Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Groundhog day and a treat on stilts!

March 25th
After the highlights of March 24th, today was something of a damp squib; indeed, a pre-work visit to The Beanery was something of a backward step as the highlight was a Northern Wren in song - though that in itself was a nice surprise; the song of the Eastern North American birds is so much faster than birds in the UK; they really must be on something good! A brief but nice highlight in the evening was my first Red Bat of the year, heading east over Bayshore Road; this is a nice big chunky species, reminiscent of Noctule Bats back in the UK.

March 27th
A strange day which, despite being sunny and cloudless for most of the day, was neverthless cold as a keen easterly blew in off the sea. According to official records, the temperature didn't get passed 39F today, and it felt colder with the wind chill factored in. I tried very hard to get out and about but it really wasn't that enjoyable and I only lasted until lunchtime! Even so, an aimless meander up to the Cape May Court House area found me wandering through a small cemetery - OK, I know it sounds weird, but they are great places for interesting plants in early spring, honest! - anyway, I found a spectacular large drift of Shepherd's Cress. Now although this is an introduced species in the USA (from Europe) it isn't one of those invasive aliens and is a really smart little thing. Indeed, I've always liked it ever since I first found it around the beach car park at North Warren in Suffolk.

Shepherd's Cress Teesdalia nudicaulis at Cape May Court House. This colony constitutes the first record of this species for Cape May County - not bad for the first botanical trip of the year! To get a feeling of size, note the White Oak leaf in the foreground.

A close-up of the flowers of Shepherd's Cress

A quick visit to the Stone Harbor bird sanctuary gave me little more than a Musk Rat and some plants for my botanical recording, but I was both surprised and delighted to get the opportunity to photograph a Woodchuck which seemed out of place on the manicured lawns of the barrier islands - a clear sign that the greedy two-house brigade haven't returned to delight in their little piece of ruined New Jersey shore! Continuing south rapidly through the boring streets of Wildwood, I quickly checked out the Coastguard property at Two Mile Beach, but found the car park still flooded out so I decided to head for home and some warmth! Still, I found three Eastern Phoebes managing to catch insects along the edge of the entrance road, then spent a half hour or so trying to photograph American Herring Gulls dropping mussels - whilst keeping an eye on the roof of my car!

A Woodchuck checks me out!

Woodchucks are actually marmots and, like the European Alpine Marmot, this species spends the winter tucked well away in hibernation. If you have seen the film Groundhog Day you will know all about Woodchucks, as another name for them is - Groundhog!

Eastern Phoebes are the first members of the tyrant flycatcher family to return north in spring, indeed, odd individuals were around Cape May well into December, probably supplementing its insect diet with fruit.

An American Black Vulture at Two Mile Beach, nicely showing the classic short tail and the white shaft streaks on the primaries.

Despite the chilly weather, the day ended on a surprising high as Sam Gallick found a Black-necked Stilt on the West Cape May impoundments - an area that very few birders think to visit! This constituted the very first March record for New Jersey so was a really nice find. I also managed to make a minor contribution to the day by find a Least Sandpiper with a couple of local Killdeer.

Year Birds: Black-necked Stilt and Least Sandpiper

The very smart, male Black-necked Stilt that graced West Cape May for several days. The previous earliest date for New Jersey was April 4th.

March 31st
After two and a half days in which three and a half inches of rain deluged down on Cape May Point, the sun finally ensured that March just about went out like a lamb as it's supposed to do. My second Wednesday morning walk started chilly and a little cloudy but the weather rapidly improved and we all had a nice look at a good range of bird species. We found a male Eurasian Wigeon still present on Lighthouse Pond, which had been missed over the last few days, and we noted that the American Wigeon numbers had tailed right off to just 11 birds now. A nice find here for me was a Racoon which was mooching around right out in the open and showed very well for those of us who still get excited about such things! Later, we added another mammal to the Lighthouse Pond list as we watched two River Otters feeding on fish which they seemed to catch with consummate ease.

Later in the morning, Don Freiday and I went up to Erma to look at trolley buses in preparation for the World Series of Birding's Century Run and got lucky with two female Wild Turkeys (sorry, that sounds bad - we just saw them, OK?!) along Shunpike Road - no camera though of course! A few other birds came my way later, including one of the Black-headed Gulls now in almost full breeding plumage at the concrete ship with Bonaparte's Gulls and Forster's Terns, the Peregrine perched on his favourite water tower, four breeding-plumaged Greater Yellowlegs at the Rea Farm and another two along Sunset Boulevard (there really is plenty of habitat for them with all the flooded fields that are around!) and a little flock of Purple Martins and Tree Swallows back at The Beanery now that the weather is better again.

In the evening, Megan and I got some well-needed exercise by walking over to West Cape May to see the Black-necked Stilt - and this turned out to be the last time that he was seen!

Year bird: Wild Turkey
House Bird: Laughing Gull - several small groups flew east along the canal in the evening.

A drive down to Two Mile Landing will often reveal gatherings of American Herirng Gulls; parking up on the side and observing will soon reveal what is going on. This is a classic location to watch birds that have learned to utilise the world around them to their best advantage. The gulls patrol the saltmarsh and dig out mussels and clams, exposed at high tide....

They carry the shellfish up into the air and then, with a reasonable level of accuracy,....

....drop them onto the hard road surface....

....with a predictable outcome for the poor shellfish!

You have to be careful what you're doing when photographing gulls; this bird came so close that I ended up waving the camera lens out of the window to prevent it from dropping its lunch on top of my car! Still its nice to have it close enough to be able to identify the shellfish as an Atlantic Ribbed Mussel Geukensia demissa. 

A few more trees are coming into flower now; this is Box-elder or Ash-leaved Maple Acer negundo which is a fairly common roadside tree in gardens around Cape May. Note the classic, dangly flowers typical of a wind-pollinated species.

Another wind-pollinated tree with dangly flowers is Grey Poplar Populus x canescens, a common European introduction which spreads rapidly from root suckers and forms dense thickets along the edges of marshy ground. Wind-pollinated trees typically flower early, when there are no leaves to inhibit pollen dispersal and this also allows them to get going earlier in the year as they don't have to wait for insects to appear.

This is one plant I really was pleased to find, though it is an introduction from Europe (still no native wild flowers other than the Skunk-cabbage!). This is Jagged Chickweed Holosteum umbellatum which over the last week I have found at three different locations around Cape Island. The reason I was particularly pleased to find it is that it is a species that was last seen in the UK in 1930 and is now considered extinct there. I had half-heartedly kept an eye out for it for several years as its previous stronghold was in East Anglia, where it was recorded regularly from 1765 to 1889 but it seems to have been lost. Recent thinking is that it perhaps never was native in the UK as sightings were rather scattered with no obvious pattern, and largely involved plants growing in man-made or disturbed habitats, such as roadsides and old walls.