Friday, December 4, 2009

November - Rarity Prime Time

As well as being the main arrival period for wintering birds, November's second string to its bow - and the one that gets birdwatchers most fired up - is that it tends to be the time when the real rarities turn up. Time was when binoculars were hung up for a few weeks; autumn migration was pretty much over and winter birds were not present in any number yet. Time to do a bit of gardening, get a few chores done around the house and to sit back and enjoy Thanksgiving.

But times have changed. After a few "I never saw that one coming" birds, it became apparent that hanging up the binoculars in November really wasn't a good idea! So why is November so good? Maybe we'll never really know, but the facts speak for themselves. The majority of such birds are Western species - species that breed a long way to the West, in the Mid-west states or the eastern foothills of the Rockies. It seems most likely that, during periods of extended warm weather, coupled with southerly air flows through the mid-west in late summer, some birds find themselves drifting northward in the autumn. From there, prevailing North-west winds will drift them down to America's eastern seaboard - indeed, in the UK, migrants that are carried by prevailing winds in this way are refered to as drift migrants.

So, it is with great anticipation that birders scour the Cape May area, looking for the cherry on the icing on the cake of the year's birding. Here's a few samplers of this November's crop of goodies.

A frosty apparition flicked up in front of me on the South Beach on November 22nd; my first ever 'Ipswich' Sparrow. These birds are a race of Savannah Sparrow but are very distinctive in being much paler and greyer overall than other races of this widespread species. Ipswich Sparrows pass through Cape May in small numbers from breeding grounds on Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia and a tiny handful remain for the winter. So, not a vagrant this one, but very scarce and nice to have found two on this day. Sable Island is only a small place and there may be no more than 2000 of these birds in the World.

For comparison, here's a typical Savannah Sparrow, seen on The Meadows earlier in the month. Note the warmer brown tones and broader, more smudgy streaks below. This bird is typical of the form savanna which is presumed to be the commonest form migrating through and wintering in Cape May, though some other subspecies perhaps occur but are too similar to be readily identified to race unless in the hand.

Another day, another sparrow. On November 14th, Tony Leukering phoned me to say that he had found two Nelson's Sparrows on The Meadows - a rare bird indeed at Cape May Point and one which would be a new species for me. Nelson's Sparrow used to be 'lumped' with Saltmash Sparrow, the two being collectively known as Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Taxonomists (ie people who care about such things!) have since decided that the two groups are different enough to be considered different species - so we birdwatchers get another species to tick - everyone wins! Nelson's Sparrow itself still consists of three subspecies. The bird here is typical of the form subvirgatus which breeds along the coastline of NE Canada and New England. These birds migrate south to winter in the coastal marshes of SE USA and thus pass through Cape May in small numbers. Well, I know this is an awful picture but I put it in for comparison; I was working on this particular day and couldn't get out for the bird until almost 5pm, by which time the fading light meant having to take the picture at ISO800 at 1/15th of a second - far from ideal!! But do note the overall grey and dull look and the contrasting breast and sueprcilium which are a pale buffy pink.

Wanting another chance to photograph the Nelson's Sparrows, I returned to The Meadows the next morning and Vince Elia and I came across this bird - which wonderfully demonstrates Cape May's ability to pull in birds from all directions! We were delighted to find this Nelson's Sparrow as it is obviously less grey than the birds of the night before and with a much richer, orange wash to the breast and supercilium. This is a Nelson's Sparrow from one of the interior populations which breed along the southern shores of Hudson Bay and in the great prairie grasslands west of the Great Lakes. These birds generally move south to winter along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, but each year a few head more easterly (probably wind-drifted) and it is amazing that the two forms should be found at Cape May Point in consecutive days (especially as this was the first time that Vince had ever seen this species south of the canal!).

Another picture of the interior Nelson's Sparrow. These birds creep around in the saltmarsh grasslands like mice and I'm amazed that I managed to get this one to perform so well for me.

Two female Redheads on Lighthouse Pond on November 29th. Though a regular bird at Cape May, Redheads are far from common in the east of their range and the species is currently in decline here.

Ducks have a special fascination for many birders, but you've got to be pretty keen to get excited about this thing!! Good numbers of American Wigeon winter around Cape May's freshwater pools and offer a good opportunity to search for rarer species. This is a juvenile male Eurasian Wigeon on Lighthouse Pond, which most likely wandered down from breeding grounds in Iceland. Adult males are easily identified but young of the two wigeon species are annoyingly similar! We can suspect that this bird is not an American Wigeon by the brick-red wash to the head which matches the body in colour - a feature typical of Eurasian Wigeon. Although it looks like a female, the dusky band down the top of the bill tells us it's a juvenile and the bright white feather along the side (actually the innermost secondary feather on the closed wing) tells us that it is a male. A young female would have this feather washed greyish in colour.

Just for confirmation, here's another shot of the Eurasian Wigeon showing its pale grey underwing coverts and axillaries (that's the feathers in the arm pit!). So far, we have found at least four and possibly five Eurasian Wigeon on Lighthouse Pond this November and they may well stay all winter - so hopefully at least one of the two males will get some colour soon!

Here's a typical female American Wigeon giving us some help with identification! Two features are obvious here when compared with the male Eurasian Wigeon above; this bird has white axillaries and underwing coverts and note that the head is obviously greyer than the body, not washed with rufous.

Now expected annually in late autumn,  a few Western Kingbirds somehow drift across to the East coast rather than heading due south to winter in the Tropics. Some are even found mid-winter and probably survive by resorting to berries rather than insects for food. I missed a whole run of these birds as they always seemed to turn up on work days, but eventually one was found by Melissa Roach from the Hawkwatch Platform - a mere two minutes from work, on a day that we were closed to the public and five minutes before 9AM!!! Though it was only around for some 20 minutes, I was able to get straight there and get nice views as it perched around the parking lot.

With all the local Ruby-throated Hummingbirds gone by late September, any hummer that turns up in November deserves attention. This one, in a garden at Cape May Point on November 29th turned up right on queue and the extensive orange on the flanks and tail show it to be either a Rufous or Allen's Hummingbird. These two species are notoriously hard to identify, the best feature being a notch on the second innermost tail feather on Rufous - and the birds almost invariably keep their tails closed!! Both these species breed way off west in the Rockies, though Rufous breeds much further north (getting into Alaska), and it seems incredible that they get here at all. However, Rufous Hummingbird is pretty much annual in the east now, perhaps surviving better because of the availability of feeders (as here) and the feeling is that this is a Rufous, based on at least some sort of a glimpse of the tail feathers.

There is of course one other bird that makes a regular appearance at the end of November - the Thanksgiving Turkey!!

So November is through; did we get the big one this year? Did November live up to it's reputation? Find out in the next post!