Point Lookout, Maryland

Several years ago, in 2016, we spent a weekend camping with friends at Point Lookout State Park in Maryland. This area is very historic, having been used as a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederate soldiers. Today the park sports a really lovely campground, as well as walking trails and a beach area. The Park is located on the peninsula where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Potomac River. As a result, the natural environment is an interesting habitat. Its feathered inhabitants included many of the coastal and marsh birds you would expect. For more information about Point Lookout State Park, visit https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/pages/southern/pointlookout.aspx.

We were immediately confronted by wildlife, from basically the moment we opened our car doors. The campground areas were small cleared patches cut into a forest of scraggly, straight, tall pines. The pines were so dense that once you were on your camp site you felt you were the only people in the world. You couldn’t see through to the next site on either side. It may have helped that we were camping in late May, before most families begin to descent on campgrounds en-mass.

I was excited for the birding possibilities upon arrival, but was further encouraged to hope when a hummingbird flew up to me, buzzed around my head for a moment, and then flew off again. The pines seemed to offer a comfortable habitat for many birds I had never seen before. This included spotting my first ( not to mention my second, and my third) Red-headed Woodpecker. Though they can technically be found in New Jersey, I have never seen another before or since. As its name implies, the most distinguishing feature of this woodpecker is its red-head. Unlike the Red-bellied Woodpecker with its red cap or the Pileated Woodpecker with its red crest, the Red-headed Woodpecker’s head is completely covered in red feathers. As if someone dipped its head in paint up to the neck. Its black wings and white underbelly help the red plumage to be even more pronounced.

The trees also allowed for a close encounter with a bird I really was unlikely to see in New Jersey, unless one took a wrong turn somewhere! The Brown-Headed Nuthatch is similar to its cousin, the White-Breasted Nuthatch and they have similar mannerisms. Namely, they both like to climb down trees upside down. The scratching of its long nails along the pine bark is what attracted my attention in the first place. Very similar in appearance and coloring to the White-Breasted Nuthatch, the biggest and most obvious difference between them is the black cap of the White-Breasted Nuthatch has been replaced by muted brown feathers that extend down the neck and level to the bottom of its eyes. If you were to compare the two side by side, the Brown-Headed Nuthatch would be sightly smaller, measuring a little over an inch smaller than the White-Breasted Nuthatch.

As I mentioned, the meeting of the bay and the river created the perfect ingredients for brackish water and marshes. Therefore, you will probably not be surprised to learn that we also spotted a few Great White Egrets and Great Blue Herons. In the case of the herons, a few would not be an accurate representation. So many herons flew over our campsite in the first few hours of our arrival, at first I thought the campground was in the flight path of a small local airport. Finally I was able to glimpse more than just shadow, and I realized that the area was teaming with Great Blue Herons!

Besides the Great Blue Herons, the other bird species that was occupying this peninsula in great numbers was the Osprey. These pescatarians were accommodated with a series of Osprey boxes along the bay road. However, not all of them felt they needed one of the purpose built boxes and made due with their own accommodation. This was true of one Osprey who had made a nest at the end of the campsite’s dock. Her nest was balanced between a floodlight and what I believe as the power box for said floodlight. This trip was one of my first encounters with Osprey, especially so close up. Of course this particular Osprey felt that when we were fishing on the other side of the dock, we might be too close. She kept a watchful, almost crazy eye on us the entire time!

The bay side of the park also seemed to be the home to a good many Laughing Gulls. Common along the whole eastern coast of the United States, the Laughing Gull is a bit smaller than the more commonly spotted Ring- Billed Gull or Herring Gull. Laughing Gulls are also easily distinguished from other species of seagulls because of their black head, sometimes referred to as a hood.

Any bird watchers who are going to be near St. Mary’s County Maryland should really consider a stop over to take a look at this majestic park and its feathered inhabitants.

A Short Trip To Florida: Day 2 Mead Botanical Garden

Following my amazing experience at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, I was fairly sure that whatever I did with my second day alone in Florida would seem underwhelming. I decided to check out something a bit closer to Orlando, and went to Winter Park. I spent the morning exploring Mead Botanical Garden.

Named for naturalist Theodore Luqueer Mead, who first visited Florida to study butterflies in 1869, Mead Botanical Garden was started in 1937. This non-profit just celebrated its 75th anniversary and continues to provide a variety of family programming in their own oasis of nature in the middle of the suburbs. For more information about Mead Botanical Garden, you can check out their website at https://www.meadgarden.org/

Being about 47 acres in total, and not all of it accessible to visitors, I had a lot less ground to cover than I had on my previous day’s outing. I decided to leisurely wander the trails and enjoy the morning sunshine. When one hears the word garden, usually we are expecting flowers to be oozing out of every possible square inch of soil. The Botanical Gardens were not that garden. They did have many lovely flowering plants and also a variety of palms, greens and trees that gave the garden a park atmosphere.

There were many sections of the garden dedicated to butterfly attracting, which given its namesake’s interest in entomology makes perfect sense. I saw several varieties, but only one Monarch was so preoccupied with nectar gathering as to remain stationary long enough for me to get a decent photograph.

As I headed onto the boardwalk through Lake Lillian Marsh I met with a Carolina Wren. Looking a bit ruffled, it sat on the railing taking a look out into the Marsh.

Not long after seeing the Wren, I started noticing a lot of smaller lizards, crawling along palm fronds and resting on branches. Often they had changed their color to blend in with the surroundings. From my Florida Field Guide I determined that they were all Brown Anole, a smaller lizard from the Iguana family. Brown Anole can change their coloring from tan to darker browns in order to provide themselves some camouflage. They never grow much larger than 7 or 8 inches, which, as far as I am concerned, places them strongly in the “cute” category. One of them even decided to show me his dewlap, or neck flap. I was focusing on him as he sat totally stretched out on the railing, sucking up some early morning rays. While I was looking into my camera, he suddenly unfurled his dewlap, almost in the same way one would casually blow a bubble with chewing gum. I am not sure if he was trying to encourage me to buzz off or not. If so, it didn’t work. I just stood around focused and waiting for him to do it again. Eventually he obliged and I continued on my way.

A good portion of the trail follows along beside a shallow creek. Being a weekday, I had most of the trails to myself. But at one turn in the trail, I realized I wasn’t the only one out for a leisurely stroll. A Great Egret and a Glossy Ibis were both walking along the trail, very methodically. They walked in front of me on the trail a few yards. Eventually they decided to head back into the water and try their luck at fishing.

There were also a few noisy Northern Cardinals around. They were fairly skittish and stuck to the shadows, under the palms. I did get a few photos of one particularly grumpy and rough looking character.

Richard W. DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst, NJ

Another of the twenty parks managed by New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Richard W. DeKorte Park (https://www.njsea.com/parks-and-trails/ ) was one of the first locations I ventured to when I started birding. It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this park inspired me to become a bird watcher. We would pass it on the train and I kept wondering what this amazing place was, and how could I get there. One day I finally tried it, and it didn’t disappoint. I still go there regularly, and it never fails to amaze. In the heart of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, this wetland habitat is visited by over 285 different species. The 3.5 miles of trails include a boardwalk through the wetland area itself, as well as some grassy, treed areas. The Manhattan skyline is visible in the background with the highway and train line. Nature truly co-exists with man in this spot.

I always start by heading out on the Marsh Discovery trail with its boardwalk and bird blinds. There are many birds that you are sure to see here in the summer months. Top of the list is tree swallows. They truly dominate the area. Little wonder really. The whole habitat has been populated with tree swallow sized nest boxes, out in the middle of the marsh. They are constantly gliding overhead and chirping to each other in their hyper-active way. They do settle on banisters, nest boxes and vegetation if you are patience enough to wait. I can never get enough of photographing them. The sheen of their feathers in the direct sunlight is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

After the tree swallows, it is Great Egrets and Great Blue Heron you should expect to see. Sometimes, especially in spring and summer, there will be dozens of them, slowly making their way across the marsh, with their steady, exacting steps, heads down watching for anything tasty they might flush out of the mud. It is actually the Great Egrets that first attracted me to this place.

Being a marsh, Seagulls and Terns are also species you are likely to encounter on a walk here. The Seagulls tend to congregate at the mudflats, while the Terns like to explore the whole area. Their antics are more than a bit amusing. The Terns often remind me of the Three Stooges (even when there are more than three), as each of their actions always seem to be a direct reaction to some action another in the flock took. He hops away, I hop after. He flies up and lands, I fly up and land a little farther. These waterbirds are some of the only birds who remain on this spot through the winter, not a light-hearted prospect. I give them a lot of credit for braving the exposed waters, especially when the icy winter wind blows.

Other waterfowl can also be seen and at some points, such as early spring, you can see five or six different kinds of ducks. Mallards are usually abundant, but I have also spotted Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead and Greater Scaup. Canada Geese are sometimes here and the occasional Muted Swan can also be found floating around. Double-Crested Cormorants really like the mudflats. They usually congregate their in large groups, but you can sometimes see a lone Cormorant drying off its wings in the sunshine.

The song birds need their acknowledgment as well. Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens fill the air with their songs. Red-Winged Blackbirds also make their presence known either with a loud call or a sudden appearance in the reeds. Catbirds, Robins and the occasional Grackle also like this spot, particularly the more forested areas.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to this location is the surprises that seem to be waiting at every turn. Yes, I see a lot of the same birds each trip, but I never know what other birds and animals might be waiting around the next curve in the boardwalk. I have seen woodchucks, painted turtles and so many lovely butterflies here. Some of my other favorite rare encounters include a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs wandering in the mudflats, a bright yellow Palm Warbler and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

Mill Creek Marsh (Secaucus)

One of my favorite places to take nature walks is Mill Creek Marsh. A one mile trail in a tidal wetland, Mill Creek Marsh offers both a chance to commune with nature and a stunning backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Another feature of the marsh that makes a visit here more unusual are the stumps that populate the water. The remains of a prehistoric forest of white cedar trees, today the rot resistant stumps provide platforms on which many of the waterbirds hunt from and rest on.

And boy are there water birds. This trail is never boring. Besides a wide variety of ducks, Canada Geese and Sea Gulls, the water is often populated with Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Tree Swallows, Dragonflies and Painted Turtles.

To me the big treat of visiting Mill Creek Marsh is getting to watch the many Snowy Egrets that hang out there. Smaller than a Great Egret (they stand about 24 inches to a Great Egret’s 38 inches), what the Snowy Egrets lack in stature they make up for in personality. The bright yellow on their face, contrasted with their black bill, seems to emphasize their jet black pupils in a sea of yellow eyeball. Where their eyes are interesting, the Snowy Egret’s plumes are sassy. They use them to fend off other Egrets in territory disputes and often puff them up when hunting. The Snowy Egret’s plumes were once an object of fashion leading to their population being over-hunted.

Smaller birds can also be found while walking here, in the reeds and cattails, or resting in one of the many trees that line the trail. Red-Winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens are common here, as are Northern Mockingbirds. The flashes of the Northern Mockingbirds wings can be seen with almost every rustle of leaves, but spotting them on a tree is also not difficult.

This park, like many in this area, is maintained by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Learn more about Mill Creek Marsh and the other twenty parks the Authority manages at https://www.njsea.com/parks-and-trails/ When driving to this park, beware your GPS navigation. The best way to make it to the trail head (and not the opposite side of the marsh, which has no entrance) is to navigate to Bob’s Discount Furniture in Secaucus. From there the trail parking and entrance is on the right of the store.

Celery Farms

One of the places where I take frequent walks is the Celery Farms in Allendale, New Jersey. Doubtless I will mention it again. And again. There are many reasons I keep returning to this site, not the least of which is it is quick and easy to get to, and a fairly short loop. There are also, according to the website, 240 species of birds recorded. And that is only birds. Besides our feathered friends, there are countless deer, squirrels, chipmunks, painted turtles, and snapping turtles who make this wetland their home. On one occasion I even saw what I think was an otter. Butterflies can also be found, depending on the season. Considering that you can peek through the leaves on the trees and see into the backyards of suburban New Jersey, this place is pretty wild.

Formerly a farm, this space was flooded to create a lake and wetland habitat, with a stream running along the trail on one side of the loop. The trail is about a mile and is muddy eight times out of ten. Flat and easy to walk, but watch out for tree roots. It is a pretty popular trail for walkers, joggers and other bird watchers so don’t expect to feel like the only human left on earth. That being said, the Preserve doesn’t allow boats, dogs or fishing, so it can be more peaceful than similar spaces.

Besides some well placed benches, there are also several observation platforms where one can get a good vantage point over the lake from various angles. One of the platforms even has benches when you get to the top, so hanging around to bird watch is pretty easy.

As you would expect in a wetland habitat, you will likely see Red-Winged Blackbirds, Great Egrets, Great Blue Heron, Tree Swallows, Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a variety of duck species.

In the wooded areas turkeys, robins, cardinals and a variety of sparrows are common and you usually hear the turkeys, and woodpeckers.

The smaller birds are often a bit harder to spot among the vegetation, but finches and chickadees are frequent visits, as well as a variety of warblers, if you are lucky to catch sight of one!

To find out more about the Celery Farms and to see a map of the Preserve, visit http://www.fykenature.org/celeryfarm.html