Our late-start Saturday birding adventure turned out to be an outstanding afternoon!
My friend Mike Hartshorne and I decided we were going to venture further afield than usual and do some birding in Southern New Jersey. I spent much of my youth learning to bird in Salem and Cumberland Counties with the Upper Main Line YMCA, and I was super excited to bring Mike to some old haunts that I haven’t seen in years. Also, I had never been to most of these spots in winter so I would be observing some familiar places through a different seasonal lens. Prior to our departure, I typed up a Google Doc with ten locations I hoped for us to hit with two target birds in mind: Sandhill Crane and Short-eared Owl!
Our first stop was en route to New Jersey. We stopped right below the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester to look from the fishing pier next to Talen Energy Center. The fishing pier offers great views of the Delaware River, and I’ve had a lot of great birds from this viewpoint over the years. This time? It was primarily a mix of gulls including Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull. We did spot one adult Bald Eagle perched in a nearby tree, though!
Once we crossed into New Jersey, we raced our way down to our first spot: Featherbed Lane. I spent many a spring along this narrow farm road observing Eastern Meadowlark among the lush rolling hills. This was one of my favorite spots as a kid, and it looked no different today.
We didn’t have any birds in particular in mind on our visit, but we did have five Northern Harriers hunting low over the fields! We saw three males and two females, which is unusual because the male Northern Harriers are not as frequently observed as the females. In fact, I have seen roughly less than ten male Northern Harriers in my lifetime! Northern Harriers often hover low over fields in search of smaller birds or mammals to prey upon. Between their hovering and the male’s color, you can see why they are nicknamed “The Grey Ghost.”
After we had our fill of Northern Harrier, we ventured south to Mannington Marsh, another spot from my childhood. This time, we were in hot pursuit of Sandhill Crane, a species of bird that is uncommon to our area, but a few individuals end up spending their winter at this marsh. I do not know the reason for this sort of behavior, but with this being an annual occurrence, I thought this bird would be a lock for us. Not so fast though – We had to comb through a few hundred waterfowl such as Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and American Wigeon. We also observed a large number of Tundra Swan, some of which flying low and slow over the causeway.
There are three main bridges that run through Mannington Marsh, and after checking all three bridges, we came up empty on the cranes. We returned to a spot that we had left to take another look, and BOOM – There they were, three Sandhill Cranes walking away and immediately out of sight! My observation was less than five seconds, and Mike did not get to see them at all so our views were unsatisfactory. We decided to wait them out, and after about ten minutes of waiting, we were handsomely rewarded for our patience as they flew back for a few minutes before taking off again.
Once they split, we packed up our gear and prepared to go to our fourth stop. However, once we saw the time, we had to cut out a few spots. Actually, we cut out six of them so we could get to our final spot since it was home to our second target for the afternoon: Short-eared Owl.
I could write a whole piece on Jake’s Landing, our final stop. This was the first stop of our very first World Series of Birding competition with the YMCA team when I was a freshman in high school. This place is loaded with both sentimental value and killer habitat. After you pass through the pine forest, you open up into a an expanse of salt marsh on all sides. We pulled our car to the parking lot at the end of Jake’s Landing Road and perched up in hopes the bird would appear. Short-eared Owl is neither nocturnal nor diurnal. They are a crepuscular species, meaning they only hunt at dawn and dusk. We arrived at 4:30pm, right before sunset. I have waited at this site before for this bird, sometimes in excess of an hour.
Me hard at work! Photo Credit: Mike Hartshorne
Photo Credit: Mike Hartshorne
Only a minute after arrival, we saw female Northern Harriers, which prefer the same sort of flat, tall grass habitat. Within five minutes of our arrival, one Short-eared Owl made its presence known as it rose from the phragmites and took a swipe at a female Northern Harrier! Then, another owl appeared and began to soar low over the marshes. Shortly after, a third owl joined in! Mike and I were in awe of these large, slow-flying owls as they came closer and closer to where we were standing. The three owls and two female harriers circled over the marsh back and forth in front of the setting sun, painting an unforgettable scene!
We may have only made it to a fraction of our sites, but the best fraction of the day was 2/2 – We observed two out of our two target birds! Combined with a breathtaking sunset, revisiting my youth, and awesome birds with a great friend, the day was most certainly a smash!
Most notable of all, the Short-eared Owl is Mike’s spirit bird! I am still looking for mine…
Here are the eBird checklists for the day: