Take the challenge!

13 04 2015

New Jersey Conservation Foundation has launched an awesome new “Step Into Nature Challenge”, asking people to set a goal for themselves to get outside more in 2015. Hiking, biking, and species identification categories are available, plus a custom category to create your own goal! For more information and to register, visit http://njconservation.org/StepIntoNatureChallenge.htm


I am challenging myself to photograph 200 different species of native plants and animals in New Jersey this year! What’s your challenge going to be?

Brotherly Birding at Sandy Hook

31 05 2011

To my surprise, my 20-year old, younger brother agreed to go birding with me early on Memorial Day.  When I called him at 5am to see if he was still on board (and awake), I had my doubts that he would actually be accompanying me.  To my surprise, he answered the phone and was waiting outside his house a few minutes later.

We geared up at the north end of Sandy Hook, ready to head down the Fisherman’s Trail.  I strapped on my binoculars and shouldered my camera while he got comfortable with my wife’s new Nikon Monarchs.  The sun had appeared and I was confident it would cast away the dark clouds looming behind us.  After all, I had just checked the forecast a day ago and it called for a sunny, clear morning with 0% chance of rain.

It rained.  We had walked all the way out to the beach and were scanning for the King Eider when we noticed the sun had vanished behind the darkening sky.  I decided we better start moving, but as we did, the first few drops began to descend.  Thirty seconds later, we were trudging through the dunes as the torrential downpour pelted us with seemingly horizontal streams of rain.  If it weren’t for my increasingly soaked camera equipment (my baseball cap didn’t work very well as an umbrella), it was actually somewhat fun.  When’s the last time you were caught up in an intense thunderstorm?  Not much we could do but walk back and try to enjoy the miserable situation.

We drove south a bit and parked in the next lot.  It was still raining, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from continuing my search for the King Eider.  We wrapped up our binoculars in a jacket and a plastic bag, respectively, and headed back out into the elements.  As we reached the water, the rain finally started to let up.  Two scoters cruised by, and a Great Black-Backed Gull flew in with a crab danging from its mouth.

Walking up the beach, we made some interesting finds.  A dead shark had washed ashore, and just a few feet further we discovered a dead Common Loon among the wrack.  Yes, there were living birds too.  My brother seemed impressed that we were able to see so many endangered species – Piping Plovers, Least Terns, Red Knots, and Black Skimmers all made appearances.  A trio of Black Skimmers even flew back and forth right in front of us, giving great views of their sleek wings and fascinating mandibles.

Black Skimmer

As we were walking along, admiring the spectacle of a large tern flock, my brother warned that there was a snake in front of me.  A dead snake, I thought confidently.  As I looked down and simultaneously took another step, I noticed that there was indeed a snake right next to my foot – and that no, it was not dead.  It flicked its tongue and hissed as I quickly stepped away.  Lacking any real knowledge regarding snake identification, we both marveled at the odd creature – its head appeared totally flattened, but the snake seemed perfectly healthy and ready to defend itself.  We studied it for some time before deciding to leave it to its own devices.  After some quick searching I realized it had been an Eastern Hognose Snake, explaining why it had been hanging out on the beach.

After spending some time with this mystery snake, we continued on our way until I noticed a pair of Forster’s Terns – one standing on top of the other.  Now, I’ve seen plenty of birds copulate.  I know this is the usual starting position.  These two, however, were doing nothing but standing: one on the sand, one on the back of the other.  We had a hearty laugh about it, especially my brother.  The birds were still stacked up when we finally headed back to the car.

Least Terns

A few more stops heading south and we were ready to call it a day somewhat early.  Our clothes were still soaked through, and we were getting hungry.

Being out in the field with a non-birder for the first time in quite awhile reminded me that you don’t need to be a birder to enjoy birding.  The birds and the lists (I never did see that King Eider) and the photographs are just an excuse to be outside and admire whatever nature decides she’s offering up on that particular day.  In this case, it was a lot of rain, some really cool birds, and a snake story neither of us will soon forget.


Curious Junco

30 03 2011

Partially leucistic Dark-Eyed Junco

I spotted this Dark-Eyed Junco at my feeders earlier in the winter and immediately took notice.  I’m sure you can see why.  This particular bird suffers from leucism – a condition characterized by a reduction in all types of skin pigments.  Sometimes this results in an animal that appears almost all white (which does not necessarily make them an albino – that refers to the absence of only melanin), and sometimes it creates an appearance like the one above.  Part of the animal seems fine, and parts are completely absent of pigment.

If you keep your eyes open, you might be able to pick out a leucistic critter in your neck of the woods.  I recently observed a leucistic White-Tailed Deer in Florham Park, and a leucistic Red-Tailed Hawk has been seen in the Piscataway area for years.

North Shore rarities dominate New Year

13 01 2011

Garden State birding in 2011 has, up to this point, been focused squarely on New Jersey’s “North Shore“.  The stretch of coast from Sandy Hook down through the Point Pleasant area is one of the prime birding locations during the winter months, but for the last few weeks it has produced more rarities and interesting birds than usual.

Razorbill on its breeding grounds (c) Rob Baldin 2009

Pelagic birds such as Razorbills and Dovekies have been seen from shore – these are birds that are usually only seen on birding trips out to sea.  A Pacific Loon has been hanging around the same area for more than a week, and the Eared Grebe first seen a month ago at Shark River Inlet is still being easily located in the same area.  Often it has been spotted very close to the jetties.

Pacific Loon (c) Len Blumin 2010

Both species of crossbill seen on the North American mainland (there is an endemic species found only on the island of Hispaniola) have been feeding on black pines from Seven Presidents Park in Long Branch down through the ocean view streets of Deal.  These birds have an interesting adaptation to assist in the extraction of seeds – their bills are literally crossed (see photo below).  They insert their bill into cones and twist their mandibles to reveal the seeds below.

Male Crossbill (c) Sergey Yeliseev 2007

There seems to be something new turning up each week somewhere along the North Shore.  Redheads at Sandy Hook, American Pipits at Seven Presidents Park, and of course the Common (Eurasian Green-Winged) Teal at Lake Takanassee, which has become a fixture of birding this area during the colder months.

Read about our last trip to the North Shore here, and don’t delay in planning your own winter birding trip to the “Jersey Shore” – we can almost guarantee that you won’t run into Snooki.

‘Tis The Season…

24 12 2010

…for Christmas Bird Counts! Between December 14 and January 5, thousands of birders throughout North America will be scouring their favorite 15-mile diameter circles to keep tabs on various bird species populations. Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, this holiday season marks the 111th year of a citizen science project that continues to grow every year. The first CBC was held on Christmas Day in 1900, back when shotguns were the best way to see birds up close, and “conservation” was just a word. There were 25 counts conducted during that first CBC, including three in New Jersey (Englewood, Moorestown and Newfield).


CBC data in New Jersey has shown a striking increase in wintering Northern Mockingbird numbers since the early 1900s. Photo by Tom Reed.

Today, more than 2,000 counts and 60,000 participants paint a large-scale picture of wintering bird populations across the continent. The majority of New Jersey is covered in CBC circles, and most are always looking for more help (click here to see a list of NJ Christmas counts, compiled each year by Mike Anderson and Laurie Larson). Whether you’re a casual backyard feeder watcher or a member of your state’s bird records committee, you can make an important contribution to bird conservation by participating in a CBC.

Me? I’ll be participating in four or five Christmas counts in southern New Jersey, including the Mizpah CBC, which I compile. Each count offers its own different set of birds, habitats and fellow counters, making for a fun and unique experience each time we go afield.

Take a break from the holiday hustle and bustle, and take part in a Christmas Bird Count!


Birders scan the marshes of Fortescue during the 2008 Cumberland County CBC. Photo by Tom Reed.

North Shore tour

20 12 2010

One of my favorite birding trips during the winter is New Jersey’s “north shore” – the coast of NJ from Sandy Hook south through the Point Pleasant area.  It includes the beaches and ocean as well as the many coastal ponds in this area.  On Friday I headed south with fellow birders Tom Reed and Orion Weldon.

Bonaparte's Gull

We arrived in Point Pleasant at around 7am, just in time for the sun to start peeking up from above the horizon.  After a short trek across the snow and frost-covered beach, we made it out to the jetty and started scanning the ocean.  Orion turned up the first Red-Necked Grebe of the day, and Tom spotted an immature Iceland Gull on the beach.

Black-Crowned Night-Heron

Little Silver Lake was almost completely frozen over, so we started to move north.  The fields south of Sea Girt Ave produced a Merlin sitting on the ground with a recent kill, plucking feathers while we watched from the road.  Not surprisingly, there weren’t many other birds around.

Wintering Black-Crowned Night-Herons

Wreck Pond and Lake Como were quick stops, as was another short trip out to the boardwalk to scan the ocean.  We walked around the southern shore of Silver Lake, observing the wintering Black-Crowned Night-Herons out on the island.  Orion and I also photographed a cooperative Great Blue Heron as he hunted at the edge of the ice.

Great Blue Heron hunting in Silver Lake

A short trip north on Ocean Ave and we were ready to head out onto the jetty at the Shark River Inlet.  While scanning the ocean, we were able to find another Red-Necked Grebe, along with large numbers of Common Loons and eventually Red-Throated Loons.  Purple Sandpipers and Sanderlings foraged on the rocks beneath us, picking at mussels between the waves.


We noticed a fishing boat coming in off the ocean with a huge swarm of gulls in its wake.  Hoping for a rarity, possibly even a kittiwake, we searched through the flock but were distracted when Tom called out to us.  A huge Peregrine Falcon was moving up the inlet, and as it flew in front of us zeroed in on a Bonaparte’s Gull.  It took a pass at the gull, which threw itself into the water to escape the hungry raptor.

A nearby Herring Gull didn’t take kindly to the intruder, and decided to chase her off.  Bobbing up and down, weaving between other gulls, the Peregrine suddenly reversed roles and chased the Herring Gull for a moment before flying off.  I guess no meal is worth that much trouble.

Common Loon

We continued scanning the ocean as a few Long-Tailed Ducks flew by.  A drake afforded us wonderful looks through the scope, and a seemingly confused female flew back and forth a few times before almost heading inland!  She flew straight toward the beach before turning back only a few feet from the sand.  Curious behavior for a Long-Tailed Duck.  Eventually she settled in between the jetties.

Long-Tailed Duck

Orion continued to scan with the scope, and eventually turned up the bird of the day, an Eared Grebe.  As we watched, the grebe slowly drifted closer and closer to the jetty.  Despite its large numbers in the west, these grebes are rarely seen east of the Mississippi.  When they are, it is usually in shallow wetlands, and not out on the open ocean.  This bird didn’t seem to mind, though, as we watched it catch a fish close to shore.  It was seen again on Saturday afternoon in the same area.

Eared Grebe

After spending a good deal of time at the Shark River Inlet, we had to head straight for Lake Takanessee.  There, we spotted our first Pied-Billed Grebe of the day.  Good numbers of Hooded Mergansers were present, as were Green-Winged Teal, American Coot, and a few other species of waterfowl.

Hooded Merganser with fish

I had planned for us to search for the Common/Eurasian Teal in the fourth and final pond.  There wasn’t much searching to be done.  As we approached, a group of teal swam out from under the bridge  – the Common Teal being one of them.  After studying the different field marks of the Green-Winged and Common species, we headed back to the car to call it a day.

Bonaparte's Gull

Red-Throated Loon

Click on any of the above photos and you will be taken to the Flickr page for that image.  From there you can view various sizes and browse my other (mostly) wildlife photography.

Thanks for reading!

-Bill Lynch

Wordless Wednesday

9 12 2010




Please click on the images for larger sizes and for their respective Flickr pages.

Owl migration

4 11 2010

While the height of raptor migration may already be behind us for this year, some birds are still moving through The Garden State on the way to their wintering grounds. Earlier this week, Northern Saw-whet Owls and Long-Eared Owls began passing through New Jersey.

Taking a Saw-whet's measurements during banding (Photo by Kaitlyn Marczi)

On Monday night, six owls were banded at Sandy Hook. Another nine were banded in Cape May, most being Northern Saw-whet Owls. In addition to the banded birds, other owls were being spotted throughout the day, including a pair of Long-Eared Owls.

Kaitlyn Marczi, one of CMBO's seasonal employees, holds a Northern Saw-wheat Owl before it is released

Some of these birds (particularly the ones in Cape May) are planning on continuing their journeys south for the winter. Others, however, will make New Jersey their home for the colder months. Barn Owls have been seen hunting throughout the state over the past few weeks, and in past years the rare Snowy Owl has made an appearance in NJ. Short-Eared Owls are also regular winter visitors, although depending on the year their numbers may vary dramatically. The species that breed in NJ can often still be found here during the colder months – birds like Eastern Screech Owls and the ubiquitous Great Horned Owls.

Long-Eared Owl (Photo by Bill Lynch)

It may not be quite as comfortable birding in December and January as it is birding in the spring or early autumn, but it is a great time to find and respectfully observe these elusive and endlessly interesting nocturnal raptors.

October 8th, 2010

29 10 2010

After birding Cape May for four consecutive springs, I was convinced that I needed to visit the peninsula during autumn migration.  The week started off with lots of rain and wind, and while there were a few days of decent raptor movement, nothing was blowing my socks off.  The weather got a bit nicer as the week progressed, but the mornings at Higbee Beach and afternoons at the hawk watch still weren’t delivering the mind-blowing bird migration I had concocted in my mind after reading Season at the Point and listening to autumn testimonials from close friends.

On Thursday, David La Puma of http://www.woodcreeper.com/ convinced me that tomorrow morning would have something big in store.  We looked over the weather and his radar images, and things looked promising.  The next day, Friday, October 8th, we rendezvoused at the top of the Higbee dike just as the sun was beginning to announce the arrival of morning.

Morning flight at Higbee Beach WMA

I was already late for the show.  Word had spread fast, and the morning flight deck was filled to the brim with birders.  Those brave enough to climb up the muddy slope to the top of the dike were afforded an incredible 360 degree view.  Birds weaved between the bodies and binoculars, landing at our feet in the vegetation.  Kinglets, warblers, and sparrows were literally an arm’s reach away in the bushes.  An early junco perched for a moment before taking off again.  A curious Brown Creeper kept emerging from the woods for a few seconds before heading back into hiding.

Looking out across the horizon, the sun was beginning to reveal an endless sea of birds moving in unison through the sky.  I adjusted my binocular focus and found even more birds – clouds upon clouds.  People started calling out notable species – Chesnut-Sided Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Connecticut Warbler, Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark, Purple Finch, and on and on.  I stared straight up into the sky and found that there were still more birds, almost imperceptible specks moving across my field of view.

Swamp Sparrow at Higbee Beach WMA

Oh, and there were a few Yellow-Rumped Warblers around as well.  By a few, I mean approximately 16,000 individuals.  Not to mention an additional 16,000 unidentified warblers, many of which were “butter butts”.  These are only the birds counted in the morning from Higbee, a single location.  Cape May certainly had far more Yellow-Rumped Warblers (and other birds, of course) taking up residence for the day.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

After a very quick breakfast at Dock Mike’s (there were more birds to see, darn it!), we headed to Cape May Point State Park.  The hawk watch platform was already filled, and I decided to do a quick loop on the boardwalk trails to see what would turn up.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Northern Parula

Not yet on the trail for two minutes, I found myself standing in the same place, mesmerized by the amount of avian activity.  Yellow-Rumped Warblers were literally dripping from the trees.  If I had swung my binoculars around randomly, chances are each time I paused there would be a Yellow-Rumped Warbler in view.  A lone Pine Warbler showed up, along with a few Northern Parulas and a Magnolia Warbler.

As I chatted with a fellow birder, a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo flew into the tree and perched directly above us, only 10-15 feet away.  After it departed, a Cooper’s Hawk took its place in the tree, waiting for the right time to attack the breakfast buffet that had arrived overnight.  In the bush next to us, a Red-Eyed Vireo swooped in with a Green Darner in its beak.  It slowly ate the dragonfly, and at one point actually decapitated the insect (if you look carefully at the photograph below, you can see the Green Darner’s head in the vireo’s beak).

Red-Eyed Vireo eating Green Darner

Did I mention there were a lot of Yellow-Rumped Warblers around?

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

Eventually I made my way back up to the hawk watch, where the spectacle had already begun. A steady stream of Sharp-Shinned Hawks made its way over the platform. Peregrine Falcons cruised over the dunes, coming in off of the bay. Merlins whipped past the pond in front of us, and Northern Harriers methodically worked the marsh looking for lunch.

Peregrine Falcon

When all was said and done, more than 1,100 Accipiters (Sharp-Shinned and Cooper’s Hawks) had been counted, along with more than 200 falcons (Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, and American Kestrels). 49 Northern Harriers (my personal favorite) were counted. Rounding out the list were Red-Tailed Hawks, Broad-Winged Hawks, both vultures (Turkey and Black), Osprey, and the crowd-pleasing Bald Eagle. Twenty-two national symbols had flown over – some distant specks, other soaring directly over the platform to a chorus of “ooohs” and “aaaahs”.

Bald Eagle

Birds and birders weren’t the only wildlife moving about on this gorgeous autumn day. Dolphins passed by the point, turtles were found sunning in the state park’s waters, and I even spotted this Gray Tree Frog hanging out on one of the park’s directional arrows (see below).

Gray Tree Frog

Tree Swallows

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

Cape May is always an incredible place to observe the natural world, but I had never experienced anything like the migration that took place on October 8th, 2010. Local birders told me that it was the best day they’ve had in years. Maybe half of a decade.

Butterflies preparing for migration

The butterfly migration was truly incredible as well. Monarchs and Common Buckeyes filled every last inch of Goldenrod, and various other species (Red Admirals, Question Marks, American Ladies, skippers, and more) made their presence known.

Autumn is a fantastic time to be outdoors in New Jersey. Whether you’re watching birds and butterflies migrate, enjoying the changing leaves, or simply spending an evening around a campfire with some hot chocolate or hot cider, there’s no shortage of things to do. Enjoy it while you can!

Is Monarch-mania Coming?

13 09 2010

Two Monarchs nectaring on butterfly bush; Reed's Beach, Cape May County, NJ. Photo by Tom Reed.

Maybe you’ve noticed them recently- Monarchs, those large orange butterflies with black trim, the storied insect that makes its epic trek southward through North America each autumn. This autumn may be an especially good one for the species here in Jersey, based on what we’ve seen so far. In fact, Don Freiday (Director of Birding Programs for NJ Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory) reported 100s of Monarchs along the Red Trail at Cape May Point State Park this morning, and a short stroll through my backyard in northern Cape May County just revealed over a dozen of the critters. Cape May routinely sees the highest numbers of migrating Monarchs in the region- this isn’t surprising, given its geography as a southward-facing peninsula, and its resulting ability to trap southbound winged migrants at land’s end.

Monarchs have three to four broods each year, and the last brood, which emerges in late summer and early fall, is the one that engages in long migratory trips, living eight to nine months. Many of the Monarchs we are seeing now are (hopefully) destined to reach wintering grounds in Mexico, where they hibernate until spring. They then move north again, reproducing and ensuring that next year’s cycle of Monarchs will continue.

Here in New Jersey, Monarch migration typically peaks toward the end of September and beginning of October, and like bird migration, is more obvious and much heavier in magnitude after the passage of a cold front. It isn’t entirely clear why numbers fluctuate from year to year, though varying weather conditions likely play a large role.

The Cape May Bird Observatory runs a Monarch monitoring and tagging program each fall, information about which can be found HERE . Part of this program includes weekly banding demonstrations that take place at Cape May Point State Park, and are definitely worth attending!

Even if you can’t make it to Cape May, keep your eyes peeled for the big orange butterfly, for this may be a Monarch Autumn we won’t soon forget.