Monday, January 4, 2010

An End Of Year Miscellany

So 2009 has come to an end, the turkey has been demolished and the New Year has arrived. The holiday period was a bit of a strange one for us, with all the Christmas decorations still packed in a box somewhere and Megan heading off on tour on December 26th, resulting in a bit of a quiet festive period. Still, with the weather being pretty awful, it wasn't really a time for doing too much out of doors. The snow disappeared after a week or so when a warm front brought a belt of rain on the 26th, but temperatures have remained low - indeed, we've experienced lows of -14C when the wind chill factor is added in! We're currently experiencing the second day in a row of very high winds and this morning there was ice on the brackish waters of the Cape May canal - and no sign of a warming up yet.

The New Year kicked off in an unusual fashion here; the Cape May Christmas Bird Count had been cancelled due to the snow over the weekend of December 19th/20th and was re-scheduled for January 1st. So, my first full year at Cape May kicked off with my first Christmas Bird Count (CBC). I was entrusted with a whole section on my own - which was pretty daunting for a first-timer - but I guess they must have had faith in me! The basic idea of a CBC is to count every bird in a given count area. Teams of people scour the area, then meet up in the evening to turn in the results (and have a few beers!). For a number of reasons, counting every single bird is probably nigh on impossible, so the best one can do is to try and standardise the count so that data can be compared from year to year.

Dawn on Route 47, between Rio Grande and Wildwood was lonely and pretty darned cold - it looked like it was going to be a long day! The day started badly as the hoped-for Saltmarsh Sparrows failed to materialise, perhaps because of the exceptionally high spring tide which flooded out all of the saltmarsh. However, this made duck counting easier as there were no channels to hide in. Highlights here included 59 Black Ducks, 475 Brant and 340 Buffleheads; nine Great Cormorants flew out from a regular roost on a nearby pylon. Moving round to Route 147 on the other side of my count area, I added another 340 Brant, two Great Egrets and three Great Blue Herons. The highlight came at the U-turn slip road when I noticed a couple of Savannah Sparrows on the verge. Parking up, I walked the edge of the road here and added both Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sparrows to the list - the Nelson's being a real bonus. A check of a small lake behind one of the trailer park areas off route 9 proved a good move as a duck count provided 41 Hooded Mergansers, 2 Common Mergansers, a Ruddy Duck and a Lesser Scaup - very nice!

The rest of the morning was spent cruising the local back streets with a pair of binoculars - something that's guaranteed to get you funny looks! Still, I managed to be as inconspicuous as possible and find a nice range of species, as well as some good counts of the commoner species. In the afternoon, I spent most of the time to the west of route 9, walking the old railway line north from Rio Grande to the Indian Trail Road. I thought this might prove a bit tedious but in the event, there was a good collection of birds, particularly along weedy field edges. A flock of 25 House Finches, mixed in with American Goldfinches, White-throated and Field Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds kept me busy, and three Eastern Bluebirds were feeding on Winged Sumach berries. By the end of the day, I had found 70 species within my area, a good contribution to the total of 151 species that we amassed between us at the final count. I've put the whole list that I recorded at the end of this post, so you can go have a look or skip it at your will!!

As I was manically counting everything that moved on January 1st, I left my camera at home, so here's a ragbag selection of things that came my way at the end of 2009 and the start of 2010.

With the snow hanging around for nearly a week, I was able to get several opportunities to photograph 'Ipswich' Savannah Sparrows. This was a new bird for me this winter and I really did take quite a shine to them!

With all the Cape May State Park ponds largely frozen over, open water was at a premium and six Tundra Swans regularly fed at a spot right beside one of the main pathways. This gave me plenty of time to take in the differences from birds in the UK. In the Old World, this species is represented by a different form, known as Bewick's Swan, which differs in having a much larger area of yellow on the bill. The North American form is also known as Whistling Swan.

A juvenile Tundra Swan, showing its largely pink bill. Note also that the plumage is pale grey and thus different to the brownish tones shown by young Mute Swans.

Just for comparison, here's a group of Bewick's Swans I photographed in Norfolk in January 2007. Note the bill colour.

Mammals haven't really featured on this blog yet, so here's some end of year furry beasties! Eastern Grey Squirrels are abundant in New Jersey and certainly make short work of any bird food we put out at the Bird Observatory!

Before the big freeze up, a family of five River Otters were seen on a regular basis, though variously popping up around Lily Lake, the state park ponds and across in the south meadows. Counts varied from four to five animals and three of them appeared to be youngsters, so it may be that the male was sometimes present, sometimes off a-wandering. This one (along with three others) was in Lily Lake back in early October and I spotted it whilst trying out the new Swarovski binoculars - which are due out this month!

White-tailed Deer have visited our garden on a regular basis, but remain very wary and unapproachable. I caught this one unawares at 6am one morning, but it looks like it's just got a wiff of me!

And talking of the garden, a few more yardbirds gave themselves up to the camera before the year was out, including this smart little Chipping Sparrow.

Our suet block continued to attract woodpeckers and this male Red-bellied Woodpecker has become a regular. Though often almost impossible to see in the field (due to it being pressed against a tree trunk!), the red belly that gives this species its name can be seen here.

More recently, a female Red-bellied Woodpecker has been showing up too. Note that she doesn't have the red extending across the top of the head, or on the face.

I'm still working on the ultimate Northern Cardinal shot, but this one wasn't too bad!

My second Sandhill Crane of the year came in the shape of one that dropped onto the ice on Lily Lake and didn't seem to mind being photographed from the car, which allowed me to make a close approach. Actually, when it first flew in, it missed the ice altogether and had to swim for it!!

Another picture of the Sandhill Crane, having a good old shake down. I managed to get this bird on my work list too, when we found a tiny gap in the trees that allowed us to set up a scope from within the warmth of the store!

One of the real highlights of winter around Cape May is the chance to seek out American Woodcock. Though quite common, their nocturnal habits and cryptic plumage make them hard to find and they are seldom seen by most people. However, during snowy weather, the first places to thaw are often roads and roadside verges, and up to seven woodcocks were regularly feeding around the junction of Lighthouse Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, just at the time that I was passing by on my way home from work.

It really has been a strange start to the year!! On my way home this evening, I spotted what I assumed to be an American Woodock waddling across the grass at the usual junction - but instead found a seemingly disorientated female Ruddy Duck!! I caught her quite easily under the street lights and added her to the strange but growing list of animate objects that have made it into my various cars! I took her back down to Lily Lake and released her onto an unfrozen section with fingers crossed for her. (Note the time on the clock!)

Having noticed ice on the canal on the way in to work this morning, I nipped down to Sunset Beach and found the famous wreck of the concrete ship looking like something from the high Arctic. Strong westerly winds were whipping up the waves of Delaware Bay and covering the ship in foam. The foam was then freezing, giving the whole ship a thick covering of ice. A small flotilla of Common Eiders was near by, but you'll have to take my word for it as I could barely stand up on the beach let alone take photos of birds!!

Not a picture for the tourist office!! Sunset Beach covered in frozen foam.

Well, the tradditional parting shot rounds off 2009 - a Sunset Beach sunset, complete with Double-crested Cormorants on the concrete ship. 2010 looms, with a new year list, a new house and who knows what else....

My Christmas Count list around Rio Grande/Whitesboro area:

Brant 815
American Black Duck 236
Mallard 71
Green-winged Teal 6
Lesser Scaup 2
Long-tailed Duck 1
Bufflehead 360
Hooded Merganser 92
Common Merganser 2
Red-breasted Merganser 14
Ruddy Duck 1
Common Loon 2
Double-crested Cormorant 3
Great Cormorant 9
Great Blue Heron 5
Great Egret 3
American Black Vulture 1
Turkey Vulture 8
Northern Harrier 1
Cooper's Hawk 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 2
Grey Plover 5
Killdeer 1
American Oystercatcher 8
Dunlin 65
Ring-billed Gull 72
American Herring Gull 417
Great Black-backed Gull 34
Feral Rock Dove 60
American Mourning Dove 32
Red-bellied Woodpecker 3
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Downy Woodpecker 5
Northern Flicker 3
Blue Jay 30
American Crow 16
Fish Crow 1
Carolina Chickadee 34
Tufted Titmouse 31
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Brown Creeper 2
Carolina Wren 16
Golden-crowned Kinglet 5
Eastern Bluebird 3
Hermit Thrush 2
American Robin 577
Grey Catbird 3
Northern Mockingbird 7
European Starling 411
Cedar Waxwing 20
Yellow-rumped Warbler 69
Eastern Towhee 1
Chipping Sparrow 8
Field Sparrow 3
Savannah Sparrow 3
Nelson's Sparrow 3
Saltmarsh Sparrow 4
Fox Sparrow 2
Song Sparrow 20
White-throated Sparrow 121
Dark-eyed Junco 65
Northern Cardinal 42
Red-winged Blackbird 210
Common Grackle 17
Boat-tailed Grackle 60
Brown-headed Cowbird 30
House Finch 33
American Goldfinch 28
House Sparrow 58

Total 70 species (a good start to the year list!)