Sunday, July 15, 2012

Everything but a partridge in a pear tree: a banner day at Brig

You know it's going to be a good birding day when you spot two bald eagles on a transmission pole on the side of the Garden State Parkway at 7 a.m.

July is not the best month to go birding. As I mentioned when describing our Glassboro jaunt, it's both humid and fraught with the perils of greenhead flies, neither of which rank among my top ten reasons to spend time in the great outdoors. Still, though, it seemed as if Forsythe NWR, a.k.a. Brig, was our destination for the day. It was easily the most significant birding hotspot listed on the state rare bird alert issued just before the weekend.

Ivan and I left Hidden NJ headquarters at o'dark thirty and were at the Galloway Wawa by 7:15, having seen the aforementioned eagles just north of exit 48. The target bird for the day was the white-faced ibis, which had been reported to be at Brig a few days before, plus whatever interesting shorebirds made their appearance.

It didn't take long for us to find something interesting. Several glossy ibis were around, allowing me to say, "Ibis in the morning" like an adenoidal morning radio host. Then, however, Ivan spotted a common moorhen nearby, an unexpected bonus and a life bird for me. As I watched, it neared the birds we'd already called. "Nice!" I observed, "it's in the same field of vision with the ibis!"

"Ibis and the moorhen," Ivan observed, to the tune of the same morning radio show. Obviously it was going to be a bad pun day.

The route around the impoundment marshes gave us a nice selection of shorebirds, plus a bonus snow goose that must have missed the memo to head northward for the summer with the rest of his flock. He seemed to be trying to ingratiate himself with the larger Canada geese who apparently wanted little to do with him.

The birds on the water scattered en masse at a point, a sure sign of a predator overhead. We watched as a bald eagle, our third for the day, circled overhead and then landed in the shallow water to fish. With his ample dark leg feathers showing clearly through the viewing scope, he looked like an old man in waders, poking around.

Further marsh views brought us yellowlegs, assorted terns and a bonus blue grosbeak, but the real treat awaited us a little farther inland. The one-way driving route brings visitors past the interestingly-named Experimental Pool, a term that always puts me in the mind of three-eyed fish but describes, in fact, a very nice little marshy pool. We never seem to see anything there -- even typical stuff -- but we always make the stop, just in case.

Viewed from the observation deck, the near side of the pool was loaded with aquatic greenery, mostly blooming lilypads. One particular clump appeared to have some brown leaves stuck in the middle, but Ivan noticed some movement. Is that a....

"Black-bellied whistling duck!" he exclaimed. I trained my binoculars on it as he ran back to grab his scope for a closer look, and suddenly the brown leaf next to the duck gained a neck and a head just like the other. It wasn't a single rare sighting, but two -- a pair of black-bellied whistling ducks! These folks have ventured far away from their usual breeding homes in Texas. A pair had been sighted near the Cape May lighthouse in 2011, but we were apparently the first birders to see the species in New Jersey this year.

Quickly returning and setting up the scope, Ivan got a closer focus on the birds and confirmed it. The chestnut colored back, whitish wing stripe, black underside and red bill unquestionably qualified them as black-bellied whistling ducks. We definitely needed to let the birding community know, but photographic evidence would make the sighting that much more certain for others. Just our luck, I hadn't brought my good camera; all we had available to us was my smartphone. Perhaps if we aimed it through the scope, we'd get something good.

Well... what can I say? Given that it's a new phone, I'm still learning to use it, and the lens placement made it a bit challenging to aim through the scope's viewfinder. Added to that, the ducks were playing hide-and-seek with us by swimming behind the marsh grass. What we ended up with was a shot that could be compared unfavorably with some of the worst Loch Ness Monster shots to be published in the Weekly World News. (There's a much better representation of the species here.) Judge for yourself:
See those brownish shapes toward the middle of the photo?
Those are the black-bellied whistling ducks.
Fortunately we found the nearby Atlantic County library via GPS so Ivan could use their computer to report the sighting online quickly. Other birders then heard about our find in sufficient time to visit the Experimental Pool and make the sighting for themselves before the birds left the location. (In fact, an intrepid Hidden New Jersey reader reported seeing them just a few hours after we did.) Since then, the ducks have been sighted elsewhere in the refuge, and better photos than mine have been taken for documentation purposes. Needless to say, I'll be bringing my camera the next time we go to Brig!


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