Friday, December 26, 2014

Off on a wild goose chase

With the 2014 songbird banding season over, and the late fall hummingbird banding season cut short by a lack of birds, we had some spare time on our hands in December. And, with very low gas prices, and a car that gets 50 mpg, we decided to get away for a few days. But where? A recent review of my ABA list reminded me that I only needed 14 species to reach that magical number of 700. Since my ABA list has been stuck at just over 670-680 for more than two decades, I've decided over the next 12-18 months, until I resume songbird banding again, to make an effort to reach 700 species. Not a Big Year, really. But a Bigger Year Than I Normally Do (BYTIND). The past decade has seen an increase in the number of vagrant Pink-footed Geese wandering to the northeastern U.S., and likewise Barnacle Geese have been increasing...and are more widely considered valid wild vagrants since one banded in the Old World was found here. Neither species was a life bird, but hey, the ABA list drives birders to do many strange and wonderful things. So, as the geese showed up on my eBird alerts, and the weather looked reasonable (for mid-December), off we went last Thursday (December 18) for a true WILD GOOSE CHASE.
Near Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania

The first day of the trip was a bit grueling, with a 550 mile drive with very few birds. It is always nice to leave the flatlands of Michigan and northwestern Ohio for some actual topography and more visible geology. The photo above would be a rare sight in most of Michigan. And you read the caption correctly; right smack-dab in the middle of Pennsylvania is the small town named Jersey Shore. Somebody's idea of a joke I'm guessing. The next morning (Dec 19), we went to Wier Lake in easternmost Pennsylvania, where two Barnacle Geese had been seen every single day for the past 10 days or more. After well over an hour of looking, and sorting through hundreds of Canada Geese (and a couple of Cackling Geese) along with a couple other birders, we gave up and headed into New Jersey where there were three other locations that Barnacle Geese, and the Pink-footed Goose, had been seen consistently. The first two spots were only a few miles apart, so we could drive back-and-forth between them. One spot was an open farm field with a wet area (pond?) well to the back, and hundreds of Canada Geese. We spend more than an hour looking through the geese here, but only saw Canadas and two white-morph Snow Geese. It was interesting to see these Canada Geese, which looked subtly different from those we have in Michigan, as these were likely mostly the Atlantic subspecies.
Canada Geese near Hightstown, New Jersey

The second location, Etra Lake Park, also had hundreds of Canada Geese, and two Greater White-fronted Geese. But no Barnacle Goose or Pink-footed Goose. After lunch, we returned to the cornfield south of Hightstown and scanned for a while longer. We ran into a friend from Kalamazoo, Michigan among a small number of birders looking for the Pink-footed Goose. It was here yesterday, but now in early afternoon it was looking like it too would be a no-show. Our Michigan friends departed, and soon after another birder we'd been shadowing since the stop in Pennsylvania this morning departed too. I decided to walk up onto a patch of slightly higher ground to see what might be hiding in the corn rows and, within a minute, had the Pink-footed Goose in view! Thank you John, and our new friend from Toronto, for being the sacrificial birders! The Pink-footed cooperated for another half hour before we departed, though it had walked a fair distance away from us and was tucked among a clot of Canada Geese, giving intermittent views of portions of its anatomy, and fleeting views of the entire bird, often with head down, but a couple times with its head up. Sadly, no photos could be taken due to the distance. But we were happy! ABA species #687, and the 5th goose species of our chase, was in the bag. One additional site for Barnacle Goose, in Wall Township a few miles from the Jersey Shore (the real one this time) again had hundreds of Canada Geese, and three Cackling Geese, but no Barnacle Goose. For the first time in nearly two weeks, there were NO Barnacle Geese seen (by anybody, not just us) in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. We really whiffed on that one.

The next morning, geese were on the back burner as we headed to Barnegat Light to just enjoy some birds we hadn't seen in a while, and take some photos if possible. Well, the overcast skies proved challenging for photography. Stopping along the barrier island heading north toward Barnegat Light, there were bunches of loons, mostly Common but also a few Red-throated, loafing offshore, and a handful of Northern Gannets flying around as well. Small numbers of Long-tailed Duck were out there as well, and a group of three male Common Eiders passed through the scope view. On the inner "bay side" of the barrier island, one more goose species presented itself, a small group of a couple dozen Brant. Six geese down, one to go.
Brant at Sunset Park, Harvey Cedars, NJ

Brant at Sunset Park, Harvey Cedars, NJ

At the northern end of the barrier island is Barnegat Light, a state park, a famous lighthouse, and a wonderful jetty for birding.
Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

Having been here three or four times before, we were prepared for what was ahead. Unlike the last time a few years ago, the water was calm and there were no waves washing over the breakwall, so it was possible to carefully walk along it, hopping from one large flat-topped rock to another. Nancy opted out of this foolishness and went back to the car. I continued on, but almost immediately it was evident that I was not going to have a good day with my equipment. The zipper on my coat had broken off back at the car, and when I got onto the breakwall one of the straps of my Tri-Pak broke. You'd think that a backpack with one strap would be half as useful as one with two. Not so. The broken Tri-Pak was less than useless; it was a chore to carry it, along with my monopod, binoculars, and camera. About half way down the mile-long breakwall, I climbed down off of it to the sand beach where walking, and lugging an uncooperative scope, was easier. Of course that's when I noticed I'd lost one rubber eyecup ring off my binoculars. But at the end of the jetty, there was the flock of eiders I'd come to see...about 300 Common Eiders with a female King Eider reported just a couple days ago.
Common Eiders at Barnegat Light, NJ

My 400mm lens on the monopod did OK, although the lighing was terrible with overcast skies. I really wanted to get my 800mm camera attachment for my scope for better photography. Well, one more equipment problem. Somehow the lens cap on the photo adapter was stuck on, like glue. I could not get it off! Aaargh. Well, what follows are my best crops from the photos taken with the 400mm lens. Not bad really. Can you correctly age and sex all the Common Eiders in the photos below?
Mostly female (1 ad.) and 1 adult male Common Eiders

The range of colors on the females certainly makes things difficult. Those with obvious white margins to the "speculum" are adults. The others are juveniles and could be females or males.
Partial "eclipse" males with females

Adult male ducks molt into an "alternate" plumage in summer, sometimes called "eclipse" plumage. The male Common Eiders above with the all dark heads, white breasts, dark sides, and variously mottled upperparts are all mostly still in this plumage but molting into winter (basic) plumage.
Various ages and sexes of Common Eider

Of course the full plumaged (basic) males are the most visually appealing to many birders, and presumably also to female eiders. Only about 20-30 were among this flock of 300 or so.
One basic male and 3 female (1 adult) Common Eiders

Male Common Eiders

The female King Eider did show herself, but may only be in one or two photos, and even cropped would present a "where's Waldo" image that would probably just be frustrating for most. Off the jetty, other species of interest allowed for good photo opportunities.
Adult Great Black-backed Gull

Common Loon

It was here that the photo-prize of the day presented himself. A gorgeous adult male Harlequin Duck just a few yards away!
Adult male Harlequin Duck

Adult male Harlequin Duck

After lunch, we headed back northwest toward Hightstown, to check those two sites once more for Barnacle Geese, even though no eBird reports had been forthcoming yet today (except for one on a golf course near Newark). At the field where we had the Pink-footed Goose yesterday, there were no geese at all. None. A few hundred flew over, but kept going. At Etra Lake Park it was the same story, with only a couple dozen Canada Geese. So, we headed into Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania for the night still lacking a Barnacle Goose.

The next day, December 21, was the winter solstice. So what better way to make the shortest day of the year seem longer than to drive 550 miles! There was an opportunity to stop one more time, just at sunrise, at Weir Lake to try again for the Barnacle Geese, as there had been an eBird report from yesterday afternoon there. So, we arrived in rather poor light to see far fewer Canada Geese than before. But I had barely set eyes on the white morph Snow Goose, which wasn't there last time, the two sleeping Barnacle Geese jumped out at me, right at the front of the goose flock! Despite the overcast skies and dim light of early morning, I attempted to photograph them, with the results below.
Barnacle Goose at Weir Lake, PA

Barnacle Geese at Weir Lake, PA

So, at the last minute goose species #7, and ABA species #688 made an appearance. A wild goose chase isn't such a bad thing after all. And then we drove, and drove, and drove home...

Where to next for the BYTIND? Stay tuned.

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