Tuesday, January 29, 2013

When Lightning Strikes...Twice in New Jersey!

On January 10 I got a text that a Greater White-fronted Goose was out at the reservoir near my home.  This  is a tough bird to get for the county each year, so I drove over to see if I could find it.  Frank Sencher Jr. was still on the bird, so it was an easy get.  We then decided to drive over to the other side of the reservoir to scope out the gulls before dark.

Hundreds of gulls were on an ice sheet near the boat launch, so we started to scan for Iceland Gulls or maybe something better.  That's when lighting struck!  While scanning the flock I quickly found a bird that was smaller than the Ring-billed Gulls, with a mostly plain yellow bill, greenish-yellow legs, and a dark eye.

I called over to Frank, "Hey, looks like I've got a Common Gull here."  He quickly confirmed the call, and started texting and calling other local birders.

Mew Gull 1-10-2013
Mew Gull, Spruce Run Reservoir, NJ photo Rob Fergus
Common Gull is either a European subspecies of Mew Gull (from western North America).  It had never been confirmed from New Jersey before, making this a first state record.  In the hour that we were able to watch it, almost a dozen other birders were able to get there and see the bird.  Just before sundown, the whole flock flew.  Despite repeated searching over the next week, the bird was not relocated.

In trying to explain the significance of this find to my nonbirding friends, I told them it is like the birding equivalent of pitching a no-hitter.  Most pitchers never get one.  Most of the time we can only dream of finding a new bird for a state or country.  It's a real treat to find something new.  I told my friends that this just doesn't happen very often.

And then it happened again.  Less than a week later!

My buddy Michael Rehman texted that he had a Barnacle Goose out at the same reservoir on January 16.  This was a bird I had been looking for all winter, and was on the top of my wish list for the county.  I was on my way to a funeral, so didn't have time to look very long that morning.  On my way home from the funeral, I stopped by the reservoir again.  No goose.  Driving out of the park, I saw a flock of juncos fly up off the shoulder of the road, so I pulled over to check them out.  As I watched the sparrows and juncos, a small bright brownish bird flew in to join them.  The bird was very bright, almost cinnamon colored.  In my binoculars I couldn't quite make out what it was.  I got out my scope and was able to see it for just a couple seconds in the scope before a car came by and the bird flushed--not to reappear.

With my scope, I could see that it was a bunting.  I checked the wingbars, which seemed brownish, and due to the short view, I thought it was probably an Indigo Bunting.  This would be a very good local winter record, so I told other birders about it.  I looked for it a few times over the next week, but couldn't find it.

Then Frank Sencher Jr. finally relocated it and photographed it a week later.  The photos showed the bird better than I had seen it, and seemed to show that it wasn't an Indigo Bunting, but a young Lazuli Bunting--another bird never confirmed from New Jersey!  The next morning even better photos were obtained by others, then the bird spent the rest of the week hiding from eager birders.

Lazuli Bunting
Lazuli Bunting, Spruce Run Reservoir, NJ, photo by Sam Galick.
So I've had quite a month so far!  Potentially back to back first state records.  It's like pitching back to back no-hitters.  And just like a no-hitter, nobody can do it by themselves.  A pitcher needs a catcher to catch his pitches, and fielders to snag those balls that get hit for potential base hits.  Frank Sencher and I tag teamed these two birds, and others helped confirm the sightings with their own observations and photos.  Birding is a team sport after all!  And more than anything, Birding is Fun!


  1. Awesome...although I might disagree about the no-hitter analogy...sounds more like a perfect game to me!

  2. This is really titanic stuff here. The bird gods favor you, and birders bow their heads in solemn respect.
    Nice work!

  3. So both NJ state first records started as a goose chase - literally. Just goes to show ya...

  4. By the way Rob, I'm proud of ya. You didn't ignore what most of us would have overlooked in both situations. Preparation, patience, and a good bit of karma = Success in a big way!

  5. Yep, around here you have to chase geese if you want to find rarities--and endure the mind numbing search through thousands of similar and familiar birds. But it is worth it if that is what you want to do.