Monday, December 21, 2009


With the departure of the Ivory Gull, things quietened down at Cape May for a while, but all that changed with the snow that arrived overnight in the early hours of Saturday December 19th. We awoke to some five or six inches of solid snow cover on Saturday and more snow during the day left us with a good seven to eight inches of snow in Cape May Court House. Snow cover apparently increased steadily westward, away from the coast, and Washington DC was swathed in the most snow ever recorded in a day in the month of December. Saturday remained below freezing all day, with heavily overcast skies. We put out plenty of food for the birds and eventually had them feeding right outside the windows on the deck. Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos all packed the deck, while the fat block attracted both Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays wolfed down the sunflower seed and American Goldfinches fed quietly on the niger seed.

Sunday 20th dawned and the sun appeared - contrary to the weather forecast - so after much scraping, the car was eventually released from its snowy prison and I headed to work, though not before some pre-work birding around Cape May Point. Here's a photo essay on the weekend that saw record December snowfall along America's Atlantic Seaboard.

Being something of an insomniac, it's not surprising that Denali was the first to notice the arrival of the snow.

The view out the window at breakfast time left us in no doubt that it was flippin' cold outside!

Another view of the garden, from the outside deck.

The pond on the edge of the property certainly looked different to the one that had greeted us in August!

I took a short (and very cold!) walk along the road a little way from the house to enjoy the winter wonderland that had descended on us.

Our little rental house in the woods looks a chilly place to be.

Shortly after first light, a flock of over 30 Brown-headed Cowbirds descended on our feeding station. We've usually only had single-figure counts of this species among the far more common Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles so this flock was a bit of a surprise. However, this is an all too common bird in the area; I say all too common, as cowbirds - like cuckoos - are brood-parasites. That is, they lay their eggs in the nests of other species, leaving the youngster to be raised by foster parents and denying the unfortunate hosts of a brood of their own. This has become a major conservation issue in the USA as the wholesale felling of trees here results in fragmented woodland which is more easily penetrated by cowbirds (which prefer more open country to woodland), to the detriment of their hosts which are usually wood-warbler species.

This solitary Dark-eyed Junco was the first adventurous individual to discover the feast of birdfood that we had laid out on the deck! This batch of seed was placed conveniently on the hand rail right outside a window so I didn't even have to leave the warmth of the house to photograph the birds!!

White-throated Sparrows soon ventured onto the deck and we noted 14 of them there by the end of the day.

Eventually (or should that be inevitably!) the Brown-headed Cowbirds joined the deck party which at least gave a chance to enjoy these subtle birds. Actually I quite like them - here's a female, soft grey-brown with pale edges to the primary feathers.

And here's a male Brown-headed Cowbird. In sunlight, the feathers of the wings and body show a green iridescence. (Note that it's started snowing again!).

Having helped get my car ready for work, Megan was left to sort her car out on her own later - who'd be a wife!!

My route into work takes me through Cold Spring which really looked the perfect chocolate-box town this morning.

A quick look at The Meadows on the way past revealed a good covering of snow even right down here at the tip of Cape May Point. The lakes were frozen but for small patches that had been kept open by the birds - mostly Mallards, Mute Swans and American Coots this morning.

The obligatory 'Cape May Lighthouse in the snow' shot. OK, so I'm just a tourist at heart!!

Cape May lighthouse from the Hawkwatch Platform - with a snow plough (plow over here!) hard at work in the parking lot.

The famous hawk-counter corner on the Hawkwatch Platform looked a very different place this morning!

Bunker Pond from the Hawkwatch Platform - mostly frozen over and devoid of birds, but for a few Mute Swans and Mallards.

The south beach was a pretty desolate place - especially as a biting wind was threatening to remove my ears!

At least two Ipswich Sparrows were found amongst a loose flock of typical Savannah Sparrows. The Ipswich Sparrows were pretty approachable and gave me lots of photo opportunities on the dune cross-over near the Hawkwatch Platform.

Crossing onto the beach itself, I couldn't help but notice just how different the dune protection fences looked with snow covering the ground around them.

One of a group of three Snow Buntings that trundled about on the snow on the beach. A party of nine Horned Larks dropped in too, but left all too quickly so there's no picture of them I'm afraid!

View from the South beach looking west, towards St Mary's and the lighthouse.

Bob Fogg joined me on the beach and as we discussed the morning's findings, I noticed a Short-eared Owl in the dune near St Mary's. The bird took off before we got a chance for a prolonged look, but I managed a quick flight shot to record the moment. Short-eared Owls are pretty scarce birds south of the canal at Cape May so this was perhaps my best find of the day.

Time to head in to work - though it turned out to be a day for back office work as visitors were noticeable by their absence!

One of the main reasons for heading in to work on a day such as this was to check that there had been no snow damage to the building and to check on the bird feeders. When used regularly, feeders attract higher than usual numbers of birds to a given area and the onus is then on the feeder provider to ensure that those birds are catered for if the weather turns bad. A quick top-up of the feeders and a good scattering of food on the ground soon had the locals happy again - and gave me a chance lunch time to get a few more 'Snowbirds' for the day! At least five Fox Sparrows were amongst larger numbers of White-throated Sparrows, and the chubby form of a Fox Sparrow is rapidly becoming one of my winter highlights.

This is cheating a bit as I didn't manage to get any snow into the picture to justify the shot for the snowbird topic, but this Carolina Wren certainly looks cold, with his feathers all fluffed out and his toes curled up!

I've taken so many White-throated Sparrow shots over the last couple of weeks that there really can't be any new angles left! Still, here's my favourite one from today.

American Mourning Doves are reall little cuties - especially in the snow!

Another Fox Sparrow - see, I told you I liked them a lot!

I shot over to our new house (more of that later!) and found a number of Killdeers feeding on the gradually clearing patches of roadway. This one was on Sunset Boulevard, where melt-water puddles provided useful habitat while it waited for the regular pools around the State Park to unfreeze.

A quick check in at Michael O'Brien's feeders revealed the Ruby-throated Hummingbird to still be present - notice I managed a little bit of snow on the holly leaves in the background, behind the feeder! I don't hold out much hope for this little guy, who turned up at Michael's house several days ago now. He really should be well down into Mexico at this time of year.

The open fields at the Rea Farm were being scoured by the wind, and snow was drifting onto Stevens Street, narrowing it down to a single carriageway.

A real bonus find for the day was a couple of American Pipits feeding along the road edge on the Bayshore Road with a party of sparrows. This is the first time that I have really had good views of this species at Cape May; I usually either see high-flying migrants overhead, or very distant silhouettes at the back of some vast Turf Farm!

OK, no snow in this shot again - although there is, because this is a Snow Goose, which turned up late afternoon with the the Canada Geese on Lily Lake. Snow Geese were moving south in large numbers for several days ahead of the incoming bad weather, and there calls were a regular sound overhead after dark.

A weird endpiece to today's post! This goose was with the Canada Geese on Lily Lake and caught my eye for obvious reasons - it doesn't match any known species!! In actual fact, there is nothing about this bird that is wrong for a Canada Goose except for the white head and neck - and such birds with patches of white feathers of varying amount are not uncommon in the bird world. Though this one is certainly quite dramatic!

One final endpiece for those that know us - we completed our house purchase this week!! So, we took Denali down to see his new home, and had an impromptu dinner in the empty house to celebrate! Now all we have to do is get the place ready to move into, which will probably take at least another month. We'll keep you posted.