Too much of a great thing: Owl overload at the Pole Farm

Reports of owls — short- and long-eared — have been filed from the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm multiple times during the last few weeks, and crowds are gathering.

I’ve spoken with several birders on my last few trips, and as thrilled as we are that owls are about, it is becoming a challenge to find parking in the late afternoon. This morning, one birder told me the main lot at the intersection of Cold Soil and Keefe roads was full on a recent day by 2:30 p.m. Another told me it was almost full at 1:30 p.m. on one of his prior visits.

I know from my own experience around 4 o’clock last Thursday afternoon that the lot was full; I was lucky to find a spot on the driveway. The next day, I went back about 3:50 p.m. and not only was the lot full, but the driveway was cluttered with cars. Frustrated, I drove on to neighboring Rosedale Park.

A short-eared owl flies at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm. I took this shot in the fading light just before sunset Dec. 29.

At the Pole Farm, the biggest gaggle of photographers stakes out the area where the paved Lawrence Hopewell trail makes a big curve once you walk past the restrooms and the red arches marking the location one of the original AT&T buildings. The short-eared owls have been appearing shortly before sundown, and I’ve twice seem them in what appeared to be aerial combat with Northern harriers. (I’ve yet to see or hear a long-eared owl.)

I expect the crowds will persist for a while. Should you wish to go, expect that you might have to get creative to park. Should there not be space for you in the lot and drive, you can head down Cold Soil Road, park on the side and walk back into the park. There’s no parking along Keefe Road near the park entrance.

Another option would be to park in the Reed-Bryan Farm or Blackwell Road parking lots at the other ends of the park and walk the trails to the Pole Farm side. That’s a good hike of more than a mile, and you’d need to walk back in the dark after sunset.

Whatever you do, please stick to the trails as stipulated by park rules and don’t wander into the woods. That’s not good for the owls.

Ringing out 2022 with one last birding outing

I could not let this final day of the year pass by without heading out with my camera and binoculars, even if the weather was less than ideal. Heavy fog rolled in before sunrise and remained with us the entire day.

Hoping I might catch a few waterbirds that were unlikely to appear at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, I drove out to the Plainsboro Preserve about 20 minutes from home. Lake McCormack, the centerpiece of the park, was socked in with fog. Through the trees on the main trail I could faintly make out scores of Canada geese, although I had no trouble whatsoever hearing them. They were making their presence known liberally.

I walked the main trail and turned right onto the blue trail, then turned right again onto Maggie’s Trail. I like that trail because it’s on a spit jutting into the lake, and it has views on each side. While previous warm-weather trips gave me sightings of Baltimore orioles and warbling vireos, no songbirds were present this day, and I could only see maybe 100 feet off shore in either direction.

But surprises were in store. First, I spotted three birds in the water off to the right. I assumed I was seeing three ring-necked ducks. I took a few quick photos before they slipped into the fog.

I continued walking and reached the end of the trail, telling myself the trip was worth it just to see those ring-necked ducks. I turned back and quickly spotted a small, duck-like bird to my right. It hung around long enough for me to snap a few pictures through the branches, and I could not figure out what it was, even while Googling a few guesses on my cell phone.

Ruddy duck swimming just off shore on Lake McCormack.

The answer would be revealed back home, when I put the photos into the Merlin app. The answer — a ruddy duck, a lifer for me, No. 202!

I went back toward the parking lot as a misty rain began to fall. I wandered up onto the observation deck at the park visitor center. It was closed, but the feeders surrounding the building were very much open, with cardinals and sparrows darting about the nearby bushes. I was able to capture a white-breasted nuthatch opening its beak, and that picture is atop this post, showing the fine rain in the background.

I came home, sorted through my photos and updated my e-Bird report, not expecting a surprise that would come in by email from an e-Bird reviewer late in the afternoon.

My three ring-necked ducks were actually two ring-necks and a redhead, another lifer for me, No. 203.

Two ring-necked ducks swim in the foreground, with a redhead just ahead of them at back right.

A little sheepish about my mistaken ID, I fixed the record in e-Bird. I also decided to check to see how many checklists I filed this year. I thought I’d be close to one per day, as I occasionally make two or even three reports on a single day and bird from home on days I can’t get away.

The total: 370, just over one per day.

I don’t know what the new year holds, but I’m excited at the prospects for birding and sharing my stories and photos with others. Thanks to all who are reading this post and following me. I wish you good health and great adventure in 2023!

A Northern cardinal perches near the visitor center at the Plainsboro Preserve.

I finally see my first owl, and a bonus bird!

Since I began birding seriously the last few years, I’d lamented that I had never seen an owl in the wild. Even at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, which usually draws owls during the winter months, I’d never seen one either flying or perched in a tree.

On Saturday afternoon, that changed.

Word had gotten out through birding alerts that short-eared owls had been spotted at the Pole Farm. As I pulled into the last available parking slot at the main Keefe Road parking lot, I spotted a gaggle of photographers around the bend on the paved Lawrence-Hopewell Trail. They had staked out a section of the big fields where they expected, or at least hoped, to spot a shortie.

I rendezvoused with my friend Mark and his dog, who needed some exercise. So instead of joining the scrum, we headed up the central path toward the woods, gambling that an owl might emerge from the tree line. That didn’t happen, although we saw three female Northern harriers.

We wandered slowly through the cedars at the old AT&T Building One oval, hoping to spot an owl in the branches, but no luck. So we headed down the LHT back toward the clusters of photographers closer to Keefe Road. On the way, we spotted a couple of “gray ghost” harriers, although they were too far off to catch on camera.

With sunset coming on, Mark headed back home while I stuck around a bit longer on the fringes of the photo bunch. My priority was to see an owl; I wasn’t concerned about getting a photo, although I bumped up the ISO on my camera to 3200 just in case.

Then it happened.

A short-eared owl came racing across the field, chasing a harrier. Still not sure of what I was seeing, I got the owl in my binoculars and followed it for a second or two. It disappeared, only to fly up with the harrier for an aerial confrontation that lasted a split second. Gasps from the photographers, then the birds disappeared from view.

Finally, I’d seen my first owl, and a few of the photographers who got the owl showed me images in their camera screens. I lingered a few minutes before heading out of the park, not expecting a treat that lay in store when I got home.

About 6:15 p.m., I went out to patio behind our house to turn on the grill, and almost immediately I heard a loud “hoo hoo huh-hoo.” A great horned owl was close by, likely in a tree just beyond our backyard property line. The Merlin app kept lighting up as the owl continued to hoot.

I went inside to get the steaks and called my wife to come out and listen. A few seconds later, the owl hooted a couple of times, then went quiet.

Later in the evening, I discovered that the short-eared owl had taken my life-list count to 200, a fitting milestone. The great horned owl took me to 201.

So I got my owl and then some. What a thrill! I can’t wait to go out again.

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.