Saturday, March 04, 2006

Marsh hunting

We took a ride today to South Jersey to visit some favorite little shops and antique places. On our way home, I dragged my husband down some back roads of the Pine Barrens to Leeds Point which, according to local lore, is the birthplace of the jersey devil. I was more interested in finding some birds. We followed a rutted dirt road into the saltmarsh and found the view above, with Atlantic City in the distance. If you look closely at the photo, you can see NJ's first wind farm, only operational for the last 2 months or so. There is said to be 5 turbines, each 380 feet tall, although I only count 4 in the photo. If you're interested in reading NJ Audubon's opinion on alternative energy sources, click here.

Most of the marsh is part of the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge and emcompasses more than 45, 000 acres of coastal NJ habitat. There is great birding at Brig during every season. One of my best memories is of being there late one fall afternoon when thousands upon thousands of snow geese arrived for their evening roost. Peregrines nest on towers built for them (and on nearby Atlantic City high-rises) and Bald Eagles harass the waterfowl. Northern Harriers and Short-Eared Owls are commomplace. There is even a huge nesting-box platform for barn owls - and I was lucky enough to see one once! Birding there with Pete Dunne I remember being told that only birders with a *pure heart* would see the Barn Owls in the box. Like they were some sort of dream bird or a bird of one's imagination. I bet that's a line he uses to this day to account for not being able to produce the owls on demand for his birding groups.

Because it's a wildlife refuge, it is to a large extent managed for hunting. Is that an incongruous statement, or what? The refuge is closed on certain days for duck hunting, or maybe even deer hunting, I suppose. We came across these *visual aids* to help the guys with guns recognize what they are shooting at. A bit scary, but if it prevents them from shooting a Peregrine at 20 yards then it doesn't seem so silly.

After driving around for a while through the refuge, we finally came upon a bird perched across a creek. Being the well-prepared birder I am, I didn't have my binoculars with me on this *shopping trip* and I didn't even have my eyeglasses because I wasn't doing the driving. So, of course, you know it was a good bird we found. I couldn't see a thing. I tried to use my digital camera with its 10X zoom to get a look at the bird but it was of little use. I snapped a few photos, all the while complaining to my husband that all I could see was a brown blob perched amid the phrags. I told him that if it would fly, I might have a chance. His joking suggestion was that we throw a rock at it to make it fly. Driving away, I decided we probably had a short-eared owl.

Sure enough, once we got home and I cropped the photo, I found this sleepy-eyed short-eared. Not a lifer, but certainly the best look (but not really) that I've ever had (but didn't really see). I've spent quite a few hours in the half-dark in the dead of winter in the middle of various marshes with binoculars and my scope to see them. As often as not, they don't appear where they're supposed to. When I do see them, they flutter past at an impossible distance and and I'm left wondering if I ever saw them at all or if they were just a figment of my imagination or the creation of my shaky, shivering hands on the binoculars. I find it just hilarious that this owl was so close, yet I didn't have what I needed to see it. Maybe Pete Dunne is right about birders needing a *pure heart*. A digital camera helps, too.


bairdbunny said...

Awesome bird sighting--I spent a summer on the shore and done some field research there (also in the marshes)and at Brigantine with my College. I'd love to take my husband there in the Fall when the raptors are migrating along the coast.

LauraHinNJ said...

Yes, the Jersey Shore is beautiful in the Fall, and the hawkwatch at Cape May is my favorite place to be then.

Thanks for visiting!