We all stared at the flat blue expanse of the firmament. Not a cloud, not a wisp, heck, very few contrails even. We battled eye floaties, crinks in our necks, and sunburn hoping today was the big one; when the flow of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks would come down from their summer forest homes in the north. We got excited by a plane or a vulture, to use as a point of reference. We strained to ID distant tiny specks, hurried to count swirling kettles before the birds started to peel away, setting their wings for a drive south. These are the hard days when a lot of eyes trained to the sky helps.
Luckily for me, lots of people showed up at the Mount Peter Hawk Watch today. In addition to the other sharp-eyed counters, we had almost 12 members of the Fyke Nature Association come for a field trip. Chief among them was Stiles Thomas, who established the Hawk Watch in 1958.
According to the history section of the Mt. Peter page on HawkCount! “The Montclair Bird Club of NJ sponsored the ‘Across the State Hawk Watch of 1958’. The two day watch on September 28 and October 18 produced 349 raptors of 10 species for Mount Peter and enough excitement to propel volunteers into a full-time count.” There has been someone standing on this mountain doing just this thing for over 50 years. Imagine.
Let me give you a glimpse of the spectacle overhead. Although many birds were high, some did come right over the platform, giving us fabulous views. Brilliant sunshine streamed through feathers to the appreciative croons of the watchers.
This is what we had gathered to see. Although there were only 346 pass overhead today, there were 1312 yesterday and more are gathering to the north for another push south tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that until they are all safely basking in the warmth of a South American Spring.
My sister and I had just finished dragging the table and chairs out of the garage and uphill into the back yard and were enjoying our first sip and sup of well-deserved crisp white wine and creamy Saint Andre cheese when, from out of the corner of my ear; I heard it. I stopped chewy and tilted my head. “Weeza, weeza, weeza.” I saw a flicker of monochromatic movement.
“Have you seen…”
We both spoke at once.
“It’s a Black and White Warbler,” I reached onto the chair next to me and offered her my bins. “They nest here and will be with me all summer.”
Not all warblers, the jewels of the treetops, are high or bright. The Black and White Warbler travels the trunk like a Nuthatch and has zebra stripes or so my littlest neighbor across the street tells me. I love that they are so accessible. Especially if I can see them in the backyard and the only travel involved is with a wine glass from table to lips.
To see other birds, check Birdfreak’s Bird Photography Weekly
Warbler neck is a serious malady that affects all birders in May every year. If you have ever spent 40 minutes staring up, searching every movement in the tree for the elusive warbler-of-the-moment, you know what I mean. Fortunately this chronic condition will relieve itself with time. But hopefully not too soon. What cool warblers have you been seeing?
One of my faves:
I am off to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to spend a few days with my cousin. She and her husband are not birdwatchers, but appreciate that I am, so I will be able make myself scarce a few hours of the day to see what is around. I hope there is some interesting stuff coming through. But, I suppose it is too early for Painted Bunting. Bummer, that would be a life bird.
With the last of the ice melted from lakes and reservoirs, waterfowl has been on the move north. I popped over to the Wallkill NWR the other day to see what was shakin’. Used to having the place to myself, with perhaps one or two other cars; I was stunned to find the parking lot full. I squeezed the car onto the grass and stomped off to the other side of Liberty Loop. The weeds, reeds and grasses that hide the ponds during the summer were thin and for the most part wind-blown. There were Song Sparrows on every high seed head tuning up their rusty voices. A shimmering mirage of Snow Geese circled the fields to land with a large flock of Canada Geese gorging on tender new shoots. The ponds themselves were loaded with Mallards, Pintails and Green-winged Teals. The resident Red-tailed Hawk sat on the wires and a female Northern Harrier coursed back and forth. The muskrats were swimming between lodges and turtles were sunning themselves. The marsh is feeling the change of seasons.
The first Chimney Swifts of the season have been spotted on the Gulf Coast. YAY!!! The folks at Driftwood Wildlife Association will be plotting the swifts’ movements northward over the next few months. If you would like to contribute, let them know when you see the first ones in your area. They will post the results to their map.
I rolled down my window (when is the last time you actually rolled down your window? Funny how we still say that, when we are just pushing a button.) to ask the cluster of birders who appeared next to my car what they were seeing. One women gestured toward the end of the boat ramp. “We’re here for the Eared Grebe.” Oh, right, the Eared Grebe. I had read on the local ListServ that one had been reported. I had come to Round Valley Reservoir for the white-winged gulls and the Lesser Black-back Gull. I had totally forgotten about the Grebe.
The Grebe was diving and popping up close to the ice near the dam, so I walked out on top of the dam to be a better view. It was pretty far out but as we stood there it started to come closer; swimming in a meandering fashion creating a zig-zag wake in the water.
As it approached, a discussion broke out about the differences between Horned and Eared Grebes. This Grebe has a dark face, white ear patch and a small up-tilted bill. Classic. The one thing that really amused me was the fluffy white pillow butt. What is up with that?
Why are we so excited about an Eared Grebe? It is a western bird that supposedly winters only as far east as Texas and Louisiana. Yet here it is hanging around in NJ. I love winter birding for this reason. You just never know.
The morning started slowly as it usually does at the Mount Peter Hawk Watch. The temps were in the low 20s. (This time, I had bundled up in 4 layers of clothing-unlike last time I was leader and I nearly froze my butt off.) I paced the 8 steps each way on the platform scanning the firmament. A lone Vulture criss-crossed the morning contrails. Nothing else was flying.
All around me clouds of Cedar Waxwings bounced from juniper to juniper noshing on berries. A few dozen Robins popped in amidst the Waxwings, hoping to share their tree. Tidy flocks of 20-30 Pine Siskins winked by. A Mockingbird dove into a cedar and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker paused to test a tree before moving on. Four Purple Finches glowed in the strengthening sun like Christmas ornaments hanging from a tree.
A Red-tailed Hawk circled higher and higher above me until it found the invisible highway and took off on a straight shot south. A female Harrier, wings set, followed. As the day warmed, there was an urgency in the air. 3 Sharp-shinned Hawks, a Turkey Vulture, 2 Black Vultures, and 8 more Red-tailed Hawks sped past.
I sipped steaming beef consommé while I continued scanning from north to south them from east to west. Two birders stopped in for a visit just in time to see a Red-shouldered Hawk materialize low flying steadily right over our heads giving us terrific views of tail stripes, red breast and flashing windowpanes.
After lunch, two more birders and one of the other leaders came to lend their eyes. We counted 28 Red-tailed Hawks, 1 Bald Eagle, 1 Sharpie and several unidentified buteo and accipiter pepper specks in the next hour. But the prize bird of the day was a juvenile Golden Eagle. What a glorious bird! (worthy of a post in itself.)
By day’s end I had tallied 77 birds. It was a wonderful end to my tenure as hawk watch leader. I will definitely be doing it again next year. Would you like to join us?
I had come to the Brigantine division of the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge to look for sparrows. An odd thing to do perhaps, but I was specifically looking for the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. I had seen several reports of them being there. It would be a life bird.
As I stood next to my car on the 8-mile Wildlife Drive loop, sorting through the sparrows popping up and down in the reeds, I could hear Snow Geese calling (I would not call it honking, really). I had finally stopped looking up every time a flock of them flew over gleaming in the wan sunlight, to concentrate on the task at hand. It was a sparrow-fest and I was looking for one that was different. I saw lots of Swamp, Savannah, Song, Seaside and Song Sparrows but no Sharp-taileds.
I got back in my car to continue creeping along the road. Up ahead I could see swirling clouds of birds. Craning my head out the window I checked the skies for eagles or maybe a Peregrine. It turns out the ruckus was just more and more flocks of black birds coming in. As I got further up the road, I hopped out to look as one flock went over. Brant! They were all Brant. Holey Moley.
I hustled up to the tower. I wanted to stand up there with them to feel the urgency, the pull, the drive of migration.
Overhead flock after flock of birds was coming in a steady stream. Clouds of birds flowed over me, around me. I stood alone on the tower pirouetting as I watched them swirl about the tower. It was the most Brant I had ever seen.
Brigantine held lots of Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Pintail Ducks, Ruddy Ducks and Mallards. Sandpipers rose and fell at very shadow. I saw Clapper Rail and Black-bellied Plovers. Many birds slept tucked into the reeds and grasses while others gorged themselves oblivious to the arrival of new neighbors.
And in the end, yes, I did get the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, but it was overshadowed by the spectacle of the arrival of the Brant.