Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Summer Sun and Shorebirds on the Move

Yes, the second half of July was marked by two things – day after day of weather in the high eighties Fahrenheit and the arrival of shorebirds, heading south from Arctic breeding grounds. For me it was a good period too for botanising and for just generally being outside – though the heat did get pretty oppressive at times. So, on with the diary for the second half of July.

July 18th
A red letter day for Cape May as Kathy Horn, local birder and one of our volunteers, found three Black-bellied Whistling-ducks on Bunker Pond – only the third record ever for New Jersey and the second for Cape May. Needless to say there was a mad rush to get there before they disappeared – little was I to know at the time that they would still be present in September!! While I was there, a single Stilt Sandpiper flew over with a Lesser Yellowlegs.

Year Bird: Stilt Sandpiper

Black-bellied Whistling-ducks on Lighthouse Pond, Cape May Point State Park. If accepted as genuine wild birds, this will constitute only the third accepted record for New Jersey of a species normally found no closer than Texas. Acceptance seems pretty much guaranteed however, as there as been quite an influx of these birds into the eastern seaboard of the USA this year. When they first arrived, they were pretty wary and spent most of their time keeping themselves at a distance from people. Here's a typical view of them in the background, up-ending and showing their black bellies and white buts.

As time passed, they became gradually more confiding, until one day I chance upon them close to the small hide overlooking Lighthouse Pond. Though they were against the light and their full colours could not be appreciated, they still made a fine sight.

A little bit of action here, and a look at the white stripe that runs the length of the wing.

The whistling-ducks seemed eventually to settle into a routine of sleeping for much of the day and - presumably - feeding at night. However, on this occasion, I did catch some bathing activity.

After bathing, the birds emerged from the water for a bit of a preen and a sort out of the feathers. Note the long legs, typical of whistling-ducks, which are actually more closely related to swans than to other ducks.

I spent ages waiting for all three ducks to look up at one and the same time from their busy preening session, but this was the best I managed - there's always one isn't there!

July 19th
I checked Bunker Pond before work and found the three whistling-ducks still present. The low water levels on the pond continue to attract a great range of birds this year and this morning I found three Pectoral Sandpipers, one White-rumped Sandpiper, two Semipalmated Sandpipers and a nice group of feeding Short-billed Dowitchers. In addition, a count of 11 Great Blue Herons certainly showed that they are on the move now as this species doesn’t breed in Cape May County. Another quick look at Bunker Pond after work added a nice, chubby, Long-billed Dowitcher to the list.

Long-billed Dowitcher kipping on Bunker Pond. This species is regular in very small numbers at Cape May, where Short-billed Dowitchers far outnumber them and pass through in large flocks. This Long-bill spent much of its time feeding with a group of Short-billed Dowitchers but I just didn't get a photo opportunity until it was resting - then the Shorties all moved away!

Adult Least Sandpiper at Bunker Pond - note the olive-green legs which set it apart from all the other small 'peeps' which have black legs (though beware of mud!).

A close-up of the above Least Sandpiper. This time of the year, a juvenile shorebird would have feathers all of the same age and thus all showing a similar pattern and amount of abrasion. In this adult, you can see many old feathers that it wore throughout spring and early summer as its breeding plumage. The feathers are marked in brown, buff and black, helping the bird to blend in on the mosaic of colours found on the Arctic tundra where it breeds. New, non-breeding feathers are coming through now though, scattered amongst the old feathers and easily spotted with their squared off ends, not yet worn down to a point. The new feathers are plainer, grey-brown and ideal camouflage for when they are spending the winter on open muddy areas.

Moulting adult Semipalmated Sandpiper. The different-aged feathers give the bird a rather ragged look, unlike the neat rows of same-aged feathers that juveniles wear.

Adult Lesser Yellowlegs. Again, note the mix of grey and black feathers on the upperparts. As if long-distance shorebird migration was not already miracle enough to contemplate, add in the fact that adults depart first, leaving the youngsters to head thousands of miles south to traditional wintering grounds all on their own - with no map!!

Good feeding opportunities can be few and far between, especially at the Migratory Bird Refuge where the habitat is struggling to survive the on-going over-use of chemical weed control. Here a White-rumped Sandpiper (right) faces off against a subservient Semipalmated Sandpiper (need I add that they are both adults?!).

Recently I’ve had to take great care watering the hanging baskets on the porch as a pair of Carolina Wrens decided that one of them looked like an ideal place for a nest! The first egg hatched today though, so it looks like the parents are going to be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks!

Year Bird: Long-billed Dowitcher

July 21st
Herons are certainly on the move now, with 25 Snowy Egrets and 23 Great Blue Herons on Bunker Pond, as well as a juvenile Little Blue Heron and an adult Green Heron. Songbird migrants were on the move this morning with at least 12 Yellow Warblers a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and five Ruby-throated Hummingbirds passing overhead first thing. Another sign of autumn was the arrival of the first parties of Sanderlings on South Beach.

Little Yellow nectaring at Camphorweed flower. For butterfly fanatics, one of the great finds of the year was the discovery that Little Yellows had returned to the point after an absence of six years or so. This species is mostly a southern breeder and is right on the edge of its range here. The larvae feed on Partridge-pea and it's probably no coincidence that the food plant is just getting going at Cape May Point State Park again after much of it was lost as a result of the habitat destruction caused by the Army Corps of Engineers when they re-profiled the beach.

July 22nd
A quick look at Sunset Beach early evening revealed a huge influx of Spot-winged Gliders with several hundred of them moving north in the time I was there. Although a few probably breed locally, large numbers of these insects push north from the southeastern states at this time of year and these were probably benefiting from south-west winds blowing them our way. I put up a picture of one of today’s Spot-winged Gliders on the ‘Here by Dragons’ post in August.

Not that we need an excuse for a get together over a great meal, a bunch of us decided that we would go out to celebrate the six-month anniversary of last November’s Ivory Gull – so a crab meal at Sharkey’s over at the Bree-zee Lee was the obvious place to go and we ate a few crabs and sunk a few beers in honour of our illustrious visitor!

July 24th
A day spent doing work on the house, but we did take time out to go and see one of two Upland Sandpipers that turned up at the State Park. These are uncommon migrants here as the eastern population has almost entirely died out due to loss of grassland habitat that they need for breeding.

Eyes still closed and having a well-earned nap, three of the five Carolina Wren chicks can just be seen here.

July 26th
Bunker Pond gets a mention again, as the egret count increased to 58 Great Egrets along with a scattering of Little Blue and Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets. After a flash storm late yesterday, large numbers of Swamp Darners were noticed with at least 30 hunting in the lee of our big Chinese Elm. Today, the whole of Cape May Point seemed to be awash with Swamp and Green Darners and a few Wandering Gliders.

As heron and egret numbers built up, someone commented that Bunker Pond looked like the African Rift Valley!

Great Egret numbers built up quickly as the hot, dry summer left thousands of fish stranded in the rapidly-shrinking Bunker Pond.

A closer look revealed that many of the fish being caught were Green Sunfish. Sadly, a lot were too big for the egrets to take on and, having been speared and left for dead, they were then abandoned. Still, nature doesn't like waste and there was plenty of Laughing Gulls and Terrapins on hand to take on the scraps.

With ever-growing mouths to feed back at the nest, Ospreys were quick to spot the feeding opportunities on offer at Bunker Pond and some days five or six could be seen hunting there.