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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

June 26, 2010
Nightjar Field Trip to Wharton State Forest, Burlington County, NJ

Click Here for some pictures by Steve Kacir

With the intent to take some photos before the field trip, I arrived early at Wharton State Forest and was greeted by nightmarish levels of heat and humidity. Wharton State Forest baked in the late day sun, and the air was filled with the drone of summer’s insects. I rambled around on the sand trails before stumbling on a flooded portion of a sand road. There, Prairie Warblers sang and dragonflies competed for the choicest perches. Whirligig beetles danced across the dark waters while young Pine Warblers begged for food overhead. I chased a camera-shy Common Yellowthroat with the camera. I sweated a lot. Soon I found, the water had attracted nuisances as much as photo ops. Deer flies abounded at levels I’d never encountered before in the Pine Barrens. Inevitably, I found myself covered with deet before I began to trudge my way back to the Carranza Memorial meeting spot.

Along the way, I aimed the camera at White-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Warblers and Chipping Sparrows. The light was as challenging as the heat. Right before I returned to the memorial, I heard Common Nighthawks calling in the woods. The sounds seemed to come from below the canopy, and I was astonished to hear Nighthawks calling mid-day while they were evidently on the ground. I thought the heat had finally gotten to me. When I reached my car, I hopped in, turned on the AC and deleted a number of photos from the camera card. With that editing accomplished and the AC cooling my brain, I turned to the cooler and grabbed a Gator-Ade to slake my thirst. Presently, I began to wonder where the participants were, so I circled around the parking area in case they had gathered at a section of the Carranza Memorial out of view from my parking spot. After a complete circuit of the parking lot, I was still on my own. I decided to park closer to Carranza Rd. Immediately the first couple cars of participants converged on my location.

I had barely stepped out of my Scion xB, when four vehicles pulled into the same general area. With Gator-Ade in hand, I greeted the participants, including a good contingent of the Atlantic Audubon Society. Bob Shaffer provided a familiar face, and we soon found ourselves in that pre-field trip state wherein you want to get started, but are still a little earlier than the published meeting time. To help out the hypothetical stragglers, we started with a quick walk around the parking areas. A particularly bright Eastern Wood-pewee that I had seen on three earlier occasions initially was a no-show, but popped up later. At first, those who spotted the pewee had mistaken it for a Great Crested Flycatcher. Like I said, it was a particularly bright (almost showy) pewee. Family groups of Pine Warblers kept us active as we searched through the pine boughs, and we eventually found an active Pine Warbler nest. Eastern Towhee and Chipping Sparrows sang from the woods and roadsides. Without warning, a small bird marched across the drive ahead of us, and I predicted it would be an Ovenbird. That prediction was confirmed upon finding the bird actively singing from its song perch. Some in the group were having trouble getting on the bird, but as I advanced on the Ovenbird it switched perches allowing everyone a nice look at this secretive songster. After the Ovenbird finished singing, we returned to the meeting spot, where we acquired a few more participants. With an easy fifteen minutes of pre-birding accomplished, we were ready for a short AC break as we drove to the spot for the next phase of Wharton State Forest’s heat and humidity.

We drove down the rutted dirt and sand road that is Carranza until I thought we had found the path that led to the wetland where we usually bird in the pre-evening hours. In some ways I was correct, as the path did lead to the wetland . . . eventually. Nevertheless, we were birders weren’t we? And we forged ahead on sandy paths through ridiculously hot and humid conditions in hopes of spying or hearing something interesting. Unfortunately, no one had reminded the wildlife to appear lively or wild or even appear at all. The heat was a bit much, no doubt. The birds and most other animals had more sense than we did and stayed quiet and still. A large scarab beetle under a leaf was the first thing we heard. It appeared injured and was rustling the leaves under which it had hidden. The amount of noise reminded me of shrews and snakes, but all we got was that beetle. A little farther along we found a Fowler’s Toad that had been resting at the side of the path. As with most frogs and toads, Fowler’s Toads have some limited ability to change their color, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings. The pale gray this toad achieved made it all but invisible to some of the members of our group. A finger pointing a little too closely, though, set the toad in motion and dissolving its camouflage. I may be overstating how few birds we saw and heard on this leg of the trip. Consider it artistic license, but I truly have never been in Wharton during the breeding season when it was so quiet and still. Borer beetles and cicadas buzzed in the heat, but few birds made the effort.

When we finally arrived at the aforementioned wetland, we found it to be almost as abandoned as the paths we had taken in getting there. There were some birds: singing Wood Thrushes, laughing Great Crested Flycatchers, a scuttling family group of Black-and-white Warblers, a solitary Cedar Waxwing and the ubiquitous Pine Warblers. In addition to the lack of bird sightings, there were no frogs singing. That wetland harbors large numbers of hammering Carpenter Frogs under prime conditions, and hearing their Hephaestian hammering in the late afternoon has always been a highlight of the trip for me. Likewise, no other ranid croaked, bellowed, chirped or made any notable sounds while we were there. Possibly, the silence of the amphibians was due to the state of the wetland, which had become decidedly less wet than I had become accustomed to seeing it. In fact, we found water lilies flattened on the dry path as a testament to how much water one can usually find in the area. On the plus side, we could walk much farther down the path, but the dry state of the wetland meant the walk didn’t turn up many sightings.

On the way out, I decided to take another path less traveled (at least by me). On previous trips the path was either submerged or very muddy, so we’d not explored it too much in the past. Like most of Wharton, though it was remarkably quiet. Taste-testing highbush and lowbush blueberries provided some distraction, and we did hear one surprising song. In fact, the song was so out of place that at first I could not recognize it. I spoke the song back to myself as a very lame mnemonic, and realized that the song bore a remarkable similarity to Indigo Bunting. Though, if this bird truly was an Indigo Bunting it was either lost or very confused. With the mystery of the possible Indigo Bunting still rather unsolved, we reached the road and were greeted by the songs of Prairie Warblers. A short trek later and we were back in the cars and headed towards the Carranza Memorial for the big show.

As we drove back we met up with some more participants who had joined up with the trip by way of Atlantic Audubon and a few more DVOC’ers as well. Everyone parked at the area where Carranza Rd intersects the railroad tracks, and I futilely tried to count participants again. Chairs, coolers and other necessities began to crop up along the sand road that parallels the rails. At this point, the sun was still rather high in the sky, and Bob Shaffer told me he’d heard Common Nighthawks calling from the same area where I’d heard them earlier. For whatever reason, they were calling in the daytime, seemingly while roosting on the ground. Presently, we had our first Common Nighthawk sighting, as a male flapped high over the trees despite the plentiful sunlight. Calling “Peent” all the while, the nighthawk circled its way towards the clouds. After a short time it held its altitude briefly, then turned towards the earth. With its wings out, the nighthawk dove nearly straight for the ground, pulling up just before the tree line. As the bird pulled out of its dive, it spread its primaries wide and we could hear the “Boooom” caused by the wind rushing through its feathers. We all showed our appreciation for the show, and I got the sense that some brief applause was almost in order. As we chatted about the bird’s impressive display flight, the star of the show ascended into the sky and began peenting as he circled over the pines. In no time, the nighthawk had disappeared from earshot, and become a pleasant memory as well as a hopeful portent of things to come. With the initial excitement dying down and the waiting game about to renew, I tried another head count to determine how many participants we had for the final count.

Before I could start counting, Tom Bailey appeared and gave us some helpful information about the local birds. Tom confirmed that the usual flight-displaying Ovenbird was still in the area, warned us to keep an eye out for an impossibly tame Eastern Wood-pewee and told us what the Whip-poor-wills and the nighthawks had been getting up to lately. Tom confirmed my thoughts about the oddity of having an Indigo Bunting in the area, and mentioned the effects of the drought on the wildlife that usually frequents the wetland we’d visited earlier. Interestingly enough, Tom also started telling us about one of the nighthawks, and that bird’s behavior matched the one we had just seen. Furthermore, even as Tom recounted his recent discovery of a Dark-eyed Junco at Palmyra Cove Nature Park, the fabled nearly tame Eastern Wood-pewee appeared on the scene. The pewee perched reasonably close to us, and flew sorties out to devour the local insects. As close as the bird was, Tom commented that it had occasionally perched even closer. In response, the bird flew to a brush pile, easily within five feet of us. Those of us with cameras had no choice but to photograph this cooperative bird. The clicking of mirrors and shutters put Tom in mind of typewriters clattering away. Towards the end of the photographic barrage, I took a wider shot capturing Bob Shaffer and the bird in the same frame as proof of how tame this pewee had been. Afterwards, Tom moved on and the waiting game was upon us. We now numbered seventeen participants. Including Tom, eighteen people had attended the trip in some way.

As many of us recognize, the inevitable end result of birders waiting for birds is conversation, and soon I was thinking that we might not be hearing the birds over our own tales. I walked closer to the cars, and immediately heard nighthawks. Bob Shaffer called out that he was hearing both nighthawks and Whip-poor-wills, so I suggested we quiet down for a while and really listen. Soon we were hearing fairly regular peenting from the nighthawks. An Ovenbird performed its evening flight display. Whip-poor-wills called sporadically and quietly, such that you could not move or speak if you wanted to hear them. A few more nighthawks flew circles around our group. One nighthawk performed a few more booming displays, and I thought it was likely that this was the same bird who had first displayed at our location.

The most memorable moment of the evening, though, was when a female nighthawk appeared out of nowhere and swooped low over birders relaxing in folding chairs. She was only a few feet over the heads of most of the group as she banked and headed down the sand road. Afterwards, that nighthawk landed in the road not too far away from us. She seemed to be picking grit from the road. Everyone had an incredibly close encounter with that female in the air above us then got to enjoy watching her while she was on the road. After a time, she moved farther down the road and was briefly attended by a male nighthawk before she turned her attention back to acquiring grit. Then, she moved even farther down the road and out of sight. She left us with more calling nighthawks and timid Whip-poor-wills, but soon the mosquitoes were getting the best of everyone. The trip broke up, and we headed down Carranza Rd bound for our various homes and keeping an eye out for any birds, reptiles or amphibians that might give us one last encounter for the evening.