I like to keep tabs on my many friends scattered about the planet. A number of my scientist buddies from college lead interesting lives full of research and adventure, so I get to live vicariously through their stories even when I’m stuck at home. One of my closest friends from Cornell, geographically and in terms of connection, is Ben Barkley of New Jersey. Ben has been working as a naturalist at Lord Stirling Park near his home in Somerset County, NJ. We get to touch base in the City with regularity, and he always makes a pitch for me to come and visit his “office.” On Friday, I was scrolling through my newsfeed and noticed that Ben had posted a photo of a brown bird resting on the ground alongside a trail. Some sort of nightjar, maybe a Chuck-will’s-widow? I looked closer and saw that it was actually a nighthawk, presumably a Common. Glancing at the comments, it was apparent that another birder, Erik Enbody, was curious about the ID of this individual. Ben returned to check on the visitor, taking photos from other angles and confirming field marks. Buffy spotting on the wings, more even, brownish coloration overall….this was a Lesser Nighthawk! The northern limit of this bird’s range is in the desert southwest, and this discovery was only the 2nd state record. I was very impressed with Ben’s find, and decided that this was as good an excuse as any to finally check out the park where he works.
After a text from Ben on Saturday morning letting us know that the nighthawk was still present, Miriam and I set out for New Jersey. We fortunately didn’t have to contend with too much traffic, and Ben was waiting for us at the parking lot when we arrived. We got a little bit of backstory about the long distance traveler, who was evidently discovered a few miles away on May 14 and taken into rehab at the Raptor Trust. The bird was thin but otherwise unharmed, and after a week of feeding and test flying she was set free on May 21. Now, nearly a week later, the bird was resting and behaving normally at Lord Stirling, about a mile from her release site. As a natural wild vagrant who had resumed normal activity after its stint in human care, this individual was acceptable as a legitimate, countable record. A short distance down the trail, we found a ring of traffic cones and a sleepy nighthawk resting near a trailside kiosk.
We got to spend some quality time with the little wanderer, watching as she surveyed the scene. As the sun rose higher, the nighthawk made an effort to remain in the shade of a small plant nearby. Several times, she took adorable shuffling steps to keep herself out of the direct light. It was great to share this remarkable encounter with Ben, catching up and trading jokes. Miriam and Ben have both heard a lot about each other, so this meeting was long overdue. After we’d had our fill of the Lesser Nighthawk, Ben led us to the nature center to show off his workplace. We were introduced to several critters behind the scenes, including a few vinegaroons and a Crested Gecko which we got to feed. We were encouraged to check out the basement exhibits, and we found a wonderland of displays and interpretive signs. We even got to become beavers! That’s the dream!
I was impressed when Ben produced a map of the trails through the park. There was an extensive network of paths through some diverse and promising habitat. He highlighted a few particular spots of interest and sent the two of us out to explore. Miriam got to experience some previously glimpsed birds up close and personal, as well as adding some new species to her growing life list. Some of the pictures she took were even better than mine! Cedar Waxwings were courting and canoodling at close range, a vast improvement on the fast flyovers that constituted her first sighting. Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, Canada Warbler, and Blue-winged Warbler were among the highlights encountered out in the woods. I also heard and glimpsed a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher out at the preserve’s boundary, an overdue year bird.
Ben had given us a heads up about some mating Northern Water Snakes which were observed at the lily pond boardwalk, one large female wrapped up in several eager suitors. We found the tangled reptiles lounging in the warm sunlight together, and the nearby views were peacefully beautiful. From the eastern observation tower, we could see across the border of the property and into the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. We could hear some Marsh Wrens singing from the wet grasses beyond the river, where several kayakers paddling past good-naturedly posed for photographs.
When we returned to the nature center, we said farewell to Ben and got some advice on where to explore next. Ben pointed us towards a specific part of the Great Swamp which he stated is a often good spot to look for Bald Eagles. It was only a short drive down the road from Lord Stirling Park, and we spied a charming little Red Fox trotting along the shoulder towards us, Miriam’s first ever. We parked at the Swamp and started down the trail towards the Friend’s Blind. I noticed a a quiet assemblage of visitors standing on the boardwalk, fixated on something near the forest’s edge. Miriam and I rounded the bend in the trail and saw a large brown bird perched on a low branch, staring intently at the water. When the bird’s face came into view, we found ourselves looking into the deep, dark eyes of a Barred Owl. I quickly and quietly tried to set up my scope, and the raptor plunged into the flooded grass while I was fussing with my gear! ARGH! Fortunately, Miriam had her camera ready. She managed a series of action shots as the owl took off with its prey firmly grasped in its beak: a crayfish! It retreated to the trees to devour the crustacean in relative privacy. Such a great encounter!
The blind itself proved to be a nice spot for observing wildlife. We didn’t get to see any eagles on this outing, but there were lots of other birds flitting around. Kingbirds, blackbirds, and sparrows were moving through the swaying grasses just outside the structure. A few drops of rain started to fall as dark clouds rolled in, so we said goodbye to the Great Swamp and turned the vehicle back towards New York.
The expedition to see the Lesser Nighthawk was a great adventure and an awesome opportunity to catch up with old Ben. I’m happy for his awesome discovery, and even more happy that Miriam and I got to enjoy it firsthand. The best part? There were still two days left to enjoy in Memorial Day Weekend! More good times await!
Year List Update, May 27 – 298 Species (+ Lesser Nighthawk, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher)