Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spring Has Sprung....

Spring has sprung, the grass has ris', I wonder where the birdie is! Well, the birdies are all over Cape May at the moment. After a stop-go start, April has really produced some fine birding here - as well as other great wildlife, so here we go with the rest of April's highlights - and there's quite a few!

Something special happens in the Cape May dunes in the middle of April - the Beach Plum blooms its head off and the dunes suddenly become a very different place. Gone is the austerity of winter, replaced by the exhuberance of spring. This plant was almost completely buried by shifting sands and, though only rising about two feet above the ground, it is probably a very old specimen. 

Many of the Beach Plum plants have been beaten into prostrate form by a lifetime of on shore winds and the branches spread out low to the surface of the dunes.

Beach Plum blossom against a cloudless blue sky reminds me of sunny, late April days in the UK, where Blackthorn flowers thickly in the hedgerows.

A typical Beach Plum. A single sand mound like this builds up as wind blown sand settles around the base of a plant. Thus, it is quite likley that this large patch of Beach Plum actually consists of a single, very old plant.

Close up of Beach Plum blossom. Many - though not all - Beach Plums have pink buds which open white.

A nice surprise for me - and one of my best finds of the month - was a large colony of Tiny Bluets Houstonia pusilla in Cold Spring. This is a native species for which there appears to be no previous records for New Jersey.

April 21st
A nice start to the day, with a Common Loon (Great Northern Diver) flying north over the house and a Willet flying west along the canal. Eastern Willets breed in New Jersey but winter further south and are now just starting to arrive back with us. The Wednesday morning walk at the point produced at least five Common Yellowthroats in song and a Pectoral Sandpiper on the Plover Ponds. At least 15 Northern Bottle-nosed Dolphins were close offshore, attracting a throng of attendant Northern Gannets. At least eight Willets flew north, calling. At work a mystery buzzy bird song (at least, it was a mystery to me!) turned out to be coming from a fine male Prairie Warbler.

The diggings under our shed continues, so another go with the cage trap seemed in order - this time I caught a rather sorry-looking Raccoon, so I let him go on his way.

Northern Raccoon. Amazing how innocent they can look when they're not stealing your bird feeders!

Year birds: Willet, Pectoral Sandpiper, Prairie Warbler.
House Birds: Common Loon, Willet

April 22nd
A pre-work walk around the garden provided me with a fly-over pair of Blue-winged Teal and a singing male Common Yellowthroat. What had been a mystery song yesterday was identified as a Prairie Warbler at work today (so I back-dated the record to yesterday). With a bit of sleuthing, I tracked down some wood-warbler songs on the internet and narrowed the search down to four potential species, based on what I knew was likely to be around. The recordings quickly led me to the right species - luckily, Prairie Warbler is one of the easier ones!

House birds: Blue-winged Teal, Common Yellowthroat

April 23rd
A single Chipping Sparrow was with the White-throated Sparrow flock in our garden today - perhaps the one Megan had seen a week or so back. An unseen vireo was singing in the wood behind the garden which sounded to me like a Red-eyed Vireo, but I could have done with a view to be certain.

I took a drive up to Bucks Avenue to see Pat Sutton this morning. Pat is one of my mentors here at Cape May and is a great all-round naturalist. Pat is always full of enthusiasm and loves encouraging others, so it didn't take much to persuade her to take me to see a nice patch of Swamp-pink, a scarce plant in Cape May County. Perhaps the very wet and cold winter has not favoured this species as many leaf rosettes showed no sign of flowering this year and those flowers that were present were a little late in opening. On the way back home, I visited some other likely-looking woodland spots and added several new plant species to my photo collection. Another nice highlight was my first Ovenbird of the year, singing at close range - but I didn't have the big lens with me!

The wonderful bright pink bloom of Swamp-pink, a scarce plant in Cape May County

Ranunculus abortivus is a native species that has rarely been recorded in Cape May County according to historical records. This plant was near Goshen. Often known in the US as Small-flowered Buttercup, that name has long been used for Ranunculus parviflorus of Europe - which actually occurs in the USA as an alien introduction. So I prefer the alternative name of Kidney-leaved Buttercup which refers to the shape of the basal leaves.

Mayapple is a classic plant of Eastern American woodlands. The single flower hangs sheepishly beneath the shade of two leaves and the species often forms quite extensive colonies in wooded areas.

Another classic North American, spring flower - the Flowering Dogwood. Many small trees (such as this one) in built up areas have rather larger flowers than those in more remote woodland blocks and may either originate as garden throughouts or deliberate plantings, or may be seedlings resulting from garden cultivars.

Whether truly wild or not, Flowering Dogwood is an amazing sight when in full bloom. What appears to be a single flower with four white petals is actually a cluster of small, yellowish flowers, surrounded by four specially adapted bracts at the base of the flower cluster.

The afternoon was spent at Villas Wildlife Management Area, an old golf course which was sold off when the owners ran out of money and is now being developed as a nice green space. Pine, Prairie and Yellow-rumped Warblers were all in song here and butterflies included Pearl Crescent, American Lady, Small Copper and masses of Eastern Tailed Blues.

The bright yellow flowers of Floating Bladderwort were just pushing up from beneath the water surface at Villas Wildlife Management Area

A closer look into the water reveals the 'bladders' on the aquatic leaves of the bladderwort. These are active traps which are triggered by three hairs at the mouth of the trap and are used to snare water-borne invertebrates.

Several species of white violet (if that makes sense!) grow in Cape May County. This one is very common in wet hollows around Villas Wildlife Management Area, its long, narrow leaves and narrow lower petal showing it to be Lance-leaved Violet.

I also found this broader-petalled, broader-leaved violet at Villas WMA, which turned out to be Viola x primulifolia, a common hybrid between Lance-leaved and Northern White Violet. 

Year Bird: Ovenbird

April 24th
A day at home, mostly entering yesterday's plant records, but a walk in the garden did provide me with the first returning Northern House Wren of the year, a singing Prairie Warbler, two Chipping Sparrows (one of which was in song) a late Merlin, a Forster's Tern flying west and four swallow species, including three Purple Martins.

House birds: Prairie Warbler, Forster's Tern

April 26th
Waahhh! With a staff shortage due to illness, I missed out on the first migrant fall of spring - and it sounds as though Higbee's Beach in particular did very well for birds. Even so, a corking blue male Indigo Bunting was in our yard before work and two Northern House Wrens were in song. Despite being tied to the store, I managed a nice day list of 39 species around the Bird Observatory, including Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow, Prairie and Black-and-white Warblers and two Chimney Swifts overhead. On Lily Lake across the road, a Great and two Snowy Egrets and a Great Blue Heron were all fishing the shallows.

Year birds: Indigo Bunting, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow Warbler
House bird: Indigo Bunting

April 27th
The garden had a bit of a buzz on this morning, with Snowy and Great Egrets flying over, Palm and Blue-winged Warblers in the big mulberry tree in the extension, two Field Sparrows and a fly-over Eastern Kingbird. I continued at work as I had left off at home - with three Eastern Kingbirds from my office window. Two real gems showed up in the trees outside my office window later in the day, in the form of a superb male Black-throated Green Warbler and a very smart Blue-headed Vireo. Both Yellow and Black-and-white Warblers were also present, as was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A single Red Admiral was my first of the year.

In the evening, Megan and I drove over to Tabernacle Road, just north of Cold Spring, where a fabulous female Wilson's Phalarope in fine breeding plumage was feeding in a flooded field, along with plenty of Greater Yellowlegs and two Wilson's Snipe. Most spectacular here was the hundreds of Barn Swallows hawking insects over the entire area of fields and pools, along with a few Tree Swallows, at least one Northern Rough-winged Swallow and a Common Sand Martin (Bank Swallow over here!).

Year birds: Palm Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Eastern Kingbird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Wilson's Phalarope, Common Sand Martin
House birds: Palm Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Eastern Kingbird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak

April 28th
I thought that today's morning walk was going to be tough, as the windy weather of the last couple of days continued unabated and looked set to ensure that birds all kept their heads down. Not only that, but it was clear that all the wintering ducks had shipped out and numbers looked destined to be low. In the event, we actually set a new high total of 60 species, due in no small part to a nice mixed flock of sparrows and a few migrant shorebirds on the Plover Ponds. A sizeable flock of White-throated Sparrows had a scattering of Savannah, Field and Chipping Sparrows mixed in with it, as well as a female Indigo Bunting. Further round, a Spotted Sandpiper in smart spotty breeding plumage and several Least Sandpipers all gave us good views. Actually, we did so well that we ran out of time to check offshore so could perhaps have got more species. Other great highlights included a total of three different Bald Eagles seen and the pleasure of counting seven Ospreys hunting over the ponds from a single spot.

On the way home in the evening, I stopped in at the Beanery and flushed a Yellow-billed Cuckoo from underfoot, almost as soon as I had walked in the gate. Megan and I then decided that we should check the impoundments where the Black-necked Stilt had been last month, and we found a nice selection of shorebirds, including five Spotted Sandpipers, 25 Greater Yellowlegs, 40 Lesser Yellowlegs, 70 Least Sandpipers, three Semipalmated Sandpipers, one Semipalmated Plover and a Short-billed Dowitcher. Most surprising was a flock of 17 Western Cattle Egrets that flew north-east overhead - an unusually high count for Cape May.

Year birds: Spotted Sandpiper, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs

April 29th
What an amazing way to start the day! The run of incoming summer migrants continued today, with the early morning walk around the garden providing me with Ovenbird, Blue-winged Warbler, Northern Parula, Wood Thrush, Great Crested Flycatcher and three Swamp Sparrows. Later in the day, a singing Yellow Warbler was heard in the rose scrub area and three Wood Ducks flew south overhead. Butterflies were also notable today with Black Swallowtail, Question-mark, Orange Sulphur, Small White and Small Copper all in the garden.

Year birds: Northern Parula, Wood Thrush, Great Crested Flycatcher
House birds: Northern Parula, Wood Thrush, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Duck

April 30th
Decided to go on the regular Friday morning Higbee's Beach walk today, where we enjoyed a nice array of migrants. Numbers weren't high, but there was a nice scattering of birds more or less throughout the walk. At one spot, two male Hooded Warblers could be heard singing off against each other, but both stayed well hidden, deep in the wooded area on the west side of the site. I found a single Red-eyed Vireo amongst the bounty of White-eyed Vireos to be enjoyed and other highlights included an Eastern Wood-pewee right at the start of the dirt track down to the dike and a singing Marsh Wren in reeds at the base of the dike itself (again, typically remaining amorphous!). Later in the afternoon, I walked through part of the area again, adding a fabulous adult male American Redstart, then three Green Herons near Pond Creek Marsh. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was another nice addition to our garden butterfly list in the afternoon, while a flying visit by Michael O'Brien and Louise Zemaitis allowed us to add Hooded Warbler to the yard list, courtesy of Michael's superhuman ears. A fly-over Baltimore Oriole was also a fine gem to finish the day on.

Megan got the gold medal for 100th bird species for our yard today with a fly-by Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Sadly I was out :-(

Year list: Hooded Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-pewee, Marsh Wren, American Redstart, Green Heron, Baltimore Oriole
House list; Hooded Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Ruby-throated Hummingbird