Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Waiting out a rarity: the Neotropic cormorant in Clinton

It's been a while since Ivan and I have gone for a good "chase" bird, making a trip to see a species that rarely, if ever, shows up in New Jersey. Probably the most recent one was the Snowy owl that showed up on Sandy Hook last November, starting a season of almost commonplace sightings of the usually-rare visitor. And, of course, the awful weather this winter was enough to discourage the most ardent birder from striking out to find unique species.

Spring, however, has brought more reliable weather and an end to hibernation. In fact, we were enjoying an unusually warm series of days that seemed to enliven both nature and our fellow New Jerseyans. It was in that spirit that we heard about a Neotropic cormorant that was visiting Clinton.

To put it succinctly, this guy is way out of his usual range. Neotropics are usually found closer to the Gulf of Mexico, in Texas or perhaps south of the border. Instead, for reasons unknown, this fella made a right turn somewhere and made it to a scenic town on the South Branch of the Raritan River. Perhaps he wanted to get a look at Clinton's picturesque and historic red mill, which shows up on many of the state tourist brochures. Regardless of his intent, he appears to represent the first recorded sighting of his species in the Garden State.

The discovery of "Neo," as some have been calling him, highlights the wisdom of birding your local patch. Though the reservoir in Spruce Run Recreation Area is within easy flying range, the bird had chosen a nightly roost at a pond in Demott Park, just off Route 78 near a Holiday Inn on the edge of town. A few days after the initial sighting, other birders reported seeing Neo downtown, sightseeing near the mill. A favorite spot for human fishing enthusiasts, that part of the river must be a good place for the corm to grab a meal, too.

The Neotropic cormorant at Clinton (many thanks
 to Lisa Fanning, This Great Planet, for use of the
When we first got to town Sunday morning, both sites were discouragingly free of birders. The river at the mill site was overrun with waders-clad men, not exactly an ideal situation for a cormorant. With directions from some friendly firefighters, we made our way to Demott Park, but Neo wasn't there, either. We saw lots of geese and the usual Mallards, but not the bird we were looking for. Once or twice, a Double-crested cormorant flew high overhead, momentarily getting our hopes up. After about an hour, we cut our losses and headed to Spruce Run, figuring we'd return to Clinton if time allowed. Perhaps we could come back to catch a glimpse of Neo as he settled in for the night.

Returning around 4 p.m., we were among the first birders to arrive for what has become a nightly vigil at the pond. Others streamed in as the sun started sinking in the sky, many having made lengthy detours from excursions to birding hotspots around the state. We stayed alert to the possibility that Neo would make a fly-by or perhaps perch in the tree in the center of the pond, but mostly we traded notes on the other species we'd seen during the day and the latest developments at our favorite birding spots.

We noticed something else as we waited, too: this local patch yields a nice variety of waterfowl, with Gadwall, Green-winged teal and Bufflehead joining the usual Mallards and Canada geese. I later discovered the site is on one of the New Jersey Birding and Wildlife Trails and attracts even more ducks during the winter, as long as the pond doesn't freeze. As if to prove why a cormorant would find the park so attractive, a few fish sallied from the water.

As the glare of the setting sun faded to a glow behind the hills, tension began to build. Would Neo come to roost for the night before it became too dark to see him clearly? We'd all been very patient, but the zero hour was quickly approaching. Was it possible that he'd moved on to another location, leaving birders to hope he'd be re-spotted wherever he'd chosen for his new grounds?

And then... the cormorant came flying in, directly over our heads and gliding in a broad curve to approach his roosting tree in the center of the pond. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was making a grand entrance for our benefit. After taking a quick look to confirm the identification, birders picked themselves and their spotting scopes up and moved 90 degrees around the water's edge to get a better-lit view. I lagged behind, taking a longer look to seal the image in my mind before I changed positions.

To me, the size and shape of the bird proved this wasn't a Double-crested or Great cormorant, the two species that normally spend time in New Jersey. The Clinton visitor's tail was too long, his body too slim to be either of those in my eyes. And his feathers have a lovely chocolate tint, indicating youth. You might remember a previous post on cormorants, in which I compared one of their typical poses to that of Bela Lugosi. Well, if Lugosi's Dracula had had a grandchild, the Neotropical cormorant would be it.

Just as I was getting my view reset on him, the bird took flight, giving us all the chance to view his wingspan and another perspective of his comparatively dainty structure. Setting down again, the bird took to preening and occasionally extended his wings in the Dracula pose. The only thing we didn't get to see was his fishing maneuver, but he was probably full from wherever he'd spent the day, swimming and eating.

The origin of the Neo and his reasons for coming to New Jersey are already being debated by those who study birds for a living. Regardless of how he got here, I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see him here in the Garden State.


  1. I'm not a birder but I live very near the pond and wondered what the commotion (people with telescopes and lenses) was all about. Then, a day or two ago I spotted Neo and new he was special. He seems to be wandering between DeMott and the two (hidden) ponds that are behind DeMott. Lets hope he stays around.

    1. It must be a bit of a shock to see all of those spotting scopes so close to where you live! Glad you got to see Neo and are continuing to enjoy him.


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