I stepped out of the car and turned toward the Delaware and Raritan Canal just a few yards behind me, and I heard something I wasn’t expecting. It took a few seconds before I could train my binoculars on the source of the spondaic call: a small green bird on the stalk of a short, barren tree.
Once I spotted the bird, my brain fully kicked in as I clearly heard and identified the slightly buzzy “Fee-bee! Fee-bee!” of the Eastern phoebe. The phoebe — shown above singing from the near bank of the canal across from the old Port Mercer canal house — was my first of the year and brought me instant joy.
The bird stayed in place for a minute or so before flying to another tree closer to the Quaker Road bridge, busy with morning commuter traffic headed to and from Princeton.
I was delighted to see the phoebe for its own sake, but also because when I started this website and blog two years ago, the Eastern phoebe was the first bird I wrote about, in my second post.
The phoebe sighting was a bonus. I had come to visit the Dyson Tract, along the stretch of the canal where Princeton meets West Windsor, a half mile or so from a cluster of shopping centers along U.S. Route 1. What drew me were recurring reports that a tundra swan was in the area, and after the phoebe flew off, I looked for the swan on both sides of the bridge.
So I turned away from the bridge and headed along the towpath toward the wooden fences that mark the entrance to the Dyson tract. In a minute or two, I spotted the swan stationed on the opposite bank, grooming itself.
Tundra swans are rare in these parts, and I had only seen one previously. That was last month in neighboring Monmouth County, where I spotted it along with two trumpeter swans (also lifers) and a mute swan at Assunpink Wildlife Management Area.
I crept forward to take a few stealth shots of the swan through the branches of the trees and shrubs along the bank. Then the swan cooperatively started edging off the bank and swimming toward the bridge, bringing me a clear view through a gap in the branches.
Magnificent, I thought to myself, breaking into a big grin. As a light rain started to fall, I knew my visit would be a short one, but within the first five minutes I had two great avian encounters. I call that a good day.