Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spring Birds, Beasts & Bugs

April 8th
This memorable day has already been mentioned in the last post - the day of the Brown-headed Nuthatch! A warm, south-westerly airflow no doubt played a big part in providing us with this smart little bird - and also the two amazing Swallow-tailed Kites, which were actually heading back south when they were seen at Cape May Point and I was there to watch them flapping and gliding out over Delaware Bay in their inimitable dancing flight style. Oddly enough, they weren't seen at all from Delaware, on the other side of the bay (much to the annoyance of local birders!) so perhaps they continued offshore for a while before cutting back in further south. The appearance of these two birds followed at least four reports from further north in New Jersey over the previous week or ten days, but most reports were from single observers with no supporting photos so the state records committee were beginning to get a little frustrated - particularly as the reports were exceptionally early.

Year Birds: Brown-headed Nuthatch, Swallow-tailed Kite

This Black Rat Snake appeared two mornings running right outside my office window, sunning itself on one of the iron chimney ties. It seems likely that it had spent the winter holed up in the side of the building somewhere.

Thoughts of walking down to the pond at Higbee's Beach to look for frogs one evening were scuppered when it transpired that, even in wellies, we couldn't get there! This is the track that leads from field 5 to the back pond at Higbee's, an area that normally is a good spot for orchids in September. Hopefully they'll survive this extreme period of flooding.

My so-far fruitless quest to see a Spring Peeper continues, but the flood waters at Higbee's did give me photo opportunities of Northern Cricket Frogs. For some reason, these little guys seem to tolerate a close approach if you're careful.

Back at the beginning of the year, a Great Horned Owl was seen several times, hanging out near the Bird Observatory store. It seems likely that that bird was a roosting male, while this is the female of the same pair. We chanced upon the nest by accident one day, which had been built somewhere pretty public, presumably during the difficult weather conditions when some areas were inaccessible to Humans for a while. I've put this picture up now as the chicks are just about ready to leave the nest and will be far less subject to disturbance. Many owl chicks leave the nest long before they can fly and are then known as 'branchers'. They happily troll about in the tree tops until their flight feathers grow, but sometimes end up falling to the ground. Their parents will still attend them during this period, so any owl chick that appears 'lost or abandoned' at this time should be left where it is. (Actually, if you can do it safely, without getting hurt yourself (!) it doesn't hurt to put a grounded chick at least up on a branch where they are safer from ground predators such as foxes or raccoons - but be aware that same parent owls can and will attack you at this stage).

April 10th
Megan and I took a spin up to Belleplain State Forest, in the north of the county, today. On the way up Route 47, I spotted a group of Wild Turkeys which we were able to get pretty close to. Though the male was displaying to several females and putting on a great show, I didn't get much in the way of photos as the light just wasn't good enough.

The best Wild Turkey shot I managed to get this morning. Unfortunately he had finished his full-on tail-fanning display by the time I got a good camera angle.

Unfortunately, the recent run of warm and sunny weather came to an end today (though it did brighten up again later) so the hoped-for plethora of wood-warblers didn't put in an appearance and they mostly seemed to be sulking in the undergrowth. Still, we did get the species we were after with some great views of Yellow-throated Warblers nest-building and some fine song from a Louisiana Waterthrush.
Well-wooded streams around Belleplain State Forest make ideal breeding habitat for Louisiana Waterthrushes.

Like so many North American plants, Atlantic White Cedar is wrongly named if you're a purist and - to the naturalist at least - the tree doesn't even bear a passing resemblance to a true cedar tree. However, it should be remembered that such trees were almost certainly not named by naturalists, but by settlers learning to live off the land, and this tree (like so many here) was probably named after the qualities and uses of its wood. Tall, stately groves of this tree line many a water course in Cape May County and, though virtually every single white cedar in the county was felled at one point, the species is recovering well and future generations may again see some forest giants in years to come.

Protected from the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, Belleplain's forest flowers bloom a little earlier than those down at Cape May Point. My first spring visit to the north of the county thus, finally, gave me some native wildflowers to enjoy, including the subtle pink flowers of Trailing Arbutus. This species often hugs the ground so tightly that you have to rummage through the leaf litter to find it!

Americans are nothing if not helpful - and this is really helpful. We stopped off at East Creek Pond, beside Route 347, hoping to find Golden-club - and discovered that we couldn't really miss it; if only all things were this easy to find!!

Golden-club is an early-flowering member of the arum family that occurs along the edges of freshwater lakes, river and streams. As is so often the case with the arum family, there's something just a little too weird about it!

North America (especially the eastern seaboard) has a wealth of trees and shrubs compared with the UK, resulting in a wonderful array of flowers in early spring, before the leaves emerge. This is a just-emerging cluster of Sassafras flowers, rich in nectar for early-season insects.

North America has a group of dark-winged lycaenid butterflies, related to the hairstreaks and known as elfins. They're all rather small and easily missed, but have wonderful underwing markings once you get a good look at them. This is my first Henry's Elfin (what a great name!) found at Belleplain State Forest.

When we got back home mid-afternoon, we discovered that the Brown-headed Nuthatch had been showing well, having gone missing during the wet weather yesterday. Megan still hadn't seen it, so we headed straight for the end of Cape Avenue and were soon enjoying some great views (and photo opportunities!). We also picked up on a Solitary Sandpiper beside Bayshore Road on the way down and, on the way back home, three Western Cattle Egrets were along Stephens Street.

Three Western Cattle Egrets at Willow Creek Vineyard on Stephens Street. This is still an uncommon bird at Cape May, although they have bred in the county in the past.

A closer look at one of the egrets as it gains its breeding plumes reveals why the species was once known as Buff-backed Heron.

Year Birds: Yellow-throated Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Solitary Sandpiper

April 11th
It says in my diary "Megan is a pooh!" but I can't remember why I wrote that now!! A nice day for producing a smattering of April surprises; a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher was calling from the back of the garden first thing and a Snowy Egret flew over Bayshore Road. A quick look at Sunset Beach gave some nice close views of Northern Gannets and the chance sighting of a single immature Great Cormorant. Blue-grey Gnatcatchers are clearly on the move as I added the species to my 'office window list', as well as a superb male Northern Harrier - not a bad thing to get soaring past your window at work! Another three Northern Harriers were at the Magnasite Plant lunchtime.

It's been a while since 'skunkheads' appeared on my blog, so here's a line of Surf Scoters heading out past the concrete ship this morning.

Northern Gannets are on the move in big numbers now. Adults currently dominate the scene, but soon they will be replaced by young birds, taking a more leisurely return route north as many of them won't be sexually mature yet.

This young Great Cormorant was a nice surprise find before work as it slipped quietly out of Delaware Bay this morning.

Northern Harrier flying right over my head at the Magnasite Plant.

At home in the evening, a Mourning Cloak was hanging out around our Chinese Elm and we saw Barn Swallow, Purple Martin and Belted Kingfisher flying over. Megan had added Chipping Sparrow to the house list earlier in the day too, while my drive to work revealed an increase to four Western Cattle Egrets along Stephens Street.

Mourning Cloak (aka Camberwell Beauty in the UK) sunning on our lawn.

Our new garden bench is proving to be a great place to sit and enjoy wildlife. Our local pair of Downy Woodpeckers (here the female with no red on her head) have certainly got used to us being there - I took this picture without even having to get up!

Problems with adapting my UK moth trap to run in the USA persist because of the ballast systems required to run mercury-vapour bulbs. So my mothing hasn't really started yet, though the odd one comes to the back door, such as this Speckled Green Fruitworm Moth....

....and this Norman's Quaker.

House Birds: Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Snowy Egret, Chipping Sparrow, Purple Martin

April 12th
Sunny, but with a cooling East wind off the Atlantic Ocean, which put a stop to the run of warm weather we've been enjoying. A lone Western Cattle Egret was at the Rea Farm this morning, and I got out of my car just in time to see an immature Bald Eagle steam in and attempt to rob an Osprey of its catch. The eagle followed the (inevitably) dropped fish down to the ground, but unfortunately the bird (and fish!) landed somewhere where I couldn't see it. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet at work and Snowy Egret on Lily Lake showed that a trickle of migrants was still arriving. At lunch time, I checked some grassy areas in the centre of Cape May town to look for botanical treats and found a nice array of introduced species that were all familiar to me from back home in the UK. Many of these European aliens are under-recorded over here as they are often not illustrated in the local wildflower books (or even - in several cases - included in the book but with confusing or even wrong details). Thus the rather small and sometimes tricky species such as the smaller vetches, mouse-ears, forget-me-nots etc are rather poorly known over here, even though some are very common.

Not a native plant to be seen! Artificial, man-made or man-influenced habitats tend to be frequently disturbed and transitory in nature and it takes a certain type of plant to tolerate this. European plants have had a lot longer to get used to the ways of man and, when introduced (usually inadvertently) to other parts of the world, they soon exclude native species from such areas. A typical roadside verge or lawn edge around Cape May right now will be a riot of colour, provided by Common Dandelion, Red Dead-nettle and Common Field Speedwell. In the picture above, a patch of Common Bugle has joined the party too. (By the way, note the hideously invasive Japanese Honeysuckle coming up in the background too.)

A classic example of a tiny, and therefore easily overlooked, plant. Spring Vetch is widespread and quite common in suitable habitat throughout much of the Cape May area, yet I have so far found no published records of it for the county. The species is quite similar to Common Vetch (of the smaller form nigra) but has at best a relatively short, unbranched tendril at the tip of the leaf (just visible at the top of the picture).

For comparison, here's Common Vetch of the form sativa. Note the larger, more uniformly-coloured flower (though many Cape May populations seem to have a pale centre to the flower) and, especially, the three-pronged tendril at the top of the leaf.

Currently flowering in abundance aound Cape May, Large Yellow Vetch is a European species that has become well established in arable and other disturbed ground. Despite its name, the flowers are generally not noticeably yellow; they start a rich old gold colour, fading quickly as they open through pale yellow to creamy, almost white. Many plants also have a purplish tinge to the veins which can become more noticeable as the flower ages. 

Field Madder in a Cape May park. Many European arable weeds have exploited lawns around Cape May as the species of grasses used here tend to die back more during harsh winter conditions, providing bare areas not normally found in British lawns.

This one's a real yawner - you could forgive anyone for not bothering to look at this one too long! A Small-flowered Buttercup in full, glorious flower; actually this one's a showy one as it does have one petal - many flowers of this species are completely petalless!

Tiny and unobtrusive in isolation, the European Small-flowered Forget-me-not often grows in abundance on Cape May lawns, giving a soft blue haze to the turf.

In the evening, I found three Chimney Swifts soaring over the garden (whilst giving our old neighbours, David and Sheila from Sheringham, a guided tour of the property via Skype!), then rubbed up one of the bikes that we had bought back from Megan's parents' house and went for a quick spin to try it out. This proved very fortuitous as I had only gone as far as Hidden Valley when I spotted a female Wild Turkey over near the canal. Thrashing home as fast as I could, I dragged Megan upstairs and managed to get the turkey onto the house list (no, not a euphamism!) though sadly it walked into a briar patch before Megan caught sight of it.

Year Bird: Chimney Swift

House Birds: Chimney Swift, Wild Turkey

April 13th
A rather grey day with some light showers in the afternoon. Not great weather as such, but the kind of weather, associated with a weak front, that can bring birds. Indeed, a list of birds seen from the store today while I worked added up to 32 species, including Osprey, Snowy Egret, Forster's Tern, Tree Swallow and Barn Swallow.

April 15th
For the second time this week, I arrived just in time to see a Bald Eagle (this time an adult) powering in to rob an Osprey of its hard-earned breakfast. This time, the action was taking place right in front of me as I arrived at work. Unfortunately for the birds, they both lost out because the Osprey dropped the fish into someone's back yard so the only beneficiaries were probably the local Fish Crows! A lunchtime walk at The Beanery gave me a nice range of spring butterflies, including Grey Hairstreak, several Orange Sulphurs and a very tatty-looking Monarch on what is a particularly early date for the species. What is remarkable to ponder on is the fact that such a battered individual, this early in the season, will clearly have emerged last year, so this one has flapped its way all the way up from Mexico - not bad for a mere butterfly!

A Grey Hairstreak pauses on a European Field Pansy - yes, it's in flower in early April so it's an alien plant!

My first dragonfly of the year turned out to be Blue Corporal at The Beanery - this one's a brown female though.

In the evening, a stroll around The Meadows produced a single Glossy Ibis in nice evening light, two Wilson's Snipe, a scattering of Blue-winged Teal and a singing Common Yellowthroat. Two Tree Swallows were hawking insects along Bayshore Road with Barn Swallows later.

A lone Glossy Ibis has been hanging out at The Meadows for several days now. The mahogany and metallic green of this species is always a fine sight.

Male Blue-winged Teal at The Meadows. This species peaks at Cape May in late April, after most of the wintering ducks have moved back north.

Year Bird: Common Yellowthroat

House Bird: Tree Swallow

April 16th
A day off work, but busy with things around the house. I did get some time out in the garden though (most of which was spent putting up the first run of fencing we need to erect) which allowed me to add a couple of birds to the list; in the morning, a Hermit Thrush popped up and showed nicely. In the afternoon, I had a nice stroke of luck while putting in the post and rail fence, when four Northern Rough-winged Swallows dropped in and actually landed in a small Silk Tree right beside me! So another note to self - always carry a camera and descent-sized lens whilst erecting fencing!!

House birds: Hermit Thrush, Northern Rough-winged Swallow

April 17th
Headed north a little into the middle of the county today, mostly to do some botanising, but I did also find a nice array of butterflies, including an absolutely faultless Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Juvenal's Duskywing, Henry's Elfin and Falcate Orange-tip. These were all in the drier, mixed/pinewood area near Rio Grande. Further north, at a spot off Indian Trail Road, I found a really nice area of deciduous swamp woodland with some fabulous tall Tulip Trees, several Flowering Dogwoods and a few nice native plants in flower - at last!! Yes, It was beginning to get frustrating recording only alien species in flower, but the local guys are starting to catch up now.

Time to start tucking the trousers into the socks!! Yes, come spring, come the ticks, though the paranoia, verging on hysteria about them from some people is a bit daft. Yes, some of the populations carry some pretty unpleasant disease such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease, but regular checking and care in the field means you can still get out and about without getting too crazy. Actually, rather than tucking trousers in socks, I find a good way to avoid getting bitten by ticks is to wear shorts - ticks always wander around a bit before settling on a spot to bite (sometimes for up to an hour) so if you have bare legs you can easily feel them tickling your leg and just get rid of them. By the way, this is an American Dog Tick - a particularly attractive species!

Juvenal's Duskywing - not everyone's idea of a gaily-coloured butterfly!

That's more like it - big, colourful and easy to see! This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was so freshly-emerged that it still had that 'just out of the box' look. I found it taking mineral salts from damp mud at Rio Grande.

Actually, I think that if you took away the bright, colourful wings of butterflies, people really wouldn't like them all that much - this close up of the same swallowtail really looks a little too alien for my liking!!

I disturbed this Eyed Baileya moth in woodland along Indian Trail Road, which gave me a chance to study a species that is often hard to find during the day as it puts on a good impression of a dead leaf or piece of wood.
April 19th
One thing I had learned from botanising in the UK is that cemeteries tend to be good places for plants - so long as they don't massacre the grass too much in some peculiar attempt to make the cemetery look as un-natural and boring as possible. It has long intreagued me that cemeteries are often thought of as 'God's Acre', yet would He really want all His creations shaved to death and replaced with a boring manicured sheet of species-poor, introduced lawn? Well, according to some, yes!! Fortunately some cemetery caretakers are less short-sighted and the fact that cemeteries are often pretty old and usually haven't had the land ploughed for a long time (if at all) means that they often become refuges for species that otherwise are in decline. This evening I walked around Cold Spring cemetery, just north of the Cape May Canal and found a nice array of plant species. Though many of these were non-natives, the majority were rather small, subtle species and not likely to become invasives.

Though native to North America, Moss Phlox is almost certainly not native to Cape May, but great sheets of it make a fine sight in the short turf at Cold Spring Cemetery.
April 20th
A nice start to the day with a White-eyed Vireo in song in the garden - though as this is my first spring here, the words "What the bejesus is that?" were spinning around in my skull until I managed to get a look at the little tyke! My office window got in on the action again today too, with a smart breeding-plumaged male Black-and-white Warbler poking around outside. Over the last few days, there's been an influx of American Goldfinches back into the area, the bulk having skiddadled south when the bad weather hit early in the year.

Now there's a bird worthy of being called a goldfinch! American Goldfinches are pretty stunning creatures to have visiting your garden feeders - this one's right outside my office window.

House bird: White-eyed Vireo

Year Bird: Black-and-white Warbler (Megan and I had seen this species at Easter in Pennsylvania but I aim to keep a year list of species solely seen in Cape May County this year).

The year list now stands at 160 and the house list is 76.