LOWER TOWNSHIP — Pleasantville teacher Garr Kerr’s front yard has become a tourist attraction after the discovery this month that it harbored a creature never before seen in New Jersey.
A broad-tailed hummingbird is spending the winter in Lower Township, just a couple miles away from some of the world’s top birders at the Cape May Bird Observatory. These experts knew about this particular bird and some had even seen it with their own eyes, but they gave it scant attention because they thought it was a different, more common species.
Now they are feeling sheepish about their mistake.
Cape May birder and ecotourism guide Michael O’Brien was the first to realize the error when he took new photographs March 1 after the tiny creature had molted telltale spring plumage.
He immediately tweeted his colleagues his pictures captioned only with the expletive: “Oh, s***.”
Finding a bird never before seen in New Jersey is rare in a state that is so vigilant about such things. New Jersey has documented 465 bird species. Ignoring a new species that for months has had habits as predictable as the tides is simply embarrassing.
“We were going to pose for a photo with some scrambled egg on our faces,” observatory Director Mike Crewe said.
Crewe had kept a colleague’s photo of the bird on his desk for months when he and everyone else thought it was a rufous hummingbird, another western species sometimes seen in New Jersey. It’s one of three species in the same genus that look remarkably alike, Crewe said.
Now when he sees the picture, he said, “It’s burning holes in my head. It should have been picked up earlier.”
With its new identity, this bird by another name suddenly has become a celebrity in Cape May County, drawing hundreds of appreciative birders from across the Northeast. Broad-tailed hummingbirds, a western species, have never been seen in neighboring Pennsylvania or New York either, Crewe said.
Kerr, a Cape May lifeguard and occasional birder, first saw the bird in his backyard in November when it stopped to feed on the pineapple sage he had planted to attract these nectar-loving creatures. When he realized it might stick around for awhile, he hung a couple sugar-water feeders for it and called New Jersey Audubon to report the unusual fall visitor.
Several experts visited and photographed the bird. But since a more cooperative rufous hummingbird had been spending the winter at the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Goshen center, few people took much notice.
O’Brien called Kerr at Pleasantville High School on March 1 to let him know about the bird’s new identity — and to confer with him about alerting others to the news, since doing so surely would attract attention.
“I was a little excited,” Kerr said. “I couldn’t wait to get home.”
Since then, Kerr has learned more about the cricket-like chirping the bird’s tail feathers make when it is defending its territory.
“I’ve heard it myself. You can hear the Doppler effect when it passes you,” he said.
In emails and Internet postings, the observatory asked visitors to respect neighboring properties and to be considerate when parking in the quiet neighborhood. As many as a dozen people have stood on the roadside waiting for the bird to reappear.
Kerr said he decided to be gracious to these visiting birders.
“I’ve been part of a mob scene many times myself,” Kerr said. “It would be hypocritical to say no.”
In exchange, people have offered to help Kerr defray the costs of feeding the bird.
Birder and Cape May County Library Director Deb Poillon got good looks of the hummingbird as it sat atop a bush in the late-afternoon sun. Afterward, she thanked Kerr for his hospitality.
“Birders try to be respectful, but for the neighborhood it has to be odd,” she said.
The bird could stick around through April when it heads back west to the Continental Divide, Crewe said.
In the meantime, birders are chalking up the mistake to a learning experience.
“It sets a fine example of how you can’t always be too sure,” Crewe said. “One of the things is being able to be man enough to admit to your mistakes and know nobody is perfect.”
Contact Michael Miller: