A Day at the Beach – DE Bird Survey

Killdeer nest with 3 eggs Yesterday was a LONG day of birding – perhaps the longest day I’ve ever had. My buddy Joe is a naturalist and signed on to do a bird count that was happening throughout the day in Delaware. He had a fairly sizable chunk of real estate to cover and asked if I wanted to come along to count the birds in the Dover area, including the shore. I’ve never done something like this, so I figured why the heck not. I hadn’t quite figured on the dedicated effort he was going to put in, but found out quickly when we started making plans for getting together. He had said early – he had meant he wanted to be on-site by 3:30 a.m., which meant a 2:30 departure from his house – which mean a 1 a.m. wake-up for me. Gulp.

Turns out that the 1 a.m. wasn’t a problem – I was having trouble sleeping anyway, so I was out of bed by 12:45 a.m. (after falling asleep about midnight) and made it to his place at exactly 2:30. Within a minute or two, we were off. I’ve known Joe since 6th grade, so we have a lot of history between us – we went to high school together, Penn State together and even joined the same fraternity. He was also the guy who got me into birding – and then corrupted it by getting me into butterflies and, by extension, dragonflies. He has always been a fountain of knowledge about nature and my usual first source of birding information. So, I expected that this would be a fun experience, despite the hour of our start.

Darkness Birding

Port Mahon Road

We started the morning hitting Port Mahon road, a rather interesting road along the bay that has a unique history of sometimes (regularly, apparently) being underwater. But we were there at low tide starting our morning by calling for rails and whatever else might be up at this ungodly hour. Joe had a new toy – an iPod loaded up with bird songs and nestled into a padded speaker so that you could call for birds – that we put to good use trying to get the rails to perk up and speak. Unfortunately, only two did – a single sora and a few clapper rails. They and a series of small sandpipers along the muddy, rutted and partially washed away road were our first counts.

Delaware Bird Survey Map Next, we went to another small wildlife area to search for owls. Again, the iPod caller came out running first through the calls for the screech owl. After not too long, we got our first response – a single owl which seemed like it was only about 20′ away – but we never could find him. We went a little further down and tried it again. This time we had a pair of calls – calls that were very close. I saw something fly over our heads once, then twice and told Joe. We got out the spotlight and there, 10′ in front of us, was a reddish Eastern Screech Owl in plain view. I’ve seen them before hanging out of a nest box in Texas, but this was the first ‘wild’ screech owl I’d seen since college – which was before my ‘watching’ days. S/he was beautiful and although we had a spot on it, I couldn’t seem to get a picture that we could see (the Nikon 80-400mm VR f/4.5-5.6: NOT a good lens for low-light shooting…). Still, it was a thrill to see.

Ted Harvey Wilderness Area

One more move later, to Ted Harvey Wilderness Area off of Kitts Hummock Road. This would be our ‘base of operations’ for much of the day. The sun was just starting to peek out, so we were in a hurry to try to get some other owls to ‘speak’ to us. First we tried a barred owl call, then a great horned owl call – both with no response. So we decided to move on to the main parking lot where we listed for a short while for other birds. There were quite a few things already chirping at the first hint of the sun, including what sounded like thousands of gulls in the distance. We packed up our gear and went for a walk to listen for the birds until it got light enough to actually see them. Our walk was fairly fruitful as we heard quite a few interesting birds, even if it was up to Joe to ID most of the birds since I suck at ID’ing by song. Even ones that I knew fairly well I was mistaking in the vain effort to identify less common species. So, for me, it got much better when the light really started coming out and we could actually SEE the birds. I tried to take some pictures of the more interesting species – such as Common Yellowthroat, Orchard Oriole, Wood Thrush and American Redstart, but there just wasn’t enough light to get any decent shots. But in a way, I was better because I shifted to using the binoculars almost exclusively, something I haven’t done in a long, long time. It was a bit of ‘retro’ birding for me and I have to admit that it was kind of fun not worrying about what kind of shot I was going to get but instead just trying to find and identify the birds through the looking glass. Plus, it was a lot easier to track and focus on birds in the heavy canopy of the trees we were searching in – although it took a little bit for me to remember the trick of finding your place when going from naked eye to binoculars. I might have to go back to doing that more often.

Eventually, we headed back to check the forest again and see if we could spot some of the birds we were hearing. The walk back was as good visually as the walk out was from a sound perspective. We were hoping for a lot of warblers, and the forest didn’t disappoint as we saw and identified Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-White Warblers my first-of-season Magnolia Warblers, as well as some unexpected finds like Blue-headed Vireo, Great Horned Owl & Red-breasted Nuthatch.

As we approached the parking lot, we were treated to our first shorebirds getting my first-of-season willet, spotted sandpiper, greater yellowlegs, semi-palmated sandpipers and great egrets. We spent a while trying to identify a weird willet-looking bird with an upturned bill with a pink base. It turned out to just be a weird willet with really dark plumage and a very pink, weirdly shaped bill. I’m still going with western-eastern hybrid, myself.

Weathermen Lie

When we got back to the car, the sun we were welcoming suddenly disappeared. The forecast had called for ‘isolated showers’ especially toward the end of the day. They would be wrong, as the rain started not too long after we reached the car, and much of our morning was spent out in the rain. It wasn’t downpours really, but just enough to get us wet and a little cold and make me hide the camera. It wouldn’t stop us, although it would make everything a little harder, including finding the birds (if you’ve ever tried to look for birds when raindrops are moving all of the leaves on you, you’ll understand). But we had a job to do so we carried on through the rain.

Our next stop was down to the beach at Ted Harvey, scanning the pools and marshes along the way as we went. I added my first-of-season Seaside Sparrow, which I actually thought was a lifebird until I got home and checked my list. Green Herons were everywhere – we saw at least 7 within a 2-minute span. When we made it to the beach, we were looking for red knots, which we would sadly never see – not a good sign, although this isn’t the best location for them. We did, however, see thousands of laughing gulls, dunlin and semi-palmated sandpipers, with a few semi-palmated plover thrown in. There were also quite a few horseshoe crab carcasses which were fueling the birds desires to feed. After a long stint scanning the birds looking for other birds to count, we gave into the rain and headed back to the car. It was time to try some other places.

Tidbury Creek Park, Tilcon Pond & St. Joan’s Reserve

Our next stop was a pretty cool little park nearby that would actually provide many interesting birds – despite the heavy rain we endured pretty much the entire time we were there. Changing into heavier raingear, we began walking the trails in this park, many of which seem to be used rather extensively by bikers – BMX more than mountain, according to Joe. Whichever it was, it provided nice, clear and muddy trails for us to follow. Those trails would produce a number of great highlights, including Pine & Nashville Warblers, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Ovenbird, Hermit Thrush and Veery. We also heard Great-crested Flycatcher & Rose-breasted Grosbeak, which we unfortunately didn’t see (as it would have been another lifer for me). But the highlight was following a mob of blue jays who turned out to be swarming a Barred Owl – a new lifebird and our third owl of the day. We got a great look at him, but he flew off before I could get my camera to try for a shot.

After Tidbury, we caught a Caspian Tern sitting in the so-called ‘Tilcon Pond’, and then walked the marshes of St. Joan’s Reserve to see some Marsh Wren, Indigo Bunting, Seaside Sparrow & Prairie Warbler. Despite my best efforts, I tried to get shots of all of them but only managed a mediocre shot of one marsh wren, a nemesis bird for me, photography-wise. Still, we added 6 new species here to give us 23 new ones for the leg and 90 so far that day.

Back to Ted Harvey, with a few stops

We went back to Ted Harvey for a second go-through while pondering if we wanted to make the 1.5-hour round trip to see the nearly-famous Wood Sandpiper being seen near Prime Hook (FYI – a wood sandpiper is an Asian species that is only VERY rarely seen in the U.S. – and then almost exclusively in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska). We eventually decided against it, and were greeted with some sun to help us think well of our decision. The nice light brought out the bugs, and the birds that wanted to eat them – and the birds that wanted to eat those birds. Our second go around of the Wilderness area turned up a bald eagle, a merlin, a kestrel, a peregrine falcon, a northern harrier and a pair of nesting ospreys – not bad for a full day, let alone the last two hours of it. But more exciting for me was seeing my first blue grosbeak, which was far more beautiful than I had realized. We also found a killdeer nest in the middle of the road, and put up two small cairns on the front and back of it (5′ to either side) to warn drivers to avoid it. Our last good bird of the day was a beautiful first-of-season Yellow-breasted Chat which gave us quite a show.

All in all, we saw or heard 116 species of bird, including 2 lifebirds for me and 39 first-of-season birds (not including those ‘just heard’). It wasn’t his best tally in this count or even his goal (120 birds), but we had a good day, particularly considering the weather. And I got to catch up with a friend who was able to teach me a thing or two. How can you beat that?

the LIST

* lifebird ^ first-of-season # heard only

Barred Owl*, Eastern Screech Owl^, Great-Horned Owl^, Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, Merlin^, Peregrine Falcon^, Northern Harrier, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, Turkey Vulture
American Redstart, Black and White Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler#, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler^, Nashville Warbler^, Northern Parula, Ovenbird^, Pine Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat^
Eastern Bluebird, Caroline Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, House Wren, Marsh Wren
Downy Woodpecker, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Red-breasted Nuthatch
Clapper Rail#, Dunlin^, Long-billed Dowitcher^, Short-billed Dowitcher^, Killdeer^, Black-Bellied Plover^, Semi-palmated Plover^, Least Sandpiper^, Semipalmated Sandpiper ^, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper^, Sora#, Black-necked Stilt^, Willet^, Greater Yellowlegs^, Lesser Yellowlegs^
Terns & Gulls
Caspian Tern^, Forster’s Tern^, Black Skimmer ^, Great Black-Backed Gull, Herring Gull, Laughing Gull^, Ring-billed Gull
American Black Duck, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Pied-billed Grebe #, Canada Goose
Herons and Egrets
Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret^, Snowy Egret^, Black-crowned Night Heron^
American Robin, Brown Thrasher, Hermit Thrush^, Wood Thrush#, Veery, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird
Flycatchers, Tanagers, Cardinals and Allies
Great Crested Flycatcher #, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Wood Pewee #, Cardinal, Blue Grosbeak*, Indigo Bunting^, Blue-headed Vireo^, Red-eyed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo
American Crow, Fish Crow, Boat-Tailed Grackle^, Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling,vBrown-headed Cowbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole
Finches & Sparrows
House Finch, American Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, House Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow^, Seaside Sparrow^, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Towhee
Northern Bobwhite #, Yellow-billed Cuckoo #, Double-crested Cormorant, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird^, Blue Jay, Barn Swallow^, Tree Swallow, Cedar Waxwing

4 Responses to “A Day at the Beach – DE Bird Survey

  • i’ve noticed a ton of cooper hawks in my neck of the woods, must be some tasty vittles around these parts. i know they are restocking the Aetnas sometime soon, should be seeing more herons

  • Cooper’s Hawks are good – small birds and squirrels make for tastiness (if you like squirrel tartar). Saw a few herons on our trip, but we never made it to the big rookeries. Tinicum (outside PHL) is probably swarming with them right now.

  • Oh man, that’s a whole lot of birds. Sounds like quite a fun, and tiring, day.

Trackbacks & Pings

  • wood sandpiper in delaware :

    […] throughout the day in Delaware. He had a fairly sizable chunk of real estate to cover and askhttp://www.martytdx.com/zealot/archives/2008/05/11/a-day-at-the-beach-de-bird-surveyDelaware BirdsThe unofficial delaware State Year List now stands at 293 species, up another 18 […]

    15 years ago

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