Typically at least two Lagerhead Shrikes will spend 5-7 days before the "Big Day" running around northern jersey locating territorial songbirds, raptor nests, and lingering waterfowl. A considerable amount of time is spent in a narrow corridor of Sussex County between High Point State Park and the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area. It is along this corridor that we can find key species like Northern Waterthrush, Winter Wren, Ruffed Grouse, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. There are four main areas that we concentrate our scouting: Wantage Grasslands, High Point SP/ Stokes State Forest, Walpack Valley, and the Delaware Water Gap.
If you are thinking about visiting these areas here are a few suggested locations and species you can find around the middle of May – June.
Wantage Grassland – This is area is located just north of the township of Wantage, NJ. Take CR-23 north to Unionville rd and then make a right onto Wolfpit rd and a right on Sally Harden rd. Most of the birding is done from the car since the majority of the grasslands are privately owned farms. At the corner of Sally Harden and Beemer rd. is a good place to stop and hear Savannah Sparrow, Meadowlark, Pheasant and Bobolink. Several grassland species will sing pre-dawn (grasshopper, vesper and savannah sparrow). Knowing when each of these birds begins to sing is critical for planning out a big day route, say the vesper sparrow starts singing at 4:25 am and the savannah sparrow at 4:35 am, this allows us to order our stops efficiently.
High Point/Stokes – If you continue north on CR-23 you will hit High Point State Park. Again most of the birding can be done from the small roads that run through the park, these are some of my favorite roads to bird on in the state of NJ. As you enter High Point on CR-23 look for a left hand turn onto Sawmill Rd. Less than a 0.1 mile down Sawmill intersects with Ridge Rd. Now it is time to make a difficult decision (one which the Lagerhead Shrikes must make every year). Continue down Sawmill Rd. listening for Hermit Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, and Cerulean Warbler or take the longer Ridge Rd. in hopes of finding Northern Waterthrush, Ruffed Grouse, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. Either road you choose should be full of the songs of territorial male passerines and constant drumming of woodpeckers (Sapsucker is now one of the most common woodpeckers along these roads while 10 years ago would have been one of the rarest!). As you leave High Point make a right on Deckertown Turnpike and in approx. 0.5 miles make a left into Stokes State Forest. One of my favorite places to bird in Stokes is around Ocquitunk Lake just off Grau Rd, the variety of species is amazing. If you park by the restrooms look for Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Pileated Woodpecker and Broad-winged hawk; drive a 0.1 miles further and stop at the stone bridge for Louisiana Waterthrush, Magnolia, Black-throated Green and Blackburian Warblers; another hundred yards up the hill is the Tinsley Trail where you can find Hooded warbler, Cooper's hawk and Hairy woodpecker.
Walpack Valley – This area can be birded from Van Ness Rd. and the Blewitt Tract located just south of the Peters Valley Center on 615. Both areas have fens (a shrubby wetland), providing habitat for Chestnut-sided Warbler, Alder and Willow Flycatcher, Black-billed Cuckoo and winged-warblers. It is in these areas that the Lagerhead Shrikes must search each year for the evermore-elusive Golden-winged Warbler. The Blewitt Tract also contains a spruce stand that can hold Golden-crowned Kinglet and Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Delaware Water Gap – The Water Gap is the final area the Lagerhead Shrikes spend in the North before high tailing down to Southern Jersey. Several of the locations contain birds that can be found in High Point, Stokes or the Walpack and act as back-ups on the Big Day. Some areas to checkout include: Pompey and Mountain roads. The entrance to Pompey road is a great place to hear worm-eating warbler especially without even getting out of the car, making it appealing for a big day. Further down the road has been a historical area to search for Nashville Warbler. Mountain road can be accessed from Walpack Flatbrook Rd, you only need to travel a quarter-mile until you reach a blow down area on the right. This location has held Winter Wren in the blow down area and Acadian Flycatcher can be found here as well.
Birding between these four areas and with a little bit of luck the Lagerhead Shrikes can tally over 140 species in just a few hours. This has just as much to do with skill as the diversity and richness of the habitats that can be found in this amazing area of New Jersey. The next time you want to do some spring birding in NJ remember to consider northwestern Sussex County and you won't be disappointed! (Zach)