Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Catching Breath

For the birder at Cape May, June provides a welcome break; migration in one form or another seems to take place almost year round at Cape May, but the heady summer days of June do offer a respite. Spring migrants have all gone through now and are busy with producing this year's young, while return migration will not start in earnest until late July. But of course I like to be a masochist, so when the birders take a breather, some of us switch allegiances and tail off across the bogs and fields in search of plants, insects, pretty much anything really. So here's some diary notes for June to keep you going while I put together some photos of other stuff for a later posting.

June 6th
Vince reported a calling Northern Bobwhite from the dune cross-over at St Peter's this morning, but it had disappeared by the time the rest of us arrived. At lunch time I walked the Migratory Bird Refuge and found a single first-summer Black Tern and two Caspian Terns with the now regular resting flock there. This site is being used a lot this year by gulls and terns when they take resting spells in between feeding bouts out in the bay. What's there and when depends a lot on the tide so timing can be everything. Two White-rumped Sandpipers were present and these were still there when I popped in on my way home from work, along with nine Short-billed Dowitchers and a visiting Willet. I know that the Willet was just passing through as the resident pair really took objection to his presence and didn't settle until he had been driven away.

Year Birds: Black Tern, Caspian Tern, White-rumped Sandpiper

Never miss an opportunity! The need for a shopping trip up to Rio Grande gave an opportunity to check out a wetland near the shopping mall which is usually good for wildlife. This Southern Leopard Frog was a nice find there as he was unusually obliging.

A nice bonus at the back of the wetland was a breeding pair of Blue Grosbeaks. This species is a regular in our garden but I've not yet managed to photograph them there.

The female Blue Grosbeak was carrying nesting material so the pair were perhaps starting a second brood, or maybe the first brood had failed as it's still fairly early in the year.

Bright, apple-green female Eastern Pondhawks are now appearing in large numbers throughout the area.

Little Wood-nymph - a common species of woodland clearings and field edges.

June 7th
Our wildflower meadow develops apace - luckily the plants themselves do most of the work simply by growing! The Nature Center of Cape May have an approval scheme for wildlife habitat and we received a sign from them to erect in our yard to show that our efforts to help restore some decent habitat to the area has been endorsed by the local community. We increased species diversity by adding some Black-eyed Susans and Physostegias today. Certainly the insects are loving it as we have an abundance of Halloween Pennants hunting from tall stems, as well as occasional visits from Blue Dashers, Seaside Dragonlets and Eastern Pondhawks - and the great thing is, dragonflies eat mosquitoes!!

Halloween Pennants are common around Cape May all summer and right through into late autumn. They perch prominantly and are easy to study and enjoy.

When there's plenty to choose from, it's always good to be able to pick your subject. I like the colours of this Halloween Pennant next to the rich purple of the Hairy Vetch flowers.

Halloween Pennant in close-up. The yellow veins and dark wing blotches make this one of the most attractive dragonflies.

Another dragonfly with brightly-coloured wings that hangs out in our garden, male Calico Pennnants are easily told by the red spots on the abdomen.

Female Calico Pennnants are coloured more like Halloween Pennants, but have most of the dark blotching at the base of the wings. This female is 'obelisking'; this is a common piece of behaviour among dragonflies in hot countries and probably serves to reduce the area of body facing directly into the sun - thus helping to cool the individual down.

Variation on a theme; quite a number of Cape May dragonflies have patterned wings, something we don't get to see in the UK. This is a female Widow Skimmer, named for the black shawl she appears to be wearing. On this species, notice also the pale grey-blue patch on the wings. Widow Skimmers are relatively recent arrivals in Cape May County, but are now found with some regularity.

June 10th
As I haven't got the moth trap rigged up yet (I'm still struggling with voltage and bulb incompatibility problems between UK and US systems!) we've had to content ourselves with the few beasties that come to the outside lights of an evening. It was certainly a surprise this evening, however, when a Grey Hairstreak butterfly turned up at 11PM; interesting to speculate on why a butterfly would be moving around after dark. Actually, after dark - or at least at dusk - is pretty amazing at the moment as reach evening we are treated to a free spectacle of literally hundreds of fireflies dancing in the rough grassland around our house. A fabulous sight when enjoyed from the porch with a beer!

June 11th
It's been quite a while since I had a good look around the bay at Cape May Point, so I made an early morning visit today to see what was around. A good number of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins were scattered right around the point, mostly feeding casually a little way out. A careful scan of the water soon picked up what I was hoping for - the dark, fluttering shapes of Wilson's Storm-petrels. Petrels are named after St Peter, for their apparent ability to walk on water. They actually fly low over the water and use updraughts of air coming off the water surface to keep them aloft as they sail along on outstretched wings. At the same time, they dangle their legs and foot patter across the surface. Watching half a dozen Wilson's Storm-petrels breezing around over the bay is certainly a great way to start any day. Despite being mid-summer, a few 'winter' birds were still present, including a single Northern Gannet, an adult male Black Scoter and six Surf Scoters.

With our mulberry trees now laden down with fruit, it seems everyone wants a slice of the pie. Northern Mockingbirds and Northern Cardinals have been particularly keen on the fruit, but this morning I noticed a Box Tortoise having a good old tuck in to the windfallers on the ground.

Yum Yum!! Black Mulberries ripening in our front garden.

June 15th
One of those odd moments of mid-summer happened today as we got a report of a Sandhill Crane from the Migratory Bird Refuge. Now Sandhills are thin on the ground any time of year at Cape May, but a June record would be decidedly odd. I shot out from the store to check out the report and - sure enough - their was a Sandhill Crane, bold as brass, walking around like he owned the place. The finders who phoned in the sighting to us and, while we watched, the bird took off and disappeared towards the Rea Farm, though it never was re-located to my knowledge. It had been with us no more than 30 minutes, which just shows that you need to be out there all the time if you don't want to miss anything...

Sandhill Crane at the Migratory Bird Refuge. Wanderers such as this are a bit of a mystery as to where they come from and where they are heading. One thing's for sure, this one isn't breeding this year...

June 18th
Remember what happened on this day? That disastrous 0-0 World Cup draw with Algeria that set the trend for England's early departure; oh well, another four-year wait!!

June 19th
Halcyon days as the sun beats down and the relative cool of indoors becomes ever more attractive. Mind you, with building work going on at home, we have no air conditioning or working ceiling fans at present, so a day indoors is not the best of ideas right now! I escaped this morning for a wlak around the fields at Higbee's Beach. As expected, birds were a little light but their was a nice range of butterflies and dragonflies on the wing, including both Hackberry and Tawny Emperors and a perched Spot-winged Glider - something you don't see all that often!

Hackberry Emperor - named after the tree upon which it feeds during the larval stage. This is an erratic, fast-flying species which doesn't give you many photographis opportunities.

Spot-winged Glider taking a break for a change. The eponymous spot can be seen at the base of the hind wing and just either side of the abdomen.

June 26th
The firefly light show continues unabated, but unfortunately so does the sun! This is not a good year to be establishing a new garden and at the moment I seem to be constantly out there with the hose or the watering can, just keeping things ticking over. We are getting the occasional storm during the night, but more often that not, such weather originates from the west of us and storms often break up and dissipate as they cross Delaware Bay. So we hear the thunder and see the lightening, but the rain just passes us by. A Killdeer flew over the house calling this evening. After discovering that one of our local Starlings does a great rendition of a Killdeer, I decided that a heard-only record could not stand scrutiny, so I had to wait until now to see a Killdeer that I knew I could count!

House bird: Killdeer

June 27th
Thanks to a tip off from Keith Seager (someone who has done more than probably anyone else in recent years to record plants around Cape May), Tony and I finally got to see the enigmatic Cranefly Orchid this evening. Though relatively widespread still in Cape May County, this species (like most orchids) has declined a lot and gets ever harder to find. Part of the problem when searching for this species is that it looks annoyingly like a dead twig from any distance so finding one can be very tricky!

A Cranefly Orchid in typical woodland habitat. The slender spikes are remarkably hard to spot against a dappled background of dead leaves.

A number of orchid species have inverted flowers, but Cranefly Orchid is unusual in having its flowers presented sideways. The flower stem is twisted through 90 degrees, as can be seen here. The labellum - the largest of the six tepals of an orchid and normally the one carrying distinctive colours or acting as a platform for pollinating insects - can here be seen to be to the right rather than at the bottom (in this species it's the pale whitish tepal). Also notice how the cream-coloured central column which carries the pollinia is here off to the left, instead of at the top as would be usual. Actually, it's worth noting here that most orchids actually have the flowers twisted through 180 degrees - orchids with unwisted flower stems have the labellum at the top (as you will see in a later post!)

June 28th
A lunch time walk at the Migratory Bird Refuge turned into a typical mid summer walk. Most eye-catching was the great swathe of White Melilot along the east path which, though an introduced species from Europe, was flowering well and attracting a mass of butterflies, in particular Common Buckeye, Red Admiral, Variegated Fritillary, American Lady and Black Swallowtail. On the bird front, Least Terns were displaying and looking like starting late broods and a group of some 30 Black Skimmers look like they're settling on the South Beach to breed. This would be good news, as no skimmers are breeding at Stone Harbor this year so the nearest colony is way up at the top end of the county.

Red Admirals are one of the Northern Hemisphere's most widespread butterfly species, being native to both Eurasia and North America. Whilst the upper side is well-known and much-admired, the underside is equally attractive, especially that little blue patch on the forewing and the amazingly complicated pattern on the hind wing.

Of the four regular swallowtail species here, Black Swallowtails are far and away the most common. This is a male, with little blue on the hindwing and a large amount of yellow in two bands on the forewing.

Compared with the male above, this female Black Swallowtail clearly has more blue on the hindwing and a much reduced amount of yellow on the forewing (making them harder to tell from the similar Spicebush Swallowtail). The key character on the upper wing here is the extra yellow spot inside of the two bands of yellow spots and close to the leading edge of the forewing.

White Melilot bears flowers all around the stem, so sometimes you have to be a dare devil to get to the nectar! This female Black Swallowtail shows the extra spots that tell it from a Spicebush Swallowtail. On the underside of the forewing, there is a spot in the same position as on the upperwing. On the underside of the hindwing, notice that there is an extra little red spot that sits inside of the regular line of large red spots.

More Least Terns will soon be on their way by the look of it!! This is one of two nationally protected, rare species for which the South Cape May area is now managed...

...and this is the other protected species - Piping Plover.

Most of the South Beach is roped off to keep people out so that the Piping Plovers can breed in peace. Earlier this year, just after the plovers arrived back from their wintering grounds and before the ropes had gone up, I was able to get some distant shots of some of the species' courtship behaviour. Repeatedly the male made little starter scrapes while calling to the female...

...often rotating to get a nice round depression.

If the female liked the look of the scrape, she would drop into it and try it out for size. During this time, the male would stand over her and provide shade, while still making soft piping calls.

Another scrape, another shading stance. During the time I watched, the male made four different scrapes, but I'm not sure that she settled for any of them in the end.

One more scrape and a bit more calling and shading, then it was back to the beach for a feed.

June 30th
A cooler day today with temperatures way down in the high 70s!! Despite it still just being June, there was a distinctly autumny feel today as large numbers of Carolina Saddlebags and Swamp Darner dragonflies were coming in over the bay, moving up from the south. Somewhat more surprisingly for this time of year, a small kettle of Turkey Vultures was hanging over the point, together with a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper's Hawk. Unexpected birds around the state park continued in the shape of a Black-billed Cuckoo and a distinctly unseasonable Red-breasted Nuthatch. Our regular Yellow-breasted Chat continued to be very showy, as he has been all month and three young Wood Ducks were on the back of Lighthouse Pond.

A final bonus to today (and the month!) came right at last knockings as Megan's sharp ears picked out a calling Northern Bobwhite which was too far away for us to see, but clearly audible somewhere to the south of New England Road.

House Bird: Northern Bobwhite

Year Bird: Black-billed Cuckoo

Denali has been whiling away the hot days in the cool with a good book. He was particularly pleased with this find...

And, well, you know, even a bear has to be taught how to look after himself properly when out in the woods and hiking well off the beaten track!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Laughing Gulls

More than any other bird, the Laughing Gull surely stands as the icon of southern New Jersey. Wherever you go, they are there; loafing on the beach, feeding offshore, hanging out at the shopping centres or passing high over inland forests. And it's the sound of Laughing Gulls that is so prevalent here, from early March right through to late November they dominate the scene and are an all important part of everyday life here.

Back in April, when the gulls were all fired up at the start of the breeding season, I spent a lunch break with them, so here's a picture diary of lunch with the Laughing Gulls!

When I arrived, the gulls were well settled into their routine; some were loafing on the grass, others were bathing in the freshwater lake. Coastal birds that come into contact with salt water a lot will often wash periodically in fresh water to reduce the salt load in their plumage. Interaction between the birds was most intense when new arrivals appeared on the scene. Here, a bunch of bathers are heading for land...

The bathers drop in amongst the birds already settled and preening at the water's edge. Now it's time to jostle for position or get back together with a partner.

On arrival, a bird will first locate its partner - usually by calling, which is when it really gets noisy sitting this close to them!

Sometimes, someone comes in too close to another bird and a bit of a barney flares up!

A newly-arrived bird calls to its mate, using a ritualised stance, with head held high, wings held out from the body and drooping, and with mouth well open, showing the rich red colouration that is at its brightest during the breeding season.

Another typical greeting posture, once a pair comes together. Both birds are greeting each other with the long version of their call. The nearest bird is in the posture described above; the back bird is further into the call and here you can see how the call ends with the head pushed right back and the bill pointed skyward.

After the formal greeting, the two circle each other, strengthening the pair-bond.

I put this picture in because it shows something I see regularly but don't know exactly what's going on. If you watch a flock of gulls or terns for any period of time, you will find that the birds regularly stare at the ground immediately beneath them, sometimes for several minutes at a time. I don't know why this is, but maybe they're just keeping an eye out for anything that might harm them, like spiders or biting or stinging insects.

As I mentioned earlier, gulls tend to be pretty aggressive towards each other and there's a certain decorum involved in flock behaviour. Seeing two birds as close together as this is a clear sign that this is a bonded breeding pair. Indeed, while I watched, the standing bird seemed almost trying to sit on the other one!!

Here's another pair whiling away the warm hours of midday; again, the standing bird is almost sitting on its snoozing mate!

Most gulls are pretty aggressive birds; they need to be, otherwise they'll miss out on their share of the food. Typically, this means that a rather lengthy courtship procedure develops to allow them to get over their aggressive tendencies and be nice to each other - otherwise there's not much hope for the future of the species! This pair have just reunited with each other and proceed to call loudly for a couple of minutes....

The loud calling became more intense in the bird on the left - and look at the reaction form the newly-arrived bird on the right; his throat is swelling up...

What's happening is another piece of ritualistic pair-bonding, where the female is food begging from the male like a chick would do, and pecking at his bill. So here, the juvenile behaviour of the female is helping to break down aggression, while the male is showing that, by feeding the female, he is capable of finding enough food to provide for a family.

Some food is passed over from the male to the female (sorry I missed it!) and the female goes back to ritual long-call displays.

More food-begging further cements the pair bond.

So, what else goes on in the busy, daily schedule of a Cape May Laughing Gull? Well, a lot of yawning....

....a lot of preening to keep the plumage in good condition....

....and quite a lot of scratching too - in fact, pretty much like the family pet!

One other thing which is always worth keeping an eye out for, is noticing when a bird is looking skyward. If you see a bird tilting its head in this way, it's probably seen something passing overhead. Birds have amazing eyesight compared with ours and never fail to spot a minute speck in the sky which - several minutes later - turns into a bird of prey. While I was watching this group, they got me onto three Turkey Vultures, a Red-tailed Hawk and an American Kestrel, all passing high overhead, but all spotted by the gulls.

So next time you're at a loose end one lunch time, go spend some time with the local gulls and see if you can work out what they're up to.