Sunday, September 16, 2012

Booming and Zooming

I do grassland bird surveys for NJ Audubon as part of the Citizen Science program, which means I get up very early (hmmm ...) and go looking for birds. My survey points are control points, which mean I get mostly tilled farm fields, in other words dirt fields. No self respecting grassland birds spend any time in dirt fields. So I wake up early and don't get to see any birds. And I drive over an hour for this privilege.

So why do I do it? Sadly, grassland birds are on the decline, due mostly to massive habitat loss. Grasslands are giving way to houselands. So New Jersey, along with the federal government, has a number of programs to encourage farmers to maintain fallow fields and delay mowing of hay fields until after the fledging of these birds. But to know if the programs are working requires data. Both on farms in the program and farms not in the program, to see if there is any significant difference. Thus my dirt-land points.

But there are perks. And one is that I get to do surveys at one of the last major grassland areas in New Jersey. At a location that might surprise you. This location is in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. And it is a US Navy base. It is also the site of a major air disaster, the crash of the Hindenburg. This location is the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, which is now part of the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

And there are plenty of grassland birds at the base. It is one the few (only?) breeding sites in the state for upland sandpiper.

And nighthawks breed there.

Which means the military are not only the only boomers and zoomers.

There are a seven survey routes at the base, and on the last survey of the season we meet at the drop zone. A central location which coincidentally is the breeding area for uppies and nighthawks (among others). And while we saw and heard upland sandpipers, they were to distant to get any photos. But the nighthawks put on a show.

Male nighthawks have a dive bomb type display where from a moderate hight they zoom toward the ground and when they pull up they make a booming sound.

One of NJ Audubon's other projects is a study of nighthawk breeding, to which end they search for the bird's ground nests. At the time of our visit the young had fledged, but they were still hanging about near the nesting spots. And as we walked about the area birds, invisible not three meters away, would pop into flight. There were eight of us, and not once did we see a bird on the ground.

Some would fly off, others would zoom across the sky, chasing each other. And some would boom down on us. It was very cool.

The combination of speed and closeness made it hard to get photos, so most of my shots are of them after the dive.

Or flying away.

And thus ended another grassland bird survey season.

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