Sunday, July 8, 2012

Glassboro Woods: a buzzy summer birding experience

This is a somewhat tough time of year for birders. The birds have gone quiet, for the most part, after putting on their best plumage and singing their hearts out to find the loves of their lives (or at least the season). Many are getting their young to fledge so they can start their second brood, so while you might see some nice young 'uns, Moms and Dads are primarily too busy to make themselves known to humans.

Glassboro Woods WMAAdd to that our recent bouts of 90+ degree heat, and you can see the dilemma. For Ivan it's become less a matter of finding numbers of birds than it is the hunt to spot particular species. A couple of recent out-of-state trips scored a lot of sightings he wouldn't normally have gotten so early in the year, leaving a few stragglers yet to be found. Those birds tend to hang out in places best avoided in the heat of summer.

I knew we were tempting fate when I agreed to his suggestion that we head to Gloucester County and Glassboro Wildlife Management Area. The Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey suggests it's a premier place to spot the Kentucky, hooded and pine warblers that remained on Ivan's 'wanted' list for 2012, so off we went. Never mind the fact that my internal radar always steers me away from tromping around the Pinelands in mid-summer, lest I be consumed by mosquitoes and green headed flies. Other than one really poorly advised trip to Bivalve a few years ago, I tend to avoid most moist natural spots south of Trenton and west of the Parkway during July and August. They're just too buggy. Glassboro Woods is pretty much the textbook example of deciduous wetland.

We left home base early enough to get us to Glassboro by about 7:30 a.m. The WMA entrance isn't marked by signs; rather you have to find the proper sandy dirt road and drive down a piece, until you reach a pipe gate blocking further transit. Once we got there, we parked in a small clearing to the side of the road, doused ourselves in bug repellent and aimed a few prayers upward for mercy.

The greenheads started circling almost immediately after we left the car, but the sight ahead of us on the broad path immediately distracted me from the pests. Early-morning sunlight streamed through the forest canopy, looking very much like an inspirational poster. We weren't hearing too much bird activity, but perhaps it was farther in.

We continued walking along the wide path, happy not to have to worry about brushing against possibly tick-infested underbrush. The previous night's rainstorm had left the road damp and pocked with puddles in places, but for the most part it was very amenable. When we reached an intersection with another path, we made the turn.

Glassboro Woods WMAAgain, it wasn't all that noisy, but we ran into a white-eyed vireo and eventually a towhee, both singing for attention. A power line cut didn't offer much in the way of spotting -- if memory serves, it was downright quiet.

Perhaps we weren't seeing many birds, but the puddles seemed to be making up for it with frogs. A few surprised us by popping up just before we stepped over some water-filled potholes. Even more amusing, very young ones, barely bigger than my thumbnail, quickly made their way across the path with some impressively long hops. I almost wanted to pick one or two up, they were so cute, but I resisted, letting them continue on their way undisturbed.

After a couple of hours of largely unsuccessful bird wandering, we turned back toward the car. When we got to our original turnoff spot, though, Ivan suggested we check out the area we would have seen earlier, had we not made the detour. Can't hurt, right?

A quarter-mile walk brought us to a relatively open area of mostly underbrush with some trees toward the back, but we heard it before we actually saw it. This is where the birds were hanging out, with several obvious youngsters sharpening their flying skills under their parents' watchful eyes. A beautiful pair of cedar waxwings perched in a dead tree in the distance, and we finally saw the sought-after pine warbler. That one went on my life list and Ivan's 2012 tally, making the buzzing, pesky greenheads tolerable.

Sometimes that extra effort means all the difference. When we're having a less than productive birding day, we'll dedicate another five minutes in an area we haven't explored, even after we've decided nothing will come of it. Those always seem to be the times we see something really spectacular, or something we hadn't expected. Nature is like that, I guess: always offering up something when you don't expect it.

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