Some of the birds on my "life list" are pretty great birds. Like a Kirtland's Warbler I saw in Ohio. Or the Olive Sparrow I saw in Texas. But I have to admit that if it hadn't been for the outstanding birders I happened to be with at the time, I probably would not have seen these birds, let alone identify them.
So it's always quite satisfying when you find and identify a new bird, an uncommon bird, or hard to find bird all on your own. We had this experience while vacationing in south Jersey this May.
The first bird we sighted and identified was a Clapper Rail while on the wildlife drive at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. I always considered rails very hard to find and observe, being secretive and skulky, as well as very well camouflaged. Lucky for us, the Clapper Rail is relatively big (nearly 15" tall) and often emerges from the marsh at low tide to forage in the relative open along the edge of the marsh.
When he was up in the grasses, he was very hard to see. But he also spent a lot of time in the mud flats, allowing us many good looks at this chicken-like bird. After finding the first one, we got better at looking for them in the marsh, and by the end of the 8-mile drive, we had observed three clapper rail individuals.
The other great bird we found and identified was seen swimming on an impoundment at Matt's Landing in the Heislerville Wildlife Management Area. While using the spotting scope to check out the shorebirds, we noticed a different-looking medium-sized bird with a rufous neck, white chin, and dark back. It was quite a bit more active than the other birds, swimming around somewhat erratically while other shorebirds waded nearby. There was no mistaking it as a Red-necked Phalarope.
As I learned later, they forage by spinning in circles, creating water movement that circulates food up towards them. Once we became aware of the phalarope's rather bright markings (compared to other shorebirds) and their active habits, it became quite easy to find it repeatedly. We even got to point it out to a few of the more experienced birders who had heard that a phalarope was seen in the area.
We still needed someone else to point out a White-rumped Sandpiper to us, but we did leave New Jersey happy with the special finds we were able to locate and identify on our own. Shorebirds are tough, and we'll take our successes one or two at a time!