Monday, December 28, 2009

Winter Birding Around The Inlets

New Jersey's Atlantic coastline is protected by a series of barrier islands, a run of low sand dunes that stretch the whole length of the State's coast. Sadly most of these have been destroyed forever by the needless building of second homes for over-paid people; but I won't get started on that - well, just a little bit then!!

A fine example of the futility of trying to better nature! The mound is all that remains of the old beach height before recent storms at Wildwood. Whilst this may seem like very extreme erosion, it is worth noting that the beach had been artificially raised at great expense and with a huge amount of man-hours. And all just to be washed away again!

More futility on the beach - note the artificially high beach in the background. And what is all this enormous amount of effort and expense protecting? See next picture.

Nothing more to say really, except, here's an idea - how about building a funfair somewhere where it won't cost millions of tax payers' dollars to maintain? Just a thought.... now back to the real world.

Hope for the future. After the extensive damage to the dunes done by the sea back in November, new dune grass is planted and new protective fencing erected. As the grass grows, the roots will bind the sand and provide excellent coastal defences. Now, if we can just stop the idiots who can't walk two yards from driving on the beaches and damaging the integrity of the sand, maybe we'll achieve even better coastal protection - but perhaps not while it remains legal for them to do so.....

Between each barrier island is an inlet, a point where the sea has broken through the barrier and flooded the lower land behind, creating vast areas of saltmarsh. These inlets now also work as outlets when the tide is out, as it is through these that ground water flows out to the sea. These channels teem with fish and aquatic invertebrates and therefore attract a lot of birds that feed on them. A great way to spend a winter's day in Cape May is to have a tour of the inlets to see what's about. The last couple of days I have done just that, and enjoyed some great birding, including flocks of scoter and Brent Geese, small parties of Bonaparte's Gulls, my first Cape May Horned Grebe and still a small party of Common Eider at Townsend's Inlet. Corson's Inlet is fast becoming my favourite and yesterday provided me with some fabulous views of one of the World's best waterbirds - Long-tailed Ducks. So fabulous are they that I'm going to do a whole post just for them, after this one!

With food concentrated in relatively small areas, it can be quite easy to get close to birds while they are feeding and I particularly enjoyed the chance to study Common Loons (Great Northern Divers in the UK - a much more dramatic name!) as this is a bird I didn't see close all that often in the UK.

Male Long-tailed Ducks at Corson's Inlet - more of them later!

Westerly winds today meant that waves heading for shore were pushing into the wind at the inlets. The result was very dramatic as the tops of the waves were blown backwards with great plumes of spray resulting.

11 Red-breasted Mergansers were feeding along the south side of Hereford Inlet, with the males displaying the signs of a bad hair day as usual!

Another smart male Red-breasted Merganser. Note the narrow, fish-catching bill which is typical of the so-called sawbill ducks.

Typically for ducks, female Red-breasted Mergansers have more sombre colours than the gaudy males.

Always a controversial talking point between Americans and Brits - is it a loon or a diver?!! As I'm in the USA now, I guess I better call this a Common Loon and not a Great Northern Diver. A nice close view of this bird reveals it to be a juvenile/1st winter bird. This is clear from the pale edges to the upperpart feathers which give the bird a scaly look. Note also on this shot the classic 'bump' on the forehead which is typical of the two larger species of loon and note the pale silver-grey bill with dark ridge along the top.

Another shot of the same bird which shows the upperpart pattern a little better.

This shot is interesting as it shows how the look of a bird can change quite dramaticallyin different circumstances. This is the same Common Loon as shown above, but it has suddenly become more aware of me and has adopted a sleaker profile with a low crown and no sign of the classic bump. Thus, it pays to watch a bird for a while as a bird initially seen in this posture could be more difficult to identify if not seen at close quarters. One other identification feature to note here is the border line between the white and brown on the neck. Note how the line is irregular, with the brown making several encroachs into the white.

This is a classic adult Common Loon, photographed at Townsend's Inlet today. In contrast to the young bird above, this bird shows an all dark back, without any pale edges to the feathers. (The few pale spots are actually just beads of water). This individual also shows more extensive black on the bill than the youngster. In breeding plumage, Common Loons have an all dark bill and the colour is gradually lost during the winter. Plumage variation in winter loons is wide as their post-breeding moult appears to be protracted, with some birds not completing the moult until early January.

Another typical adult Common Loon at Townsend's Inlet but this bird still has quite a few breeding plumage feathers left on the upperparts, which typically show a double white spot pattern. Note the classic head bump on this guy too!

This Common Loon was further out on the water so I couldn't get a good picture of it, but it is an interesting bird as it appears to still be largely on breeding plumage. It shows extensive white spotting on the back and a largely black bill. The head is also mostly black, as is the front of the neck. This is quite typical for a first-summer bird (ie one in its second calendar year) but it seems a strange plumage to be in during late December!

The other loon species found in Cape May is the Red-throated Loon (Red-throated Diver to me and my ilk!). So now the reason for the details given above; note that this bird shows a flatter crown without the bump (though remember the flat-crowned look in the Common Loon above) and, more importantly, note the much finer bill with an obvious up-tilt towards the tip. This species also tends to hold its head with its bill pointed slightly upward too. As with Common Loon, this bird can be aged as a 1st-winter by the presence of pale edges to the upperpart feathers. Adult Red-throated Loons are plain grey on the upperparts. One final difference between the two species which can be seen here is the more regular demarcation between the pale and dark on the neck.