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October 2, 2020


By Rick Wright

Some of my friends wrote books, others took up watercolors and macramé. When it began to look in earnest like I would be staying home this spring (and this summer, and this fall), I decided to do something completely different: I would choose a local birding site and visit every day, or close to every day as I could manage, until “things” returned to something like “normal.”

The choice of locality was an easy one. Though I toyed with the virtuous idea of dedicating myself to a spot within walking distance, the closing in March of all the parks in our county put paid to that notion. Our own little backyard, thanks to Alison’s toil over several years in transforming it into a native plant garden, is birdy enough, having attracted Dickcissel, Blue Grosbeak, and Summer Tanager in years past; but I knew that even the closest observation would find returns diminishing quickly, and I could spend weeks or months waiting for something new among the Song Sparrows and Catbirds that serve as our daily bread and butter most of the year.

Mill Creek Marsh, Secaucus, New Jersey - Rick Wright

Fortunately, northern New Jersey’s prime birding tract, the Hackensack Meadowlands, is just a short drive—if not always a quick one—away, and I had been curious about one particular hot spot, Mill Creek Marsh, for a long time. My visits in the past had been concentrated in the late summer and fall, when this small wetland is the staging site for as many as 6,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers and a smattering of other shorebirds. I wanted to know what the marsh was like in the other seasons, the seasons when I was usually birding locations far more exotic.

Unfortunately, Mill Creek Marsh, too, would be closed on and off for much of the spring. But it’s hard to hold back the tide, and in the right circumstances, the water and the birds come right up to the fence separating the parking lot from the marsh, and the thin screen of trees separating the area from the adjacent strip mall—this is urban northern New Jersey, after all—seemed to promise some passerine activity even on mornings when the water and the birds were too far out to glimpse. My cumulative tally for the site had a great many gaps—common, even abundant birds that timing or weather or simple inattention had prevented me from encountering; thus, I launched the project with a little boost from my listing instinct.

Semipalmated Sandpipers and Mallards at Mill Creek Marsh - Rick Wright

Between March 14 and September 23, I paid 114 visits to Mill Creek Marsh or the parking lot, most of them in the morning, most of them on the rising tide. I was there every day in May, my determination flagging only with the onset of genuinely hot, humid, awful weather. The longest intervals between visits were in June, when I made the eleven-minute drive only five times over thirty days; the month was bookended by the last northbound Yellow-billed Cuckoos at its beginning and the first southbound Least and Semipalmated sandpipers at its end, when I resumed daily or near-daily excursions.

Mill Creek Marsh and its neighbors - Rick Wright

The results? The dormant lister in me has been stirred by the addition of no fewer than thirteen species to my all-time Mill Creek Marsh list—thirteen so far, with three months left in the year. As I’d expected, most have been common birds; my land bird list certainly profited on the mornings when the gates were locked and I was left to explore the parking lot trees, which turned out to harbor such novelties, by the extremely local standard, as Hairy Woodpeckers; Pine, Prairie, and Blackburnian warblers; Ovenbirds; Swainson’s Thrushes; and Red-eyed Vireos. None would have excited me in any of the nearby woodlands or in our yard, but out at my special birding spot, every one was a thrill. A fine Wilson’s Warbler in May and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in early September were slightly more surprising. I also tallied my first Pied-billed Grebes and Mute Swans for the site, two aquatic species that left me shaking my head when I found that I had not recorded them there before: both are frequent at other sites in the Meadowlands, the swan downright abundant. A single passerine family accounted for the only regional rarities I’ve stumbled into so far this year. In mid-September, an unusually large number of Brown-headed Cowbirds appeared early one morning. I am not a patient scanner of icterid flocks, but the good angel on my shoulder reminded me that the only way to find a Shiny Cowbird is to look for one. So I looked, and found none. The flock did, however, contain a very handsome male Yellow-headed Blackbird,  a species that occurs annually in vanishingly small numbers in southern New Jersey but is very scarce and irregular here; this bird, which lingered for only minutes before flying off in search of a feedlot, was apparently the first recorded in Hudson County since 2011.

A stray Yellow-headed Blackbird joins the Cowbird flock at Mill Creek Marsh - Rick Wright

The real surprise arrived in July. A birder I do not know discovered a bird he identified as an Eastern Meadowlark at the extreme point of the trail, where marsh, dike, and turnpike meet; naturally, that was one of the mornings I had decided not to go out, and when I heard what I had missed by staying in, I suffered great pangs of envy for a minute or two. Then I forgot about it: a weird bird in a weird place on a weird date—not an experience I could expect to replicate in any event.

A week later, though, out early one morning on my own, I flushed a meadowlark from the path into the dense interior fastness of a heavily leafed tree. Strange, but a welcome sighting, new for my Mill Creek Marsh list. I don’t see the species often in our area, so I tarried until my eye finally picked it out in the tree. Congratulating myself on the nice re-find, I put my scope on the bird, and was immediately troubled. I couldn’t see much for all the leaves, but the bits of wing and tail I could discern were pale with narrow blackish bars, not the chocolate and black blotching Eastern Meadowlarks in the eastern part of their US range typically show. I was perplexed.

An apparent Western Meadowlark at Mill Creek Marsh - Rick Wright

When I got home, I looked again at the original report in eBird, and found that the original observer had noted that there were photographs of the bird—photographs he had not included on his checklist. I wrote our local eBird reviewer to ask if he would put me in contact with the observer: silence, silence, more silence.

The bird, though, stayed around. I saw it again and again, and each time it looked more and more like a Western Meadowlark and less like the eastern it had been identified as. A few days later, the original observer’s photographs were added to that first checklist, and among them was an image of the spread tail showing a pattern at the extreme end of the meadowlark spectrum—the western end. Having heard nothing from our eBird reviewer, I reported the photos as misidentified in hopes that someone else would look at them. A couple of days later, I obtained my own photos of the outer tail feathers confirming that the pattern was almost certainly that of a Western Meadowlark, and other birders began showing up to look for, and sometimes at, the bird.

Mill Creek Marsh in the shadow of Manhattan - Rick Wright

Meadowlark identification is notoriously difficult. The amount of overlap in plumage characters is not entirely certain, and the fact that this bird appeared to combine western-like tail and wing patterns with an eastern-like jaw strip was troubling. Most disconcerting, though, was the Mill Creek meadowlark’s adamant refusal to call. No matter how many people spent no matter how much time watching it, the bird was silent—silent while feeding, while preening, while perching, while flushing. Some added it to their lists as a bona fide Western Meadowlark, others (at the moment still including me) counted it more conservatively as a meadowlark likely to have been a western. In many cases, the decision seemed to be based on the number of miles the observer had driven to see the bird.

There remain three months and a few days in this annus horribilis of ours. I will miss traveling to far-away places to bird with new friends and old. But my own best birding spot, seven miles from home among the malls, stadiums, and superfund sites of northern New Jersey, will probably help me through it.

Rick’s bio and upcoming tour schedule


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