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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

February 20, 2010
DVOC Photography Field Trip to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park,
Ocean County, NJ

Click Here for pictures taken on this trip by Steve Kacir (leader)

Click Here for pictures taken on this trip by Jeff Wahl

I arrived at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, parked at the fishing access parking area and started to gear up. Soon after putting on my rain pants, Jeff Wahl, the trip’s only participant, arrived and parked next to my Scion xB. We both got our cold weather gear and camera gear sorted out, then made our way out to the jetty. Presently, we were greeted by somewhat close Long-tailed Ducks and a drake Red-breasted Merganser. A raucous gang of Herring Gulls was on the beach, and a closer Herring Gull was on the rocks just off the boardwalk. We worked these birds for a short time then continued to the edge of the boardwalk area.

A small scramble through the fencing later, and we found ourselves on the jetty rocks. Conditions were windy and bright, but the rocks were dry and free of snow and ice. A drake Long-tailed Duck came in for a closer approach, floating lazily on the inlet. The bird had its legs raised higher than the water, and it would kick in such a way that it sent high arcs of water spraying behind it. This duck seemed very unconcerned about its rate of speed, and the high kicking action did almost nothing for propulsion. The behavior reminded me of people floating in tubes on a slow river, kicking lazily at the water. Of course, you can’t stop with just one Long-tailed Duck and our lazy drifter was soon joined by more boisterous examples of the species. Drakes and hens, close and far, were rushing, calling, diving, flapping and generally charming jetty walkers of all persuasions.

Our next target became Ruddy Turnstones, as the camera panned from distant ducks to ridiculously close shorebirds. We did our best to work the harsh light and capture glimpses of the world of these birds as they searched for prey items. Such secretive prey that were invisible to us, the shorebirds found easily on algae-covered rocks slicker than ice or among the humble barnacles. Later on, we would add Purple Sandpipers and Dunlins to our shorebird palette.

Soon, our attention drifted to the stars of Barnegat Inlet: Harlequin Ducks. Harlequin Ducks offer the photographer a number of challenges. These range from trying to capture adequate detail in both the white plumage and the darker blues or browns to the fact that these birds are fairly gregarious, making isolating individuals difficult. In addition, photographing these birds in muted light makes it difficult to get enough contrast between the birds’ bills and the water. Photographing them in bright light can make it difficult to keep the highlights from burning out. The deep blue plumage of the males is so sleek that a photo of the plumage can easily lose the texture of the feathers. Of course, all these obstacles just add to the delight of shooting these exquisite painted birds.

Even though they are the stars of Barnegat Inlet, the cast of characters does include birds that will cause any photographer or birder to momentarily forget the Harlequin Ducks. A perfect example of such a bird was the subadult Common Eider that moved into position off the jetty. Now our attention was divided between this uncommon winter visitor, the Harlequins and an occasional Long-tailed Duck appearing at close range. Of course, one cannot complain about such abundance. Eventually, the Common Eider flew to the north jetty, and we did not see another close eider for the rest of the day.

Of course, the jetty always holds more surprises for those with the persistence and sureness of foot to continue exploring its rocks and waters. We were rewarded with a beautiful drake Black Scoter in nice light, and some strings of Surf Scoters on the water. A couple Brant briefly spent some time on the jetty before dropping to the water. For shorebirds, we spent more time with Purple Sandpipers and Dunlins. Nonetheless, our big surprise for the day was an adult drake White-winged Scoter on the jetty, and by that I mean ON the jetty. The White-winged Scoter had hauled itself up on a rock just off the water’s edge, where it seemed to be basking in the sun and enjoying the reduced wind at the far end of the jetty.

Such a bird attracts a crowd, and this White-winged Scoter had already acquired a ring of admiring photographers and birders. Jeff and I joined the paparazzi, but the scoter soon tired of the attention and moved off the jetty. The scoter swam lazily out from the jetty for maybe a hundred yards, then traveled parallel to the jetty for a time. As its admirers dispersed, the scoter made its way back to the jetty, allowing us to photograph it on the water. I had a sense that the bird was going to head right back to the rock upon which it had been basking earlier. In hopes that this hunch would prove fruitful, Jeff and I moved our way back to rocks with good vantage points that were at a respectful distance. At first the bird seemed to take offence at our maneuvers, but soon the drake was approaching a rock that acted as a ramp for climbing out of the water. For me, it was quite a treat to observe this seabird hauling itself out of the water. The feet of the White-winged Scoter are located well at the back of the body, which makes it far better adapted to sea than shore. The drake scooted itself up onto the ramp-like rock, then gradually worked its way to standing on its legs, aided somewhat by flapping its wings to give it balance. Before we knew it, the bird had settled back down on the identical rock where we’d initially found it. What followed was any number of photographs, trying various exposures and approaching slowly and cautiously for a closer shot.

Some people revile nature photographers, saying that they get too close and scare away birds (and other animals), risking the health and safety of their subject matter and ruining opportunities for birders and nature-watchers to see rarities. I could go into a long rant about this subject, but will instead give our experience with the scoter as a positive example of the art and craft of nature photographers. We did not scare away this White-winged Scoter. We got quite close, but respected the bird. We kept an eye on the bird’s body language to gauge its comfort level, and we did not stress the bird. I contend that a real photographer does not harass the subject; after all, what good is a shot that shows a bird that is so nervous it could fly in panic at any moment? Instead of our actions causing the bird to flee, we had to tear ourselves away from the White-winged Scoter. In fact, I turned back and took some additional shots with compensation to try to salvage some of the whites and highlights. The scoter was still being seen and photographed by others later that day.

Our trip out to the absolute tip of the jetty was uneventful, so we started to head back to the lighthouse. The return walk was facing the wind. I, at least, was tired. My toes kept hitting the rocks because I wasn’t raising my legs high enough to clear the slight irregularities on the rock surfaces. We had taken hundreds of photos; I had maybe a hundred of the White-winged Scoter alone. The walk back was peppered with photo ops, as we kept encountering Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers and Dunlins. Many of the birds we’d photographed on the way out had now moved to the center of the inlet, making the walk back somewhat unremarkable – except for the windburn! All in all, it was another nice day at Barnegat Inlet with good birds, good company and new insights on the opportunities and challenges of photography at the jetty. Hope to see you out there in 2011.