Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Long-tailed Ducks

I've always had a thing about ducks. Maybe it's because the only really birdy places when I was growing up were the local lakes and gravel pits that surround Oxford in great abundance. Here I would spend time getting to know the local duck species and methodically searching through the flocks for anything different. The first national rarity I ever found was a duck - a Ring-necked Duck at Blenheim Palace lake in 1979, while the first Long-tailed Duck I ever saw was a female on the now long-gone gravel pits that used to be situated where Farmoor II reservoir now stands. There was no access to these pits in those days, but as boys we used to nip under the wire any way and have a good look round - we knew all the tricks!!

Since then, I've seen Long-tailed Ducks regularly, but in England they're pretty thin on the ground and a flock of 20 is certainly noteworthy. In addition, they often tend to be well offshore, particularly in the relatively shallow North Sea where I did most of my birding in the last 20 years or more. I remember once seeing a large flock of well over 100 birds in the Firth of Forth on the East coast of Scotland one winter in the 1990s, but it wasn't until this winter that I really fulfilled a desire to see these birds really well.

Long-tailed Ducks winter in good numbers along the New Jersey coast and, armed with my trusty camera, I spent some time over the past couple of days photographing them. Despite the really cold weather at the moment, I had no choice but to wade knee-deep into the Atlantic Ocean to get close enough for pictures at Corson's Inlet; the water was so cold it was painful - but it was worth it!! The following day, I was photographing Red-throated Divers/Loons (choose your preferred name!) at Townsend's Inlet, when a group of five amorous males chased down a single female and much cooing and courting took place right in front of me, before they eventually flew off out to the breakers again. The call of courting Long-tailed Ducks is a truly fabulous sound - I recommend it to anyone who has never yet heard it. So here's some shots of a fabulous duck; an unashamed celebration of a little cutie!

Wading into the sea allowed me to get my first shots of loafing Long-tailed Ducks - here a nice group of four males.

Other birds passing by gave some nice flight views. Long-tailed Ducks are easily identified even at great range by their all dark wings with no wing bars or white markings, which contrast with the pale bodies.

Rising up higher, this male allowed me to get some of the feel of the habitat into the shot.

As these two peeled away, the crashing breakers came into full view - I needed to keep an eye on them as well as the ducks while I was in the water!!

With a strong swell on the water, timing the shots was tricky, but I was pleased to get this pair riding over the top of a wave just before it broke.

The first full view of a female for you - the left hand bird with the white face and brown back. This is most of the group of six birds that dropped down in front of me at Townsend's Inlet as I sheltered from a hideous cold wind!

Much pushing, shoving, cooing and generally showing off followed!

The female makes a getaway during a particularly boisterous moment, but she didn't go far before dropping into the water again - I think she quite liked the attention! Most of our northern ducks court and pair up during the winter; this allows for better use of their time during the relatively short summer that they spend in the high Arctic. If they are already paired up, they can go north in the spring and just get on with the family raising chores. (Or at least the females can; the males don't have much to do with it, but that's another story!

The female's certainly the centre of attention here!

The female dives....

...and the lads are left looking for her!

Well, there you go, that's Long-tailed Ducks for you - though I reckon they will feature again soon!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Winter Birding Around The Inlets

New Jersey's Atlantic coastline is protected by a series of barrier islands, a run of low sand dunes that stretch the whole length of the State's coast. Sadly most of these have been destroyed forever by the needless building of second homes for over-paid people; but I won't get started on that - well, just a little bit then!!

A fine example of the futility of trying to better nature! The mound is all that remains of the old beach height before recent storms at Wildwood. Whilst this may seem like very extreme erosion, it is worth noting that the beach had been artificially raised at great expense and with a huge amount of man-hours. And all just to be washed away again!

More futility on the beach - note the artificially high beach in the background. And what is all this enormous amount of effort and expense protecting? See next picture.

Nothing more to say really, except, here's an idea - how about building a funfair somewhere where it won't cost millions of tax payers' dollars to maintain? Just a thought.... now back to the real world.

Hope for the future. After the extensive damage to the dunes done by the sea back in November, new dune grass is planted and new protective fencing erected. As the grass grows, the roots will bind the sand and provide excellent coastal defences. Now, if we can just stop the idiots who can't walk two yards from driving on the beaches and damaging the integrity of the sand, maybe we'll achieve even better coastal protection - but perhaps not while it remains legal for them to do so.....

Between each barrier island is an inlet, a point where the sea has broken through the barrier and flooded the lower land behind, creating vast areas of saltmarsh. These inlets now also work as outlets when the tide is out, as it is through these that ground water flows out to the sea. These channels teem with fish and aquatic invertebrates and therefore attract a lot of birds that feed on them. A great way to spend a winter's day in Cape May is to have a tour of the inlets to see what's about. The last couple of days I have done just that, and enjoyed some great birding, including flocks of scoter and Brent Geese, small parties of Bonaparte's Gulls, my first Cape May Horned Grebe and still a small party of Common Eider at Townsend's Inlet. Corson's Inlet is fast becoming my favourite and yesterday provided me with some fabulous views of one of the World's best waterbirds - Long-tailed Ducks. So fabulous are they that I'm going to do a whole post just for them, after this one!

With food concentrated in relatively small areas, it can be quite easy to get close to birds while they are feeding and I particularly enjoyed the chance to study Common Loons (Great Northern Divers in the UK - a much more dramatic name!) as this is a bird I didn't see close all that often in the UK.

Male Long-tailed Ducks at Corson's Inlet - more of them later!

Westerly winds today meant that waves heading for shore were pushing into the wind at the inlets. The result was very dramatic as the tops of the waves were blown backwards with great plumes of spray resulting.

11 Red-breasted Mergansers were feeding along the south side of Hereford Inlet, with the males displaying the signs of a bad hair day as usual!

Another smart male Red-breasted Merganser. Note the narrow, fish-catching bill which is typical of the so-called sawbill ducks.

Typically for ducks, female Red-breasted Mergansers have more sombre colours than the gaudy males.

Always a controversial talking point between Americans and Brits - is it a loon or a diver?!! As I'm in the USA now, I guess I better call this a Common Loon and not a Great Northern Diver. A nice close view of this bird reveals it to be a juvenile/1st winter bird. This is clear from the pale edges to the upperpart feathers which give the bird a scaly look. Note also on this shot the classic 'bump' on the forehead which is typical of the two larger species of loon and note the pale silver-grey bill with dark ridge along the top.

Another shot of the same bird which shows the upperpart pattern a little better.

This shot is interesting as it shows how the look of a bird can change quite dramaticallyin different circumstances. This is the same Common Loon as shown above, but it has suddenly become more aware of me and has adopted a sleaker profile with a low crown and no sign of the classic bump. Thus, it pays to watch a bird for a while as a bird initially seen in this posture could be more difficult to identify if not seen at close quarters. One other identification feature to note here is the border line between the white and brown on the neck. Note how the line is irregular, with the brown making several encroachs into the white.

This is a classic adult Common Loon, photographed at Townsend's Inlet today. In contrast to the young bird above, this bird shows an all dark back, without any pale edges to the feathers. (The few pale spots are actually just beads of water). This individual also shows more extensive black on the bill than the youngster. In breeding plumage, Common Loons have an all dark bill and the colour is gradually lost during the winter. Plumage variation in winter loons is wide as their post-breeding moult appears to be protracted, with some birds not completing the moult until early January.

Another typical adult Common Loon at Townsend's Inlet but this bird still has quite a few breeding plumage feathers left on the upperparts, which typically show a double white spot pattern. Note the classic head bump on this guy too!

This Common Loon was further out on the water so I couldn't get a good picture of it, but it is an interesting bird as it appears to still be largely on breeding plumage. It shows extensive white spotting on the back and a largely black bill. The head is also mostly black, as is the front of the neck. This is quite typical for a first-summer bird (ie one in its second calendar year) but it seems a strange plumage to be in during late December!

The other loon species found in Cape May is the Red-throated Loon (Red-throated Diver to me and my ilk!). So now the reason for the details given above; note that this bird shows a flatter crown without the bump (though remember the flat-crowned look in the Common Loon above) and, more importantly, note the much finer bill with an obvious up-tilt towards the tip. This species also tends to hold its head with its bill pointed slightly upward too. As with Common Loon, this bird can be aged as a 1st-winter by the presence of pale edges to the upperpart feathers. Adult Red-throated Loons are plain grey on the upperparts. One final difference between the two species which can be seen here is the more regular demarcation between the pale and dark on the neck.

Monday, December 21, 2009


With the departure of the Ivory Gull, things quietened down at Cape May for a while, but all that changed with the snow that arrived overnight in the early hours of Saturday December 19th. We awoke to some five or six inches of solid snow cover on Saturday and more snow during the day left us with a good seven to eight inches of snow in Cape May Court House. Snow cover apparently increased steadily westward, away from the coast, and Washington DC was swathed in the most snow ever recorded in a day in the month of December. Saturday remained below freezing all day, with heavily overcast skies. We put out plenty of food for the birds and eventually had them feeding right outside the windows on the deck. Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos all packed the deck, while the fat block attracted both Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays wolfed down the sunflower seed and American Goldfinches fed quietly on the niger seed.

Sunday 20th dawned and the sun appeared - contrary to the weather forecast - so after much scraping, the car was eventually released from its snowy prison and I headed to work, though not before some pre-work birding around Cape May Point. Here's a photo essay on the weekend that saw record December snowfall along America's Atlantic Seaboard.

Being something of an insomniac, it's not surprising that Denali was the first to notice the arrival of the snow.

The view out the window at breakfast time left us in no doubt that it was flippin' cold outside!

Another view of the garden, from the outside deck.

The pond on the edge of the property certainly looked different to the one that had greeted us in August!

I took a short (and very cold!) walk along the road a little way from the house to enjoy the winter wonderland that had descended on us.

Our little rental house in the woods looks a chilly place to be.

Shortly after first light, a flock of over 30 Brown-headed Cowbirds descended on our feeding station. We've usually only had single-figure counts of this species among the far more common Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles so this flock was a bit of a surprise. However, this is an all too common bird in the area; I say all too common, as cowbirds - like cuckoos - are brood-parasites. That is, they lay their eggs in the nests of other species, leaving the youngster to be raised by foster parents and denying the unfortunate hosts of a brood of their own. This has become a major conservation issue in the USA as the wholesale felling of trees here results in fragmented woodland which is more easily penetrated by cowbirds (which prefer more open country to woodland), to the detriment of their hosts which are usually wood-warbler species.

This solitary Dark-eyed Junco was the first adventurous individual to discover the feast of birdfood that we had laid out on the deck! This batch of seed was placed conveniently on the hand rail right outside a window so I didn't even have to leave the warmth of the house to photograph the birds!!

White-throated Sparrows soon ventured onto the deck and we noted 14 of them there by the end of the day.

Eventually (or should that be inevitably!) the Brown-headed Cowbirds joined the deck party which at least gave a chance to enjoy these subtle birds. Actually I quite like them - here's a female, soft grey-brown with pale edges to the primary feathers.

And here's a male Brown-headed Cowbird. In sunlight, the feathers of the wings and body show a green iridescence. (Note that it's started snowing again!).

Having helped get my car ready for work, Megan was left to sort her car out on her own later - who'd be a wife!!

My route into work takes me through Cold Spring which really looked the perfect chocolate-box town this morning.

A quick look at The Meadows on the way past revealed a good covering of snow even right down here at the tip of Cape May Point. The lakes were frozen but for small patches that had been kept open by the birds - mostly Mallards, Mute Swans and American Coots this morning.

The obligatory 'Cape May Lighthouse in the snow' shot. OK, so I'm just a tourist at heart!!

Cape May lighthouse from the Hawkwatch Platform - with a snow plough (plow over here!) hard at work in the parking lot.

The famous hawk-counter corner on the Hawkwatch Platform looked a very different place this morning!

Bunker Pond from the Hawkwatch Platform - mostly frozen over and devoid of birds, but for a few Mute Swans and Mallards.

The south beach was a pretty desolate place - especially as a biting wind was threatening to remove my ears!

At least two Ipswich Sparrows were found amongst a loose flock of typical Savannah Sparrows. The Ipswich Sparrows were pretty approachable and gave me lots of photo opportunities on the dune cross-over near the Hawkwatch Platform.

Crossing onto the beach itself, I couldn't help but notice just how different the dune protection fences looked with snow covering the ground around them.

One of a group of three Snow Buntings that trundled about on the snow on the beach. A party of nine Horned Larks dropped in too, but left all too quickly so there's no picture of them I'm afraid!

View from the South beach looking west, towards St Mary's and the lighthouse.

Bob Fogg joined me on the beach and as we discussed the morning's findings, I noticed a Short-eared Owl in the dune near St Mary's. The bird took off before we got a chance for a prolonged look, but I managed a quick flight shot to record the moment. Short-eared Owls are pretty scarce birds south of the canal at Cape May so this was perhaps my best find of the day.

Time to head in to work - though it turned out to be a day for back office work as visitors were noticeable by their absence!

One of the main reasons for heading in to work on a day such as this was to check that there had been no snow damage to the building and to check on the bird feeders. When used regularly, feeders attract higher than usual numbers of birds to a given area and the onus is then on the feeder provider to ensure that those birds are catered for if the weather turns bad. A quick top-up of the feeders and a good scattering of food on the ground soon had the locals happy again - and gave me a chance lunch time to get a few more 'Snowbirds' for the day! At least five Fox Sparrows were amongst larger numbers of White-throated Sparrows, and the chubby form of a Fox Sparrow is rapidly becoming one of my winter highlights.

This is cheating a bit as I didn't manage to get any snow into the picture to justify the shot for the snowbird topic, but this Carolina Wren certainly looks cold, with his feathers all fluffed out and his toes curled up!

I've taken so many White-throated Sparrow shots over the last couple of weeks that there really can't be any new angles left! Still, here's my favourite one from today.

American Mourning Doves are reall little cuties - especially in the snow!

Another Fox Sparrow - see, I told you I liked them a lot!

I shot over to our new house (more of that later!) and found a number of Killdeers feeding on the gradually clearing patches of roadway. This one was on Sunset Boulevard, where melt-water puddles provided useful habitat while it waited for the regular pools around the State Park to unfreeze.

A quick check in at Michael O'Brien's feeders revealed the Ruby-throated Hummingbird to still be present - notice I managed a little bit of snow on the holly leaves in the background, behind the feeder! I don't hold out much hope for this little guy, who turned up at Michael's house several days ago now. He really should be well down into Mexico at this time of year.

The open fields at the Rea Farm were being scoured by the wind, and snow was drifting onto Stevens Street, narrowing it down to a single carriageway.

A real bonus find for the day was a couple of American Pipits feeding along the road edge on the Bayshore Road with a party of sparrows. This is the first time that I have really had good views of this species at Cape May; I usually either see high-flying migrants overhead, or very distant silhouettes at the back of some vast Turf Farm!

OK, no snow in this shot again - although there is, because this is a Snow Goose, which turned up late afternoon with the the Canada Geese on Lily Lake. Snow Geese were moving south in large numbers for several days ahead of the incoming bad weather, and there calls were a regular sound overhead after dark.

A weird endpiece to today's post! This goose was with the Canada Geese on Lily Lake and caught my eye for obvious reasons - it doesn't match any known species!! In actual fact, there is nothing about this bird that is wrong for a Canada Goose except for the white head and neck - and such birds with patches of white feathers of varying amount are not uncommon in the bird world. Though this one is certainly quite dramatic!

One final endpiece for those that know us - we completed our house purchase this week!! So, we took Denali down to see his new home, and had an impromptu dinner in the empty house to celebrate! Now all we have to do is get the place ready to move into, which will probably take at least another month. We'll keep you posted.