gravel path. The first new thing we discovered was a wildflower - Dame's Rocket (pictured) - a relatively common, but beautiful purple (or sometimes white) flower. We heard Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Ovenbird and saw many dragonflies zipping around. Spicebush Swallowtails and Little Wood Satyrs darted through the understory as well.

We came to a path that lead to a large bog. Here we found some interesting plants including many Ox-eye Daisies, Sweet Yellow Clover, Black Medick, and Larger Blue Iris. Dragonflies included Dot-tailed White-face, Ashy Clubtail (pictured), and an unidentified Spreadwing Damselfly species. Beth called me over to a little bridge that had a very strange thing beneath it (most likely Emerald Spreadwing). There was literally a PILE of Northern Water Snakes. I can only assume that there was a nest nearby or that these were a family group. Not knowing much about the life history of these snakes, I can only speculate. It made for some interesting viewing to say the least. Some Waxwings, a Tree Swallow, and a Great-crested Flycatcher rounded out the wildlife on this little side stop.


We continued down the main trail and eventually arrived at the main entrance of the park. Summer seems to have arrived overnight in NJ and the sun was blazing hot. We quickly moved through the open areas and back to the trail beside Aeroflex Lake. Beneath an oak tree we found a peculiar plant. It looked like a pale pinecone growing from the ground with no noticeable leaves. It had protuberences that looked like flowers and the bees seemed to like them. We thumbed through our field guides (Newcomb and Peterson) and couldn't identify it. I thought it might have been a fungus of some kind. Only later, with some help from some internet folks, did we discover that this plant is called Squawroot. It's a parasitic plant that tends to favor oak tree roots. It's more or less harmless to the tree. Very funky.

Our trip continued through the much cooler forest. Our guidebook was a little questionable on some of the details of the last leg of the trip and we ended up taking a slight detour. Red trail... orange trail... what's the difference?! Well, we ended up getting a bit more exercise than we planned, but we did eventually find the trail back to our car. The extra bit of adventure landed us some nice pics of a Wood Frog and a big ol' Narceus millipede. I'll admit that I had a small moment of concern when the water was low and we hadn't seen anyone in a while. Then the sounds of the highway quickly brought me back to reality. We eventually found our way back to our car where a nice cold bottle of water and some cheese crackers awaited us.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Lifer - One that's avoided me...

The weather this Memorial Day weekend has been awesome. My friend Adam was up from Virginia so I joined him and some friends for a Sunday morning walk at Sandy Hook. We were hoping to see a Mourning Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, or Olive-sided Flycatcher since this is a great time of year for these birds. There's always a chance for a rarity at the Hook too.

We met up at 6:00 AM and started birding. Migrants were scarce but we did find a lingering Yellow-rumped Warbler and TONS of Redstarts. A flock of Cedar Waxwings was a nice find, as always. We arrived at North Pond, which is one of the only freshwater locations on Sandy Hook. The phragmites here are home to your usual marsh birds like Marsh Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, and Common Yellowthroat. This spot is also usually home to a breeding pair or two of Least Bitterns, a bird I have never seen.

Least Bitterns are notorious skulking birds. These tiny herons hide in the reeds and once in a while poke their head out. Even when they're exposed, they have amazing camouflage. Due to their size, they have the ability to straddle two reeds while feeding in relatively deep water - which is exactly what the bird that we found today was doing! My buddy Dave spotted it standing in the reeds and we were all treated to amazing looks. It really is unbelievable how well their coloration camouflages with the color of the reeds. I could barely see the bird naked-eye, but had crippling looks through my bins. This is a bird I'd been seeking for many years and in many different locations. I was thrilled to finally find one - ABA lifer #474!

The rest of the day turned out to be pretty lackluster. We had a few more species of warbler, a Scarlet Tanager, but no Mourning Warbler or any other late-season migrants. This might have been my last hurrah for spring migration birding. Soon it'll be time to hunt down more butterflies and dragonflies.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Armchair Birding - The Internet Bird Collection

If you're interested in seeing some awesome bird videos from all over the world, check out the Internet Bird Collection(IBC). The IBC is a free library of videos of birds from all over the world doing all sorts of crazy things. The videos are submitted by birders and videographers and include a huge number of the world's species. The quality of the videos is generally good and the download time is fast. I like to browse around the site and find videos of birds that I've read about or heard of in passing. It's a cool way to see the birds and see their real behaviors. Here are some of my favorites.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock - Watch 2 males do their display on a lek in Peru

Booted Racket-Tail - This funky South American hummingbird looks like he's wearing white legwarmers and he has a neat racket-shaped tail.

Shoebill - This funky African heron relative is a show-stopper with it's HUGE bill. I also have an affinity to creatures that are the only member of their scientific family. In this case, the family is Baleanicipitidae (that's a mouthful).

Laysan Albatross - 2 birds doing their courtship display. This video gets a special nod because I know the guy who filmed it.

Manakins - All the manakins are cool. They have beautiful plumage and some of the best courtship displays in the world. I recommend Club-winged Manakin because it makes a sound by rubbing its wings together like a cricket. I also recommend Long-tailed Manakin for their cart wheels.

And finally, the Cuban Tody - a puffball of a bird if there ever was one.

So take some time to browse around the IBC. It's an easy way to kill a few hours, but learn a lot of neat birds along the way.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

I and the Bird # 24

Carel over at Rigor Vitae is our host for this 24th installment of the blog carnival: I and the Bird. Carel is an amazing wildlife artist. You can see many of his works on his blog. He's used his talents to the fullest to give us an artistic approach to this installment of the IATB. This is one not to be missed!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Grasslands Survey 1

So today I did my first of my NJ Audubon Grasslands Bird Surveys. I rolled out of bed at 5:00 and was quickly on the road to southern Somerset County. The plan was to make it to all of my 9 designated stops and then to work by 9:00. Each stop consists of a 5-minute survey of the birds from a specified point within a 100m radius. I count grassland birds like Bobolink, Meadowlark, and Grasshopper Sparrow. We're also secondarily counting "scrub-shrub" species like Field Sparrow, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-Breasted Chat, Cuckoos, etc. My stops are mostly rural fields or abandoned fields in the middle of suburbia. After my scouting trip a few weeks ago, I didn't have high hopes of seeing or hearing many of the target birds.

My first stop was across from a soccer field. A Mockingbird kindly perched in a tree above my head and made so much racket, that I could barely hear anything. The abandoned field of weeds and grasses yielded a few Red-Winged Blackbirds. Surprisingly, the soccer field area behind me had singing Field Sparrow and Prairie Warbler. Not too shabby.

My next three stops were bland and produced very little. On my 5th stop, I hit the grassland jackpot for my route. Upon getting out of the car, I heard the insect-like song of a Grasshopper Sparrow! I also had a distant fly-by Bobolink and a fly-by Eastern Meadowlark showing its bright yellow and black chest! Paydirt! This is probably the best I can hope for on my route. My next stop yielded a singing Meadowlark in addition to a distant singing Chat, Field Sparrows, and Indigo Bunting. I also heard Willow Flycatcher here, but we're not counting those. That's a year bird for me though.

My last few stops resulted in a few more Field Sparrows and a lot more Red-Winged Blackbirds. Alas, only 2 of my count areas had target grassland species. The birds seen and heard today are most likely breeding in the areas where I found them and hopefully I will re-find them on my next run. I hope the other volunteers are having better luck then I am. My next survey will be in a few weeks. On my ride home I had a vicious allergy attack. My eyes have never itched so much in my life. That will teach me not to take my meds prior to birding in allergen-land.

Monday, May 22, 2006

You Don't Know Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Beth and I took a short walk through Voorhees Park in High Bridge, NJ on Saturday. A report of a Kentucky Warbler and a Connecticut Warbler there spurred my interest. Although we didn't find either bird, we did see and identify some new wildflowers. Among the Wild Geraniums and Rue-Anemones in the woods, we discovered a few blooming Jack-in-the-Pulpits - one of my favorite wildflowers. I decided to do a little research on this plant.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema Triphyllum), also known as Indian Turnip, grows in low, damp woods, swamps, and bogs and blooms during the late spring. The purplish, curved hood is considered the pulpit which hides the bulb (spadix) or 'Jack', hence the name. It is a stoutish perennial, 1 to 2.5 feet high, and usually bears two long-stalked, three-parted leaves that overshadow the flower. Its fruit ripens in late summer into a cluster of brilliant red berries.

American Indians used the plant medicinally for a wide variety of ailments. It was used to treat rheumatism and bronchitis but also to induce sterilty. Externally it was used as a treatment for snakebite. Although one of this plant's nicknames is Indian Turnip, it can only be used for food after boiling and thoroughly drying. Even then, its pungent flavor might make you reconsider. It was generally ground into meal before use. The fresh or partially dried root is too dangerous for use without medical supervision. It is intensely irritating to mucous tissue and contains calcium oxalate crystals (not good for you) in the fresh herb.

I'm always thrilled to see this flower, even though it can be fairly common. Among the other flowers we found were Mouse-ear Chickweed, Bulbous Buttercup, Wild Ginseng, and Curled Dock. We also spent a bit of time yanking Garlic Mustard! BTW, my Canon S2 actually took that picture above. I was impressed.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Friday Birding at Garrett Mountain

I woke up bright an early on Friday with the thought of going birding. I debated between Sandy Hook and Garrett Mountain (an amazing migrant trap). Both sites had potential life birds. On one hand, a Frigatebird had been seen at the Hook on Thursday, but on the other hand 4 Cape May Warblers were seen at Garrett on Thurs. Now you may say, "Pat, you live NJ. How have you not seen the Cape May Warbler?" Well, this bird doesn't breed anywhere near Cape May. It was named by Alexander Wilson for the first specimen which was found in Cape May (and not seen there again for 100 years). It's a very uncommon migrant in NJ.

I woke up at 5:00 to a lot of rain falling, not what the forecast had said! I hopped in the car anyway hoping it would stop on my way to my final destination. I finally decided at the last minute on going to Garrett because I thought there was more of a chance to see the CM Warblers, than to see the Frigatebird. During my hour commute, the rain only got worst. I arrived at Garrett and I saw no other birders, not a good sign since this place us usually crawling with binocular-wearers. I took a spin around the normal spots that I know of. I immediately found a Northern Waterthrush bobbing its tail on the path ahead of me. Lots of Baltimore Orioles were around as well as a few Scarlet Tanagers. This time of year is also great for thrushes. Swainson's and Veery were everywhere. Not much else was around though. In essense, it was pretty dead. The rain was really coming down, so I decided to call it a day after an hour or so. On my way back to my car I noticed a bird on the road. As I got closer, it didn't move. It turned out to be a VERY tired Gray-cheeked Thrush! I almost picked it up to move it off the road, but he was able to hop to a safer spot. I got back to my car and headed home. On my way out, I noticed two other birders getting out of their cars at a parking lot that I had never noticed. I parked and decided to see what they knew.

I introduced myself to them and one of them, Kevin, offered to take me around to show me some other spots in the park. He took me up a trail where we immediately heard several warblers: Blackburnian, BT Green, and BT Blue. Down the trail a bit we heard Tennessee but couldn't locate it. Kevin had never seen a Tennessee, but had heard it many times. We found several other migrants and I was thrilled to have found this great spot! The other birder, Bruce, called us over. He had a Tennessee out in the open and we all had crippling views of it. A gorgeous male Blackburnian also put on a show. We then found another tree full of migrants. There were about 8 species of warbler in the tree including the uncommon Bay-breasted Warbler. Yet, no Cape May to be seen! Kevin and I continued birding all around different areas of the park. We searched the spots where CM Warbler had been seen with no luck. Kevin said that he now felt it was his responsibility to get me this lifer! The rain had subsided and it was turning out to be a pretty nice day. At one point, we stood atop a rock and birds were all over the place. An Olive-sided Flycatcher appeared on a snag - a great find! It was getting towards lunchtime so we decided to head back to the cars since we both needed to head home. At this point, the skies opened up again and the rain gear came out! We were looking forward to some dryness when we ran into Bruce. He told us that he found not one, but three (!!!) Cape May Warblers. So, instead of going home, we headed to the spot he told us of with high hopes.

Our high hopes were immediately squelched when we didn't find any birds there. At one point we thought we heard one, but I can't be sure. We scoured the area for another hour with no luck. The rain died down again and the bird activity picked up, but the little tiger-striped warbler wasn't going to be found today. Oh well... I live to bird another day. The day ended with 70 species and 18 species of warbler.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ecomagination? An analysis of GE's new ads

What's with commercials, TV shows, and movies never getting their nature stuff right? We've all probably heard the Common Loon calling in the jungle scene or the scream of the Red-tailed Hawk coming from the gape of some other raptor. During a recent episode of Will & Grace, I saw a commercial for GE's Ecomagination. While I applaud GE's focus on their environmentally conscious innovations, the commercial I saw had a major nature faux pas. The commercial itself is highly entertaining, featuring an animated elephant dancing through the jungle. The problem is the supporting cast of Scarlet Macaws, Blue and Gold Macaws, and Chestnut-Madibled Toucans. Here's the catch: Elephants live in Asia and Africa. Those birds live in Central and South America. I wish I could become a private consultant to movie and commercial producers and make a sweet living pointing out these oversights.

On another note, these are very innovative commercials because they feature hidden elements that can only be seen by watching the commercial frame-by-frame. Give it a try by watching them online.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Ok I don't think I've overstayed my welcome on Costa Rica posts yet... When I visited CR in November, one of the first real "tropical" birds I saw occured the first evening at our hotel. The back lawn of the Hotel Bougainvillea was surrounded by beautiful gardens and large tropical trees. A peculiar bird popped onto the lawn and looked around. It's racket-shaped tail was cocked and it's stern red eye and brilliant, irridescent blue crown were immediately noticeable. "MOTMOT!" I cried out. Although I had never seen one in person, the bird was unmistakable. The only problem I had was that I couldn't remember which Motmot it was. Four species of Motmot occur in CR: Rufous, Blue-crowned, Turquoise-browed, and Broad-billed. Based on it's bright blue crown, it turned out that this was indeed the Blue-crowned Motmot.

Motmots are interesting birds. These relatives of the kingfishers are represented by 9 species which are restricted to the neotropics. The name "Motmot" probably comes from the call of the Blue-crowned which can sound like "whoot-whoot" or "motmot". They mainly live in low altitude forests where they dig burrows for nests. Motmots feed primarily on insects, spiders, and small reptiles and amphibians. They frequently sit quietly on a branch or fence, sometimes swinging their tails back and forth like the arm of a grandfather clock. When food comes by, they dart out quickly to snatch it and return to their perch. Their serrated bills allow them to grip the food securely.

Males and females are alike in plumage. During courtship, they call back and forth high up in the trees. They have been observed holding bits of leaves in their bills as part of their courtship. Both males and females dig the burrow nests which will host 2 to 4 eggs.

I found some interesting lore about how the Motmot got its racket-shaped tail and why it nests in burrows. A Mayan legend says that the Motmot considered himself above all other birds due to his beauty. A large storm was brewing and all of the birds were preparing for the storm by building dams and storing food. Meanwhile, the Motmot, who was too pretty and important to be bothered with work, hid in the bushes and slept. He didn't notice that his long tail stuck out onto a trail where the working birds kept stepping on it, causing barbs to fall out. The storm never came. Later, as all the birds gathered to preen and enjoy their fortune, they laughed at the Motmot's tail. The embarassed Motmot fled into the forest, dug a burrow, and became a recluse.

One of my favorite CR memories is waking up early one morning. It was still dark but the call of the Rufous Motmot could be heard loudly from my cabin. We went out searching for the bird, but never found it. I thought the sound of this bird was so mysterious and interesting and it's call became stuck in my head for many days. My friend Mike is planning a trip back to CR in January where I hope to encounter the rest of the Motmots that I haven't seen.

Thanks to Travellers' Wildlife Guides for some info and my buddy John Fox for photos.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Test your mettle!

Beth and I are planning a late summer trip to Vail, Colorado. We got an awesome deal on a timeshare that someone was looking to get rid of. Of course, I've already started looking for birding locations nearby. In my research, I came across the Colorado Field Ornithologists' web site. Aside from it being a pretty informative site (and a nice looking one to boot!), they feature Mr. Bill's Mystery Quiz every week. Mr. Bill features a mystery bird every week and has been doing so for quite a long time. The quiz is your typical "Who am I?" based on a vague photo of some confusing bird. You want to know what the underside of a Gray Vireo looks like when obscured by a branch and 10 leaves? This is the place to find out!

The quiz runs from Monday through Sunday. The answer is usually posted by the following Monday evening. Mr. Bill gives a detailed explanation with each answer, further enhancing your ID skills. It's a lot of fun and a great way to test your ID skills. Be careful though, Mr. Bill is a stickler for the rules!

About this week's quiz... hmm... I definitely know what family it comes from, but getting it down to a species might be tricky!

Monday, May 15, 2006

World Series of Birding Recap - Quality over Quantity?

The 2006 World Series of Birding has come to conclusion. Our team, the Sandy Hook Bird Obseratory Ocean Wanderers placed 5th out of 14 teams competing in the "Limited Geographic Area" category. We had 126 species for the day which is 66% of out 191 species par. This is 5 below our total for last year. We had changed our route from last year a bit, which resulted in a great morning but a lackluster afternoon. The complete lack of migratory conditions the last few days led to a very low migrant count. Our route is mainly coastal and requires a western component to the wind to push migrants to the coast. The predominantly eastern wind resulted in migrants being more inland. Although, we didn't have as many birds as we would have liked, we did have some high quality birds (including a first record for the WSB). And, of course, we had a great time the whole day. By a miracle of the birding gods, the rainy forecast disappeared resulting in a (for the most part) beautiful day. Here's the play-by-play of our day with some pictures:

3:45 AM - 6:00 AM Mahahawkin Wildlife Management Area
We started our day at Manahawkin which is a large salt marsh interspersed with some large stands of pine barrens forest. Our night-birding last year was pretty good, but we did even better this year. We had Woodcock, Whip-Poor-Will (which wouldn't shut up!), Chuck-Will's-Widow, Great-Horned Owl, and Screech Owl. Plus, we had some songbirds singing like Marsh Wren and Swamp Sparrow. As day broke, we found a collection of songbirds sounding off including most of the "easy" birds like Cardinal and Robin. In the impoundments in the salt marshes we located some great birds including a late Gadwall and a lingering Bufflehead. We found our first of many Tricolored Herons and a Peregrine Falcon paid us a visit. We drove several rodes through the marshes and picked up some great birds. We found a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird at a feeder on one street. This feeder has been reliable for several years now. We also stopped at a marina where I was lucky enough to find us a Great Cormorant - a lucky find for the WSB!

Dawn at Manahawkin

The gang scans the marsh from the "Bridge to Nowhere"

7:00 - 7:30 AM Surf City (here we come!)
We wanted to take a look at the ocean to see what we could find. We arrived at a beach access point in the town of Surf City. Unfortunately, a thick cloud of fog had settled over the ocean and we had very little visibility. Nothing to see here! On to the next stop...

7:30 - 9:00 Tuckerton
Next, we moved on to Tuckerton. A well-known NJ birding spot, traditionally called "7 Bridges Road", leads you through a salt marsh out to the bay. Our target birds here were shorebirds, terns, and waders. We found many of our sought after birds including Black-bellied Plover, Semi-Palmated Sandpiper, and Common Tern. Unfortunately, we couldn't for the life of us find a Little Blue Heron or Whimbrel which we thought would be easy to find. We also visited a similar road in Tuckerton, but this didn't result in any new birds.

Sunrise over Tuckerton

9:00 - 10:30 Stafford Forge WMA
An hour ahead of schedule! We visited a new spot for me - Stafford Forge. This is a pine barrens habitat with a series of bogs. We located a Killdeer and several other new birds. We also found a Bald Eagle here which is an awesome find for Ocean county since they don't breed there. This is also the first time I've ever seen the flight display of a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Very cool!

A young Bald Eagle

10:30 - 12:30 Whitesbog
This series of bogs didn't produce as much as we had liked. Although, we did find a Kingfisher (a tough WSB bird) and our best bird of the day - Tundra Swan!. Whitesbog is a wintering spot for Tundra Swans. They are usually gone by April, except one individual chose to stick around for us this year. I believe this was a first record for the 23 years of the WSB. Unfortunately, this bird is probably sick or injured and that's why it is still here. We also found a few new species of warbler and a distant singing Scarlet Tanager here before moving on.

Tundra Swan at Whitesbog

12:30 - 2:30 Lakehurst Naval Air Station (LNAS)
We arrived at LNAS and pulled up to the armed guards. We had a brief scare because they didn't have the paperwork that our contact at LNAS was supposed to fax in. Luckily, they found it and we sped out onto the grasslands of this spectacular habitat. After some searching, we located a cooperative Horned Lark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Meadowlark, Kestrel, and Upland Sandpiper. We also found Least Flycatcher and Cedar Waxwing here. As we left Lakehurst, our car and everything in it was COVERED in dust!


2:30 - 5:00 Colliers Mills WMA
Our lack of migrants was apparent here. We scoured every corner of this place, yet we had practically no new breeding birds and not a single migrant. Our best bird was a singing Northern Waterthrush. Last year, we did this location much earlier and the day and had a lot of birds. This year it seemed like a waste of time! We'll have to see how we can plan this into our route better next year.

4:30 - 8:30 Island Beach State Park
Our final stop of the day was Island Beach State Park. This barrier island includes various habitats including beach, pine forest, bayfront, and marsh. It's our one true "migrant trap" on our route. We walked one trail that can be full of migrants on a good day, but today it was just FULL of Catbirds and Towhees. The "CHEWINK" of the Towhee eventually became too much to bear! At the end of the trail we did find an odd-looking warbler. After several looks, we finally conceded that it was indeed a female Cerulean Warbler. This is a bird that is rarely seen in migration! Sweet! The feeders at Island Beach yielded a female Indigo Bunting too. Looking from the ocean we got our first Gannet of the day, but the pounding surf didn't hold any lingering Scoters or Red-Throated Loons as we had hoped. We finished our day by watching a Barn Owl box. I was really hoping to see one! While we were waiting, we tallied our bird list and filled out the rare bird form for the Tundra Swan. Unfortunately, the Barn Owl didn't appear and we ended the day with 126 species.

Don scopes the bay

Pete scans the bay for bird treasures

John making some strange gestures

I arrived home by 10:00 and crashed shortly afterwards. I'm already looking forward to next year! We'll have to re-think our route a little and hopefully we'll have a better migration day next year. Thanks to everyone who donated to my team and all the other teams! For complete WSB results, you can go here.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Invasives and a Book

Nuthatch over at bootstrap analysis has a post up about some recent research on Garlic Mustard. Apparently, it secretes a chemical that stifles the growth of understory plants. More good news in the invasive world... (strong sarchasm).

This news inpsired me to do some additional research on invasive plants on the web. I came across the Maryland Native Plant Society's web page. On their site, they have a really informative document on invasive forbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees. They describe each species in simple, but detailed, language. Each species account also includes methods for controlling the plant. Some of these involve unsavory chemicals, but sometimes this is the only way!

Speaking of detailed species accounts, I've started reading John Eastman's The Book of Field and Roadside. This book features detailed species accounts of open-country trees, weeds, and wildfowers of eastern North America. Each species account has a description of the species, other names for it (always interesting), close relatives, life history, associate species, and a section on lore (my favorite part). Each entry is also accompanied by a gorgeous pencil drawing by Amelia Hansen. Eastman's research is obvious by the depth of material contained within. His writing style is easy-going and interesting. There will be lots of times where you're going to the web or another field guide to look up an associate species. For example, you may want to look up the treehopper he mentions that feeds on butter-and-eggs. I find this fun, other people may find it annoying that they can't build a mental pictures of the associate species mentioned. I'd recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in plants and their life histories. It will really expand your knowledge beyond just identifying the species. Eastman has two other books in the series The Book of Forest and Thicket and The Book of Swamp and Bog. He also has a series on birds that I have not read.

*Special side note: Looks like definite rain for the World Series of Birding... yuck

Thursday, May 11, 2006

I and the Bird #23

Nick over at birdDC is our host for the 23rd installment of I and the Bird. Nick has taken a twist on the carnival and created a bird identification game. See how many you can name! He promises a Peterson Field Guide of your choice if you win. If I win, I'm asking for a signed first printing of the Field Guide to Birds. Alas, our buddy Nick has made it next to impossible to win.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Prepping for the World Series

Is "prepping" a word? In any event, our team met last night to plan our route for the World Series of Birding this year. Our team is covering only Ocean County. This is a pretty large area with a variety of habitats. We have beaches, salt marshes, forests, pine barrens, bogs, and access to the best grassland habitat in NJ. Our plan is to start at 3:00 AM and bird until around 9:00 PM. We've planned stops along the way that take in all types of habitat. Ocean County has a great selection of breeding birds that we hope to find including Hooded Warbler, Yellow-Throated Vireo, Upland Sandpiper, Horned Lark, American Kestrel, Grasshopper Sparrow, and both Waterthrushes just to name a few.

So how do I think we'll do on Saturday? Last year, we had 135 species with almost no migration conditions. This year, the forecast calls for rain which could potentially stifle migration and maybe even the bird song. Our route is a little different than last year and we're going to try to track down some of the breeders that we missed last year. My hope is to do better than last year, even if it's by only one species. My gut tells me that if it rains a lot, we may find less birds than last year. Either way, we'll have fun doing it. I don't expect to get any lifers on the WSB, but there is one potential spot for a Barn Owl! That would be a lifer for me and it's on my mental list of "most wanted" birds.

So wish us luck, pray for good weather, and if you're participanting I wish you wonderful birding!

Monday, May 08, 2006

NJ Audubon Grassland Surveys

Grasslands in NJ are in pretty bad shape. Even though we're dubbed "The Garden State*", less than 8% of land in New Jersey is in cropland pastureland of 100 acres or more. Most of that land occurs in far northern and far southern Jersey. Grassland bird declines have been documented in Breeding Bird Surveys over the last 20 years. Birds like Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, American Kestrel, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Savannah Sparrow are greatly affected by the lack of sufficient breeding habitat. The worst declines are in Upland Sandpiper, Vesper Sparrow, and Horned Lark. There are only a tiny number of breeding locations left for these birds.

As part of a "citizen science" project for NJ Audubon Society, I am volunteering to conduct grassland bird breeding surveys. Between May and August, I will be conducting two habitat surveys and two breeding bird surveys. I have 8 survey locations throughout a small area of central Jersey. The survey uses a traditional point count system where, in a nutshell, I spend 5 minutes at each spot and count the birds heard and seen within a 100m radius.

Today, I did my first habitat survey and found most of my survey points to be made of abandoned fields and tilled farm fields. Although I didn't need to look for birds during this survey, the only bird I heard all day was one Meadowlark. It was pretty late in the day so activity may have been low. In a few weeks, I will conduct my first bird survey. Let's hope for better results!

As George Carlin would say, "Yeah... if you're growing smokestacks."

Friday, May 05, 2006

Sandy Hook Hawk Watch

Ah, what a beautiful, warm spring day. I had the honor to cover for the regular counter at the Sandy Hook Hawk Watch today at Sandy Hook, NJ. The count runs from March 15 - May 15 and this time of year is a great chance to see rarities like Mississippi and Swallow-Tailed Kite. The count time begins at 9:00, but I started birding around 7:00 to see what I could find before being confined to a wooden coutning platform for 9 hours. I was treated to many wonderful warblers, vireos, and other spring migrants. The Hook was hopping with birds and birders sharing sightings. Along one trail, I saw the mighty tiger of the north woods... a perched Great Horned Owl (below). Always a nice find!

9:00 came quickly and I headed up to the hawk watch platform located at the far northern end of Sandy Hook. The concept of the hawk watch here is simple: western winds push the hawks toward the coast and southern winds help them to cross the bay towards NY. So, any combination of these winds can mean a decent day of counting. Unfortunately, today was not one of those days... the winds were mostly N/NW. The 9:00 hour passed and no hawks came over. Not good. The 10:00 hour came and 1 Sharp-Shinned Hawk was the only bird. So, it didn't look like it would be a good hawk day. On the other hand, it was a great day for other birds. I spent most of the time looking for warblers, tanagers, sparrows, and anything else that would fly by. The migration of Blue Jays was staggering. Groups of 20-30 birds would fly by every few minutes moving north. Even though raptors were few and far between, I did manage to see or hear 64 species of birds just from my small little platform. Not too shabby! The highlight of the day was the last bird I saw before leaving - a brilliant male Summer Tanager! I was able to turn a bad hawk day into a great day of birding. I also had many visitors, both new and experienced birders, who satisfied my gift for the gab.

The platform!

I'm starting to look like that 10,000 Birds crew...

One of the few hawks to pass by - a Red-Tail

Mom and dad Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Endemics - Our truly native birds

Beth and I are planning a July 4th romp down to Georgia to see some of her relatives and to visit Savannah and the newly renovated Georgia Aquarium (They have a Whale Shark!). Of course, I'll also squeeze in some birding time if possible and Beth will placate her love of wildflowers.

One bird I hope to see down there is the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Not only is this bird critically endangered due to its restrictive habitat, it's also a bird that's endemic to the US. So what exactly does that mean? It means that I can't see this bird anywhere else in the world except within our fine US borders. Specifically, I can't see this bird outside of the southeast US. Endemic birds are native to a specific place and found nowhere else.

This got me thinking... how many other birds are endemic to the US? We have so many birds that migrate, so they don't count. However, some of those are considered "endemic breeders". We also have birds whose ranges overlap into Canada or Mexico. After all, being endemic is really just a matter of political boundaries and has little to do with natural history. Here's the list I found (although I'm not sure it's 100% accurate). It does not include Hawaii which has 31 endemics of its own. It does include Alaska though.

Bachman's Sparrow
Black Rosy-Finch
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
California Condor (Re-introduced))
Carolina Parakeet (Extinct)
Florida Scrub-Jay
Greater Prairie-Chicken
Gunnison Sage-Grouse
Island Scrub-Jay
Lesser Prairie-Chicken
McKay's Bunting
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-cockaded Woodpecker (federally endangered)
Yellow-billed Magpie (not only a US endemic, but a California endemic!)

Honorable Mention:
Brown-headed Nuthatch (there is a small, declining population in the Bahamas which may be a separate species - Thanks to John at DC Birding Blog for this info!)

Am I missing any birds? Please leave a comment if I am.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Sungems and Pufflegs and Woodstars - Oh My!

Violet-Crowned Woodnymph (Costa Rica)

Hummingbirds are probably my favorite family of birds. Their brilliant colors, flight style, and the fact that they come so close to you while on feeders makes them a joy to watch. From the super-tiny Bee Hummingbird to the overgrown Giant Hummingbird, hummers come in all shapes and sizes. They also have some of the best names in the bird world. Names like Woodstar, Topaz, Sungem, Brilliant, and Starthroat bring to mind the beauty of these birds.

Surf Birds, a favorite birding site of mine, has put together a wonderful synopsis on hummingbirds with the help of well-known birder Brian Small. The wonderful gallery of over 100 species makes it well worth a visit. Actually, while writing this, I noticed that the picture of Coppery-Headed Emerald on there is actually MY picture! A member of the tour company I went with posted it there I guess. Cool!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Our little condo garden

Living in a condominium community in suburban NJ has its ups and down. While I'm less than hour from NY, 1.5 hours from Philly, and really close to a lot of wonderful birding, property and housing is WAY expensive. So, when I bought my condo in 2004, I knew there were sacrifices. One of these sacrifices is a yard. Beth and I have a small porch/deck area and a landscaped garden of various hedges put in by the real landowners. This is the first year that we're attempting to spice up the place with our own plants.

We went shopping yesterday for some plants to pot and put on the porch as well as to fill in some small places in the landscaping. We wanted to have some veggies, herbs, and some close-to-native-as-possible plants for butterflies.

Here's what we planted for food stuff in pots:
Sweet Basil
Italian Parsley
"Lemon" Thyme
Varieties of leaf lettuce (Mesclun, Romaine, etc.)
One big ol' indeterminate Tomato plant

For the wildlife:
Salvia (Perennial)
Jacob's Ladder
Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa) (an annual, not quite native, but not invasive)
Lantana (an annual in NJ, not native, not invasive in NJ)

We also have a few hanging baskets of petunia, fuchsia, geranium, and some other unknowns.

Our yard doesn't get a whole lot of direct sun, so we'll see how this all works out in a few months. If this works out, we'll spice it up even more next year. I want milkweed!!!