Long Beach Island CBC – 1/1/2017

This was the 4th year I participated in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. The CBC is a winter bird survey that has been conducted annually for 117 years.Volunteers are tasked with the challenging job to identify and count every single individual bird they can find. It’s a challenge I eagerly anticipate every year. The territory I have counted the last 3 years is the Holgate section of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge encompasses the lower 3.5 miles of Long Beach Island. I would estimate it averages about 1/4 mile wide with a narrow sandy beach on the east side and a combination of shrubby dunes, salt marsh and open sandy expanses on the west side. The grueling hike can be over 8 miles depending on how much zig-zagging we must do to cover the area. It’s typically a team of 3-5 people. The incentive of doing this demanding count is the access of restricted dune areas. The entire refuge is inaccessible to the public  for 4 months every year and the dunes are always, 365 days a year, 100% restricted…unless you have a federal permit for something like conducting a bird survey. This is supreme habitat for birds and there’s always a chance to see exciting birds like Short-eared and Snowy Owls, Snow Buntings and Bitterns. Anything is possible to be hiding in there. The physical challenge of slogging through the marsh and sandy dunes is something I bizarrely enjoy as well.

So that is what I had my heart set on when I left my house on New Years Day at 5am. There was a wrench thrown into our plans the night before when we learned the team that covers the area to the north of Holgate was sick and couldn’t do the count. I knew there was a chance I would have to make the sacrifice and survey that area, which would mostly consist of car-birding. When our team met at the Holgate parking lot at 6:30 am, I was the only participant, besides our leader Mike Britt, that was eqiupped with a spotting scope and was available the entire day. That made me the only eligible counter to cover the 7 miles from Holgate to the Long Beach Township Police Department. Although I was disappointed, I accepted my mission enthusiastically and with same determination I have for Holgate.

I stayed with the Holgate team on the dune crossover platform until 8:30am to help count waterbirds flying over the ocean.  On the morning of last years count(2015), we tallied many thousands of birds flying south over the water by 9:00am. This year it was rather slow with less than 500 individuals of about 12 species. I got in my car to head north and they began they long hike into the refuge.

Seawatching with the Holgate team at dawn.

I had 7 miles of island to cover. Considering the complete lack of land-based habitat, this would mostly be a waterbird count. Long Beach Township is so incredibly densely populated by homes, there is virtually no areas of natural habitat. My odometer read 32.9 miles when I completed my circuit. In all those miles traversing the island I came across 1 forested area and  that was about 1/2 an acre but supplied my list with about 1/4 of the native land-based birds I tallied.

A Google Earth search confirmed this tiny patch of green is the only natural area in the 7 mile stretch of island I covered.

My plan was to work the bay as I went north, then do the ocean side going south. Counting ducks in the bay quickly became very monotonous. Bufflehead ducks and Herring Gulls were spread out on the water as far as I could see, even through my spotting scope. I estimated that I could count birds that were about 1/4 mile to the north and south, therefore I made a stop about every 1/2 mile along the bay. Including stops to count the birds in the nooks of the bay coast, I made about 20 stops along the bay. It took me nearly 4 hours to count every single individual bird I could see in the bay. Many roads were “no outlet”, which meant a lot of back tracking. Getting an accurate count of ducks spread out on the bay can be extrordionarly difficult. Especially when they are constantly diving for food. Some species congregate together in “rafts” that make it easier to get an accurate count estimate quickly. Buffleheads however, do not typically raft. I counted a total of 1,132 Buffleheads, 1 at a time over 7 miles of the bay. I quickly developed a technique for every stop I made along the bay. First I counted flying birds before they flew out of view, then i quickly scanned the water through my scope to see what species were in view. Then I counted Buffleheads…painstakingly. Then I counted other species which included Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Ducks, Common Loons, Brant and occasional Goldeneyes. I finished each stop by doing a sweep of the gulls and counted Herring Gulls, which were equally as numerous as Buffleheads but much larger and more conspicuos. The highlight of this route was the unexpected abundance of Red-breasted Nuthatches in the pine trees along the raod and in yards. Some winters these birds don’t make it this far south but other years there can be an influx. I counted 16 Red-breasted Nuthatches for the day, a definite undercount for the whole area but the most I’ve ever seen or heard in a day. I drove with my windows down the whole day listening for their distinctive “honking”.

Red-breasted Nuthatch visiting New Jersey from the north for it’s “warm” winter season. They actually travel further south some years depending on conifer seed production.(Photo from Google)

The most common land birds were the birds that are most common in every city in the lower 48, the non-native House Sparrow and European Starling. There were a few of our common species, mostly along overgrown edges of the bay, they included Mockingbirds, Juncos, sparrows, finches and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I couldn’t help but imagine what I was missing in the Holgate section. Car-birding through the vacation-home choked shore town wasn’t what I look forward to for 364 days every year.

Now it was time to head south and count birds along the ocean. It was almost 1pm now and my first sight of the ocean since the morning seawatch lifted my spirits. It was windy and chilly on the bay side with a hint of drearyness but the ocean side seemed bright and spectacular. The ocean tends to have that effect on me. The west wind groomed the breaking waves perfectly. I was thankful not to have my surfboard because I might have tossed my tally sheet into that trash can and suited up to take the plunge. Not really though, through many years of concentrated effort I can now look at quality surfing waves and not abandon all responsibilities for a surf. I guess that’s what growing up is for me. But enough of that nonsense, I have birds to count! On the first stop of the beach circuit I observed a bird that takes my breath away every time I see it, which is only once a year if I’m lucky. It was an immature Glaucous Gull. The beauty of gulls is lost on most people but I’m sure most people would appreciate a Glaucous Gull if they ever noticed one. I’m certain that not a single person on the beach that was enjoying the beautiful New Years day took notice of the Glaucous Gull that coursed right over the breaking waves with a group of Herring Gulls. It was at this point, with close scope views of the Glaucous Gull, I was able to completely shake off the disappointment of not getting to hike the refuge. I was able to enjoy the sun, the surf and the birds. I was doing what I love to do on the first day of what will be another wonderful year that we are all fortunate enough to be alive and enjoy.

This is an immature Glaucous Gull that Susie photographed in 2013. It’s almost entirely white and it’s absolutely stunning , especially when seen in bright sunshine.
It was a beautiful winter beach day. This is as crowded as it gets here in winter.

There were not nearly as many birds on the ocean as there were on the bay. I could identify and count birds up to a 1/2 mile away so I only stopped at 1 mile increments going south back to Holgate. There was nothing really noteworthy on the ocean but I added many Loons plus a few Scoters and Gannets to my list. I covered the ocean side in less than 2 hours and met up with the Holgate team to hear what I missed. Apparently the refuge didn’t supply anything rare or surprising but they managed a respectable total of 42 species. Their list included a Tree Swallow, which is notable for January. They also added Eastern Bluebird for the first time since we started covering this area. I planned on spending the remaining 2 hours of daylight seawatching with them but there were no birds moving over the water. They decided to wrap it up before 3:00 so I went back to my territory to try to scare up a few more birds.

I focused on pine trees in yards and dune paths. I picked up a few more birds but the habitat is sparse at best. There are streets with literally zero trees and plants. It’s a terribly depressing sight for someone like myself that relies on the energy of the natural world for inspiration and motivation. We successfully stripped this land of any and all sign of nature and replaced it with overpriced, underused, cheaply built vacation homes. That is what we call progress and growth. (Sorry for the rant) If you want to see what the natural state of New Jersey’s barrier islands look like, take a trip to Island Beach State Park in Ocean County.

I did add more birds to my list by scanning pine trees. Brown Creepers were first heard from my car while driving, then seen. A Hairy Woodpecker was a surprise, they tend to prefer areas with a lot of large mature trees so I wasn’t expecting one for this count.

This is the most extensive habitat to be found in Long Beach Township

I ended my day on the beach. It was not the day I expected but enjoyable nonetheless. I feel like I did a very thorough job counting waterbirds. I could have done better with land birds, a bicycle and a strong pair of legs would be the best way to achieve an accurate count of passerines. Hopefully next year I will be back on the Holgate team to find that Yellow Rail.

Being on the beach at dusk is the best way to end any day. Now I’m recharged to take on the world of drywall finishing once again.

My complete list:

Seawatching w/ Holgate team-

Surf Scoter 123

Black Scoter 7

scoter sp. 508

Long-tailed Duck 202

Common Goldeneye 2

Red-breasted Merganser 7

Red-throated Loon 49

Common Loon 24

Northern Gannet 14

Herring Gull 22

Great Black-backed Gull 17

Merlin 1

American Crow 5

Long Beach Township list –
40 species (+1 other taxa)
Brant 2711

Canada Goose 41

American Black Duck 84

Mallard 59

Northern Shoveler 10

Surf Scoter 4

White-winged Scoter 1

Black Scoter 98

Surf/Black Scoter 49

Long-tailed Duck 22

Bufflehead 1132 Spread over 7 miles of coverage

Common Goldeneye 48

Red-breasted Merganser 56

Red-throated Loon 49

Common Loon 25

Northern Gannet 10

Cooper’s Hawk 3

Sanderling 3

Ring-billed Gull 4

Herring Gull 1026

Glaucous Gull 1

Great Black-backed Gull 31

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 34

Mourning Dove 14

Hairy Woodpecker 1

American Crow 14

Red-breasted Nuthatch 16

Brown Creeper 5

Carolina Wren 1

American Robin 10

Northern Mockingbird 3

European Starling 173

Yellow-rumped Warbler 26

Dark-eyed Junco 26

White-throated Sparrow 11

Song Sparrow 2                                                                                                                                            Northern Cardinal  7                                                                                                                                 Boat-tailed Grackle  2                                                                                                                            House Finch  31                                                                                                                                     American Goldfinch  2                                                                                                                                    House Sparrow  178


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