by Tom Reed and Scott Barnes
Few areas in the eastern United States can offer the year-round birding opportunities found in New Jersey. Almost 470 species have been adequately recorded in the Union’s fourth smallest state, and active birders can hope to encounter 300 species every year. How is that possible?
One hundred and twenty-seven miles of coastline and numerous habitat types ranging from spruce bogs to wind-swept barrier islands play a large role, as do the state’s many accessible preserved lands and other frequently-visited birding hotspots. Its location along the Mid-Atlantic coastline results in a rich variety of species by default, and the state serves as the southern or northern limit for several species’ breeding ranges. New Jersey is also home to several prominent geographic features that concentrate migrating birds such as the Kittatinny Ridge, Delaware River, Sandy Hook, and most notably the Cape May peninsula—which also serves as one of the most prolific vagrant traps on the Eastern Seaboard.
There is no denying that the New Jersey state list is quite impressive, but there is always room for improvement. The number of birders is increasing, as is their cumulative knowledge relating to bird identification and distribution. Technological advances, particularly the advent of cell phones and the availability and effectiveness of digital cameras, have allowed more rare birds to be documented than ever before. Reports made on text message alert systems and on eBird allow nearby birders to rapidly investigate interesting reports and confirm rarities that may have otherwise “slipped through the cracks.”
However, there will always be birds that get away. In fact, it seems likely that there are at least one or two potential first state records lurking at any given time, just waiting to be found. Our combined ability to detect vagrants, both from the standpoint of time invested and in terms of individual field skills (and sometimes, plain luck) will decide how many vagrants are found in the future. Simply put, more time invested + more meticulous field methods = more rarities and more first state records.
Four species were added to the state list just during the last two years: Pink-footed Goose, Black Swift, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and Elegant Tern. Ironically, during the writing of this article, two species voted into the Top 10 were then reported in real life: Mew Gull and Lazuli Bunting, which had received seven and five votes, respectively. We have chosen to exclude those two species from this commentary, and will await the New Jersey Bird Records Committee’s (NJBRC) decisions regarding their potential inclusion on the official state list.
So, with all that said…what might come next?
Tom Halliwell posed that very question in 2000, when he authored an article that appeared in Records of New Jersey Birds entitled, “What’s Next in New Jersey – Birds Recorded Within 200 Miles of New Jersey But Not Yet in the State.” Of the 23 species added to the state list since 2000, 14 were mentioned in that article. A few of the remaining nine records entailed less obvious regional precedents. Readers may recall New Jersey’s first Pacific Golden-Plover, Lesser Nighthawk, and Green Violetear: unexpected additions for sure at the time of their discoveries!
In constructing this article, 14 birders with broad knowledge of bird distribution were polled. Respondents were asked to provide a list of ten birds not yet conclusively recorded in New Jersey, in no specific order and without any particular ranking. We tabulated their votes and have presented the results here, with species listed from one to ten in order of votes received. Where ties occurred, species were listed in taxonomical order. We have provided some comments as to why each species could occur, and predictions as to where and when each might appear.
UPDATE (Jan 2015):
Since the writing of this article, Neotropic Cormorant has been added to the NJ state list. The bird was found by Rob Fergus at DeMott Pond in Clinton Twp, Hunterdon County on April 8, 2014 and remained there until July 13, 2014. The record was accepted by the NJ Bird Records Committee.
Not on the radar in the least were two additional birds that have made first appearances in NJ in 2014: Zone-tailed Hawk and European Golden-Plover (both pending acceptance by the NJ Bird Records Committee). Just outside NJ, a Cassin’s Kingbird (New York’s second) spent more than a month at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. As the kingbird flies this is only ten miles from the north end of Sandy Hook…so keep looking!
#1 [tie] Little Egret – 10 votes
Well, no surprise here! Tied for the top vote getter, it would seem that our respondents agree that this Old World wader is long overdue in Jersey. Records from nearby states certainly state the case for Little Egret, highlighted by an impressive four records from Delaware. It seems likely that the species has previously occurred in New Jersey, perhaps multiple times. However, the limiting factor may be the amount of effort required to find one. The extensive salt marshes of the Atlantic Coast and the Delaware Bayshore make it entirely too easy for a Little Egret to escape undetected. The identification challenges involved also need to be considered, as does the possibility that Little Egret might be most likely to appear between May and mid-July, when many birders are usually seeking forest breeding birds or not birding as much in general. What to look for: try and actually look at all the Snowy Egrets you see—at least the ones that are close. Get to be as familiar with this species as possible, as it’s the most similar wader to Little Egret. Note the exact pattern/color of the loral area, look at the type and extent of head plumes on the crown/nape, and try and judge bill size and shape. Where to look: anywhere egrets and herons congregate. The salt marsh causeways of Cape May County or the Brigantine Division of Edwin B. Forsythe NWR (“Brig”) might be the most obvious places to search. Prediction: Brigantine Division of Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, June.
#2 [tie] Tropical Kingbird – 10 votes
Knotted at the top with Little Egret and a trendy pick in our survey, this species has made a splash in recent years, with records as close as Maryland (2006), Delaware (2009), and just across the river in Philadelphia in June 2013. Tropical Kingbirds have established a track record of vagrancy along the west coast, and recent eastern records suggest that the species is a strong contender to make a stop in Jersey. As with the previous species, there are definitely identification pitfalls. This tyrant flycatcher is quite similar to the other “yellow-bellied” kingbirds and care is required to safely distinguish this species, particularly from the nearly identical Couch’s Kingbird. Proper documentation of New Jersey’s first will require photographs and voice recordings if possible. What to look for: don’t assume that every yellow-bellied kingbird is a Western, although they probably will be. If you have the chance to really observe a Western Kingbird, take some time to study it. Make sure that it’s a Western and think about the field characters that other yellow-bellied kingbirds show. What is the exact color and pattern of the underparts? What’s the bill size like? How about the details of the tail such as color and exact pattern? Where to look: fields and open areas, particularly along the coast. This species seems most likely to appear during the “traditional” late-fall vagrant window. Prediction: Cape May, November.
# 3) Hammond’s Flycatcher – 9 votes
Sorely lacking from the Jersey list are western empidonax flycatchers. Now, we understand that “rare birds are rare,” but what gives? Even the teeny state of Delaware has single records of Hammond’s, Gray, and Dusky Flycatchers! Given this fact, it is quite reasonable to say that all of these species could (and hopefully will!) occur, but our respondents felt that Hammond’s will most likely come first, perhaps owing to its history of vagrancy in neighboring states. The species has been documented once in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and twice in New York. Maybe one of the most intriguing, and frustrating aspects concerning vagrant empids is that there might not be a “best” place to find one, as late-fall and winter individuals have been known to show up in all manner of locations. Make sure you’re prepared to document any out-of-season empid, as identification is extremely challenging. Photographs, sketches and recordings will all be very helpful in documenting New Jersey’s first Hammond’s Flycatcher. What to look for: Non-singing empids are never easy, and finding a state first will require serious documentation. If you are lucky enough to find a late fall empid, take plenty of photos or video, try and record any vocalizations, and spread the word as quickly as possible. Bear in mind that empids which regularly occur in the East, including Least Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, and at least one well-documented Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, have been seen in NJ during late October and November. Where to look: Sunny, sheltered edges that have a reputation for hosting lingering passerines: warm pockets along field edges, bike paths, and of course, shrubby thickets along the coast. This is a species that could show up just about anywhere in appropriate habitat. Prediction: Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, November.
#4) Anna’s Hummingbird – 8 votes
Out-of-season hummingbirds provide our easiest opportunities to discover vagrants. An explosive increase in late-fall and early-winter hummingbird sightings throughout the region has coincided with a more concerted effort to maintain feeders, even long after the last Ruby-throateds head south in early October. Although some identifications can be tricky (don’t forget New Jersey’s first Broad-tailed Hummingbird in 2012), conclusive photographs can often be obtained, and if all else fails, we can band them too! This new awareness has surely contributed to recent records of Anna’s Hummingbird in both Pennsylvania and Delaware, and will likely play a role in New Jersey’s first, which will inevitably occur at some point in the near future. What to look for: most out-of range records involve younger birds, and one can argue that identification of immature and female hummingbirds rivals that of empid ID! Any hummingbird visiting a feeder after early October deserves to be photographed and studied in order to determine species. In some cases, licensed banders may be able to verify the identification. Where to look: your hummingbird feeder. Prediction: Anywhere with nectar, November.
# 5 [tie] Yellow-billed Loon – 7 votes
A number of voters felt strongly about this species, which has been recorded as close as Pennsylvania and New York. While records in those two states pertain to birds on inland rivers or lakes, there are also coastal sightings from Massachusetts and Maine. Given the many places one could hide, this strong flier may have already occurred in the Garden State! Detectability again comes into play, and some diligence is required to recognize and separate this species from Common Loon, particularly in basic plumage. What to look for: getting to know Common Loon very well in all its plumages is an important first step. In all plumages, differences in bill structure and color, crown shape, and slightly larger size should be noted. Winter plumage birds can be further distinguished from Common Loon by a pale face and distinct dark spot behind the eye. Where to look: New Jersey’s first could be found on a pelagic, or as a fly-by in migration, or on one of our various lakes, bays, inlets, reservoirs and rivers. Overwhelmed? We are too! Prediction: Merrill Creek Reservoir, March.
#6 [tie] Slaty-backed Gull – 7 votes
Records of this large gull have increased noticeably in nearby states during recent years, and it is only a matter of time before one gets itself found in New Jersey. The Tullytown Landfill in Bristol, a stone’s throw across the river from Florence, was home to Pennsylvania’s first in 2007. The deterioration of Florence as a winter gulling destination has certainly hurt our chances, and it seems quite reasonable that there would be at least one state record of Slaty-backed Gull were that Delaware River outpost still in its heyday. Naturally, as a gull, there are also identification challenges with this species, and observers should be fully prepared to identify this species before they potentially encounter it in the field. What to look for: Gulls are notoriously tricky, and even hard-core “lariphiles” can’t put a name to every odd bird. Extensive familiarity with both species of black-backed gulls and Herring Gull is a good starting point, as is overall size, bill structure, exact primary pattern, and leg color. Several recent records of Slaty-backed Gulls in the East are of adult or near-adult birds, so focusing on that age class may be a good place to start. Where to look: Landfills, reservoirs, beaches and other locations where large gulls congregate. Much like Yellow-billed Loon, you may just find one anywhere! Prediction: Spruce Run Reservoir, March.
# 7) Neotropic Cormorant – 6 votes
Perhaps our respondents have become weary of this southern species whose eventual arrival in New Jersey has been repeatedly predicted for many years. Outside of three recent records in Maryland, a handful of records along Lake Erie, and one photographed along Lake Ontario in New York during August 2013, the species is still largely unknown from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. There have been several reports of “smaller” cormorants seen in flight with Double-cresteds, but a superb photograph of one will absolutely be necessary to gain admission to the state list. More than likely it will require a bird on the ground. What to look for: Study the structure and proportions: Neotropic Cormorants are smaller and have longer tails in relation to their body size. The exact details of the facial skin and coloration need to be articulated as well. Where to look: anywhere cormorants congregate during the warmer months. Maryland’s four records have all come from the Potomac River. Prediction: Manasquan Reservoir, June.
# 8 [tie] Snowy Plover – 5 votes
This species is another that may not be on every birder’s radar, but actually stands a fair chance of finding its way onto the state list in the near future. There are several regional records that don’t require paging too far back through the record books to find, including three from Pennsylvania and one that returned to Virginia for multiple summers in the mid-1990s. Perhaps most telling is the recent uptick in records from coastal North Carolina, where it is currently seen almost annually. And while Snowy Plover is a distinctive species, it certainly would be easy to overlook one foraging in the distance among a flock of Piping or Semipalmated Plovers. What to look for: Snowy Plover is most likely to be passed off in NJ as Piping Plover. Note the leg and bill color and the exact pattern on the face. Where to look: Beaches and sand-spits where shorebirds regularly occur during the warmer months, particularly small plovers. Newfoundland’s first was a product of Hurricane Earl in 2010, and observers should keep an eye out for the species in association with future tropical weather events. Prediction: Sandy Hook, July.
#9 [tie] Lewis’s Woodpecker – 5 votes
Perhaps the most unanticipated choice among the electorate came with this species. Although there are relatively few records in nearby states, New York has enjoyed four since 1997, and one flew past a Pennsylvania hawk watch in October 2002. This western denizen of open forest has earned a definitive reputation as a long-distance wanderer and could feasibly appear at any season. A recent and compelling report from Hunterdon County was submitted to the NJBRC and although not accepted, certainly helped put the species back on birders’ radars here. What to look for: this species is so distinctive in pattern and coloration that it is unlikely to be confused with just about anything else! Where to look: Bird feeders, coastal migration outposts and ridgeline hawk watches all stand fair chances, but don’t be surprised if this species picks a location you’ve never birded (or even heard of) before! Prediction: Cape May, October.
#10 [tie] Cassin’s Kingbird – 5 votes
Ah yes, another kingbird. Cassin’s just barely made its way into the “Top 10,” appearing on three of the last four ballots received. However, maybe those voters were on to something. This species has been recorded on Long Island once and Cape Cod twice, with all three of those records spanning the rather narrow window of 9-22 October. Identification of this species might be more straightforward than the challenges posed by the Tropical/Couch’s complex, but it would still be easy to pass one off as a Western Kingbird, particularly if it were just flying past. So be ready, and have that camera handy! What to look for: see comments in this section under Tropical Kingbird. Where to look: Fields and open areas, particularly along the coast. Prediction: Sandy Hook, October.
The following species received at least one vote, and should also be viewed as potential visitors to the Garden State. We encourage readers to learn more about the identification, behavior, habitat preferences, and distribution of the species listed here:
Inca Dove (4 votes), Broad-billed Hummingbird (4), Fea’s Petrel (3), Wood Sandpiper (3), Mottled Duck (2), Clark’s Grebe (2), Cape Verde Shearwater (2), Ancient Murrelet (2), White Wagtail (2), Hermit Warbler (2), Brewer’s Sparrow (2), Scott’s Oriole (2), Lesser Goldfinch (2), Herald Petrel (1), European Storm-Petrel (1), Common Ringed Plover (1), Mediterranean Gull (1), Prairie Falcon (1), Caribbean Martin (1), Isabelline Wheatear (1), Western Bluebird (1), Redwing (1), Sprague’s Pipit (1), Lucy’s Warbler (1), Painted Redstart (1), Great-tailed Grackle (1), Shiny Cowbird (1), Bronzed Cowbird (1).
The authors extend thanks to Bill Boyle, Tom Boyle, Jim Dowdell, Vince Elia, Rob Fanning, Sam Galick, Doug Gochfeld, Paul Lehman, Tony Leukering, Michael O’Brien, Frank Sencher, and Rick Wright for also voting on the next ten birds; to Sam Galick, Tom Johnson, and Scott Whittle for providing photographs; to Doug Gochfeld for reviewing earlier versions of this article and providing helpful comments.
Database. (2013). Retrieved from Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee website: http://www.pabirds.org/records/index.php/database/
Halliwell, T. (2000). What’s next in New Jersey: birds recorded within 200 miles of New Jersey but not yet in the state. Records of New Jersey Birds, XXVI(2), 58-67.
MARC decisions. (n.d.). Retrieved from Massachusetts Avian Records Committee website: http://www.maavianrecords.com/marc-decisions
MD/DCRC database status & decision definitions. (2012, November 26). Retrieved from Maryland/District of Columbia Records Committee website: http://www.mdbirds.org/mddcrc/pdf/mddatabase.pdf
NYSARC reports & decisions summary. (2012, July 29). Retrieved from New York State Avian Records Committee website: http://nybirds.org/NYSARC/RecordsSummary.htm
Summary of completed reviews. (2013, January 1). Retrieved from Delaware Bird Records Committee website: http://www.dosbirds.org/sites/default/files/records/ DBRCIndexDOS.1.1.2013.pdf
(Editor’s note: the original version of this article included Cassin’s Sparrow with the list of species under “Other Contenders.” This was an error, as Cassin’s Sparrow has been documented once before in New Jersey. The authors apologize for this mistake.)