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Southern Ocean Birding Group

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Monthly Guest Column
April 2017
by Jeanine Apgar

Winter Birding in Southern New Jersey

     Some people stay indoors when the weather gets cold, but winter provides its own set of species and opportunities for the NJ birder. January is the time to get the bird list started for the new year and to search for some winter species. Where else to go on a warm winter day but Cape May? Traveling southward a worthwhile stop just off the parkway is County Park East, at Crest Haven Road by the Cape May Zoo, where a Ross’ Goose and a Pink-footed Goose had been seen on and off this year. They were often foraging in an open area with Canada Geese. If you like to walk, Two-Mile Beach is a nice option; it's not too long of a hike, but provides great ocean views and a jetty. On our trek there, we found a Common Goldeneye, some Red-breasted Mergansers, Bufflehead, Brant, and Hooded Mergansers. In the ocean, we saw Common and Red-throated Loons, some Long-tailed Ducks, and when we got to the inlet, Bufflehead, Harlequin Ducks, and on the far jetty were 3 Great Cormorants sitting with Double crested Cormorants. A drab brownish duck was in the water by the distant jetty. Looking through the scope we realized it was an immature King Eider, a tough bird to find in Cape May county. It is often worthwhile to check nearby Sunset Lake, where we found 2 Horned Grebes mixed with Buffleheads. 

     In winter, if the tides are right and you are lucky, there is a possibility of finding unusual gulls along the bayshore. Miami Ave. or Norbury’s Landing in the Villas are both good locales where shorebirds and gulls come in to feed, but first check the tide tables. At low tide the expansive outer flats become exposed, and the birds settle too far away from the shoreline for satisfying views. But just before and after high tide the birds concentrate close to shore for easy viewing. We sat down and waited with several other hopeful birders. Hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls began streaming in, with many Dunlin and scattered Sanderlings. Then, scanning through for a gull with red on the bill and darker red legs, we saw the first Black-headed Gull, followed by two more, including one with a nice cap which doesn’t get black until spring. An ambitious bird to look for is Little Gull, a small gull with black underwings that is rare in NJ.

     On the way to Cape May Point, the Rea Farm "Beanery" has good habitat to find Winter Wren and Yellow-rumped Warbler calling. When we were there Rusty Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, a Kestrel, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks, song and Field Sparrows, and an overwintering Common Yellowthroat were seen, and an American Woodcock was flushed from a brush pile.

      At Cape May Point, the Northwood Center on Lighthouse Drive has installed a new wildlife garden, with benches and many feeders to view. Fox Sparrows and Cardinals can be seen, as well as Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. The boardwalks and trails near the Cape May Hawkwatch and the Meadows lead to several ponds and wetlands where we found many species of waterfowl. Although most of the water was frozen, the last pond was filled with birds, including several Tundra Swans, Ring-necked Ducks, Black Ducks, and Gadwall. A sunny winter day in Cape May is hard to beat!

     This January an American White Pelican had been seen by many at Tip Seaman Park in Tuckerton, so on Jan. 5, just before our SOBG meeting, we stopped to see if it was there and it was. This was a beautiful bird to see so close, it was easy to spot and photograph, and was enjoyed by many. It was a reminder that good birds can turn up anywhere and at any time.

    In February watching for alcids at Manasquan or Shark River or Barnegat Inlets can be challenging, but if you pick a warm day with little wind, the rewards are worth it. Razorbills, Dovekies, and Murres are all possible on the coastline this time of year. On a pleasant almost 60 degree day we set up chairs on the rocks to patiently wait, with many people taking advantage of the balmy weather. After a 40 minute watch at Shark River we spotted the first Razorbill. It was a treat to see it bobbing about on the waves, among about 14 winter surfers. At Manasquan Inlet, two more Razorbills flew by, giving us some nice looks for future reference.

      Assunpink Wildlife Management Area is a great birding place in winter. Lake Assunpink is the best place to look for waterfowl. Dozens of Common Mergansers flew in and out of the unfrozen areas of water with Ruddy Ducks and Bufflehead mixed in. Sparrows are often in the field edges where there were many White-throats along with a few American Tree Sparrows, and in the dense undergrowth a few White-crowned Sparrows hid. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks are often nearby as well as Northern Harriers and Cooper Hawks hunting the scrubby field. Many duck species were swimming in and out of the grasses at the eastern end of the lake. Gadwall, Ring-necked Ducks, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, many more Common Mergansers, Green-winged Teal, and often Great Blue Herons are fishing from the bank. A pair of swans were feeding together, with a rare Trumpeter Swan providing a nice comparison with a nearby and more common Mute Swan. A walk toward the main dam can be a productive area for Belted Kingfisher, Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Brown Creepers. There are many trails for hiking which hold other possibilities depending on how much energy you have!

      Barnegat Light State Park is a must for winter birding. Walking along the jetty to the beach, Red-breasted Mergansers were shimmering and colorful in the light, a flock of Harlequin Ducks are almost always gathered in a flock toward the end, and Purple Sandpipers, and Dunlin like to sit on the rocks, Savannah and Ipswich Sparrows duck between boulders, but to see Eiders it was necessary to go all the way to the end. As several groups of Common Eiders dove in the surf, all three species of Scoter (Black, Surf, and White-winged) were often seen at a distance. Northern Gannets stream by and make stupendous dives. Now and then a Great Cormorant will fly by, showing it’s white patch. A walk through the maritime forest trail near the lighthouse to look for over-wintering Yellow-rumped Warblers is a great way to end the day.