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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

February 12, 2011
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 Joe Delesantro

The morning of Feb 12 was overcast, but only a mild breeze was blowing through Barnegat Inlet. Arriving early, I was soon joined by Joe Delesantro and Steve Mattan. Soon the usual pre-jetty rituals were underway. We threw on our insulating layers preparing for the cold, gathered together our camera gear and walked towards the lighthouse. A call from Martin Dellwo let us know that he and Patty Rehn were running late, and would find us out on the jetty. On the way to the lighthouse, we found Deborah Danila just arrived, and let her know where we were headed. Not at all far from the steps of the lighthouse, Sam Perloff joined our crew and the others were not far behind. With the cloudy skies threatening to become completely clear we started down the boardwalk portion of the jetty.

Soon enough, we found ourselves slowly following an Ipswich Sparrow, and wishing the bird would be more cooperative. As luck would have it, the Ipswich Sparrow eventually stopped underneath the railing of the boardwalk. Just on the side of the concrete boardwalk, the sparrow stayed patiently still while we took it in turns to get into position and compose a shot. The light was not ideal, but it’s not everyday that you see an Ipswich Sparrow sitting in one spot for several minutes. Closer and closer, we approached the bird. The sparrow showed little concern or interest in our game of cameraman leapfrog. Joe Delesantro and his long lens had the definite advantage, but we all did our best to respect each other’s viewing and to avoid alarming the bird. Eventually, the Ipswich Sparrow tired of our antics and took off.

On the move again, we found the brief walk to the end of the boardwalk rather uneventful. We clambered down off the boardwalk and regrouped on the rocks. Soon we were off, rambling from rock to rock and stepping from stone to stone, ever cautious of our choice of footing. The skies turned completely clear, and I attached the circular polarizer to my lens, so I could cut some of the glare that the crystal blue sky was producing. As soon as I readjusted to shooting with the polarizer, thin wispy clouds rolled in and shielded us from the sun. So the polarizer came off again. Soon enough we had Harlequin Ducks holding court just feet from the jetty’s edge. The amorous drakes were calling and chasing away rivals. Ultimately, we had our choice of swimming Harlequins, Harlequins on the rocks, Harlequins preening, diving or just looking magnificent.

Other birds attracted our attention including grazing Brants, serene Long-tailed Ducks, a few Ruddy Turnstones and the ever-present Herring Gulls. Out in the channel, more distant Red-breasted Mergansers were diving or flying down the length of the channel. The Island Beach jetty had a good collection of gulls as well as Great Cormorants sitting on the rocks. Using the binoculars to scout ahead, we could see flocks of Common Eiders and scoters that at the end of the jetty. Anticipation got the best of some of us, and those participants missed the triumphant arrival of our only Greater Scaup for the trip. Luckily, that bird was in no rush to move on, and those that missed its arrival saw the scaup as they departed.

The end of the jetty was slick with spray, and only a small group of our photographers made it to the very end. For my part, I saw nothing farther down the jetty that made the risk worthwhile. Some members of the group were hesitant to risk the slippery rocks at the end of the jetty. I told them that there was nothing to see from the jetty’s end that could not be seen just as well from drier, less slippery rocks. In the end most of us chose to stick to the safer route, and we still had opportunities to marvel at the hundreds of Common Eiders floating around the inlet.
Occasionally, small flocks of Common Eiders took to the skies, giving us opportunities for somewhat distant flight shots of these large sea ducks. Great Cormorants rested on the channel markers or flew out to feed in deeper waters. Black Scoters and Surf Scoters bobbed on the surf along with Long-tailed Ducks. Distant Red-throated Loons were just out of reach for my camera equipment. Sandpipers flew in: Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers and Sanderlings. Some of these stayed in place long enough for some photo studies.

As we made our way back towards the lighthouse, a Harbor Seal surfaced in the middle of the channel. Frantic cameras fired away, and the seal disappeared beneath the water. We scanned for it, waiting to see if it would reappear. To our surprise, it surfaced right near Sam Perloff, just inches from the jetty. Again, we pointed our cameras at the beast and fired away. I think Sam was even too close to try to get a shot of the seal. The seal did not linger. Sinking below the waves, the Harbor Seal disappeared from sight. We had some hopes that the seal might haul out on the rocks to enjoy the fine, relatively warm, sunny day. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Perhaps the seal was only playing with us.

The rest of the trip back was punctuated with Harlequin Duck photo ops. Other old favorites also drew our attention, including the Greater Scaup, first year Herring Gulls and other jetty regulars. We also kept our eyes on the Long-tailed Ducks in hopes that some of them would come in close enough for Deborah to get some photos. Martin and Patty told me they had to leave a little early, so they headed out. The rest of us took our time and looked for interesting subjects. All the while the winds kept building. When we caught up with Patty and Martin, we discovered that an Ipswich Sparrow had stopped them in their tracks.

This Ipswich Sparrow encounter was even more exciting than the bird on the boardwalk. First of all, this Ipswich Sparrow was hiding in a clump of dune grasses, giving us a much more natural setting to showcase the bird. Secondly, the sparrow was not concerned about our presence in the slightest, allowing us a very close approach. Perhaps the wind that had been building on our return visit convinced the bird that it was better to stay in this sheltered spot rather than flee its admirers. On the other hand, the bird could have been preoccupied with devouring all the seeds it found in that small patch of beach grass. I never cease to be amazed at how well these birds find food in what appears to be completely barren ground. The Ipswich Sparrow would turn its attention to what seemed to be a patch of empty sand, and seconds later it was removing the husk from some choice seed. Like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, the bird worked its magic on the sand, and a seed appeared every time the beak met the beach. Soon we had a small crowd of admirers gathered between the bird and the jetty, and we took turns pointing out the well-camouflaged sparrow to interested birders, photographers and beach-goers.
In the excitement of it all, I thought Deborah and I had lost Steve and Joe, but it turned out that Steve was behind me and Joe was near the picnic tables. By the time we got back to our cars, the wind was really roaring, and we were all glad that we weren’t still on the jetty. Steve, Deborah and I had lunch at a nearby deli; then we made our way to Sunset Park in Harvey Cedars. The winds had grown stronger while we ate lunch, and a significant amount of salt spray had to be washed off the windshields of those cars parked facing the bay. Sunset Park was no less windy, and a lot less birdy than the inlet. The wind had caused Red-breasted Mergansers to shelter underneath the docks, but large groups of Dunlin were feeding out in the open. We had not seen any Dunlin at the inlet, but here there were good numbers of them eagerly feeding around the sea foam. Brant and Canada Geese fed at the ball fields or bobbed in the rough surf.

The most interesting bird we saw at Sunset Park, though, was a Song Sparrow. This bird was much more timid than the Dunlins, so much so that we had trouble getting a good look at the sparrow. Eventually, we did get to see the bird well, but it immediately marched underneath the pavilion and disappeared. Later the Song Sparrow reappeared on the opposite side of the pavilion. The bird was quite proficient at evading us by using the labyrinthine underside of the pavilion as a secret passage. However, this bird’s spelunking was far more advanced than we had thought, for the bird had also learned to follow a drainage ditch under the pavilion and used the drain grating as its own personal front gate. We watched amazed, as this bird vaulted up through the drain grating then disappeared below ground like an actor using a trap door on a stage. We knew an opportunity when we saw one. After the bird disappeared through the grate, we all moved in close to the grate to wait for an encore performance. We were not disappointed, and the sparrow hopped out onto the grating as if on cue. Our small paparazzi fired away, and soon this dapper thespian took its final bow, disappearing under the grating and making its exit backstage. With that, the paparazzi could do little but call it a day, and the last three of us left Long Beach Island and its roaring winds behind us.