Finding birds on new trails

With a nod to Robert Frost, I’ve always been one to take the road less traveled, seeking new paths even in familiar places. I’ll approach an intersection and wonder, “Where does this road go?” More often than not, I’ll turn and drive on to see what new wonders await me.

So it is with the paths I walk, camera in hand, while birding in my favorite places. It’s rare for me to walk the same path twice in a row, and even if I do, I will switch from clockwise to counterclockwise to get a fresh perspective on the second trip.

That’s my m.o. at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, and after birding steadily there the last three years, I’ve walked just about every path there is. But not all.

This morning, I drove to the Reed Bryan side of the park and walked down the central path toward a small bridge where I typically turn to the left on either side of the woods straddling a creek.

While I did turn left briefly to follow some song sparrows flitting through the trees, I decided it was time to walk one section of trail I had not walked previously.

I turned around, crossed the path to the parking lot and walked uphill past the Reed Bryan observation platform and reached the boardwalk from which I usually turn off to head to the Pole Farm side of the park.

Not today.

An American tree sparrow, not far from Federal City Road.

I kept on going along the boardwalk and followed the path to the end of the woods, where on previous hikes I always turned around. Today, I kept going and walked the trail until it reached Federal City Road. At that junction, I turned right to head back along Federal City to the parking lot, a stretch I had never walked either.

With the path paralleling the road only a few feet away, I wasn’t sure I’d encounter many birds. Surprisingly, I did.

Tree sparrows and song sparrows — one of the latter is at the top of the post — presented themselves off to the right, and a Northern harrier startled me by flying up out of the field.

While I have seen those species many times, it was fun to know their range extends to that sector of the park that I had not bothered to explore before.

And that has made all the difference.

A female Northern harrier flies low over a field at the Reed Bryan Farm side of Mercer Meadows.

Advanced birding fever: Chasing a rare sparrow

Today afforded a unique opportunity to merge two of my favorite pursuits, baseball and birding. In the process, I got a glimpse of a bird common in the central plains of this continent but a rare visitor here in New Jersey, the Harris’s sparrow.

I’d been following reports of a Harris’s sparrow hanging out with white-crowned sparrows in a field in East Windsor, and I hoped the bird would stick around long enough for me to spot him over the weekend.

This morning, I picked up my friend Laura at 8 o’clock, and we drove about 25 minutes to Hancock Field, a youth baseball field. From the parking lot, we took a short walk along the side of the field to where a few other birders were gathered, their scopes pointing away from the diamond and across an open field to a row of tangled bushes.

We were fortunate to arrive when the bird was active. Almost immediately, the birders were excitedly calling out the bird’s movements: off to the right, hopping up, facing away, on the ground in front of the brush, etc.

I set up Laura’s scope, and she was able to spot Mr. Harris quickly. (That’s Laura in the photo at the top of the post, with fellow birder “Old Sam Peabody” partially visible behind her.)

Although I picked up my Canon at one point, the bird was too far out of camera range for me to even try a shot. I contented myself with seeing the bird through the scope and otherwise taking in the experience. I did so while standing a few feet from home plate in the baseball field bullpen, making the moment doubly enjoyable.

I doubt I’ll ever get birding fever in such an advanced stage that I’d rent a helicopter to spot a rare bird in Nevada. But following up on eBird alerts and postings on Facebook and GroupMe birding channels has revealed twitcher tendencies.

The great thing about today’s brief trip was that it was great fun — a great ride out and back with a good friend, book-ended around an enthusiastic shared experience with other birders enjoying the sight of a rare creature in our part of the world.

Bird song is returning, an early signal of spring at the Pole Farm

At the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, a few early signs that spring will get here eventually are starting to show. Over my last couple of visits, I’ve started hearing after a long layoff the raspy cries of red-winged blackbirds, and the Eastern bluebirds are calling to one another.

An American tree sparrow forages along one of the trails at the Pole Farm.

This morning, I noticed that a few varieties of sparrows that have kept low to the ground over the last couple of months are again perching on tree branches and on tall stalks of grass in the fields. Savannah sparrows, song sparrows and American tree sparrows are abundant.

I don’t seem to see or hear as many white-throated sparrows as I have in previous winters. That said, while I was walking one of the back trails today, I said half aloud, “There’s nothing out here,” and suddenly a group of white-throats appeared directly in front of me.

Northern harriers are clearly at home at the Pole Farm this winter. As usual, I’ve seen them at the Pole Farm and on the Reed Bryan Farm side of the park. Even better, the “gray ghost” males have not been nearly as elusive as they were in recent years. I saw one again this morning, along with at least three females, including the one shown in the photo topping this post.

Mercer County had announced a planned burn of some of the fields this week, but that hasn’t happened. I know the burns are designed to preserve the meadows, but I worry that the fires will hurt or scare off the birds nesting in the grasses and depending on the voles, mice and other critters that make those fields their home, too.

In any event, even in the dead of winter the Pole Farm offers a variety of birds to discover. I’m happy to spot those whose paths I cross.

Super Bowl Sunday: A great day for (bald) eagles

Mercer County Park has become a haven for bald eagles and a terrific place for birders and bird-fanciers to watch them. If you’ve never seen a bald eagle in the wild, you have an excellent chance of seeing one and probably more this time of year at Mercer Lake in the center of the park.

It was this time last year — right around Super Bowl Sunday — that I watched several bald eagles swooping over Mercer Lake and parking on the giant electric power towers that cross the park. At least one breeding pair of bald eagles have built their enormous nest just off the lake at the border with Mercer Oaks golf course.

To view the eagles, I’ve most often driven into the park and turned into the marina parking lot. I walk down the paved path toward the gazebo that juts out into the lake, offering wide views of the action on the lake.

From the gazebo, you can look straight across the lake to the parking lot for the Casperson Rowing Center. That’s another great vantage point from which to view the eagles. However, there are no formal trails on that side of the lake, so your mobility is limited. You can, however, get good views of the great blue herons that roost in that area and hang out on the shore and in the trees.

For the best viewing overall, I recommend that you head to the West Picnic Area and park at the end of the lot, near the big shelter. From there, walk to the left along the trail that skirts the lake. A few “eagle viewing” signs will point you to a stretch of the shore from which you can look across the lake to the aerie of the breeding pair.

On the nest: A pair of bald eagles look out over Mercer Lake.

Besides the eagles, you can also see herons on the far side of the lake and, depending on conditions, spot common mergansers, Canada geese, mallards, sea gulls and other water birds that visit regularly.

You can also access the trail that skirts the lake from the marina lot. Getting out of your car, look for the footbridge to your left. Take the path, cross the bridge, pass the picnic shelter and keep following the path to the edge of the lake.

That’s the route I took Friday, and I had great looks at two mature and one immature eagle that had flown into the trees along the shore. One took off right overhead, as seen in the shot topping this post.

Being wild creatures, eagles follow their own schedules not tied to the whims and wishes of birders and photographers. I have gone to Lake Mercer some days and seen no eagles or hardly any birds at all. But that’s all part of the birding game.

At the nest viewing area, there’s a great explanatory sign on bald eagles that gives a timeline for eagle activity throughout the year. At this part of the year, the odds of seeing one are in your favor, if not for the fish in the lake on which the eagles feast.

This board contains great information on bald eagles and their habits. The board is placed at a great vantage point for seeing the nest across the lake, near the power tower.

On the hunt for that Superb Owl shot

Finally I got back to the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm for a late afternoon visit this weekend and got a fair look at a short-eared owl. Although I continue to visit regularly in the morning, I had stayed away on weekend afternoons because it was difficult to find parking as photographers on the prowl for owls were jamming the park.

After paying a visit Saturday morning at the bitterly cold 8-degrees sunrise, I took advantage of the late afternoon sunshine and relatively balmy mid-20s temperature to head back. Objective: short-eared owl photo.

The lot was nearly full, but cars were not parked willy-nilly along the driveway to it as they had been previously. Still, there were plenty of photograhers lugging tripods and long lenses out on the paved section of the Lawrence-Hopewell trail running through the park.

A Northern harrier made an initial appearance, and I was hopeful a “shortie” would soon follow. I was maybe a third of the way up the trail from the entry curve to the woods when suddenly a bird popped out of the brush back down the trail.

It was indeed a short-eared owl, and it flew up and over the central section of the park before heading off toward the parking lot and who knows where beyond that.

After tracking the bird in my binoculars for a few seconds, I picked up my camera and took a few shots. What showed up on screen at home was better than expected, and the sharpest image and the only one worth sharing tops this post.

I put in the “pretty good” category, but I still have a long way to go before getting an owl shot of which I can truly be proud.

At least this year I’m seeing the occasional owl. I had not seen one in the wild — anywhere, ever — before December, so my odds are improving.

I should add sporadic sightings of a barred owl and even a couple of long-eared owls have come in several times in recent weeks at the Pole Farm. The barred owl has typically been spotted on the left side of the woods that begin after you’ve walked half a mile up the central, dirt path coming out of the Cold Soil parking lot.

I’ve looked and looked but haven’t been able to spot the barred owl or the long-eareds, either. I haven’t heard of any sightings on the Reed Bryan Farm side of Mercer Meadows, if you were wondering about that.

If you want my advice on finding those owls, go to the Pole Farm when I’m not there!

Sometimes, the birds come to us

You can tramp for an hour through the woods and fail to find a bird to photograph, and sometimes all you have to do is look up from the kitchen table to find something magnificent paying you a call.

The latter happened yesterday as my wife and I sat down to lunch. I was one or two bites into my ham salad sandwich when my wife blurted out, “Hey, it’s the big one!”

The “big one” was a pileated woodpecker, chipping away at one the maple trees at the back edge of our property line. Our back yard is wide, not deep, so the bird was only about 75 feet away.

I grabbed my camera and shot a few frames out the dining room window. As quietly as I could, I slipped out the back door to shoot some more.

The best of my first few shots.

The bird suddenly dove toward the ground, then flew over to a cluster of trees at the back corner of the lot. I took a few more photos, then came back inside to get ready to head out for the afternoon.

As I was gathering my things, the woodpecker was still banging away in the tree cluster. I couldn’t resist taking a few more shots. As my wife noted, at that point, the bird was facing toward us, and the sunlight was favorable.

Any visit by a pileated woodpecker is a cause for elation. It may be hard to believe, but we’ve seen many more bald eagles fly over and around our home than pileated woodpeckers. By my recollection, this was only the third time a pileated has visited, while we’ve seen bald eagles here at least a dozen times.

We welcome all avian visitors to our property, with one exception. Canada geese come by the hundreds to the golf course that our property adjoins. Should any one of them cross the line into our yard, my wife brings out her bullhorn and orders them to back off. I handle the fertilizing of our yard.

The best of the second batch of shots.

Patience pays off, in birding and nature photography

On most Saturday mornings, I start my day at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm. I don’t have the pressure of having to get back in time to catch a bus to work, so I have more time to wander the fields.

This morning, I arrived before dawn, hoping to catch sight of the short-eared owls that have been visiting this winter. I also thought I might have a chance to spot a woodcock that had been reported this week on the Reed Bryan Farm side of the park.

I would strike out on both of those counts, but I did make one fortuitous decision. As I looped around the park, I came to an intersection with a turnoff to Reed Bryan. I had been in too much of a hurry to get out of the house to put on my knock-off Bean hunting boots, and as I stood in my low-rise, slip-on Merrell hiking shoes, I hesitated to make the turn that would take me across a long run of muddy trails.

But the temperature was a notch or two above freezing, and I figured the ground would still be frozen enough for me not to get stuck in the muck.

That call turned out even better than I’d imagined. Immediately after turning onto the trail, I saw a Northern harrier sailing ahead of me. I kept along the trail and at spot where the woods stopped and the terrain was mostly open field, I could see the harrier parked in the stubble a hundred yards ahead.

I walked up slowly, took a few shots from a distance and slowly crept up to a trail-marker post to steady my camera. Anticipating that the bird would sense me and take off, I switched my camera dial to shutter priority and aimed. On cue, Ms. harrier took flight, and I pressed the shutter. The bird landed another hundred yards or so away, too far for me to get a fair shot of her on the ground.

About that time, my friend Mark — whom I often encounter on the trails on Saturdays — came up from behind. We walked the remainder of the circuit back to the parking lot, and at some point on the way I mentioned that I was still hoping to get a killer harrier shot. I’ve shot many previously, but never one when the light was just right and the bird was within a decent range and facing me. I said I knew that shot would come eventually, as long as I remained patient and persistent.

When I got home and brought the day’s catch of shots up on screen, one frame stood out, and it tops this post. I had managed to get this one sharp frame of the harrier as she was looking back toward me. Because of the warm, low-angle light, the detail on her feathers was good, and her wingtips were nicely displayed. There was also a catchlight in the eye. With a few minor adjustments in Lightroom, I could happily point to the best harrier photo I’ve ever taken.

Now to go back out and get a better one!

Appreciating the quiet times of birding

It’s a relatively quiet time for birding in my part of the world, as I’m keenly aware every morning I walk the fields and woods of the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm or the nearby locations that I frequent.

It would be different if I lived closer to the Jersey shore, which is teeming with wild birds hanging out in their coastal winter quarters. By comparison, the Delaware River valley an hour’s drive to the west is at its lowest point of activity of the year during these cold, gray weeks in January and February.

Yet there are sights to see and appreciate, such as huge flocks of blackbirds and long strings of snow geese flying overhead. Dark-eyed juncos dart from path to brush as I approach them. Save for the papery tan leaves of the beech trees, most of the woods are bare, affording clear views of the woodpeckers — downy, hairy and red-bellied — tapping and hammering above me.

A male hairy woodpecker stops on a branch just long enough for me to snap a photo.

Yesterday I spotted a pileated woodpecker making an undulating flight across the woods that I undoubtedly would have missed were the canopy full of leaves as it is during most of the year.

In the relative quiet of the woods, what calls and pecks I do hear stand out. Last week as I stopped on a wooden bridge at a crossroads of two main Pole Farm paths, my Merlin app lit up with the cry of red-shouldered hawk.

I looked in vain to find the bird, presumably the one that I’ve seen several days over the past few weeks. I saw no hawk but as I kept looking in the changing directions of the cry, I kept seeing a blue jay.

It slowly occurred to me that what I was hearing was the blue jay imitating the hawk. A short while, after I’d moved a few hundred yards along the trail, the red-shouldered hawk flew overhead.

The bare woods of winter provide new opportunities to observe the avian action, just as they prompt us to anticipate Spring when the warblers arrive and the vireos and thrushes fill the greening trails with song once more.

This red-shouldered hawk has been hanging out at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm the last few weeks. I’ve named it Shakey for the way it shakes its tail side to side when perching.

Birding joy: Finding the unexpected on your camera roll

It happens frequently on my outings that I point my binoculars at a distant bird and can’t figure out what it is. If I’m lucky, I have enough time to point my camera and capture a few frames, hoping that the bird’s identity will be revealed once I get the images up on screen back home.

The past three days are cases in point. On Saturday, I went to John A. Roebling Park in Trenton to see what was happening at Abbott Marshlands. A lot of birds were out on Spring Lake with the two mute swans who have been in residence for many months.

A couple of birders making their way back to the parking lot had a seen a redhead through a scope. I wouldn’t find it but I was able to learn from the birders that the birds floating in the center of the lake were mostly gadwalls. I couldn’t figure out exactly what they were by peering through my binoculars but I squeezed off several frames in my camera, hoping they’d reveal what was out there.

Drake (left) and hen American wigeons on Spring Lake.

When I got home, I was able to confirm that several gadwalls were floating near the swans, but as I zoomed in, I spotted a pair of birds that clearly weren’t gadwalls. One had a two-tone head, appearing green and brown through the grainy image on my screen. The image I cropped was too poor for the Merlin app to assess, so I put the image up on the Central New Jersey Birding Facebook group and hoped for an expert to weigh in.

Within minutes, I had the answer: it was a pair of American wigeons, something I wasn’t expecting to see.

My camera paid off again Sunday on the Reed-Bryan Farm side of Mercer Meadows. As I came down the path from the parking lot, I spotted a bird atop one of the dead trees spiking out of the gully to the left. The bird was in shadow and I had no chance at an id through my binoculars. Maybe a kestrel, I thought, but I hadn’t a clue. I pointed my Canon and hoped for the best.

As I returned to the parking lot, two big black birds came swooping in. One flew overhead and the light was right, so I raised by camera and blasted off a few frames. Turkey vultures, I figured, with just a nagging touch of uncertainty in my head.

Home I went, and I first called up the putative vulture images on my laptop screen. Not so! It was a common raven, a bird that isn’t often spotted at Mercer Meadows.

Merlin at Mercer Meadows.

I moved down several frames to the bird in shadow, and my decision about 18 months ago to switch to shooting RAW images paid off again. A quick auto-fix of the image revealed the bird was a merlin, which made perfect sense. Merlins often sit atop those dead trees in that part of the park.

With Monday off for the Martin Luther King holiday, I did a morning Pole Farm visit, drove up to Somerset County to look in vain for sandhill cranes and made a final outing in the afternoon at Colonial Lake and Park near home.

It was all mallards and ring-billed gulls, or so it seemed until I started making my way back to my car. Across the lake I spotted a small group of birds on the water. Through my binoculars, I could make out a male common merganser to my left and a male hooded merganser to my right. In between were a few brown birds, which I figured were females. But of which type of merganser?

The camera again captured enough detail so that when I got home and brought the images on screen, I could make out the puffy heads of what clearly were female hooded mergansers.

Many birders get by on the naked eye and binoculars. I suppose I could, too, but for me, the camera and my zoom lens are essential equipment that bring more joy of discovery day after day.

Not a vulture: a common raven soars above me at the Reed Bryan Farm side of Mercer Meadows.

The bald eagles living next door

Although I generally head to the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm for most of my morning outings, I occasionally switch my destination to another nearby park. I did so today and was rewarded with an encounter with two bald eagles.

I headed to Colonial Lake and Park, which is a mile and a half from my home. A suburban housing development surrounds the lake, which is just off Business U.S. 1 as it runs through Lawrence Township toward Trenton to our south.

Seeing several dozen Canada geese as I approached the park, I parked in the main lot, guessing I might have some birding luck if I walked all the way around the lake. My first surprise was a pair of hooded mergansers swimming and diving in the center of the lake. I had not seen them previously at Colonial Lake, and I had not seen any previously this month. A good start!

When I got to the far side of the lake, I came upon another photographer. We chatted briefly and I continued on before suddenly coming to a stop. Two big birds were ahead in one of the trees overhanging the lake, a few yards apart on separate branches. A quick check in my binoculars left no doubt what I was seeing: a pair of mature bald eagles. I hollered to the other photographer, and we each shot from a distance.

I kept walking slowly toward the eagles and ultimately spooked them, to the annoyance of the other photographer. I shouted back “sorry” and kept walking. The eagles had flown across the lake and landed together high up in a tree close to the homes ringing the east side of the lake.

Two bald eagles, as shot from across Colonial Lake. Through the viewfinder, I didn’t realize I had captured them with their beaks open. It was a pleasant surprise to find when I brought the image up on screen at home.

From the trail, I took several shots across the lake and completed my circuit to the parking lot. The eagles were still perched next to one another, and I started walking toward the lake’s edge to get closer for a better shot. I was hoping to catch the two of them in profile, but as I maneuvered into position, one of the birds stirred and flew out over the lake. I snapped off three frames, and the best of them tops this post.

I had seen bald eagles flying over Colonial Lake before, including one directly above me last month. But never I had I seen them perched and positioned where I could take a decent photo.

I suppose I could whine that the light wasn’t better than it was, and who knows what I might have seen at the Pole Farm had I driven that way. Today the birding gods smiled upon me, and I am grateful to have taken a couple of memorable shots.