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.