Sunday, August 26, 2012

Unfazed by Shark Week? Give Heron Week a try.

Discovery Channel has Shark Week.

Hidden New Jersey had Heron Week.

Okay, it doesn't have the same menacing bite or blood-curdling suspense, and we didn't need to protect ourselves with a cage, but our bird week had the element of surprise and even a fun new dance step.

tricolor heron dekorte park new jersey
This tricolor heron has been hanging around
the Meadowlands for a couple of weeks. 
Followers of our Facebook page already know about our first three episodes. I'm going to cheat a little and start on August 15, when I got a view of the tricolor heron that's been hanging around DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. Reasonably rare for New Jersey, he was hanging out among some terns, perched in the open on a railing along the Marsh Discovery Trail. (Many thanks to the Meadowlands Commission's Jim Wright for setting me on course!)

Last Wednesday, I had a three-heron day at Echo Lake Park in Mountainside. The lower lake segment yielded a not-unexpected great blue heron along with a curfew-busting black-crowned night heron. The nice surprise for me there was the presence of not one, but two green herons. While they're not tremendously rare, they're not exactly an everyday occurrence, and I was glad to have found and identified them on my own.

Green Heron Lenape Park New Jersey
Green herons really seem to like
Union County parks in August.
The next day I returned to Echo Lake with my camera, hoping to get a shot of the green heron, but he'd already moved on. Just as well, as I located one (maybe even the same guy) at adjacent Lenape Park in Cranford. A subsequent trip to Surprise Lake in Watchung Reservation yielded yet another greenie, not far from another great blue.

Later that afternoon, a check of the American Bird Association bulletin boards revealed big news: a reddish egret was spotted at one of our regular birding destinations, Forsythe NWR (a.k.a. Brig). This was significant. I'd never seen one, and the range map in the Sibley guide showed it as a rare visitor to the Eastern Seaboard. Just as important, the guide described the bird as "very active, chasing fish on foot, running, jumping and spinning." This I had to see: the Bird Minister of Silly Walks. Check out this video for a sample, and tell me you wouldn't want to check it out, too. There's something very appealing about watching a bird that looks like a drunken frat boy hunting for his lost keys.

Ivan and I decided that waiting for the weekend was not an option. If reports in the morning said that the bird was still at the refuge, we were making the trip to see it. All egrets, of course, are herons, so a chase for the reddish egret would fit perfectly into our theme week.

Friday morning dawned, bringing with it news of the bird still in its reported area at Brig. After getting some non-birding activities out of the way, we hopped on the Parkway, hoping the shore traffic hadn't started yet. We ran into some frustrating construction delays but told each other that if fate deemed the bird would leave before we got to him, we'd accept it.

Once we got to the refuge, we blew off the usual first stops and went directly to the eight-mile loop road through the marsh. Thursday's reports had the bird at the dogleg turn about three-quarters down the road, but a crowd of cars and birders were clustered about a mile or two into the drive. If this wasn't the egret, it was definitely something worth seeing.

Ivan pulled up to a couple of the gathered birders and rolled down the window to ask if it was the reddish egret. Yup.

"I thought it was at the dogleg."

The other birder shrugged. "It has wings."

Our quarry was roosted in a distant cedar tree, along with a couple of snowy egrets. Apparently he'd already eaten, because he seemed more interested in preening than in jumping down and doing the runaround dance. Or perhaps we'd just timed it badly and had to wait for the next show. In any case, his staying put allowed us to get a good view through the scope, enough of a study to feel that we could add the reddish egret to our New Jersey birding lists. And besides, though the bird didn't seem to want lunch, we humans were famished. We'd head over to JD's for a burger and return to see what else Brig had to offer us that day.

Our hunger eliminated, we returned to the refuge, this time making our usual stops before embarking on the loop road. A stop near the gull pond produced a view of easily a dozen great egrets perched in a tree, along with assorted others wading about. In the time since we'd left, however, the tide had rolled in, displacing many of the shorebirds that had been walking around the mudflats on our earlier visit. Maybe this wouldn't be such a productive visit, after all.

A new set of birders were perched and focused at the same spot in the road as we'd been with the earlier crowd, and for good reason. Perhaps encouraged by a higher water level, the reddish egret had come down from his perch to forage for fish. We stopped again, pulled out the viewing scope and were rewarded with the sight of him pacing around the shallows. Apparently a juvenile, he didn't seem to have the silly walk down pat, but he was entertaining to watch, nonetheless. Seeing that performance, I was satisfied to have gotten a good view of a creature I might never be in the presence of again, at least not in the Garden State.

That would have been a great ending to Heron Week, but our luck continued the following day when we visited Salem County. Driving through the countryside enroute to Hancock's Bridge, we passed the inevitable cattle and... the accompanying cattle egrets. Ten of them were patrolling the pasture, some close to the cattle and others a little on their own. Not as improbable to New Jersey as the reddish egret, it was still a nice find for us.

Heron Week aside, we've been very fortunate to see some rare and wonderful avian visitors to New Jersey over the past year. Whether it's due to global warming or just an odd coincidence for them to find their way here, I'm grateful that places exist for them to rest, find food and seek refuge. Who knows what's in store for next year's Heron Week?

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