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.