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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2015 Backyard Big Year

Join me in 2015 for a hard-core birding adventure right in my own backyard!

For 2015 I'm bringing hard core birding home in an all-out, high tech blitz to see how many birds I can detecting in my yard during the year.  I'll be watching the sky for flyovers, recording at night with a microphone to catch the birds migrating over the yard, and will have trail cams set up to detect birds trying to sneak a drink out of my water features.

I'm really excited about this Backyard Big Year and have created a Backyard Big Year blog just to keep up with all the birds and birding that will be involved.  I'll post highlights here, but otherwise for 2015 my Birdchaser blog here will focus on my other birding adventures as well as equipment and book reviews.

So look forward to seeing you over at the Backyard Big Year blog or on the Backyard Big Year Facebook page.  We're going to learn a lot about how to see more birds in your yard, so it won't just be about me and my backyard adventure.  I'll be exploring the cutting edge of bird detection, identification, and birding technologies.

It's going to be great!  See you there!

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Top 10 Birds of 2014

So the year isn't quite over, there are still a few days left to find something to add to this list.  But barring a last minute birding surprise, here are my best birds of 2014.

10)  Calliope Hummingbird--a first state record found at my friend's feeders, this bird was a first Hunterdon County record and lingered for a week giving many folks a chance to see it.  One of 7 new birds I added to my county list this year.

1st Hunterdon County Calliope Hummingbird, Holland Twp.

9) Sanderling--After missing this bird in the county for the past two years, I was happy to finally see one at Spruce Run this fall.  One of the 7 birds I added to my Hunterdon County list this past year.

Sanderling, Spruce Run, Hunterdon, NJ

8) White-tailed Wheatear--This bird is a first record for The Netherlands if accepted as a wild bird.  I twitched it on the way to the airport on my way home, and got some distant digiscoped shots (below) of it sitting on an apartment building.  A great rarity and urban bird, and one of the 11 life birds I saw this past year.

7) Arctic Loon--A flyover on a jetty in the North Sea of The Netherlands was one of only 11 life birds I saw this past year.

6) Caspian Gull--I hiked over 8 miles down a beach in the rain and got totally soaked to see this bird, but it was one of the 11 lifers I saw this year.

5) Great Skua--I got a very distant look at this bird during a storm from a jetty in The Netherlands.  One of the 11 life birds I saw this year.

4) Whiskered Tern--I drove down to Cape May, my first trip down there in 19 years, to see this bird that spent a week flying around the hawk watch platform.  One of the 11 lifers I saw this year.

3)  White-tailed Eagle--I've dreamed of seeing this bird for a long time, and finally got to see several of them--if distantly--on my trip to The Netherlands in October.  One of the 11 lifers I saw this year.

A crummy digiscoped shot, but that large-headed, short-tailed blog on the post is an adult White-tailed Eagle :-)

2)  European Golden Plover--found by my local birding friends while I was in New York, I drove through the night to see it and was the first to get video (below) or photos confirming the identification by showing the white underwing.  This is a first state record for New Jersey.

1)  Neotropic Cormorant--I found this bird, a New Jersey first state record, at one of my local patches on the way home from the grocery store back in April.  It lingered until early July, giving hundreds of birders a chance to add this to their state list--and since it is a regional first, folks even came from out of state to enjoy it.

Neotropic Cormorant
First NJ record of Neotropic Cormorant, Clinton, Hunterdon, NJ
 I ended the year within a stone's throw of an ABA milestone, and may take some time out next year to chase a couple more birds for my North America list.  I ended the year with 240 species on my 2014 Hunterdon County list, ending in the top 3 again for the third year I lived here.  I didn't do as good a job of taking my kids birding as I had anticipated back in January, and my Holland trip was the only foreign trip of the year.  So not a big listing year outside of the county, but finding a 3rd third NJ record in 15 months was nothing to complain about!

Hope everyone had a fun time birding in 2014.  Feel free to share your own bests in the comments.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

North Pole Birding Fail

I spent most of the day playing Santa's helper.  Not a lot of good birding on a drizzly overcast day on the North Pole.  My usual stops on the way to Philipsburg were pretty much dead.  I did have a flock of Snow Geese on the side of I78, but not much else.  I had one 3 minute point count with no birds.  None.  By the time I got home I had only 16 species for the day.  I spent an hour in my yard during the late afternoon trying to get my #20BirdMDR, but ended up with only White-throated Sparrow, Mourning Dove, and Carolina Wren new for the day. So I ended up with a 19 species day, a #BirdingFail.  I could have taken another quick trip into town and picked up a few more species at Demott Pond, but didn't feel like spending gas money just for that. I tried to string a distant calling Song Sparrow, but it just wasn't to be. Oh well. Santa got a lot of work done today :-)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Best view of bird evolution yet

A series of articles published this week (see overview here) provide the best view of bird evolution yet. Based on the complete gene map of over 40 species from all the recognized bird orders, and taking over 400 years of computer computation time to calculate, this is a real thing of beauty. Here's the tree--

Source Jarvis et al 2014

Interesting evidence that many of the landlords we know of may have descended from the lineage of some sort of raptorial bird that lived through the asteroid impact that destroyed the rest of the dinosaurs--with one group evolving in Africa (Afroaves--woodpeckers, hawks, etc.) and another in Australia (Australaves--falcons, parrots, songbirds, etc.).

There's a lot to digest here, but it's definitely a golden age of bird taxonomy with the technology we have now giving us a much better view than ever before of how our world came to be inhabited by our feathered friends (and everything else, for that matter!).

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Evening Grosbeaks

This afternoon I was fortunate enough to see a pair of Evening Grosbeaks at a private residence near my home.  I had a couple of birds flyover in 2012, but these were the first I've seen at a feeder since 2007.  Lots of fun!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Birdchaser 10th Blogiversary

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first post here on the Birdchaser Blog.  Back on this day in 2004, I had just accepted a job with National Audubon in Pennsylvania, and was getting ready to move my family out from Austin.  I didn't know how much time I was going to have for birding at the new job, so I thought a birding blog would give me an excuse to go birding regularly so I'd have something to post.

Remember the early blogging days when we all had light text on black backgrounds?  And there weren't very many pictures?  Been there, done that!  Here we are ca. 2006.

Turns out there was a lot of birding over the next five years I worked at Audubon.  I was posting a couple times a week during my heyday, and when birding blogs were sparse, Birdchaser was one of the top 10 birding blogs by traffic.

After I left Audubon and started teaching, the blogging started to subside.  The last couple of years my posts have been far less frequent.

Black on white, still just one sidebar, ca. 2008.

So, is there a future for the Birdchaser blog?  Will it make it through its tween years and into a more robust teenage stage of blogging life?

Here's what I have planned:

More posts.

More book reviews.

More photos.

More NFC recordings.

More birding humor.

More fun.

More bad photos of good birds--Juv. Greater White-fronted Goose, Cushetunk Lake, Hunterdon Co, 20 Nov 2014

I've got a birding project coming up in 2015 that will be a lot of fun.  More on that later.  It will have its own dedicated blog, but I'll post highlights here, as well as posts of other travels and the books I'm reading.

I'm also revamping my Urban Birdscapes blog and will have some fun stuff to point to over there soon.  So while I have other projects going, the Birdchaser will be my blog focussed on my own birding trips and bird books.  And who knows what else.

Thanks for sticking around, and I look forward to sharing more adventures in the coming blog tweener years!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: The New Birder's Guide to Birds of North America

There are a lot of field guides out there.  Including guides aimed at beginners.  Each guide claims its own unique features.  Some are great, some are OK, and some are frustrating.

Bill Thompson III's The New Birder's Guide to Birds of North America may not make this claim for itself, but it may be one of the most fun field guides to come out recently.  It is a publisher's and reader's delight, with a tight and beautiful layout that makes it very fun to peruse.

In short, this is the book form of Bill Thompson III leading beginning birders on an extended cross country trip to see "300 of the most common birds in the United States and Canada."  In doing so, he shares what to look for, listen for, and remember about each bird.  He also shares a nugget of trivia about each bird--just as if we were on a birdwalk together.

In addition to one or two photos of each species, each one page species account features a black and white illustration (by Julie Zickefoose or Michael DiGiorgio) of the bird in action.  A full color range map, and notes on how to find each bird are also included.

Great layout, fun illustrations and facts.  Unfortunately in this case the photos don't show what they say they do, or help very much if you live in the West.

This well-chunked and informative layout makes this book fun and easy to use.  Thompson's prose is light and engaging.  I especially enjoy his descriptions of bird vocalizations--something that isn't easy to do, making it the hardest section to read in most field guides.  Not so here--as when we are told that the Common Moorhen "sounds like someone is torturing a frog" and the Cactus Wren "sounds like someone trying to start a car."

As befitting any guide for beginners, there are plenty of other extra features here to get one started on the road to enjoying birds, including instructions on birding gear, how to use binoculars, info on birding manners, and helpful lists including Five Outside the Box Tips for Improving Your Birding Skills and Be Green: Ten Things You Can Do for Birds.

It's also very cool that Bill Thompson wrote this book in collaboration with his kids and their schoolmates.

So what's not to like about this guide?  It's a delight to read.  A lot of fun.  Beginning birders, and even more seasoned types, will find fun and memorable facts to increase their enjoyment of birds.  But since it has only 300 species featured, it obviously isn't going to help identify every bird--including "red-shafted" Northern Flickers, immature gulls, and the domestic waterfowl that they are most likely to see at their neighborhood park.  There isn't a good way around that limitation.  Readers are even promised in the introduction that they will see birds not found in this book--and that they should have a more comprehensive field guide to help them with those identifications--useful advice for sure, but also begging the question of why such a limited guide might be needed at all.

But since there aren't easy answers to that question--it's best to just enjoy this well written and put together guide for what it is--a fun introduction to North American birds and birding, with text and illustrations almost as lively as the birds themselves.  During this holiday season it would make a good stocking stuffer for the beginning or causal birder, or if you've been birding with Bill Thompson III out on the birding festival circuit, this encapsulation of his birding spirit is a must have as well!

Disclaimer: review based on a library copy.

Additional Reviews:
Birder's Library

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: Field Guide to the Birds of New Jersey

I've only lived in New Jersey for three years, but New Jersey is a great place to bird, with so many birds in such an easily traversed state.  Every where I go, people stop me and seem to want to talk about the birds they see.  Most of these folks probably don't consider themselves birders--though many know quite a bit about the local birds.

These may well be the perfect audience for Rick Wright's new Field Guide to the Birds of New Jersey--the first in what appears to be a long line of state guides to be sponsored by the American Birding Association.  The Field Guide to the Birds of New Jersey (henceforth FGBNJ) is an attractive and well produced book that aspires to spark "a lifetime of enjoyment of birds" in NJ.  I hope it succeeds.

As is obvious from the title, this guide is focused on a small geographic area--just one U.S. state.  Since it is aimed at new or beginning birders, it does not cover every bird found in the Garden State, but does a good job of representing the most common 255 birds that folks are bound to find--including some tough to find birds such as Connecticut Warbler and Northern Saw-Whet Owl that will take some diligent searching to actually observe.

FGBNJ is a photo guide.  I'm not a huge fan of photo guides--usually preferring the synthetic abstraction of an artists rendering to the misplaced concreteness of a photo--but for its purpose, this one does a good job.  The photos--over 600 in all--are almost universally excellent.  Their large format provides good looks at the birds covered.  The photos are beautiful.

With beautiful photos, FGBNJ does a good job of staying out of their way.  The layout is simple, with one species to a page or even a two page spread.  The text for each bird is one big paragraph, written to be actually read rather than skimmed.  Identification tips are usually kept to captions inset into the photos.

My favorite part of bird guides is to hear the voice of the author.  In this case, my friend Rick Wright's polished writing is a joy.  His summary of each species is a good introduction to the bird, and will be very educational for those learning about each species for the first time.  As a clever writer, Rick has tucked away little Easter eggs here and there that will delight.  I've never read about a bank collapse in a field guide before!  And the imagery is often a joy to read, such as an "ocean sprinkled with the silvery dots of roosting and feeding loons."  Such spare but delightful prose hearkens back to the species accounts written by Roger Tory Peterson, the grandfather of all field guide authors.  Wright's prose is a fitting and worthy perpetuator of that grand tradition.

In addition to the species accounts, FGBNJ provides a full checklist to the birds of New Jersey, tips on good birding locations around the state, and the obligatory sections on the parts of a bird and how to identify birds--all geared to the beginner in a clear and concise manner that minimizes jargon--you will find napes, primaries, and secondaries, but as far as I can tell, no tertials.  Perfect for beginners.

There are many challenges to writing and producing a guide for beginners, but FGBNJ and presumably the rest of the American Birding Association series of state guides do provide a good introduction to the birds of the state, and hopefully will provide inspiration to those with casual birding interests to join the ranks of those who start wandering farther and farther afield in their search for avian treasures!

Disclaimer: this review based on a library copy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Quest for 700 ABA Birds

The other 700 club!
It's been a long time since I hit a birding milestone in the ABA area.  In fact, I haven't really hit one since I started graduate school.  Back in 1997 we had just one small baby in the family and during the summer before starting graduate school I made an effort to get a special bird for my #600 ABA species by flying up to Michigan to see a Kirkland's Warbler.  

Since that time we've had two more kids, moved five times, and the birds haven't come as fast as I might have hoped.  I only got 19 new birds while getting my MA and PhD degrees in Austin.  After leaving Austin, I was able to do some traveling for my work with Audubon, and picked up another 53 species in my nearly 5 years there.

In the past few years, the additional new species have come much slower.  There were a couple years were I only got one new bird for the ABA area.  This year so far I've seen three (European Golden Plover--see my video below of first NJ record bird, Bar-tailed Godwit, and Whiskered Tern).  In doing some record-keeping house cleaning today, with all the splits over the last few years and a new listing rule giving me back the African Collared-Dove from Los Angeles that I saw in 1985 (thank you ABA!), my ABA list spreadsheet shows I'm now at 696 species for my North America list--a good handful closer than I anticipated to the 700 ABA milestone.

Once upon a time 700 was considered a very respectable ABA list.  In fact, the first person to reach 700 species sightings in North America was Joe Taylor in 1972.  Before that, birdwatchers who had seen 600+ species in North America were considered elite members of a prestigious 600 Club.  In 1973, Jean Piatt wrote Adventures in Birding, a now classic account of his and his wife's quest to join the 600 Club. Nowadays, dozens of birders report lists over 800 species, and at least one is claiming to have seen over 900 species in North America north of Mexico.

But I'm still poking along slowly as I approach 700.  I'm heading to Florida in December for a family vacation to Orlando, but don't expect any new birds.  Unless I take a few days away from the theme parks and cruise down to south Florida, where a few other possible new birds for me are in the offering, such as the introduced Egyptian Goose (established Florida birds were recently added to the ABA checklist), Red-cheeked Bulbul, Spot-breasted Oriole, and Purple Swamphen.  Now that I realize how close I am to 700, I may have to make some new travel plans here soon!

Since I can't imagine ever spending the kind of money that it takes to get to 800 for North America (multiple Alaska trips, and chasing rare birds wherever they appear across the lower 48), this may be my last ABA milestone.  I'm looking forward to seeing what my next four new birds will be!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

American Woodcock Wing Sound

I recorded this American Woodcock wing sound yesterday morning when a bird flew over my NFC microphone in my yard.  I usually hear these guys when they are displaying in April, so who knows how often they are actually flying over my yard.  I intend to record all through the winter this year, so who knows what kind of fun stuff I will find.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rare Birds of North America

When I was in high school, one of my favorite books was Don Roberson's Rare Birds of the West Coast.  The only copy available to me was in the Portland Public Library, and I would have to ride the bus downtown to check it out on a special out of county loan.  I would then spend hours looking at all the vagrants recorded in Oregon and nearby states, and dream about what it might be possible to find.  When I got kicked out of my Junior year English class for being obnoxious and had to come up with a self-study unit to pass the time, Rare Birds of the West Coast was my principle source in compiling a paper on which birds were most likely to be added to the official Oregon state list.  Roberson's book, though very dated now, is still one of my favorite bird books of all time.

When I heard that Steve Howell, Ian Lexington, and Will Russell were coming out with Rare Birds of North America (Princeton, 2014), I was very excited to get my hands on the definitive guide to rare birds of the whole continent!

The book has been out for months now, and there have been many excellent reviews (including BirdGuides, Birder's Library, Birdwatch, and ABA).  These reviews are all pretty much glowing, and I recommend going there for more details that I may skip here.  Most reviews come out when a book is released.  Now that I've lived with and used this book for a few months, perhaps I can offer a different perspective.

Rare Birds of North America has a lot going for it.  Let's start with the illustrations.  For me, the gouache paintings by Ian Lewington are the best thing about this book--and blow the socks off the color plates in Rare Birds of the West Coast and they pretty much trump any current field guide illustrations found in North American guides. The illustrations--from the accentor on the cover, to the very last of the 275 color plates--are stunning.  They are clear, large, and a joy to behold.  They've got my mouth watering for the future publication of a field guide to North American birds that will feature Lewington's work.  These illustrations have made this book my second stop (after my trusty Sibley) when considering the identity of a possible vagrant bird.  I even carried it around in my car for awhile.  I expect I'll be using and enjoying these illustrations for a long time.

Sample plate from Rare Birds of North America

The text of Rare Birds of North America is exhaustively researched and documented and the format and layout is fantastic, with great introductory sections on vagrancy as well as molt and topography of bird plumage (but what else would you expect from the author of Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds?).  The species accounts are also well thought out, with information on occurrence, possible patterns of vagrancy, and identification and habits of each species covered.    In summary here's what works best for me:

  • Discussion of vagrancy--good review of literature and speculations
  • Molt and topography section--concise review
  • Species accounts organization and layout, especially the--
  • Comments section--where we get the clearest access to the authors's thoughts on these birds and their occurrence, including fun speculations about how, why, and where these birds might possibly turn up next.
In living with the text of this book, there's a few things that have been a little irritating for me:
  • Division of the species accounts based on geographic origin of vagrants.  For each taxonomic group of birds, birds of New World and Old World origin are split from each other, sometimes them harder to find in the text.
  • Field Identification section--generally good information, but sometimes vague and frustrating.  Many times I'm left wondering what field marks are really diagnostic, or if I would be able to really identify one of these vagrants based on the information provided.  A case in point from an actual frustrating ID I faced here is Yellow-legged Gull.  This is a real possible vagrant where I live (and I had a candidate bird last year), but one that might be impossible to distinguish from a hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull.  The text mentions this challenge without really providing a good discussion of how to actually make the distinction.  Granted this may be a frontier of bird identification, but I was hoping for some more clarity here from the founder of the Bird ID Frontiers listserv!  Likewise, when a possible New Jersey first European Golden Plover showed up in a sod farm field a few miles from my house, the ID text offered some hints (underwing pattern and body structure), but left me hanging in describing the plumage.  In fact there aren't detailed plumage descriptions here--just comparisons between the vagrant birds and more familiar North American species, or between the ages and sexes of the vagrant species.  So where I would hope a book like this would provide the definitive descriptions and field identification discussions, after using this book a few times I feel like it is a good reference, but not the final word, and that more research in other references will often be needed to actually identify a vagrant.
  • Summaries of vagrant records are generally good, but when I found that the 1996 Common Crane record from Nebraska that I and many other North American listers twitched (this was the first twitchable Common Crane in 20 years) was not included, it made me wonder how exhaustive these summaries actually are.  I suspect they are pretty thorough, but you hate for there to be a doubt.
That said, and my petty quibbles aside, Rare Birds of North America is an impressive book.  While I may not actually work as the best source of ID info on some of these birds, it will still be helpful, the illustrations will be very useful, and the summary of bird records will still inspire the imagination.  If it helps birders find and recognize more of these mega vagrants, than it will have fulfilled its purpose and provided a lot of enjoyment to twitchers across North America.  I personally look forward to spending additional time with this book, and using it to help me when I'm birding on my own or twitching somebody else's good find.

As I mentioned, most bird books arrive with much aplomb and online reviews, then you don't hear much about them later.  I'd be curious to hear how Rare Birds of North America has lived up to its initial reviews, or what other thoughts folks have about it after living with it for half a year?

(Review based on a review copy provided by Princeton University Press).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pre Dawn Thrush Flight 30 September 2014

I recorded over 310 thrush calls between 5am and 6:35am at my home in Hunterdon County, NJ this morning.  Here's the eBird checklist.

As always, there are many calls that I'm still puzzling over.  Here's a spectrogram of a call sequence from 6:09am:

You can download the audio of this clip, and follow any possible discussion of it from my post on the Nocturnal Flight Call Facebook group.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Back in the NFC Saddle

This past spring I crashed the laptop I was recording night flight calls on, and I didn't get my MacBook Pro set up to record until last night.  But I'm back in business now thanks to my Griffin iMic adapter and Audacity software.  Still recording using the Oldbird 21c mic.  Since the Oldbird detectors aren't set up for the Mac, for now I'm just recording then browsing the spectrogram by hand to find and ID the calls.

Here's my eBird checklist from early this morning.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Neotropical Cormorant

Neotropic Cormorant, Clinton, NJ, 11 June 2014

After not seeing any reports of the Neotropic Cormorant I found in Clinton back in April, I stopped by the Red Mill pond downtown and quickly found the bird sitting on branches in the middle of the pond.  This will be the 1st New Jersey record pending acceptance by the NJBRC.  When I first found the bird, I guessed it would stay the summer (where else would it go?), so we'll see how long it hangs out.  It's got a nice river to fish in, and unless it gets lonely and wants to go off and look for a mate, I don't know why it won't just hang out here along the river.

eBird checklist

Monday, June 09, 2014

Grasshopper Sparrows

Grasshopper Sparrows are special hidden marvels that only birders get to enjoy.  They aren't a bird that the public would usually notice.  They are small, mostly plain brown, live in tall grass, and have a song that sounds like an insect (check out a video of one singing).  So they are easy to overlook.

Here in my part of New Jersey, Grasshopper Sparrows are uncommon breeders, nesting in a few scattered larger fields across the county.

Last week I got some photos of a couple of birds at the Horseshoe Bend Preserve.  I digiscoped a male singing from a pole in a field, and got shots from my car with my Nikon CoolPix P500 of another bird was seen along the fence line carrying insects for its young--presumably in a nest nearby.   Since most songbirds only carry food when they have young in the nest, this is considered confirmed evidence of nesting.

Just another hidden gem that only birders get to enjoy in the wild!

Nikon CoolPix P500 shot of the singing male, not as good as the digiscoped shots below

Singing male Grasshopper Sparrow, Hunterdon Co, NJ, 6 June 2014
Singing male Grasshopper Sparrow, Hunterdon Co, NJ, 6 June 2014
Singing male Grasshopper Sparrow, Hunterdon Co, NJ, 6 June 2014
Food carrying nesting Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow, food carrying, 6 June 2014

Grasshopper Sparrow, Nikon CoolPix P500, 6 June 2014

eBird post

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Peek-a-Boo Chat

I spent an hour this morning trying to get a photo of a very vocal Yellow-breasted Chat singing in the dense shrubbery in a field near Flemington, NJ.  I got some OK sound recordings of the bird singing--it sang nonstop the whole time I was there.  But what a tough guy to get a photo of!  I did get some short but close looks at the chat, and even watched it sing in flight for over 50 yards.  I'm sure some of my friends with big lenses who are quick on the draw could have gotten some spectacular shots.

Unfortunately, most of mine look like this:

Can you see the bird in the oak tree?  Me neither!

The only shot I really got that shows anything is this sad shot here:

How about now?  Yes, there's a bird there.

And here it is cropped to show the bird.

Yellow-breasted Chat, 3 June 2014, Hunterdon County, NJ

Oh well, it was a nice morning out--at one point we accidentally flushed a Wild Turkey off her nest.  Here's the nest, with nine eggs.

Nine future Wild Turkeys

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lighting strikes--thrice? 1st Neotropic Cormorant for NJ

Tuesday night I had to run to the store, and on my way home, I stopped by Demott Park in Clinton, NJ.  I stop by this little pond almost every day.  Sometimes more than once.  Its a quick stop to scan for ducks.  For over a week a Redhead had been hanging out with some Ring-necked Ducks.  In the winter there are always a lot of Gadwall, and usually some Hooded Mergansers.  And sometimes something even better.

Tuesday night, as it was getting dark, I noticed a long-tailed bird in the tree on an island in the middle of the pond.  As I got my bins on it, I was shocked to see it was a cormorant--but much longer tailed and smaller than a normal cormorant.  I jumped out of the car, grabbed my scope, and started taking pictures through my scope with my camera phone.

Light was fading fast, but I sent out a text with a  photo to a local birding friend (who I didn't realize was in Florida).  I try to be careful, and didn't want to claim it 100% until I could look at the photos--and I was just taking as many photos as I could, hoping to get ones that would prove the ID of this bird--since it really looked to me like a Neotropic Cormorant--a bird I used to see a lot of when I lived in Texas, but a bird never documented before in New Jersey!

As I took my last shot I realized I was 50 yards from my van, with the doors wide open, and the keys left in the ignition.  I also had ice cream melting in the van.  But that was the least of my concerns :-)

I got home and started going through the photos.  OK, they weren't great perfect.  But they seemed to show what I saw in the field--a very long-tailed cormorant, with dark feathering (instead of yellow flesh) in front of the eye, a dark chocolate brown breast and belly.  As far as I could tell, I had all the field marks for a Neotropic Cormorant.  Unfortunately the photos couldn't really show how small the bird was--which was the thing that really struck me at first.  Oh well.

I started sending the photos around to friends to get their opinion.  It was getting late on the East Coast.  A couple friends in Texas, Mexico, and Washington thought it looked good--though the photos were not perfect by any stretch, so caution was warranted.

By 1:30AM I was convinced I had something that others needed to see--and without being able to reach anyone else for the night, I had to pull the trigger and call it myself.  If I wasn't imagining things, this was a bird that others would want to see.  If I was somehow off, well, that would be embarrassing.  I bit the bullet and sent out word of a probable Neotropic Cormorant on the JerseyBirds email list.

Next morning I had some tasks to do that kept me from the park at first light.  By the time I got there at 6:45, no bird.  A couple friends showed up to look, but otherwise not many birders there for a potential first state record.  I guess my photos posted on Flickr weren't convincing enough.  

After I got home, I found out that Jonathan Klizas had been there earlier, and had seen the bird, and gotten some photos.  Though they were still a bit fuzzy in the early morning light.  

A discussion of the ID on the ID Frontiers email list went round and round.  Some birders thought it looked good for Neotropic Cormorant.  Others expressed caution.  There was a story about a mysterious cormorant in California that may not be identifiable still.  Some folks thought my photos showed a bird with a head and/or bill too large for Neotropic Cormorant.  Others couldn't get past the long tail and dark lores--usually classic diagnostic marks for this bird.  At one point some people were questioning if what if any marks really would be convincing for a Neotropic Cormorant in this plumage.

Fortunately, last night, Ellen DeCarlo checked out the island at dusk and relocated the bird sitting on the shore of the island and got a couple good clean shots.

Thank goodness for these shots!  Today, as more birders saw these last shots, those who expressed concerns were mostly won over.  Peter Pyle was even able to age this bird (a young bird from last year in the middle of a molt to an adult plumage).

So tonight, finally a crowd should be gathered to see this potential first record for New Jersey.  I don't know if finding a first state record is the birding equivalent of pitching a perfect game, or just winning the Powerball.  But that's three for me in 15 months here in NJ.  I'm feeling very blessed.  And I hope that it sticks around long enough so everyone who wants to see it can come and take a look.

My wife just thinks it is good karma for my going to get some stuff she needed from the store :-)

As with all good birding tales, this one is a mix of fun and passion and frustration.  Not sure there are any real lessons to be learned.  But I'm grateful for all who have participated in the discussion of this bird, and for all that I learned about cormorants over the past few days.  

Good luck to all the bird chasers out there.  I hope everyone who wants to gets to see this bird!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson's Snipe, Clinton, Hunterdon, NJ 12 March 2014
Spring is finally in the air, with warm temps and rain.  Today was the first day in a month and a half that I didn't have to step in snow or ice to get to my car.  Waterfowl are moving through, and today I saw my first Wilson's Snipe of the season--as well as my first Wood Duck and Eastern Phoebe of 2014.  Birding has been slow, but now starting to pick up.

Blogging remains slow.  As with most long term bloggers, I've sagged a bit, and most of my sharing lately has been on Facebook.  I am working on some book reviews, and other posts, so see you again soon :-)

Friday, March 07, 2014

Spring 2014 ESU Ethnographic Expeditions

This semester my students at East Stroudsburg University will be getting to know 100 traditional and indigenous cultures around the world.  We will be exploring their environment, world views, connections to nature (including birds, of course), foods, and cultural survival.  Here are the cultures we will be connecting with.  Please feel free to visit the blogs where each student is posting their explorations, and if you have contacts or resources that can help them, please contact them directly on their blogs to let them know.

Update (1 May 20014): Most explorers have their blogs created, but a few haven't posted anything yet.  Most should be completed by the beginning of next week.  A sample blogs with a lot of content include the Basque blog.

Expedition Team 1: Europe

Expedition Team 2: Russia & Central Asia 

Expedition Team 3: Middle East & North Africa

Expedition Team 4: Sub-Saharan Africa

Expedition Team 5: US & Canada

Expedition Team 6: Latin America & Caribbean

Expedition Team 8: South Asia

Expedition Team 9: Southeast Asia

Expedition Team 10: Oceania

Monday, February 03, 2014

January 2014 Goals

It was a cold and frozen month, with most water in Hunterdon County frozen over.  With some determination and good fortune, I was able to make my gold of 100 bird species for the month, ending up with 101 species on January 31.  Best birds were Greater White-fronted Goose, White-winged Scoter, and Rough-legged Hawk.  Biggest miss was the Snowy Owl at Round Valley that I spent too many mornings looking for and never did find.  Such is life.  I also wanted to get my daughter started on her year list, and she went with me several times to Round Valley and has more than 30 birds for the year.  Lots of fun.  Here's a digiscoped view of the Rough-legged Hawk that I found at dusk on Janury 31.

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