My first visit to Brigantine was long overdue. It’s only an hour or so from Philly, it’s legendary in birding land, and frankly, other birders give me the hairy eyeball when I say I haven’t been there yet. This fall I also promised myself I’d stretch out regionally. New habitats offer new lessons, and one could certainly do worse than Brigantine.Brig also made the list because this is a plum place to study ducks on the water, a glaring weakness in my skillset. I think I’ve been resistant to waterfowl (yes, I just described myself as “resistant to waterfowl”) because I don’t have a scope, but with some encouragement from other birders and a few days off, I found myself at Forsythe NWR/Brigantine at the crack of dawn on a day with rain threatening the afternoon forecast.
I chose to hike the 8 mile auto loop on foot to really breathe in the place, and to work off all those holiday desserts and drinks in the process. Body and soul needed a stretch, so off I went.
Along the way, I had a few offers to hitch a ride – mostly from the same super nice people who let me use their scope, put me on some rad mergansers, and taught me more than a few things – but I stubbornly refused. In the end, even though 8 miles in the cold felt exactly like 7 miles in the cold + 1 mile in the rain, I don’t regret walking it and I’ll walk it again next time. I took another birder’s advice and packed a sandwich, and I stayed warm with a few layers and good old fashioned walking. I recommend it if you’ve got the legs for a long, mostly flat, gentle walk. It’s a little hilly at the end, but a sandwich and a thermos of coffee along the way should keep you light enough of foot for the whole walk.
The First 2/3: Walking the loop
Since I’m a duck newb, I knew I had to go look at the same ducks over and over and over. Learn your commons first, chase the other stuff later, right? Brig is absolutely fantastic for this. Black duck, coot, coot, coot, black duck, mallard, black duck, coot, pintail, bufflehead, black duck, mallard, shoveler, bufflehead, shoveler…
Different light, different angles, the same stuff in quantity with some different ones mixed in there. You can do this from the car, sure, but I think you miss some of the sound, the way the wind shifts, the je ne sais quoi of the habitat. And it’s quite something to be out there, on this man-made nothing of a dirt road sticking out in the marsh. It’s just you, some bufflehead, and of course, Atlantic City.
Again that’s just me, and I’m sure I’ll change my tune come summer and its nasty no-see-ums, but for now I can indulge my false sense of superiority and be the on-foot naturalist, wind in my hair, salt in my mouth. Insufferable, really, but I’m the only one who has to live with it.
Finally at the farthest corner, there they were, the big show of winter water birds: snow geese. Maybe 1000, 2000, more? I took a few pictures, but per the usual when spectacle occurs, I put my camera down and just watch. I know I’m not going to get a good shot off, nothing will do it justice. I had a few moments where the entire flock moved back and forth over the road, from the middle of the loop to the roost out farther, shuffling and re-shuffling themselves, sounding like a pack of hounds on the moors in some gothic ghost tale. Total spine-tingler.
What a great day, I thought. Truly great day. Pulling out my sandwich, I tucked my camera away and fueled up for the final bit. The rain was near, and I knew I only had about an hour or two to beat the storm back to my car. A few drops had already plunked on my coat. Ducks were less numerous on this leg, and I wasn’t about to dilly-dally picking each one apart, so I nibbled my hoagie and tried to pull my senses out of the surrounding marshland, and into my feet.
Then it happened. Of course. This is when it always happens. In 100 yards I flushed 3 different birds that I wasn’t looking for. The first goes unidentified. It pops up and flies straight inland towards some tall grasses and disappears. Smaller than a willet or a godwit, bigger than a peep, longish of bill but not crazy long. Best guess is a dowitcher or a lesser yellowlegs. Snipe. Something. But the rain, the rain, it was coming. Keep moving.
And again. Bird #2. Flashes of white outer tail feathers, very yellow belly, face like an exaggerated wren, sort of thrasher-y but what thrasher has a yellow belly? I relent and pull out my Sibley. I want a Pipit, so I try to make it a Pipit but it was like, really yellow. Meadowlark? Really? (I later learn that yes, this is a great spot for Meadowlarks, a bird I practically never see. I saw about 5 more up in the hills in the last mile or two, supercool.)
The bird doesn’t pop back out, and the rain is coming. But now I’m not walking quite so fast. There aren’t many birds in view, but something feels … like something. Something is going to happen.
Ten feet later, it does. Bird #3. A streaky bird, too big to be a sparrow. I run through anything I could mix it up with. It’s light-streaky but it’s bigger than a yellow-rump and giving me warmish orangey tones and no yellow patches, no color on its face, different body shape than a sparrow, more thrushy but its breast isn’t thrushy, beak is neither fat and short nor fat and finchy-faced nor curvy. My mind is settling on the ID and I start snapping photos to lock it up later, but I know already. It’s a Pipit.
For most, this is a snoozer. A Pipit is not a sexy bird. A Pipit is not a particularly uncommon bird. But it’s a hard bird for a learner to really, really understand, because it is so boring, so similar to other birds in so many ways. More experienced birders have had a hard time helping me on this one. I’ve been staring at this bird in every book for months, willing myself to understand it when I finally saw it, really saw it. I’ve had naturalists call it out (always in flight) on walks, but I’ve never counted it because I didn’t truly get it. This time I not only got it, the little bugger worked it for me, a complete 360-degree photo session. Thanks, little buddy. Nemesis no more.
The last 1/3: Here comes the rain
Now the rain was truly coming. I could see it falling in sheets over Atlantic City. I had a half hour til it hit me – if I was lucky. As I headed up into the sandy hills, I wanted to skip off into the Songbird loop and pick through sparrows until my eyes bled, but there would be none of that. Drunk on snow geese and surprise birds, I made myself a deal: You can only verify birds that practically jump out in front of you, leave the rest. Do not get drenched.
Birds that jumped out? Cardinal, yellow-rumped warbler, blue jay, eastern towhee (in crazy quantity), meadowlark (also in crazy quantity), bluebird, goldfinch, robin, white-throated sparrow, tifted titmouse, junco, downy woodpecker, red bellied woodpecker, chickadee, red-tailed hawk. Not bad for not trying at all.
Brigantine, you are awesome. I’ll be back.
Highlights include: Awful pictures of a green winged teal (male), a probable Ipswich Savannah Sparrow (aw yeah), a fancy eBird kiosk, and some bird that I can’t figure out and probably never will (only one of like 10 I left on the board that, per the usual. Know your limits, lady, know your limits.)
Cheerio and good birding.