I think it is pretty safe to say that most birders understand the thrill of seeing a jaeger, either from a firsthand experience or from hearing about these bird’s uncanny ability to steal the show in any situation. Multiple times this past weekend I was reminded not only of how impressive jaegers are, but also how amusingly difficult it can be to identify jaegers.
Much of the Nemesis Bird team was down in southern New Jersey for a Paulagics trip over the weekend, and we were able to run in to all three species of jaeger during the course of the weekend! Mike Lanzone, Andy McGann, and I drove to NJ on Friday morning and birded the Brigantine Unit of the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. It was hot and muggy and the birding was a little slow, although we did find over 50 species including an adult and juvenile Gull-billed Tern, American Golden-Plover, and many other shorebirds. Afterwards we drove south towards Cape May and when we were about 20 minutes away, a Keekeekerr text message came through saying that a dark type juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger was sitting on the dunes at the South Cape May Meadows.
Driving to Cape May is always exciting, but with the shot at seeing a Long-tailed Jaeger perched on the ground I think Andy may have picked up the pace of his Prius a little bit. Mike knew a quicker short-cut around to the meadows and a few minutes later we pulled into the parking lot, unloaded our gear, and headed down the path towards the beach. As we were cresting over the dunes, we could see about 20 birders gather in a line facing towards a dark shape about 60ft in front of them. We all quickly got our binos on the bird and I snapped a quick photo but then we rushed around to get closer. Unfortunately, while we were still fairly far away the jaeger took flight and flew out over the ocean and began bothering a large tern and skimmer flock in the distance. We had gotten there quick enough to see the jaeger, but if only we had gotten there 5 minutes earlier…..luckily this wouldn’t be the last time we saw that bird.
The next day was our pelagic trip. As soon as the first rays of sunlight started to peak over the horizon, we could see Wilson’s and Leach’s Storm-Petrels zig-zaging through the chum slick behind the boat but the low light made getting photo difficult. A few minutes later, the sun rose more and the lighting was much better. Just then, someone yelled out “jaeger!”. Sure enough, a chunky adult Pomarine Jaeger with one long spoon-like tail feather remaining was working its way closer to the boat. Soon two adult Herring Gulls joined the jaeger in grabbing bits of choppped-up fish out of the slick. For the next few minutes the jaeger flew around near us, sometimes pausing to land on the water briefly.
Later in the morning while briefly in Delaware waters, we were crusing around in the boat trying to get better looks at some dolphins when someone spotted another jaeger sitting on the water. As the Captain maneuvered the Atlantic Star closer, we could see that it was likely a juvenile dark type Long-tailed Jaeger – almost identical to the one we saw on the beach in Cape May the day before. This jaeger let us approach fairly close, but we were shooting into the sun, so my photos are a little back-lit. Note this bird’s much smaller, slimmer appearance compared to the Pomarine above. I always think Long-tailed have a much cuter, smaller face than either of the two other species.
In the early afternoon, Drew and Mike spotted a very distant flying bird off to the port side of the boat. I tried to take some photos of the bird, but it was very far away. Based on the poor quality photos I was able to get and our impression of the bird’s size and behavior, we thought it was likely another Long-tailed Jaeger but soon it faded into the haze and wasn’t seen again. Later in the afternoon, as we were headed back to shore, a fourth jaeger was spotted behind the boat. Everyone rushed to the back of the boat to watch as the jaeger flew down to the water and then flushed back up, and then dropped down again, landing on the water briefly, and then taking flight again. Many of us took photos of the bird which was a few hundred feet away. After it flew off, almost everyone on board was discussing the field marks and behavior and we all pretty much agreed it was an adult Parasitic Jaeger! incredible – all three jaeger species in one day!
On Sunday morning we went straight to the Higbee morning flight dike but conditions hadn’t been that conducive for causing morning flight the night before so we didn’t see very much and decided we would have better luck elsewhere. A few texts came through saying both a Parasitic and the continuing dark juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger were harassing terns in the rips off of Cape May Point, so we drove over to see if we could find the birds. As everyone else was setting up to scope the water for jaegers, I walked over to a very large gathering of Common Terns to try and pick through them for a Roseate Tern….after 6 close looks through the flocks, I didn’t turn up anything rare but did catch the striking silhouette of a jaeger in the background. I looked up to see the juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger heading down the edge of the beach, right towards me! All the terns flushed and the jaeger ripped through, tearing through the swirling Common Terns and then heading off down the beach. We had missed out on close looks at this bird on Friday but now, two days later, we got a second chance and I was able to grab the photo below which I really like despite the poor lighting conditions at the time.
I walked back over to where everyone else was standing to discuss the bird’s ID with them and make sure we were all on the same page. In the meantime, Mike spotted an adult Parasitic Jaeger following around a few terns out over the water. We watched it for about a minute before it flew off out of sight…our last jaeger sighting of the weekend. Never in my life have I had such good luck with jaegers as this past weekend – getting to see all three species and a total of 7 observations was incredible and really makes me excited to get back to the coast as soon as possible.