Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cape May Hawkwatch - Where Birds & People Meet

If a birdwatcher had to name the one thing that truly defines Cape May birding, it would surely be The Hawkwatch Platform. Cape May is justly world famous for its bird migration, but it is especially famous for its raptor migration. Not only do its raptors pass in good numbers, they often pass amazingly close and allow for some great photography. Raptors, or - more loosely - birds of prey as they are often known, are usually referred to in the USA somewhat generically as “hawks”. I have to admit to not being overly keen on this term as, at least where I come from, this word tends to be used in a somewhat derogatory form by people who would rather point a gun at them - and of course, that’s exactly what people first did at Cape May when they discovered the raptor migration. In those days, raptors were contemptuous, murderous fowl and the slaughter of thousand upon thousand of birds of prey makes for very depressing reading. And all done purely for fun.

Cape May’s modern day migration studies really started in 1976, when Pete Dunne used a picnic table as a vantage point and spent the autumn season recording the passage of raptors. The platform moved on from a picnic table to a borrowed lifeguard stand, before eventually becoming the amazing structure we see today, installed at the south-east corner of Cape May Point State Park’s parking lot.

Once you've parked your car, the walk to the Hawkwatch Platform can be bristling with anticipation - especially when there's already a mass of people up there.

Much has been written about the raptor studies at Cape May and the whole history of its development; to read more, I would recommend Clay & Pat Sutton’s wonderful book Birds and Birding at Cape May, published by Stackpole Books. It’s really quite superb and, if you pop into our store at Cape May Point you can get your hands on a signed copy!

As much as the birds, though, it is the people who make the Hawkwatch Platform such a great place. The great thing about the platform is that it offers such a great view of the area that it is the obvious place to start during the fall season. So, if the birds are moving, you’ll be on site and not miss anything; if they’re not moving, you won’t be missing anything and will find yourself in the best place for a good old chin wag! The platform has become a great gathering point for all sorts of occasions; indeed, when Tom Reed was organising a “Big Sit” this autumn on October 11th, the Hawkwatch Platform was the only place to be. For those who are bemused, a Big Sit is a day-long event where you choose a single location and stay there, counting as many bird species as you can in that one day. The October 11th Big Sit was fabulous; most of us popped in and helped out at some point, and the collective total for the day was a superb 146 species!! That’s 146 species seen from one spot on Cape May Point in a single day in autumn - that’s why this is a great place to be!! So the bar is raised by Cape May yet again - the previous record Big Sit total for all of North America was 145, set at - yes, you guessed it - Cape May, in 2007 (the Hawkwatch’s previous best day count was 124). Full details of the event can be found at the Cape May Bird Observatory web site - just go to http://www.birdcapemay.org/blog/2009_10_11_archive.html I like Tom Reed’s final summing up of the event which reads: “After twenty-plus hours, a lot of great birds, too many funny moments, some superb company and a ton of memories, the '09 big sit was over. It was a day that will forever be remembered in birding history as one of the birdiest, luckiest and funniest days ever had by a bunch of birders anywhere”.

So here’s a run of pictures of the people who made that Big Sit such a great event.

A classic Hawkwatch scene faced me as I walked up the ramp on October 11th: binoculars pointed skywards, Pete writing the hourly figures on the pad...

A number of people have taken the Hawk Counter post at Cape May over the years. This year saw the return of Numero Uno as Pete Dunne stood up to the plate and somehow managed to be both official Hawk Counter for the season and Director of Cape May Bird Observatory. Surely only Ace Rimmer could achieve such a feat! Smoke me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast.

Beth Ciuzio looking pensive...

Chuck Slugg - always jolly, always proud to be wearing the badge...

The ever-cool Dave Hedeen - the epitome of casual, with bare feet, hand in pocket....

Don Freiday, our Director of Birding Programs, always has an eye on the game...

One of this year's A-team of interns, Brooklyn boy Doug Gochfeld has done sterling work on the hawk count this year....

Our other illustrious Hawk Counter intern, Melissa Roach - the best shot I got of her on the 11th!!

Intern Jessica Donahue spent most of her season on the Morning Flight project....

Cape May resident and volunteer guide, Karl Leukens; many of Karl's great shots grace the CMBO website - I'll never forgive him for that amazing Black Rail photo!

Lousie Zemaitis - top allrounder, ace Monarch tagger, tour guide, Cape May resident, wife of Michael O'Brien - what more do you want to know...

Michael O'Brien - you wouldn't think it to look at him but he really is one of the world's most amazing birders, but don't tell him I said so! Once banished me from Higbee Dyke but I think I'm worming my way back in again!!

Another top local birder and Cape May's obligatory Yorkshireman, Richard Crossley...

Who says Americans are loud and brash?! The quiet and thoughtful Steve Weis does his bit for the Big Sit cause...

OK, I knew someone would have to pose! Steve Kolbe has served this season as an interpretive naturalist at the Hawkwatch, Morning Flight and the Seawatch. Is there no end to this man's talent?

This year's new boy, like me! Scott Whittle just got himself accommodation in town, having moved here from New York. Smart move Scott....

I thought that it was about time that I featured a few people on this blog, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a few birds too. Here’s a few shots I took this autumn from the Hawkwatch Platform. There’s not too many as I’ve actually done quite a lot of raptor photography from there in previous years so I didn’t spend time photographing birds that I already have pictures of.

This is what the hawkwatch is all about! A fine 'kettle' (a quaint term for a soaring group of raptors) of Turkey Vultures and much smaller Broad-winged Hawks checks out the end of the peninsula. With 16 miles of water between Cape May Point and the other side of the Delaware Bay, few soaring raptors attempt the crossing and most will go back north and west to cross the Delaware River at a narrower point (maybe that's where George Washington got the idea from!).

A juvenile Broad-winged Hawk passes low over the platform. Views like this are commonplace at the platform - I've even seen people be forced to duck by the sudden, low appearance of a Merlin or Peregrine! This is a juvenile Broad-wing as adults have obvious broad black bands on the tail.

Star turn. America's National bird, the Bald Eagle makes a close pass of the Hawkwatch Platform. Bald Eagles take a number of years to attain their classic black-and-white plumage; this youngster is probably three or four years old.

A fine adult Bald Eagle gives us a great fly-by. One of North America's greatest success stories, the Bald Eagle was at one time virtually extinct in the USA apart from in Alaska, due to pointless persecution by thoughtless people. Things have turned around remarkably however, as witnessed by the amazing 46 that passed Cape May Point in a single day this year. There's even a pair nesting less than 10 miles from our current house!

The Hawkwatch Platform's raised location gives plenty of opportunity to photograph a number of other birds in flight too. Here's a Double-crested Cormorant in all its primitive glory!

Seven swans a-flying! Being on the migration mainline, the Hawkwatch Platform often gets the season's first sightings of species returning from northerly breeding grounds for the winter; here a party of Tundra Swans passes south-east and heads for Delaware.

Smiling faces or what! With so many raptors passing through, Cape May is a prime location to study them and raptors have been banded (that's ringed to us Brits!) here for many years. Such research necessarily has to be carried out away from public areas so that trapping can be effective without any disturbance. To accommodate those of us who want to share the excitement, as well as to fulfill an all-important educational role for the general public, trapped birds that are ready for release are occasionally brought to the Hawkwatch Platform for others to see before they are liberated back into the wild. Now, something the size of a Merlin or a Sharp-shinned Hawk will fit into a pretty small can, so when we saw the guys come around the corner with a tube this big the excitement was immense...

Just take a look at the size of those feet - and those awesome claws could do a heck of a lot of damage to someone who didn't know what they were doing....

Finally the bird is revealed - a spectacular, juvenile male, Golden Eagle. Of course, we had all gathered in anticipation as Arthur (who was still grinning when I saw him just a few days ago!) had called us on his mobile to tell us it was coming. We closed the shop so that everyone could go and left a sign on the door "Golden Eagle at the Hawkwatch, back in 20 minutes".

The bird was weighed and measured before being brought to the platform for release - and found to have a full wingspan of 6' 4". The white patches in the wings gradually disappear with age, but are often more extensive than this in juvenile birds.

The chance to get such intimate photos of a wild Golden Eagle doesn't come round that often...

Time for release. I tried to get a classic shot with the Cape May lighthouse in the background but the bird didn't want to hang around! He headed strongly out over the bay, but soon turned back to land and was seen the next day back over Pond Creek Marsh which was where he had been caught.

As something of an addendum to this piece on the Hawkwatch Platform, I’ve had several people of late asking me how Denali is doing! Yes, people have been walking into the store and asking for an update. So for anyone who’s interested, here he is, at Cape May’s number one location!

Denali comandeers the Cape May Hawkwatch as an early morning mist rises off Bunker Pond.

As the day starts to warm up, Denali swots up from the identification board...

Eyes on the sky, under the watchful eye of Cape May lighthouse, Denali gets to grips with his first raptor watch....

Oh-oh, the big and mean Turkey Vultures are soaring now. The only safe place for a small bear is under the bench with Monkey, Scott Whittle's amiable Border Terrier who quickly became part and parcel of the Cape May birding scene this autumn.

As a final piece of interest, here’s Michael O’Brien’s official list of species for the Big Sit - amazing that he even managed to provide rough counts for every species too!! (Records of particular interest are in bold)

Location: Cape Island--Cape May Point SP--CMBO Hawk Watch
Observation date: 10/11/09
Number of species: 146

Snow Goose 15
Brant (Atlantic) 6
Canada Goose 200
Mute Swan 15
Wood Duck 30
Gadwall 10
American Wigeon 25
American Black Duck 5
Mallard 50
Blue-winged Teal 6
Northern Shoveler 4
Northern Pintail 20
Green-winged Teal 40
Ring-necked Duck 2
Surf Scoter 70
Black Scoter 250
Ruddy Duck 4
Red-throated Loon 3
Common Loon 4
Pied-billed Grebe 3
Northern Gannet 2
Brown Pelican 7
Double-crested Cormorant 5000
American Bittern 15
Least Bittern 1
Great Blue Heron 30
Great Egret 15
Snowy Egret 25
Green Heron 2
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1
Glossy Ibis 1
Black Vulture 10
Turkey Vulture 81
Osprey 50
Bald Eagle 30
Northern Harrier 33
Sharp-shinned Hawk 507
Cooper's Hawk 587
Broad-winged Hawk 30
Red-tailed Hawk 41
American Kestrel 19
Merlin 79
Peregrine Falcon 69
Common Moorhen 3
American Coot 15
Killdeer 25
American Oystercatcher 1
Solitary Sandpiper 2
Greater Yellowlegs 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 1
Sanderling 20
Semipalmated Sandpiper 8
Pectoral Sandpiper 20
Dunlin 15
Wilson's Snipe 3
American Woodcock 1
Sabine's Gull 1
Laughing Gull 500
Ring-billed Gull 80
Herring Gull 50
Great Black-backed Gull 150
Caspian Tern 1
Common Tern 2
Forster's Tern 700
Royal Tern 40
Black Skimmer 200
Parasitic Jaeger 3
Rock Pigeon 25
Mourning Dove 50
Black-billed Cuckoo 1
Barn Owl 2
Great Horned Owl 2
Common Nighthawk 3
Chimney Swift 1
Belted Kingfisher 2
Red-headed Woodpecker 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 4
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 3
Downy Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) 50
Eastern Phoebe 2
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Blue Jay 100
American Crow 10
Fish Crow 40
Tree Swallow 1500
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 15
Bank Swallow 2
Cliff Swallow 1
Barn Swallow 2
Carolina Chickadee 1
Tufted Titmouse 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch 4
Carolina Wren 3
Winter Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1
Eastern Bluebird 1
Veery 1
Gray-cheeked Thrush 10
Bicknell's Thrush 1
Swainson's Thrush 25
American Robin 200
Gray Catbird 2
Northern Mockingbird 3
Brown Thrasher 2
European Starling 50
American Pipit 80
Cedar Waxwing 150
Nashville Warbler 1
Northern Parula 25
Cape May Warbler 6
Black-throated Blue Warbler 12
Yellow-rumped Warbler 5000
Black-throated Green Warbler 1
Pine Warbler 2
Palm Warbler 50
Blackpoll Warbler 20
American Redstart 1
Common Yellowthroat 50
Scarlet Tanager 1
Eastern Towhee 1
Chipping Sparrow 5
Field Sparrow 2
Savannah Sparrow 80
Seaside Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 15
Lincoln's Sparrow 1
Swamp Sparrow 50
White-throated Sparrow 90
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored) 1
Northern Cardinal 4
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 2
Indigo Bunting 15
Bobolink 4
Red-winged Blackbird 500
Eastern Meadowlark 50
Rusty Blackbird 2
Common Grackle 50
Brown-headed Cowbird 200
Purple Finch 1
House Finch 20
American Goldfinch 60
House Sparrow 20