Harlequin Ducks on the Jetty

Last year, on yet another fruitless trip to Island Beach State Park in search of the elusive Snowy Owl, some fellow twitchers just suggested offhand that the Barnegat Inlet, particularly the jetty, is a wintering spot for Harlequin Ducks. I never made it down last year, but the other day, on a whim, and in part due to some unseasonably warm weather for early February, I took a ride down to Barnegat Light with a vague notion of Harlequin Ducks and the jetty in mind.

We were greeted with an unremarkable sight once we arrived at the park: numerous parkgoers taking advantage of the weather on a Saturday. The wind was light and I didn’t notice many birds hovering about the inlet, which in years’ past had held scores of gannets, gulls, and terns. It’s safe to say I wasn’t expecting much and made my way out to the platform above the jetty.

There, I spotted some regulars, like the common loon and long-tailed duck. These are very easy to spot just offshore throughout the beaches in New Jersey, but it’s nice to see them from the jetty where you can get a somewhat closer look.

Another duck I saw, which was a bit surprising, was a group of buffleheads. Most of them appeared to be females with only a few prominent males. I was surprised to see them out here since I hadn’t seen them in such typically treacherous waters before, though admittedly it was very calm. Usually I find them in calm lagoons throughout inland waters, mostly males, solitary or in very small groups. To see such a large group of females in the inlet was a bit surprising!

Now I had visited the lighthouse at least once each winter for the past decade, at first for no particular reason and eventually for birds and seals, but never walked out on the jetty itself. On most days, it seems like a bad idea, since to slip on the jetty is as easy as it is hazardous. But the weather that day was just incredible: warm, sunny, and relatively still, and the jetty itself was bone dry, making for much safer traversal. So I found my nerve and walked out, and was not disappointed.

I first came across some ruddy turnstones on the jetty. I had seen these birds for the first time in Florida last year—also early February—but never before in New Jersey. They’re rather delicate little birds, but also they didn’t seem to mind people walking back and forth on the rocks.

There was a lone dunlin on the jetty as well. I’ve seen these birds in huge numbers in open marshlands, but never on a jetty, so that was interesting.

A bit further along the jetty, I also saw some purple sandpipers, which I also hadn’t seen before, but am aware that they are quite common on the jetty. Like the ruddy turnstones, these were utterly unfussed by our presence, so I was able to get some closer shots than I expected.

The main event, however, occurred further down the jetty when we saw a tight and noisy group of ducks hanging out right on the rocks: the Harlequins.

These incredible birds deliberately choose to live in extreme environments, preferring rough, rocky coastlines where they are regularly battered by waves. These ducks are reported to have more broken bones on average than any other species, as shown by X-ray and museum specimens. Luckily, this group decided to tolerate the rather calm seas and sit posing for us on the rocks, bathing in the early Spring sun, leading to some lovely portraits of these gorgeous birds.

I don’t know if or when I’ll ever have that sort of luck with seeing these birds, but I’m so grateful that I had this chance and was able to document it.

Bridled Terns in Hong Kong

Terns on a structure on a rocky island near Tap Mun, Hong Kong.

As August comes to a close, so too does breeding season for Hong Kong’s terns. Unlike our trip a few weeks back, there were hardly any black-naped terns to go around, but instead we found hundreds (thousands?) of breeding bridled terns, in all the glory of their breeding plumage.

Bridled tern on some debris

Bridled terns (and black-naped terns) breed on the rocky coasts of islands in Hong Kong in large numbers. The government has designated some of these islands as tern nesting sites and prohibits entry, which hopefully deters adventurers from disturbing the nesting sites.

Additionally, we got lucky enough to spot a greater crested tern on some debris. They don’t breed in Hong Kong so they aren’t quite as gregarious as the black-naped and bridled terns found here, but they do spend the off-season here in limited numbers.

Greater crested tern

Black-Naped Tern

The black-naped terns (sterna sumatrana) is a member of the family of seabirds Laridae, which includes gulls, terns, skimmers, and noddies. They breed in Hong Kong primarily in August on the rocky coasts of various islands and outcrops.

The best way to see these birds is by boat—particularly by ferry, as the propeller stirs up the small fish they like to eat and so they will often follow the boat for food.

Black-naped terns are unique among terns being one of the only species aside from the snowy crowned tern that lacks a black cap for mating season.

They lay their eggs on bare rocks without nesting material and so there is a small chance that divers and fisherfolk who fish from the rocks may disturb tern nests or worse, so if you are hiking on any islands be careful of tern eggs!

Check out this post in my Hong Kong bird log for more information about this interesting seabird.