Friday, July 2, 2010

May Madness - Part Two

Firstly, apologies to those who have been enjoying this blog and wondering what happened to the posts. All will be resolved soon, but for now, many thanks to those who emailed me asking what was going on and offering support. Hopefully things are returning to normal now.

May is finally out, but work continues apace and, on top of it all, we now have the builders in, putting in a new bathroom. So, time spent in the field is at a premium. By the beginning of June, spring bird migration had run its course and the heady days of summer where upon us. The second half of May saw a good run of interesting birds, but I missed pretty much all of them due to other commitments. Still, there was plenty around to entertain me, so here's the second half of May.

May 15th
For me, the second half of May began with the World Series of Birding. Now, bird races really aren't my thing; they bring out the worst in people once the results come in and those that thought they should have won start dissecting the results of those who actually won. For me though, the day was OK, as I took charge of the 'Century Run'. We took a bunch of jolly people on a Cape May trolley bus and toured the county looking for birds. No heavy pressure to see everything and waste fossil fuels for nothing, just a nice day, with the morning spent south of the canal and the afternoon seeing us heading up to the other end of the county. By the end of the day we had notched up 144 species, not bad considering we were taking it easy! For me, the real highlight of the day came quite early on, at Higbee's Beach. Indeed, the birds couldn't have timed it better as the best fall of the whole spring occurred today! We notched up a fabulous run of songbirds around the field edges at Higbee's, including fabulous views of superb Blackburnian Warblers, reasonable looks at a skulking Mourning Warbler, stacks of Magnolia Warblers and superb views of a male Cerulean Warbler. The latter is a life bird for me and a scarce migrant at Cape May. We actually had two of these little blue gems, having heard one earlier but not identified the song until we latched onto the second one. From early morning at Higbee's Beach to sunset at Jake's Landing with Whip-poor-wills calling and a fly-over American Nighthawk, it was a fun day.

Yellow Warblers certainly live up to their name and are a classic example of the gaudy exuberance of North American wood-warblers.

Male Blackpoll Warbler, feeding up at Cape May before heading north to breed in a Canadian spruce forest.

A real stunner and one of the highlights of our early morning at Higbee's Beach - a male Blackburnian Warbler lights up a stand of Black Walnut trees.

Yellow-crowned Night Herons can be quite tolerant of people and noise - this bird was in a small breeding colony right beside one of the main roads through Stone Harbor.

Year Birds: Summer Tanager, Cerulean Warbler, Whip-poor-will, Common Nighthawk, Whimbrel, Swainson's Thrush, Dickcissel, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Canada Warbler, Seaside Sparrow.

May 16th
Still a fair number of warblers around today with a singing Northern Waterthrush brightening my journey to work along Stevens Street, then both Magnolia and Canada Warblers at work. In the evening, Tony and I checked out some orchids he had found earlier and I later identified them as Southern Twayblades. It was a good evening for dragonflies, which are really starting to come to the fore now. The wet woods we were in also provided me with my first Prothonotary Warbler of the year, complete with dayglow yellow head! Later, we drove over to Sunset Boulevard for a get-together with friends and were treated to a pair of Black Skimmers flying by.

Year Birds: Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Black Skimmer

May 17th
Though Higbee's Beach was apparently quiet this morning, a fall of birds took place at the point itself and the garden of the bird observatory was treated to a wonderful display of colour. During the morning, I noticed Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, American Redstart, Great Crested Flycatcher and Eastern Wood Pewee from the windows of the store. Rather more surprising though, was a chunky-looking Raccoon that I spotted climbing a White Oak outside my office window at 11AM.

Lunch time at Cape May Point State Park provided me with more flashy warblers, including two Yellow-breasted Chats, a female Blackburnian Warbler and at least four Black-throated Green Warblers.

Nice trick if you can do it! American Box Tortoises have a hinge on the plastron (that's the plate that covers the belly) which means that, when they pull their head right in, the front of the plastron bends up and makes it nigh on impossible for a would-be predator to turn them into a crusty meal.

Just checking if the coast is clear yet! American Box Tortoise at Cape May Point State Park.

Stands of brightly-coloured Large Blue Flags now grace the borders of Lighthouse Pond.

May 18th
Heavy wind and rain overnight may not sound like ideal spring weather, but a front passing through certainly dropped more birds in our laps. Today's list of birds around the bird observatory included Northern Waterthrush (singing in full view right beside the road as I got out of the car!), Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart, Blackpoll Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Swamp Sparrow, Magnolia Warbler and four species of swallow feeding over Lake Lily.

A quick look at the beach on the point during windy weather proved to be a good move as I found a flock of 21 Purple Sandpipers on one of the stone jetties, all in full breeding plumage. Even more wonderful was my second Scissor-tailed Flycatcher of the spring - a fabulous adult male at the South Cape May Meadows.

May 20th
Another Higbee's Beach migration special before work this morning! Not high numbers of birds, but a good variety around, including several flame-headed Blackburnian Warblers, Ovenbird, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Scarlet Tanager and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but the real highlight for me was a Barred Owl which flew right over my head across Field 2, carrying a mouse or vole in its beak. Another great morning at work again with a good run of warblers working their way through the trees, the highlight of which was a smart male Wilson's Warbler - an uncommon bird here in the spring.

Ovenbirds are very common breeders in Cape May County, but not easily seen on migration. These are subtly-coloured North American wood-warblers which get their name from their domed nests, which remind some of old bakers ovens.

Time for the sunglasses again! Dazzling blue Indigo Buntings are setting up territories in scrubby field corners now and we have a couple of males singing in the garden.

Year bird: Barred Owl

May 21st
Another weekend, another event! Today saw the start of CMBO's Spring Weekend, three days of walks, talks and programmes, all at the peak of spring migration. Confined to the store during the day, I took the optics outside and set up the scopes over-looking Lake Lily. With a good run of customers during the day, we ran a day list of birds and notched up 41 species, including a fly-by Mississippi Kite. Magnolia and Blackpoll Warblers were now dominating the warbler numbers, with the ultra-high, lisping song of Blackpoll Warblers coming from seemingly ever other conifer. Interestingly, there also seemed to be an influx of Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers, presumably birds heading well north of here to breed. Supporting the idea of these birds being from the taiga forests of the north, they were accompanied by other species typical of northern conifer woods; Seagrove Avenue, with its stands of ornamental spruces held some nice birds, including Summer Tanager, Tennessee Warbler, several Blackpoll Warblers and my first Bay-breasted Warbler of the year.

Year birds: Bay-breasted Warbler, Tennessee Warbler
House birds: Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, Chuck-will's-widow

May 26th
A quiet day for birds but noteworthy as, despite a good south-westerly overnight, no obvious migration took place locally - it looks like spring migration may be drawing to an end. This morning's State Park walk was rather quiet, with the olny signs of migration being a singing Blackpoll Warbler and a fly-over Green Heron. Conversely, there were good signs that the breeding season was really getting under way with a couple of pairs of Cedar Waxwings bringing twigs into a stand of pines, an Eastern Wood Pewee calling on territory and Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Orchard Orioles and the regular Yellow-breasted Chat all singing away.

A real stunning bird with a tropical look about it, several pairs of Yellow-breasted Chats breed around Cape May Point.

A quick visit to the Beanery at lunch time got me my first Prothonotary Warblers south of the canal, while winter met up with summer with the appearance of my second Monarch butterfly of the year, followed by a fly-over Great Northern Diver, moving North over the point.

Finished the day with a Chuck-will's-widow calling after dark, though it was rather far off and probably on the north side of the canal. These nightjars are much harder than European Nightjars to see as they don't seem to start calling until well after dark.

May 27th
Young birds are appearing about the place in good numbers now with baby Northern Cardinals, European Starlings and Northern Mockingbirds now taking first tentative flights with their parents. I watched a Chimney Swift collapse itself into a narrow chimney down by the beachfront at 2nd Avenue lunch time and finished the day with an out-of-season group of three Surf Scoters just of the point.

May 29th
A busy day gardening today, but I made a quick excursion over to the Migratory Bird Refuge after a Sandwich Tern was reported there, but it had moved on all too quickly. My reward though, was a 3rd calendar year Lesser Black-backed Gull - a European species which is becoming ever more regular on the east coast of North America and has probably established a small wintering population over here, perhaps from birds breeding in Greenland.

Year bird: Lesser Black-backed Gull

May 31st
A chance phone call to check on the Red Knot migration for this year resulted in Megan and I being invited to one of the scientific research projects on the Delaware Bay, set up to monitor the seriously depleted population of Red Knots that use the east coast of North America as a flyway between South American wintering grounds and Arctic breeding grounds. The migration of these birds is timed exactly to coincide with the peak egglaying of Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs, which usually occurs around the full moon in the second half of May. Horseshoe Crabs were reduced to a pitiful remnant of their former numbers by overharvesting on an unsustainable level; state legislators had the (eventual) foresight to ban the crab harvest, pending proof from the harvesters that it wasn't depleting the population and now, far more money is made in the region from ecotourism as people come to witness one of the world's most amazing sights. Atlantic Horseshoe Crab numbers are slowly recovering - though still a long way short of former numbers - and with them come slowly recovering numbers of the migrant shorebirds that depend on the crab eggs to fuel their return to Arctic breeding grounds.

We joined up with local bird ringers who are monitoring the Red Knot population and helped with a netting session - something for which I had trained some years ago. In the event, the Red Knot numbers had already fallen away as most birds had conrtinued their journey north by now, so we teamed up to help another crew who were working on Semipalmated Sandpipers. This species is showing a more recent decline in numbers for which - as yet - the reasons are unclear. Birds are being trapped, measured, weighed and released, with a number be marked with special leg bands that can be read in the field. This should help us to get a better idea about the birds migration routes and migration timings which, in turn, should help us to understand what is going on and hopefully lead to ways in which we can help them.

In such a busy state as New Jersey, it was amazing to be out with a small band of like-minded people, on a private beach, far from the madding crowd and getting an idea of what the New Jersey of 200 years ago must have been like. Ruddy Turnstones, Red Knot, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Laughing Gulls were abundant all along the tideline, while a fly-by Brown Pelican added something of the sureal to the occasion!

Year bird: Brown Pelican

The sight and - especially! - the sound of thousands of Laughing Gulls gathering to dine on Atlantic Horseshoe Crab eggs is one of the great natural wonders of North America. All the key beaches favoured by Red Knot and other declining shorebird species are closed to the public for the duration of the spectacle, which usually lasts two-three weeks. Beaches left open tend to attract more gulls than shorebirds due to disturbance factors, but the spectacle is still pretty amazing.

At peak feeding times, barely an inch of strandline can be seen between the feeding birds.

On a rising tide, Horseshoe Crabs arrive in their thousands. The best spectacles take place on the highest tides in late May, coinciding with the full moon. The females dig into the sand and bury their eggs, so the higher up the beach they can get, the better. Females digging on later tides often unearth eggs already laid and it is these - plus others laid on lower tides and washed out by higher water - that become food for the birds.

At the height of egg-laying, chaos sets in! Here, a female is almost completely buried in the sand as she lays her eggs - her back is just visible between the lower two males. Meanwhile, a trail of eight males tries to get in on the action!

When the pale, blue-grey eggs are first washed out, they are often bound together in blocks - these are the real prizes that the gulls are after and often fight over....

....but eventually the waves break up the blocks and a strandline of single eggs appears - prime food for the shorebirds.

Unfortunately for the crabs their eggs, rich in protein, are prime targets for many species and even the good old House Sparrow has latched on to this healthy diet.

At peak laying times, Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs can turn the beach into a cobbled street, so thick are their numbers.

As well as having their eggs eaten, many perils await the horseshoe crabs, the commonest of which is dessication and death from being overturned by the waves and left high and dry in a baking sun. If left the right way up, such individuals will dig into the sand and await the next tide. Those left upside down may be attacked and eaten by larger gulls. So turning them back over is an almost never-ending task at this time of year - how did they ever evolve without us!!

Another potential hazard for the crabs is provided by the various forms of ocean-going life that hitch rides on larger objects - such as barnacles, slipper limpets and bryozoans (colony-forming invertebrates that actually look like seaweed). Here, only the crab's tail shows beneath a flowing mane of bryozoans. Though the crab's eyesight is poor, it's better than nothing, but not when you have this much hair in your face!

Further up the bay, we find what we are looking for as a party of Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderling whips by.

As high tide approachs, the shorebirds are pushed onto the highest sandbars, where the researchers lie in wait. By late May, the flocks are mostly of Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sadpipers and Sanderlings, but a couple of rusty-looking Red Knot squeezed into this picture (out of focus in the background) and one more paler bird centre left.

The target of our migration research today, a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

A number of the birds were fitted with small leg flags which bear a three-letter code that can be read in the field. Each bird has a different code so can be identified and its movements recorded in the field. For obvious reasons, this one was christened Joy!

Only when you see a Semipalmated Sandpiper standing on a researcher's palm do you realise just how tiny they are - yet they fly from Brazil to the Arctic and back every year of their lives.

If you think you're being watched while you're out in the back bays in May, you probably are! The spotty heads of Diamondback Terrapins pop up for air from time to time as females start to come ashore to lay eggs.

The shell of a Diamondback Terrapin has distinctive concentric circles on the plates. This is the only terrapin species in New Jersey that inhabits the salty waters of the back bays.

Tiny Seaside Dragonlets are just emerging along the drier edges of saltmarshes.

Ospreys are so common along the New Jersey shore that sometimes seven or eight can be seen fishing in close proximity. The fish is an Atlantic Menhaden, also known locally as a Bunker.

An Atlantic Horseshoe Crab ponders her tail. Hopefully she'll be back to lay more eggs next year and carry on the spectacle that has been an annual event for millions of years.