Northern harriers at sunset, and that is enough

The sun finally came out late in the afternoon Saturday, which up until that point had brought nothing but rain and drizzle. I headed out to the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, hoping for a chance to catch something worth photographing.

In the half hour before sunset, my best bet was to have a chance at seeing a Northern harrier or two hunting over the fields as the light started to fade.

From the Cold Soil Road parking lot, I headed up the central trail, hoping to spot a Wilson’s snipe poking among the puddles in the stubbled fields. I had flushed one (my first!) earlier in the week, but I would not find one this day.

Instead, almost as if on cue, two Northern harriers appeared off to my left, chasing one another far across the field, near the observation deck in that part of the park. I had wonderful looks at them through my binoculars, but they were too far off at first for me even to bring my camera up to eye level.

With the late afternoon light dimming, I couldn’t distinguish whether they were females or one female and a “gray ghost” male. I continued along the path for a bit, then turned back toward the car. Two of them flew up above the tree line, and I snapped a few distant shots of them silhouetted against the sunset.

A third harrier appeared and then a fourth. I watched all four fly simultaneously, and at one point I had three within view in my binoculars.

As I neared the parking lot, I saw a lone harrier flying to one side of the field, and I wasn’t certain if that was one of the four I’d watched a few minutes earlier or whether it was a fifth.

I saw only one other bird out, a young mourning dove pecking on the trail before flying off.

Total count: two species, five birds — one of my lowest Pole Farm totals — plus one so-so photo to accompany this post.

But that’s not what matters. Watching just those first two harriers at play was worth the trip, and seeing the four at once was a delightful bonus. Even that single dove made me smile.

I’ll go back out tomorrow to see what I can see.

A futile search for the vesper sparrow, and a bad hair day for a heron

This past week was full of birding adventures close to home, with a typical mixture of highs and lows.

I’ve just about given up my quest to spot a vesper sparrow this fall. One (or who knows how many) has been hanging out at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, spotted by several people over the last two weeks near the restrooms not far from the Cold Soil Road parking lot. The bird has been seen mainly in the morning but also late in the afternoon, and several photos are posted on eBird.

But none from me, alas.

A Northern pintail floats on Abbott marsh Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

I drove down to Trenton on Saturday morning to visit John A. Roebling Park and Silver Lake at Abbott Marshlands. Nothing was happening on the lake, but the marsh was busy with mallards, wood ducks and Northern pintails as well as a pair of gadwalls. The lovely resident mute swan couple were also floating gracefully in the marsh.

This mute swan couple is a fixture at Abbott Marsh, Trenton.

Later in the day, I added buffleheads to my life list by visiting Rosedale Park. The park is a short drive from the Reed Bryan Farm entrance to Mercer Meadows, and at the park’s center is a small lake that attracts waterfowl at certain times of year. I don’t have quality photos of the buffleheads to post but I got enough distant shots of the 10 of them swimming to nail down the ID.

I also averted disaster when I discovered that the hood had (again!) fallen off my Sigma telephoto lens. Of course, I made the discovery after I had driven to another section of the park. I drove back to the lake and found it on the water’s edge, right where I’d been scoping out the buffleheads.

I headed to the Pole Farm on Sunday morning, arriving at 7:20 a.m. when the temperature was 27 degrees. The wind was gusty, so the number of birds was limited, but I did see my first wild turkey (a Tom) of the fall.

I couldn’t resist one last trip, hoping to spot a bald eagle at Mercer County Park. I left home during halftime of the Philadelphia Eagles’ game (go, birds!) and when I arrived, the wind was at nearly gale force whipping across the lake.

I didn’t spot any eagles and turned back because the weather was so unpleasant. To my surprise, a great blue heron was standing on the shore maybe 15 feet from me as I made my way up the walkway. I snapped a couple of shots (one tops this post), wished the heron well and then retreated to the warmth of my car. I’m not nearly as hardy as that heron!

Blowin’ in the wind: A great blue heron bears the brunt of the wind whipping across Lake Mercer on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.

State-by-state birding guidebooks by Stan Tekiela

Through the wonders of online browsing, I discovered an outstanding series of birding books that are excellent guides to our avian friends in many, many states. The books are by Stan Tekiela, a naturalist and photographer from Minnesota who is building a one-person franchise of nature guides.

The first of Tekiela’s books I picked up was “Birds of Texas Field Guide,” which I thought would help me on a trip to the Lone Star State early last year. It did, and I bought a copy of the “Birds of Washington State Field Guide” ahead of a recent trip to Seattle.

The Tekiela guides are unusual in that they do not group birds by the way most bird books do, that is, by type (hawks, owls, thrushes) or by behavior (perching, seafaring).

Instead, Tekiela came up with a brilliant idea, grouping the birds by color.

I was a bit puzzled with that approach at first but it didn’t take long to discover the genius of the concept. Most bird books put each bird on one page in its proper group. But Tekiela, sorting them by color, puts the birds under multiple colors.

Let’s face it. When most people see an unusual bird for the first time, their initial reaction isn’t to ask whether it’s an accipiter or a buteo, but they’ll simply think, what the heck is that black and white duck?

Conveniently, Tekiela’s guides not only have black and white sections, but there’s even a black-and-white section, which is where in the Washington guide you can find the male hooded merganser. Even better, the male hooded merganser page (61) has an inset photo of the female hooded merganser, which you’ll find featured in the brown section on page 173. That page has an inset photo of the male and a referral to his page.

Once you find your bird, you’ll get a clear description of its typical dimensions and markings as well as many tips on behavior and more. The field guides are pocket-sized, easy to carry and won’t weigh you down if you like to bring a guidebook while birding.

By themselves, these guides are terrific resources, ideal for beginning birders but equally valuable for those of us with intermediate or advanced experience. Used with other birding guides, the Tekiela books deepen and broaden one’s knowledge in an easy-to-read, informative and entertaining way.

Tekiela offers many other nature guides and even wildlife tours through his NatureSmart website. I bought the Texas and Washington guides through Amazon, and I’m hoping Tekiela will crank out a New Jersey field guide at some point soon.

A birder’s plea: Let’s stick with standard time

Today we observe the annual “fall back” ritual of reverting to standard time in the United States, and I welcome the change. My birding opportunities had dwindled over the last several weeks as sunrise came later and later, shrinking the time I had to get out in the fields and trees before heading off to work.

The reversion to standard time also moves up sunset by an hour, and I welcome that as well. I rarely have time to go birding after work on weekdays, so I see no impact there. But on the weekends through the cold months, the sun sets by 5 p.m. most days, and that’s helpful. When I want to get out for some golden hour opportunities around 4 p.m., I’m able to get home without pushing my wife’s patience on getting us ready for dinner, not to mention cocktails.

My birding time has further been limited by some personal travel I did the week before last, stopping in Seattle to visit one of our sons and Kansas City to visit relatives on my wife’s side of the family. I was able to do a little birding on a few days, most notably at Carkeek Park on the shore of Puget Sound. This morning, luxuriating in an extra hour for sleep, I went back to the Pole Farm and got the Savannah sparrow shot topping this post. I had a few good chances to catch a Northern harrier, although I’m still not satisfied with what I’ve captured.

No matter what time zone I’m in, I’d prefer it be set to standard time. I dislike having to switch my body clock (and my analog clocks) twice a year. Congress seems to be leaning toward sticking with one time year-round, and I hope the scientists who strongly recommend sticking with standard time will be persuasive.

When the light, the foliage and the bird align

Every once in a while, the birding and photography gods smile upon me. Such occasions are rare, and the latest came on a recent Sunday morning at what you might call the Church of the Pole Farm.

I took one of my standard routes at the park, making a left into the alley of trees along the Lawrence-Hopewell trail and heading toward the observation deck situated at the mid-point of two of the main fields. The sun was out, the breeze was light, and I noticed that the trees were just starting their transition to fall colors.

With those basics covered, all that remained was for the birds to cooperate and show themselves in force. I paused briefly on the lower level of the observation deck, hoping to catch some of the sparrows flitting about. No luck there, so I walked ahead, hoping that a couple of clusters of trees might be luring birds into their branches, as they often do in fall and spring.

While the cluster to the left was quiet, the branches on the right were teeming with birds. Expecting Savannah sparrows, I stopped 10 or so yards away and peered into the leaves. Through my binoculars I saw not sparrows but palm warblers, who have arrived in abundance during this fall’s migration season.

Warblers are shifty, flighty birds, and I pulled up my camera in hopes of catching one of them pausing on a branch. One of the birds was darting up and down on the branches, and I did my best to keep my lens trained on it. I had no idea what I’d captured. With luck, I had something worthwhile.

When I got home, I popped the SD card into the reader on my laptop and hoped for the best.

I scrolled through the images and when I brought up the one topping this post, I gasped, “Oh my!”

I’m proud of this image. It’s not perfect, but to my eyes it’s darn close. In a way I wish the wings were perfectly locked in, but the slight blur conveys the sense of motion from the moment.

Thank you, birding and photography gods.

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!

Capturing Feathers: A digital bird image gallery

We’ve had an awful lot of rain in New Jersey the past few days, much of it the remnants of Hurricane Ian that did so much damage in Florida. With the sky weeping each morning, I have not had a chance to get out with my camera since Saturday.

Fortunately, a rainy-day option is available for birders, particularly those of us who trek the trails at the Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge in Princeton. The Princeton University Library has digitized more than 10,000 pages of the journals of the man for whom the preserve is named.

The university library (full disclosure: I work at Princeton and have friends on the library staff) has begun pulling back the curtain on the project.

The library’s summary page has background on Rogers (1888-1997) and further links to descriptions of the various aspects of the project. It’s worth a look any day, especially on a rainy one like today.

The Rogers preserve, by the way, is listed on eBird as a single entry with the neighboring Princeton Institute Woods. Over time, 206 species have been observed there. I’ve seen 59 to date, with surely more to come.

American kestrels in the gloaming

American kestrels have been hanging out at Mercer Meadows for several months, and I’ve seen as many as five at one time on the Pole Farm side of the park.

Unable to go out birding this morning, after work I dashed out to the Reed Bryan Farm side of the park in hopes of catching a few kestrels at play. They did not disappoint.

As I came down the path from the parking lot about 6:15 p.m., I spotted a few birders by the line of bushes and trees that intersects the main trail where it winds to the right, toward the observation deck. The birders were hoping to get a better view of a magnolia warbler of which they had caught a glimpse. They also alerted me that kestrels were about.

While I had no luck with the warbler, I soon saw two kestrels fly overhead off to my left, and I went to the back side of the lines of bushes and trees. I could see from a distance that one of them had perched on a tall bare tree. As I moved in closer and raised my camera, I was lucky enough to catch a second kestrel fly in and challenge the perching bird.

The photo topping this post shows that challenge developing, and the photo below shows them at close quarters. The perched kestrel kept its perch, and the challenger flew off. They reminded me of two kids in the back seat of a car, jockeying for position. Although I missed capturing peak action in my photos, I was pleased to have been able to witness the spectacle and convey a bit of the drama in my shots.

Two kestrels play (or fight?) at the top of a bare tree the evening of Sept. 28, 2022.

Some birds are not always as they seem

The weather turned colder late last week, and every birder I know was smiling. Colder weather brings a greater variety of birds this time of year, when the fall migration is underway.

I’ve been spending more time of late at the old AT&T Building One site at the Pole Farm, at a crossroads in the woods about three-quarters of a mile up the central trail from the Cold Soil Road parking lot. The area is a great spot to spot warblers during migration, and on last week’s visits I found the activity varied from day to day. Jim Parrish, the leading birder at the Pole Farm, and I often end up in that area around 7:30 in the morning.

As we were peering into the brush and trees Friday morning, I spotted something small moving in the foreground. “Just a yellowthroat,” I said, but Jim added a caution that turned out to be as prescient as it was wise. Don’t dismiss a bird just because it’s something you expect to see in that area. It could be something special.

I went back Saturday morning and was over on the Reed Bryan Farm side of Mercer Meadows. There’s a corner where the woods end on your left and you suddenly have open fields on both sides of the path. In the past, I’d often seen a lot of activity in that section, and the sun was favorably positioned for me to look back at the wall of trees on the edge of the woods.

I must have spent 20 minutes there, frantically pointing my camera up and down, left and right, trying to capture whatever birds were flitting about. They had to be warblers, I figured. I moved on and when I got to a shaded area, checked my camera to see what I had. I zipped through the photos and laughed: it seemed I had nothing more exotic than a common yellowthroat and a female American goldfinch.

A Philadelphia vireo.

When I got home and brought the images up on screen, I was in for a surprising treat. Not only did have photos of a black-throated green warbler (one tops this post), but to my utter delight I also had not a goldfinch but a bay-breasted warbler and not a yellowthroat but a Philadelphia vireo.

It’s as if Jim had predicted I’d cavalierly dismiss a few birds that were greater than what they seemed. In this case, I had spotted two lifers (the bay-breasted and the Philly) and got my first photos of the black-throated green. That was cause for rejoicing.

A bay-breasted warbler, either a female or immature. Note that brown tinge on the side below the wing.

Birding photography guide: Check your settings

Back in the pre-digital years, a photographer’s worst nightmare was concluding a shoot and discovering either that the film had not gone through the camera or the camera wasn’t even loaded. That happened to me a few times.

Today’s version is discovering a mile and a half into the woods that your photo card is not in your camera.

You’d think I’d learn from my mistakes. At least twice I drove out to the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm and discovered that I’d forgotten to put the card in the camera. Knowing that no matter how diligent I am at putting the card back in the camera after editing on the computer that I would still forget occasionally, I had a brilliant backup plan: stash a second card in the car.

I did that, but even then I wandered off from the car one recent morning and didn’t realize I hadn’t put either card in the camera. Ordinarily, I take at least one photo within the first five minutes of any birding jaunt, a way of forcing myself to check to make sure the card is installed (my camera won’t fire if it’s not), to adjust the ISO setting for the lighting and to check the focus point setting.

On that particular morning, I did none of that. So I had to content myself with relying on binoculars and, noting the paucity of birds that morning, secretly hope that no great photo opportunities would present themselves as I hiked back to my car. As fate would have it, I got my first good look at a Savannah sparrow for the season but had no photo to show for it.

Lesson learned.

Last week, I happened upon an accommodating ruby-throated hummingbird that perched on a stem in the woods, and I had probably a minute to snap photos of it. Excited at the prospect of what I’d captured, I hit playback on the camera and was devastated to discover that the photos were blurry, including the one topping this post. The day before, my photos had also been a little off, with none of them as sharp as I demand.

A check of my lens revealed that the image stabilization slider was mysteriously set to the “off” position. I had not encountered that problem before. I suspect the slider was turned off when I tucked the camera and lens under my arm at some point, carrying it like a football for a while to relieve the weight that my shoulders normally carry.

With the stabilization setting back on, I quickly took some sharp photos. Order was restored and another lesson was learned: before setting off, check all your settings!

After turning my lens stabilization back on, I was in good shape to take this photo of a great blue heron at Colonial Lake in Lawrence Township.