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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Common Eiders were plentiful at the end of the jetty, but we also got great views of other sea ducks like this Black Scoter:
And this male Black Scoter:
And this male Long-tailed Duck in breeding plumage:
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.
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.
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.
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
Red-throated Loon (LL)
Great Black-backed Gull
Harlequin Duck (LL)
Barnegat Lighthouse, January 2, 2014 12:45 PM – 2:15 PM
Purple Sandpiper (LL)
Great Black-backed Gull
Savannah Sparrow (Ipswich)