By Margo D. Beller
There is something both fascinating and disturbing about lists of unusual birds seen, reported and verified in New Jersey. The latest such list, for 2012, is in the NJ Audubon magazine issue for autumn-winter 2013-2014, with the annual report of the New Jersey Bird Records Committee. (I don’t know why it is a year behind in the magazine. The 2013 report is here.)
A lot of birds I’ve seen in the deep south are showing up in New Jersey. What was an anhinga doing in Cape May, in the southern part of the state? Or a white ibis at the Walkill National Wildlfe Refuge in Sussex County, in the northern part of the state? Or the wood stork in Blairstown in western Warren County?
Not to mention the reported (and accepted) sightings of swallow-tailed kite, black brant, rufous hummingbird and California gull?
Birders love rarities and will drive all over the state – or the country – if one is reported. I have sought out some of these rarities, too, when I don’t have to kill myself to get there. When a pink-footed goose showed up with a flock of larger Canada geese in a Bergen County park not far from my accountant’s office in March 2011, my husband and I saw and photographed it. This bird shows up in the 2012 report (there were also reports of others in 2013).
Why are unusual birds showing up in New Jersey? There are many theories. It could be climate change - the country is warming and the southern birds are spreading their territories. Perhaps human overdevelopment is forcing them north. Perhaps more severe storms are blowing them east. Perhaps a bit of all three.
I don’t know.
The Northern Cardinal - so common at my feeder - was once considered a southern bird. So were the mockingbird, Carolina wren and red-bellied woodpecker. Until this year, whenever another southern bird, the red-headed woodpecker, showed up in northern New Jersey it was a big deal. It’s a striking bird you can’t confuse with anything else, starting with that all-red head.
Now reports of sightings are on the increase in this state. In recent weeks, in Somerset County (where Scherman Hoffman is located), anywhere from six to 14 red-headed woodpeckers were seen and/or heard in Glenhurst Meadows, Warren Township. In nearby Morris County, 11 red-headeds were found in one day in Troy Meadows (Parsippany Township), with smaller numbers in other area parks. (All of these reports can be found at mocosobirds.com.)
In February 2012, I wrote here about the red-headed woodpecker that came to the Scherman Hoffman feeders. It was a big deal then, too, and I dragged my husband over so he could see one (I had seen a red-headed at the nearby Great Swamp years before). We struck out, as we seemed to do a lot seeking this bird.
But in November 2012 he finally saw his first, in Croatan National Forest, North Carolina, in a section set aside as a preserve for the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered bird because it needs a particular type of live pine in which to make its nest, and it is losing those pines to overdevelopment. We were lucky enough to see multiples of both types of woodpeckers, plus most of the others we can see in New Jersey such as the pileated.
The red-headed woodpecker also has a particular need – dead trees for nesting and foraging. So I have a theory on why there are so many being reported in New Jersey this year.
Last November’s Hurricane Sandy felled a ton of trees, and while that destroyed a lot of homes for many birds, it created a ton of habitat for the red-headed woodpecker.
One creature’s disaster is another’s roost hole.
But just because reports of red-headed woodpeckers are on the increase doesn’t mean the birds are.
Take the vesper sparrow. There have been many more reports of vespers this autumn, too, including near community gardens (Wagner Farm Arboretum near Glenhurst Meadows, Duke Farms) in Somerset County and at Morris County’s Troy Meadows. Two here, 14 there. Seems like a lot.
But in another article in the same NJ Audubon magazine issue, vespers are listed among the “desperate dozen” bird species whose existence is threatened in New Jersey. The others include American coot, ruffed grouse, red-shouldered hawk, American kestrel and the golden-winged and cerulean warblers – all birds I have seen in many places and at many times (and in the case of the coot, many birds).
Yet, as Pete Dunne writes in the magazine, the future of these “once-common” species as “breeders – without help – may not extend past the twenty-first century.”
“Help,” as in preserving their habitat.
So here’s the irony – at a time when many New Jersey birds are threatened because of overdevelopment and habitat destruction, birds from other regions are flocking to New Jersey, perhaps because of overdevelopment at home.
I find that extremely disturbing.