Tuesday, May 25, 2010

May Madness

May has turned into mayhem for me, resulting in almost no time at all for such treats as writing a blog!! What with depressingly selfish behavior from our neighbours (who say we are selfish because we put up a fence and stopped them trespassing on our land) which may yet get worse, coupled with an almost complete lack of days off, I haven't had time to do much at all. However, living at Cape May, means it's possible to snatch the odd moment here or there and even find nice things on the way to work. The month started OK, so here's some notes on the first half of the month.

May 1st
Megan and I started the month with a trip up to Belleplain State Forest at the north end of the county. Though we didn't get there until after most of the morning song had finished, we did pick up a few nice things, including a startlingly black-and-yellow male Hooded Warbler, Great views of a singing male Louisiana Waterthrush and a life bird for me - a calling Acadian Flycatcher. Particularly notable today were the Ovenbirds which seemed to be singing from every piece of woodland we visited.

Another violet for the list - Bird's-foot Violet, here along Jake's Landing Road. Note the diagnostic, orange centre to the flowers and the almost digitate leaves.

Male Blue-grey Gnatcatcher sporting his breeding refinery with a black eyebrow to set off his blue crown.

Careful checking of the trees in Belleplain State Forest found us this amazing Blue-grey Gnatcatcher nest - here with the female onboard. Gnatcatcher nests are amazing structures that stand up on top of a branch like a small pot. They are carefully camouflaged by the birds, who use carefully chosen lichens to blend them into the surroundings.

Tony Leukering came over for a meal at our house in the evening and repaid us by picking out a fly-over Solitary Sandpiper. Well worth a couple of beers!

Year Bird: Acadian Flycatcher
House Bird: Solitary Sandpiper

May 2nd
I had intended to get cracking on preparation for our new upstairs bathroom today but - as my diary says - birds just kept getting in the way of progress! The first text message that came through in the morning was of a Roseate Tern, reported from the Meadows; this turned out to be a sub-adult Forster's Tern with a dark bill, but it had to be checked out. Back to the bathroom - but not for long; this time, a White-faced Ibis was reported from Cape May Airport, on a flooded area close to the perimeter fence on Breakwater Road. We shot straight out in the car, but it was only when we got there that I realised that I hadn't brushed up on what I was supposed to be looking for! These birds are very similar to Glossy Ibis, a common migrant here. Luckily, Karl Lukens was on hand and we talked through the features as we scanned the birds, Eventually we clapped eyes on the right bird, a drab looking bird and the only which was, for some reason, still in winter plumage. The pool also held two Pectoral Sandpipers and a good number of Least Sandpipers and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.

So, that left the afternoon free for working on the bathroom.... Wrong! Gail Dwyer put the mockers on that by finding a first-year male Painted Bunting in her yard in Avalon!!! Like White-faced Ibis, this is a species that should be further south and west of here - but nobody told the birds that! A nice social occasion with a small gathering of the local regulars present. The drive back gave me a Clapper Rail on Nummy's Island.

Year birds: White-faced Ibis, Painted Bunting, Clapper Rail

White-faced Ibis at Cape May County Airport. The bird stayed too far away to get good photos, but in this picture (hopefully!) the red eye and pink skin between the eye and bill can be seen. We also noted how the back looks more bronzy in colour than is usual for Glossy Ibis. For anyone not up to speed on separating the two species, however, this was an easy bird as it was the only ibis present that wasn't in full adult breeding plumage!

Painted Bunting at a garden feeder in Avalon. First thought to be a female because of its overall green appearance, the bird was heard singing on several occasions and closer inspection revealed a few blue feather on the head. A classic overshooting, spring, first-summer male. 

May 3rd
Another day like yesterday. I did try really hard to get on with preparation work for the bathroom, honest! I lasted a bit longer today and get a fiar bot done in the afternoon, but Tony Leukering reported a Northern Bobwhite calling from a tiny, overgrown plot of land just next to his house on the bayshore in Villas. This species is getting very scarce indeed in Cape May County so I had to give it a try. Tony and I hung out on the beach for a while, keeping an ear out for the bobwhite, but mostly getting blown away by my first encounters with live Horseshoe Crabs - outrageous beasts! The crabs will peak later in the month, but already, good numbers were starting to come in to shore to lay their batches of eggs. Back at the house, Tony got a phone call and I wandered outside, just in time to see the Northern Bobwhite rocket skyward and thrash off over the rooftops - bizarre!

The aliens have landed!! The first Horseshoe Crab saunters onto a Delaware Bay beach and a drama that has been played out for millions of years is about to begin. Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs breed from Maine all the way south to Mexico, but it's in Delaware Bay where they reach their greatest density.

Pairing up takes place in the shallow waters of the bay, but couples venturing onto shore often find they aren't alone for long...

More May madness!! Here, three males compete to be number one in this females life. Note how much bigger the female is than the males.

The first male to latch onto a female holds firm by using a specially adapted front leg which has a thumb-like claw with long nail attached. This clamps onto the rear of the female's shell and holds good and firm. Note the Slipper Limpets attached to the underside of the female's shell (top left).

The perils of a water-borne creature on land are often plain to see. The washing of the waves often flips the Horseshoe Crabs over and, if left inverted like this, they will probably die, either of dessication or simply through not being able to breath. They are also vulnerable to attack by the larger gull species. Tony and I spent much of the evening walking along and flipping these poor creatures back over.

Our back yard had its moments today too. We started with a Black Rat Snake which turned up on a craggy tree stump and used the rough bark to help get the shedding of its skin started. Not only was I able to watch the whole thing from dstart to finish, but I called up my little sister and her family on skype and they watched the action live over the airwaves! An Orchard Oriole seems to be setting up territory in our yard, while later in the afternoon, Least Tern became my 200th species in Cape May County this year.

Year bird: Northern Bobwhite, Orchard Oriole, Least Tern

Black Rat Snake slipping out of something less comfortable! Note how you can see the thinner tail making its way out of the stocking of old skin. Glad we don't have to go through this!

Here the snake seems to be checking on progress. The animal cleverly used a rough spur on the dead branch to snag the skin onto, then simply kept moving forwards and slid out of the skin in one go.

Once the skin is off, it is inside out - like a sock that's been rolled off the foot. Perhaps the most amazing part of the whole process is that even the skin covering the eyes is shed! Here, the two whitish cups that covered the eyes can be seen. Usually, the first sign that a snake will soon be sloughing its skin is when the eyes go opaque. This happens when the outer layer of skin separates away in preparation for shedding.

May 4th
A busy day at work. but nevertheless some nice highlights which included a Swallow-tailed Kite that made it onto my office window list and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, visiting the Trumpet Honeysuckle on the front fence at work. An American Snout butterfly was a nice, early-season find too.

American Snout. This species is named after the long labial palps that stick out in front of the head.

Year Bird: Ruby-throated Hummingbird

May 5th
We upped the anti again on the Wednesday morning walk with a respectable 67 species. Both Yellow and Black-and-white Warblers showed well, Broad-winged Hawks cicrcled on a thermal overhead, two Royal Terns flew through and we enjoyed two Great Crested Flycatchers and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Birds at the feeders at work this morning included a smart pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and a superb adult male American Redstart.

A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak poses right outside my office window (will I ever get the weekly reconciliation done?!)

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak didn't give me such a good photo opportunity and the feeders were in the shade, but you get the general idea - a snazzy bird!

Year birds: Broad-winged Hawk and Royal Tern

May 6th
A noticeably quiet day for birds today, but the occasional look out of the Northwood Center windows during the day did provide me with my first Blackpoll Warbler of spring. A lunchtime walk round the Cape Island Preserve was rather quiet, but the Red-winged Blackbirds were as feisty as ever, a few Eastern Kingbirds showed signs of breeding and I flushed a Wilson's Snipe from a boggy hollow.

Displaying male Red-winged Blackbird - a sight to behold at first, but just wait until they have young in the nest and they start attacking passers' by!

Year bird: Blackpoll Warbler

May 7th
Friday - a day off! I took an early drive up to Belleplain State Forest, primarily to photograph plants, but also just to enjoy this fabulous place. Woodland plants along the road verges were starting to bloom and species such as Cinnamon Fern were looking particularly at their best. In the butterfly line, Red-spotted Purples were much in evidence, while one of the old dirt roads provided me with my first eastern Pine Elfin. Ovenbirds and Wood Thrushes sang all over the place - though mostly remained typically well hidden. My route took me right up to the border with Atlantic County, up near a wonderful Pine Barrens lake called Tarkiln Pond. A scrubby, open area here had some obliging Chipping Sparrows and Orchard Orioles and the road into Estell Manor in Atlantic County (but along the Cape May County bit!) was a real hotbed of activity with Scarlet Tanager, Northern Parula and Hooded Warbler all found along with other delights.

Harlequin Darner is best told by the pattern of deep yellow and blue-green markings on the abdomen. This is a common spring species here.

Lancet Clubtail along Head of River Road near Belleplain.

Aurora Damsel is best told from the many other blue species in the region by the lack of a blue spot on the back of the eye and the yellow blaze on the side of the thorax. I did my best to make both features pretty hard to see here!

Note easily missed, Painted Skimmers are common around Belleplain at the moment, especially along forest tracks.

Horace's Duskywing - a butterfly worth seeing for the name alone!

Eastern Pine Elfin on a dirt road in Belleplain State Forest. The pine elfins are rather sombre compared to the closely-related hairstreaks, but they still brighten up any spring walk in the woods.
A real show off, Red-spotted Purples are large butterflies related to the admirals. Their colours closely resemble those of swallowtails, many of which are poisonous to predators, so this species is probably benefiting from fooling would-be attackers into leaving it alone (a nice piece of Batesian Mimicry for the boffins out there!!).

This Spicebush Swallowtail was found dead on the side of the road, presumably killed by a passing car. I couldn't resist a close-up picture of the underside of the hindwing with its peacock-like eyespots.

Adult five-lined Skinks sport reddish heads, while youngsters have blue tails - why not, it's a free country!

A bird at last! Belleplain is a tough place to photograph birds, especially now that all the leaves are back on the trees. However, a pair of White-eyed Vireos foraged right beside me for a while so it seemed only fair to let them pose for me!

Back home in the late afternoon, a message came through that a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had been found at Hidden Valley - just a half mile from the house! Before long, I was there, enjoying a bird so exotic that it was hard to believe that it wasn't an escaped cage bird!

Year bird: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

What a bird! Exotic enough to warm the heart of any hardened lister, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher posing along New England Road, just half a mile from home, is certainly a sight to behold! The long, forked tail that gives the bird its name can just be seen projecting beyond the foliage to the left.

May 8th
Another day off, but it was so windy that it didn't feel like a good day to go birding, so I hung around at home working on the bathroom - at last! - and sorting through a big backlog of photos from April. As it turned out, being around the house proved to be the right thing to do as the best bird of the day took a turn around our garden. A Mississippi Kite was found feeding over the Rea Farm, then was reported heading north. I went outside for a check round and found the bird hunting dragonflies low over the trees along the south side of the canal. A fine, pale-headed adult, it put on a magnificent display as it circled round and passed right over our house. I ran in to get the camera but it did the inevitable disappearing trick. A party of six Semipalmated Plovers flew north as small compensation.

Year birds: Mississippi Kite, Semipalmated Plover
House Bird: Mississippi Kite

May 9th
Very windy all day and not condusive to being out. A brief look at the meadows lunchtime did get me my first Common Terns of the year, cowering on a mud bar with the Forster's Terns!

It was so windy today that the Cape May Point State Park's Purple Martin colony had all settled on the leeward side of the museum roof. Here, two males and two females ride out the worst of the weather.

Year bird: Common Tern

May 10th
Although a work day, the run of birds I saw today was really rather nice and strongly suggested that the main spring push is really about to happen. Cape May has two periods of good songbird movement; the first is when local breeding birds arrive from the south and set up territory, the second comes when birds that breed much further north pass through. This second wave tends to bring more birds to the point, as local breeding birds drop straight into their territories, while birds heading further north still have a way to go and seem more prone to being drifted to the point by prevailing wind conditions. Just from my office window I was able to enjoy Common Yellowthroat, Blue-headed Vireo, Blackpoll Warbler and two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, while a scan of Lily Lake from the front windows revealed Cliff and Barn Swallows and a couple of Sand Martins over the water. At lunchtime, a walk around the grassy field at Hidden Valley that has been left unploughed got me a party of eight Bobolinks, seven of which were males in full breeding plumage.

Year bird: Bobolink

May 12th
Wednesday, so the regular morning walk around Cape May Point State Park was the order of the day. We logged 69 species again this week, starting with a nice overhead flight of mixed parties of shorebirds, including Ruddy Turnstone, Short-billed Dowitcher and Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Highlight among the songbirds seen was a male Yellow-breasted Chat which sat up and sang in full view for quite some time. A first-summer male Baltimore Oriole appeared in the trees at work during the morning and the first House Finches fledged and followed dad to our feeders at work.

With all the weird stuff going on at home, I needed a walk in the evening to clear my head. I took a walk down the road to Hidden Valley and found plenty to get my head into a better place. Some 30 Bobolinks were in the middle field, along with a male Blue Grosbeak and several Indigo Buntings. At least 20 Eastern Kingbirds were hunting insects from soil clods in the ploughed fields and a boggy hollow in the third field held a good number of birds, including three Least Sandpipers, one Solitary Sandpiper, one Lesser Yellowlegs and three Glossy Ibis. A nice surprise find was an adult Yellow-crowned Night Heron in the willows around the pond at the south end of the site.

Year birds: Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Narrow-leaved Blue-eyed-grass in Cape May Point State Park.

This Grey Catbird seems to be developing the habits of a European Robin! He's becoming a regular feature of my wanderings in the state park and can often be found hanging around the staff vehicles while Matt and his team are working on the vegetation.

May 13th
A short venture out into the garden before work was fruitful this morning as Blue Grosbeak and Cliff Swallow were seen quite quickly, Indigo Buntings were in full song, a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers were checking out holes in our Silver Maple and a male Orchard Oriole was picking leafhopper nymphs from the docks across the street. Not a bad way to start a working day! At lunchtime I wandered into the back of the magnasite plant and found that the beach dunes had sprung another surprise on me. Having seen the dunes ablaze with the white flowers of Beach Plum a few weeks, now it was all change to glorious yellow as low mounds of Woolly Hudsonia were blooming their little heads off.

Difficult to photograph whilst down among the docks, this Orchard Oriole had learned to dig the leafhopper nymphs out of the globs of 'cuckoo spit' on the dock stems (you can see a white blob of it by the bird's left foot). This bird and his mate look like they might nest in our yard.

Swathes of pink-tinged Foxtail Barley flowers carpet waste ground at the Magnasite Plant.

Bright yellow patches of flowering Woolly Hudsonia transform the dunes for a second time this spring, following the Beach Plum show last month.

A close-up of Woolly Hudsonia flowers. Hudsonias are in the Rock-rose family (Cistaceae) which is easy to tell from the flowers, but not from the foliage.

Drasteria graphica is a rather smart moth which can be seen flying in coastal dunes during the day and whose larvae feed on Woolly Hudsonia.

In the afternoon, a Green Heron on Lily Lake was a nice addition to the work list, while a quick look off Coral Avenue gave me an Arctic Skua out with the feeding terns in the rips.

Work duties took me up to our other centre at Goshen in the evening, but this gave me a chance to have a look round the wildlife gardens there. A couple of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were chasing around the Trumpet Honeysuckle, with the male going into a full-on display flight for a while. Four Cedar Waxwings flew over, a Wood Thrush was singing in the distance and a Black-crowned Night Heron passed by.

Year birds: Arctic Skua, Black-crowned Night Heron
House birds: Blue Grosbeak, Cliff Swallow

Green Heron at Lily Lake - a really corking little heron!

May 14th
Perfect! Mid-May, peak migration time and what happens - perfect South-west winds! In such conditions, the field edges at Higbee's Beach is the place to be, and it's only a mile from our house! Megan and I worked all the regular spots and soon found some great birds, with some stunning spring warblers in gaudy breeding colours. Blackburnian, Magnolia, Wilson's, Chestnut-sided, Yellow and Blackpoll Warblers, Northern Parula, American Redstart and Yellow-breasted Chat stole the show on the warbler front and we also enjoyed Red-eyed Vireo, Least Flycatcher, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a flock of 22 Cedar Waxwings. Our yard once again came good too, with a calling Willow Flycatcher sitting up in the Silk Trees, a Red-eyed Vireo in song and a Bobolink in the rough ground across the road. There seemed to be something of a Merlin migration today as I saw two fly north over the garden in the evening and one had passed over me at Cove Pool shortly after work.

A male Bobolink in the middle field at Hidden Valley - a very different beast to the buffy birds that pass through on autumn migration.

Another Bobolink stands sentinel in a mulberry tree.

The Red Knots are coming! These six Red Knots wheeled in around Cape May Point today, signalling the start of one of the world's most amazing wildlife spectaculars. With the Horseshoe Crabs now egg-laying along the Delaware Bay and the shorebirds winging their way in from South America, the stage is set for May Madness on the bayshore!