Monday, January 13, 2014

Surfer dudes at LBI: finding scoters at Barnegat Light

Birders often find themselves taking a counter-intuitive approach to normal human instinct, at least in terms of where to hang out. Take, for instance, the shore. Most people would head to Long Beach Island in the summertime, when the warm sun and inviting waves beckon visitors from far and wide for relief from seasonal humidity.

No longboard needed: the surf scoter
Conversely, virtually the only people you'll find on LBI's shores in the dead of winter are fishing enthusiasts and birders looking to spot and identify waterfowl.

We humans may think it's too cold to be in the water, but for the ducks, loons and various shorebirds who spend their breeding seasons in the upper reaches of Canada, New Jersey may just as well be Florida.

Some really colorful and fun waterfowl especially like the area just off the jetty at Barnegat Light, on the northern end of LBI. So much so, that it's a reliable spot to get one's annual look at a couple of species, most notably harlequin ducks. Ivan's been making a regular wintertime trip there; I've tagged along for the past few years, including this past Sunday.

While they're pretty much guaranteed to be there in January, getting to the ducks takes some doing. If you've been to Barnegat Light State Park, you'll remember the concrete walkway that extends southeast of the lighthouse. To see the more interesting waterfowl, you'll need to walk to the end of that path, climb under the railing and continue along the bare rip-rap jetty. Navigating those boulders is somewhat like the old video game Frogger, but often with stiff gusts of wind wreaking havoc with your balance as you listen to the sea water rushing through the cracks as waves pound the rock.

Part of the thrill is that there's always potential for a bonus beyond the harlequins. Last year, we'd been treated to a good view of a seal, as well as a surprising fly-by from a brown pelican. The not-knowing is a powerful motivator to keep stepping one's way farther down the jetty, carefully avoiding the crevices between the rocks.

The harlequins didn't take long to find, their distinctive colors showing beautifully as they swam alongside the riprap. Then there was another duck I didn't quite recognize. Maybe I'd seen one before, but his large bill looked like some kind of funky road construction camouflage, with a splash of bright orange along with white and black markings. His body was mostly black, though it had white spots on its face and neck and orange legs to match its bill.

"Surf scoter," Ivan observed, noting that we'd seen them through the viewing scope on another birding foray. Ah, that's it: while I'd gotten a distant look before, this one was so close I could study and enjoy every bit of that unique looking, colorful face. I soon noticed another similar bird, all black with an orange bill -- the black scoter. While Ivan made his way farther down the jetty to find purple sandpipers, I carefully sat down atop the rip rap to visit with my new avian friends a bit more, relishing an opportunity that probably won't come again very quickly.

And while we didn't get the pelican or razorbills we'd been delighted to see last year, another rare winter visitor was around. At least one snowy owl has been reported at Barnegat Light on and off since November, so when another birder reminded us it was there, we couldn't help but take a look. It was seen easily enough from the top of the jetty, though a couple hundred feet away. Sitting calmly in the dunes, among the browned beach grass, the owl looked like a mound of snow that had yet to melt in the relative warmth of the day. He was the third we'd seen that day, after spotting two at Forsythe NWR, and the seventh of the season.

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