White Pelicans in New Jersey!

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American_White_Pelican

“American White Pelican” by Manjith Kainickara – originally posted to Flickr as American White Pelican.

My alarm was set for 4:00 AM on December 20, a Sunday morning. I woke up excited and eager to start the day. My phone started going off with text messages from friends about our meeting location. As any birder will tell you, this scenario is far from uncommon we love our birds! and will likely wake up at any time on any day for a chance to add another species to our life list.

I woke up early to look for owls to tally in the Sandy Hook Christmas Bird Count (Highlands and Atlantic Highlands territories are included in the Sandy Hook count). Our team drove through Hartshorne Woods Park in Highlands, New Jersey, in search of the nocturnal raptors. I thought the highlight of my day would be hearing two great horned owls calling to each other as first light came over the woods. While this was exciting (and definitely worth getting up at 4:00 AM for), I was in for another treat.

Read the full story on the Conserve Wildlife blog.

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Up Close and Personal with an American Redstart

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Today, I helped New Jersey Audubon Society scientists record data on the resighting of this banded American Redstart. Such a beautiful warbler and a wonderful day birding on Sandy Hook (Gateway National Recreation Area, Highlands, New Jersey)! Arguably the best way to add a bird to your life list.

American Redstart

American Redstart on Sandy Hook. Photo by Lindsay McNamara

Nature Notes: Early Spring on Sandy Hook

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Birding on Sandy Hook, Highlands, New Jersey

Birding on Sandy Hook, Highlands, New Jersey

Today, I enjoyed a beautiful, warm and sunny, early spring day on Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey. After the winter we had, today seemed like a long awaited miracle.

I chose to spend my morning and early afternoon birding with a friend. We joined Monmouth County Audubon Society‘s walk and saw a ton of early spring migrants!

The most exciting moment of the walk was when a large group of gulls on the Bay took off flying and cleared the sand bar they were sitting on. A few seconds later, soaring through the sky, came an immature Bald Eagle! The leaders of the walk estimated that the eagle was about three years old.

Gulls on the move before an immature Bald Eagle flew over the Bay.

Gulls on the move before an immature Bald Eagle flew over the Bay.

Today also brought three new additions to my life list! The Black-crowned Night-Herons we saw sitting in a tree above Nike Pond, the male Northern Harrier (known to birders as the “Gray Ghost”) flying over our group and the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers my friend and I saw on a later walk to North Beach were all life birds for me.

"Gray Ghost" Male Northern Harrier

“Gray Ghost” Male Northern Harrier

We estimated at least twenty ospreys have returned to Sandy Hook, many were carrying fish in their talcons and some were carrying sticks to do some “housekeeping” on their nests. We saw a number of Northern Gannets diving offshore as well.

Northern Gannet by Gavin Shand on Vimeo

Northern Gannet by Gavin Shand on Vimeo

A full list of the birds that we saw today:

Birds of Monmouth County Checklist

Birds of Monmouth County Checklist

  • American Crow
  • American Kestrel
  • American Oystercatcher
  • American Robin
  • Bald Eagle
  • Black Scoter
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Boat-tailed Grackle
  • Brant
  • Bufflehead
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Fish Crow
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Horned Grebe
  • Laughing Gull
  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Northern Flicker
  • Northern Gannet
  • Northern Harrier
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Osprey
  • Piping Plover
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Sanderling
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Song Sparrow
  • Surf Scoter
  • Tree Swallow
  • Turkey Vulture

Walks led by local Audubon Society chapters are great for beginning birders! I would recommend them to any 20-something environmentalist looking to learn more about birds. Find a chapter near you!

Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count on Sandy Hook

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Counting birds on Spermacetti Cove, Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey.

Counting birds on Spermacetti Cove, Sandy Hook in Highlands, New Jersey.

Today marks the start of National Audubon Society‘s 115th Christmas Bird Count (CBC)! From December 14 through January 5, thousands of volunteers across North America are invited to go out, count birds and contribute data to an early-winter bird census.

When looking at the CBC Map, you will see that every state offers a significant number of local counts, which cover about a 10-15 mile diameter circle each. Since every CBC is a real census, and since the 15-mile diameter circle contains a lot of area to be covered, single-observer counts are not allowed. To participate on the CBC, you need to join an existing CBC circle. You can find one near you online!

All data from the local counts across North America gets compiled, reviewed and documented. The Christmas Bird Count allows researchers, conservation biologists, and interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

For example, in the 1980’s, CBC data was used to document the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck. Conservation measures were put into effect shortly after, to reduce hunting pressure on the species.

Learn more about how the CBC data has been used recently in Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change and Common Birds in Decline reports.

I joined the local Sandy Hook Count this morning, which covers a 10-mile radius around Gateway National Recreation Area – Sandy Hook Unit in Highlands, New Jersey.

White-winged Scoter. Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Ken Phenicie Jr

White-winged Scoter. Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Ken Phenicie Jr

The Sandy Hook Count is split up into smaller territories, since there is such a large amount of bird habitat to cover in the park. I joined members of Monmouth County Audubon Society and helped count birds in the South Sandy Hook territory. We scanned Sandy Hook Bay for waterfowl and gulls, walked to Nike Pond and looked for songbirds, and we also traveled through the ancient Holly Forest, where we saw a few raptors. Many areas of Sandy Hook that are usually closed to the public were open to us for the CBC.

In the short three hours that I joined the group, we watched a number of Harbor Seals sunning on Skeleton Hill Island (!) and saw and heard a number of great birds:

  • American Black Duck
  • American Crow
  • American Goldfinch
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Brant
  • Bufflehead
  • Canada Goose
  • Carolina Wren
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Gray Catbird
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Herring Gull
  • Horned Grebe
  • House Finch
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Northern Harrier
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Sanderling
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Song Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • White-winged Scoter
Bufflehead. Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds.org © Brian L. Sullivan

Bufflehead Photo: AllAboutBirds.org © Brian L. Sullivan

Wondering how this incredible citizen science initiative all got started? The first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was completed on Christmas Day of the year 1900 as an “alternative activity to an event called the ‘side hunt‘ where people chose sides, then went out and shot as many birds as they could.” The group that came in with the largest number of dead birds was declared the winner of the event. Frank Chapman, a famous ornithologist, recognized that over-hunting would only exacerbate declining bird populations, and proposed to count birds on Christmas Day rather than shoot them.

To get involved in this historic event, visit The National Audubon Society’s website.

Counting waterfowl on Sandy Hook Bay.

Counting waterfowl on Sandy Hook Bay.

#GivingTuesday 2014: Celebrate All Things Winged with The Raptor Trust

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Scoured the shelves for deals on Black Friday? Gearing up for gadget buying on Cyber Monday? Don’t forget to honor the most important day of this week (after Thanksgiving, of course), Giving Tuesday.

Giving Tuesday is a call to action, a national day of giving around the annual shopping and spending season. The third annual #GivingTuesday will take place on this coming Tuesday December 2, 2014.

GT_Street-wall_2014#GivingTuesday is a day for giving back, to write a check to a worthwhile cause or to donate your time and expertise to charity. #GivingTuesday, where global charities, families, businesses, community centers, students and more have come together to shape a new movement. A movement so compelling that the White House has taken notice.

A day that inspires personal philanthropy and encourages bigger, better and smarter charitable giving during the holiday season. A day that proves that the holidays can be about both giving and giving back.

Show your support for Giving Tuesday by taking a photo and uploading it to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the hashtags #GivingTuesday and #UNselfie. For more information, check out the short YouTube video below or visit #GivingTuesday on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

On Giving Tuesday 2014, I have decided to give back to the birds in my home state. One of my favorite organizations working specifically on avian rehabilitation and education is The Raptor Trust. My sister and I visited the Trust back in May of this year and had an incredible day. Everyone on staff was extremely friendly and enthusiastically answered our questions about the birds of prey in their care. Even the volunteer working the at gift shop was proud to discuss the history of the Trust and their birds with us.  For those birds that would not survive if they were released, The Raptor Trust property has become their home. We were able to see these residents up close and personal. The birds were so beautiful that we walked through the Trust twice to be sure we didn’t miss anybody!

Vilma, The Raptor Trust's Barred Owl plays a key role in the organization's educational programs. Photo by Joy Yagid.

Vilma, The Raptor Trust’s Barred Owl plays a key role in the organization’s educational programs. Photo by Joy Yagid.

Officially founded in 1983, The Raptor Trust is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and one of the premier wild bird rehabilitation centers in the United States.

Located in Millington, NJ, the Trust property includes a hospital with state-of-the-art medical facilities, quality exterior housing for several hundred birds, and an education building. For three decades, the Trust has worked tirelessly to fulfill it’s mission:

  • To provide free care and assistance to injured, sick, or orphaned wild birds.
  • To educate people about wild birds, especially birds of prey.
  • To provide a humane example for others.
The Raptor Trust Director Chris Soucy. Photo Credit: NewJerseyHills.com.

The Raptor Trust Director Chris Soucy. Photo Credit: NewJerseyHills.com.

20-something Environmentalist sat down with Director of The Raptor Trust, Chris Soucy, and asked what continues to motivate and inspire the work that he is doing.

Chris explained, “One of the greatest rewards in our work is to be able to release a bird back into the wild after we have cared for it. The birds come to us sick, injured or orphaned bird in great numbers – as many as 4,000 each year.  It takes a huge team of dedicated volunteers, along with a medical staff, veterinarians, educators and administrative help to run the center. These caring people put their hearts and souls into the work we do. Because we are successful more often than not in releasing our patients back into the wild where they belong, the rewarding feeling that comes from it happens all the time – for our staff and volunteers, for the people who find injured birds and bring them to us, and no doubt for the birds themselves.”

Red-Tailed Hawk Release. Photo from The Raptor Trust's Facebook page.

Red-Tailed Hawk Release. Photo from The Raptor Trust’s Facebook page.

Chris went on to explain, “In our 32+ year history we have cared for over 90,000 wild birds and released more than half of them back into the wild. On site, we have a full-service medical center and a education center where we present programs to thousands of visitors each year about birds, wildlife and conservation.  Our center is open to the public year round, and visitors here can see hawks, falcons, eagles and vultures up close and learn about what amazing and ecologically important creatures they are.”

Please consider The Raptor Trust when making your year-end gifts this #GivingTuesday and throughout the holiday season. Help them help all things winged.

To learn how to get involved with The Raptor Trust, and for more amazing photographs of birds of prey, like them on Facebook.

Here are a few other excellent New Jersey organizations working on
wildlife issues:

This #GivingTuesday, Tuesday, December 2, 2014, consider making an impact on the world. Choose an issue that you are passionate and donate your time or funds to organizations that are part of the solution. Be a force for good.

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Nature Notes: Birding on Sandy Hook

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Fields Near an Old Tennis Court on Sandy Hook

Fields Near an Old Tennis Court on Sandy Hook

The bird nerd that I am, I decided to join a New Jersey Audubon field trip on Halloween today. It was a cold and overcast morning as we walked along the fields and trails of Sandy Hook.

New Jersey Audubon does a great job of providing every birder (regardless of skill level) with an excellent, informative program. I highly recommend their guided walks for any beginner (like me). The community of birders, in my experience, has always been extremely welcoming and energized by a new person on their walks. I learned so much about identifying different types of sparrows, warblers and other song birds from everyone in our group.

Today, we saw a wide array of species. Dark-eyed Juncos and both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were out in high numbers. The crowd favorite was a Winter Wren. Usually, Winter Wrens are heard but not seen because they hide in brush and at the base of trees. We were able to see one up-close along the wall of an abandoned building.

Winter Wren Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds.org

Winter Wren Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds.org

The Kinglets were my personal favorite. They are the second smallest type of bird (hummingbirds are the smallest) and were adorable hopping around in the fields and trees.

Golden-crowned Kinglet Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Golden-crowned Kinglet Photo Credit: Wikipedia

ruby_crowned_kinglet_1

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds.org

I do know all birders love making lists, so here’s one of all the birds I saw today:

  • American Kestrel
  • Black Phoebe
  • Brown Creeper
  • Canada Goose
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Common Loon
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • European Starling
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Gray Catbird
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Mallard
  • Merlin
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Northern Gannet
  • Northern Harrier
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Song Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Winter Wren
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler

Nature Notes: Birding in Northern Jersey

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As any bird nerd will tell you, migration months are the best time for birders to see so many species! Warblers, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers, and other migratory birds, including shorebirds have flown thousands of miles from Central/South America and the Caribbean to nest in my home state of New Jersey, or to continue on to the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska. These mass migrations allow for more bird species to be observed in NJ than any other time of the year.

My friend and fellow birder Dana and I made plans to get outside and do some birding this weekend. We brought along our friends and family and headed to a few different spots in Northern Jersey.

Wood Turtle

The Wood Turtle is a threatened species in NJ

Our first stop was New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary in Bernardsville, NJ. Turns out, a dear friend of mine from my days as a nature camp counselor was leading our walk!

Miss Stephanie guided us throughout the property as we searched for the Blue-Winged Warbler. During our walk, the group learned that skunk cabbage is able to generate its own heat in order to grow and flower while snow is still on the ground. How cool is that?!

 

We also found a Wood Turtle, which is classified as threatened in New Jersey. AND at the end of our walk, we were able to spot a Blue-winged Warbler in the tallest branches of a beautiful tree.

Blue-winged Warbler. Photo Credit: birds.audubon.org

Blue-winged Warbler. Photo Credit: birds.audubon.org

Eastern Towhee. Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds.org

Eastern Towhee. Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds.org

Here’s a list of the other birds we saw (birders LOVE lists):

  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Blue Jay
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Gray Catbird
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Song Sparrow
  • Tree Swallow
  • Turkey Vulture
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Wood Thrush

If you are curious about any of the species of birds listed, check the National Audubon Society’s website for more information about them.

Yellow Warbler. Photo credit: birds.audubon.org

Yellow Warbler. Photo credit: birds.audubon.org

Next, we went for a hike through Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. There we saw a number of bullfrogs, painted turtles, cowbirds, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch. My favorite was the Yellow Warbler that we saw in its nest above the water of the swamp. It was such a beautiful and striking bird, bright yellow among all the green.

 

 

Barred Owl at The Raptor Trust

Barred Owl at The Raptor Trust

After lunch, my sister and I took a drive over to The Raptor Trust. The Trust, located in Millington, NJ, provides care to over 3,500 injured and orphaned wild birds each year. Many of them are rehabilitated and released back into the wild. For those birds that would not survive if they were released, The Raptor Trust property has become their home. My sister and I saw so many birds of prey, we even circled back through the area where the birds live to make sure we didn’t miss seeing anyone. Our favorites were definitely the owls.

I’m so happy to have spent such a beautiful day outdoors and in nature among friends and family. I am looking forward to purchasing my own pair of binoculars and going birding more often. It was revitalizing to step away from my computer and desk and get back into nature! I truly believe in the restorative power of nature. Do you?

Effects of Mountaintop Removal on Appalachian Wildlife

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Changes to the water, air and land in coal country have caused trouble for vast amounts of biodiversity in the region.  The biodiversity of the Appalachian headwater streams is second only to the tropics.  The southern Appalachian mountains are home to the greatest diversity of salamanders on the globe, accounting for 18% of the known species worldwide.

Salamanders and other herptiles, birds, and mammals have all been struggling to adapt to the changing environmental conditions caused by mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining in the Appalachian region. Salamanders become significantly less common in areas with many MTR sites.  When the forests are clear cut for MTR coal mining, the woodlands are converted into grasslands.  Grasslands do not provide salamanders with loose soil and a lot of ground cover, habitat characteristics required for their survival.  The conversion of woodlands to grasslands has also affected bird populations in Appalachian.  West Virginia is home to native woodland bird species like the Red-Shouldered Hawk and the Broad-winged Hawk, but as the number of intact forests decline, so do the number of native hawks.  Since the expansion of MTR coal mining, native hawks have been outnumbered by an increase in open-country species like the Northern Harrier and the American Kestrel.  A 2003 study showed an increase in other grassland bird species like Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows.  The increase in Grasshopper Sparrows was explained by the fact that it colonizes most successfully in grassland habitats.  Unlike Grasshopper Sparrows, interior forest songbird species native to the Appalachian region require a large amount of intact forest to survive, something not found in areas with MTR sites.  MTR sites are affecting the survival rate of salamanders, native hawks and songbirds and mammals through the conversion of lush forest to clear cut grassland.

Mammals are deeply affected by the expansion of grassland areas in Appalchia due to the vast amount of reclaimed MTR coal mining sites in the region.  A 2002 study of small mammal communities on reclaimed MTR sites showed that while small mammals can continue to thrive, species from the Peromyscus family—types of rodents that frequently make their homes in grasslands—are most abundant.  Other mammals lose “traditional migration routes, travel corridors, and food sources” on reclaimed MTR sites.  Reclaimed MTR sites make it difficult for native woodland species to thrive.  According to EPA’s Fine Particle Emission Information System (FPEIS) study, deforestation and forest fragmentation from MTR coal mining disrupt the Appalachian forest and are harmful to forest-dwelling wildlife species.  Wildlife species like, Eastern chipmunks, Woodland Jumping Mice, Woodland Voles, and Northern Short-tailed Shrew showed significant populations decrease once their wooded habitat was transformed into grasslands.  Grassland transformation harms West Virginia’s state animal, the Black Bear, too.  As MTR coal mining displaces bears from their forest home, they need to find another place to live.  This leads to the now-frequent occurrence of bears in residential neighborhoods looking for shelter and food in garbage cans.  The residents are put in danger and the bears are most often put to death, leading to dramatic declines in population.  It is time for stronger environmental legislation that will allow for economic expansion in Appalachia, while protecting native and the species that inhabit them.

Sources:

Burns, Shirley Stewart (2007), Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities, University of West Virginia Press, Morgantown.

Epstein, Paul R, et al. (2011), Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1219: 73-98.