Dickcissels at Negri Nepote

15 06 2011

An uncommon visitor to New Jersey, a trio of male Dickcissels were found earlier this week at Negri Nepote Native Grassland Preserve in Franklin Township.  To add to the excitement of singing male Dickcissels in breeding plumage, a single female has also been spotted!  One observer has reported that potential nesting material was being collected by one of the birds, and that one of the males was associating with the female bird.  If the birds end up nesting here, it would represent a very rare case of  breeding Dickcissels in the state.

Photo by Joseph F. Pescatore (c) 2011

It is also curious that these birds seem to have arrived on their breeding grounds so late in the season.  Normally male Dickcissels will arrive at this latitude in late April to early May and began setting up territories for the eventual arrival of the female birds (about a week later).  The Negri Nepote birds, however, seem to have arrived sometime in early to mid-June, with the males still singing ceaselessly on conspicuous perches as of this posting.  One explanation could be that these are young birds that found their way to breeding grounds later than their more experienced relatives.  This could also explain why they are seemingly making a relatively small grassland in central NJ their home for the summer.

Regardless of why they are here, they have already attracted many birders to this natural oasis.  And we can all help them by staying on the mowed paths and not approaching too closely.  Before we know it, there could be little Dickcissels chirping away from their nest!

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.


An Autumn in Cape May

18 05 2011

I spent the fall 2010 as an interpretive naturalist for the Cape May Bird Observatory, working mainly at the morning flight and hawk watch platforms. Everyday in Cape May was filled with exciting surprises and energetic visitors, but my last week of work, in the end of October, elevated my standard for action packed birding! We had been experiencing bad migration weather for the last week or so until Thursday, Oct 28th when the winds shifted, a cold front came in and the flood gates opened! The nocturnal songbirds that night were amazing. That night, and into the wee hours of the morning, folks flocked to the condemned convention center downtown to watch and listen to the 300+ birds a minute flying by the light of the street lamps! It was like watching a meteor shower. They were dropping into store front windows and lamps by the hundreds: sparrows, robins, flickers! During our night out, a phoebe momentarily landed on my co-worker’s head before realizing it wasn’t a stationary object!

Northern Flicker

The next day was even crazier. Morning flight counted around 150,000 birds in 4 hours (70,000+ robins, 63,000 yellow-rumped warblers) and it probably didn’t take into account all the other birds all over the point that were not participating in the “re-directed morning flight”. The banders caught a golden eagle and released in on the hawk watch platform.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

Saturday was just as impressive with thousands of sparrows, phoebes, and normally reclusive hermit thrushes littering the roads. My favorite moment of the day was watching hundreds of American Woodcocks flying out the trees pre-dawn! More golden eagle sightings and a Henslow’s sparrow, which is the first record of that bird in Cape May in 22 years!

Hermit Thrush

Sunday paled in comparison to Friday and Saturday’s flight but it was still a great day and my last day of work! It was a whirlwind two months, but some of the greatest birding experiences of my life and I am glad I had the chance to share this place with a lot of good people this season.

-Ashley Green

(Photos (c) Bill Lynch)

Rutgers team completes 3rd World Series of Birding

16 05 2011

The Scarlet Knight-Herons, a team of former Rutgers graduate students, finished their 3rd WSB on Saturday.  The event challenges birders to identify as many species as possible within a 24-hour period within the borders of NJ.  This year, the Knight-Herons also confined themselves to Cape Island (the area south of the Cape May Canal) and to bicycles!  That’s right – no motor vehicles were used by the team as they traversed over 43 miles in search of birds.

Read a short review of their day at the official blog:


Yellow-Rumped Warbler

Free Native Plants!

4 05 2011

Please read the following message:

We have been given permission from the owner of Wild Earth Native plant nursery, which closed 10 years ago, to remove plants from the nursery property in Jackson, NJ in exchange for helping to clean up the property.

Join us on Memorial Day weekend
Friday – Monday May 27-30 from 8:00 -4:00 each day

Time worked will get you a fair exchange of native plants. (Bring your family, friends and neighbors to help work so you can get more plants — but don’t forget to leave room in the vehicle for plants!)


Some plants are still living in trays, small pots, quarts or gallons.  Others have rooted through their pots and will have to be transplanted. Many have escaped and are growing and reproducing around the property and will have to be dug and potted.  I have not listed the larger woody species, but if you want to dig you are welcome to them as well. There are plenty of pots at the site so no need to bring any, but you will need to bring shovels.  Plenty of potting soil is available in old pots.  However, there is NO WATER at the site and no restrooms.  In a few areas you will be going through the weeds to get to plants so wear protective clothing (against bugs, thorns, poison ivy).
[Restrooms and food available at fast food places near I-195]

Below is a partial list of recoverable plants I saw when we surveyed the property Sunday.  There are multiples of all of these. I’m sure there are many others I overlooked.

Fern/ fern allies, etc.:
ostrich fern
cinnamon fern
Christmas fern
royal fern
scouring rush
pots of just moss (great for shade garden)

little bluestem grass
Pennsylvania sedge
soft rush (Juncus effusus)

spring beauty
wild geranium
Spiranthes orchids
Labrador violets
golden groundsel (Senecio aureus / Packera aurea)
wild columbine
blue-flag iris
rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
mayapple  (Podophyllum peltatum)
rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides)
round-leaf mountain mint
narrow-leaf mountain mint
yellow star grass
willow-leaf eastern blue-star (Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia)
New England aster
star flower (Trientalis borealis)
may lily (Maianthemum canadense)
shooting star (Dodecatheon sp)
red beardtongue (Penstemon ‘Husker red’)
nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum)

native honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens)

serviceberry (Amelanchier sp)
native euonymus
steeplebush (Spirea tomentosa)
low-bush blueberry
sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)
beach plum

Directions:  Take I-195 to Exit 16 / CR-537 towards Freehold. After 1 mile, turn Right on Wright-DeBow Rd.
The nursery will be about 1 mile down the road on your Right just past Down To Earth landscaping company.  There is a small “Wild Earth Nursery” sign at the driveway.

Be aware that this is the same exit as Great Adventure amusement park but that traffic is heading the other direction on CR-537.

For more information, contact Linda Rohleder (rohleder360@gmail.com).
If bad weather is predicted, request my cell phone number so you can call ahead – especially if you are coming a long distance.

Scarlet Knight-Herons ready for 3rd straight World Series

29 04 2011

World Series of Birding, that is.  Teams will once again attempt to see and/or hear as many species of birds as they can within a 24-hour period, within the boundaries of New Jersey.  This year, the Knight-Herons, a team of Rutgers alum from the Ecology & Evolution graduate program, have decided to set their sights on the Cape Island Cup.  They will bird only south of the Cape May Canal…the twist?  They’ve decided to use no motorized vehicles during the event.  That means it’s bicycles and foot travel only.  Check out their blog and consider making a donation to support graduate research:


May Day at the Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary

26 04 2011

Celebrate Mom AND Mother Earth at NJ Audubon’s May Day Festival May 7th!

This free, fun-filled family festival will include activities for all ages: presentations by expert naturalists, children’s treasure hunt, crafts, face painting, animals-animals-animals, live music, healthy food, amazing fundraising silent auction and more! Admission is FREE!

BERNARDSVILLE, April 11, 2011 — Treat Mom to a Day with Mother Earth on Saturday May 7!  Surprise her with a “Mother Nature’s Silent Auction” gift – place your bids for tickets to McCarter, NJ Shakespeare, or Mayo Theatre – or an overnight stay for 2 at Dolce Hotel… maybe she’d prefer a basket from C’est Cheese or Enjou Chocolat – just to mention a few of the many, many wonderful gifts available for you to win… while supporting the Sanctuary at the same time!

Find amazing creatures along a Nature Treasure Hunt, peruse gorgeous wildlife photography in the Wayrick Wildlife Gallery and meet the artist herself!  And don’t forget to visit the Young Audubon Children’s Art Show featuring the works of talented 4th Graders from area schools!  Young Audubon work will be on display just outside the Sanctuary Nature Store until June 1st.

And speaking of the Nature Store, every May Day guest – not just Moms – will receive a Special May Day/Mother’s Day 20% off Discount to apply to virtually everything (except optics) in the beautiful new store!

Relax and enjoy live outdoor performances by Eco-Man and the talented musicians of the NJ Folk Project while the kids get their faces painted and are busy with nature crafts at The Children’s Tent  – or sit in on talks by very special guest speakers, including every Jersey birder’s favorite and renowned author, Pete Dunne; Giselle Smisko will talk about Chimney Swifts, why they are on the decline, and how they can be helped. History buffs will be treated to a fascinating and entertaining Hike through History with Gordon T. Ward – enjoy nature while learning about the critical role the Sanctuary grounds played in the American Revolution.  And for Moms who aren’t easily grossed-out, Rizzo’s Reptiles will be on hand with a wild posse of snakes, reptiles and amphibians – and even a baby alligator!

For much more information, including an event schedule, directions to off-site parking and bike routes to the celebration, visit New Jersey Audubon’s website www.njaudubon.org/go/MayDay for more details.  Bring your family and friends to this festive annual event where you’ll discover a place where experiencing nature is pure fun.

Questions?  Please call Mike Anderson, Director of Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, Laurie Sindlinger, Naturalist  (908) 766-5787 or Kathleen Mistretta, NJA May Day Coordinator (908) 204-8998 x10.

Beach Sweeps

7 04 2011

On April 30th, thousands of volunteers throughout the state of New Jersey will gather on its shores to help rid beaches and waterways of debris.  Why not join them?

The Beach Sweeps cleanup, launched by Clean Ocean Action in 1985, has seen more than 70,000 volunteers remove over 3 million pieces of debris from the Garden State in the last two and a half decades.  It is a wonderful opportunity for residents of New Jersey to help clean up their state by removing debris that is not only unsightly, but dangerous to wildlife, our environment, and our economy.

Head over to the COA’s Beach Sweeps website (by clicking here) to learn more about the cleanup, tips on what to bring, and how to pre-register larger (10+) groups.

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.

Quinzee fun!

9 02 2011

After the last big snow storm we were hit with, I decided to go out and play in the snow with my little sister, Alyssa. I suggested we build a snow fort (as we did last year) and that we recruit our brother, Casey, to help out. Casey brought up the idea of building a quinzee instead of a fort, and we ventured out into the front yard to get started.

To build a quinzee, you basically gather a giant mound of snow in roughly the shape of a dome or igloo. After the mound is of satisfactory size (you want to leave thick walls at least a foot thick as well as have plenty of room inside), pack the snow down as best you can. Then begin digging!

The entrance to our quinzee, lit from the inside

Slowly begin digging a hole to create an entrance to the quinzee. Dig down as well as in, until you almost reach the ground. You want to utilize the height of your snow mound and by digging straight in you would be wasting all the snow underneath you and the structure!

Alyssa, kickin' back and relaxin'

After an entrance has been dug out and you are at least a foot or two inside the snow mound, you can begin digging in other directions. We continued digging straight in for a bit until we could lie down inside the mound, and then proceeded to dig out the sides and ceiling a bit more.

When the inside space is sufficient (hopefully this means you can sit up comfortably) and there are still at least a foot of walls on all sides, the quinzee is almost complete! Smooth out the interior walls, add some finishing touches, and enjoy! If you’re going to be utilizing the quinzee for more than a day, it’s probably a good idea to reinforce the structure. You can do this by burning a candle inside the quinzee – this will begin to melt the snow, but the water will freeze and the ice will add support to the interior walls. Similarly, add water to the outside of the quinzee overnight.

If you are going to be sleeping in the quinzee and conditions are particularly cold/windy, you can build a small wall in front of the door to prevent the elements from getting inside. You can also carefully drill a ventilation hole in the top of the quinzee – be careful! You don’t want to compromise the integrity of the structure.

Shoveling the initial mound and removing all that snow from the inside of the quinzee is tough work, but with a friend or two helping out it goes by quickly, and hanging out inside is really fun! The interior heats up a bit and can end up being rather comfortable relative to the outside conditions. We made great use out of our quinzee, telling ghost stories, taking pictures, and even talking on the phone (ok, not really)!

Alyssa on a conference call inside the quinzee

Building this quinzee almost makes me wish for another big snow storm so we can make another! Almost.