by William J. Boyle, Jr
Kevin T. Karlson, Photographic Editor
Princeton University Press
This attractive book, by the author of A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey, is packed with information about the historic and present abundance and distribution of the 465 (including extinct) bird species ever officially recorded in New Jersey. For over 450 species there is an emphasis upon population trends and changes in range over the past ten years. The large number of species is a reflection of the great variety and richness of habitats in this small and densely populated state.
These general natural bio-geographical regions are further refined and subdivided in the narratives:
The Introduction includes a brief description of the geography and natural regions of New Jersey. There is a review of the history of previous systematic records of birdlife in the state, beginning with an 1897 compilation by the Fish and Game Commission, up to the most recent work of the New Jersey Bird Records Committee, and current data from eBird and regional rare bird alerts and birding hotlines. In 1998, the State List included 443 species; an additional 15 new species have been documented since then. Adjustments due to splits, and re-evaluation of a specimen and previous records resulted in an official net increase of seven species.
For each species as appropriate, there are notes about approximate migration and breeding dates, as well as habitat descriptions. In some instances, abundance is related to such factors as tree crops and unusual weather disturbances. Large and legible colored maps detail the seasonal distribution of the more common birds, while rare sightings may be shown as dots, with descriptive details for species seen five or fewer times during the past decade. Species that may be found only in a small or restricted area are given special attention.
Species accounts are notably up to date, as illustrated here:
There are over 200 color photographs taken within the state, including both common and rare species. Some of the photos are included for their historic rather than aesthetic value, to document occurrence of rarities. Appendices address exotics and species of uncertain provenance, species referred to in earlier lists or publications as having been seen in New Jersey, but presently not accepted the NJ Bird Records Committee, review species (reports of which require additional documentation), and additional identification information for certain photos.
My interest in birds developed during early childhood in New Jersey in the 1940s. Those were the days before completion of the NJ Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, before people asked “which exit?” when they heard someone was from New Jersey. I grew up in Rutherford, located in the northeast part of the state, only six miles from New York City, and became quite familiar with neighborhood bird species. The mostly undeveloped flood plain of the Passaic River was a five minute walk from my home, and a short bicycle ride took me “down the dumps,” as my friends and I then called the most accessible portion of the meadows along the Hackensack River.
I learned to identify birds at a very early age, collecting bird pictures from Arm & Hammer Baking Soda boxes. My first “real” bird guide was a small format book by Chester A. Reed, Land Birds East of the Rockies. There was a picture of a different bird on each page with descriptive text next to it. As I identified each bird in the book, I penciled across its picture in big block letters: “SAW.”
As a Boy Scout, in the winter of 1948, in quest of a merit badge, I suddenly began keeping an orderly list of the birds I saw. With Monkish precision I drew grid lines on 4×7 loose leaf sheets, with headings: “Name of Bird… Date Seen…Where the Bird was Seen… ,” and numbered each entry. I used my date stamp as if it had the power of a wax seal that certified the authenticity of my sightings.
Here are the first two pages of my Life List:
My notes gave special names for many of the sandy hills, wetlands and and woodlands along the Passaic River that harbored the nests of herons, thrashers and cuckoos. They all have since disappeared, swallowed up by housing developments. The Meadowlands Sports Complex now covers one of my favorite “dumps.” Another particularly smelly one, in Lyndhurst, later earned the respectable name of “landfill” and grew into “Mount Trashmore.”
Now my “dump” is known as Kingsland Outlook, part of Richard W. DeKorte Park, famous as a birding hotspot:
I witnessed great changes while confined to my small corner of New Jersey during the ten or eleven years before 1953, when I got my driver’s license and graduated from high school. In later years, my written records addressed mostly rarities and new life sightings.
In the 1940s, pesticides were used copiously to fight Dutch Elm disease, and surely killed American Robins and Wood Thrushes by the hundreds and thousands. Weakened and dying birds appeared on neighborhood lawns and estates. My cousins and I collected some of these “tame” birds in cardboard boxes and fed them water with an eye dropper, thinking that perhaps they were suffering from starvation or heat stroke, but they all died under our care. My father said he thought they may have been poisoned, but I didn’t connect their deaths with the tree spraying program. It was nearly twenty years later that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the world to the dangers of pesticide misuse.
In the early 1940s it seemed that every suburban home had Wood Thrushes nesting in their foundation plantings. In springtime, colorful warblers and other neotropical migrants adorned the leafless trees and shrubs. Peregrine Falcons (then called “Duck Hawks”) nested in aeries high on the Palisades along the Hudson River. I looked forward to perusing Boyle’s book with a Rip Van Winkle mind-set, ready to be surprised by the changes in the number and distribution of New Jersey’s birds over more than a half century. I was not disappointed.
Paging through this book, my attention was naturally drawn to those old, familiar species of my childhood. How have they fared? Have some of the less common birds changed in abundance? Have new species invaded my old turf? It was a relief to find that Wood Thrushes remain abundant. Of course, House Finches and Cattle Egrets were unknown to me in the 1940s, and I was aware of how they invaded New Jersey by the 1970s, but from Boyle I learned that numbers of both species have since plummeted. Bacterial conjunctivitis caused a 50% drop in House Finch populations in the late 1990s, though they are still widely distributed in the state. The number of breeding Cattle Egrets peaked in the 1980s, but now the breeding population has nearly disappeared from New Jersey.
At ten or eleven years of age, I received the gift of a used copy of Allan Cruickshank’s 1942 book, Birds Around New York City: Where and When to Find Them. Its coverage area included all of northeast New Jersey, and it became my benchmark reference, and sometimes a source of pride when I found a new bird. It also spurred me to begin keeping records of my observations, which I peppered with citations from Cruickshank’s book.
Common Redpoll, February 12, 1948, Rutherford - “This northern finch… is a decidedly irregular winter visitant, usually very rare…In most counties it is recorded only three out of every five years [Cruickshank page 442].”
Iceland Gull, December 26, 1949, Belleville - “It is …still and uncommon to rare winter visitant in the New York City region, and a recording of the species continues to give local enthusiasts a great feeling of satisfaction [Cruickshank page 223].”
Boyle indicates that both species remain scarce. The redpoll is still rare to uncommon as a winter visitor or migrant. The Iceland Gull’s numbers peaked in the 1970s, and they have become less numerous in recent years.
“Eastern” Evening Grosbeak, October 21, 1951, Garret Mountain - “Seen as early as November 13, 1915… and October 27, 1927 …but… the bird seldom arrives before Christmas…the recording of this species in the New York City region is still a red-letter occasion, and I know many an active observer who is yet to see this species locally. [Cruickshank, page 438].”
Boyle reports that Evening Grosbeaks increased substantially, beginning with an incursion during the winter of 1950, peaked in the 1970s, but “have declined markedly since the mid-1980s.”
“Eastern” Glossy Ibis, April 26, 1952, from the boardwalk at Troy Meadows - “An accidental visitor from the south…(seen) at Troy Meadows, New Jersey …May 26, 1937… (and) May 21, 1939… In recent years there have been marked flights just to the south of us, and there are now many records for southern New Jersey. [Cruickshank, page 79]”
My Glossy Ibis sighting, the first northern New Jersey record in 13 years, was never officially accepted. A few days after seeing it, I duly reported it at a meeting of the Hackensack bird club at Odd Fellows Hall. My companion at Troy Meadows had been an older but less experienced birder, who also saw the unmistakable crow-black long-legged heron-like bird, flying with its extended neck and long decurved bill. He stood up with me to “verify” my identification before those in attendance. My age put me at a disadvantage, and our report was met with insulting comments, such as “Why didn’t you put salt on its tail, Sonny?” I left the meeting thoroughly humiliated, resolved that I would never again associate with this “old man’s club!”
Imagine my surprise to learn from Boyle’s narrative that the first Glossy Ibis nest in New Jersey was found in 1955, and that the species was, by 1978, “the most common colonial waterbird in the state.” Even more surprising is the fact that its population crashed during the next twenty years to only “350 to 400 birds, about 10% of the 1978 population.”
I never saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker during the 1940s and 1950s, though it expanded its range in the 1960s and 1970s, and now the species is common and widespread in New Jersey.
The Tufted Titmouse was just invading northern New Jersey when I saw my first one on May 15, 1949 in the Overpeck Creek area on a “Big Day” with Floyd Wolfarth and Louis Fink, two prominent local birders. I did not see my first local Northern Mockingbird until 1960, though they now may be found commonly in most parts of New Jersey.
The approximate line of demarcation separating the ranges of Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees still appears to be the Raritan River, just as it was when I was a child, but I now learn from Boyle that there is an “island” of the Black-capped species at Sandy Hook. This is useful information for any birder planning a visit.
White-crowned Sparrows were never very numerous, and they rarely spent the winter in my neighborhood. Now they are uncommon but regularly found during the winter.
These are but a few of the memories stimulated by my perusal of the contents of The Birds of New Jersey. It is an important and timely addition to the fund of knowledge about the rich avifauna of the Garden State. Resident birders will surely refer to it frequently. Any birder who is planning a visit to the state will find this to be a most useful resource.
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Birding and wildlife photography, as spectator sports, are usually not considered very hazardous activities. Oh, I’ve stepped on yellow jacket tunnels, bumped my head against hornet nests, stood on fire ant hills, suffered itchy poison ivy rash and chigger bites, tripped over old barbed wire fences and battled deer flies and mosquitoes, but… I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s start at the beginning.
Back in Illinois, illness had curtailed my outdoors activities and caused me to miss the height of warbler migration. I did get out one morning for a brief walk in Jones Meadow Park near our home.
…and a brilliant male Baltimore Oriole peered down from atop a Cottonwood:
Black birds make challenging subjects because the camera receives conflicting signals about exposure, but this side-lit Red-winged Blackbird stood out nicely against a background of over-exposed and out-of-focus cattails:
The camera also treated his somber mate rather nicely:
Driving back to the condo, I noticed that a Horned Lark was singing on a pile of rocks in the vacant lot adjacent to our building. The next morning, our last full day in Illinois, I drove to a vantage point that was only about 20 feet from that spot. The sun was bright and already rather high. I had attached my Better Beamer Flash X-Tender to my flash unit, thinking that I might need some fill flash because of the harsh shadows. As I approached the rock pile, a Horned Lark flew off. I waited a while, hoping it would return. Meanwhile, a Spotted Sandpiper was singing in the distance. It moved from one pile of gravel to the next. Suddenly it was right in front of me.
The Spotted Sandpiper gave me a nice side view, in perfect light:
Finally, an Eastern Meadowlark closed the show by singing from a post on the other side of the road. There was no need for fill flash, as back-lighting actually enhanced its color and texture:
Oh– and while I was photographing the sandpiper I almost had a serious accident. My phone rang with a call from our second-oldest grandson. He wanted to tell me about his baseball game and how he was injured when a hitter deliberately ran into him after being forced out at first base. I placed the camera on the passenger seat, and proceeded with our conversation. Suddenly I smelled smoke– like burning rubber. I looked around outside, thinking someone was burning tires. Then I realized that the smoke was coming from inside the car! The full sun was shining on the Fresnel lens of my Better Beamer, and the focal point of the lens concentrated the beam on the rubber pad on the camera strap. Luckily, I moved the unit into the shade before flames erupted.
My camera gear gives me the right compromise between lens size and weight (about 6 pounds), as I can easily carry it into the field and generally use it hand-held, without need for a tripod (except for videos): Canon EOS 60D 18 MP Digital SLR Camera with Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM Telephoto Lens with Canon EF 1.4X II Extender (420 mm f/5.6 lens system), and Canon Speedlite 580 EX II flash unit.
The offending Better Beamer Flash X-Tender is shown attached to the flash unit:
For more information about the dangers of Fresnel lenses, visit this link.
Fresnel lenses can be dangerous!
You should always treat a Fresnel lens with respect - as if it were an open flame!
If you consider that a small magnifying glass and direct sunlight can burn paper, it is not surprising that even a rather small Fresnel lens (20×28cm) can concentrate enough sunlight to instantly incinerate paper, burn wood and even vitrify some types of sand! When experimenting with a Fresnel lens, always treat it as if it were an open flame - and children should not play with it unless they are supervised! Even the briefest exposure of skin at the focal point of a Fresnel lens exposed to full sunlight can instantly cause severe burns!
If you store a Fresnel lens, you should always do so in such a way that it can never be exposed to sunlight! If, for example, you left a Fresnel lens in a location where, at some time of day, it was exposed to the sun and there was something on the other side of the lens at even approximately the focal length of that lens, it could be burned when the sun angle was appropriate.
If you mount a Fresnel lens in a frame, make sure that it is stored such that it can never be exposed to sunlight. If you are transporting such a lens, always carry it in a covered box or drape it with cloth to prevent it from being exposed to the full and concentrated energy of the sun!
In other words, an improperly-treated Fresnel lens can not only burn you, but it can case severe property damage!
At our South Florida home, we are lucky to live on a lake that is almost a quarter of a mile wide, in back of our home. This gives us a chance to practice identifying the waders that appear on the opposite shore, before reaching for the binoculars to confirm our impressions. Overall size, shape and behavior can be more reliable than color at such a distance. Taking inspiration from Jerry Liguori’s Hawks at a Distance, I found some illustrative examples in my photo collection.
These herons are standing quietly out in the open and staring down into the water with their bills just above the surface at about a 45 degree angle. You probably recognize them, but take a guess before hovering over the thumbnail, or clicking for a full-sized image:
Here is another heron doing the same thing:
OK, that was not entirely fair, but now you know that all three were the same species. The immature Little Blue Heron is white for its first year, before dark feathers emerge in an interesting symmetrical pattern. Here, a Boat-tailed Grackle chases after a sub-adult Little Blue that is molting into adult plumage:
Now, here’s a side-by-side comparison of two herons that are similar in size and assuming quite similar postures. Note the longer neck and bill of the one to the left, as well as the nearly vertical position of its bill (again, hover or click on the photo for more information):
The Tricolored Heron is an active hunter and stalker; seeing the ripples from the movement of a small fish, it crouches low…
…moves in and gets ready to strike:
The Tricolored Heron often pursues its prey actively, rushing about in almost randomly as it sights one prey item after another before making a choice:
This erratic “dance” in pursuit of prey is also characteristic of the Reddish Egret.
In the field, it may be difficult to judge the size of any bird without having a yardstick next to it. I think of the Tricolored Heron as a relatively large bird, but notice how it is dwarfed by the immature Reddish Egret standing next to it (Not perceiving the size differential, some birders actually misidentified the egret as a Little Blue Heron):
To my eye, white herons always appear to be larger than they really are. I had to see my photo to appreciate the great difference in size between a delicate Snowy Egret and the Great Egret behind it:
Close view of a Snowy Egret in our back yard. They also like to actively chase after their prey, sometimes stirring the water with their “golden slippers” to frighten fish into view:
This Snowy Egret, in the wetlands next to our home, was vigorously stirring the water with its foot, creating a bubble trail as it moved through the shallow water. Its thin black bill helps distinguish it from the immature Little Blue Heron:
The Reddish Egret sports a prominent “chin:”
The Great Egret also has a long but less noticeable “chin.” It usually stalks slowly along the water’s edge or through marsh vegetation, its neck fully extended:
A Great Blue Heron may wait patiently in the same spot for many minutes, or slowly stalk for prey:
The short-legged Green Heron also relies upon stealth, often remaining immobile at the edge of the water in its typical hunting posture, waiting for fish or even attracting them by throwing sticks out as “bait:”
This Green Heron shows it has a rather long neck that usually is kept tucked in:
The Green Heron can sometimes look almost black, like a grackle with an oversize bill: