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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

June 18, 2011
Nightjar Field Trip to Wharton State Forest, Burlington County, NJ

Mike Rosengarten and I arrived at Carranza Rd on June 18, 2011 around 3:30pm. My objectives in arriving before the trip’s meeting time were to scout around for areas of Wharton State Forest that might have good bird activity, try to find the Prothonotary Warbler that Tom Bailey told me about, and try to take some photos of the local fauna before the trip. The weather was hot and humid, though not as hot as the forecast suggested and nowhere near as hot as last year’s trip. I was hoping the relatively cooler weather might lead to pretty good passerine activity, but the birds were patchily distributed and behaved in a fickle manner. The Prothonotary Warbler was a no-show for us, and I was glad we scouted for it rather than trying to caravan a half-dozen vehicles all over Carranza Rd, stopping at each bridge and listening in vain.

With the forest so quiet, I decided we needed to check out the bog area before exploring anywhere else. At the bog, Mike and I failed to discover much more activity than we’d seen during the drive in. Water levels were down. A few Northern Parulas and Eastern Towhees sang, Common Yellowthroats and Gray Catbirds played hide and seek. Water levels in the first bog were very low, only a few puddles for the most part. We found neither ducks nor swallows. Cedar Waxwings, possibly the most commonly spotted bird on the trip, flew overhead and gave their whistling flight calls. We pressed on to the next section of the bog.

Usually that part of the bog is inaccessible, because the water spills across the path. To continue past the overgrown dike, you usually need boots, sandals or at least a fair amount of resignation over getting your shoes absolutely soaked – if not completely caked in mud. Great Crested Flycatchers called and Pine Warblers sang against the heat. Despite my expectations of hearing their mellifluous songs, no Wood Thrush could be heard; maybe they were on eggs? The water levels in the next section were much better, but not a frog sang and not a bird was on or over the water. I pretty much decided on abandoning the bog stroll, and we tried a path on the opposite side of the road that led to a marsh. I was hoping that if the bogs were inactive, then the marsh might be the hotspot.

On the hike out to the marsh, there were as few birds as we’d had at the bogs. Red-winged Blackbirds sang and perched on snags overlooking the water, and more Cedar Waxwings flew overhead. An Eastern Kingbird sat on a highbush blueberry, and raucous Great Crested Flycatchers laughed at the heat and humidity. Disappointed, I tried to think about where else to lead the participants on the traditional pre-sunset walk. We turned to walk out and suddenly the entire mood shifted. A fledgling Brown-headed Cowbird begged incessantly for its father Black-and-white Warbler to feed it. We followed the noise of the nest parasite and had a perfect view of the paternal warbler carrying food for his looming fledgling. The towering baby cowbird seemed as likely to eat its parent as the food the warbler proffered. A flock of Cedar Waxwings appeared in the bushes, feeding on berries and whistling to themselves. Ovenbirds, Northern Parulas and Pine Warblers sang. A Scarlet Tanager popped in out of nowhere, and we observed it for a time as it moved about the treetops. Soon we found ourselves back at the car, and ready to enjoy some air conditioning. I hoped that the activity we stumbled upon might last, so that the rest of the field trip participants could enjoy it. We headed back towards the Carranza Memorial to wait for the participants.
It was 5:30pm when we got to the Memorial, and we took some time to read the placard, learning about the man and tragedy marked by that obelisk seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then we walked around the Memorial area, hearing Ovenbirds singing, watching Chipping Sparrows and towhees dart off. A fledgling Pine Warbler chased its parents around, begging for food. Mike found a particularly bright male Prairie Warbler, and we followed it awhile, hoping for an opportunity to photograph it. Eventually, I received a phone call from Cindy Ahern telling me that she and her husband would be late and that Tony Croasdale would be arriving in a different vehicle. I tried to give her some sense of where we might be, fielded a text from Tony Croasdale and turned to greet Roy, who was our first participant to arrive. I decided to move my Scion to make it a little more visible from the road, and left Roy and Mike to wander around looking for birds.

After relocating the car to a more eye-catching location on scenic Carranza Rd, I greeted Bob Shaffer, who was enjoying a sesame seed bagel. That reminded me that I was hungry, so I grabbed some snacks then met up with Mike and Roy. We returned to the road where a succession of field trip participants soon arrived: Dino Fiabane, Connie Goldman and Tony Croasdale with his friends Marco and Nicole. With everyone except the Aherns present, I took us around the Carranza Memorial. We walked around, but the high level of bird activity had dropped out. The highpoint of that part of the trip was hearing an Ovenbird sing its flight display song, and just catching a glimpse of it as it dropped back into the trees. The Chipping Sparrows were still bouncing around, but most of the other birds had disappeared, including the dapper Prairie Warbler.

With things so quiet at the Carranza Memorial, we drove out to the bog area to explore the marsh area. I was hoping that the activity there would still be pretty high. Unfortunately, the marsh had become quiet just like the Memorial. We were fortunate enough to spot one male Black-and-white Warbler there, and a few Cedar Waxwings flew by. I resorted to fuzzy logic, hoping that if the active areas were now dead, perhaps the inactive bogs were now hosting birds. We returned to the road where we found the Aherns, and crossed over to investigate the bogs. It turned out that fuzzy logic paid off, at least a little. Where Mike and I had found a completely silent bog, we now witnessed Wood Ducks exploding into flight, Tree Swallows darting over the water, Cedar Waxwings flying overhead and a few Carpenter Frogs making isolated calls like single hammer strikes. We stayed until the sky started to dim. Then I turned us around to make for the old railroad crossing and wait for the evening show.

Upon arriving at the railroad tracks, Tony Croasdale informed me that a Scarlet Tanager made an appearance back at the cars, perhaps the same one Mike and I had seen earlier. We soon set up a makeshift camp to await the big show, and I carried various bits of gear out to the viewing area: cooler, spotlight, boombox, CD’s. As the evening light started to fade I was beginning to fret that the nighthawks wouldn’t start their display flights until after sunset. Adding to my consternation was the fact that the Ovenbird that usually performs a late day display flight completely failed to show up. Was it too hot? Too humid? Were they timid due to vulnerable nestlings?

Eventually, a Common Nighthawk took to the skies above us. The bird circled around, climbed, dove and performed its booming display. A few participants missed out on the booming due to chatter, shifting gravel rocks and the distance of the bird. In short order, the nighthawk gave it another try and boomed again to everyone’s enjoyment. As dusk began to fall on Wharton State Forest, more Nighthawks flew their display sorties, climbed and dove, then boomed overhead or off in the middle distance. A few birds made low passes over our heads, which is always a crowd-pleasing event. As the sun set, the Whip-poor-wills chimed in, briefly filling the forest with their calls before settling down to a more intermittent and subdued chorus.

I set up the boombox to play a Whip-poor-will recording, and we got the interest of one Whip-poor-will. Unfortunately, we couldn’t entice that bird to show itself, and I opted to abandon the recording lure. They Whip-poor-wills just weren’t showing enough interest in the recording. Bats flew overhead and we heard more nightjars around us. We listened closely in the hopes of teasing out a Chuck-will’s-widow. While some overlapping Whip-poor-wills sounded enticing at first, we never did hear anything that truly resembled the call of the Chuck-will’s-widow.

As sunset gave way to evening, Tony and his crew opted to leave after enduring a small battle against insects and arachnids. Afterwards, the rest of us walked up Carranza Rd in hopes of spotting a roadside nightjar. We were in luck (sort of), as a singing Whip-poor-will was sitting on the railing at the side of the road near the Carranza Memorial. I directed the spotlight to where I heard the bird and you could see the eyeshine through binoculars. We tried to stalk the bird, moving quietly and slowly on the opposite side of the road. When we were close enough for a decent look, I turned on the spotlight again, but the bird had flown. Whip-poor-wills are such difficult birds to get a good look at, under the best of conditions. I expect our troupe of eight birders lined along the road would probably have scared off even the most stalwart of nightjars. We ambled back to the cars, booming nightjars overhead and calling Whip-poor-wills in the distance. Driving off, we stayed alert for eyeshine at the roadside or any herps looking to warm their bellies on the road. In our wake, the resounding call of the Whip-poor-will still could be heard in the humid air, a clear indication that Wharton State Forest still had secrets to keep.