Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kicking off the garden list – and the 100th species for the year

Having moved into our house south of the Cape May canal, it’s been a busy time for us, unpacking boxes (yet again!!) and trying to work out where to put everything. More inspirational is the thought of developing the garden; we have an acre of land, most of which is currently grass, so we have pretty much a blank canvas to work with. The garden is bordered on one side by a strip of land that has been put into the local Green Acres program and is managed as wildlife habitat. This strip runs back and joins onto an outlying part of Higbee’s Beach Wildlife Management Area, which means we have good habitat right on our doorstep and it should be easy to allow the scrub habitat adjoining us to progress onto our land. We have a cluster of large shade trees around the house, including a couple of Red Maples, three Indian Bean Trees and a massive Chinese Elm. The latter is the largest tree in the immediate area so is favoured by a lot of birds as an ideal lookout spot. American Black Vultures often stop by and survey the area – though when it’s cold, they prefer the warmth of a brick chimney on a neighbour’s house! At the moment, though, the trees are far from a god-send; a flock of some 400 Common Starlings are working their way through the local juniper berries and, having gorged themselves, they then sit and digest. The end result? Wads of purple gunk splatting out of one end and the stone of the juniper fruit coughed up from the other end! And it’s all over our cars, our back steps, the drive – still you gotta luv ‘em!!

American Black Vultures warm their toes on the neighbour's chimney. This species is a relatively recent breeder this far north and is also incxreasing as a wintering species, thanks in no small part to Man's influence on the environment.

The lads!! A small part of the local Common Starling flock.

We’ve erected our feeders which have brought in quite a lot of birds already, though the ruffians are currently ruling the roost. Common Starlings, House Sparrows and the odd American Crow, Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird have been muscling in but other birds are finding their way to the feeders. Having moved from a house within the woods to one surrounded mostly by open fields and gardens, we’ve lost some of the species we had got used to, but gained some new ones. We still have Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers popping in, but have yet to see a Tufted Titmouse. House Finches are regulars though and the rosy males are a fine sight – though a bit shy so no pictures yet! Sprinkling seed on the ground along the edge of the scrubby area has attracted in a nice range of birds, including White-throated, White-crowned, Field and Song Sparrows and plenty of Northern Cardinals – though the latter are not popular with our resident Northern Mockingbird who thinks they’re going to steal all his rose hips that he’s been guarding to see him through the winter! A flock of up to 15 Cedar Waxwings has also been attracted to the rose hips.

Note a great shot of the Cackling Goose, but the light was going and this was just a quick shot from the car window on the way home from work one evening. However, it does show very nicely this species small size, relatively stubby bill and rather square head and darker breast, when compared with the Canada Goose behind.

Open land means open skies and we regularly get parties of Canada and Snow Geese flying over. I also added the Cackling Goose to our house list, which has been wintering in the area with a flock of Canada Geese. We actually started our house list on December 15th, the day we completed on the purchase, so here is the full list of species recorded so far:

Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Cackling Goose
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
American Black Vulture
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
American Woodcock
Ring-billed Gull
American Herring Gull
Feral Rock Dove
American Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Chickadee
Caroline Wren
Northern House Wren
Grey Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Common Starling
American Robin
House Sparrow
American Goldfinch
House Finch
Brown-headed Cowbird
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Northern Cardinal

Not a bad start!

Elsewhere, things have been a bit quiet over the past week. Temperatures have risen enough that the woodcocks have retreated back into the shadows and the Killdeers have stopped dodging traffic along Bayshore Road. My best find was an American Kestrel which was sitting beside Bayshore Road on the 15th, while a trickle of new birds for the year list came my way – oh, and the 100th bird? Turned out to be a nice little Northern House Wren that spent at least three days in the scrubby area across the road from our house.

Lunch time walks around Cape May Point State Park always offer something of interest. One one occasion, a party of Snow Geese were bathing at the Plover Ponds behind the beach.

Mystery in the Marsh! Many people are surprised by the mounds of vegetation that stand out prominently amongst the marsh vegetation at the state park, becoming all the more prominent as the vegetation dies down. Looking for all the world like bonfire heaps, they are actually the homes of Musk Rats and it's only when you see the heaps of vegetation scattered across the marsh that you realise just how common these chaps are.

New year birds
The following species have weedled their way onto the year list:

January 14th
Northern House Wren – Bayshore Road
Purple Sandpiper – One near the fish packing plants, Cape May Harbor
Canvasback – A male with Ruddy Ducks in Cape May Harbor

Male Canvasback with Ruddy Ducks in Cape May Harbor. Once a very scarce bird historically around Cape May, this species increased in occurence during the 1980s and 1990s, but has seemingly returned to its former scarcity in recent years.

Male Redhead on Lighthouse Pond with male Gadwall and female Ring-necked Duck. I include this Redhead picture to allow direct comparison with the Canvasback above. The two are essentially very similar, but Canvasbacks are much whiter on the body and, when it can be seen, have a black forehead. The long bill of Canvasback is also a give away when they wake up!

January 15th
American Kestrel – Bayshore Road by The Beanery
Red-throated Diver – off St Peter’s, Cape May Point

January 16th
Black Scoter – Good numbers at Townsend’s Inlet, Avalon
White-winged Scoter – A single female at Townsend’s Inlet, Avalon
White-crowned Sparrow – a first-winter bird in our garden

A trip over to Avalon on the barrier islands gave me an interesting insight into the feeding behaviour of Pale-bellied Brent Geese. It occurred to me that ducks and swans up-end to feed regularly, but I don't recall seeing geese do this before. These Brent Geese were up-ending during high tide, to reach a bed of Ulva (a type of seaweed) that was temporarily inundated by seawater.

So the total moves on to 107

For posterity, here's a record of the CMBO store as you may never have seen it before! Stripped to the bare boards and ready for a new carpet. Yep, we're already getting ready for the coming season...