Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Down the Shore

Thou little bird, thou dweller by the sea, Why takest thou its melancholy voice, And with that boding cry Along the waves dost thou fly? Oh! rather, bird, with me Through this fair land rejoice!
-- Richard Henry Dana

As I write, in June, the backyard is very quiet these warm, humid mornings. The house wren box next door I can see from my chair is active, with both parents shuttling back and forth to feed their young. In my longish grass that MH won't shave to the nub as our neighbors' lawn services do, there are chipping sparrows and their begging young. At the box in my apple tree, the house wren sings softly and then enters the box with food. This nest is a week or so behind the other one, so the young are still small enough for the parent to enter. Soon, the chicks will be much bigger and noisier when the parent arrives to feed them.

Skimmer (left) and laughing gull (RE Berg-Andersson)
The singing birds I heard just a month ago are either nesting and keeping quiet to protect young, or they have moved on from my area to their breeding territories farther north. If you want to find any birds during the summer, you have to get out early when the birds are most active. It will also help you to avoid the heat.

It is at this time of year I look at the various bird lists and see more reports coming from what we in New Jersey call "down the shore." This can mean the beaches from Sandy Hook to Island Beach State Park to Long Beach Island down to Cape May, or it can mean the Delaware Bay side of New Jersey, or it can mean river inlets in between. Where there's water, there are likely a lot of birds in summer.

It is times like this I miss Plumb Beach, a short walk from where I grew up. At that time it was a dump but now it and the rest of the Brooklyn shoreline is prime birding habitat and lots cooler than where I live now.

Unlike Plumb Beach or the rest of the southern Brooklyn, southern Queens and eastern Staten Island shoreline (which make up most of the Gateway National Recreational Area), in New Jersey it costs money to go to the shore and look for birds along the beaches. You need to pay for parking and/or a beach pass. The shore gets pretty crowded in summer, as you'd expect. Even at Sandy Hook, which is also part of Gateway, you have to get there very early to tell the guard you are a birder so you do not get charged for beach parking. But I don't go to Sandy Hook in summer. I can't get down there that early and I don't want the crowd and the traffic.

Redwing blackbird, Bombay Hook (RE Berg-Andersson)
When I go birding in beach areas it is to places where you only go to go birding. In New Jersey, that place is the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, not far from Atlantic City, where you pay your fee and can drive along the dikes, stopping if you see a bird or other creature that interests you. (There are also trails in some areas if you prefer hiking and land birds.)

In the hottest days of summer you can find yourself in slow traffic, just like the highway you took to get down here, and you have to be careful not to ram another car as you scan the impoundments. Besides other cars stopping suddenly, you have to deal with other hazards such as green bottle flies that will hit your eyes and enter your mouth or your car if either is open too far or for too long, more common house flies, ticks and mosquitoes.

But there are the birds, sometimes thousands of shorebirds.

Great egret, Bombay Hook (RE Berg-Andersson)
I am not the best person to ask about shorebirds. I can identify the ones I know best including various herons, egrets, the sanderlings that run down to the water line as the ocean waves pull back only to rush away when the waves come in, more distinctive shorebirds including skimmers, ruddy turnstones and willets. But don't ask me if I am seeing a western sandpiper, a semipalmated sandpiper or a least sandpiper in that large flock flying quickly away. I will have to check my guidebook really, really hard, and even then I won't be completely sure.

There are other birds, however. In Delaware there is a similar place to Brigantine where you can drive on the dikes and slowly scan the impoundments for waterfowl, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. MH and I have been here in November when there have been thousands of snow geese but it is rare we come down in summer. As it happens, we were there in early June. The thousands of shorebirds reported Memorial Day weekend were gone except for three distinctive shorebirds called avocets.

However, we had many bald eagles, osprey, indigo buntings, herons, egrets and two birds I rarely if ever see. One is the clapper rail, the other the marsh wren.

The clapper lives its life in secret, within the thick vegetation of salt marshes. I have only heard one once, in one of the murky areas of one of my favorite New Jersey birding sites, the Great Swamp, where clappers and other chicken-like marsh birds such as the sora and the Virginia rail have been known to show up in summer, when the vegetation fills the watery areas. In Delaware, however, it was on the sand in front of the vegetation. I was so startled to see it I thought at first it was the sora, which does not hide itself much. Reason soon returned - soras are darker and smaller - and I realized what it was.

Clapper rail, Bombay Hook (RE Berg-Andersson)
The marsh wren, meanwhile, I would expect in an area with reeds and other vegetation. In fact, if you hear or see one marsh wren it is likely you are going to hear many more because they continually call to remind each other that this is THEIR territory. If you are lucky, one of these feisty little guys, whose song is thinner and faster than its cousin the house wren, will pop up, clutch a reed in each foot and sing for a long time. Listen carefully and you'll hear more wrens singing as you drive along the road.

Back to Brigantine: For the hardcore New Jersey birder, this is where you go, no matter how far away you live. But when I wake in the mornings nowadays, sitting on my porch before it gets too hot and humid and listening to what few birds are around is enough, even if in my mind I'm scanning the beach shore with my binoculars from the comfort of my folding chair in the sand, no one except MH around.

Soon enough it will cool again, nesting will be over and the birds will be on the move southward. 

Marsh wren, 2017, Bombay Hook (RE Berg-Andersson)

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