New Year, New Birds: Barnegat Lighthouse State Park

New Jersey Birding

The Bird Nerds spent the New Years Holiday on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, celebrating with friends. Despite the previous night’s festivities, we were able to get up in time to make the drive to the northern tip of Long Beach Island for some birding at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on New Years Day. The park is named for the historic lighthouse at the site which dates from 1859. Sea ducks, shorebirds and others are attracted to the inlet between Long Beach Island and Island Beach State Park to the north.  Here they find calm water in the inlet and bay, rough water along a jetty, surf crashing on the beach and a buffet of mussels exposed at low tide. The nearly half-mile long jetty extends from the lighthouse into the ocean along the inlet and was our primary birding locale.

As we were getting ready to head to the park on New Years Day, we realized the memory card for our camera was at home. Birding along the ocean usually means birds are very far away and we rarely get great pictures, so we figured that not having the camera was no big deal.  We quickly realized that was not the case, the seabirds were surprisingly close and offered great views. We bought a new memory card before returning the next day, camera in-hand.

The first bird we saw, before even reaching the lighthouse, was this Great Black-backed Gull.  He was just sitting on the sidewalk with his feathers blowing in the wind, so we figured we’d take a picture.

Great Black-backed Gull, sitting in the wind

Great Black-backed Gull, sitting in the wind

A short walk down the jetty brought us to a group of shorebirds clinging to the mussel-covered rocks in the low tide. The bright orange legs and “V”-shaped black marking on the breast indicated these were Ruddy Turnstones in their winter plumage. We’ve seen these birds before in both breeding and winter plumage, but getting an up-close look is always a treat.

A Ruddy Turnstone.  We nicknamed this one Paul Ruddy Turnstone

A Ruddy Turnstone. We nicknamed this one Paul Ruddy Turnstone

Winter birding usually involves peering at a tiny dot in a spotting scope and trying to figure out what type of waterfowl it might be. Because the inlet along the jetty is quite narrow, even birds in the middle of the channel can be seen with relative clarity. This Common Loon was about 100 yards off the jetty in the middle of the inlet, but through the magic of high resolution photography and aggressive cropping, we are able to share this perfectly acceptable image with you:

Common Loon in the middle of the inlet

Common Loon in the middle of the inlet

Not much further down the jetty, we spotted our highly anticipated target species for the outing: the Harlequin Duck (LL). Tim awkwardly lugged the spotting scope and tripod for the entire walk, expecting to these ducks far off shore. Instead, we saw them within spitting distance, diving into the waves along the jetty rocks.

Female Harlequin Duck

Female Harlequin Duck

With their stubby little bills and white ear patches, female Harlequin Ducks rank somewhere in the middle on the duck adorability scale, but it’s the males that are the real head turners.

Male Harlequin Duck

Male Harlequin Duck

Pair of Harlequin Ducks

Pair of Harlequin Ducks

A trio of male Harlequin Ducks

A trio of male Harlequin Ducks

Having seen our primary target species, we decided to head to the end of the jetty to see what might be seen in the rougher water of the open ocean. Just before reaching the end of the jetty, we observed a second target species for the trip: the Purple Sandpiper (LL).

A Purple Sandpiper

A Purple Sandpiper

The Purple Sandpiper looks a bit like the winter plumage of the Ruddy Turnstone, but has a longer bill with a dark tip, is a little plumper, lacks the dark “V” on the breast and has a slight purple hue across the back. This species has the distinction of being the only shorebird that can be seen along the Atlantic Coast of North America exclusively in the winter. They spend the summer breeding in the far reaches of the Canadian Arctic, north of Hudson Bay.

Purple Sandpipers stick to the rocks despite the surf

Purple Sandpipers stick to the rocks despite the surf

Upon reaching the end of the jetty, we were rewarded with a view of a great raft of Common Eiders. You may recall our post on our trip to Maine last summer, when we first saw the Common Eider in the waters off Acadia National Park.  Like many sea ducks, Eiders breed in the winter, so we had only seen them in their summertime non-breeding plumage. This time, we were able to see Eiders in a range of plumages.

Adult male Common Eider among females and juveniles

Adult male Common Eider (center), a first winter male is to the left, the others are breeding females.

More Common Eiders

More Common Eiders – first winter males (with white breasts) and breeding females (cinnamon colored)

Common Eiders were plentiful at the end of the jetty, but we also got great views of other sea ducks like this Black Scoter:

Female Black Scoter

First year male Black Scoter

And this male Black Scoter:

Male Black Scoter

Male Black Scoter

And this male Long-tailed Duck in breeding plumage:

Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck (not seen: long tail)

At this point, the light was beginning to fade and the wind off the ocean was beginning to chill our bones, so we headed back down the jetty toward the lighthouse and the parking lot.

The jetty and Barnegate Lighthouse

The jetty and Barnegat Lighthouse

A view south from the jetty.  Good light for shiny water, bad light for seeing birds.

A view south from the jetty. Good light for shiny water, bad light for seeing birds.

On the walk back to the car, we were treated to a few more cool sights. The first of which was these two female Common Eiders snuggling up to each other on the jetty.

If I had the world's softest down, I'd snuggle all the time too.

If I had the world’s softest down, I’d snuggle all the time too.

The second was a pale-colored flash that came from the dunes on our left and darted around the rocks of the jetty.  It landed and began to run around on its little orange legs.  We got only a few quick glances, but we were able to get a few photographs which were used to ID this little guy from the comfort of home.  After reviewing our field guides and eBird data from the area, we realized that it was the Ipswich subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow.

The Ipswitch subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow

The Ipswich subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrows are one of the most common sparrows in North America and there are 10 recognized subspecies. The Ipswitch subspecies breeds exclusively on a tiny island 100 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia and winters along the East Coast of North America. Named for the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, where it was first identified, it was formerly considered a separate species from the Savannah Sparrow.  DNA studies have shown that it is indeed the same species, but a little larger, a lot paler and without the distinctive yellow spot between the eye and the base of the bill. Because its the same species, we can’t add it to the life list, but it’s still pretty cool.

And without further ado: the lists!

Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, January 1, 2015 2:22 PM – 4:39 PM
Herring Gull
Red-throated Loon (LL)
Great Black-backed Gull
Cooper’s Hawk
Common Loon
Northern Gannet
Common Eider
Peregrine Falcon
Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Turnstone
Dunlin
Harlequin Duck (LL)
Double-crested Cormorant
Ring-billed Gull
Long-tailed Duck
House Sparrow
Carolina Wren
Song Sparrow
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Mockingbird

Barnegat Lighthouse, January 2, 2014 12:45 PM – 2:15 PM
Common Eider
Harlequin Duck
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Loon
Double-crested Cormorant
Ruddy Turnstone
Purple Sandpiper  (LL)
Bonaparte’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Savannah Sparrow (Ipswich)

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