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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

February 26, 2012
DVOC Photography Field Trip to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park,
Ocean County, NJ


Click Here for pictures taken on this trip by Steve Kacir (leader)

I predicted that this field trip was doomed. I rescheduled the trip to Feb 25 from its original date due to conflicts with a pelagic birding trip. On that pelagic trip, my camera’s shutter died after ~87,000 actuations giving up the ghost in the middle of a Northern Gannet flight sequence. The predicted weather for Feb 25 had sustained winds at 25-30mph gusting into the 50mph range, which prompted me to change the date yet again for Sunday which seemed much more humane conditions for a bird photography field trip. Unfortunately, that meant that Joe Delesantro and Ann Marie Morrison could not make the trip. Then Mike Newlon got sick and had to cancel as well. Nevertheless, three participants made it to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on Sunday: Dino & Peggy Fiabane and Paul Guris. Paul even provided me with a Nikon D90, which saved me from trying to digiscope with the old Olympus 6MP compact digital camera or shoot video on my wife’s digital video recorder. The four of us geared up at the parking lot and were soon heading out on the jetty.
Sunday was still breezy with winds around 15mph and gusting to 30mph, but the temperature was unseasonably mild around 35-40F for the morning. Dressed for the weather, those mild temperatures can really warm you up as you head out the jetty, but the wind at our back provided some cooling. The morning was almost impossibly clear. Usually, the coast is characterized by persistent upper level haze from salt and water that can mellow out the light even with clear skies, but Sunday’s wind seemed to have removed all the particulates and aerosols from the sky. Consequently, the morning light was already harsh with high contrast – not the kind of conditions to attempt decent Long-tailed Duck photos. Expose for the whites and you lose the blacks to blocks of shadow. Expose for the blacks and the whites burn completely out. These are not impossible conditions, but they are challenging. The challenge is even more daunting without a polarizer to filter out some of the glare.

As luck would have it, the westerly winds had provided us with decent walking conditions. The winds had dried almost every rock on the jetty, leaving us very secure footing for our walk. Unfortunately, we would need to walk a considerable distance out the jetty before finding any birds close enough for reasonable photographs. Whether it was the winds, the tide or just the vagaries of prey distribution, most of the birds were well past the midpoint of the jetty that morning. Regardless of whether they were near the jetty or in the middle of the inlet, the majority of the birds were past the end of the beach.

As we scuttled over the jetty rocks we did some birding while looking for good photography subjects. We found hundreds of Herring Gulls with only a few Great Black-backed Gulls adding to the limited diversity. In the middle of the inlet Red-throated Loons and Common Loons swam with Long-tailed Ducks. Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, Black Scoters and Red-throated Loons flew out the inlet or passed over the jetties. All of this was observed at a considerable distance. Paul Guris found some Harlequin Ducks massed at their favorite spot on the inlet side of the jetty. They were backlit and in glare as well as being quite distant. With our quarry in sight, we quickened our pace and moved to the opposite side of the jetty, so that we could avoid startling the Harlequin Ducks.

Soon enough, we found ourselves focusing long lenses on roosting and diving Harlequin Ducks in decent lighting. A few distant Red-throated Loons caught my attention as well. Eventually, the Harlequin Ducks flew off towards the lighthouse and we continued our trek out to the end of the jetty. We stumbled upon some Ruddy Turnstones huddled in sheltered areas of the jetty. We photographed those shorebirds and looked through the distant gulls, but could find only Herring Gulls with a few Great Black-backed Gulls. A few Black Scoters and Surf Scoters drew our attention, and we photographed them dutifully. Those scoters were still somewhat distant for the lenses we were using, but the light was quite good for the Black Scoters (though nearly impossible for the drake Surf Scoters!). Peggy and Dino turned their attention to a backlit flock of Common Eiders. We looked for King Eider, but to no avail.

Our first Purple Sandpipers of the day peeked out from behind the rocks at the end of the jetty or slept amidst Ruddy Turnstones on algae-laden rocks. More Black and Surf Scoters flew before the ends of the jetties, dove for their second breakfasts or loafed on the water. A Harbor Seal crashed over the waves at the mouth of the inlet. Common Loons caught Calico Crabs and deftly devoured those delicacies between dives. The loons seem to have a low handling time for Calico Crabs, in contrast to the struggles I’ve seen them undergo while manipulating Blue Crabs and Spider Crabs. While we watched the loons enjoying their seafood breakfasts, Great Cormorants and at least one Double-crested Cormorant held vigil at the channel marker on the Island Beach side of the inlet. Eventually, a few of the Common Loons and Black Scoters gave us a closer approach, and we turned our lenses to these cooperative subjects accordingly.

Eventually, all the crab-eating turned our thoughts towards lunch, and we began the trek back to the parking lot. On the way, we stopped to photograph a cooperative group of Harlequin Ducks. We found a Common Loon molting into breeding plumage that was not too far for our purposes, and a Harbor Seal popped its head above the water long enough for us to fire off a few quick shots. Eventually Dino and Peggy strolled down to the beach for some less challenging footing on the return trip Paul and I continued along the jetty, and soon an interesting very pale second winter Herring Gull caught our attention. After photographing that gull, we turned back towards the lighthouse. Soon enough, Paul’s uncanny hearing had picked up the call of a Savannah Sparrow. After a few minutes of looking, we had found two Ipswich Sparrows at a clump of vegetation not far from the jetty. Coincidentally, these Ipswich Sparrows were in the exact same spot that we’d found Ipswich Sparrows on the 2011 DVOC Photography Field Trip to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. I am always captivated by these charismatic sparrows that live on the edge and fly through jetty rocks like the Millennium Falcon flies through an asteroid belt, and Paul seems to hold them in equal esteem. We photographed those two Ipswich Sparrows for as long as they allowed us, then we finished our hike back to the parking lot.

There, we found Peggy and Dino. We dropped some of our gear, and basically the field trip ended at that point. Peggy and Dino headed for home, while Paul and I got some lunch at Kubel’s near the Lighthouse Marina. Afterwards, Paul and I explored the bay side of Long Beach Island and a few beach locations. During that time, we added Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Mallard, American Black Duck, Canada Goose, Horned Grebe, Merlin, Ring-billed Gull and Boat-tailed Grackle to our day list. We returned to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park in the afternoon to take advantage of the late day lighting for flight photography. On the way out we found a group of cooperative Black-bellied Plovers and committed their images to pixels. At the end of the jetty we photographed flying Black Scoters, Surf Scoters, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Cormorants, Harlequin Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Red-throated Loons. Common Loons dined upon Calico Crabs while we watched and took photos. A small flock of Long-tailed Ducks got into a tussle down the jetty from us. Black and Surf Scoters loafed on the water in between dives. Black Scoters gave their keening call, and we photographed a drake Black Scoter calling in flight.

In the middle of all this, a seal popped its head out of the water just past where the loons were feeding. Once I got my binoculars on that seal, I was met with a much snoutier looking seal than I’d expected. Where, Harbor Seal presents an almost circular head profile with a little snout, this seal looked like a lot of snout with a head stuck on as an afterthought. In addition, a Harbor Seal looking at an observer gives the impression of a seal with giant eyes and petite nostrils, while that seal looked like it had giant nostrils and also some eyes. I was reasonably sure we were looking at a Gray Seal – a lifer for me. Luckily, the seal seemed to be feeding in the same general area as the loons and put in several appearances, giving us ample opportunities to photograph and study the pinniped. In addition, a Harbor Seal appeared right before we turned back for the parking lot, giving us an excellent comparison. Upon returning to the parking lot, I pulled out my Princeton University Press Mammals of North America and confirmed that our suspicions were correct: we had just photographed a Gray Seal. This might be the first lifer I’ve ever seen while leading the DVOC Photography Trip to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. Certainly, a lifer pinniped was an excellent conclusion to a doomed field trip.