Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Candy Store & Migrants Beyond Belief!

Each autumn, some little spot at Cape May Point becomes the place to look for southbound migrants. This year, that spot was the very plave where I work. The garden of the Northwood Center hosted an amazing array of birds daily for some five weeks and, for a while at least, it looked like it would never end! Most years one or two of the stately Siberian Elms, that have been widely planted in gardens because they are resistant to Dutch Elm Disease, plays host to waves of migrants and this year, that special tree - the Magic Tree - was right outside our window! So why Siberian Elms? Well for two reasons, both involving insects. Siberian Elms often ooze sap from their trunks and major side branches for some reason that remains a mystery to me and this sap attracts insects - which in turn attracts the birds. In addition, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are attracted to the sap too. Secondly, elms are primary or secondary hosts for a number of aphid species, some of which arrive on the elm trunks in huge numbers in the autumn - especially the group of insects known as woolly aphids. In fact, the generation of these insects that visits elm trunks is the winged generation, which is not woolly but that's just nature being complicated again!

So how did this manifest itself at the Northwood Center? Well, just take a look at this batch of pictures, all taken from the kitchen window at work!

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler. Contra what many people believe, many North American wood-warbler males retain full - or nearly full - breeding-type plumage throughout the year once they have reached maturity and are thus pretty smart even in autumn.

OK, this one's certainly not a bright boy, but it is our namesake bird so we always like to see them here. This is a first-winter female Cape May Warbler coming to the Candy Store.

A dapper Northern Parula clings to the vertical trunk to get at the treats lurking in the bark fissures.

An old favourite of mine, a young Magnolia Warbler.

A potential trap for the unwary. This Yellow Warbler had a dark mark on its crown which superficially made it look like a Wilson's Warbler, a species that's not common here - though regular in small numbers.

Another Magnolia Warbler stops by, this one more subtly streaked on the flanks.

A different Cape May Warbler, this time a young male with much more yellow in its plumage - but no orange cheek patch yet.

And just to show that it wasn't just warblers that came to the Candy Store; a Brown Creeper - one of four that spent more than a week with us.

Red-breasted Nuthatches have been literally pouring through the area in recent weeks, with some particularly impressive counts coming from Higbee's Dike.

A final little gem at the aphid feast - a male Downy Woodpecker attempts to look like a Constable painting!

And while queueing for their turn at the ultimate feast, many other birds roved through neighbouring trees, such as this Tennessee Warbler in a Grey Poplar next to my car....

....and this first-winter Chestnut-sided Warbler in the same tree - at times it really was difficult to know which way to turn!

Meanwhile, this young Blackburnian Warbler typically favoured nearby conifers.

Elsewhere, Cape May Point State Park's conifer stands which usually serve us proudly, seemed deprived of birds for some reason this year. However, I did pay a few lunchtime visits and came up with one or two secretive gems while everyone else was watching birds around Lake Lily.

Reward for quietly waiting in the shadows of the thicker clumps of trees came first in the form of this unusually obliging Veery....

....then I came across this wonderful Ovenbird which walked up a sloping branch and stared back at me just long enough for a few shots. The extremely low light levels made photography difficult and this retiring forest-floor dweller proved a tricky subject, but I don't think I did too badly. I certainly would have been happy with this shot if I had been back on my local patch on the clifftops in Norfolk!

Walking back through the more open wetland trails in the state park, I discovered that Prairie Warblers were all over the place, feeding low down in weedy corners. I liked capturing the moment that these two suddenly realised that they were working the same patch! These two are probably both first-winter birds - the left one a male, the right one a female.

Just to round off, here's a couple of shots of a really obliging Prairie Warbler that fed close to me as I just sat quietly on the edge of the boardwalk.

Well, September really is the peak month for the wood-warblers here and already I can't wait for next year to get another full dose of them. But, hey, we've got October to get through yet, with all those raptors and sparrows, then the ducks arriving to take us into November.....

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Cape May Effect

Here's a post I originally put up on the Cape May Bird Observatory site, but I thought I'd put it up here too - with a few words changed to account for it being some weeks back now!

One Saturday night back in September I did a bad thing, a very bad thing; I forgot an evening engagement with friends, good friends. How and why did this happen? Well quite simply, I was in heaven. Heaven is a strange place; it can be anywhere, any place, any time; but you know when you are there. And for all of us, heaven is a different place - but it definitely exists, because I was there, that Saturday evening. On that evening, just for a short while of less than an hour, heaven was on Cape May's South Beach. It involved being barefoot on warm sand, having a camera in-hand and having shorebirds so close that you could hear their tiny feet pattering on dry sand as they trotted by (have you ever heard that sound?). When you are in heaven, everything else goes on hold because time stands still. No-one else was there in my heaven, just me, just the focus of my attention, but if you missed it, if you had to be back for dinner on time, here's what you missed.

A juvenile Semipalmated Plover, so young that it doesn't know to keep its distance from me, but instinctively knowing that a tide-washed strandline is the place to be to find juicy sandflies. Adult Semipalmated Plovers are wonderful with their bold black and white head pattern; but juveniles are more subtle, in shades of coffee-brown and with delicate pale fringes to the back feathers.

The real object of my desire that night was a party of six Buff-breasted Sandpipers. These are birds of the high Arctic tundra which make a staggering migration southward, to winter on the grasslands of northern Argentina.

They are with us at Cape May so fleetingly, yet they are such a special bird that they touch our lives with their presence.
Perhaps the most amazing thing of all about such long distance migrants, is that this group of six birds were all youngsters; first-timers, heading for Argentina with no parental guidance at all. Something to sit and contemplate for a moment....

So why do Buffies pick Cape May as a stop-over on their long journey? For the same reason that we all do; it's heaven on earth for everyone who comes here - at some point, at some moment in time.
And my friends? I saw them today - they forgave me - though they won't let me forget it for a while!!

Cape May on a warm, sunny, September evening - would you want to be anywhere else?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Those Cruel Flycatchers...

A magnificent rush of birds at Higbee's Beach WMA on September 4th included a veritable 'fall-out' of Empidonax flycatchers which was bound to result in folks deciding either to get stuck in to a thorny identification challenge, or to go home and have a second breakfast! I did both, so here's some photos from the former (no pictures of the latter sadly!). Those who haven't ventured into the murky world of the Tyrant Flycatchers are probably blissfully unaware of this annoyingly tricky family of birds, which includes a number of species that are pretty much like the New World equivalent of those 'little brown jobs' that we like to call warblers in the UK. I thought it would be particularly poignant to cover them this autumn as there has been an Alder Flycatcher on Blakeney Point in Norfolk which caused much consternation for those not familiar with this group.

Though taken from behind and with the head slightly turned away, this is clearly a Least Flycatcher, the most common Empidonax encountered at Higbee's Beach. Note the rather large-headed look (relative to the size of the body), the obvious eye-ring (especially behind the eye) and the rather small bill. Importantly, photographing it from behind allows us to see the very short primary projection of this species. The 'primary projection' refers to the length of primaries that can be seen extending beyond the tertials (the tertials are the three innermost - ie nearest the body - secondaries which tend to close over most of the primaries and secondaries when the wing is closed).
I put up the picture above first so that it could be compared with this picture. This is the same bird, on the same perch. However, I think that if I was faced with just this photo, I may well struggle to identify this bird as a Least Flycatcher! Least is typically rather upright in stance, yet here it is almost horizontal. Also, with the wing tips moved out from the body, they are casting a shadow on the side of the rump, making the bird appear to have a longer primary projection than it actually does. A flattening of the crown feathers has also given the bird a smaller-headed appearance. Lesson 1: It pays to watch a bird for a while before you try to give it a name. Lesson 2: It's not always a good thing to name a bird from a single photograph!

Here's another Least Flycatcher in a more typical view, showing the relatively large and rounded head typical of the species, the short primary projection and the classic eyering which extends out into a 'teardrop' at the back of the eye.

Much scarcer than Least Flycatchers at Higbee's Beach, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers can look structurally rather similar, being small and with a relatively large, rounded head. Yellow-bellies have a longer primary projection than Least, but are more easily told by their overall yellow wash to the underparts which extends right across the face on this individual. Essentially, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher should show a throat that is the same colour as the breast - Least has a yellowish (or white) breast and clean white throat. Note also here the slight crest. Yellow-bellied Flycatchers prefer to hunt unobtrusively within woodland and thicker cover, so are perhaps more regular at Cape May than records suggest as they will be less readily found than Least Flycatchers.
And so to a really thorny issue! Whatever happened to Traill's Flycatcher? Well in case you didn't know, it got split up into Willow and Alder Flycatchers and the two species remain a real problem to separate, being best told in spring when singing, or in the hand using a complicated biometric formula based on the wing and bill. There are general trends though and, although there is much overlap, a bird showing pretty much the full suite of Alder characteristics - like this one - probably is one. Note the relatively small bill (foreshortened here but even so, it's not particularly long), rounded head, fairly distinct eyering (paler and more obvious than the lores) and slightly olive tone to the upper parts of this bird. All features that are more typical of Alder than Willow (although none of which in isolation are diagnostic I should add). Four birds like this were together along one of the Higbee's hedgelines this morning.
But the reason why I feel quietly confident about the bird above being an Alder Flycatcher is because of this picture. The outer part of a bird's wing - its 'hand' consists of the longest flight feathers, the primaries. The relative shapes and lengths of these feathers varies from species to species and this - at least in part - makes up the birds wing formula. Typically for songbirds, Empids have a 10th (outermost) primary that is much shorter than the ninth primary. In Willow/Alder flycatchers, the 9th, 8th and 7th are of similar length and thus form a slightly rounded 'wing point'. The following primaries (6th to 1st numbered inwardly) are then progressivley shorter. Here, the bird has ruffled its wing and the short 10th primary can be seen. Most importantly, its length relative to the other primaries can be judged. So, the 9th primary can't be seen here as it is slightly shorter than - and thus hidden by - the 8th. Thus the 8th primary is the longest we can see here, with the tip of the 7th just next to it. Carrying on from there, we can see that the 10th is noticeably longer than the 5th, coming closer to the tip of the sixth in length - though still shorter than the sixth. This difference in length - which if the bird were held in the hand could be taken as a measurement in millimetres - coupled with the bill length (which certainly looked relatively short on this bird) gives us a formula which sorts out the 'Traill's' pair pretty well - making this an Alder Flycatcher.

Not a great picture due to poor photographic conditions deep in the woods, but here's an Acadian Flycatcher, taken on the breeding grounds at Belleplain State Forest, Cape May back in the summer. Though the bird is half hidden, this picture does show nicely the long primary projection typical of Acadian Flycatcher - compare with the 'stumpy' Leasts above.

Well, hopefully, if you're in the UK, this has been food for thought if you saw the Blakeney bird! All the pictures of that bird show an absolute classic Alder Flycatcher which - as Michael O'Brien so rightly said to me the other day - is harder to tell from Least than Willow when it comes to plumage, while the structure sorts Alder from Least easy enough. Sorting this group has been a long time coming, but most birders here at Cape May deal with them well enough. Right, that's the dull little birds done, there'll be some more glamorous birds in the next post I hope!!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Full Circle

September 1st finally arrived; the day I came full circle and completed my first full year working at Cape May. And what a year it's been! Record snowfalls, a hideously wet spring, then the summer drought with temperatures reaching 100F - quite a variety of experiences for sure. So now September has come and gone again and, with it being the peak period for bird migration, it's been pretty much impossible to find time to write a blog - especially as I was trying to keep a diary going! So, I'll cobble together some highlights of the season over the next few posts to give an idea of the wonders of a Cape May autumn (and there's still plenty to come yet!).

After the amazing Monarch departure, it went a little quiet for these amazing long-distance travellers for a while; but small numbers still continued to pass through and their black-and-orange colours always look good when they are feeding at the Giant Sunflowers in the Cape May Point State Park.

One useful thing to know about Monarchs though and that is that not everything you think is a Monarch, is a Monarch! So here's a classic Monarch from below, feeding at Japanese Honeysuckle - but compare it with the next picture...

...still looks like a Monarch - or does it? This in fact is a butterfly called a Viceroy which isn't even in the same family as a Monarch (it's actually related to the fritillaries and admirals) and yet looks pretty similar. Similar enough, in fact, that once a predator has learned that Monarchs are poisonous and should be left alone, they leave Viceroys alone too. Initially this was thought to be one of the most basic forms of mimicry, called Batesian Mimicry, where a harmless species looks like a poisonous one and thus benefits from this arrangement by not being eaten. In fact, it turns out that Viceroys are poisonous too - so called Mullerian Mimicry - where harmful animals with similar traits look similar, that way the message gets across quickly and they're all left alone; sort of benefits both sides really! To most predators, the two butterfly species above look similar enough that they are considered to be the same thing. With our more discerning eye, we see many differences, the most obvious being the extra black line across the middle of the Viceroy's wing. There are other subtle differences too, in the arrangement and shape of the white marks for example.

From above, the same differences as can be seen from below are evident, with the line across the hindwing on this Viceroy being the most obvious feature.

Monarch top side - compare with above. You can also tell male and female Monarchs apart from each other. This is a male, as told by the narrow black veining and the two round, black dots on the hindwings.

Butterfly migration hasn't been all about Monarchs this year, however. Common Buckeyes have been staggeringly abundant - even as I write in early October there is 100 or more in our meadow, feeding avidly at the Frost Aster flowers. I took a photo of this one as it paused on a fence post and posed nicely for me along Yale Avenue.

With all the Monarchs around, eyes were on the butterfly world and, with the added attention, several less common species were found. I found this Pipevine Swallowtail in the state park on September 13th and managed just one quick shot before it sped off across Lighthouse Pond. This is only the second time I've seen this species, and the first time I've managed to get a photo!

Our own butterfly garden is still at very humble beginnings, but the mass of plants we've been given by friends and neighbours has certainly got us off to a good start. In this bed, a Mexican Sunflower stands tall above New England Aster and Red Sage.

And here's some of the competition trying to attract butterflies too! The show of wild Giant Sunflower at the state park has been spectacular this year, especially when they were adorned with Monarchs!

Another insect mimic that isn't quite what it seems! This may look like a bumble bee, but notice the long antennae. This is a Snowberry Clearwing - a species of hawkmoth - which is able to fly by day unmolested as it looks like a bee, so is left alone. Unfortunately this is yet another of those New World things that has been wrongly named and now it's too late to change; the clearwings are actually a completely different family of moths, unrelated to the hawkmoths. This should best be called Snowberry Beehawk as it is closely related to the Beehawk moths of the Old World. This is a common species around Cape May and best told by its black legs (though the light shining on them makes them look pale in places here). The similar Hummingbird Clearwing has white legs.

Still on things in our garden, our local Black Rat Snake turned up again recently, hanging out for a few days in one of our Norway Maples. With the migration of tree-loving warblers now under way, it made me wonder whether his ploy of hanging out in the trees was to have a go at catching small birds for lunch.

Something that struck me this month was how small birds have a habit of always managing to get something between you and them when they flit through the trees and seemingly pick a spot to land at random. How do they do that? Are they that good at calculating sight lines that they can pick a spot on a branch, knowing that they'll be at least half hidden from view behind a leaf or twig? So it seems, as it just happens so often. Now, having covered that, I have an excuse for some dodgy pictures of birds half hidden by other objects! Here's a Veery, one of the small Catharus thrushes and a master at the art. This one was in the small Sassafras tree that is just a couple of feet from my office window - good job the camera was handy!

Another sneeky peeper, this Philadelphia Vireo came in nice and close but - typically - never quite gave itself up to the camera lens and always managed to keep a leaf or twig between us. It's been a particularly good autumn for this species which is regular but never common at Cape May.

Again, a perfectly positioned bird! This Great Crested Flycatcher was in a mixed flock which came in close when I was luring them in with a bit of 'pishing' but it still strapped a piece of juniper to its face!

But just to show that it can be done, here's a Carolina Chickadee - a species that seems to like us so makes a bit more of an effort to pose nicely! This bird was in the same flock as the flycatcher above but came to within a couple of feet of me, which meant I had to back off to get it in focus!

Now here's a bird that set me thinking about how field guides are written. Shouldn't we have illustrations that show the birds as you would see them in the field? Well, here's a typical view of a Northern Waterthrush - if only I could have a pound - or a dollar - for every one I've seen like this!!

Eastern Kingbirds start to move south relatively early and numbers at Cape May peak in late August. Higbee's Beach is a great place to see this species then, when up to 300 can be gathered in the Sassafras trees were they feed avidly on the ripening fruits. As most birds will have finished breeding by this time, I was surprised to find this young Eastern Kingbird which had clearly not long left the nest, judging by its stumpy wings and tail. Surprising because of the date as it was September 7th when I chanced upon this little chap near Rio Grande.

With the tourist season not quite over and guests staying with us, we took the opportunity to hire some kayaks and see the harbour and backbays of Cape May from a different angle. One of my favourite shots from the day out was of this Forster's Tern which really didn't seem bothered by us in our kayaks - I guess it could clearly tell from the way we were floundering around that we weren't a threat to it! I actually took this picture with a little point-and-shoot Pentax I have, but which is ideal for kayaking as it's waterproof!

I haven't said much about life on the beaches of late, though to be honest most beaches are best avoided during the summer! So, here's a few pictures from the sandy strands of Cape May Point. This Lesser Black-backed Gull was one of the first of a good run of this species this autumn and turned up on September 2nd, being one of four present that day. Although a European species, Lesser Black-backs are expected here each autumn and it seems likely either that a small breeding population has become established - perhaps in Greenland - or that birds have established a regular migration route which takes them to wintering grounds in the Caribbean and Florida.
A flight shot of the same Lesser Black-backed Gull reveals how messy they can look when in full moult during late summer. This is clearly a third calendar year bird, moulting into its adult-type grey wing feathers for the first time. Notice how the flight feather moult starts with the innermost primaries and works sequencially outwards. It has re-grown the first three completely, the fourth is almost fully re-grown and the fifth (with a neat black and white tip) is getting there too.

While on the subject of gulls, I dropped in this shot of a worried-looking Ring-billed Gull. There was a very real threat of Hurrican Earl making landfall somewhere close to Cape May at one point and all the emergency services were on stand-by. During the height of it all on September 2nd I took a stroll along a breezy but wonderfully empty beach and found this guy digging in behind a wall of strandline debris just in case!! And that was it - Hurricane Earl, a damp squib in my book, and not even damp actually!

Despite Hurricane Earl fizzling out to nothing locally, a lot of seabirds were pushed onto Cape May's beaches to ride out the worst of the weather. After a number of near misses which were starting to get a tad annoying, I finally bumped into a Sandwich Tern off Coral Avenue, courtesy of Michael O'Brien. Of course, after that, the inevitable happened and I then ran into one or two more over the following few days. This ringed adult was on the beach near 2nd Avenue Jetty. This is an uncommon species in Cape May with just one or two wanderers reaching here in late summer each year from breeding grounds much further south.

While enjoying skimmers and terns on the beaches on September 9th, I was intrigued by the bird on the left. These are clearly both Royal Terns, a common species at Cape May, though not a regular breeder with us at present. What intrigued me about the bird on the left is just how relatively dainty it looks when compared with the typical bird on the right. While Royals Terns do vary a little in size, bill size is one of the features that is used to define the West African population from the Western Atlantic population in the USA. This smaller-billed bird would certainly not look out of place in The Gambia where I have seen many birds of the race albidorsalis and it does make me wonder whether some of them make it across the Atlantic on the back of stormy weather. Something to ponder upon over a few beers I think!

The wide expanses of intertidal flats and beaches around Stone Harbour are great places for shorebirds and a few Red Knot were on their amazing southbound migration from the High Arctic to South America and had dropped in for a refuel last time I was there. This is clearly an adult with remnants of its rufous breeding plumage still showing. Note the old and very worn wing coverts with their very pointy tips, the result of the softer parts of the feathers wearing away and just leaving the central shafts.

In contrast to the adult above, here's a far more dapper looking juvenile Red Knot with its neat chevrons along the flanks and tidy rows of round-tipped wing coverts. Such differences in wear between adults and juveniles at this time of year can be a useful way to age birds where plumage markings are much more similar between different-aged birds than they are in Red Knot.

Another long-distance migrant that is quite common at Cape May during August and September is Pectoral Sandpiper - here a very neat juvenile (look at those smart wing coverts!). These birds go well south into South America and have the long wings typical of such long-haul travellers.

One of the star turns of this year's autumn migration here and an uncommon species in Cape May - at least south of the canal - was this moulting adult Hudsonian Godwit. Yet another long-distance migrant, this bird spent time hanging out at Bunker Pond and couldn't have been more obliging. The bill seems to be particularly long on this individual which suggests that it is probably a female.

A bird that is easily missed here is Sora Rail, as they so often prefer to keep themselves tucked away in marshside vegetation - though they're pretty easy to hear! This one bucked the trend and spent the best part of a week feeding right out in the open on Lighthouse Pond during late September.

Well Cape May is, after all, all about migration and September is the peak month for the movement of American Kestrels - though October is continuing to be good for them this year too. On October 20th, Megan and I went down to Sunset Boulevard in the evening where up to 40 American Kestrels had been gathering to feed on grasshoppers in the open, short grassland there. It was getting late by the time we got down there, but here's just a few of a party of seventeen which were strung out on wires near the Magnasite Plant and put on a fabulous display. With Merlins zipping through every few minutes too, it really was a treat!

As if we needed signs from the birds that October was only just around the corner, a nice Blue Jay movement took place on September 29th and my Wednesday walk started with a wonderful flock of 147 of them flying around the lighthouse and seeming a bit unsure what to do next. Blue Jays are poorly equipped for taking the Delware Bay on so many probably head back up the shore to cross further north where the bay is much narrower. That morning, we had at least 300 Blue Jays looping around Cape May Point with some bigger flocks coming a few days later.

Another sign of late fall - come late September, come the kinglets. This Ruby-crowned Kinglet was part of the vanguard of what is proving to be a very good autumn for this species.