Birding down the shore at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park

As I watch the snow fall out my window at home today, I am still glowing over the trip yesterday to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park at the New Jersey shore. My friend and colleague Laura and I had been plotting to hit the coast for a look at shorebirds, and when both of us had meetings canceled Friday, we seized the opportunity. I was hoping to see new birds, and Laura was hoping for Harlequin ducks.

In contrast to today’s wintry conditions, yesterday’s weather was sunny and flirting with warm. A short walk from the car past the lighthouse brought us onto a long concrete jetty, and we instantly had plenty of birds capturing our attention.

Several dozen long-tailed ducks were floating and diving in all directions a short way out in the water. I was so busy getting photos of them and red-breasted mergansers that I overlooked getting shots of a couple of red-throated loons. No matter — I added all three species to my life list.

Red-breasted merganser.
Long-tailed duck, with the tail trailing in the water.

A few herring gulls flew by as we worked our way across the jetty, and at one point Laura hustled back to her car to retrieve her spotting scope. We used it to zoom in on individual birds and to see across the bay to the spit of dunes at the end of Island Beach State Park.

The scope came in handy as it helped us figure out that the intriguing black and white bird off shore was not a murre (there had been recent sightings) but a razorbill.

Look at that gnarly beak! A razorbill floats in Barnegat Bay.

We encountered a few other birders on the path, including an Audubon guide Laura knew from previous tours. We soon learned that Harlequins were swimming and sunning themselves along the boulders that extended the jetty to the bay’s edge.

We were able to see them (my first!) from afar with our binoculars, and we boulder-hopped to get a closer view. It turned out there were five, and we were careful not to spook them by coming too close. You can see them in action in the 15-second video below.

The Harlequin male is one of the most exquisite birds on the planet.

Farther down the line Laura spotted a sparrow, and I was able to get a few good photos of it. I was guessing song sparrow, but Laura was skeptical. Another birder came by and said authoritatively that it was a Savannah sparrow, a regular visitor at the park at this time of year.

I was puzzled that the bird didn’t have the usual Savannah streaks of yellow. Later in the day I determined the reason was that this was the Ipswich variety of the Savannah common to the Atlantic coast, not the standard Savannah common in the fields near home.

Savannah sparrow, Ipswich sub-species.

Laura and I spent a good portion of our walk trying to figure the different markings between the red-throated loons and the common loons, which we also saw. The IDs are trickier when the birds aren’t in their breeding coats. I did manage to catch with my camera a few of the common loons, one of which dove for a crab snack.

My ID vote is common loon for this bird, and no guess on the variety of crab on the menu.

We walked back toward the parking lot on the sand and from a distance observed a large flock of gulls milling about a stretch of water that amounted to an inland pond. Through the scope we could make out a good number of great black-backed gulls, another official first for me, mixed in with herring gulls.

A couple of brants gave us a fly-by as we finished the return walk on the concrete walkway. A single female Harlequin, with the distinct white beauty mark on her cheek, swam by. We even spotted a few song sparrows flitting at the base of the lighthouse, and a warbler — maybe a yellow-rumped — made a furtive appearance in the pines at the edge of the parking lot.

All in all, we had a 1.5 mile meander over two and a half hours and logged 11 species and 209 individual birds. I added seven lifers, and Laura got to see six Harlequins — just ducky!

View of the lighthouse from the sand. The jetty is off to the right, out of view, and the big gathering of gulls was off to the left, also out of view. Look closely and you’ll see a gull just to the right of the tower.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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