I woke up early on Monday morning and set out for New Jersey.
Yikes. That’s a pretty rough start for a story.
My siblings have returned to college, the rest of the family is out of town, and I’m home on Long Island trying to make the most of my final weeks of summer. Pretty soon I’ll be back in the classroom for the start of Year 2 as a full-time teacher. What does the Garden State have to offer that could override a New York naturalist’s playfully anti-Jersey attitude? To be completely, begrudgingly honest: quite a lot. There are actually some rather lovely wild spaces and interesting animals across the Hudson River, and that’s to say nothing of the great views of NYC.
I made decent time crossing the Bronx and arrived at Richard W. DeKorte Park around 8 AM. I had never visited this location before, but I’d heard multiple stories of quality avian encounters at the property and decided to check it out. I lugged my gear to the Marsh Discovery Trail, a floating boardwalk that winds through grassy islands and channels for half a mile. There’s quite a bit of similar wetland habitat in northern New Jersey, but there are only a few places where it can be accessed and explored on foot. Until now, I’d only glimpsed the marshes through the windows of cars or Jersey Transit. It was time to get up close and personal.
This visit had a clear purpose and a specific target: the Least Bittern. I found out that the species breeds in the marsh here and decided to check it out. It’s a bird I need for my 2016 year list, and as I close in on my self-imposed goal of 400 those are becoming a priority. Moreover, I really, really enjoy seeing Least Bitterns. I cannot properly express how ridiculously, comically small these critters are compared to their relatives. Most familiar herons are tall, stately birds, standing at heights of at least a few feet. Even squatter species like Night-Herons and Green Herons dwarf the diminutive Least, which is scarcely larger than a robin. Seeing that classic heron shape scrunched into such a tiny package is adorable and giggle-inducing, plain and simple.
These little guys can be incredibly secretive and difficult to locate, but fortune smiled on me this time. A bittern flushed from the edge of the boardwalk and landed among some reeds a short distance away. My previous encounters with this species were fleeting views of individuals scrambling out of the way of an airboat in Florida. I welcomed the opportunity to study the bird at close range for an extended period of time. The half-pint heron barely stirred except to look around and survey the area. When it looked towards me with its bill raised, I got to appreciate a fish-eye view of its predatory gaze. This ocular configuration allows it to watch for prey below it or keep an eye on threats when it assumes a grass-camouflage position with its head pointed skyward.
The bittern eventually took off and disappeared around a bend. I bumped into some other birders who asked if I’d seen the Wilson’s Phalarope from yesterday. I hadn’t heard about that one at all, but it was another year bird worth chasing. I teamed up with a local to search the park for the wayward shorebird.
There were plenty of sights to be seen, including fledgling Marsh Wrens, flocks of Barn Swallows, and other species of herons. We encountered sizable flocks of yellowlegs, dowitchers, and peeps, but the phalarope was nowhere to be found. The weather was only getting hotter, and the tide was coming down slowly. I decided to cut my losses and head home rather than sit around and sweat it out while waiting for Wilson.
The ride home to Long Island was even quicker than the trip out. Upon checking my phone back in Lynbrook, I learned that the phalarope had indeed returned shortly after my departure. Saw that coming! I was far from disappointed in my impromptu outing, and hiding from the midday heat indoors wasn’t terrible either. Least Bitterns are cool…definitely worth a summer morning side trip!
Year List Update, August 15 – 383 Species (+ Least Bittern)