Spring Comes (and Goes) in Sussex County

Yesterday I joined the Brooklyn Bird Club for our annual trip to Western New Jersey, specifically Hyper Humus, a relatively recently discovered hot spot. It started out as a nice winter morning when we arrived at the site at 7:30 A.M., progressed to Spring around 10:00 A.M., and reached early summer by 10:15.

Birders with scopes in parking lot, Kelly Quinones

We walked in through the woods and ticked off half a dozen or so of the usual forest birds: Red-bellied Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, Song Sparrow, and Carolina Wren. We also had a quick look at what was probably a river otter, though none of us saw enough of it to be sure. The best bird for this section was a single Blue-headed Vireo, my first of the year.


The real attraction of the site are the more marshy wetlands further in which are good for Red-winged Blackbirds and American Coot. These featured 5 Eastern Bluebirds, and too many Mute Swans to count. Wood frogs were calling, though I didn’t see any. We also found one apparently abandoned Mute Swan nest:

Two large eggs in nest

There was also evidence of beavers at the site, though we never saw one:

Tree trunk chewed by beavers?

In the last pond, we had an assortment of late waterfowl including Lesser Scaup, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Bufflehead, and Wood Duck. The most surprising bird was a Common Loon in full breeding plumage. (The late migration this year has held back some of the species we’d normally expect, but also allowed us to see winter birds in plumages we don’t normally encounter this far south.) An Osprey was hunting over the ponds, as well as Turkey Vulture and several Tree and Barn Swallows.

At the far end of the trail (or at least as far as we could go given the high water level and our lack of hip waders) Bob played some rail calls to try to draw out Virginia Rail and Sora. They’re usually regular at that point this time of year, but none responded this year. We did spot several Wilson’s Snipe flying over the phragmites, as well as two distant Yellowlegs sp.


The site was still quite wet from recent rains, so we couldn’t cover as much of it as we’d hoped, and had to turn back short of our goal.

wading on the trail with scopes in tow

However on the way back we did find our first Rusty Blackbird, this one singing a song I had not heard before. I’m not sure I’ll recognize the song alone yet, but it’s wildly different than the songs of the similar looking Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird, so that alone makes it easier to ID.

That was pretty much it for the next mile, but as we turned down the path to the parking lot we spotted several good birds in quick succession: American Goldfinch, Cedar Waxwing, Wild Turkey, and Eastern Phoebe.

We ate an early lunch and then drove to a different entrance point from where we walked about another mile. Along the way we picked up our first warblers of the trip, Palm and Yellow-rumped. We also added Golden-crowned Kinglet and Fish Crow. I was very surprised to hear Fish Crow so far inland but Bob assured me that they’re expanding along any available river. Walking back to the cars, we heard and then saw a Pileated Woodpecker. The call sounds a lot like the Northern Flicker and I would not have been confident of the ID by sound alone. Both Flicker and Pileated have a call I describe as “howler monkey.” At least that’s how I remember it. Maybe it would be more distinct if I had the opportunity to see more Pileateds. If I can count Monday to Sunday, that made this a seven-woodpecker week.


We drove back to the first site to use the portosan. While there we added Black Vulture to the day list, as well as some more Barn Swallows. (Not everyone had seen them earlier.) Then we drove to several farm and rural sites Bob knew. At the first stop, we added Killdeer; and Bob heard Brown Thrasher, though I couldn’t claim that myself. One thing I’m noticing lately is that my hearing is not so good. Even when it’s a distinctive bird whose song I know well, such as a Black-capped Chickadee or an Eastern Towhee, other birders can often hear it well before I do and much further away than I can.

We drove around the local roads for a bit, and got some closeup views of a Turkey Vulture eating a Woodchuck.


Final stop of the day was a pond in a hunting preserve, where we added Great Egret, as well as another Gadwall, Mallard, Great Blue Herons, and Belted Kingfisher.

Great Egret perched in swamp

Total count for the day was about 60 species, though I personally only managed 57:

  • Great Egret
  • Black Vulture
  • Killdeer
  • Common Grackle
  • European Starling
  • Mallard
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Fish Crow
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Canada Goose
  • Mute Swan
  • Northern Pintail
  • Bufflehead
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Common Loon
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Mourning Dove
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • American Coot
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Osprey
  • Turkey Vulture
  • House Sparrow
  • American Goldfinch
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Northern Cardinal
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • American Robin
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Carolina Wren
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Rusty Blackbird
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Barn Swallow
  • Tree Swallow
  • American Crow
  • Blue Jay
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Northern Flicker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Wild Turkey
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Wood Duck
  • Gadwall

Species I missed included Palm Warbler, American Kestrel, and Green-winged Teal. Sussex is now tied with Suffolk County for 12th place in my county lists. With the addition of Pileated Woodpecker and Lesser Scaup, my New Jersey life list is now at 136 species, second place after New York (225). I hope to go back to New Jersey next weekend, and add a few more. California is in third place at 125, but may be able to catch up when I visit San Francisco at the height of migration in early May.

2 Responses to “Spring Comes (and Goes) in Sussex County”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    Strongly consider going to an audiologist. You may have impaired hearing at higher frequencies.

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I’ll ask my doctor about that, but I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s not uncommon for some birders to be able to hear things others can’t. Some people like Tom Preston (also on the trip) are known as spectacular ear birders, who can locate birds by sounds most others don’t hear. It’s also not uncommon to lose certain songs as one ages. Teenage birders often don’t have the experience of older birders, but make it up with spectacular eyesight and hearing, and an almost uncanny ability to spot birds no one else would see.

    I suspect birders, like musicians, are just putting their hearing to more stringent tests than most of the population does. Consequently we notice aspects of aging like hearing loss sooner than most. For the same reason we also probably notice relative differences in hearing ability between similarly aged more than most do.

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