Fall Big Day: Two great birding destinations and a boat ride

What a trip! For the fall “Big Day” of birding, I hitched a ride with friends Saturday and went on a journey that expanded my horizons and my life list.

Mark and Laura and their friend Keri picked me up an hour before dawn, and we drove 90 minutes to reach the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the New Jersey shore. Forsythe has long been in my sights as a premium birding destination, and the experience lived up to my expectations.

At the refuge, an osprey auspiciously soared over the parking lot as we made ready to embark on a three-legged odyssey on which our group would log 90 species. Joining a small caravan of birders in an event sponsored by Birders of Central New Jersey, we set out on an eight-mile driving loop that that took us through some sensational wetlands. Tour leader Tim stopped periodically to point out the avian wonders off to one side of the road or the other, often both.

One of the host birders kindly logged the sightings in eBird, which were shared at the end of the day. Adjusting for the birds I didn’t observe, I counted 63 species at Forsythe. Without the sharp-eyed help of our hosts, I would have been thrilled to have spotted half that many in our three hours there.

We left the refuge at 11 a.m. for the second leg of our trip, a ferry ride across Delaware Bay from Cape May, New Jersey, to Lewes, Delaware. The crossing took an hour, during which we saw a lifetime’s worth of seagulls. I missed out on seeing the best of the group’s targets (Northern gannet, parasitic jaeger), yet I still managed plenty of great and lesser black-backed gulls, a brown pelican and even, most unexpectedly, a common pigeon.

A herring gull isn’t rare, but I do like this photo, shot on the New Jersey portion of Delaware Bay.

Disembarking at Lewes, we drove a pleasant hour north to Smyrna, Delaware, and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, which we reached around 3:30 p.m. We spent the next two and a half hours driving through the marshes, observing more marvelous birds, including a marbled godwit, a black-bellied plover and cute little white-rumped sandpipers. I was hoping to see my first avocet, and I saw plenty from a distance and through spotting scopes. One of them came fairly close to shore late in day, and I was able to get a few photos showing its upward-curving bill.

My personal total at Bombay Hook was 48 species, and the ferry ride totals were 9 and 7 in New Jersey and Delaware waters, respectively. I have yet to do a precise check, but I believe my total for the day was 84, with 18 lifers.*

As delighted as I am with those numbers, what mattered more was being with friends, old and new, experiencing nature on a beautiful, sunny day. As we looked out from the stern at the gulls floating above the ferry’s wake, I marveled at the freedom they have to fly seemingly wherever they wish. I also wondered if they wondered about us humans, bound to the land and having to build huge machines for passage across expanses of land and water over which the birds so effortlessly soar.

I’m glad we co-habit the planet, and I’m grateful for every day, big or small, in which we get to share it.

An avocet trolls for food in the marsh water.
An avocet, one of my many lifers on the day, trolls for food in the marsh waters of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Image atop post is a view out the car window toward a Caspian tern at Forsythe NWR.

*It was 14 lifers, but no complaints!

Published by Dan

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

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