Monday, March 29, 2010

Diary Update - March

We're getting there, we're getting there! It almost looks like I might catch up in time for spring events to be posted here as they happen!! So, here are the wildlife highlights for March then we'll be looking ahead to April in all its glory (he says as he looks out the window at yet another dreary, rainy day!).

March 5th
A casual day at home after a dreary week with little bird activity. Our good friend Chuck came over and we put up two bluebird boxes that he had made for us as a house-warming present - the House Sparrows had started nest-building in them even before the day was out!! We experienced both sunny spells and flurries of snow during the morning but a potter around the garden was productive with a pair of Red-tailed Hawks circling high up on territory and a single Great Blue Heron flying northwards. I also started to notice changes in the White-throated Sparrow population with numbers beginning to tail off, though we still have a nice Fox Sparrow and five Song Sparrows.

As well as having to contend with introduced House Sparrows having a detrimental effect on the local Eastern Bluebird population, one slight downside of living so close to nature is that occasionally you have to deal with potential problems. We've been hearing mice poking around during the night at home and the problem there is that mice have a nasty habit of finding plastic insulation on electrical wiring something that's ideal to work their teeth on! End result: loss of electricity or - worse - a fire! So I tried to do the right thing and use live mammal traps to catch them, but it turned out that we had a real Houdini on our hands! Try as I might, he just kept eating the bait and getting away. Sadly, I had to resort to the time-honoured spring trap...

A sad end but probably the only picture I'll ever get of a White-footed Mouse...

Still on the subject of trapping, we have something merrily digging away at the foundations of our shed and clearly living under there. Now, I like having wildlife around me, but I had a worry that we might have a skunk and I didn't fancy startling him in the half-light early one morning! So I bought a cage trap, which catches animals live so that you can release them unharmed. Baited with a tin of mackerel, the trap did its job and next morning there was a feisty Virginian Opossum glaring back at me with a rather fine set of teeth!! Well, they're weird animals, but harmless, so I turned him out and he trotted off into the undergrowth; I guess he's back burrowing under the shed again by now!

Grrr, snarl gnash!! An unhappy Virginian Opposum, soon to be made happier when I let him out!

March 6th
More work done in the garden as I got my teeth into clearing some of the invasive Multiflora Rose. Being outside did enable me to enjoy a nice female Northern Harrier hunting the garden and I eventually added Bald Eagle to the house list as a smart, monochrome adult drifted right overhead.

New house bird: Bald Eagle

March 11th
A return to dull weather after a few sunny days, but the change in weather brought a change in events, as so often happens in nature. A Red-breasted Nuthatch turned up at the feeders at work and was destined to hang around for a week or so and Northern Cardinals are now really going for it and singing all over the place. In the evening, a nice Peregrine flew right over our house as we were heading out for a walk and by the time we got back it was getting dark and Spring Peepers were almost deafening in their persistence. It really did seem as though this was the first night that they were in full chorus south of the canal as those people living further north in the county (where it warms up more quickly in the spring) had been hearing them for some time already. Certainly we hadn't noticed them the evening before.

New house bird: Peregrine

March 13th
I had to go up to Goshen to our other centre to work today, on what turned out to be another miserable day of rain. On the way back, I called in at Reed's Beach along the bayshore side of the peninsula and found a road that had clearly been flooded out by that morning's high tide; sand and beach detritus was everywhere and had been ploughed back off the road in great heaps. Displaying Red-breasted Mergansers were out on the bay, along with a raft of about 20 Greater Scaup. A lone Great Egret and five or so smart Hooded Mergansers were on a roadside pond and the marsh seemed to be full of American Black Ducks and Green-winged Teal. In the evening, a flight of 25 American Black Vultures flew north over the canal east of our house.

Yet again, we had troubles with our feeders! Probably Raccoons, but you know, they're sneaky, they leave no hard evidence, but they've been around. Our fat block holder disappeared overnight, so I had to take measures and put a baffle on the pole; hopefully that'll hold them for a while. I also got to the point of being fed up with greedy Common Grackles eating us out of house and home so rigged the fat block to deter them and it seems to have worked - so far!

I worked out that if I leave the fat block in the plastic container that it comes in, it can only be accessed from underneath - which suits our woodpeckers fine! A male Red-bellied Woodpecker demonstrates the technique.

March 14th
I could maybe flag today up as a step in the right direction for spring - though the day had a down side for me when Megan phoned to say that the two Sandhill Cranes flew north over the house this afternoon!!! As it transpires, this turned out to be the last sighting of these birds. Before work, Sunset Beach had about 30 Red-throated Divers, 10 or so Bonaparte's Gulls and five Forster's Terns, all against the usual backdrop of the wonderful wailing whistles of Black Scoter.

A lunchtime walk at the state park was accompanied by a mad cacophony of frogs with thousands of Spring Peepers and Northern Leopard Frogs calling and the odd New Jersey Chorus Frog here and there. And there was I, stalking around with my camera - and not a single one even glimpsed; how do they do it!!! Muskrats are getting active now and a Killdeer was in full display flight over the Plover Ponds (aptly). Four Boat-tailed Grackles were hanging out by the Hawkwatch Platform and the first Fish Crows have now returned to the point with two at their favoured spot near the NE corner of Lily Lake.

Year bird: Forster's Tern
House bird: Sandhill Crane

On a quick drive through town this evening, I was amazed to find this house, looking for all the world like a car that's had its wheels stolen! Looks as though some people have had enough of getting flooded out and these folks are building a whole new ground floor out of brieze blocks. It's a nice thing to be able to do though - lift your house up and build an extra floor underneath!

While on the subject of the recent rains, here's a view of the old railway line through the Rea Farm. This is shot is from the same spot that I took the shot on the Beanery blog back in November 2009. If you compare them directly, you'll notice immediately the standing water is this shot, but also notice the tree that's fallen across from the left after the heavy snow and winds.

March 16th
A grey start but later sunny and even warm once the wind dropped right off. This really did feel like the first day of spring and was accompanied by the first local twitch as I took in a Western Cattle Egret before work. This was an easy tick as it was less than two miles from home and the bird was just quietly mooching along the side of the road, ignoring the rush hour traffic as it fed on worms on a flooded lawn by the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church. Heading for work, I then pulled up in a hurry at the sight of three Purple Martins on roadside wires along Bayshore Road. Fish Crows continue to move back into the area from their winter roosts out in the back bays and I watched birds displaying over the bird observatory today. The pair do a nice piece of shadow flying, similar to Rooks in the UK, where the two birds glide with wings slightly raised and mirror each other's actions. My first butterfly of the year was a sure sign of warming days as a Mourning Cloak flew past my office window. A nice spring day with a nice set of observations and all finally set off at home when Megan and I listened to Coyotes howling to each other just beyone our garden.

Year Birds: Western Cattle Egret, Purple Martin
House bird: Fish Crow

March 17th
A nice adult Little Blue Heron was found by Bob Fogg on the flooded corner of Willow Creek Vineyard along Stevens Street. On my drive to work I passed just in time to see the bird flying over the trees and dropping into one of the ponds on the Rea Farm. A smart breeding-plumaged adult Great Cormorant was on the concrete ship and the Forster's Terns had increased to 12. Sunny weather provided better light which allowed the white pates of Surf Scoters to be picked out, well out in the bay. Our evening walk revealed a Fish Crow roost of some 120 birds east of Shunpike Road, so they're definitely back!

Year bird: Little Blue Heron

March 18th
Another mini twitch this morning before work, but this time I had to go much further! In fact, all of 20 minutes, to Nummy Island where a Black-necked Grebe that had been found a few days ago was still lurking on the main channel. Here too, at least six Horned Grebes, six Great Northern Divers (Common Loons!) and two Great Cormorants were present, while six Greater Yellowlegs were in the main lagoon on the island. A particularly nice find for me was a flock of about 60 Laughing Gulls, calling and wailing in the main channel.

In the evening, a Question-mark became my second butterfly of the year at The Beanery.

Year birds: Black-necked Grebe, Greater Yellowlegs, Laughing Gull

March 19th
A good example of how a day of household duties can still produce some nice sightings! On the way up to the main shopping mall at Rio Grande, I noticed that the Little Blue Heron had joined the Western Cattle Egret at Cold Spring and I noted a couple of Small Whites and an Eastern Comma to bring my butterfly list to four species for the year. Up at the shopping mall, a pair of Killdeers was displaying over the car park - this species often nests on flat, industrial-sized roofs over here.

Here's a couple more spring flowers to enjoy - though I've still yet to find a native species in flower this year (apart from the maple trees and the peculiar Skunk Cabbage of course)...

Henbit Dead-nettle Lamium amplexicaule is flowering in abundance on lawns at the moment, though it's small so you need to get down low to appreciate it.

Lesser Periwinkle Vinca minor spreads from original garden plantings or garden throw outs and is quite frequent around Cape May.
 March 23rd
A generally quiet day, though a female Eastern Towhee outside my office window was a nice surprise and the colour-ringed Northern Cardinal turned up at our feeders again today. Another quick drive to Nummny Island after work got me nice views of a Red-necked Grebe, though fading light meant that pictures were pretty poor!

Year bird: Red-necked Grebe

March 24th
This morning saw the first of my Wednesday morning walks around Cape May Point which I shall be doing weekly from now until November. It was a good 'starter' walk today, laying down the benchmark for future walks, as we had a nice range of common species but nothing out of the ordinary. A couple of Lesser Scaup were still around and one of the male Eurasian Wigeons still hangs on. The best bird came right at the end of the walk as an Osprey cruised over the car park. Indeed, for me, this was to become the day of the Osprey as I logged a total of seven different birds today, all heading steadily north-east on a south-west wind and clearly having crossed the bay, then heading across Cape Island to continue north up the coast.

This was also a great day for hirundines as a lunchtime check of The Beanery revealed nine Purple Martins, 12 Tree Swallows and one Barn Swallow flying over the willow pond. Another look in the evening showed numbers to have changed to eight Purple Martins, six Tree Swallows, two Barn Swallows and single Cliff and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

Year birds: Osprey, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Here's some pictures of the day's swallows and martins. They're not great as I really haven't mastered the art of keeping up with such speedy beasts with the camera, but at least you can see a few identification pointers.

Purple Martins are easiest to identify as adults as they're just dark all over. However, this first-year female shows how drab the species can look and, in this plumage can be mistaken for Northern Rough-winged Swallow. However, Purple Martins always look big and chunky while a careful look at this bird reveals fine streaking on the underparts.

Barn Swallow - a species that occurs widely in both the Old and New Worlds. The red throat patch and long tail streamers make this bird easy to identify. The North American race differs from typical European birds in having little or no blue-black band between the red throat patch and the pale underparts and also has a richer peachy wash below, especially in males. This bird is most likely a female or young male as the underparts are not particularly colourful and the tail streamers are relatively short for this species.

This one's a Cliff Swallow; note the black throat patch and red cheeks and the greyish centres to the undertail coverts. Also note the squared-off, unforked tail.

One last blurry one!! A speeding Tree Swallow. To British eyes, these essentially look like House Martins but don't have the white rump patch.  Upperparts are black until they catch the light, when they reveal a metallic blue-green sheen.

The house list has crept up to 61 species, while my year list around Cape May stands at 145.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Diary Update - February

Somehow I've got myself in a muddle! It feels like I've been too busy to get out and see what's happening over the last six weeks or so and yet, when I look back through my diary (the hand-written one that is!), I see that I have actually notched up one or two birds for the old year list, as well as some new birds on our house list. Here's a catch up on my wildlife diary notes, following on from the last one - which I see only went up to January 31st!! If it gets too long, I'll make it a two-parter.

February 2nd
Megan and I spent the afternoon at Poverty Beach, a lovely quiet place in the winter. Actually, most of Poverty Beach lies within the US Coastguards base so is off limits; which of course means that it regularly gets good birds! All you can do is to walk out to the coastguard sign then scope for birds around the wooden pilings at around three quarters of a mile away (I just measured it on Google Earth!). So not the greatest of views, but it's surprising what you can see with a good scope. We essentially went because a first-winter male King Eider has been hanging out there and we did manage to find him. You won't be surprised to hear, though, that there are no pictures! Four Great Cormorants were also there, as well as the usual scattering of Common and Red-throated Loons, Buffleheads and Purple Sandpipers.

Cape May harbour held 210 Ruddy Ducks and the Coastguard Ponds at Two-Mile Beach were full of American Black Ducks, Northern Pintail and Hooded Mergansers, as well as three Pied-billed Grebes.

Driving back via Wildwood, Sunset Lake proved worth a look with three Horned Grebes, two Ruddy Ducks, 65 Greater Scaup and two Common Loons, plus a scattering of Red-breasted Mergansers and Buffleheads.

Year Birds: Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe

February 3rd
Driving to work along Bayshore Road, I noticed an Eastern Phoebe sitting on a fence near what I know as the Willow Pond (a big garden pond with willows on one side!). One or two of these flycatchers occasionally winter in Cape May, though picking this winter would seem to be a poor choice. There's been one or two reports from Cape Island of late, which perhaps all refer to the same one, roaming, individual.

A lunchtime visit to The Beanery to photograph Skunk Cabbage which was coming into flower proved fortuitous as I found a nice Northern Wren and two Wilson's Snipe.

Year Bird: Eastern Phoebe

February 6th
It says in my diary "Baaad Day"! Snow and high winds all day with our electricity cutting off somewhere arouns 8:30AM. I kept the bird feeders clear as best I could, but the snow just came too thick and fast. Modern life can be interupted so completely in such instances: we immediately had no water (an electric pump draws our water from a well) so no drinking water and no toilet!; no cooking (electric oven) and no heat - yep, the oil heater needs electricity! Even the birds had to suffer as the garage door is electric and we couldn't get to the bird food, the emergency camping stove, the saw (to deal with a large branch that came down on our phone line) or the snow shovel! Early to bed!!

February 7th
A sunny day but, with nearly two feet of snow on the ground, it remained very wintery. A Great Egret on Cape Island Creek was a surprise and our garden feeders (we got some emergency supplies in!) attracted an American Woodcock and two Eastern Meadowlarks.

Superbowl night tonight so we had a big get-together, the highlight of which was putting together a list of birds seen on TV during the Superbowl advert breaks!!! Sad? Obsessive? It's a fine line!

Year Bird: Eastern Meadowlark (and new house bird!)

February 10th
As if we haven't had enough - a hideous day of foul weather, with overnight rain turning to snow, accompanied by more high winds. The evening before, we had only just got our electricity back on so at least we were back in our own house after three nights staying with friends. Luckily this time, we weren't cut off - I guess there were no more trees left to fall down onto the wires!! Drifting snow and dangerous driving conditions resulted in a state of emergency being declared and things were getting very desperate at our feeders; Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles with ice welded to their faces, clung on to the swinging feeders in the high winds and one Common Grackle even managed to attack and kill a White-throated Sparrow which it carted off and ate on the Arctic waste that used to be our front lawn. A lone Carolina Wren was working around the leeward side of our maple, clinging to the trunk like a treecreeper.

February 11th
After banging on about the idiots who can't drive to save their lives around here when there's just a little bit of snow around, I got stuck in a drift on the way to work this morning. Serves me right! Another day of shovelling snow and maintaining the bird feeders and not too many visitors at the bird observatory!

Bonaparte's Gulls continue to ride the winds gracefully around Sunset Beach and a nice surprise was a Horned Lark which was feeding on a little bit of road cleared of snow on the corner of Bayshore Road and
Stevens Street. American Tree Sparrow and Great Black-backed Gull were nice house ticks (the latter a new bird for our house list) and we actually added our first genuine 'house bird' when we discovered that a Carolina Wren has taken to roosting in the basement!

Year Birds: Horned Lark, American Tree Sparrow

February 14th
Two American Tree Sparrows at the Rea Farm shop on the way to work this morning. Lunch time I followed up a report of a Black-headed Gull (yes I know, I've seen millions of them in the UK etc etc....) at the ferry terminal but couldn't find it. A nice male American Kestrel was on wires along Bayshore Road and I added it to the house list in the evening.

After work I had another shot at the Black-headed Gull and missed it again, but enjoyed a nice adult Bald Eagle flying over the canal bridge and found six Tundra Swans on the canal by the ferry terminal. About 150 Ring-billed Gulls were in the snowy car park, waiting for scraps while the beach held plenty of Sanderling, three Ruddy Turnstones and a Purple Sandpiper. A party of 11 Horned Larks flew south.

February 15th
Third time lucky! A lunch time jaunt back into North Cape May got me the Black-headed Gull, though I searched all the way up to Townbank Road before I found it. More Horned Larks and Purple Sandpipers graced the beach and dozens of American Robins, desperately seeking food wherever there was no snow, were rummaging on the strand line.

Year Bird: Black-headed Gull

February 18th
Still very cold with much snow lying on the ground, but I managed a lunchtime walk around Cape May Point State Park. Not surprisingly, it was very quiet for birds, but a nice party of eight female Hooded Mergansers flushed from the main drain and a Great Horned Owl flew out from a stand of pines.

February 22nd
A Harbour Seal was on the concrete ship at Sunset Beach before work and Black Scoters literally swarmed offshore with birds moving up and down the bay in all directions - a fabulous sight, and a fabulous sound too as many of the males were courting the females with their wonderful whistles.

A lunchtime walk around the state park provided me with a fly-over Buff-bellied Pipit and a female Blue-winged Teal and the regular male Redhead on Lighthouse Pond. In the afternoon, I followed up on some noisy American Crows outside my office window and found them mobbing a Great Horned Owl.

Year bird: Blue-winged Teal

February 25th
Another quick lunchtime visit to the state park revealed good numbers of American Robins and a couple of Northern Flickers feeding on the grass east of the lighthouse. Best of all was a superb breeding-plumaged male Pine Warbler hopping around on the grass right beside the entrance road - and me with no camera of course! The Pine Warbler really was a ray of sunshine, being brilliant yellow below, like a male Yellow Wagtail; hopefully a nice preview of what is to come later in the spring....

Year bird: Pine Warbler

So February finished with my year list of birds on 132 species.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring, Spring, Spring - It's Spring!

It's official, it's now spring - in so many ways! My diary says that spring officially starts on March 20th and the clocks here in the USA went forward one hour on March 14th, so there's two reasons to believe it's spring - and then there's the weather! No sooner had I posted my last piece on all the snow and hideous weather, than everything promptly changed for the better. And the weather doesn't do things by halves here, with the thermometer reaching 70F on Friday. It's been warm and sunny with cloudless skies here for five days now and the wildlife is responding. The few species of butterfly which overwinter as adults were quick to respond with a Mourning Cloak (Camberwell Beauty in the UK) at the bird observatory on 16th and Eastern Comma and Question-mark over the following days. Technically these are last year's butterflies that hibernated and emerged again with the onset of warm weather; so the real first butterfly of the year was the Small White that I saw at Cold Spring on 19th (with a second in the garden later the same day). Actually, these are called Cabbage Whites in the US, but I just can't bring myself to use a name that most people only use in the UK as a small child - it's a bit like saying Jenny Wren!!

On March 16th, a Western Cattle Egret appeared in Cold Spring, feeding right beside the road on a flooded lawn. This is still an uncommon bird at Cape May and the date is unusually early, so a nice find for Tom Reed. On 19th, I had to make a shopping run up to Rio Grande and noticed that this egret had been joined by a nice adult Little Blue Heron - perhaps the one that had first been seen at the Rea Farm on 17th. Two nice birds for the year list. The same day that Tom found the Western Cattle Egret, I found three Purple Martins on roadside wires along Bayshore Road even now, five days on, they remain the only ones so far reported in Cape May and this is typical of spring; a few vanguards arrive and we get all excited about spring migration, only to have to wait another four weeks before it really kicks off!

As well as a nice array of freshly emerged insects (including some enormous carpenter bees checking out our garage!), spring is marked by the sound of amphibians - and what a sound! The noise made by frogs at night here at the moment is truly remarkable and hard to get across to anyone used to the rather meagre offerings in the UK. At present, the noise comes from the well-named Spring Peeper, a small frog of the chorus frog group. Species in this group gather together in enormous numbers during the breeding season and males attempt to out-compete each other vocally for the attentions of the females. Some of the gatherings involve thousands upon thousands of individuals and the sound is remarkable, like thousands of tiny bells being rung. Spring Peepers seem to be abundant anywhere that there is currently temporary freshwater laying, while in the more permament wetlands at the point, a deeper, grunting chorus comes from thousands of Southern Leopard Frogs. On my shopping trip to Rio Grande last Friday, I noticed that in that area, the Spring Peepers were overshadowed by another species, the New Jersey Chorus Frog, which has a completely different call, a rising, tuneful rattle, like running your fingers along a comb. Oh, and one thing to know about the chorus frog species - you never see them!! They're amazing at staying hidden, you don't even see a ripple as they disapear; so, if you see a picture of one on this blog, you'll know I've put a lot of time in and probably missed a lot of birds!

Well, here are some spring themes from the past week.

With the trees still devoid of leaves, summer seems a long way away, yet spring is clearly imminent in the wet woods of Cape May. The first native wildflower to bloom here in the spring is already poking up, often long before the snow has gone....

....and the first flower of spring really is a bizarre one!! The peculiar flowers of Skunk Cabbage spring up in wet woodland and flower so early that they can attract only those insects that may already be around - flies! Thus, the flower looks - and smells! - like rotten meat.

Late afternoon light shining through Skunk Cabbage leaves.

The next flowers to appear after the Skunk Cabbage are the flowers of Red Maple, the tight clusters of red stamens and stigmas added colour against a blue spring sky.

Close up of the female flowers of the closely-related Silver Maple, showing the sticky stigmas, waiting to catch the male pollen. These early-flowering maples are pollinated by many species of insects, including Honey Bees but, by flowering before the leaves get in the way, they can also be wind-pollinated.

Male flowers of Silver Maple, showing the long, cream-coloured stamens.

Flowering at the same time and doing the same job (and thus looking very similar) as the maple flowers, elm flowers appear in March too. The native American Elm has suffered greatly from Dutch Elm Disease and is hard to find now, but Chinese Elm is popular in gardens in Cape May and has proven to be greatly resistent to the disease. This picture shows the flowers of Chinese Elm Ulmus parvifolia with its dark purple anthers.

One down side of spring and the thawing of the snow is the adverse effect it has on moles. When snow carpets the ground, moles often burrow right at the surface as it's easier to dig and the snow cover keeps them hidden from predators. But they're not to know that the snow is going to disappear and many find themselves travelling along exposed runs. Sadly this is yet another area in which domestic cats feature heavily and they kill many moles at this time of year (and of course don't eat them because they're not hungry, so the mole dies in vain). I found this Eastern Mole lying belly up on our meadow shortly after the snow had gone. I guess if nothing else, it gives a chance to see those amazing digging front feet.

Perhaps because of the cooling effect of the mighty Atlantic Ocean, New Jersey's coastal plain is slow to warm up in spring and it's not until late April that the native flora really puts in an appearance. So unfortunately, colour in march tends to come from introduced - and often overly invasive - alien species. The pink flowers of Red Dead-nettle are familiar both sides of the Atlantic.... are the brilliant blue flowers of Common Field Speedwell. Interestingly, both species are common lawn weeds in New Jersey, while in the UK, they are weeds of disturbed ground, such as farm fields and flower borders.

A Southern Leopard Frog at the Migratory Bird Refuge - clearly not a Spring Peeper because you can see it!!

Aquatic reptiles are stirring from winter slumbers now, happy in the knowledge that lots of tasty tadpoles will be available soon (and some plump, juicy frogs in the meantime!). This is an Eastern Painted Terrapin, probably the commonest terrapin species in Cape May. I found a couple at the Rea Farm on March 18th.

While we're on 'non-birds', I was pleased to find this Harbour Seal on the concrete ship at Sunset Beach. This species is uncommon, though regular, this far south and there has been a large number of reports this winter, even as far south as the Carolinas. What's interesting about this individual, however, is the tag on its hind flipper. I haven't yet found who to report this to, but it has clearly been marked for a reason.

Moths, yes, even moths are coming out now - though this is actually a species that can regularly be found in the winter and I found this one back in January. This is Hypena scabra, a common North American species. 

Western Cattle Egret in Cold Spring. A good sign that northward migration is just about getting there.

A smart Little Blue Heron has favoured the same pool as the Western Cattle Egret.

A good shake of the plumage reveals the nuptial plumes of the Little Blue Heron, in all its breeding refinery.

My hopes of spring were really raised sky high when I found three Purple Martins on roadside wires along Bayshore Road on my way to work on March 16th. I managed to get some quick shots of two of them. Sadly, it was a brief moment of excitement as no other Purple Martins have been seen in Cape May. But they will be here soon, and that's the frustration of spring migration, fits and starts until the flood gates really open in April.

And finally, one of the sounds of spring - the carolling of Red-winged Blackbirds, a sound which is pretty much everywhere at the moment, but here's a nice male singing atop a lone cattail. A classic Cape May spring shot.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bottoming Out

If birding at Cape May could ever be called quiet, it would have to be the period through February and early March. At this time of year, activity definitely 'bottoms out', reaching a low point in the annual cycle of events. Essentially, winter birds have been hanging around long enough that you've seen them all by now and the novelty is wearing off, while spring migrants really aren't happening yet. Yes, the first Laughing Gull has been seen - not by me, I hasten to add - and that is deemed to be the official, first sign of spring here and the finders receive the prestigious Cape May LAGU Award for their efforts. A trickle of Ospreys has happened (I missed one right outside the observatory window this morning!) and returning ducks are building up in the wetlands - most notably Green-winged Teal.

During this period, we've been busy at work and with the house so there hasn't been much to report, but here's a pot pourri of odd pictures from the period, beginning with a final round-up of the last of the snow damage - we hope!!

A couple of pictures that show the sorry condition that the boardwalk trails at Cape May State Park were in after the last of the three snowstorms we had here. The amount of snow was not great (the deepest level snow we measured was 19 inches) but it's exceptional for Cape May and many of the trees and bushes just weren't designed to take the extra weight, especially the evergreens. Native Eastern Redcedars and various pines were the species most seriously hit and even now, several weeks on, the clean up continues. The state park trails were closed for several days before all the broken trees could be cleared and the paths opened up again.

This close up of a bayberry bush shows the level of destruction that was done by a combination of heavy snow and winds gusting up to 50mph.

After sightings of single Sandhill Cranes at a number of locations during the winter, two birds finally met up and, based on the size difference, look as though they are a pair. They could mostly be found along Seashore Road (as here), being attracted to a field of unharvested Sweet Corn - though Megan went one better than me and saw them fly over our house on March 14th!

The snowy weather continued to mix birds up and push them around into the few clear patches of ground. This Horned Lark was feeding right in the middle of the road on Stevens Street as I drove home from work one evening. Unlike the UK, Horned Larks are widespread birds in North America and breed in a variety of habitats, including lowland grasslands. Cape May's best site for them is at the local airport where they occur year round on the open airfield.

Still back in the snowy weather, I found myself chasing around after a Cape May rarity that was just a little bit too familiar! Yes, this is a Black-headed Gull, a common British bird, but a rarity over here and the 250th species I've seen in Cape May County since I arrived here last August. It was a bit of an odd experience digging this one out of the many Bonaparte's Gulls that winter here!

While looking for the Black-headed Gull, it was a fine, wintery sight to see six Tundra Swans flying over Higbee Dike. This was the group that has been wintering at Cape May Point State Park, but which appeared to go on an away day for a change!

Another surprise find - this time on a cloudless, sunny day a couple of weeks ago. Driving to work one morning, this superb male American Kestrel was on roadside wires about 200 yards from our house (and I did manage to whizz back and get it on the house list!). American Kestrels are in serious decline due to habitat loss and this once fairly common south Jersey bird is now almost entirely a spring and fall migrant.

Linking the snow theme with an earlier feeder-birds theme, this female Northern Cardinal spent two days at our garden feeder in February. It is of particular interest as it has been colour-marked on the right leg, so is part of someone's research project. I've emailed in the sighting details but not had any information back yet.

One more from the feeders - this time at work. Cold weather brings out all sorts of visitors and during the last snowy spell, we had up to three Brown Thrashers coming to the suet blocks. These are really smart birds and quickly became one of my favourite species over here the first time I visited the US some 10 years ago.

The feeders at work have been regularly attracting three species of woodpecker to the suet blocks, including this smart male Northern Flicker. Flickers are very different to any of the Old World woodpeckers in appearance, though are somewhat similar to Green Woodpeckers in that they will often spend time feeding on ants on open lawns.

Another day, another woodpecker; this female Red-bellied Woodpecker was photographed as she checked out the side of the Northwood Center right outside my office window. For once I actually had my camera right beside me!!

A while back, when the snow was still laying deep and crisp and even, a dead horseshoe crab mysteriously appeared on our front lawn! The smell was unbelievable after a few weeks, once the snow had gone and it had thawed out, so I wanged it across the road onto the scrubby area there. The American Crows soon found it, then so did the local Turkey Vultures. I took this shot from our back door as they started to pluck up the courage to come and have a go at it. There's been a good gathering of vultures near us in the last week, with up to 35 American Black Vultures and 15 Turkey Vultures roosting in the wood at the end of our garden.

This is not a great picture as the light was fading fast but I simply had to share it. I checked out one of the regular local Peregrine roosts one evening and discovered what it was like to be looked down upon by a mean, killing machine! The bird was unperturbed by my presence below its lofty perch and allowed me to take several pictures before I left him in peace. What a fabulous way to end a working day - and this post!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Little Brown Jobs

Nothing is more daunting when moving to a new continent and getting to grips with the local birds, than having to sort out the 'little brown jobs'. Every country has its share of dazzling, colourful birds and, equally, every country has its tedious little birds that leave must people cold; however, it is often those that offer a tougher identification challenge that particularly appeal to birders - which is why we love gulls so much I guess!!

In Europe, many of the warblers have great songs, but this comes at a cost for the birder - drab plumage, making the birds difficult to identify by sight. In the USA, many people are daunted by the 'sparrows' which are actually New World members of the bunting family. Any small, grey-brown bird with streaky upperparts is going to be mistaken for a sparrow by the uninitiated and this is, of course, what happened when Europeans arrived in North America. Believing the birds to be close relatives of the familiar House Sparrow, the birds were named accordingly but, by the time the mistake was realised, the damage was done. The names were so engrained that no-one was going to change them.

A good number of North American sparrows are familiar yard birds; many of them breed in the far north, especially in the coniferous taiga zone of Canada and Alaska, then move south for the winter in huge numbers. Around Cape May, White-throated Sparrows are pretty much everywhere and you would have to be walking around with your eyes shut (or stuck indoors all day!!) not to encounter them on a daily basis. Fox and Song Sparrows are also daily fare, while all three of these species start to sing long before they head back to their breeding grounds and can really cheer up a dull winter's day (like the grey one outside at the moment!). Other species are a little less common and more localised, but still readily found if looked for; Swamp Sparrows lurk in marshy areas (as the name suggests) and Savannah Sparrows favour edges of saltmarsh and coastal dunes. Incidentally, the latter species is named after the town of Savannah, rather than the grassy habitat of the same name.

So here's a quick photo essay of the wintering sparrows around Cape May. It's not all of them as I haven't managed to get good pictures of the saltmarsh specialists yet, but most of the following can be expected at a well-stocked garden feeder if you keep a keen eye open (and there are even more species to get excited about at migration time too!!).

I start with White-throated Sparrow, as it is by far the commonest and mostly readily seen sparrow around Cape May in winter and therefore functions as a yardstick by which to measure the others - in much the same way as Dunlin does with other waders. Here's a typical adult bird; note the grey wash to the chest, well-streaked upperparts, two weak but obvious wing bars and rufous wash to the wings. Many sparrows can readily be identified by their head pattern alone and most White-throated Sparrows fall in this group. Note the clean white throat patch and strongly striped black and white head pattern with yellow patch on the front end of the supercilium. A distinctive pattern.

Some adult White-throated Sparrows are beautiful little things with head patterns so strong that they could almost be mistaken for a White-crowned Sparrow at a quick glance. However note the strong yellow superciliary patch and clear white throat. This species has quickly become one of my favourite birds over here, as they mooch about unobtrusively like Dunnocks. Like many North American sparrows, they have a distinctive way of searching for food; rather than scratching with one foot at a time like a chicken, they do a two-footed scrape, jumping forward then scraping both feet backwards to try and expose fallen seeds from amongst the leaf litter. This action happens amazingly fast but is very endearing. The habit is perhaps more easily seen in towhees - a larger relative of the sparrows and for this reason, the scratching is sometimes known as the 'Towhee Two-step'.

To show the range of variation in White-throated Sparrows, here's a typical first-winter bird, with a particularly drab head pattern. Note also how chequered the breast can appear on some birds. Some adults (so called 'tan-striped' individuals) keep this buffy wash to the supercilium throughout their lives. Note the typical White-throated Sparrow features here, with the combination of greyish chest, weak but noticeable double wing bar and rusty wash to the tertials.

The second most common sparrow at our garden feeder is Song Sparrow. This species is rather variable as there are a number of different subspecies, but this individual is typical of those seen around Cape May in winter. Note the creamy-white underparts with well-marked brownish streaks and well-streaked head pattern. The head is mostly a series of grey and rufous stripes, with a strong, creamy-coloured malar stripe running down from the base of the bill and a thick, blackish-brown submalar stripe (or lateral throat stripe if you prefer!). Structurally, Song Sparrows often look rather long-tailed and this is often noticeable in flight when they flick the tail up like a Dartford Warbler. Wing bars are rather weak in this species.

Another Song Sparrow, showing how the head can look rather peaked when the crown feathers are slightly raised. Note again the head pattern as above, and also note here how the breast streaking often compacts to form a dark patch on the central breast, similar to a Corn Bunting.

Not the best of pictures but this species has so far proved a little shy and it's a scarce wintering bird around Cape May so I don't get too many chances - but this is one of three that periodically drop into our garden from neighbouring scrub. White-crowned Sparrow is well-named for its most obvious feature - the adults zebra-striped bonce! Note, however, how plain the rest of the head and underparts are. The wing bars are bright and obvious and are saw-toothed rather than clean-edged. This is a noticeably big species when seen with other sparrows and is rather long-legged and long-tailed by comparison.

As with White-throated Sparrows, first-winter White-crowned Sparrows have a subdued head pattern, with the black and white replaced by rust and buff. As with the adults, note the long legs and tail, plain face and underparts, and pink bill.

Fox Sparrows are probably about as common as Song Sparrows in suburban areas and along roadsides and field edges (with Song being commoner overall as they are also common in wetlands). This is a fabulous bird, with its rich russet tones and jaunty behaviour. Fox Sparrows are big and chunky with stout bills and are easily identified. They are generally not present around Cape May until late November but since mid-January up to 10 have visited our feeder at home. The grey nape shawl and supercilium and strong arrow-head markings on the underparts are all good identification pointers.

Chipping Sparrows can be difficult to find in the winter as they flock up and tend to like clearings in woodland rather than backyard habitat, but there are a few regular spots for them. This is one of the smallest of the local sparrows (not counting the stubby-tailed species of the backbays which I'll cover another time) and are rather slender and dainty. Note the overall appearance of a female House Sparrow with plain underparts and streaked upperparts, but note also the contrasting chestnut crown, grey nape and pinkish bill. By the way, the dark line through the lores (between the eye and the bill) is an important feature to eliminate Clay-coloured Sparrow, should you be looking for one!

OK, it's not a good picture, but it was starting to snow when I took this and several degrees below zero, and I wanted to get a record shot for the garden list! Field Sparrows are quite common in hedgerows around us and a group of up to 11 birds has visited our garden regularly to feed on the grass, but they never come to the feeders and really aren't that approachable. This is another small species and is best told by its rather plain face which nicely sets off the bold white eyering. Note also the pink bill and rusty crown - in the field a grey central crown stripe is often visible too.

This species has become the one to look for in Cape May, though once it was apparently the commonest wintering species in the county. American Tree Sparrows breed well up in the Arctic taiga and arrive late in Cape May - usually in late November. Once a species that came in flocks, local birders have notched up a total of about 12 birds in the county this winter with almost all birds being at garden feeders - so it became something of a competition! No-one knows what's happened, but there is no evidence of a population crash so perhaps climate change has resulted in them wintering further north. This small, round-headed species is closest in appearance to Field Sparrow, but note the lack of a white eye-ring, the dark upper mandible and the glaring white, straight-edged wing-bar. This species also has a dark blotch in the centre of the chest, but this is not always apparent and best not used as an identification feature.

The streakiest of all the sparrows wintering around Cape May is the unobtrusive Savannah Sparrow. This is a bird of open ground with sparse patches of cover and is often first noticed by its mouse-like behaviour as it runs from tussock to tussock, using clumps of vegetation as cover. They are most often found along dry tracks or on the upper edges of saltmarshes, but also get into grassy fields and we had up to three visiting our feeders during the coldest, snowiest spells in February. This species is best told by its overall streaky appearance and often rather short-tailed look. Though not always easy to see, the yellow wash to the front of the supercilium is a good feature too.

When seen out in the open in an alert pose, the pipit-like features of Savannah Sparrow can be even more apparent - but note the seed-eating bill.

I put this picture in as it serves to show the darkness of the upperparts of a typical Savannah Sparrow, for comparison with the next picture. Note the pale 'braces' on the back in this shot too.

Any beach visit around Cape May in winter is not complete for me unless I see one of these superb little birds. The tiny population of Savannah Sparrows that breed on Sable Island, off Nova Scotia, are a distinct race and are often referred to as Ipswich Sparrows. Compared with the Savannah Sparrows above, note the broad, pale fringes to the upperpart feathers, giving the bird a very frosty look. These birds winter in very small numbers in sand dunes along the coast and can be very hard to find, but two or three have wintered on the south beach at Cape May this year and brightened many a cold lunch time for me.

Finishing on another real favourite and a classic American sparrow. Swamp Sparrows only occasionally come to feeders (we haven't had one yet) and they are best looked for around freshwater wetlands. Even then, you need a modicum of luck as this can be an ace skulker and is far more often heard than seen. On one particular sunny day, I willed this one all the way along a dead branch and out onto the very end, where it posed amazingly well. Swamp Sparrows are understated, with little in the way of streaking and no bright colours, but look at the fabulous chestnut wings and rich rusty flanks. The dark cap is a good feature too. The lack of streaking below and the grey breast help to distinguish this species from Lincoln's Sparrow, which is an uncommon migrant through Cape May.

Well, that's the little brown jobs covered for now, but I'm sure they'll be appearing here again in due course!