Friday, September 17, 2010

August Diary & Snake Encounters

I know, I know, I keep saying I'm going to catch up with blog posts and I'm not - in fact, I think I'm getting further behind! We've just been so busy with people coming to visit and stay with us, so we've been having lots of fun with great friends. Well, with September now more than half over, here's some diary notes from August.

August 1st
We can go back out onto the porch! In deference to our noisy and boisterous Caroline Wrens, we've left them in peace with their brood of youngsters in the hanging basket, but they all fledged and headed out into the rose patch and the great beyond. Good luck guys!

August 2nd
After a number of failed attempts over the past few weeks, I finally chanced upon the 1st-summer male King Eider that has been hanging out on the concrete ship. The Black-bellied Whistling-ducks continue to grace Cape May Point State Park and a Black-crowned Night Heron called as it passed over our house in the twilight. (I think the night heron was a new bird for our yard list but I've lost track a little!)

Typical view of the whistling-ducks! As they settled into their stay and made themselves at home, our three visitors from the deep south took to spending much of the day asleep and thus presumably were mostly feeding at night - a major problem for a photographer!

After much waiting and perseverance, I finally got some worthwhile photos of these smart birds - here seen during a visit from the state park to the Migratory Bird Refuge.

A closer look....

...and a bit of a tiff maybe?!!

Then a little bit of action, with some feeding, a scratch....

....and a nice leg stretch.

August 7th
Autumn lurks right around the corner and the first real push of migrants through Higbee's Beach happened this morning. Yellow Warblers, Indigo Buntings and Cedar Waxwings were very obvious around the field edges, a group of four Green Herons flew over and a look at the birds passing over Higbee Dike gave me such goodies as Prothonotary Warbler, Black Tern, Marbled Godwit, Northern Waterthrush and a Lark Sparrow.

Year Bird: Lark Sparrow

August 11th
The number of birds homing in on the stranded fish as Bunker Pond continues to dry out reached an impressive peak today with 118 Great and 65 Snowy Egrets, two Little Blue and 10 Great Blue Herons. Two Gull-billed Terns were also present, while a Peregrine and three Broad-winged Hawks overhead were an early insight into the raptor migration yet to come.

August 12th
A real change in the weather as we had our first rain for a long, long time. Bunker Pond will probably start to fill up now and the wildlife spectacle will fall away there but today, at least, the egret extravaganza continued. With the rain having died out, butterflies were out en masse feeding at the flowers and dragonflies were looking for a late breakfast. A nice find for me along the state park trails was a single plant of Rattlesnake-master. All the old natural history books wax poetical about the spectacle of Rattlesnake-master, blooming in profusion in the Cape May wetlands; sadly, after the housing developers have got fat from draining and building on the sites, this species now seems to be extremely rare here and this single plant is all I have found so far.

Rattlesnake-master - believe it or not, this is a member of the carrot family and is closely related to Sea Holly which grows on coastal dunes in Europe (including the UK).

August 18th
Rain, rain, go away! It's funny how quickly one can get bored with rain - even when it's the first rain for several months! It rained quite persistently from late yesterday afternoon, through the night and pretty much throughout the day today. Despite the weather, one of my scheduled walks still had a few takers, so we found some cover and managed a little bit of birding before we called it a day. A Black Tern, two Belted Kingfishers and 17 Stilt Sandpipers were our reward for braving the elements and, despite the weather, there was a reasonable movement of passerines first thing with Yellow and Prairie Warblers moving through the low vegetation and Bobolinks passing overhead.

Passerine numbers were good during the afternoon at work with 10+ American Redstarts and at least four Black-and-white and two Yellow Warblers in the trees and at least 10 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the feeders. In the evening, I got a 'half-tick' when I heard my first Eastern Screech Owl calling outside a friend's house; I say half a tick as I have never yet seen this species and really want to clap eyes on one before I feel I can safely count it.

August 20th
Well it looks like the Higbee's season is really under way now as typical August species flooded through the fields this morning: Bobolinks, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, American Redstarts and Black-and-white Warblers led the charge, with Chestnut-sided and Blue-winged Warblers as bonus finds. Perhaps the weirdest sight this morning was of an Eastern Kingbird chasing a Chimney Swift low across the field right in fornt of us and coming well down below treetop height. Eastern Kingbirds are often boisterous like this, but it amazed us that it was managing to keep up with a rather panic-stricken swift! A single Wild Turkey was lurking at a regular spot not far from our house too.

August 21st
A slightly quieter Higbee Dike today, but a good passage of Barn Swallows was taking place, with a few Purple Martins mixed in. An early Red-breasted Nuthatch hinted at a good year for that species and I notched up my first Black-throated Blue Warblers of the autumn. At least 20 Blue-grey Gnatcatchers whizzed past the dike while I was there too. Five Wild Turkeys were a nice find early morning, so it looks like there is still one family hanging around south of the canal.

August 23rd
I took an evening stroll this evening, simply because it was one of those evenings when it was warm, calm and you just wanted to be out, enjoying the world. It was so nice that it actually got dark before I got home, but one of the highlights of the walk came after dark, when I discovered that Comb Jellies were washing up along the tideline. The water was absolutely full of these nocturnal feeders, that come to the surface after dark to feed, when they are safer from predators. What was so amazing about them is that Comb Jellies emit pulses of bioluminescence like flashes of blue-white lightening and could be provoked into doing this by giving them a gentle prod. I went for a swim and was soon surrounded by flashing lights - awesome!

August 26th
After a few busy work days, I got down to Higbee's Beach again this morning, starting the day off well with a Northern Bobwhite which was running along the road in front of me for a while before it whipped up and flew off over a hedge. Higbee's had many American Redstarts moving today and I got subliminal glimpses of Blackburnian and Worm-eating Warbler at the dike. In the fields, Red-eyed Vireos and Blue-grey Gnatcatchers were plentiful and the first mini-fall of 'Empids' took place. 'Empids' or Empidonax flycatchers are a nightmare group. It's a genus of several species of small, brown or olive flycatchers which all look, well, identical to be honest; but with patience and luck, good views can help to sort most of them out. Today, a couple of Least Flycatchers came my way, plus at least three others which were either Willow or Alder Flycatchers, but I never really got a good enough look at them.

August 30th
I didn't manage an early start at Higbee's Beach this morning (I've never been good at those very early starts which is a bit of a drag for a birder!!) but enough text messages came through to make me shoot down quickly before work. I did get a look at a Baird's Sandpiper that was lurking on the canal impoundment and a good rush of warblers included both Magnolia and Cape May Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes.

In the afternoon, a general southerly drift of birds produced a nice gathering of warblers and other songbirds at work and at least three Yellow Warblers, lots of American Redstarts, two Blackburnian Warblers, two Northern Parulas, Eastern Wood Pewee and an Eastern Kingbird were present. A Yellow Warbler flew into one of the store windows but recovered OK and flew off seemingly having survived the ordeal.

A Yellow Warbler, probably with a headache. This little chap survived an all too close encounter with a window and eventually flew off seemingly OK.

In the heat of late afternoon, the bird baths at the Northwood Center can draw a crowd; today it was standing room only as four American Redstarts and a Northern Parula piled in to cool off - here, one of each turn themselves into soggy fluffballs!

In the evening, we went over to the Migratory Bird Refuge, where four Buff-breasted Sandpipers were feeding on the beach and a Long-billed Dowitcher was in the main pond. Only a single Least Tern remained, the bulk having headed south already, but five juvenile Black Skimmers was encouraging as this species seems to be having a hard time locally. At the end of the walk, we chanced across a smart Merlin which was catching dragonflies by sailing out from the top of a large elm tree.

Year birds: Baird's Sandpiper, Cape May Warbler, Buff-breasted Sandpiper

August 31st
Another example of that great line - what a difference a day makes. Megan and I gave Higbee's fields a good going over and got a great list of warblers for our efforts which included large numbers of American Redstarts and Northern Waterthrushes and included a cracking male Black-throated Blue Warbler and two Tennessee Warblers. We heard at least eight Veeries calling from thick cover but didn't see any, notched up three Great Crested Flycatchers and a Northern Flicker and enjoyed a flock of some 200 Eastern Kingbirds which always gathers here this time of year to feed on Sassafras fruits. In the last field we checked, a flock of Bobolinks was feeding in the planted Sorghum which was now producing copious seed; after a few minutes we heard a distinctive farting noise and there was a young Dickcissel, sitting up in the crop.

Young Dickcissel at Higbee's Beach - now a scarce but annual migrant through Cape May. We use four-letter codes as a quick way to text sightings of good birds at Cape May. The codes are made up of the first four letters of the species name - I got some stick when I texted this one out!!

My office window has certainly been the place to be this week - though of course I am far too busy to be looking out of it (just in case the boss is looking in!!!). Today's bundle of goodies included Philadelphia and Red-eyed Vireos, two Common Yellowthroats, two Baltimore Orioles and several American Redstarts and Black-and-white Warblers.

Year birds: Veery, Philadelphia Vireo

Snakes On Everything (with apologies to Little Feat!)
Cape May has two black snake species, which can be notoriously difficult to tell apart. I've read through the available field guides and remained confused as to how best to tell Black Racer from Black Rat Snake, save for the fact that rat snakes have keeled scales and racers don't. That is to say, a rat snake's scales have a crease for want of a better word, down the center so that the scale is keeled like an upturned boat. Here's some close-ups of the two species to show this point, though note that the keel can be extremely hard to see in the field under typical viewing conditions (even more so if you are running away!).

Close up of Black Rat Snake scales, Bayshore Road, Cape May. Note the keel or line which runs down each scale and mostly dies out before reaching the tip of the scale. In this picture, the front of the snake is to the right.

Black Racer scales, The Beanery, Cape May. Note the lack of a keel. The scales also seem to be slightly narrower in profile which might be a useful ID feature, though it would need the observer to be very familiar with both species. In this picture the front of the snake is to the left.

Typically, the books say that Black Rat Snakes have much more extensive white on the belly which comes well up onto the throat and even onto the sides of the mouth. Black Racers have some white but it tends to be less extensive. This seems OK but I hate comparative 'tendencies' like this as you may need to have both species present before you can make a 'more than/less than' judegement call.

Looking at photos of the two species, I can see that there appears to be a clear difference in head shape between them which seems to hold at all ages. This head shape difference is not mentioned in any of the books that I have read but I think it is worthy of testing. Though the head may be difficult to see properly if the snake has been disturbed and is moving away, practice and familiarity should make it possible to tell the two apart more easily than by using the scale keels alone. Give it a go, and let's see if it works! It's perhaps worth adding that, in my experience, Black Rat Snakes are overwhelmingly the more common of the two species around Cape May, being found in pretty much any habitat and commonly found around houses and backyards. To date I have only seen two Black Racers, one at The Beanery and one at Higbee's Beach WMA, so it may be that they prefer open fields and woodland edge.

Head of adult Black Racer at The Beanery. Notice that the line of the brow starts to angle down towards the tip of the nose just in front of the eye (where you can see yours truly reflected!). This gives the snake a rather snub-nosed look.

Head of adult Black Rat Snake, CMBO Northwood Center, Cape May Point. In contrast to the racers, the rat snake's nose seems to be in line with its eye and the brow line continues in a straight line, only dipping down right at the end, beyond the nostrils. Incidentally, note the extensive white coloration, extending well up past the mouth to the bottom of the eye and around the nostril on this individual.

Juvenile Black Rat Snake, Bayshore Road, Cape May. Notice that the brow line runs straight out to the nose without bending down until past the nostrils, at the very tip of the nose, just like in the adult above. Note also that rat snakes tend to have paler irides than racers, but this may not always be so obvious as here.

This head shape difference does seem to be a useful feature and should be useable to identify photos, where the snake is often not close enough for the scales to be checked accurately for keels.

BIG PS: Neither of these species is poisonous!! However, Black Rat Snakes will not hesitate to attack if they feel cornered - as I found out a few years ago at the State Park!