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.