Female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Until now, all of my sightings have been of the male.

The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a common sight in the Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge in Princeton. I see at least five individuals each time I visit. However, until now, all of my sightings have been of the male.

The common name for Agelaius phoeniceus refers to the distinctive orange-red badge on the wings that is a stark contrast to the deep black of the bird’s body. But the females of this species are typically brown and streaked, blending well with their marshland habitat. They exhibit cautious behaviour, often staying close to dense vegetation for cover while foraging for insects, seeds, and small aquatic creatures. They are so well hidden when they forage among the reeds in the marsh, that the female bird had gone unnoticed by me.

Male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) · 16 April 2024 · FujiFilm X-T3 · XF150-600mmF5.6-8 R LM OIS WR

The focal point of the Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge is its open marsh, sustained by natural water drainage and supplemented during dry periods with water pumped from Stony Brook. During summer, the marsh blooms with arrowhead, pickerel weed, and pond lilies. Along the walks, a mix of swamp milkweed, boneset, joe-pigweed, and ironweed creates a mauve and purple colour palette. In autumn, red osier dogwood, elderberries, rose hips, and cattails' tall brown spikes add to the landscape.

Female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) gathering nesting material.
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) · 16 April 2024 · FujiFilm X-T3 · XF150-600mmF5.6-8 R LM OIS WR

During the nesting season, which typically starts in late spring, female Red-winged Blackbirds build cup-shaped nests low in marsh vegetation. These nests are constructed using grasses, reeds, and other plant materials woven together. Two observation towers offer expansive views of the marsh's main body. I usually visit the refuge in the early morning. With the sun rising from the east I usually visit the Eastern observation platform so I can point the camera west; not directly into the sun.

I think the thing that keeps me hopeful that the world around me is not going to complete shit is how being nature makes me feel. Seeing the bird wildlife in my backyard provokes a deep sense of well-being that helps my psychological health. My senses are heightened as I move into a state of flow where my thoughts and actions focus on spotting, watching, identifying, photographing, and appreciating the wildlife around me. No matter what might be going on in my life, no matter how anxious I’m feeling, when I go out into nature, I always feel refreshed.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

While walking back to the car from my daily adventure in Institute Woods, I heard the distinctive "conk-la-ree" songs male Red-winged Blackbirds produce and looked up. The males use this call to establish territories and communicate with other birds. It took a few seconds to find the bird in the tree. Maybe it’s just my perception, but during this time of the year, it seems like the Red-winged Blackbird is as common as the American Robin.

The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a passerine bird found across North America. They are migratory birds, with populations in northern regions migrating southward during winter months.

Red-winged Blackbirds inhabit marshes, wetlands, and grasslands, often near water bodies. They are omnivorous, feeding on a diet of insects, seeds, grains, and small vertebrates.

Red-winged Blackbirds are sexually dimorphic, with males having glossy black plumage and distinctive red and yellow shoulder patches. Females are brownish-black with paler streaks. Their breeding season spans from spring to summer, during which males defend territories and display their red epaulettes to attract mates. Females build cup-shaped nests in dense vegetation, where they lay eggs and raise their young.

Preserving Wildlife and Memories: A Field Trip to Institute Woods and Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge in Honour of Fred Spar

This morning, I joined the Washington Crossing Audubon Society members and an excited group of birders on a field trip near the Institute Woods.

This morning I joined members of the Washington Crossing Audubon Society and an excited group of birders on a field trip in the Princeton Institute Woods hosted by Brad Merritt. The group met near the entrance to Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge. The Washington Crossing Audubon Society hosts regular birding field trips around Central New Jersey, the Delaware Water Gap, Delaware Bay, the New Jersey shore, and eastern Pennsylvania.

About the Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge:

The refuge is home to over 90 nesting bird species, with many others stopping by as they migrate. Throughout the years, a recorded 190 species have been seen here. It's an ideal location to observe warblers, with up to 30 different types spotted by some visitors and an average of 20-25 seen during the peak of spring migration, which occurs during the first three weeks of May. As a result, bird watchers and nature enthusiasts frequently visit the area during this time, including groups such as the Summit Nature Club, Trenton Naturalist Club, Montclair Nature Club, and Watchung Nature Club. The refuge is extensively covered during the Annual Christmas Bird Count and the Princeton Big Day Count.

FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (100 mm, 0.008 sec at f/4.5, ISO400)
FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (400 mm, 0.008 sec at f/5.6, ISO200)

Brad Merritt planned this morning's field trip in memory of Fred Spar, an avid birder and Princeton resident who passed away last year.

Fred Spar, a student-athlete from Brooklyn, NY, ran track at Midwood High School and Cornell University. His career had diverse phases, beginning as an elementary school science teacher and earning a PhD in Chinese history from Brown University in 1980. He spent a year at the Stanford Centre in Taipei, Taiwan, and later lectured at Keene State College. For the next 36 years, he worked as a communications consultant at Kekst & Company in Manhattan. Fred was a part of the 2010 class at Harvard University's Advanced Leadership Initiative. After that, he applied his vast experience, advising or serving on the boards of numerous environmental and education organisations. These organisations include the Watershed Institute, Friends of Princeton Open Space, New York City Audubon Society, Generation Schools, and City Year New York. He was also the chair of Friends of the Rogers Refuge, where he worked tirelessly on improving the wildlife habitat and accessibility for human visitors.

FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (100 mm, 0.002 sec at f/5.6, ISO200)

I didn't know Fred Spar, but he accomplished much with his life. I joined the group on this field trip not to honour Fred but to learn more about the Rogers Wildlife Refuge and do a test run with the Fujinon XF100-400mm R LM OIS WR that I rented. I will be taking photographs of warblers with Ray Hennessey tomorrow afternoon.

FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (100 mm, 0.006 sec at f/5.6, ISO200)

Photographing the birds in the Princeton Institute Woods was challenging for me. The birds kept to the high branches, which meant shooting with a bright blue sky as a background, which meant too much backlight casting a dark shadow on my subjects. I continued along the walk, shooting wildflowers and plants until we went to an area of marshland. Here, I could finally find some birds against a background that worked for photography.

FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (386 mm, 0.003 sec at f/5.6, ISO200)

Inside the refuge, various signs highlight the significance of marshes and swamps. One of these signs emphasises their crucial role in acting as "safety valves" during heavy rainfalls, regulating our water table, providing habitats and food sources for aquatic life, birds, and other animals and serving as a natural collector for high-ground nutritional runoff. Preserving such habitats is vital since marshes are rapidly disappearing.

FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (301.1 mm, 0.002 sec at f/5.6, ISO400)
Red-winged Blackbird —FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (400 mm, 0.008 sec at f/5.6, ISO320)

I captured some photos of the Red-winged Blackbird that had landed on the tall grasses in the swamp. The images are not as sharp as I would like. These were captured at the far end of the zoom range for this lens.

On my walk back to the car, a song sparrow landed in a low branch of one of the trees immediately to my left. The Song Sparrow is adorned with a captivating blend of russet and grey feathers. A prominent feature of this bird is the striking streaks that embellish its white chest, adding a touch of boldness to its appearance.

Song Sparrow —FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (252.1 mm, 0.008 sec at f/5.0, ISO200)

I then spotted a tree swallow. With deep-blue iridescent backs and clean white fronts, Tree Swallows are a familiar sight in the wetlands across New Jersey. Tree Swallows nest in tree cavities; they also readily take up residence in nest boxes. This habit has allowed scientists to study their breeding biology in detail.

Tree Swallow, Bird , Blue, Branch
Tree Swallow Tree Swallow · FujiFilm X-T2 · Fujinon XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 400 mm at f/5.6 FujiFilm X-T2 · XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR @ (400 mm, 0.003 sec at f/5.6, ISO200), © Khürt L. Williams