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Friday, February 17, 2012

Wow! What a week of Birding

Harris's Sparrow with Cardinal
     Sharon and I had a great week of birding this past week. On Tuesday we headed to Kempton in Berks County just south of Hawk Mountain in search of the Harris's Sparrow. We had brought along a bag of bird seed to add to the pile already there and than just waited. During the 40 minute wait we saw several sparrows and Juncos, along with two Wild Turkeys. Finally a White-crowned Sparrow showed up and than the Harris's Sparrow appeared from nowhere. 
      Afterwards we headed to Hawk Mountain to take a peak at the feeders and added a Black-capped Chickadee to our year list.
      From there we traveled to Hamburg to the Kearchers Pond Park in search of the White Ibis but we had no luck with that guy. So we headed south to Gilbertsville to see the Bullock's Oriole. An adult male Bullock's Oriole was present last winter at this woman's house and amazingly it appeared again this year. We arrived at her home at 12:15PM and at 12:20PM the bird arrived at her suet feeder.
Bullock's Oriole Gilbertsville, PA 
     At Marsh Creek State Park later that day we found a Common Goldeneye and both Common and Red-throated Loons.

     Thursday morning found me at the Exton Mall anticipating the BCDC field trip to Lancaster County led by the All-star Birding Lady, Holly Merker. As we left the parking lot it started to rain, but I thought to myself, some of the best birds are seen on days like this. And the premonition came true. In Lancaster, Holly found a dark phase Rough-legged Hawk sitting on a fence post.
Horses studying Barb Elliot and George Wrangham
As the Rough-legged Hawk was posing at the top of a willow tree, a Red-tailed Hawk came in and landed about five feet away, trying to scare the Rough-legged away but he wouldn't budge. Later, at Groffdale Rd we finally found a decent size flock of Horned Larks and in among them I spotted one lonely Lapland Longspur.
     We then headed back to the Struble Lake area and searched through some other flocks of Horned Larks, but no luck. As we were approaching the Struble Lake parking lot, Hawk-eye Holly says to me, "What's that bird on the top of that tree?". We stop and there it was, a Northern Shrike. So we went and parked the cars and came back to get a better view. We managed to get the bird in the scope for every one to see. It appeared to be a young bird. The mask of the bird was very dull giving the bird a weird look to the facial area.
Northern Shrike Struble Lake (Holly Merker)

     Finally, on Friday Sharon and I headed to Easton, MD to the Pickering Creek Audubon Sanctuary. There was a Virginia Warbler found there a few days ago and confirmed yesterday. We arrived there at 11:30, after a late start from home. It was about a two hour drive. But be warned that your GPS unit will land you at a site about 3 miles away from the sanctuary, so use the website directions. When we arrived there was a large crowd of folks already assembled along the path. Some folks got a quick glimpse of the bird early this morning, but it was not cooperating for the rest of the folks. We stayed for about an hour and then decided to head out for lunch. Upon our return we heard that the warbler was seen about five minutes ago. So I picked a spot along the trail and waited. Within five minutes I heard a chip note that wasn't familiar to me, so I knew this had to be our bird. Trouble was, he wasn't showing himself. So we waited some more, and finally the bird flushed out and flew away from us, heading across the field, but we could still hear the chip notes. Some other birders were on that side of the field and because they were talking so loudly, I think the bird flushed back towards us. Then all of a sudden the bird appeared at the top of a small shrub and in plain site. We could see the bright yellow undertail coverts and the grayish body as it hopped around the shrub.  
Virginia's Warbler (Photo from Internet)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Razorbill at Manasquan Inlet, NJ

Razorbill at Manasquan Inlet (Photo by Nick Pulcinella)
     Nick and I decided to head to Manasquan Inlet and Shark River on Friday to see what was happening since neither of us had been that for over four years. When we arrived at the inlet, the ocean was so calm that there was no wave action at all. The tide was outgoing, so there was some riptide effect where the inlet met the ocean, which usually produces flocks of Bonaparte's Gull feeding, but not today. We did find Red-throated and Common Loons plus the usual gull species and some Gannets.
Purple Sandpipers
      We then drove to Shark River Inlet and were immediately shocked when we discovered there were about 300 Mute Swans swimming around. For the record, Mute Swans are far from being mute. There was quite a lot of grunts and squeals among all those swans. Am Wigeons, Black, Mallards and Ruddy Ducks were spotted along with Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers. After driving around the inlet and birding along the ocean we decided to go back to the inlet for another look before heading home. We arrived and I told Nick there was a close Common Loon that would make a good photo. As he was getting ready to walk over to the loon, Nick yells there's a Razorbill flying into the inlet. Well, it flew right by us and landed in the inlet but unfortunately landed on the other side of the channel. We wanted to get a closer look and better pictures, so we drove around to the opposite side, which took us about 15 minutes. As we arrived, we were hoping the Razorbill was still there. It was! We watched the bird for a good 40 minutes from 20 feet away to about 300 feet.  We finally left there satisfied with our photos and pleased that the Razorbill made its appearance when it did..

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Day of the Dovekie: A "Paulagic" Birding Adventure at Sea

As you may recall from my blog entry in August 2011, one of my favorite types of bird watching is seabirding, or pelagic birding. The winter ocean offers the possibility of seeing species not found this far south during the summer months. Alcids are an attraction for these winter tours of the ocean, and a trip off-shore from NJ this past Saturday (2/4) was the best winter pelagic I’ve been on for seeing these birds.

My trip started out at 3:15am, when I met up with my friend Brian Henderson in King of Prussia. We figured we’d try doing the trip in one long day, rather than staying overnight on the Jersey Shore. We arrived at Wildwood Crest before 5:30am, and met our leader, Montgomery Co., PA resident Paul Guris, at the dock. The boat Paul chartered for this trip was the 110 foot “Atlantic Star”, which was a great boat for this sort of trip.

This had to be one of the better days of winter to be on the ocean for birdwatching. The sea was tame, at 1-3 feet, and there was little wind. The sun was shining until early afternoon, making viewing and photography conditions optimal, not to mention that it wasn’t very cold. The calm seas helped us find the floating alcids, who otherwise blend into the backdrop of the surface of a choppy sea.

It was dark when we pulled out from the pier, but soon, daylight made viewing easier. Shortly into the trip, we started spotting loons, scoters, and one of my favorites: The Northern Gannet. Gannets were with us much of the day, to my delight. It was entirely amusing and awesome to watch them as they came in and either sliced into the ocean sideways to get to the chum that was falling into the water, or, plunge dive beak first like an aquatic missile. The sound effects completed the show: just before they dove, they squawked twice in a gravely voice, and went down. It was very entertaining to watch!

Northern Gannet squawking as it comes in for a plunge dive

Northern Gannet gracefully soars above the water

Razorbills were the first distant alcids to be spotted. This was expected, as Razorbills tend to stay closer to land than the other alcid species. Alcids are pelagic birds who are more adapted to using their wings to “fly” underwater, rather than in air. That said, unlike the penguin, these birds do a good amount of flying. They dive deep into the water using their webbed feet and wings to propel them, and their sleekly compact bodies to torpedo down to their preferred food source, sometimes a few hundred feet down.

We were about sixteen miles out to sea when seven little white dots bounced up from the surface of the ocean, and formed a fast moving line. Shouts of “DOVEKIE!!!” could be heard echoing around the boat. While we thought we might see some, as reports earlier in the week gave promise, seeing them this close inland was a surprise. While the looks were distant for this first sighting, there was no doubt that the “flying Nerf footballs”, as Paul Guris described, were these tiny seabirds on the move.

The first seven Dovekie of what would be close to seven hundred totaled for the day

Little did we know at this point, the boat would tally over 660 Dovekie spotted throughout the day. There were periods of time when many strings of Dovekie could be seen flying low to the water across the open ocean. Rarely were they seen flying solo, most often they were oddly in groups of four or eight. There were some the boat came up fairly close to as they were floating on the surface, where we could get nice long appreciative looks at these tiny little seabirds.

Two Dovekie floating by the boat

Alcids, and particularly the Dovekie, have many threats of predation on the open ocean. There are the larger fish and presumably sharks that could snatch a floating Dovekie from below, but the aerial predators who find them can be quite menacing and fierce, particularly the larger gull species. Unfortunately, we got to witness a Great Black-backed Gull pluck a Dovekie off the water and carry it away. It was unclear whether or not the Dovekie was already dead, or, if the Great Black-backed in fact killed the bird before pulling it off the ocean. I was photographing the gull, and wondering “what’s that black thing it’s carrying?” before we all realized exactly what was happening. The photos were telling of the story. Such is the circle of life, and nature.

Great Black-backed Gull has just plucked a Dovekie off the surface

Great Black-backed Gull carries the lifeless Dovekie away

In addition to that casualty, another Dovekie met it’s demise yesterday, likely at the beak of a Herring Gull. The dead bird was noticed and pulled from the ocean by Paul, who brought it on board for us all to study. It was amazing to see just how small these birds truly are up close.

This dead Dovekie allowed many to study and learn this bird up close

A “fanciful” little alcid we are all familiar with, birder or not, is the Atlantic Puffin. This bird sports a highly decorative beak during the breeding season, which coupled with what looks akin to theatrical eye make-up, can make them look quite clownish in appearance. After the breeding ritual is complete, the bright colors and crisp white face being to fade, as the colors peel off the bill, and the facial feathers being to fill in with a smudgy gray. This change is advantageous for survival on the open ocean, as the birds blend into the water. On this trip, we were lucky enough to encounter eighteen individual total. A few were floating close enough to the boat to allow some photographs, and long studies of this large beaked bird.

We had fewer Common Murre, but there were a couple that sat still long enough for us to study, including this one

One of the specialty gulls of the pelagic trips in winter are Black-legged Kittiwakes. Not easily found from land, or close to it (that said—read Al Guarente’s report from last year of an encounter on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry!), this demure looking gull is often attracted to the “chum slicks” provided by fishing boats and seabirding tours. We had several encounters with this species, and were treated to a variety of ages to compare the plumages. While I am a fan of the “black Ms” on the back of the younger birds, the older birds are a treat to see when compared to the bulky Herring Gulls and massive Great Black-backeds.

Adult Black-legged Kittiwake skips on the surface to take off

My favorite seabirds are the “tubenosed” birds. So, multiple visits from Northern Fulmars really made my day. Like the Shearwaters and Petrels, these birds are built for soaring and gliding above the ocean for endless miles. The long tapered wings enable them a life on open water, traveling long distances with little effort . This bird nests on cliffs in the Arctic and subartic, but spends their winter months where the seas are free of ice, including a good portion of the Atlantic seaboard. Like the other tubenose species, the naricorn or tube atop the bill of a Fulmar, helps the bird to smell at long distances, and filter out the salt from the seawater. No doubt the chum and oil slick provided by Paul and his crew of “chummers” attracted the attention of this very obliging Northern Fulmar:

Northern Fulmar (light phase)

Size comparison (l-r) Herring Gull, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet

As always, I am eager to have another opportunity to get off-shore in search of birds. 
If this type of birdwatching looks appealing to you, I highly recommend going out with Paul Guris and his See Life Paulagics tour company. Paul runs at top notch trip. ( .

Paul and his spotters will show you the birds, and any other ocean life encountered (I forgot to mention we saw several pods of dolphins and a Finback Whale, a species that is federally listed as endangered).

After this very satisfying day at sea, Brian and I headed back to Pennsylvania. While it made for a very long day, making it a daytrip, it wasn’t as hard as I expected. I guess the adrenaline from such a great day on the ocean, and seeing fabulous birds, makes anything seem doable! I hope that you, too, will have a chance to get off shore and see some of these ocean specialty birds.

When you do, I wish you fair winds and following seas, and great birds!

All Photos taken and copyrighted by Holly Merker

Sunday, February 5, 2012

5 Species of Gulls at Blue Marsh Lake, Berks County

Glaucous Gull (center) & Iceland Gull (upper right) - Click to enlarge
     After leading a joint bird walk for the Friends of Glen Providence Park and the BCDC this morning I came home and picked up Sharon and we headed up to Blue Marsh Lake in Berks County. When we arrived at the Dry Brooks Day Use Area we could see a large number of gulls resting on the beach. Sharon and I walked down to the bath houses to get closer to the beach and started scanning the gulls. After several scans we only found Lesser Black-backed, Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. At this point Carl Juris and his wife arrived to help out. After another five minutes we still found nothing new. Joan Silagy then arrived on the scene and informed us that the Glaucous Gull was seen this morning. Good News! We started scanning again and then Joan yelled out that she had the Glaucous Gull and we all managed to get the gull in our scopes. A handsome, immature, all white gull, with the exception of the bill tip, which was black. As I was watching the Glaucous Gull an Iceland Gull floated into view. How cool was that? Awesome.
     For info about Blue Marsh go to
Glaucous Gull ( Note larger size than Herring Gull)