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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