Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A white pelican in the Meadowlands? You bet!

You might recall that a few weeks ago, we were a bit surprised to see a brown pelican flying past us at Barnegat Light. They're not an extraordinarily rare sight in New Jersey, but they're not common, either, especially in January.

I thought that was pretty cool, until I heard there was a white pelican sighted in the marshes of Kearny. I'd been fortunate to see one in the Everglades last spring, and while they're occasional visitors to New Jersey, I'd missed the ones reported at Brig in the past. If there was a chance to see one, in January, no less, I was going to give it a shot.

Regular readers know that Ivan has introduced me to several interesting spots and showed me a new side of other places I thought I already knew well. That said, contributors to the online birding bulletin boards sometimes give cryptic descriptions for where they've seen interesting birds. If I'm seeking them with Ivan, no problem. If I decide to explore on my own, well, it can be an adventure.

The Kearny pelican situation was one of those times. I had the day off, Ivan didn't, so I decided to check it out on my own. The bulletin board post said the bird was observable from the abandoned railroad tracks at the edge of the marsh. Great. What tracks, and where on the tracks? Another post said the bird was seen flying over Gunnar Oval, off Schuyler Avenue. Okay, that I can work with. I headed over to check it out.

When I got to the Oval, I saw something I can only describe as a cross between Field of Dreams and The Sopranos. The parking area was fronted by a wall of phragmites marsh grass, with a barely-discernible path into the mass of tall, light tan growth. It looked as if one of two things could happen any moment: Ray Liotta could come walking out wearing a vintage White Sox uniform, or Michael Imperioli would stomp out as Christopher Moltisanti, complaining he lost a Gucci loafer in the muck.

Seriously, though: what could happen? I peered into the reeds and found nothing but more reeds, and a small inlet off to the distance. Walking in, I felt the way the birds must feel when they nestle themselves away from humans. Some trash was mixed among the muck, but mostly the path was either mud or fallen phrags. An abandoned railroad track offered up a mostly unimpeded path, but I had to stop and turn back when the ties were overcome with swamp water. Any alternate route there might have been was blocked by fallen trees. Sadly, the rest of the marsh was obscured by walls of phragmites. Obviously I was in the wrong place.

I drove up and down Belleville Turnpike to see if there was an alternative, but while you can see the marsh really clearly, the bird was nowhere to be seen. Taking the Turnpike back home, I drove above another set of tracks that just might have been the right ones, if they were at all accessible. There had to be a secret that experienced birders know that I don't.

Turned out I was really close. Another set of tracks, this one elevated and perpendicular to my set, was just a hundred or so feet away from where I'd started out, at the end of the next street. Ivan and I drove over and instantly knew we were in the right place: two cars with personalized Conserve Wildlife plates were parked in the cul-de-sac. Oh, and there was a very steep dirt trail up to an elevated railroad track.

Track across the Kearny Marsh.
I'm not a big fan of climbing dirt trails, and this one was especially challenging, with very few embedded rocks or tree roots to provide a foothold. As I scrambled up, I considered all the times we'd chased a notable bird, only to find nothing when we got to its reported spot. The pelican, at least, was large enough to see even if it was a distance away. Still, it had better be there, I thought to myself.

Once we were topside, we saw other birders gathered several hundred feet down the tracks, one looking through a spotting scope. This could be a good sign. Walking down the train ties, another movie came to mind: Stand By Me. It took all I had not to start singing "Lollipop, lollipop mmm lolli-lollipop..." The tracks were a straight shot across the marsh, and definitely a good place to check for aquatic birds.

And... our climb paid off. My big fear was that the pelican would be obscured by phragmites or so distant that it would look like a big white blob at the far edge of the marsh, but it couldn't have been more cooperative. Perched on a small clump of something in the water, it was easily seen through a pair of binoculars, though a spotting scope gave a nice detailed look. It shifted around a bit to give us a good view and then rose up to fly above its surroundings, giving us a nice look at the black patches on the trailing edges of its wings. As large as they are, pelicans are very graceful flyers, soaring almost effortlessly, and I kept my bins trained on our bird to marvel at its glide through the cold air. What an amazing sight, with the skyscrapers of Newark on the distant horizon behind it.

Once we got back to Hidden New Jersey base, I did some quick research to determine just how rare it is to see a white pelican in these parts in the early months of the year. New Jersey Audubon's sightings archive shows very few in the northern part of the state, and those were seen in spring and summer months. It could be that the pelicans have been regular visitors to Kearny and haven't been spotted, or this individual is an explorer checking out new territory. In any case, he's been hanging around for several days, which says a lot about the overall health of the marsh. White pelicans eat about four pounds of freshwater fish a day, and this guy appeared pretty well fed.

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