Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On birding south Jersey

This past weekend, I spent two full days (and I mean full) birding with my oldest son in south Jersey.  Full as in: getting up at 2:30 a.m. to drive first to Cumberland County to search for any late migrants and for breeding forest birds by dawn, scanning shorebirds in the afternoon, staying out after sundown to catch nighthawks at Sunset Beach in Cape May (I said no to an even later night jaunt to listen to the calls of rails, Chuck-will-widows, and Whip-poor-wills), catching a few hours of sleep and a shower, only to start out at dawn again the next day, getting back home about midnight, some five hundred plus miles of scouting later.   This has become somewhat of a spring ritual for us, a way to celebrate Mother’s Day (sometimes a bit late) and commemorate the end of our long and busy respective school years.  (Wouldn’t sleeping in late and reading a book over coffee be more customary?)  But at seventeen, I am not sure how much longer my son will be willing to put up with me (and my improving, but far from stellar birding skills) for this type of excursion.  So how can I say I would prefer to stay at home to lounge around or visit my neglected garden beds?  Besides, he says he likes the “wild look” and notes that our yard attracts more birds and butterflies in its current state of dishevelment.  Chaotic schedules, chaotic surroundings.  Life is good.

There is something slightly seductive about south Jersey for a plant lover and gardener.  There is a mix of southern and northern plant species, with sandy, salt-tolerant varieties thrown in.  Mountain laurels (which were in full bloom this weekend) interspersed with native hollies.  Bayberry shrubs and gorgeous shrub roses (I am not a purist about native plantings).  Strawberry fields (in their prime) and peach groves alternate with acres of tomato plants that have already planted.  Sweet and black gum trees, Phragmites and cattails.

The weather is perfect, clear blue skies and a forecast for temperatures in the 70s.  We pull out the worn DeLorme map for New Jersey, block 68, and examine notes from previous trips.  Shaws Mill Pond and Ackley Road are our first destinations.  Most of the migrating warblers seem to have already headed north, but we are treated to great views of a Prothonotary and Yellow-throated—two species we don’t typically see farther north.  There are lots of Orchard Orioles, Summer Tanagers, Great-crested Flycatchers and many others.  We head east to scrubby habitat and field edges to find Chats and Blue-Grosbeaks and then south to the Heislerville Fish and Wildlife Management Area.

At this point, I must confess that while I am a pretty good forest-habitat birder, I am lousy at water/shore/coastal birds.  Well, I know the wading birds—the various heron, egret, and ibis species.  I can separate terns from gulls, sandpipers from plovers.  I know cormorants, mergansers, the American Oystercatcher, Ruddy Turnstones, and can recognize the sound of a Clapper Rail.  And I can distinguish Laughing from Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls.  So I am not totally inept, but these birds have characteristic features that certainly help.  The capacity for finer scale identification of shorebirds, however, has always eluded me.  O.K., I also know the Piping Plover, but anyone who has ever seen one of these cuties is unlikely to forget their charming face.  
Piping Plover (Photo by Corey Husic)

So for this trip, my son decided it was time that we focused on this deficiency in my birding skills.  It was time, he thought, to have me move to the level where I could discern the subtle differences between Semipalmated, Least, White-rumped, and Spotted Sandpipers, and to be able to identify Yellowlegs (lesser and greater), Willets, Whimbrels, and Sanderlings on land, in water, or in flight.  HA! I teach for a living and am well aware of different learning styles and abilities -- the importance of working hard and practicing skills that don’t come naturally.  But do my students find the science I teach as difficult as birding at this level?  How can I identify molecular structures by the hundreds and remember complex details of metabolic pathways, but not be able to tell a Dunlin from a Dowitcher?

I am lucky to have a patient and skilled teacher.  (How many parents can say that about their children?)  This is the kid who forces me to stand in the woods at home in the midst of spring migration and identify—by sound—everything I hear.  It is one thing to learn bird songs by listening to taped recordings, but quite another to pick out song after song, species by species in a dawn chorus interspersed by flight calls and chips of birds descending into the treetops after a long overnight flight.  But I have learned a lot from him over the years.

Standing at the edge of the impoundments at Heislerville, we saw large groups of shorebirds standing in the water and mud.  To me, one brownish bird running along looks pretty much like any other.  Well except for leg color and bill length and whether that bill is curved or straight, long or short.  OMG, this is soooo hard!  And I don’t understand why they call these shorebirds, since we most often seem to do this birding on buggy salt marshes (i.e. places where no one would lay out in the sun).  I am so not going to ever learn these birds.  Do I even care?  I was convinced that this lesson in shorebird identification was a pretty hopeless endeavor.

After returning home from the trip, I realize that many birders blog about their birding experiences at the impoundment, and it isn’t just the crazy folks posting scouting reports for the World Series of Birding (which occurred last weekend).  For example of one of these blogs and to get a sense of the scenary, see:  Nuts. Fanatics. 

As we were leaving via the dirt road that goes around one of the bodies of water, I spotted an adult Bald Eagle -- always a nice bird, and much easier to identify than the peeps.  And then, a first!  A Diamondback Terrapin.  Not a bird, but a reptile (so related evolutionarily speaking) and very cool nevertheless.  Terrapin is a word of Algonquian origin, torope.

William Penn speaking of Native American speech noted, "I know not a language spoken in Europe that hath words of more sweetness or greatness, in accent or emphasis, than theirs."

I knew that terrapins were in the region and that much attention goes into their protection.  But despite many trips to southern Jersey, I had never seen one “in the wild” – as wild as New Jersey can be considered.   The swirled patterns on the shells reminded me of the psychology visual perception tests, the optical illusion drawings that somehow reveal the workings of your neural networks.   The O’s on the terrapin’s belly were almost comical. This individual was a plump, large, and very greenish specimen.  It appeared to be trying to lay eggs – in the middle of the road.  No one ever said they are smart.  But their habitat is disappearing, and they experience many other threats thanks to human activities.  We waited until she (?) moved to the edge before driving on and we wished her luck.

Diamondback Terrapin (Photo by Corey Husic)

Next, we were off to the tidal wetlands at Jake’s Landing to try to catch glimpses of the secretive Marsh Wrens, Saltmarsh Sparrows, and Clapper Rails.  We managed to see all of them, along with more terrapins.  Next it was some beaches along the bay that separates Delaware from Cape May County.  The target?  Red Knots.  These were scattered in with other migrating shorebirds resting and feeding before making their way further north to breed.  The Red Knots represented a lifer species for me.

When I first moved out east, I initially worked in Philadelphia.  There I learned that Brigantine, Ocean City, and Wildwood were regular summer vacation destinations for folks from the city.  It seemed as if people from different neighborhoods in Philly selected different beachside towns where, year after year, they rented a condo or (party) house.  (In winter, retreats were to go skiing in the Poconos, where I now live.)  Not too many talked about the bayside or places like Heislerville or Jake’s Landing.  Being from the upper Midwest, a Lake Superior kind of girl, this tradition of trekking to the ocean was a foreign concept.  I have probably been to Jersey shore destinations more in off-season than between Memorial and Labor Days.  I am not the type to lie for hours on the beach, and while I love to swim, I prefer freshwater lakes or pools.  I realize that I can scan for birds (or dolphins) along the shore for a much longer time before getting bored than I can reading a cheap summer novel on a beach towel. 

By late afternoon, we reached Cape May Point, the lookout by St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church to be exact.  The birders fondly refer to the spot as St. Pete Dunne’s corner.

According to the tourist information, this is a tiny gingerbread-adorned church that was part of the Philadelphia Centennial in Fairmount Park in 1876 and moved to Cape May three years later.[1]  This sleepy little corner of the county was established as a Presbyterian retreat known as Sea Grove in 1875 as part of a nation-wide temperance movement.  John Wanamaker (another Philadelphia tradition was to visit the city’s first department store named after this man – an extravagant building known as much for its organ and bronze eagle as it was for its wares) was a member of Sea Grove Association, the group that purchased the original plot of about 266 acres for $5!  I can’t imagine what it is worth in real estate dollars today (although someday it may all be underwater if you ascribe to the theory of climate change-induced sea level rise). 

For peacefulness and wildlife and sunset viewing, it is priceless. 

Northern Gannets.  A late season raft of Black Scoters.  My son spotted a Parasitic Jaeger on the horizon, but I was not as lucky.  Bottle-nosed Dolphins—lots of them—dancing in and out of the water in front of us for a long time, showing us not just their fins, but sometimes their faces as well.  By this point on our trip, we realized that we had seen more mammals than migrating warblers.  And by this point of my narrative, it is probably obvious that my priorities and interests are a bit different than those of many other south Jersey visitors.  This would be confirmed by the fact that we went to Sunset Beach on Cape May Point after sunset to try to catch the aforementioned nighthawks.  It was after this, however, that my sensible mom-ness kicked in, and I suggested that a few hours of sleep made more sense than driving back up to the salt marshes to hear rails and nightjars.  Groans were the response from my son, although he reluctantly admitted that I was right by the time we reached the hotel in Cape May Courthouse.

No birding trip to Cape May is complete without stops at Higbees Beach, the “Meadows”, and Cape May Point State Park.  We beat the crowds to Higbees, probably because we left the hotel about 4:45 a.m.  Before the dawn chorus, while still at the hotel, my son caught the sound of the Chuck-will-widow he wanted to track down just a few hours before, so my suggestion of some rest seemed all the more reasonable this early morning. Things were pretty quiet bird wise (were we too early?), so we headed to breakfast at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House (one Philadelphia beach-goer tradition that I do partake in) before heading to the refuge and the park.  At one beach stop while still in town, we spotted a birding group led by none other than Pete Dunne.  And we watched a pair of nesting Piping Plovers being mercilessly tormented by a pair of Fish Crows.  Bullying is not just an activity of middle school children.

Our final birding destination on this expedition was the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, not far from Brigantine and Atlantic City.  After hours of being in wind gusts, tick-infested fields, and salt marshes, I looked in the mirror during a pit stop at one of the many Wawa convenience stores and realized that I wasn’t looking very glamorous in my T-shirt, windbreaker, field pants, with my hair tucked up in my favorite cap from Bozeman.  The south Philly girls wouldn’t be caught looking like this. 

I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of this federal wildlife refuge with a backdrop of the Atlantic City “skyline”.  Two very different types of wild places –one of human overindulgences and one of minimal amenities, for humans at least.  But for the birds, it is a haven.  Thousands of migrating birds end up here for at least part of the year.  An eight mile driving loop can take three hours if you want to hit the jackpot with respect to different species.  It was here that I had my second lifer of the trip – a Gull-billed Tern.

Atlantic City as viewed from the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
(Photo by Corey Husic)

My thoughts turned to the themes of online articles I had recently virtually clipped for later reading – that long list of URLs sitting in my forgotten email (we did this trek unplugged):  climate change, fracking, threatened cultures, livelihoods, and species due to environmental change and human behaviors.  But here was Atlantic City—the emblem of excess and human vices—adjacent to the pristine and raw and briny landscape that makes up the refuge.  A city with a row of wind turbines, spinning as gracefully as the flapping wings of the countless droves of birds swirling and diving.  And just for a moment, I had a bit of hope, that man, even at his worse, can co-exist with nature, and that nature just might endure our abuses.

Atlantic City (Photo by Corey Husic)
So it is day two and we are in the waning hours of our excursion.  I was getting constant quizzes from my son about what I was seeing in the scope, which subtle differences I was noting in an assemblage of shorebirds, what I heard as one flock flew away in a swirling mass...  To my surprise (and probably to the even greater amazement of my patient instructor), I was starting to get the hang of identifying even the different sandpipers.  I have no idea if I will remember all of what I learned this weekend the next time I head to the shore, but I do know that learning will come easier and quicker the next time.  Most importantly, the stresses of the past few weeks long forgotten, we were having lots of fun.  The tally:  over 120 species, too many Wheat Thins and Swedish Fish eaten, and some good stories for the future.  Life is indeed good.


  1. And others were also birding in the region and writing about it:

  2. Great post! I love that you share your thoughts about your son being the teacher and you the student in this. And the last couple of photos at first were jarring to me, but I agree - they give even my cynical mind a glimmer of hope.
    p.s. I think I am now in love with the piping plover! What a cutie!

  3. Thank you Lisa. In the world of birding, it is indeed my son who is the teacher. He is amazing. Jarring is a good wayto describe the backdrop.

    The piping plovers are really sweet. They are very tiny and scamper around the sand with those cute faces and lots of energy.

  4. Lovely post, Diane, thank you. Sounds like the perfect day! I'd love to follow in your footsteps and visit those places someday.

  5. Trileigh - I hope you have the chance. At Higbee's Beach, we ran into an elderly woman birding - perhaps with a granddaughter. She was from Oregon and had always wanted to bird in Cape May. One goal was an Indigo Bunting - which was an easy find. She was thrilled. Moments later, a Blue Grosbeak was sitting out in the open, illuminated by the rising sun. Truly spectacular. She could hardly believe that there were 2 wonderful birds of blue!

  6. Diane, really enjoyed the post! Glad you have a Mother's Day ritual of birding with your son. Corey may "fly" away for a time, but there will always be a place for you in his birding adventures. When my son was 27, we headed to Costa Rica. He and his friend planned, organized, and studied the birds ahead of time. I just enjoyed the moments as they unfolded. I don't even try to keep up with his knowledge anymore. It's just nice to have someone to send tricky shorebirds photos and other ID dilemmas to, in order to sort them out!

  7. Greg, I think you and I share something special in having quality time with children in nature. The bonds are indeed strong. And now you get to extend that to the next generation. Corey and I have traveled to Costa Rica together (twice), and attended the U.N. climate meetings in Mexico and South Africa together (and of course, birded). Can't wait to see where we head next!

  8. I love the scene of you standing in the dawn with your son, who has just told you to listen, and identify the birds by their songs. Beautiful, Diane.