Monday, December 26, 2011

A Trip to the (Awesome) Jersey Shore

This past Friday (the 23rd), while visiting with family in New Jersey for the holidays, Paul's dad and I took a trip out to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the Jersey shore. This place is a haven for wintering shorebirds, including some very cool visitors from the far north (more on that later), and the trip was fantastic. We saw so many awesome things, and it was hard sometimes just to keep moving forward with all the activity around us. We saw at least 34 species of bird, including six I'd never seen before. I wasn't able to get pictures of everything, but here are some highlights from the trip!

One of the main features of the refuge is an 8-mile drive through fresh- and saltwater marshes to get up close to the creatures hanging out there. But before we started on the drive, we got out of the car and poked around the shrubs and trees by the visitor's center for a little while. There were tons of small birds hanging out there, and we couldn't believe how unceasingly active they were! Along with the usual titmice, chickadees, etc., there was a particularly handsom Red-bellied Woodpecker, with more red on his face than I think I've seen before:

He even showed off his reddish-tinged belly, something I don't often get to see on these birds:

A beautiful female Eastern Towhee was scuffling in the dry leaves:

And we even saw an unusual visitor:

This Pine Warbler is supposed to be much farther south at this time of year, and it actually got flagged as "rare" and required confirmation when I reported it on eBird. (This is the first time something like that has happened to me.) It was a very active bird, and it didn't seem to care that it was a well out of its normal range.

Once we finally tore ourselves away from the songbirds and drove on into the wetlands, we were surrounded by waterfowl -- thousands of ducks and geese on every side. The Snow Geese, especially, come to this refuge in the winter in huge numbers, although these snow-white birds with black-tipped wings prefered to stay some distance away from us during this trip:

These birds spend their summers in the high arctic and their winters down here -- I'm always amazed when I think of creatures traveling so far to find suitable seasonal habitats. When our Snow Geese moved, their expansive flocks made quite an impressive sight streaming across the sky:

Some of the smaller waterfowl we saw were really cool as well. This adorable little bird is an American Coot -- it kept wiggling its tail as it paddled along:

I love the warm cinnamon patterns on these female Northern Pintails -- somehow I managed to not take any pictures of the male pintails, whose striking brown and white coloring and pointy black tails make them look like they might belong to a different species from the females:

And these Northern Shovelers look almost alien, with those monstrously oversized bills:

My favorite of the waterfowl, though, was one that we came across toward the end of the drive. A flock of about a dozen Tundra Swans, huge and white with black beaks and legs, were hanging out in the marsh with a bunch of Canada Geese and Green-winged Teal. Like the Snow Geese, the Tundra Swans spend their summers right at the very top of the continent, and it feels special to get to see them here all the way down here (even if this is their normal wintering ground). We watched a few of the Tundra Swans circle above the larger group:

And then come in for a landing:

The swans were very active, calling constantly to each other in a wonderfully musical honking/cooing sound. Here's a quick video I took -- you might need to turn the volume up a little to hear the calls clearly:

So the waterfowl was awesome, but that's not all we saw! There was a Peregrine Falcon feeding on top of a nesting platform:

And in possibly the best part of the trip, we watched two adult Bald Eagles taking part in what looked like a bonding ritual -- one eagle would bend down to the ground and then straighten up and touch beaks with the other eagle, perhaps passing it a tasty morsel:

While we watched, the eagles both startled and hopped up into the air at exactly the same time:

The two birds immediately settled back down again and continued their earlier activity. Whatever alarmed them must not have been any real threat.

The trip ended with an as-yet-unsolved mystery -- a rather large mammal swimming past us:

Its head doesn't look quite right for a mink, and I can't tell whether it might be a large rodent of some sort (a Nutria perhaps?). I'm open to suggestions if anyone has any ideas!

There were so many amazing things to see on this trip -- the reserve is well worth a visit.


  1. What a thrill, seeing all those beautiful birds! And you got such great photos, too. Did you rule out beaver for your swimming mammal?

  2. Jackie: I haven't really ruled out anything, although it seemed strange for a beaver to be hanging out in this place, with no trees nearby and salt water just across the road. But who knows! Thanks for the comment!

  3. My guess would be beaver also. I agree it seems strange for a beaver to be at a coastal marsh, but I've seen them a few times in the marshes of Cape Hatteras, NC, where the water is brackish and trees are scarce.

  4. Julie: Interesting! Well a beaver is definitely a possibility, then. If only I'd gotten a better view, especially of its tail!

  5. Isn't that a muskrat? We have lots of them in Minnesota. I watched them play near the open water on our frozen lake this vacation. I also saw a bald eagle and thought of you!

  6. Alissa: It could be! At the time I it looked a little big for a muskrat, but I don't have a lot of experience with muskrats, so I certainly could be wrong! Yay, eagles. :)

  7. We drove to Florida over Christmas and along Rt. 301 from Wilmington to the Chesapeake, there are miles and miles of fields - on two separate occasions the snow geese made the field, literally, look snow-covered. When a group of them rose from the field it was stunning! Wish we could have capture a picture...traffic prohibited it. Your bird photos are always a wonderful treat - a talent that escapes me - thanks for your post - glad you had a wonderful trip!

  8. hikeagiant2: That drive must have been lovely -- whenever I drive down the east coast I always get stuck taking I-95, which is less than inspiring. The snow geese sound like they were a great Christmas treat!

  9. My first thought was also muskrat. Looks a little long, but what do I know. I think it's too big to be a beaver. Man, these are some great pictures.