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!