On the rocks

It dawned on me today that I hadn’t shared even one crappy bird photo from my duck-hunting escapade from a few weeks ago. So here it is – click on it for a somewhat less crappy, more artsy, bigger view. Harlequin Duck: extremely cute, probably the most handsome, in my opinion, after Oldsquaw. They’re reliable here on the Jersey shore, but seeing them is something like a pilgrimage, for me at least, and it’s a journey fraught with danger.

I’m being overly dramatic, of course… well, almost.

In winter, Harlequins favor rocky coasts… think Maine. Not much of anything like that here in NJ, right? Well, we have ocean jetties and the most reliable for a small group of Harlequins is the jetty that sits in the shadow of Old Barney on Long Beach Island and juts out into the inlet. Walking the jetty is treacherous. John at A DC Birding Blog has a great trip report from his visit last year in this post. Also there is a more realistic view of the jetty from the top of the lighthouse.

Barnegat Light has to be the coldest place on earth on whatever day it is you happen to be out looking for the Harlequins. And windy as hell. And there’s those treacherous rocks to navigate, carrying your camera gear and the damn scope that picks that day to not work! Susan thinks she has problems with her camera that won’t focus – how about a Leica scope that since its very first winter has a focus wheel that ‘freezes’ on the coldest of days? Thankfully, the scope isn’t really needed to see these handsome ducks, as they stick very close to the treacherous rocks to feed. Problem is you can’t stay on the nice level concrete walkway beneath the lighthouse to see them; you have to walk out on the jetty proper with your eyes playing tricks with every step, insisting that you’re about to fall into the spaces between every single rock where the cold water is waiting to drown you once you’ve cracked your head open on said rocks.


There were also sweet little Purple Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones and all the rest of the sea ducks one might expect. The Harlequins stole the show, though I think the group we saw was very small.. maybe just 4 birds. In years past there’s been a couple dozen… I imagine they were there, just further out than I was willing to venture.


Woodland harbingers

The sun was shining and it felt warm like spring yesterday so I went looking for wildflowers. That was a total waste of time! The white-throated sparrows and I were digging through the leaf litter, both of us searching for some morsel to sustain us through the last weeks of winter.

I found the skunk cabbage coming to life in the wettest places alongside the brook, yet wouldn’t consider eating anything that looks like this, despite someone’s suggestion that it’s edible. Yesterday’s walk wasn’t so much about finding any true signs of spring, but about taking the time to be out and looking.

I’m guessing this might be the very beginnings of spring beauties, but no matter, that green is just gorgeous! The space for some quiet time alone in the woods yesterday and the chance to slow down and put some thought back into the rhythm of my life was worth the couple hours *wasted* looking for flowers that won’t be ready to bloom for a few weeks still.

Gill-over-the-ground had the earliest start of all and was spreading its heart-shaped carpet wherever a bit of sun encouraged it. A weed, yes, but it beats a seeing only a layer of ice and snow.

I had to really dig to find these and can’t imagine what they are, but last spring virginia bluebells and trout lilies grew in this same spot. It’s nice to have that knowledge of a place now, to see these tender shoots and imagine what they might become with enough warmth and sunlight.

The knees of my jeans were wet and muddy by the time I’d had enough rooting around in the leaves, but I’ve learned that’s part of the fun of spring too; having your hands in the earth and getting dirty again.

I’d imagine that we all have different spring milestones we look for that are dependent upon where we live. Maybe it’s the first crocus, or the first skeins of geese overhead in the night, or the appearance of buckets on a row of sugar maples.

I haven’t found mine yet.

What have you been looking for? Have you found it?

Clever as a …

I went looking for snow buntings this afternoon and instead found this handsome red fox, leaping and pouncing at something unseen among the winter brown grasses at the base of the gun battery at North Beach on Sandy Hook.

Red foxes are easily seen there and even in my own neighborhood – I once ushered a family with youngish kits out of the way of oncoming traffic just up the road from my house, but to see one actively hunting, rather than skulking along the edges of a field or scavenging for leftovers near a garbage bin, was a rare treat. I’m always impressed with just how slight they are; at first from a distance I mistook it for an overfed tabby. (Yes… I do need to wear my glasses more often!)

As handsome as they may be, foxes are bird killers; more specifically at Sandy Hook, endangered nesting shorebird killers. Because Sandy Hook lacks any larger predators to keep them in check, red foxes have a serious impact on the survival rates for piping plovers. While (some) humans may be dissuaded by the fences erected each March to protect the plovers, the sly fox will learn to dig under even the caged exclosures meant to protect the birds and their eggs.

Due to Sandy Hook’s geography, it’s not exactly clear how red foxes have found their way onto the pennisula. I found an article in the NY Times from 1880 that mentioned the possibility that they walked across the ice on the Shrewsbury River at some point or across a frozen Sandy Hook Bay. I don’t guess that much matters anyway, but the idea was on my mind because of a conversation earlier in the day with a couple fishermen who stopped in to the bird observatory.

Birders and fishermen, at the Hook at least, have a relationship based, for one thing, on our acknowledgement of the other’s nuttiness. We’re often the only ones out there in the worst weather or at the most ungodly hour or at the farthest distance from anyplace comfortable. Oftentimes, I think, we read some of the same clues to find our quarry.

I mentioned this to the one guy today, who, incidentally, was shopping for a scope to ‘spot’ fish (?) and he agreed that both groups do indeed have a screw loose, albeit a different screw. He’d asked me if I’d even seen a coyote at Sandy Hook or thought it possible that they might be there without anyone knowing it (or admitting to it). I said no, of course, and mentioned that there were no deer there, even, to which he corrected me with a glut of ‘deer swimming across the bay’ stories which sounded suspiciously like ‘fish stories’ to me. At any rate I was glad for the chance to chat with these two and have a peek at some of what they notice about Sandy Hook besides the good fishing there.