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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

May 8, 2010
Photography Field Trip to Heislerville, New Jersey

Click Here for pictures taken on this trip by Sanjib Bhattacharyya

The forecast for May 8 initially looked perfectly fine for a photography trip, maybe a little windier than I’d prefer but otherwise quite good. Unfortunately, I spent the latter part of the evening watching The Weather Channel (TWC) change a 30% chance of precipitation and 20mph wind forecast into the storm of the century. I’d already committed to the trip going ahead as scheduled and began to feel anxious because according to TWC, we would be heading into gale force winds in excess of 65mph as we were pummeled by lightning storms. I kept looking between the forecasts on-line and TWC’s coverage of impending doom. The on-line forecast through NOAA and TWC seemed perfectly good, just becoming very windy late in the day. In contrast, the television forecast was some admixture of Armageddon and apocalypse with a healthy dose of Ragnarok. So, I began to worry that I was endangering our safety by going ahead with the trip. Still, if the on-line forecast was to be believed, we would have suboptimal wind conditions, but partly cloudy skies through most of the day. In contrast, Sunday’s forecast was similarly windy, but with clear skies. Partly cloudy skies means that the lighting can be good for photography longer into the day, as the clouds act as natural diffusers, cutting out harsh highlights, evening out tone and keeping contrast low. Saturday was undoubtedly the better of the two choices, so with anxiety still roiling, I went to bed and hoped that the storms on Saturday would be brief and not life-threatening.

I awoke to completely calm conditions, no wind, cool and, of course, dark. Shooting down the highway in the predawn hours, there was no sign of the coming storm that TWC had spoken of just hours ago. I reached the Wawa at the intersection of Route 47 and Route 347, and a text from Sam Perloff let me know that the trip’s attendance would be doubling to a grand total of two attendees: Sam Perloff and Sanjib Bhattacharyya. Sanjib had emailed me weeks ago about attending, and the impending weather had failed to entirely scare him off. The sun was still not up, and I was in such desperate need of caffeine that I knew I would need to drink Wawa coffee. Despite my better judgment, I was lured in by the “extra caffeine” label on what Wawa was calling espresso. I was sure the “espresso” would be harsh enough to rip through my stomach lining, so I cut it with some hot chocolate. Of course, the resulting blend was so ridiculously hot I couldn’t drink it, so I cut it again with half and half. What emerged was some sort of 100% sugar solution with brown coloration. I grabbed an unmemorable safe-looking breakfast item to pair with my caffeinated sugar, and found Sam Perloff in the check out line. It seemed that Sam had left his pregnant wife behind for the trip, and was hoping she wouldn’t go into labor while we were out photographing the birds. This seemed a reasonable hope to pair with my desire that we could live through TWC’s forecast Armageddon.

Minutes later, Sam and I arrived at Heislerville WMA. The first rays of the rising sun washed rich warm light over the thousands of shorebirds standing at the water’s edge. The dawn painted the shorebirds in warm browns, enriched rufous highlights, lit up oranges and washed yellow across the birds’ white bellies. A Long-billed Dowitcher in breeding plumage blazed like a phoenix. Short-billed Dowitchers glowed orange. The fine rufous backs of the Dunlins reminded me of freshly ground spices: cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, allspice. Bald Eagles flew across the gold-washed sky, while Black-crowned Night-herons backlit and shrouded by the dawn swept overhead. Barn Swallows flashed like blue and orange fighter jets over the water and across the sky.

Presently, Sanjib arrived and we regrouped for hours of stalking and shutter-snapping. I briefly revisited my alleged coffee beverage to find that it had advanced from marginally edible to alarmingly disgusting with a syrupy veneer. I turned to the birds and tried to get the memory of the taste out of my head. We captured images of flying Laughing Gulls, skimming Black Skimmers, piping Semipalmated Plovers, skittish Killdeer and stalwart Forster’s Terns. Waves of shorebirds flushed and washed over the shallow waters, providing photographs of masses of birds in flight. Least Sandpipers allowed a close approach at the second impoundment. Clapper Rails laughed at us, while Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibis struck poses on a submerged stump. White-rumped Sandpipers strutted over the mud, towering over the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The masses of birds and variety of sizes enticed me to imagine what the sight of these birds’ saurian ancestors must have been like along the shores of Cretaceous wetlands. I spent some time engaged in a futile attempt to capture the images of racing Barn Swallows in the early morning light.

Our rarest birds for the refuge were six American Oystercatchers arrayed at the sand spit on the far shore of the first impoundment. In short, the morning was excellent for birds and photography. As the tide receded, the birds also began to disappear. When I received a text from the CMBO Twitter feed about the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Hidden Valley, you could see Sam Perloff’s eyes light up at the opportunity to see this rare vagrant. We decided to make an additional stop on the field trip to chase the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at the Hidden Valley access for Higbee Beach WMA in Cape May.

We arrived to the sight of various birders looking in different directions with some leaving the scene. Some quick intelligence work provided us with the information that the exodus of birders had seen the flycatcher earlier, but not in the last hour or so. Undismayed, we proceeded along the edge of the recently plowed field across from the parking lot for Hidden Valley. In a short time, we had caught up with some birders all focused in the same direction, which is to say they were looking at the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. We followed suit, then attempted to photograph the bird. Unfortunately, the lighting was anything but optimal and the bird was distant. Afterwards, we worked our way around the field hoping to stumble into a better position for photography. The Eastern Kingbirds were not our friends in this endeavor. As soon as the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher would settle upon a perch, the Eastern Kingbirds would make it their mission in life to teach this long-tailed kingbird that its home was certainly not New Jersey. We walked around the field a bit, then got distracted by another Twitter posting about Parasitic Jaeger in close at the Concrete Ship, which sent us towards Sunset Beach. Unfortunately, we found no close birds at all there except for the Laughing Gulls, and the trip broke up at this point, leaving me to photograph Laughing Gulls against a dramatic sky.