Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Life's A Beach!

During the halcyon days of late summer and early autumn, if there's a lull in migrant activity around the ponds, woods, fields and marshes, you can usually rely on the beaches around Cape May Point to give you something to enjoy. To a visiting Brit, one of the most obvious differences between beach birds in the UK and New Jersey is that birds Stateside are remarkably tame. So tame, in fact, that one starts to wonder what is going on. Observing the behaviour of roosting gulls and terns along the beach front at Second Avenue, I think I may have at least part of the answer. The beaches at Cape May are fabulous for tourists; wonderful bleached sands that stretch as far as the eye can see north from Second Avenue Jetty and on across the barrier islands, all the way up to New York. In the other direction, they stretch west along Cape May Point itself, then northward up the bayshore of the Delaware River, until the silts of the backbay saltmarshes eventually take over. All this wonderful sand attracts a mass of tourists during the summer and into early autumn. However, there is so much sand (and people only want to walk just so far!) that there is always room for both people and birds. So, you'd expect the people to gather at certain spots and the birds to be at the other places. Not so. All too often, you'll see acres of empty space, with no people or birds; then you'll find a gathering of people in deck chairs, usually opposite the dune cross-over points. And blow me if you don't find a group of gulls and terns standing not far away! So what is so different over here? Well, I believe that it's down to the greater number of predators over here, in particular in the case of seabirds, passing Peregrines. It strikes me that birds choose to roost close to people as there is a much lower risk of being targeted by a Peregrine if there are people near by. In comparison, people are relatively slow and easily avoided - and to be honest, mostly leave the birds in peace here, so the choice for the birds is simple. In a way, it's similar to the way that breeding birds in the Arctic tundra nest near to raptor nests, as the resident raptor pair will tend to hunt in areas away from the nest site so as not to draw attention to it, whilst also defending the area and keeping any other predators away - thus inadvertently protecting the geese that may be nesting just metres away!

As well as pondering such things, it is also nice just to enjoy the spectacle of birds resting or feeding so close at hand and giving great photo opportunities. Here's a few from this autumn. (Remember you can click on any picture to see a larger, clearer version.)

Sanderlings are a common sight as they scurry back and forth with each incoming wave. In early September the bulk of birds are returning adults, many still with the rusty faces of breeding plumage.

Two typically unkempt, moulting adult Sanderlings scurry along towards me.

In contrast to the scruffy adults, juvenile Sanderlings look dapper with their black-and-white spangled backs and buffy neck patch.

You can't beat a good shake to sort out your tertials!!

Smallest of the North American 'peeps', Least Sandpipers chose the shoreline as a feeding spot this autumn as many regular freshwater locations were flooded out by the heavy rains. Note the greenish legs on this chap - a good identifier as all the other small sandpiper species here have black legs.

As an indication of size, the right hand Least Sandpiper is relaxing in a human footprint!

Skimmers, gulls and terns roosting near tourists on Cape May's seafront.

Skimmers and terns roosting in discreet flocks on the beach at Cape May. Note the group gathered next to the deckchaired tourist (back right). Another group of tourists were relaxing just out of shot on the left side, hence the second group there, whilst the birds in the foreground were gathering next to me - very obliging!

Adult Ring-billed Gull - perhaps the most attractive of the local gulls here at Cape May.

Sublime to the ridiculous? In contrast to the Ring-billed Gull above, I photographed this American Herring Gull simply because it was the ugliest gull on the beach!! American Herring Gulls are still completing their primary moult in September, hence the stumpy-ended look.

Juvenile American Herring Gull. Overall a very dark gull in this plumage; note especially the all dark tail feathers.

Typically brutish-looking Great Black-backed Gulls gather in good numbers along the south beach in autumn.

I found this third calendar year Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach at Cape May Point, near St Peter's on August 31st. This Old World species is now a regular visitor to North America and may well be breeding west of the Atlantic Ocean as three-figure counts are regular at some landfill sites in the USA and juveniles are regularly observed in late summer.

Cape May wouldn't be Cape May without the sound of cackling Laughing Gulls. Their tameness allows for close study of the plumage of individual birds; this one has just started its post-juvenile moult into first-winter plumage - note the short row of grey median wing coverts and a couple of grey feathers on the mantle.

In contrast to the bird above, this Laughing Gull is still in full juvenile plumage on the same date.

Royal Terns have been in short supply this year after a poor breeding season; most colonies (including all known colonies in New Jersey) were flooded out by heavy rain and high tides this year. At the northern edge of their range here, Royal Terns are particularly vulnerable in New Jersey.

Another Royal Tern has a good old stretch!

Juvenile Black Tern on Cape May beach. Black Terns are uncommon migrants through Cape May so it was a nice treat to have three youngsters hanging around for several days.

Another juvenile Black Tern at Cape May Point. The North American race surinamensis is darker than Old World birds, especially on the flanks, as seen well here.

The Black Skimmer flock in the Second Avenue Jetty area is a real feature of a Cape May autumn. Here, one glides in to join the party, typically yipping like a Yorkshire Terrier! Note the amazing bill - a wonderful piece of evolution in action.

Black Skimmers are nothing if not boisterous! Here a speckled juvenile gets caught up in a parlimentary discussion. Like the Royal Terns, skimmers have done badly this year and a disappointingly low total of just nine youngsters accompany the flock at Cape May this autumn.

Another arguement needs to be settled in the usual Black Skimmer fashion.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Humdrum Days Can Still Be Exciting!

After the mad rush of birds in mid-September, the second half of the month was - by Cape May standards - quiet. That's not to say there wasn't any birds; there was plenty of birds, but things just didn't seem to be hanging around to be enjoyed by the masses. You either got lucky and were on site when things were found, or you missed them as they continued on their way south. The usual routine of early mornings at Higbee Beach fell away after a run of quiet days, but this gave Megan and I the opportunity to do mundane things like sorting out cars, bank accounts etc without having to miss too much. The main problem seemed to be a blocking warm front from the south which just kept any cold fronts from the Great Lakes at bay. Those of us who live here can ride the quiet spells but it's a shame for folks who come for a week or less and just don't get to experience what Cape May is all about - but I guess that's birding.

On one particularly quiet morning, we decided to take a walk at the Migratory Bird Refuge and this proved to be a good move as we enjoyed close views of several Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrow and Least Flycatcher in the golden glow of early morning and also found ourselves standing between two Coyote packs which were howling away at each other from deep within the bushes. A wonderful experience to have them calling from just 30 yards away from us - a real sound of the wild and perhaps surprising that they are here in South Cape May as the only way in is via one of the two road bridges (or to swim the canal!) They had also left plenty of tell-tale signs that they were enjoying the now-ripening Persimmon fruits!

Marsh Wren atop the cattails at the Migratory Bird Refuge

Yep, there's Coyotes in the area and they're eating Persimmons!

Persimmon fruits are a common sight around Cape May in Fall -
but don't park your car under them, they'll wreck your paintwork!

Apart from the fact that Higbee's was quiet, another reason for our walk through the refuge was to look for a possible Cinnamon Teal that had been reported from the site. Though well-photographed by several people, the jury is still out on the identification of this bird and it seems likely that, as it would be a first for Cape May county, we really need a more convincing individual to show up - or for this one to hang around and moult into adult plumage (or at least get a red eye!). This species is notoriously difficult to tell apart from Blue-winged Teal in juvenile/first-winter plumage and some individuals may be inseperable in the field at this age. Tough enough when you live in the area where they both occur regularly, but trying to claim a young Cinnamon Teal as far East as Cape May is no easy task if you want to get it past a committee of experts!

A good candidate for Cape May's first Cinnamon Teal (right, with Blue-winged Teal)? Note that the 'cinnamon' colour on this bird is actually iron staining from the water so not relevent in the identification of this bird. A key feature in favour of Cinnamon Teal here is the lack of clear contrast between the dark centres and pale edges to the flank feathers (compare with the left hand bird).

Cinnamon Teal has a longer, more spatulate bill than Blue-winged Teal and the bird here does appear to show this when compared with the left hand bird - but is it enough of a difference or could this bird be just a particularly large-billed Blue-winged? Or maybe a hybrid between the two species?

Here's the only half decent flight shot I got of our bird, though there's
 not really anything to help us in the wing pattern.

Rain continued to take the edge off birding as Cape May caught the remnants of the bad weather that had been saturating the south-east US. Shorebirds were in very short supply as all the regular stop-over pools were flooded out, with no nice muddy edges for them to feed along; however, birds are nothing if not opportunistic and a nice flooded roadside field at the Rea Farm served the local birding community well, attracting Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Spotted, Pectoral, Stilt and Solitary Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs - not a bad haul!

Killdeer photographed from the car at the Rea Farm. Note the neat buffy tips to the upperparts that show us this is a juvenile bird.

Another Killdeer shot. Note the amazingly long tail and tertials of this chunky plover.

Juvenile Stilt Sandpiper at the Rea Farm, photographed from the car window. Always a lovely, graceful species.

Juvenile Stilt Sandpiper at the Rea Farm flood.

Solitary Sandpiper at the Rea Farm flood. This bird was often too close to the car to photograph properly as I was looking down on it!!

Friday, October 16, 2009

September 14th - You Should Have Been Here!

After a trickle here, a trickle there, a few tentative signs of a North-westerly breeze associated with a cold front rushing in from the Great Lakes, it finally happened - a Cape May day when you were glad to be able to say "I was there!" (In the words of Max Boyce!). The Hawkwatch platform was bristling with activity; as counter Doug Gochfeld wrote on the Cape May Bird Observatory website: "The day started out absurdly well, as there were American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks dotting the sky over the parking lot when I arrived just before dawn. American Kestrels were streaming high off the water (going north) over the entire visible coastline. In the frst 30 minutes of the day there were already 78 tallied. As a busy morning Kestrel and Accipiter flight tailed off, excitement built around the number of Bald Eagles that were moving. We ended up setting a new single day record count for Bald Eagles at the Cape May Hawkwatch, breaking the old record of 39 by 7."

As if that wasn't enough, the Morning Flight counter, Cameron Cox was getting dizzy trying to keep tally of the songbirds streaming through. Cameron wrote: " Expectations. Sometimes they are met or exceeded sometimes they are not. Today fell into the former category. Or, more accurately, expectations were utterly outstripped! I had a feeling that it would be a good day as I watched over 30 Sharp-shinned Hawks sail through the pink-washed pre-dawn sky. Almost immediately my suspicions were justified as warblers dotted the sky. Things quickly accelerated into world class bedlam with birds all over the sky. Several of the counts for the day were notable: The 347 Northern Parulas is an excellent number, while in these post spruce budworm years, the 13 Bay-breasted Warblers seen today is also notable, and the 129 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, the second highest count of the season and late in the season for such a large push of Gnatcatchers. Also more signs of the progress of fall were evident today with the first Yellow-rumped Warbler for the count and the first large flight of Northern Flickers. In all, 22 species of warblers were counted from the Dike. Add to that number the afraid-to-fly Common Yellowthroats, and the Wilson's and Blue-winged Warblers seen from the Morning Flight platform, but not on the Dike, and we had 25 total species of warblers. Not shabby! The total number of warblers was 2073 including 853 unidentified warblers. The total number of species for the morning was 104, a fantastic total for 4.5 hours spent all at one spot!"

So how was my day? Well, I made the right decision to start at Higbee's Beach (where the first two of the day's 46 Bald Eagles sailed over my head before 7am!). Parties of busy Blue-grey Gnatcatchers scattered along through the tree-tops, a wonderful array of wood-warblers shot through (a bit too quickly at times!) and were topped off with a double whammy of a stunning adult male Hooded Warbler and a smart, stripy-headed Worm-eating Warbler together in the same bush. A perched Dickcissel was a rare treat at Cape May (they usually whizz through high overhead, their presence given away by their farty call!), three Veerys several Baltimore Orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks worked through the tree tops and the first Northern Flicker push of the autumn took place (I logged 50) - accompanied by plenty of keen-eyed Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks all eager for breakfast!

A mass of birds brought a mass of people and thoughts of a lunch break went south with the migrants, but after work, a good group of friends had gathered at the Hawkwatch Platform and the day was rounded off in fine style. Two Common Nighthawks were catching flying ants in broad daylight, along with seemingly every Laughing Gull in south Jersey; I notched up my first Palm Warblers of the season along the dune edge and I joined Kevin Carlson for a photo session with a smart little Cackling Goose that had temporarily joined the resident Canada Geese. A small Canada Goose has been present with the resident birds for a while now and often causes some confusion (especially when there is a real Cackling Goose around to cause identification problems!) so it was nice to have the real deal here for a few days. End to end birding is not a bad way to spend a work day and I rounded it off with this year's intern staff at a talk given by the incomparable Pat and Clay Sutton on the birds of Cape May.

One last note on the day's activities; several of us watched the cut and thrust of nature, red in tooth and claw and all of us unable to help as a Snapping Turtle managed to get hold of a Forster's Tern by the foot. We were initially pleased when eventually the tern got free, then realised that Snapping Turtles don't give up that easily - the tern had got away, but at the cost of its leg...

Common Nighthawks attempting to become Dayhawks!!

This Black-and-white Warbler nearly ended up
under the wheels of my car as I left work

  Cackling Goose, Cape May Point.
A nice size comparison with the chunky Canada Goose behind. Also in this shot, note the rather pale breast which is typical of the most easterly form of Cackling Goose, the nominate hutchinsii, which was formerly known as Richardson's Canada Goose. Being the most easterly form this is, of course, the one most likely to occur in New Jersey.

A nice profile of the Cackling Goose, showing just how tiny the bill is on this species. Note also the obvious white edges to the wing coverts and scapulars, which tend to be buffier and thus less obvious on Canada Goose.

Cackling Goose at Cape May Point, September 14th 2009. This picture shows the full suite of characters mentioned above. In addition, this form often looks rather short-legged compared with Canada Goose.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The First Couple of Weeks - Birds A Go-Go!!

I have to say right from the start, that my intention is to give a diary of events of a typical year enjoying wildlife and the spectacle of migration at Cape May. The problem is, I moved here right at the start of the main migration period, which means that I am right in the thick of it before having a chance to set the scene. With this in mind, coupled with the fact that several weeks have already whizzed by before I had a chance to set a blog up, I'm going to just cover the highlights for now and hopefully give an insight into this great place before I start a full year, beginning on January 1st. So here's a quick(ish!) resume of life so far, just to whet your appetite.

After a few days in late August sorting out the house and other necessary chores, things in the USA came down to earth with a bump as I started work on September 1st. So now I was going to be in for some tough days; the days when you are at work all day, but you keep meeting people who come in to the store and tell you about all the birds that are about!!! Being on holiday at Cape May is one thing, working here is quite another!!

I am currently working full-time in Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center, where we sell all things birdy and we function as an Information Centre for visiting birders. We also run a comprehensive programme of bird and wildlife walks according to the season. From the first picture posted here, you should be able to see that I have been Anglicising the Northwood Center with an appropriately British jar of Marmite, kindly presented to me as a birthday present by our good friends Paul and Rose from Norfolk, UK - great to see you guys here!!!

In September, the birding day starts at around 06:30. So for us, being twenty minutes away at present and allowing time for breakfast, means getting up at 05:30! At this time of year, there is only one place to be at first light - Higbee Beach (more properly Higbee's Beach but it somehow doesn't roll off the tongue so well!). I'll cover the whys and wherefores of birding Cape May another time, but Higbee's is the place to be right now. Higbee's is where nocturnal migrants, looking for a place to drop in, come flying by in their search for suitable habitat.

My first real good Higbee Beach day came on September 9th, which I thought was going to be quiet as the forecast wasn't great, but I figured that it's September and this is Cape May - even on a quiet day Cape May holds more birds than most places on a good day!! The walk from the parking lot through the wood to Higbee Dike in the early morning light was excellent, with at least five Northern Waterthrushes feeding right out in the open on the road, four Canada Warblers which all showed well (a life bird for me just the week before!) and a fabulous Worm-eating Warbler. The Morning Flight on the dike was good - though for a newcomer on the US birding scene like me, the spectacle of dozens (or, on a good day, hundreds) of North American Wood-warblers whizzing by and all going 'chip' or 'tick' is somewhat daunting - the more so when you're stood next to Cameron Cox and Michael O'Brien who are identifying pretty much everything that shoots by! More on the dike experience later, but this morning things were great with good flight views of Tennessee and Black-throated Blue Warblers and a big run of Northern Parulas, American Redstarts and snazzy Black-and-white Warblers. The dredging impoundment that we were standing on the edge of also held a nice Baird's Sandpiper among the usual Semipalmated Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs. After a good session on the dike, I took a quick look around the fields at Higbee's before heading off to work and was pleased to find a Blue-winged Warbler and a Yellow-throated Vireo - both wonderfully colourful birds.

My next great Cape May experience came just two days later on September 11th - luckily a day off! I was at home sorting boxes of books out, after a very stormy, rainy night that had left several broken branches scattered across the flooded lawn from one of the Red Maples and had blown over a couple of small willows by the pond. The day was dry, though very humid and birds that had presumably been disorientated by the weather started appearing all around the house. By the end of the day I had enjoyed great views of 12 species of wood-warbler in the garden: American Redstart, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Blue-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Pine Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Magnolia Warbler. What a day!!! Pictures taken that day in our garden follow (Don't forget that you can click on each picture to see it in better detail).

There are just two Pitch Pines in our garden, but we still managed to attract a nice male Pine Warbler.

Four Northern Parulas fed in a single small bush at one point - this one is doing that strange, neck-stretchy thing that they do!

A mint humbug in our pine - the wonderful Black-and-white Warbler

The very name, Magnolia Warbler, conjures up an image of a bird that just has to be seen. OK, these warblers aren't as stunning as they are in spring - but they're still pretty darned good!

In addition, a Philadelphia Vireo put in an appearance amongst a good run of Red-eyed Vireos.

The great birds continued over the next few days and I settled into a routine of Higbee's before work and an hour at the Hawkwatch Platform for lunch - the latter location was good for mid-day Common Nighthawks catching flying ants with the Laughing Gulls for several days! The hawkwatch was really starting to buzz now and it was great to be able to sit and watch the spectacle of raptor migration from a comfortable seat whislt yarning with good friends. American Kestrels and Merlins were starting to appear in good numbers by now and Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks were worrying the heck out of the other birds in the area. Cape May at peak raptor migration is not a good place to be a songbird!

After all the songbird activity, it was also nice to get something a little bigger - a Sandhill Crane in fact, that rather oddly decided that a 'flock' of plastic decoy geese would make good company and spent a couple of days hanging out with them!

I almost missed the Sandhill Crane when I first went looking for it. Amongst the plastic Canada Geese was certainly a great place to hide!

But patience was finally rewarded....

...before he went back to sleep with his plastic pals. He seemed to prefer the company of this headless one - maybe he just thought it was asleep!!

Finally in this post, it's worth mentioning the fabulous Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that have been gracing our yard since we put a couple of feeders up. We've had up to seven battling for a spot at the feeders and a couple of them are getting pretty tame now as they get used to us taking breakfast (or an evening beer!) on the deck in the sun.

Juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird laying claim to the feeder on our deck.

Now that's what I call an obliging bird!