Sunday, February 12, 2012

Barnegat Light, New Jersey

The legendary lighthouse that gives Barnegat Light, New Jersey its name. This special place on the Mid-Atlantic coast is an outstanding birding hotspot. Barnegat is especially well known for its wintering population of Harlequin Ducks, featured in the previous post.

Last Saturday, February 4th, 2012, I met up with fellow blogger Amy Gaberlein of Cape May, New Jersey - a fairly well known spot two hours downcoast - and spent a few hours walking the breakwall at Barnegat. Following is a briefly captioned pictorial stroll featuring some of the fascinating birds that one can expect to see.

One must watch their footing when walking the breakwall. A misstep could leave a careless birder wedged tightly in a fissure. It has happened before. The lighthouse, way off yonder, is the starting point of this trek. At this point I am near the small signal tower at the end of the wall. I spent a long time perched at the very end of this rocky wall, taking in the sights and sounds of the sea. I could have stayed there all day. The constant flow of birds moving by means there is never a dull moment.

One of the first species you are apt to see is this small sea goose, the Brant, Branta bernicla. The specific epithet of the scientific name, bernicla, means "barnacle". So closely wedded to the sea are these fowl that it an old legend had it that they hatched from barnacles.

A fitting mascot for Barnegat Light is this species, the world's largest gull, the Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinusMarinus means "marine", obviously, and these giant birds - 3.5 pounds and a wingspan over 5 feet! - are very much birds of the coast.

By far the most common gull is the ubiquitous Herring Gull, Larus argentatus. These dirty-brown first-cycle youngsters seemingly have it made. They are standing on a rock exposed by the ebbing tide, which is cloaked in blue mussels. This situation is the equivalent of the human couch potato laying on a divan made of potato chips.

A block-headed, dagger-billed Common Loon, Gavia immer, steams by. Common Loons are everywhere here, demonstrating their schizophrenic taste in waters. They breed on cold northern freshwater lakes, but most retreat to the sea and salt water in winter.

Red-throated Loons, Gavia stellata, rival the Common Loon in abundance and side by side comparisons can often be made. Stellata roughly means "starlike", and refers to the white spangling on non-breeding plumaged birds' backs. A Red-throat is but 1/3rd the weight of a Common Loon, and they appear much wispier and paler. The thin upturned bill is quite distinctive, even from afar.

A Red-throated Loon plunges. The water is clear enough, and this bird was close enough, that we could actually watch it hunting under the surface. If you've not seen a loon submarining, you would be struck dumb by the speed at which they move. They can outswim the fish, as many a poor piscine prey has learned the hard way.

Not all was waterbirds. We were delighted to encounter a confiding pair of Savannah Sparrows, Passerculus sandwichensis, capering about the rocks. These were not any old Savannahs, though - they are "Ipswich Sparrows", a localized subspecies - P. sandwichensis princeps. Big (for a Savannah) and frosty, Ipswich Sparrows breed almost entirely on Sable Island off the coast of Novia Scotia. It was once considered a distinct species, and only about 6,000 of these sparrows exist.

A fearless particolored Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres, bumbles within feet of your blogger. These feathered piglets are hardy, and thrive on Barnegat's wave-washed rocks. Their peculiar bill is a combination hypodermic syringe and spade, and the turnstones expertly employ them to root about and dismantle possible food items. I have no doubt that, were one to lay still and prostrate on these rocks, the turnstones would soon be clambering over them.

Of great shorebirdian interest to landlubbers of the interior regions, such as myself, is the Purple Sandpiper, Calidris maritima. These chunky little toughs stick out the winter farther north than any other shorebird species, and seem impervious to all that the frigid wintertime North Atlantic can throw at them. Like the turnstones, with which they readily fraternize, the purples are tame and will often roam within feet of a still and patient observer.

A prominent manmade fixture is this signal tower marking the bay's confluence with the sea. I wish I could have gotten closer, in order to bring you better images of the interesting bird perched on the top left corner of the tower. It is an immature Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo. Click the photo to enlarge and look closely - you'll see a Double-crested Cormorant, P. auritus, perched to the right. The Great Comorant dwarfs it.

A line of Long-tailed Ducks, Clangula hyemalis, blurs by my camera. A pair of females bookends two of the gaudy males. It'll be no time at all before you're casting your eyes on these beautiful sea ducks - they are everywhere at Barnegat.

Tail streamers flying, a drake Long-tailed Duck in repose on the sea. While the "long-tailed" moniker is apropos insofar as the males go, I vastly prefer and greatly miss this species' old name, Oldsquaw. The males are interesting in that they have completely different breeding (alternate) and winter (basic) plumages. In summer, the head and neck become mostly black, and the feathers of the back molt to a rich rufous-brown.

A platoon of scoters rides the surf. Two orange-billed Black Scoters, Melanitta americana, share space with three immature male Surf Scoters, M. perspicillata. Scoters are quite common, and mixed flocks such as this are a regular sight. Of all the birds at Barnegat, it may be the scoters that I enjoy the most. As a young lad in Columbus, Ohio, I would stare at the plates of scoters in the few bird books available to me. To me, they were every bit as exotic as giraffes or lions, and I couldn't wait for the day that I would actually get to see some of these sea ducks in the flesh. I've seen many by this point in my life, but will never tire of scoter-watching.

Its bill protruberance glowing phosphorescent like some strange mushroom, a drake Black Scoter precedes a young Surf Scoter. Adult male scoters are adorned with remarkable bills which are their defining features. Scoter bills are beautiful art works clipped to the front of the bird.

Scoter bills are also utilitarian, as demonstrated by this Surf Scoter. He has surfaced with what appears to be some sort of crustaceon, and is in the process of crunching it. Scoter bills are clam-crackers, and the birds are capable of vise-gripping and crushing the sturdy protective shells of their armored prey.

While it may not appear overly sexy, this little alcid was easily the bird of the day. It is a Razorbill, Alca torda, a highly pelagic relative of the puffins that is not often seen close to shore. This Razorbill put on quite a show, coming within 75 feet or so of the rocks at the end of the breakwall.

Not all was birds. Harbor Seals, Phoca vitulina, are a common sight in and around the mouth of Barnegat Bay. This fellow was lolling about the waters just off the tip of the breakwall. My communications with him were mildly successful and I was able to coax the beast a bit closer for photos. Seals, by nature, are rather curious and if you wave your arms at them they'll sometimes investigate, popping to the surface a bit closer with each surfacing.

I hope you enjoyed this brief foray out the Barnegat breakwall. We saw much more, of course, that I couldn't photograph. A raft of Common Eiders loafed off the beach, and Northern Gannets constantly passed by offshore. But many of Barnegat's birds can be seen at arm's length, making for great study and wonderful photography.


rebecca said...

Brants and Long-tailed Ducks - I'm jealous!

Kathie Brown said...

Looks like a lovely place to bird! What a fun day! Nice photos of the scoters. Love the orange beak. I also like the comparison shot of the great cormorant and the double crested on the signal light. I did enlarge it for a better view!

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim, looks like you were in my home away from home. My in-laws live on Long Beach Island and Ole Barney the lighthouse is a regular haunt for us. We proudly display our Exit 63 bumper sticker and the island holds a special place in our hearts. Glad you had such great birding while there. You wrote about the Brant -- did you know one of the island's townships is called "Brant Beach?" Happy birding - Gerry Brevoort, Ohio Young Birders Club

Great Blue Heron, with ornamental plumes

  A Great Blue Heron, a very common wading bird and a species all of us are undoubtedly familiar with. It's never productive to get jade...