As the cold weather conditions continue to hang around, each day seems to bring more and more to enjoy in the sheltered corners of the barrier islands. Though much of the pack ice has disappeared from the Delaware Bay over the past few days, it was around long enough to shift a lot of waterbirds out of the river estuary and send them in search of open, sheltered bodies of water. With just a couple of extra degrees of warmth provided by surrounding houses, open water remained in many of the quiet, backwater marinas along the western side of the barrier islands and bird soon found these locations. And though the ice has freed up now, they will probably hang around for a few days yet until they move back out again, providing ample opportunity for us to enjoy them. Pretty much anywhere along the barrier islands is worth checking right now; simply cruise around the back streets until you find a gap in the houses that allows access to the water and check what is out there. Greater and Lesser Scaups, Buffleheads and Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers are likely to make up the bulk of what you see, but there's plenty of Goldeneye appearing now, as well as the occasional Redhead, Canvasback and Long-tailed Duck too.
While scanning these duck flocks, keep an eye out for something different; Common Loons are pretty easy to spot simply by their size, but Horned Grebes can easily be missed in a tight bunch of other birds. Horned Grebes are common in the back bays during the winter, but tend to concentrate in one or two favored locations out in the larger sounds so can be overlooked. Being typical grebes, they are relatively long-billed and short-tailed, with dumpy back ends and long necks giving them a heavy-fronted look. But increasingly at present, there is an extra bonus bird out there to look for - Red-necked Grebes are moving down the coast and higher than usual numbers are being reported from the region right now.
Unless you work really hard, it's not too difficult to miss Red-necked Grebe completely during a typical year in Cape May. One or two show up pretty much every year, but some are brief fly-bys at the Avalon Seawatch, while others seem to drift in and out of the inlets all too quickly and can be here today and gone the next. Currently, Red-necked Grebes can be found in the channels around Nummy's Island - check from either end of the island around the bridges - and in the marinas off the west side of Avalon and Stone Harbor, while other coastal South Jersey birds have been reported from Barnegat Light, Tuckerton and Heislerville.
Here's a quick photo guide to grebes in the back bays right now
Pied-billed Grebe, Cape May Point, December 2009. This is our commonest grebe by far, being more or less resident in the area, but disappearing southward during cold winters. A few may still be found around the back bays but they largely prefer freshwater. Typical grebe features include a tailless, round-bodied look, long neck and large, angular head. Pied-billed differs from all other grebes in our area in having a deep-based, heavy-looking bill. The plumage is overall brown with a paler back end [photo by Mike Crewe].
Horned Grebes, Nummy's Island, March 2013. Our second commonest grebe - and often the commonest in winter - is Horned Grebe. This species is always strikingly black and white with no brown tones at all. Notice the clean white cheek patches and dark hind neck. These two birds show just how much a species can vary in overall appearance, with the right hand bird being relaxed, with the feather puffed up and showing off the white flanks. The left hand bird has been actively diving and is still alert, with the feathers sleaked down against the body. Note the bill is narrower and more dagger like than Pied-billed Grebe's bill [photo by Mike Crewe].
Horned Grebes always look very buoyant and ride high in the water, especially when relaxed and not feeding. Again, note the strongly black and white appearance with clean white cheeks and well defined black cap. The bill looks blackish or silvery, depending on the light, but never has a yellow base. If you get a really good view, take in that amazing, ruby red eye too! [Photo by Mike Crewe]
Red-necked Grebes, Stone Harbor, February 2014. Typical grebes with rounded rear ends, angular heads with flat crowns and dagger-like bills - all non-ducklike features. In this typical distant shot you can get the overall feel of the species - note the pale cheeks like Horned Grebe, but note the brown tones in the plumage, and especially the smoky neck on the left hand bird. Note here too, how different the bill looks in length depending on posture [photo by Mike Crewe].
Good fieldcraft can put you in line for a good shot if you let the bird get used to you and you spend a little time working out its feeding patterns. Close-up, Red-necked Grebes often have a distinctly reddish tone to the brown neck and smoky smudges on the ear coverts. This is a medium-sized grebe, noticeably longer necked, longer billed and overall larger than the two species above and has a yellow base to the bill that can be noticeable from quite a distance [photo by Mike Crewe].
A classic Red-necked Grebe profile at Stone Harbor today. Note the bill is held slightly pointing downward. Two rare species on the East Coast - Eared and Western Grebes, both have a tendency to have an uptilted look to the bill [photo by Mike Crewe].
You only need one eye to take photos, so it always pays to keep the other one looking around for anything else of interest. While I was photographing the Red-necked Grebes, tucked down in the marina woodwork, this Black-crowned Night Heron flew in and landed close by. Smoky brown, second-winter birds like this one are often not illustrated in field guides so can be confusing. They lack the pale spots of first-winter birds but don't yet have the white underparts or dove-gray wing coverts and black backs of adults [photo by Mike Crewe].