Monday, January 16, 2012

An abundance of life, all in the cold

We've been really fortunate this January. Relatively mild temperatures and the lack of measurable snow has made it much easier to explore and go birding in some of the more traditionally productive January target spots. Yeah, we've had to put on a few layers, but the air has been pleasantly brisk, rather than punishingly cold.

This past weekend was the exception. Below-freezing temperatures combined with biting gusts to create some pretty harsh wind chills, despite the bright blue sky. I guess the upside is that all of the precipitation we've had to date has come when the temperatures are warmer. I can deal with the cold as long as I'm dry.

It was in that environment that we headed to the shore for a birding trek to the Brigantine Division of Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. As longtime readers might recall, we made a few trips last year to Brig, as seasoned birders call it, for ducks and found a bonus bittern and my first bald eagle for good measure. Not bad, overall. Ivan figured we'd pick up snow geese and a few other first-of-the-year species on this jaunt.

On arrival, we found that the refuge was participating in the Federal public lands Fee Free Weekend, where National Parks and Wildlife Refuges waive their normal entry fees to encourage Americans to explore the historic and natural wonders we all own. A sizeable group of people was already in the parking lot, so we headed in the opposite direction, onto the Leeds Eco Trail. Just before we walked into the woods, I noticed what I thought was a snowy egret, standing quietly in the water near a boardwalk. Figuring it wasn't anything huge, I said nothing to Ivan. We're fortunate to see so many egrets that they've become unremarkable.

How wrong I was. After we'd made a fairly unproductive swing through the woods, Ivan spotted that same bird and identified it as a juvenile little blue heron. There went my usual rule of thumb that among the local egrets, the herons are the non-white ones. By now I'm used to this: the young often don't look a heck of a lot like their elders. I guess you could say this adolescent hadn't lost his baby feathers yet. His bill was the real giveaway, though: rather than being yellow like the great egret's, or dark like the snowy's, it was kind of grayish. That was a good lesson for me.

Our next surprise came out in the distance. Ivan noticed some activity on an osprey nesting platform and a nearby perch. We've been seeing so many unusual-for-January birds that it almost seemed plausible that the ol' fish hawks could be setting up shop a full two months before they generally return. Could it be that like so many summer bennies and shoobies, they were setting up their summer shore rental while the best locations were still available?

Or were they not osprey to begin with? Perhaps they were peregrine falcons? My optics and identification skills aren't nearly as good as Ivan's, and I wasn't going to make any pronouncements after my egret/heron miss, but I had a gut feeling. Fortunately another friendly birder was parked nearby and got his scope for a closer examination. Were the characteristic sideburns there? We took turns at viewing the best closeup we were going to get and agreed: these were most likely peregrines. A flight would give us more information to make the call, but all we'd seen so far is a short hop from the perch to the platform. Maybe one of them would entertain us, but the pair seemed more focused on eating the brunch they'd already brought in. Plenty of other raptors were more accommodating, with a few harriers patrolling the marsh in the distance.

Then we saw the granddaddy of all raptors, or, more accurately for this one, the bully kid. An immature bald eagle made its way toward our area, its plank-like wings unmistakable. Our platform diners noticed, too, and one took to the skies to chase the eagle away. For about three minutes, the two put on quite a show for us, the peregrine swooping toward the eagle to hurry the larger bird out of the area.

We all couldn't help but marvel at the sight. Forty years ago it would have been a miracle to see those two engaging with each other, and here it was, playing out in front of us, as natural as could be. It's times like that when I'm grateful for our National Wildlife Refuges and their diversity of life. When you see so many youngsters, you realize how welcoming and healthy the place is, and the presence of so many raptors indicates the robustness of that health throughout the local ecosystem. Everyone goes where the food is, and Forsythe is clearly a pretty good supermarket. That's clear even if you can't identify the birds.

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