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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

September 3, 2011
Johnson Sod Farm Field Trip

The past three years have seen the Salem County sod fields go from a birding Mecca to a veritable desert of avifauna. For as long as I’ve birded Johnson Farms, birders have complained about shrinking amounts of sod. For years, I couldn’t understand the complaints because I could see no real change in the amount of sod present. I had no frame of reference, perhaps. At any rate there had been no major decrease in the amount of sod for most of the time I’d lived in the region. All that changed three years ago. Johnson Farms has become a microcosm for changing land-use due to both the development of biofuels and the struggling US economy. The change was not gradual and not hard to miss. In past years, Johnson Farms’ sod fields covered the great majority of the area bounded by NJ-77, Olivet Rd, Burlington Rd and Grier’s Lane. For the last three years, the area of these fields devoted to sod has shrunk to less than fifty percent of its previous extent. What has replaced the sod has been an expansion of nursery plants, cornfields (presumably grown for the ethanol market) and fallow fields seemingly left to weeds. This year marked no acceleration of the loss of sod fields in the region, but no real improvement in habitat for migrating grasspipers either.

As usual for this trip, I arrived a half hour early to scout out the fields. While I was not surprised by the conditions I found at Johnson Farms, I was still disappointed. I can’t fault Johnson Farms for seeking profit where they can find it. We certainly don’t need to lose more farmland to development. In fact, the lack of demand for sod may indicate that rampant development has abated somewhat. In the big picture, that may mean better overall habitat elsewhere is left undeveloped. For the purposes of the field trip, though, that can still be somewhat dissatisfying. I took a quick loop around Johnson Farms, wrinkling my nose at the stench of rotting corn stubble. The smell of decaying corn fields hung over most of Grier’s Lane. I took note of what irrigation equipment was running and watched for little structural differences that Upland Sandpipers sometimes prefer. On the Grier’s Lane side of the farm, less than half the fields were covered in sod. An American Kestrel perched on a wire above Burlington Rd as I drove towards Olivet Rd. The Olivet side of the fields only had sod along the middle third of the road. I could find no birds on either field except for a few Killdeer and Mourning Doves. Actually, considering the amount of corn stubble, there were even fewer Killdeer and Mourning Doves than I would have expected. Similarly, the swallow flock that I expected to see amassed on the wires over Grier’s Lane was absent. Perhaps that morning they preferred other perches.

I drove past the meeting location for the field trip, and stopped where the sod fields began on Grier’s Lane. I was really worried we’d have almost no birds at all. I set up my scope and scanned the edge of the sod field, hoping some American Golden-plovers might be foraging where the recently harvested sod had been removed. For my troubles, I was able to spot a half dozen Killdeers. A Red-tailed Hawk perched on an irrigation device, as did some of my missing swallows. I packed it in and went to the meeting location, where six cars were already waiting. Doris McGovern had organized some people into scanning the corn stubble across from the meeting spot, but I wanted us to work on sod rather than waste a lot of time on corn stubble. Past years have shown that the corn stubble seems to only attract Killdeers, Horned Larks and Mourning Doves. With the clear skies, I knew we needed to spend time scouring sod areas before the heat shimmer limited how far we could look. I rallied everyone over to the sod at Grier’s Lane, which seemed the best choice at the time. Presently our eight cars collected along what sod we could find.

Butch Lishman told me that he, as usual, had also scouted and had seen some Black-bellied Plovers across the street from the sod. Butch said he was pretty sure there were some American Golden-plovers in the flock. I was shocked and thankful, and we started scanning the field that Butch had indicated. This area was on the Burlington Rd side of a neighboring farm’s driveway. The fields were essentially just dirt with a few wet spots. Presently, I found some birds including Semipalmated Plovers and some Black-bellied Plovers. Doris located Butch’s flock, though, which was much farther out. Those birds seemed to be enjoying a little mud near an irrigation device. There were two birds that looked good for golden-plovers, but I wanted us to get closer. Our whole group of a dozen or so birders marched past the driveway, and we arranged ourselves along the roadside. Soon enough, I spotted an American Golden-plover that was retaining most of its breeding plumage. The dark coloration in the undertail coverts, sleeker body shape, smaller head and golden wing coverts were all visible, even at the distance we were observing the birds. The icing on the cake was that the golden-plovers would occasionally partake in an early morning stretch, exposing their wingpits, which lacked the black markings found on Black-bellied Plovers. We swapped scopes around. Everyone got good, distant but definitive looks at the golden-plovers. At least two birds were seen well at this location, and I had seen another bird that looked like good for a basic-plumaged American Golden-plover. Butch said he’d seen one that morning before the trip that he was sure was an American Golden-plover in basic plumage, so the fields gave us three more grasspipers than I would have predicted!

In the same field, we found more Semipalmated Plovers and Black-bellied Plovers, eight Pectoral Sandpipers, Killdeers and Mourning Doves. Bobolinks, seemingly invisible, called overhead, “Bwink. Bwink.” We moved on to Olivet Rd, which provided us with excellent views of perched Bobolinks. Some of the Bobolinks called while we observed them through scopes and binoculars. A Horned Lark or two called as they flew towards Grier’s Lane. A Northern Harrier put in an appearance. All the while, we were greeted by a long procession of Red-tailed Hawk sightings, including some freshly plumaged first year birds. The swallow flock gathered. Butch picked out a Cliff Swallow, and I found a Bank Swallow. A strange-looking Song Sparrow that had molted all its tail feathers led us on a little chase. Some first year Brown-headed Cowbirds were giving us the perfect opportunity to study molt progression in that species. For shorebirds, we had Killdeers and that was all.

Hoping that we might have better luck at East Coast Sod & Seed, we got back in the cars and drove out to the intersection of US-40 and Pointers-Auburn Rd. I was quite intent on getting to those fields before the heat shimmer became problematic. Consequently, I shot right past a newly developed gravel lot overlooking the fields where a sign had been installed about farm preservation. Nevertheless, I did not miss the turn onto Pointers-Auburn Rd and everyone followed me up the road. We parked, hopped out and set up the scopes. Soon there were various sightings being bandied about: Osprey, Great Egret, Laughing Gulls, Canada Geese, House Sparrow. Crowds of European Starlings wandered all over the fields, doing their best impressions of Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. We refused to be taken in by their charades. There were shorebirds too, attracted to the small pond that forms on the northeastern corner of the intersection. Here we saw more Pectoral Sandpipers, striking Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers including one gorgeous juvenile bird, Lesser Yellowlegs and Killdeer. The so-called “other puddle” east of the pond was nothing more than an indentation in the sod, and if it held water it was only attracting three Pectoral Sandpipers and a small contingent of the starling army. Scanning the other fields showed that the only real avian presence was made up of starlings and Laughing Gulls.

To bolster our spirits and maybe pad out the list a little, we drove over to the pond at Featherbed Lane. There, we found a hunter setting up goose decoys, which accounted for the complete lack of avifauna at the pond. We heard and saw some Eastern Meadowlarks in the surrounding fields. Black and Turkey Vultures flew overhead. After the hunter started moving out, two Lesser Yellowlegs flew to the pond. While we were there, a local birder tipped us off about the location of a Cattle Egret flock. Consequently, we got back on the road and headed to Compromise Rd. There, we were able to watch thirty-four Cattle Egrets foraging with the cows. A Green Heron and a juvenile Little Blue Heron popped up from the streamside to perch on fence rails. Eastern Meadowlark and Red-tailed Hawk put in appearances, and we officially closed down the trip. Most participants headed out either to pursue better birds in better places or get back to weekend chores. Butch Lishman, Dan Efroymson and I proved gluttons for punishment and returned to Johnson Farms in hopes of finding a Buff-breasted or Baird’s Sandpiper.

Neither of those species graced us with an appearance, but another American Golden-plover allowed us an opportunity for an extensive flight study. That golden-plover circled over the fields north of Grier’s Lane then flew overhead as it crossed Grier’s Lane. Eventually, the bird disappeared over the ridge in the middle of the field between Grier’s Lane and Olivet Road. If I was to describe the flight style I’d say, the bird seemed much more powerful and graceful in flight than Black-bellied Plover -- perhaps more tern-like. The Cliff Swallow also put in a couple of appearances while we searched the Olivet Rd fields. Unfortunately, we could find no additional species of grasspiper to round out the list.