Friday, December 31, 2010


The plague has desended!! We knew they would find us, sooner or later and today they found us with a vengeance!!! To what do I refer? Well, it's those greedy old grackles that ate us out of house and home up at Cape May Court House last winter. At that time, we were troubled by a flock of some 300 birds, but this time that seemed like a mere trifle!

OK, we like them really, it's just that when they arrive at your feeders, it costs you a flippin' fortune!

Having noticed all these birds at the feeder, I looked outside to see how many had descended on us this time and found myself spending an hour photographing a real avian spectacle. Indeed, there was so much going on out there that I could just so easily have been on the Serengeti!

Down at the waterhole....

Brown-headed Cowbirds, bathing in puddles in the road left by the melting snow, started a trend that others soon followed.

Common Grackles, with their staring pale eyes join the cowbirds, along with a Red-winged Blackbird.

Common Starlings, Common Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds. I like this picture not because it shows the birds well (it doesn't!) but because it just shows the madness and mayhem that ensues when birds throw themselves whole-heartedly into a mass bathing session!

After the bath, the towling down! Brown-headed Cowbirds crowded one of our Indian Bean Trees to have a good old preen after their soaking.

One thing about Brown-headed Cowbirds that makes them easy to pick out from the other similar species round here is that they have the odd habit of sticking their tails up in the air when they are feeding on the ground!

Out on the plains....
Walking down Bayshore Road, I soon found that this flock was to leave our old party of 300 in the shade!

Common Grackles massed across the road - and left this driver not knowing which side to drive down it seems!!

Sun on the backs of the Common Grackles picks out an array of blue, purple and bronze sheens as the birds twist and turn in the air with the passing of every car (and photographer!).

The birds along Bayshore Road gradually worked their way further off from our house, so I walked back and checked the fields along New England Road. Here, even more Common Grackles were steaming through the area and I reckoned some 1500 Common Grackles were  in the vicinity of our house - but there was more!

Common Grackles tend to prefer the vicinity of trees and generally stick to the edges of fields, or even feed on the woodland floor. The larger fields along New England Road were avoided by them, but the air was still full of birds here and a closer look revealed that this was a large flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds.

And the male Red-winged Blackbirds really presented an awesome sight with dazzling red splashes of colour flashing from their gaudy epaulettes. This picture shows just a small part of the flock of some 500 Brown-headed Cowbirds and 1000 Red-winged Blackbirds feeding out on the fields - to add to the 1500 Common Grackles already seen!

And with the flocks come the predators....
All this activity wasn't missed by the local predators either:

At least three Red-shouldered Hawks were along Bayshore Road, all calling noisily and seemingly having helped themselves to the bounty before them. I also saw a male Merlin shoot through the flock at one point, while several American Crows were getting in on the action, harassing the raptors and stealing scraps. Over on New England Road, three Red-tailed Hawks were following the flocks and I watched two of them having a real set too, rolling around and fighting over a dead Common Grackle (though too far off for pictures sadly).

And finally....
Again, just like the Serengeti, nature's clean up gang were on hand to tidy things up once everyone else had moved on!

At least 20 American Black Vultures and eight Turkey Vultures were hanging around the scene, knowing that there would be some pickings to polish off at the end of the day. These guys were biding their time on a house roof.

Well, you never know what's going on outside if you don't go and look and the sight of at least 3000 birds clean-sweeping the area was pretty amazing, especially with all the predator stuff going on as well. In addition to all this, a passing flock of 13 Buff-bellied Pipits on Bayshore Road was a nice bonus, as was a group of at least five Eastern Meadowlarks feeding in the field along New England Road. A nice way to round off the year!!


Saturday, December 18, 2010


Cooter is back. If you don't know who Cooter is, Cooter is a Great Black-backed Gull who spends the winter with us here at Cape May Point and he's a gull who has developed a particularly nasty habit. He eats coots for breakfast! Well, pretty much any time of day really, but early morning raids do seem to be his stock in trade. OK, we don't know whether Cooter is a he or a she really, but somehow he seems too brutal to be a lady...

The first sign that Cooter is around is usually when you notice all the ducks panicking on Lighthouse or Bunker Pond in Cape May Point State Park. Here, Cooter drops in on the only American Coot that had ventured into the middle of the pond. The disappearing coot is responsible for the splash on the right as it dives for cover.

Cooter waited patiently an inordinate amount of time; the sort of waiting that only predators, and bad guys in movies, seem capable of, but the coot inevitably had to come up for air. I think that coots are pretty much doomed here as the ponds are very shallow and full of copious amounts of water weed. Thus coots have no escape; they're not agile enough in flight to escape and they can't escape under water because the water weed impedes their movement too much.

The coot is undoubtedly injured but begins to fight back. Gull fans will be pleased to see Cooters moult timing here - with P2 missing and P1 still old (the rest of you have nodded off so I'll leave it at that for now!)

In classic defensive pose, American Coots roll over to use their feet - with sharp, raking claws - to fight with each other. However, I think this tactic just doesn't work against something as big as a Great Black-backed Gull....

....because the gull has a much longer reach and can now get to the coot's exposed under belly.

The poor coot is mortally wounded with nowhere to go....

....and Cooter deals the fatal blow. It's not a nice thing to watch a poor little coot be dispatched in this way, but it is, of course, the way of the world as the web of life goes on all around us.

Friday, December 10, 2010

November's Peaks & Troughs

With the manic excitement of October to compete with, November was perhaps always going to be an anti-climax, but the month did have its high points. November can be an interesting month at Cape May for wildlife - or at least for birds, as most other things are hunkering down for the winter as the first frosts begin to bite. Typically, the first week can still produce a little of the feel of late October as late migrant songbirds continue to move through, to be gradually replaced by movements of ducks. Then there is the rarity season; strange, out-of-range species can and do pop up from time to time and November certainly has a good track record for producing the unexpected. So, here's November's highlights, as my Cape May year list begins to draw to a close:

November 1st
The mayhem of the last few days of October was now behind us and songbirds continued to return to more expected levels. However, the Hawkwatch team were kept busy and I managed to find two Golden Eagles today, one flying south which I saw from my office window (that's a list that's growing nicely now!!) and another which I found at lunch time from the Hawkwatch Platform. Today was also a good day for Eastern Bluebirds as good numbers seemed to be heading south (this is typically a pretty late migrant). I say seemed to be as bluebird migration can be tricky to monitor because the birds often pass very high overhead and more often that not, it's a case of recording ones you hear rather than see. This year, though, several took up temporary residence on wires along Bayshore Road and at least 35 were present not far from our house today.

November 2nd
A pre-work walk at the state park was rather quiet, though two Eurasian Wigeons and a male Lesser Scaup were with the regular ducks on Lighthouse Pond. After work, I did a sundown vigil at the Migratory Bird Refuge which proved to be a good move. As the sun painted the whole sky a million shades of orange, an American Bittern and six Black-crowned Night Herons flew up from the cattails to continue their southward journey and a seemingly endless stream of ducks came into the ponds from their more secluded daytime hang-outs to feed under the safety of darkness. Northern Pintail, Mallard, American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal appeared in good numbers and put on a fabulous show.

This female Eurasian Wigeon, paired with a male American Wigeon, has been on Lighthouse Pond for a while now. Not all identification features can be seen here, but notice that the head has a rusty tone to it, matching that of the body. Female American Wigeons usually have a head that is a beige or fawn colour which contrasts with the body.

November 3rd
More signs of impending winter as I noted the first two female Buffleheads and a pair of Hooded Mergansers on Lake Lily.

November 6th
The first chunky Fox Sparrow returned to our yard today and a nice first-winter White-crowned Sparrow was with it.

November 7th
A cold and windy day, but the wind brought birds to Cape May Point, including a good scattering of Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks and good numbers of itinerant Turkey Vultures. A Pine Siskin at work continued what has been a good autumn so far here for this northern species that doesn't always get down to Cape May and both White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches were at the feeders. At lunch time, the odd, pale Red-tailed Hawk that has been hanging out at the state park was trapped by the hawkbanders and brought to the Hawkwatch Platform for release, so I got a chance to get a close look at this unusual bird. Much talk has gone on about the correct term for the condition of this bird, and I don't think any real conclusion was reached. Albino birds - with all white plumage and pink eyes - are easy, but there's a whole host of other conditions that can occur within a bird's DNA and which can have a strange effect on the colour and or markings of the bird. Finally today, as if another sign of winter were needed, I heard Snow Geese passing high overhead at 11;15PM as I lay in bed - always a chilly sound!!

Male Red-tailed Hawk at Cape May Point State Park with aberrant, light plumage.

The same male Red-tailed Hawk, seen from above. This bird has been surprisingly confiding and has been hanging out at the state park for a while now.

For comparison, here's a 'normal' juvenile Red-tailed Hawk at the state park, which has more saturated brown in the plumage.

November 9th
A rather late Lark Sparrow had been seen at Cape May Point State Park yesterday, so I popped in there before work this morning to see if it was still around. There was no sign, but I did make up for missing the bird by finding a nice Ash-throated Flycatcher. This is one of those western species which is famous for turning up in November. Somehow, some species that should be heading south from the Rockies to warmer climes for the winter, seem to find there way to Cape May by some strangely circuitous route. Unless we are able to satellite tag these birds, we may never know by which route they arrive, or even where they go after they leave us. While there, a superb Golden Eagle cruised right over the car park - it's turning into an amazing autumn for that species - while at work, the feeders attracted at least five Pine Siskins and three Purple Finches.

Ash-throated Flycatcher at Cape May Point State Park. I found this bird right by the entrance gate while looking for a Lark Sparrow - a nice result! Though it was the second one of the autumn, no 'twitch' can compare with finding your own!

Ash-throated Flycatcher is one of a tricky group of tyrant flycatchers which need a careful look to be sure of the species. Call can be useful, but migrants are often silent. This bird was easy though; note how little yellow there is underneath and note how the dark brown on the outer web curves across the inner web towards the tip of the outer tail feather.

This Golden Eagle was a real bonus to my pre-work birding this morning as it cruised right over the car park at the state park

Another shot of the same juvenile Golden Eagle as above.

American Goldfinches have been flocking to the feeders at work of late and occasionally bringing with them less common birds - though here they are joined by one of the local Carolina Chickadees.

It's been a great autumn for Pine Siskins, little streaky finches that ship out of the north-west when the living gets tough up there.

Our resident female Red-bellied Woodpecker at work continues to pull contortions to get food from feeders that really were only meant for birds half her size!

November 10th
This week's Wednesday walk was preceded by a quick look for Long-eared Owls. These owls pass through Cape May in unpredictable numbers each autumn, migrating at night and hiding in dense vegetation during the day. As they are easily disturbed at roost and need to rest during the day, roost locations are generally not disclosed here, to allow the birds some peace. However, it doesn't hurt to keep an eye out of you happen to be in a likely-looking spot and this morning I actually flushed one from some trees by mistake. I was stood watching some other birds for several minutes, when suddenly a gentle wing-snap right above me head caught my ear. It was a Long-eared Owl which had actually been in a thick patch of cover right over the trail and had probably sat, hoping I wouldn't see it (which I hadn't done until it flew!), but who probably lost his bottle after I had stood there for a while. North American birds appear to be much greyer than the birds I am used to in the UK, which gives them a really quite different feel.

Pine Siskin in the American Holly right outside my office window.

Another Pine Siskin at work. I'm still scratching my head a bit on how to age and sex this species as the books seem to be a little unhelpful. This bird was noticeably much browner than all the other birds present on the feeders.

Well, an adult breeding-plumaged Wood Duck is a fine sight, and I did see one on Lake Lily, but I only managed to get photos of this scruffy old moulting bird. Still, he'll get there eventually!

November 11th
A phone call from Tony at the Hawkwatch Platform alerted me to a Golden Eagle that was heading towards the Northwood Center - and sure enough there it was; by the time I had grabbed my camera and we all ran outside, it was drifting right over Lake Lily towards us with a loose party of Turkey Vultures. This was a really quite amazing bird, a juvenile with an exceptional amount of white in the wings, making it look particularly attractive. In the afternoon, nine Hooded Mergansers and three Lesser Scaup appeared on Lake Lily, while at lunchtime, I shot down Sunset Boulevard for some quick photos of my second Western Kingbird of the year - another one of those November western specials!

This juvenile Golden Eagle passed right over the Northwood Center and was one of the real highlights of the whole autumn. Juvenile Goldies vary considerably in the amount of white that they show in the wing and this one really must be at the very extreme of whiteness - compare it with the more typical bird above.

There's something pretty magnificent about Golden Eagles and there's certainly something pretty magnificent when you can get them flying right past your office window!!

Western Kingbird on Sunset Boulevard - a tricky bird to photograph because, although it was nice and approachable, the problem with birds on roadside wires is that if you get too close, you end up get a nice shot of their bellies and not much else!

November 29th
Having returned from our Thanksgiving trip down to South Carolina, this morning was the first chance I had had to go and see what was happening with the Cave Swallows over in town, along the seafront. Cave Swallows were once an extreme vagrant to Cape May from the far south-west of North America, but these days, one or two are pretty much expected in November. However, this year they went really crazy and turned up in unusually high numbers, with perhaps 80 or so birds being recorded over the Thanksgiving weekend. Sadly, the drastic change in weather which brought some bitterly cold nights was having a dire effect on these birds and I heard many stories of individual Cave Swallows just dropping dead onto the ground from their chosen nighttime roost site in the roof eaves of Congress Hall. The poor things looked so pathetic and many a local birder had a collection of little corpses in their home freezer, waiting to be sent to a museum. Most of the birds had gone by this morning - hopefully some had managed to fly on southward and they hadn't all succumbed - but I was lucky enough to find six further along the seafront near the Sea Crest Inn, which were decidedly less moribund and were hunting actively, low over the duneside vegetation. They took preening breaks on a nearby balcony which allowed me to get some quick shots of them.

A not too unhealthy-looking Cave Swallow along Beach Avenue. Let's hope this one made it back to the deep south.

Young Cave Swallows on a balcony along Beach Avenue - so tough for them to find food when all the habitat is gone...

Just when the Cave Swallows needed Mother Nature to extend a helping hand, she deals them a Cooper's Hawk. Of course, the natural world is always tough; it is, after all, survival of the fitest and it doesn't take long for a local predator to spot an easy feeding opportunity. This female Cooper's Hawks spent a couple of days skitting around the rafters and window ledges of Congress Hall for an easy meal.

After the wonderful show of white flowers from the Frost Asters in October, our meadow turned a bright golden brown in November as autumn tints developed in the Virginia Beard-grass. Sad that some people hate this wonderful display from a native species and would rather have boring, invasive alien grasses, shorn within an inch of their lives and devoid of any value to anything but humans....

So tiny, yet so amazing. The parting shot for this post is this Ruby-crowned Kinglet in our garden. These birds have passed through in their thousands this autumn and a few still hang out here despite the ever more chilly conditions. Species as vulnerable as this survive purely by producing as many young as possible and hoping that the law of averages dictates that some will make it back to breed next year. A thought-provoking example of life on the edge....

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Southward Bound!

As a short reprive from Cape May, I thought I would put in a post about our Thanksgiving excursion to relatives down in South Carolina. For me, this was quite an experience; the journey down was just under 600 miles - a journey that would be impossible in the UK without falling off the end of the island and getting the car very wet!! We started on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, where small numbers of Snow Buntings were moving north up the Delaware Bay as we crossed and a nice flock of 30 Buffleheads - with all but two being adult males - greeted us on the far side. Travelling down the full length of the Delmarva Peninsula, we passed through Delaware and Maryland and reached the amazing Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, an amazing engineering feat across the nation's biggest river estuary. As we crossed, Brown Pelicans were mixing it with Northern Gannets and diving for fish just 30 feet or so off the side of the road! Southward from here, we passed the Great Dismal Swamp (what a great name!) then gradually made our way across North Carolina and into South Carolina. Quite a drive!!

Here's a few pictures from the drive down:

Yes, Denali came too! Here he is getting his first sighting of the Cape May Ferry Terminal

Considering it was the day before Thanksgiving, it was surprising how quiet the crossing was - we didn't see a single other person on the whole crossing!

Looking back at Cape May Point from the Delaware Bay. The two obvious 'towers' are the water tower at the Magnasite Plant (left) and Cape May Lighthouse (right).

Mid-channel, we were joined by an American Goldfinch (here sitting on one of the deck chairs) that rode the ferry to Lewes with us. A female House Sparrow came all the way over from Cape May, finding plenty to do behind the bar!

Denali got confused by seeing a sign for Norfolk....

Seems like some companies on the Delmarva have just the right name for the job!....

Another highlight for Denali, the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is an amazing feat of engineering. Each side took four years to build, the eastern half built from 1960-1964 and the western half built from 1995-1999. The crossing from shore to shore is 17.6 miles with the bulk being long, tressled sections; in addition, there are two tunnel sections which allow for shipping channels.

While we were down south, I skipped out of a shopping excursion and went to visit the magnificent forests of Congaree Swamp. I could wax all poetical about this amazing place, which I first visited three years ago, for hours but instead, I suggest you visit the official website for the area at, where you will find out just how fabulous a place it is. This forest was so inaccessible in the past, that it never got logged out and currently, six species of tree (Deciduous Holly, Laurel Oak, Loblolly Pine, Swamp Tupelo, Sweetgum and Water Hickory) are listed from here as the tallest specimens in the USA for their respective species. Many areas have a canopy height of around 120 feet, while a number of individual trees reach over 160 feet! The bulk of the area is swamp and wet woodland along the Congaree River and most of the lakes in the park are old river meanders that have become ox-bows. I walked some 10 miles of trails while I was there, so here's some picture highlights.

Near the entrance to Congaree Swamp, I came across this Southern Red Oak, covered in great veils of Spanish Moss - a real sign of the south. Spanish Moss is a strange plant that is actually in the same family as the Pineapple!

It seemes appropriate that this Spanish Moss was in a churchyard, as the great curtains of hanging vegetation certainly create a cathedral-like atmosphere. This strange plant is not a parasite on the tree, it gets all of its nutrients and water from the air and has no roots.

The first part of Congaree is visited via a raised boardwalk which, in some places, is some eight feet above the ground - and the water does rise that high at times!

Having reached lower ground and left the high boardwalk, its the swampy areas that really catch the eye, for here there are enormous Swamp Tupelos with fabulous buttressed trunks and stately Bald Cypresses with fluted bases to their trunks.

This duo of Swamp Tupelos stood either side of an old river meander. Both were more than six feet across at the base.

A sunny day after most of the leaves have fallen is always a good time for photos of reflections - as here in Cedar Creek.

Tree reflections in Wise Lake.

More reflections in Cedar Creek, this time showing the fluted trunk bases of Bald Cypresses.

The Bald Cypresses of Congaree produce some extensive stands of 'knees', the famous extensions of the roots found in this species which are believed to help provide oxygen to the roots. Strange as it may seem, plants need oxygen at the roots, even though they grow below ground. Usually the soil is open enough for them to obtain this, but in swampy ground this is not always the case so strategies to cope with this have to be developed. Some of the cypress knees at Congaree are over six feet tall.

What really makes the difference for wildlife between a managed and a natural woodland, is the amount of decaying wood found in the latter. This Bald Cypress stump may have died 100 years or more ago but it still provides food for a wealth of other organisms.

This strange pool of water in an otherwise dry-looking area caught my eye. I was amazed to find that it was actually the remains of a long dead Bald Cypress, the hollow rim of the old trunk forming a wooden suround to the pool. Fabulous to see a woodland that is left long enough for such pools to develop, which must be ideal places for salamanders as well as many other animals.

One obvious beneficiary of decaying wood are the woodpeckers. Congaree is alive with them and I saw five species on my visit. Best of all are the mighty Pileated Woodpeckers (this is a male), of which I saw at least ten. This is North America's equivalent of Europe's Black Woodpecker - but with a wonderfully mad hair cut!

Signs of another species of woodpecker - Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers famously drill these horizontal rows of holes in tree trunks, from which they tap the rising sap of the tree. These holes are on an American Holly.

Leaf litter left on the ground and not 'tidied' away provides a great home for all sorts of creatures and produces humus for plants to grow in. Here, the leaves of Sweetgum, Swamp Chestnut Oak, Shumard's Oak and American Beech can be seen.

The longer trails are nicely low-key and blend in with the surroundings. Here a rustic wooden bridge crosses a small creek.

Variety is the spice of life and an amazing range of trees make Congaree a wonderfully varied place to visit. Here, the stark white trunk of an American Plane (strangely and erroneously called a Sycamore in North America!) stands out against a deep blue sky.

Now and then, a gap in the canopy - usually created by a falling tree - allows a forest giant to be seen in all its glory. I roughed out the height of this Loblolly Pine as being over 140 feet with the first branches appearing at some 80 feet from the ground - an amazing piece of wood!!

Like Spanish Moss, the appearance of wild palms in the countryside is a sure sign of being down south. The Dwarf Palmetto forms some quite sizeable colonies in parts of Congaree Swamp.