Clellie Lynch: Following the fall migration

Thursday October 18, 2012


After a couple of days at Cape May seeing only a handful of hawks -- osprey, Cooper's, sharp-shinned, kestrel and a single merlin -- we take the ferry across the bay to Delaware and another of our favorite places: Bombay Hook. The weather is still warm and Danny and I stand on the top deck looking for birds.

The water is calm, the day is hazy and two ships with a puzzleload of red containers are making their way upriver. Three dark birds, the first (and last) brant of the trip, wing their way across the bow. Gulls follow the ferry for a bit, then give up realizing this isn't a fishing boat and no guts are on offer.


About halfway across I see two very white birds sitting, drifting on the water: North ern gannets. Winter must on its way for these birds come down from their breeding grounds on the Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec, every year to fish and feed in the Atlantic along the coast from October to March. Usually you can gaze at the horizon of the ocean and find gannets, huge white birds, with prominent black wingtips, wheeling, spinning and visibly splashing into the water. Maybe these two were the vanguard and, having just arrived, are resting in the calm waters of Delaware Bay.

When we land in Lewes, we are near Cape Henlopen State Park, an area we've never explored. We drive in. It is huge and we traverse the area from the needlelike point covered with dunes through woods and fields. On our way out, we stop at the visitors' center and spend a few minutes watching the feeder. Carolina chickadees, like their northern counterparts, take a seed and then fly away to a perch and feast. A song sparrow hops around underneath and house finches bully their way onto all of the perches.

Then a new bird flies in -- a nuthatch, a brown-headed nuthatch! -- looking very much like his relatives, but with a chocolate-colored head. Our second unexpected life bird! He flies over to the gutter on the building and is joined by another. They call to one another sounding like a pair of communicating typewriters. (Sibley's KEW-dodododo-TEEW.)

The next day we head for Bombay Hook another National Wildlife Refuge on the water's edge. This, like Brigantine, has acres and acres of salt water marshes, tidal pools, wooded islets and here too there is a wildlife drive through the area with a number of places to pull over and observe.

At our first stop we see a sea of avocets, a wash of black-and-white moving across the shimmering pond. The black-bellied plover look small and fat compared to the avocet. Two black-neck stilts are easily picked out from the masses as are the pair of marbled godwits. The reddish brown ducks are all American wigeon.

At Shearness Pool, the resident tundra swan lords it over the sandbar filled with terns and sandpipers. The large Caspian terns stand out, quite different from the royals playing on the beach at Cape May. Caspians are larger; the beak, redder; and the black cap extends nearly down to the beak. The marshes, golden with swathes with small sunflowers, are dotted with great egrets, much more prevalent than snowy egrets or great blues. Flocks of blue-winged teal fly from tidal pool to pond and back again.

The woods are quiet, though each section where we stop has a hungry, hunting phoebe. On the boardwalk trail in and around islets of trees, we find a plethora of warblers: Parula, pine, magnolia, yellow-rumped, black-throated green, yellowthroat, all in varying disguises, but they are so near we have little problem identifying each one.


Wandering north back into New Jersey, I check the map and we decide to stop at another park we'd never visited before: Belle Plain State Forest, a 22,000-acre tract of pine, cedar and hardwood forests interspersed with swamps, tidal pools, grassy fields and lakes. After parking the car along a recommended trail, we head into the silent woods. Occa sionally a blue jay shrieks, a catbird mewls, and chickadees and titmouse appear and disappear into the tangle of rhododendron, the common understory shrub here.

Eventually we take a smaller trail into the woods and our luck changes. Birds flit in front and above us. A red-eyed vireo perches at eye level. A little ways down the path we come across a pair of Philadelphia vireos and warblers begin to appear. We easily identify a Canada warbler and then we keep coming across glimpses of a bird with a bright yellow throat and prominent white wing bars on a grayish body.

These calculating birds land on branches, hop behind leaves and then scoot away. After I see a fourth bird with these distinctive markings, it dawns on me this is a yellow-throated warbler, a southern bird I've only ever seen once before -- in of all places, Maine. Hmmm -- so maybe this is another life bird if I was mistaken in Maine. But no matter, now it's a definite on the life list!

We had some amazing misses on this quick trip south, but even more amazing is that we added two (three?) to the ever-so-slowly growing life list!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle


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