Rarity Round-Up: A Four Day Birding Adventure

Click on links throughout this post to see our full eBird checklists and more photos for the locations mentioned!

Last week I was sitting around campus with my friends Mark Mizak and Josh Lefever, thinking about the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. We knew we would have four days free and we knew we wanted to go birding. Four days gave us a lot of time, we could really do something pretty awesome if we wanted to. So, we started checking out on eBird and the various state listserves nearby, to see where the rarities were. A few things jumped out immediately – Common Chaffinch in New Jersey, Barnacle Goose in Maryland, various cool species in eastern PA and NJ, etc. We ended up coming up with a list of 20 species we were interested in chasing.

That’s when we came up with an idea – a lot of the birding blogs post weekly ‘Rare Bird Alerts‘ or ‘Rarity Round-Ups’ where the blogger mentions what rare birds are where that week; but what if instead of just writing about it on the blog, we actually went to see all those rarities…..or at least the ones within reasonable driving distance. Plus we could try to add a bunch of year birds along the way.

So that’s what we did.

Thursday, January 12th we left State College and drove to my family’s house in Hershey, PA and stayed the night. We woke up early the next morning and began what would be a four day, all-out rarity chase that would ultimately take us 900 miles through four states. We had everything planned out. We figured out how long it would take to get from one bird to another, and we allotted a certain amount of time for each target, and as long as the birds cooperated and we stayed on schedule, we really thought we could get most of our targets – as long as we had a bit of luck.

Our first stop Friday morning was the Green-tailed Towhee at Blue Marsh Lake near Reading, PA. Josh and I had already seen this bird, so were fairly familiar with its habits. We arrived at 7:50am, the wind was howling and rain was drizzling down, needless to say, we were all worried about how the day would turn out. But luck did in fact seem to be on our side, and within a half hour we saw the towhee at its usual spot under a cedar tree and were on our way to the next bird. Next up was the nearby juvenile White Ibis at Kaercher Creek Park in Hamburg, PA. This bird has had the same habits throughout its entire stay at this park – it just forages up and down a small creek right next to the parking lot. We got the bird and snapped a few photos, and were on our way to the next bird in just five minutes.

White Ibis - juvenile at Kaercher Creek, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The juvenile Harris’s Sparrow along Old Philly Pike was our next target. This bird had been a lifer for me and Josh the last time we paid a visit, but our looks at it that time were short and frustrating, so we were really hoping to get better looks today. Luckily the clouds moved on, and the sun began shining down but unfortunately the high wind speeds persisted. Just as dealing with the harsh and freezing-cold wind got almost too unbearable to take for much longer, Josh spotted the sparrow as it flew in and fed on some bird seed among House Finches and White-throated Sparrows. The three of us got great looks, jumped back in the car, and headed east.

Our luck this morning was incredible – we had gotten all three target birds so far and were actually ahead of schedule! But then came our first miss of the day. We couldn’t find the previously reported Greater White-fronted Goose or Cackling Goose mixed in with the Canada Geese at Dorney Pond in Allentown, PA. Luckily we had some other GWFG planned as backups, and continued to our next target. This next one was the big one – really the reason we planned this whole trip in the first place; the Common Chaffinch in Hunterdon County, NJ.

At 11:50am, we arrived at now-famous 6 Fawn Way. There were only two other birder’s cars present, would that be a good sign or a bad sign? We walked around the back of the house to stand on the porch and wait for the bird. We had planned to devout the entire rest of the day to waiting for this bird since we had heard horror stories of having to stand there for 4 or 5 hours, to wait for the bird to fly in for a second or two before retreated again for hours. Things were different today – we only had to wait three minutes before the bird flew in from shrubs alongside the house and foraged right in front of us, less than 10 feet away, for an entire minute! The two other birders then left, and we were there alone to wait for the bird to fly in to the feeders again. Sure enough, at 12:35pm the bird appeared at the feeder, alongside White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a squirrel and hopped around, feeding for a whopping 4 minutes! For good measure a Common Raven flew overhead, calling – an uncommon species in NJ. After feeling quite satisfied with our looks of this incredibly rare visitor from Eurasia, we moved on to our next target.

Common Chaffinch - male in Hunterdon County, NJ (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Next was a bird that Josh, Mark, and myself had already seen back in November (actually this was my third visit) – the Snowy Owl at Merrill Creek Reservoir, NJ. The owl’s proximity to the chaffinch plus the fact that since this year is a Snowy Owl invasion meant we could not leave this bird out of our rarity round-up trip. We arrived at 1:15pm and began the mile hike out to where the owl sits, on the backside of the main dam. The weather made a turn for the worse. A hellish mix of rain, snow, and hail was whipping horizontally (due to the incredible 45mph + wind speeds) right into our faces. Tears ran down from my eyes and were literally freezing on my mustache and beard. The damn owl better be sitting there, I thought to myself. And sure enough, it was. The three of us and another birder, watched the owl for a few minutes and then walked back to the car. In the last hours of sunlight, we drove to Assiscong  Marsh to look for one of our ‘back-up’ Greater White-fronted Geese – no luck, but we did find a Cackling Goose.

Snowy Owl at Merrill Creek Reservoir, NJ (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

We got a hotel for the night, and searched online to make sure our target birds for the next days were still being seen while also trying to get an idea of their habits so we could be well-prepared once we got to them. Saturday morning, we woke up and headed back into PA, but not without a quick stop at a WAWA to get muffin breakfast sandwiches. Our first target for the day was the Say’s Phoebe at Crooke’s Farm in Bucks County. Josh and I had already seen this bird, but it would be a lifer for Mark and a good year bird all-around. We arrived at 8:15am, and began searching down near the massive mulch pile, where this bird usually hangs out. As we walked down, Mark and I caught a quick flash of the bird as it took off low over the ground and disappeared behind some old tractors. Sadly, this would be the only look we got of the bird for the next hour and a half, and we knew we had to move on if we wanted the rest of the day to go as planned.

Next was some gulling at Falls Township Park with Iceland, Glaucous, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls as our main targets. As soon as we arrived, a local birder put us onto a very close and very beautiful juvenile Iceland Gull, a nemesis bird of mine which filled a glaring (and honestly embarrassing) space on my life list. All the gulls flushed and re-landed on the soccer fields at the other end of the park. We walked over there, and began scanning through the flock picking up multiple Lesser Black-backed Gulls among the thousands of Herring, hundreds of Ring-billed, and tens of Great Black-backs. Then came the show-stealer – a truly massive juvenile Glaucous Gull, who towered over the Herring Gulls and put on quite a show for us. Despite the brief glimpse at the Say’s Phoebe, it seemed our day was going to be another good one (read: incredibly freaking lucky).

Iceland Gull - juvenile at Falls Township Park, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Glaucous Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull - juveniles at Falls Township Park, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Our next stop was to Pennypack Park along the Delaware River. Here we were hoping to pick up a Great Cormorant for our PA lists as well as search for some uncommon species that had been reported recently such as Clay-colored Sparrow and Orange-crowned Warbler. We picked up a nice, but distant adult Great Cormorant as soon as we parked the car and then walked down the trail to search for the other birds. Right where I had heard the Orange-crowned Warbler had been, we found it foraging alongside a loose flock of Song Sparrows. Then we spotted a Vesper Sparrow (quite an uncommon bird this time of the year in PA), it’s white outer tail feathers and eye ring quite obvious. We knew the Clay-colored Sparrow hadn’t been seen in weeks, and decided to cut our losses and high-tail it to Barnegat Light to end the day.

We arrived at Barnegat, one of my all-time favorite birding destinations, at 3:40pm and as usual were immediately inundated with birds. Red-throated Loons and a few Common Loons were everywhere swimming and diving for fish; flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers and Oldsquaws were flying in and out of the inlet; Harlequin Ducks were foraging along the jetty accompanied by Purple Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones; Common Eiders, Surf Scoters, and Black Scoters were foraging just offshore; Great Cormorants were loafing on the channel markers; Northern Gannets could be seen far out on the horizon; and gulls filled the air. If you are willing to suffer through freezing cold and incredible wind, this is the place to do it. The three of us stood at the end of the jetty, watching the birds and the Harbor Seals as the sun began to set. A last minute juvenile Iceland Gull that I spotted among the hundreds of Herring Gulls was a great way to end the day. We then drove down to my friend Sam Galick’s house to spend the night and plan our next day, which would be focused totally on Cape May County.

Oldsquaw - male at Barnegat Light, NJ (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

On Saturday the three of us joined by Sam, headed out early and made our first stop to the Meadows. Here we hoped for Virginia Rails or anything else cool. We didn’t hear or see any rails, but did kick the day off right with 31 species total in a quick 40 minute walk around. Next we made our first attempt to see the Dickcissels at Cape May Point. There was one bird mixed with House Sparrows along Harvard Ave as well as a second bird at the CMBO Northwood Center‘s bird feeders. The Harvard Ave bird had been reported daily for weeks, in fact I had seen the bird myself back in December so I figured it would be our easiest target of the trip – long story short, we didn’t see either of the Dickcissels despite three stops throughout the day along Harvard Ave and two stops to the Northwood Center.

A quick walk around Cape May Point State Park got us nice looks at three Baltimore Orioles that have been calling the park their winter home as well as getting to witness a short-lived showdown between a Bald Eagle and a Great Egret, which ended with the Bald Eagle being too lazy to really do anything, as is typical of Bald Eagles. The four of us made a few more stops around Cape May, for various new year birds and then at 11:40am, stopped by 1026 Batts Lane, where a Allen’s/Rufous Hummingbird was hanging out. Most features of this bird were leaning more towards Rufous, but the ID couldn’t be confirmed until decent photos of the tail were obtained. Luckily I was able to get a shot of the bird’s tail partially spread and that sealed the deal for the bird being an immature Rufous Hummer.

Rufous Hummingbird - immature male in Cape May, NJ (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The Beanery (aka the Rea Farm) in Cape May was our next stop. This stop was personally the highlight of the day for me. Sam had found a Bell’s Vireo here over a month ago as well as a Yellow-breasted Chat. Both birds would be lifers for Josh and the vireo would be a lifer for Mark, plus they would be pretty sweet NJ birds for all of us. Less than 10 minutes after arriving, Sam spotted the Bell’s Vireo right where he originally found it and we were able to watch the bird at incredibly close range as it foraged through the brush, searching for insects. The Birding Gods must have continued to smile down on us, because just a few minutes later, Sam spotted the Yellow-breasted Chat foraging at the edge of a pond. The chat also gave us killer looks for about a minute before disappearing back into the shrubs. A search for the Black-headed Gull along the beach in north Cape May was unsuccessful.

Bell's Vireo at the Beanery, NJ (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Yellow-breasted Chat at the Beanery, NJ (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The four of us made a few more random stops around Cape May to pick up new year birds such as Red-headed Woodpecker, Boat-tailed Grackle, and Merlin and then left Sam to go off on our own for a few hours. We quickly stopped to see a second Rufous Hummingbird, this one at the CMBO Goshen Center which offered insane looks at very close range and then we drove up to Jakes Landing. Here we hoped to catch a glimpse of a Short-eared Owl and maybe a Clapper Rail or Marsh Wren. While watching a group of roosting Dunlin in my binos, I noticed a Clapper Rail run down to the water’s edge and then quickly retreat back into the marsh but Josh and Mark were not able to get on it fast enough. Marsh Wrens however, did cooperate nicely and offered us obstructed but satisfying looks as they climbed through the reeds and Spartina. Just as it was getting too dark to see through binoculars and the sun had already sunk below the horizon leaving a red glow through the sky, I spotted a lone Short-eared Owl cruising past us low and close. A perfect way to end a great day of birding.

Short-eared Owl at Jakes Landing, NJ (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The next morning, we got up early and took the first ferry out of Cape May and over to Lewes, Delaware.  Today was the day we were trying for our second biggest target of the trip – the adult Barnacle Goose in Maryland. We had gotten texts all morning saying the bird was being seen, so our spirits were up. At 10:20am, we parked along the road leading to the Buckingham Boat Launch to see a bunch of birders standing and looking intently through their scopes at a huge flock of Canada Geese. The three of us jumped out of the car and ran over, immediately getting killer looks through another birder’s scope of the stunning Barnacle Goose. To make the moment even better, an adult Greater White-fronted Goose was standing literally right next to the Barnacle Goose! Soon a truck drove past and flushed all the geese into the air. The GWFG went missing pretty quickly but the Barnacle Goose, accompanied by three Cackling Geese and a bunch of Canada Geese flew overhead, circling right over our heads multiple times before landing back down in the field. We watched the goose for a while longer, and then got in our car and started driving north. We had a lot of ground to cover before dark and still had three more target birds to go!

Barnacle Goose and Canada Geese along the Chester River, MD (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

At 1:45pm, we pulled in to the parking area along Water Street in Lancaster County, PA and began searching for the Painted Bunting that had been found here on the Lancaster CBC by Justin Bosler. I had already seen the bird on January 8th but it would be a lifer for Josh and Mark and a great addition to our Rarity Round-Up. After searching for a while, we felt pretty sure we wouldn’t find it and started walking back to the car, and that’s when Josh flushed up the green bunting which then flew over and landed deep in a tangle of brush. We spent the next 10 minutes trying to see where it landed, but couldn’t find it. Finally the bird hopped up into some butterfly bush and offered all of us great looks at this rare little green bunting.

We drove up and picked up Mark’s girlfriend at her home in Enola and then drove southwest towards Mud Level Rd in Cumberland County in the hopes of getting a look at the recently reported Snowy Owl as well as the famous Prairie Falcon that winters in the same area. As soon as we arrived, we spotted the Snowy Owl perched far off on the ground among corn stubble and rocks. The four of us then scoured the area, searching the Prairie Falcon. Back when I used to live nearby, it had taken me honestly 15 visits before I finally saw this bird, so I seriously doubted we would find it but since it would be a great year bird, awesome addition to our road trip, and a lifer for Josh we gave it all we had. Then, with the blessings of the Birding Gods once again, at 4:45pm I spotted the unmistakable silhouette of the Prairie Falcon perched on a distant snag. We all jumped out of the car to set up our spotting scopes but then the falcon took flight, rocketed across the field and disappeared from view. We could see it was making a bee-line for the quarry, where it is known to roost and knew that was probably going to be our last look at the bird. Just for the heck of it, we stood watch at the quarry for another half hour but never saw the bird again.

Snowy Owl along Mud Level Rd, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

As darkness and a light rain began to fall, we began our drive back to State College. I had managed to pick up 3 lifers, Josh picked up 8, and Mark a whopping 16. All of us felt very happy about our trip and couldn’t believe the incredible luck we had all weekend, being able to see 18 out of the 20 target birds we had planned. In addition, our trip list for the weekend totaled 127 species – not to shabby for four days in January in this area of the country.  Below is an interactive map that Josh made of our rarity round-up roadtrip. Green tabs show targets we were able to see, red tabs show targets we missed. Each tab has more info about the target bird as well as a link to our eBird checklist for that location.

View Rarity Round-Up (1/13-1/16) in a larger map