Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Beanery

Like so many places, Cape May lies at a crossroads and the decision on which direction to take doesn’t entirely lie with wildlife fans. As in much of the world, we can take one of two basic directions when deciding what to do with a piece of land; we can make shed loads of money in the short term, by building houses and sit back and count the cash, thank you very much. Or we can consider the longer term prospects and perhaps - heaven forbid - think about what our children will inherit from us.

Slap bang in the middle of Cape May Island (ie the tip of the peninusla, cut off from the rest by the Cape May Canal) lies a farm, owned by the Rea family - the Rea Farm. This farm used to specialise in growing Lima Beans and is therefore also known to local birders as The Beanery. The Rea Farm is the only farm left on the island and therefore offers a significant piece of habitat to be utilised by local birds. The Rea family would like to continue making a living out of farming the land, but are struggling to do so. Lima Bean contracts are now placed with overseas suppliers as the beans (for beans read labour costs!) are cheaper; in addition, the local authorities would love to have the land brought into the local township so that it can be built on (= more taxes for the local township). Sound like a familiar story? Oh, I should add that the Rea family have always been birder-friendly and have allowed birdwatchers access to walk the field and woodland edges at their leisure for free.

So what should the Rea family do? Well, a third way was found. Cape May Bird Observatory came up with an agreement to lease birdwatching rights from the farm, so that the family get an important boost to their income, such that they can remain in farming, while birders still get somewhere very important to go birding. More importantly (lest we get this out of proportion and think that it’s all just about people - many make that mistake!), tired and hungry migrant birds get a place to pitch down and feed up before going on their way. The upshot of all this is that CMBO give free birding access to the Rea Farm to their members, while non-members can buy a day pass, or enter only on one of the organised walks. So everyone is happy, except perhaps those that were hoping to get fat on the spoils of show homes - sorry guys, you’ve ruined 90% of the barrier islands, you’re not getting your hands on Rea Farm - well not yet anyway!

The Beanery is a very special place for local birders, so here’s some memories from this autumn of time spent at this great little spot.

More than anything else - as far as wildlife is concerned - the Rea Farm offers open field habitats, areas favoured by a variety of seed-eating sparrows, finches and related birds. A generally low-key approach, without excessive use of chemicals, means that the land stays well in tune with the environment. Here, at the end of the growing season, the fields are full of Amaranths, Ragweed and Jimsonweed.

Areas left fallow, or returned to more permanent grasslands of native species, provide for a different suite of species. Shortly after I took this picture, a juvenile Northern Harrier flushed from the ground ahead of me - of course I was in landscape mode so I had the wrong lens on for a picture!!!

As well as its farm fields, The Beanery has some beautiful patches of wet woodland, while the old railway line which still runs through to the now defunct Magnasite Plant on Sunset Boulevard, gives birders easy access without getting wet feet!

In the autumn, the trees at The Beanery start to turn wonderful shades of yellow, red and orange.

The old railway line is a great place to view autumn colour, as it gives a chance to look at the vivid hues backlit by the sun, making the colours even more vibrant - such as here on these Red Maples.

This autumn, the north side of the first field from the parking lot gave an impressive show of colour.

The untidy field and woodland edges provide ideal habitat for the American Pokeberry, whose berries are cherished by Grey Catbirds and Brown Thrashers.

While the wall of Chinese Silver-grass Miscanthus sinensis that grows along the property border between Rea Farm and the vinery may not be native, the plant nonetheless is undeniably attractive when in flower and the clumps do seem to be favoured by autumn sparrow flocks as a hiding place from passing raptors - or birders! This plant is often mistaken for Pampas Grass Cortaderia selloana, but the flower structure and leaves are really quite different.

The Beanery's many ponds are favoured by a number of reptiles and amphibians, including these Painted Terrapins (apologies to Americans but I can't bring myself to call them turtles - turtles live in the sea and have flippers and terrapins live in fresh or brackish water and have legs, it's really quite simple!!).

Sheltered, south-facing field edges offer warm sun-traps in the autumn and are good places to look for snakes, such as this Black Racer. This species is very similar to the Black Rat Snake which also occurs here, but the latter has keeled scales (ie the scales have a ridge along the centre).

This American Black Vulture took to hanging out on the utility poles at The Beanery car park for several days and soon became known as a 'pole vulture'.

OK, he's featured on my blog already, but this Sandhill Crane has certainly been one of the stars of The Beanery this autumn, so here's another shot of him.

Here's another shot of the Sandhill Crane, here checking that his legs are all present and correct!

From one of the largest birds I'm likely to ever see at The Beanery to one of the smallest. This smart little Golden-crowned Kinglet was one of a small party which spent quite a while rummaging on the ground or in low vegetation along the edge of one of the wet woodland areas. It's great what you can see when you just sit patiently and quietly....

The whole Rea Farm is a great location for Red-tailed Hawks, giving them great hunting opportunities in the fields, with plenty of trees for surveying the area from. They are easily seen here, though usually not all that approachable....

....unlike this guy who has surely been the top star turn of the 2009 autumn season at Cape May. This juvenile Swainson's Hawk has performed magnificently for all who came to see him. While a group of some 20 of us was watching from beside the Rea Farm shop, this bird flew from its perch some 100 yards away and came right to us, landing on overhead wires right beside us for some once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities.

Swainson's Hawk is a species of western North America which makes long autumn migrations to winter all the way down in the Argentinian pampas. Despite this, the species is expected annually in Cape May - though usually as a brief fly-by from the Hawkwatch Platform!

During its stay, the Swainson's Hawk has fed well on a variety of insects, all of which are caught on the ground or in low vegetation and probably consist primarily of grasshoppers and crickets.

You really shouldn't get views like this of Swainson's Hawk at Cape May!! As I write this on November 18th, this bird is still present and really should have taken the opportunity to depart during the sizeable Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawk flight two days ago. The very ragged tail of this bird has been intriguing people. It's probably just a result of its ground-feeding habitats, with the tail getting worn against the ground and rough vegetation. However, its ragged tail, together with its remarkable tameness is causing some to ask some enquiring questions as to its origins...

What better parting shot for The Beanery than a view across a flooded roadside field to the Rea Farm at sunset. Actually this is the same field that was flooded back in September and provided those fabulous shorebird photo opportunities. What a great place!