Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feeding Strategies

During short bursts of better weather between the hideous storms we've been getting of late (I currently can hear winds gusting over 50mph through our battle-weary Red Maple as I type), I've been noticing some of the more interesting feeding strategies that various bird species adopt which helps get them through the cold weather. Most obvious to our human eyes, of course, are the birds that visit our garden feeders - and they've certainly been descending in great numbers of late. Indeed, something of a competition developed amongst us local birders for the most unexpected feeder visitor, with not all of them being rarities. My personal best at our home feeder was the Eastern Meadowlark mentioned in an earlier post, while the zaniest at work was the party of up to 10 Mallards that wandered across from nearby Lily Lake, taking great care to walk single file up the front steps and around the side path to the backyard feeder! Many insect-eating birds adapt to prevailing conditions in one of two ways - they either migrate south for the winter, where they can continue to eat insects in the tropics or the summer months of the southern hemisphere, or they adapt to eating berries.

Yellow-rumped Warblers are common to abundant around Cape May in winter, which may seem strange for an insectivore....

....but as can be seen here, they survive readily by turning to juniper berries for food. By late January, most of these berries have dropped to the ground (if not already eaten!) and Yellow-rumps (or Sunny-bums!) can be seen easily on the open grass under juniper trees at the state park. Clearly however, a good snow fall can be a serious problem for this species, as many of the berries will be covered and unavailable as food.

More interesting than the backyard birds though, were the birds going about more natural ways of catching food, so here's some species showing behaviour that perhaps strays from what we may think of when we consider how birds go about finding a meal.

The concrete ship, stranded on a sand bar off Sunset Beach and gradually decaying into the salty waters of Delaware Bay, acts as a baffle in the face of outgoing tides, resulting in a lot of water churning. Several species of birds take advantage of this as the resultant upwellings bring potential food to the surface where the birds can reach it. During the winter, hardy flocks of dainty Bonaparte's Gulls feed here, but I discovered that they were employing another feeding method nearby, off the west end of the Cape May Canal.

Bonaparte's Gulls would fly in to an area just off the south jetty at the west end of the Cape May Canal. This picture shows the black bill and pale underwing that help to distinguish the species from Black-headed Gull.

Eventually a nice group of 26 birds was swimming on the water and I was able to get close to them by crouching among the granite rocks of the jetty. Here the pale pink legs can be seen well (as opposed to the red legs of a Black-headed Gull).

The gulls swam around for a while, peering intently into the water and I assumed they would be gleaning small morsels from the surface - but I was to be surprised!! Birds would periodically, quite suddenly leap up out of the water....

....and take a short flight, which terminated in them suddenly swerving back into the water....

...and coming up with a nice wholesome fish!! This party had found a nice, surface-feeding shoal of small fish, so had cut out the middle man and gone for the fish that were probably feeding on the titbits that they themselves would normally be making do with - smart move!

Inland to the woods, but still with a watery theme; I mentioned the Rusty Blackbirds in an earlier post and spent several lunch times watching these interesting birds. In fact, the feeding strategy they adopted was typical for the species, but did seem rather unexpected for a passerine and more what one would expect from a wading bird.

There's nothing that odd really about the Rusty Blackbird's feeding strategy, but it was interesting to see just how intensely they peered into the water of a slow-running stream. For it was here that they found their lunch. The birds specialise in hunting out the larvae of invertebrates that spend the early part of their lives in aquatic habitats. This shows a sensible exploitation of a potential food source that would otherwise be left untouched. What is interesting, however, is that - unlike dippers - these birds don't appear to show any special adaptations to this feeding style....

....they just work meticulously along the water's edge and peer in with their beady eyes agog!

Males and females all mix in together and stare and stare...

....and every now and then, one grabs a cracking mouthful! But what really makes this feeding strategy fun to watch.... the amazing lengths they'll go to for a good meal!!! Just look at the foot position of this bird and imagine recovering your place on the branch from here!

My final example of winter feeding strategies involves the assortment of ducks on Lily Lake. With ice covering the margins of the lake, only the deeper waters towards the centre of the lake remained open, potentially denying the dabbling (ie non-diving) ducks of tasty waterweeds growing below the surface of the water. But the Gadwall and American Wigeon on the lake have solved this problem....

Even the most casual scan of the ducks on Lily Lake would reveal something odd going on. Rather than being peacefully and evenly spread across the lake, the Gadwall and American Wigeon were clearly gathered in tight, boisterous gangs.

A closer look may at first reveal little more than that some are getting water kicked in their faces!!

But just now and again, an apparent interloper appears on the scene, in the form of a Ring-necked Duck (left).

And there laid the answer. What was happening was that the dabbling ducks were tagging along behind the Ring-necked Ducks - a diving species. When the duck dived and worked around under water, its movements created upwellings that brought up broken and disturbed pieces of waterweed. These the Gadwall were quick to snap up. Actually, though I didn't capture it on camera, some of the ducks took a more straightforward approach too and simply tried to steal food direct from the Ring-necks as soon as they surfaced. There's always a few thugs in every society!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Snow, Snow, Thick, Thick Snow...

Well it's been a tough one; my first winter at Cape May has turned out to be far from typical and is, in fact, a record breaker! Typically, Cape May itself may expect to get one or two days with a light snow fall; indeed, typically, if there's any snow at all it makes the local papers. But this winter has been exceptional. Early warnings came with exceptionally early snow back in December, but this proved to be a mere appetiser for the main event. And the snow came not once but twice. The record-breaking storm hit the area early on Saturday, February the 6th and we were soon thrown in at the deep end as our power was cut off shortly after 8am that day and wasn't re-connected for four days. Washington DC and Philadelphia - further inland than us - were hit the worst, with over two feet of snow recorded there. It's always difficult to accurately judge snow fall, but a general concensus was that we received around 19 inches of snow at Cape May - the most snow since records began. The weather stayed persistently cold and we were hit by another blizzard, with 45mph winds on the following Wednesday. Luckily, this time, power was not cut off and we got through unscathed.

Our large Red Maple lost a main limb, which lodged itself on the phone line, but I managed to free it with a trusty hand saw on the Sunday morning. Luckily, not a single branch came down from the two trees closest to the house and garage, which shows that they are more rugged than they look! The problem with the loss of power was that we rely almost entirely on electricity. We are not on mains water and rely on an electric pump to draw water from the well - so we were without both drinking water and a toilet. In addition, we had no lights, no phone (it comes as part of a cable package) and no cooking facilities - and no heat. Luckily we were able to spend a couple of nights with friends, otherwise we would have been real vagabonds. One particularly annoying thing was that our garage door is electric, so we couldn't get to the snow shovels, the bird food or a number of other useful items - so much for the luxuries of the modern world! At one time, I heard that some 90,000 homes were without power in southern New Jersey and it was really difficult getting around as broken power lines were lying across roads and gardens throughout the area.

Perhaps the saddest outcome of the blizzards was the damage done to the Virginia Junipers in the area. These trees are not designed to take snow; they don't have the sloping branches that develop on conifers in high latitude or high altitude places and the snow reaped havoc, snapping trees in half and causing great damage to some fine trees that had stood for many, many years around Cape May Point.

Birds seemed to fare reasonably well and those of us with feeders were certainly kept busy, while a little bit of oneupmanship developed as we sought to find the wackiest visitor to our feeders! Even now, nearly two weeks on, much of the damage remains to be cleared up and the snow still lies over a foot thick at many places - while snow-ploughed heaps up to eight feet high line the roadsides in places. If the weather sets fair for a few days, it'll really start to melt away, but for now, we just wait...

So here's the storm in pictures; there's not many from the immediate period of the storm as it was impossible to get out and about until the roads were cleared by snow ploughs, but you'll get an insight into what it's been like.
At the height of the blizzard, it was hard to even see out of the windows - I took this picture during a brief respite!

The view from the front porch - a glance at the tree trunk will tell you what direction the wind was blowing from!

The wind piled snow up against the windows, making it very hard to see what was happening outside - we just knew that we didn't want to be out there!

The morning after the day before - thick snow piled up and blocking outside access to the basement.

Snug as a bug in a rug! Our cars wear a blanket of foot-thick snow. The high winds had swirled around and cleared snow from the sides - this picture was taken on the Monday morning and the start of the task of getting in to work - which I didn't achieve until the Monday.

A nice profile of the snow on my car.

Megan gets stuck in! The shovel shows the depth of snow we had to clear along the length of the drive to reach the road - then of course we had to dig through the mound left by the snow plough!

Icicles hanging off the house roof.

Having got the car out, I took a quick spin (literally at times!) around town to see Cape May in the snow (note the flock of Common Grackles flying over).

Picturesque West Cape May.

Our Lady Star of the Sea, Roman Catholic Church on the corner of Washington and Ocean Streets. Wind-blown snow still clings to the shady north side.

Washington Street Pedestrian Precinct.

Hughes Street from Ocean Street

Jackson Street in the heart of the old Victorian part of town

Fire hydrant on Jackson Street

The Queen Victoria on Ocean Street

Ocean Street - very different to how the tourists see it

Beach Avenue - the seafront, at the corner with Decatur Street

Cape May's famous sandy beach - with not a grain of sand to be seen!

Single file traffic only could get through Jackson Street

The famous 'wild west-style' Swain's Hardware store

Welcome to Cape May! A greeting to visitors at the west end of Perry Street.

Of course, throughout it all we kept the bird feeders filled as best we could. The area of ground that I cleared to put out seed for ground-feeders attracted this American Woodcock, though he didn't stay too long as the ground was too hard for him to probe into.

The biggest surprise guests at our feeder were a couple of Eastern Meadowlarks, open ground birds that rarely come close to houses.

Another unexpected and surprising feeder visitor was this male Rusty Blackbird which appeared for a short while with a mixed flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles.

Not to be outdone, the feeders at work produced surprises too. Though by no means rare, it's the first time that the local Mallards have strayed into the Northwood Center from nearby Lily Lake.

The scene that greeted us at the Northwood Center on Monday morning was certainly a sad sight, as several of the old Virginia Junipers lining the front steps had collapsed under the weight of snow and had to be cut back so that we could get in.

Fallen branches and a foot of snow on the steps had to be tackled before we could get to base camp and the kettle!

Some days later, I took a drive around Cape May Point and found dozens and dozens of shattered trees - this one's on the south side of the Pavilion Avenue circle.

Same tree, different angle.

The fine American Holly that stands in the church grounds on the north side of the Pavilion Avenue circle was split in two at the base and had many higher branches broken off too.

With many of the houses around Cape May Point being holiday accommodation, many of the damaged trees may not be cleared for several months.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Time and Tide, and all that...

Well it's supposed to be the quiet time of year, but with all the upheaval at work and at home, it's been tough finding time to post on the blog. Since the trip to Barnegat Light on January 19th, I've not really done any proper birding, though living somewhere as wildlife-rich as Cape May, it's still possible to enjoy a lot of good stuff on pre-work and lunchtime walks locally. The house list and the year list both progress nicely, so here's a pot pourri of little bits and pieces, drawn from my diary (underlined species are new for the year).

January 20th
A lunch time walk in the woods near home provided an insight into the (mis)use of this lovely spot. A pig sty of a place, full of empty beer bottles and those hideous bright red plastic cups that they sell in packs of 50 at the local Acme store. Still, I found a nice White-breasted Nuthatch which is a scarce bird south of the canal as there is not a great amount of old woodland present here.

January 21st
Logged 23 species in the garden before work, including two Fox Sparrows, 12 House Finches (a record count for us) and our first Yellow-rumped Warbler. A walk at Cape May Point State Park lunch time got me my first Goosander (Common Merganser over here) for Cape May Island, some nice Hooded Mergansers and four Lesser Scaup. At one point, five species of raptor were up and soaring on a single thermal - Turkey and American Black Vultures, Red-shouldered and Red-winged Hawks and a Northern Harrier. Nice views of my first Ruby-crowned Kinglet for the year. All the ice was gone from the ponds for the first time this year (though this was not to last!!).

Male Hooded Merganser at Bunker Pond - a good contender for a mad hair award!

Male House Finch at the garden feeder. Essentially a New World rosefinch, this species was introduced to the eastern USA from the southwest of the continent.

January 22nd
Blew it by not taking the camera - though I might have regretted getting salt on the lens! With the coming of a northeast blow, I went up to Avalon this morning, in the hope of some offshore bird movement - fat chance!! I didn't see a single bird moving south, despite the weather, but this was more than amply compensated for by the spectacle of big rafts of Common Eider, Long-tailed Ducks and Surf and Black Scoters bobbing like corks on a very high swell. The dexterity of these birds in the face of a storm was remarkable; every wave was ridden perfectly, with smooth-topped waves surfed over and breakers dived into. Amazing stuff - but flippin' cold, so I didn't stay for too long. However, careful scanning of the rafts turned up two male Harlequin Ducks and an immature male Greater Scaup, the latter my first for Cape May.

After some shopping, I birded the garden and found three species of wren - the usual pair of Carolinas, a Northern House Wren which has been present for a while now and a surprise Northern Wren. Though widespread in an array of habitats in the UK, the latter species is an elusive woodland bird here, so nice to find one on the open clear-cut area opposite our house (and visible from the yard!).

Largely a southern species, Carolina Wren is on the northern edge of its range with us and the population suffers badly in cold winters.

Northern Wren paying us a visit; mostly a woodland species, I was surprised to see this bird in the cut over area across the road from our house.

This Northern House Wren is braving the weather well north of where most of his relatives are likely to be wintering. Very similar to Northern Wrens, these birds can be told by their longer tail, greyer upperparts and lack of an obvious supercilium which gives them a rather plain-faced look.

January 23rd
Not an ideal day for the avid birdwatcher, I spent most of today indoors at a sales and marketing meeting in north Jersey at Plainsboro. Still, there's always something to be gained from such things and I added Wild Turkey to the year list with the sighting of two beside the road in Ocean County as we headed northward beyond the pygmy forest (more of that place another time - for now, it's part of the New Jersey Pine Barrens). A nice bonus in the garden this morning was the sight of two adult and one immature White-crowned Sparrows coming to the bird seed.

January 24th
Got back from work slightly earlier tonight (ie, I left on time for once!) and had time for a dusk stroll to Hidden Valley and back. The return walk was perfectly timed for the evening flight of American Woodcock, leaving the woods to go out to feed (I won't say exactly where as some people get pleasure from blasting them out of the sky). I had a total of 15 woodcock whipping overhead and heard the first display calls of a couple of birds - a strangely reptilian 'beeep' sound! Another Ruby-crowned Kinglet was seen today too, this time in the hollies at work.

January 25th
A dull, dank day - not dissimilar to winter in the Norfolk Broads! Rain for much of the day, with a lunchtime visit to Sunset Beach proving somewhat futile as the sea fog pretty much obscured everything - including the concrete ship!

The Canada Goose flock seems to have taken to feeding north of the canal now and there has been no reports of the Cackling Goose for a while. The geese come back to roost at Lily Lake at night and often fly right over our house against a glowing amber sky.

January 26th
A day off work and took time out, on a nice sunny morning, to go down to the Cape May Ferry Terminal for the first time. Two juvenile Northern Harriers cruised right past the side of the car as I drove down to the ferry terminal viewpoint - all too quick for a duffer like me to get out with the camera, but great views nonetheless!

The Cape May canal is just about wide enough to consider Cape May Point as an island as it certainly functions as a major barrier to the movement of land animals, as well as to a number of sedentary birds such as nuthatches and some woodpeckers. The canal was dug as a wartime emergency measure to give ships a safer passage into Delaware Bay by avoiding German U-boats operating off Cape May Point.

The construction of the Cape May canal provided a perfect location for the establishment of a ferry terminal which had originally been planned for the end of Sunset Boulevard but had, until now, not been realised. The ferry crosses the Delaware Bay to Lewes, 18 miles away in Delaware with the journey taking around 80 minutes.

The Cape May ferry heads out of the canal on a cold but sunny morning.

Drove round to the Higbee's Beach side and walked out to the very end of the stone jetty that guards the mouth of the Cape May Canal, where 26 Bonaparte's Gulls were delicately catching small, surface-swimming fish with a peculiar, erratic, dashing action. Wonderful birds, very like a Little Gull head on a Black-headed Gull body and wings. Saddened - but not surprised - to find that all Wildlife Management Area signs, as well as the famous Morning Flight Project platform had all been vandalised by a retard with a spray can - though retard is too long a word for him to be able to write. As I write this, I hear that he has been caught by the police....

Bonaparte's Gulls grace the Cape May shoreline during the winter months.

Rounded the day off with a Great Horned Owl calling somewhere to the west of the house.

January 27th
Walked the State Park lunch time and finally got the Snow Buntings on the year list - on about the sixth attempt! About 45 birds were crouching in amongst tussocks of grass and careful stealth allowed me to get within just a few feet of them for some great photo opportunities.

In flight, Snow Buntings can be pretty obvious, but on the ground, it can be a different thing altogether.

When a Snow Bunting wants to stay hidden, they can be tough to find!

Making good use of available cover, Snow Buntings blend in well with their chosen surroundings...

...but with care and patience, close views can be rewarding.

The six Tundra Swans still hang out at Bunker Pond and a juvenile Bald Eagle caused havoc among the local ducks before cruising off west past the lighthouse. Some nice birds put in an appearance at work today, with Grey Catbird and Brown Thrasher around the feeders (both far from common in winter here) and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in one of the Chinese Elms.

Small numbers of Grey Catbirds hang on in New Jersey during the winter, but most head south for warmer climes.

January 30th
A nice male Northern Harrier checked out the sparrow flock right in our garden and some time watching the feeders allowed me to tot up counts of 14 Northern Cardinals, 15 White-throated Sparrows, five Song Sparrows, 60 Common Grackles, 20 Red-winged Blackbirds and 40 Brown-headed Cowbirds. A flock of 11 Field Sparrows fed on the front lawn for a while as the first flakes of what was to become eight inches of snow fell. I also spotted the first Hairy Woodpecker for the garden - which my sister managed to see all the way from the UK as we were on skype at the time!! It really was a raw day today and official figures show the lowest temperatures for the day as being -18C when the wind chill was factored in!

January 31st
With the return of snow, a lot of birds became evident along roadsides, as flocks of sparrows, American Robins, Northern Cardinals and others fed along road verges where gritting and snow ploughing had left clear areas. A check of Sunset Beach provided me with nice views of a male Peregrine who is wintering around the old Magnasite Plant and often roosts on the water tower there.

The Sunset Beach Gifts store without a hive of tourists!

At lunchtime, I was able to sit in the car right next to a roadside piece of flooded woodland, where flowing water had remained unfrozen. This allowed me to get accepted by a feeding party of a dozen or so Rusty Blackbirds and, while photographing these, a superb Virginia Rail crept out of the undergrowth and fed on the edge of the water right beside the road. The latter was a particularly nice find for me as it was a species I had never seen before - though last year I heard one, and found a fresh road kill - almost a tick!!

In the evening, two Buff-bellied Pipits flew over the garden and called as they headed north. So the year list now stands on 123 with the garden list reaching the magical 50 mark - 51 counting in Megan's Merlin that  I missed a few days back!

A Virginia Rail feeds beside the road at one of the few places left with open water.

Female Rusty Blackbird on Bayshore Road. This is a bird of marshland and wintering parties are usually found in wet areas in deciduous woodland.

Male Rusty Blackbirds are a smart combination of rusty brown and metallic blue-black. This species has been scarce at Cape May this winter, so a feeding flock for several days near The Beanery was much appreciated.