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.