As a child, we recited this nursery rhyme — “The North wind doth blow, and we shall have snow, and what shall poor robin do then, poor thing? But sit in the barn, to keep himself warm, and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.”
Which just goes to show you that there were barns all over the place in my own childhood, as well as in the childhood of whoever wrote that jingle.
However, robins are not frequenters of barns. I’m glad I didn’t realize that as a little girl and spoil the rhyme. You’ll see them hopping all over lawns again now that spring is nearly here. And you needn’t worry about frozen worms – as there is a significant period in each robin’s life each year in which his/her entire system switches to fructivore.
But I’m after more than robins: Tomorrow morning, I’ll pick up one birding buddy in Princeton and meet another in Smithville, at our beloved “Bakery”. We’ll have real farm eggs and hand-made sausage patties, and one might have French toast, in a room rich in artifacts from sailing and farming days of yore, that were given to The Bakery by neighbors and friends. My favorite sign says “Victuals” – it once graced a place that provisioned sailing ships about to leave South Jersey for points round the world.
Then we’ll head over into the Brigantine Wildlife Refuge, otherwise known as the Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, alongside Lily Lake, slightly above Atlantic City.
I explored ‘The Brig’ a week ago, with a very determined fellow birder. Wind or no wind, no birds save swans were “hiding their heads under their wings, poor things.” They were all busily up and about, seriously feeding on every side.
The 8-mile dike road took us the better part of a day to circumnavigate, Of course, we were ‘after’ the snowy owls — to be gifted with two: one almost to the second gull tower, and one 2/3 of the way along the final stretch of roadway.
Snowies barely move – in fact that’s one of the ways you know you’re seeing one. Even a plastic bag ripples around in these winds – but the snowy stays impassive. Finally a very subtle turning of the head, a sleepy (for they ARE nocturnal) blink of a golden eye, and the white lump alone in a gold field reveals itself to be the object of your quest. The pictures are hilarious — a chip like a broken fingernail on a gold field — a shape only a birder could love.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Snowies could have left for Arctic reaches, if their brilliant inner radar alerts them to open water and enough small prey along the way, and home.
My favorite birding last week came as I followed Northern harrier after Northern harrier. They’re scarcer and scarcer in New Jersey because of sea level rise. That’s the unrealized, unrecognized, unadmitted facet of catastrophic climage change. It’s taking the harriers’ nest sites in marshlands — often cruelly waiting until the birds have mated and nested and laid eggs, before washing all away.
We may have seen five females, and no one flies more elegantly, more irresistibly. The females are larger than the ‘grey ghost’ males. They are identified by large white rump spots, revealed as they circle low and, yes, harry their prey. I told my companion, watching Harrier Number One, “it was worth the entire drive just for this.”
I am not only not a lister, but could be called vigilantly anti-list. However, the Brig’s welcome shop had new colorful multi-paged printed lists, by species category, with boxes to check. So we checked away, all day.
Under Swans, Geese, Ducks, we exulted in snow geese, brant, Canada geese, mute swans with their diagnostic Princeton-orange beaks helpfully visible, American wigeon, American black ducks, mallards, a mallard/black duck (male) hybrid, the bright orange and green Northern shovelers, saucy/dapper Northern pintails, elegant green-winged Teal, the merry bobbing buffleheads, arresting hooded Mergansers, so-called common mergansers, and a rare (to us) red-breasted merganser, whose white ovals along the dark back identified this beauty. We were blessed with sun, so all these colors and shapes stood out vividly, even when the dabbling ducks were upside-down in wintry water.
A very special gift was the tiny horned grebe, all alone on Absecon Bay. How incongruous this little one, so elegant, so rare, looked against Atlantic City’s blinding towers.
Assorted other winners were stately great blue herons, Turkey Vultures insouciantly riding thermals higher and higher, a merry flotilla of tiny, toy-like American Coot. And that master speedster, the peregrine falcon.
Tomorrow morning, this new group will pick up new colorful list pamphlets in the welcome center, eager to tally whatever surprises ever-generous Nature has in store for eager birders.
You can bird right here in Princeton, I must admit. Great blue herons have been seen by the Dam on Carnegie Lake, even in our recent blizzards. And our beloved American bald eagles are assiduously and healthily tending eggs in their curiously shaped (like an oriole or a hummingbird, long and deep, not wide and flat like eagles) nest. They have been officially observed as “performing incubation exchanges.”
All you really need to bird here is the desire, two feet, and our D&R towpath. Herons and eagles don’t even require optics.