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Pete Dunne describes his local birding patch

Clapper Rail
An adult Clapper Rail nabs a meal for its chick in a muddy wetland, a scene that occurs each summer not far from Pete Dunne’s door. Photo by Wilfred Marissen/Shutterstock

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It’s 2 p.m. on a weekday in spring. Too late to start a big writing project, too early for a brew.

“Hey Pete,” I think, “How about a little birding jaunt to pass the time? Why not? Rain seems about over and you’ll be home in plenty of time to feed the dogs.”

Liza, the lop-tongued one, is pretty casual about meal time, but McKenzie, a.k.a., the “Big Mack,” shows an elevated genius when it comes to her food bowl OK, then. A quick run down to Strawberry to see what the tide brought in.

I’ve had many local patches over the course of my birding years, including the woods behind my parents’ house in Whippany, New Jersey, the 160 acres of woodlands that surrounded New Jersey Audubon’s Deer Path Farm, Turkey Point, near Dividing Creek, and my new favorite spot, the Commercial Township Wetlands Restoration Site (a.k.a. Strawberry Avenue) just west of Port Norris. it consists of several thousand acres of tidal marsh and mudflats bracketed by upland edge. The site is about a 13-minute drive from my door. And that’s taking the long route — the birdy route.

The road leading out to the small clamshell parking lot starts as macadam but goes to pot-hole pocked dirt half way to the parking area. That’s just about the time you see the large Bald Eagle nest on the right.

Both adults were in attendance this afternoon, shielding their three mostly grown chicks from the rain. The parking lot was, as expected, empty. The quarter-mile-long boardwalk leading out to the marsh was festooned with Snowy Egrets, and way out at the end were two hunched forms that proved to be our two feeble-minded Osprey that were about to learn all over again that building nests at the end of elevated walkways is an unprofitable undertaking. The perpetual failure of this pair hardly matters. Over a dozen active Osprey nests are within scanning distance of the boardwalk, a real bonus for Bald Eagles with hungry young to feed.

Why this particular location, when a 13-minute drive will put me in any number of fine natural areas?

In a word, birds. Rare ones? Some­times, but it is the volume of birds I prize and the delicious proximity. Stand at the edge of a marsh and you get to hear Clapper Rails. Navigate a boardwalk and you get to look down on the feathered gremlins. Come June, foraging females will be followed by a string of tiny black puffballs barely strong enough to lift their mud-calibrated feet out of the slicker’n-snot substrate that is Delaware Bay “blue mud.”

But today, the mud was inundated by the incoming tide, a condition that sends shorebirds flying and makes waterfowl animate. Clouds of Dunlin, and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs blurred the horizon, melding marsh and sky with the alchemy of their wings. The chirping trill of Green-winged Teal eclipsed the sound of raindrops. Most of these species will be gone by mid-May, when the summer marsh air will, instead, vibrate with the buzzy incantation of Seaside Sparrow, the belly-laugh grunt of rails, the strident piping of Osprey, and the scale-vaulting giggle of Marsh Wren. The brushy upland edge around the parking lot will host Yellow-breasted Chat, Prairie Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Blue Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting, none of which were in, yet. Prizes for another day and some future spur-of-the-moment visit to my local patch.

Walking slowly, it’s 20 minutes out to the end of the boardwalk, 20 back. Even including the time dedicated to the study of the 30 Wild Turkeys courting in the newly tilled field, my entire impromptu birding excursion took less than an hour door to door.

Maybe this evening I’ll head over to Turkey Point and see if Whips or Chuck-will’s-widows are in. Should be. Or maybe head over to Heislerville and see whether they’ve lowered the water level in the impoundments yet. Curlew Sandpipers, heading back for another season, want to know. Cape May? It’s an hour away. Why waste the time and gas when there are so many fine local birding locations just minutes from my door?

And yes, I love to spend a day birding Cape May, but that takes planning. And certainly, I enjoy traveling to other North American hotspots to savor the bird riches of those iconic retreats, but when I count up the minutes and the benefits, I find that I invest most of my birding time in my local patch, the place I can count upon when there’s time to bird but no time to travel.

I’ll bet you have one, too, and I hope, like mine, your local patch is protected. Be a shame to wake up one morning and see a sign on your site that reads “Future Home of the Glasstown Superstore.” All local natural areas are priceless, offering valuable habitat for local wildlife and a focus for birders when good fortune knocks. Make sure your local land planners appreciate the importance of this local Eden of yours. You are your local patch’s greatest champion. Be a vocal one. And before interests compete, document, document, document. Prove the importance of that local woodlot with breeding survey data, migration counts, and winter bird surveys. Or team up with the local library or land-preservation group and organize an annual Earth Day bird outing for residents and local politicians. Show them the special nature of your patch.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. Two imploring brown eyes are boring into mine. Four o’clock already, Mackie Mack? Huh! Go wake your sister and meet me by the bowl.


This article, from Pete Dunne’s “Birder at Large” column, appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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