Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ultimate Migration!

It’s hard to know what to call this weekend; how to give a title to a blog about one of the most awesome weekend’s birding ever at Cape May. Yes, there have been bigger morning flights here – much bigger – over the years. But usually the birds just keep on moving. This time, the weather and timing of the bird movements meant that the birds dropped right in on Cape May Point and stayed here.

It started on Thursday evening, after the last of our autumn get-togethers, with a series of texts from the local insomniacs, alerting us all to a large volume of birds calling overhead as they passed over Cape May beach front in the dark. It seems that the movement continued all night and we were all up before it was light on Friday morning. I went out into the back garden as the first pale streaks of dawn crept across the eastern sky and at first it was quiet – annoyingly quiet given all the messages coming from the beach front! But that quickly changed and before long I had notched up 50 American Woodcocks passing over our house and dropping into the woods just to the north of us. With them came a scattering of passerines, most of which appeared to be Hermit Thrushes judging from their overall size and shape. This was exciting, but the word on the streets was that ‘on the streets’ was where we needed to be, so Megan and I drove into town to see what was happening: what we found was truly awesome. Thousands upon thousands of birds were carpeting Cape May, from Bayshore Road, all the way through West Cape May and right through the City of Cape May. We were driving at 15mph, at times much less, as clouds of birds swept through the area. Driving down Jackson Street, we stopped by the crossing with the pedestrian precinct and it was as though people were throwing buckets of dead leaves along the street, that were being swept along in the winds that funneled between the buildings; but the dead leaves were birds, scattering in their hundreds as a pedestrian walked through.

It was getting light now and it was easy to see that the birds were orientating themselves and heading for patches of cover and for green lawns. Masses of Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and American Robins were swarming over the lawns as we headed back through town and continued on towards Cape May Point. Our progress was very slow! Every inch of the way there seemed to be birds, all looking for somewhere safe to get out of the way of the birds of prey that were waking to a smorgasbord of breakfast items! Right in the centre of Cape May Point, among the streets and houses, we came across a male Northern Harrier on the Pavilion Circle, eating an unfortunate sparrow – but it was soon robbed by a passing Turkey Vulture. Initially I was surprised by how few birds had been killed on the roads (I had only picked up one Hermit Thrush and a Virginia Rail) but then we ran across Tony Leukering who had a bagful of sad corpses – Tony had come further than us on the main roads where no doubt cars were driving faster. Also, now that it was getting light, we could see American Crows picking off the victims before we got to them. (By the way, we're not that gruesome; the ones picked up in good condition are sent up to the natural history museum in Philadelphia for their study skin collection.)

Tough to pick out in the dull light of dawn, but all those brown blobs are sparrows (mostly White-throated Sparrows here) and roadside verges were littered with birds like this everywhere we went.

On the Pavilion Circle, this young male Northern Harrier was quick to make the best of the easy pickings. Harriers will often hunt at very first light and at dusk, when their prey is most vulnerable.

 Our next stop was the dune cross-over at Coral Avenue and here, the spectacle of masses of moving birds rivaled the Monarch movement we had seen a month earlier. Swarms of Red-winged Blackbirds, Tree Swallows and House Finches dominated the movement, while Yellow-rumped Warblers were almost queuing up to find a perch. Parties of Buff-bellied Pipits hugged the beach front and at least 50 went by in the relatively short time that we were there.

Coral Avenue shortly after sunrise - memories of the Monarch migration as waves of Red-winged Blackbirds sweep along the dunes.

More and more Red-winged Blackbirds sweep over the pines before lifting higher to take on Delaware Bay and continue south.

It was all too much for words, but now reality kicked in, as work beckoned! Great stories poured in to the Northwood Center about the spectacle that continued all day as the birds had settled in the area to feed. How many birds were there? Well I guess we will never know for sure, but those who toured Cape May Point and got a feel for what was going on overall, were talking of A MILLION BIRDS…

My next opportunity to enjoy this fantastic flight of birds came on Saturday morning as another monster movement took place. Instead of the expected exodus of birds, the continuing cold front and associated north-west winds just continued the bird fest! Megan had headed off on a trip, so I was left to check out what was happening Saturday morning on my own. I decided this time to see what our own plot of land had to offer and it seemed as though this time, the centre of Cape Island was getting as many birds as the coast line. There were too many birds, tucked into too many thick clumps of grass and bushes to be exact with numbers, but my estimates of birds in our garden excluding the ‘locals’ were:

Eastern Phoebe 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 35
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
Brown Thrasher 1
Hermit Thrush 20
Black-throated Blue Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 100
Palm Warbler 10
Song Sparrow 20
Swamp Sparrow 35
White-throated Sparrow 400
Dark-eyed Junco 50
Chipping Sparrow 10
Field Sparrow 2
Clay-coloured Sparrow 1
Eastern Towhee 1

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. These little gems have been flocking all over the point lately and are amazingly confiding, often feeding within three feet of people.

Palm Warblers are relatively late migrants, though most have already passed through now. Even so, at least 10 were in our yard on the Saturday morning.

With all these goodies around, there just had to be something new for our garden and it came in the shape of a Clay-coloured Sparrow. I didn't get a photo of our one, but here's one that I photographed at the Hawkwatch just a few days earlier.

Chipping Sparrows abounded in their thousands on the Friday morning, less so on Saturday. This one was at Higbee's Beach and I put it in here for comparison with the Clay-coloured Sparrow as they are closely related species and very similar in appearance. A key feature seen easily here is the dark loral stripe of Chipping Sparrow, which runs from the eye to the bill base.

Quite a haul! In contrast to Friday, White-throated Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes seemed to dominate Saturday's fall; both had been present the day before but not so obviously dominant. Work beckoned again and news of ‘tidal waves’ of sparrows at Higbee’s Beach drifted through. Other goodies were found; a Henslow’s Sparrow (the first for 22 years here), Common Ground Dove (only the third state record), Western Kingbird and Yellow Rail; and the birds of prey swarmed overhead.

Hermit Thrushes are usually solitary feeders that like to keep themselves to themselves and spend most of their time feeding in cover. Morning Flight counter Tom Johnson recorded at least 100 Hermit Thrushes on the short stretch of dirt road down to Higbee's Dike on Saturday morning.

Wonderful Yellow-rumped Warblers resting and taking the sun at Cape May Point State Park.

Yellow-rumped Warblers simply swarmed around Cape May over the weekend in seemingly uncountable numbers. Here is a part of a flock of 90 of them feeding on fallen juniper berries under just one tree at the state park.

Sunday saw a lessening of birds, but there was still plenty to be enjoyed – and for me a light at the end of the tunnel! This incredible fall out of birds had not come at a good time for me, as this weekend was our annual ‘Autumn Weekend’, a three-day event of programmes, talks and walks, which meant the staff here all had to work through it all – fine if you’re leading a walk but not so good if you’re indoors!! So, 4.30PM Sunday I got out to the fields at Higbee’s at last for a proper look without having to clock watch. Luckily for me, I ran into Jim Danzenbaker and together we worked the near corner of Tower Field and eventually got superb views of the Henslow’s Sparrow which had surely been the one bird that just shouldn’t be missed. Even now, Tower Field rustled! There were so many sparrows feeding there that you could hear them feeding! The rustling of little feathered bodies poking through the grass and nibbling at seeds. And above them all, three Northern Harriers caused havoc as they continued to hunt well into the fading light of evening.

Hermit Thrushes solitary and skulking? Well here's seven taking a drink from a puddle in the car park at Higbee's Beach - another five were at the other end of the puddle to the left!

Henslow's Sparrow was the real prize of the weekend as it is a declining species which is likely to get less regular as the population contracts. This was the first one found at Cape May for 22 years.

So just what figures did the counters come up with for this weekend? Well here’s some statistics to put it all into perspective:

Friday 29th
Seawatch - 21,093 birds, including 116 Wood Ducks, 6,389 Surf Scoters, 1,662 Black Scoters (plus 2,120 Surf/Black Scoters), 115 Red-throated Loons, 76 Common Loons, 9,503 Double-crested Cormorants, 24 Great Blue Herons, 59 Great Egrets, 16 Black-crowned Night Herons, 300 Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Hawkwatch – 1,096 raptors counted, including 8 Bald Eagles, 88 Northern Harriers, 556 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 241 American Kestrels, 41 Merlins, 13 Peregrines

Morning Flight – 145,484 birds counted on the morning flight, plus many other birds in the area, including 16 Eastern Phoebes, 73,570 American Robins, 63,640 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 335 Chipping Sparrows, 400 Song Sparrows, 300 White-throated Sparrows, 3,397 Dark-eyed Juncos, 5,000 Red-winged Blackbirds, 237 Rusty Blackbirds, 533 Pine Siskins and 400 American Goldfinches.

Broad-winged Hawks weren't a major part of this weekend's fall out, but there was still a few around to enjoy. Here's part of a flock of 65 (plus one Turkey Vulture) that passed over the Northwood Center.

And here's a closer look at a Broadie!

Saturday 30th
Seawatch – 12,372birds counted, including 249 Wood Ducks, 4138 Surf Scoters, 1,243 Black Scoters, 194 Red-throated Loons, 517 Northern Gannets, 4,124 Double-crested Cormorants.

Hawkwatch – 919 raptors counted, including 10 Bald Eagles, 105 Northern Harriers, 455 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 115 Red-tailed Hawks.

Morning Flight – 60,000 birds counted (no individual species totals have been made available though).

After note:The dust still hasn’t settled, as the Hawkwatch counters tallied 189 Northern Harriers and an impressive 11 Golden Eagles on Monday – I saw three of the Golden Eagles, including one which flew right past my office window and became the 97th species for my office window list!

Sparrow flocks are always worth scanning for the less common species. This first-winter White-crowned Sparrow was at the state park....

....while this Vesper Sparrow was one of four that we found at The Beanery. Note the white eyering on an otherwise rather plain head, and the white outer tail feathers.

Being in the office didn't take me completely out of the picture; this smart White-breasted Nuthatch was right outside my office window....

....and the bird feeders at work did a good job in pulling in lots of great birds, including a handful of Purple Finches that were heading south.

Female Purple Finches could be confused with House Finches, but note this bird's heavy streaking below and its clearly-marked, white supercilium running back from the eye.

As I write this on Tuesday evening (before going out for a slap-up get-together to say thanks to the wonderful seasonal staff we've had this year!) things are definitely quietening down, but the past two evenings have seen some lovely groups of Eastern Bluebirds gathered along Bayshore Road and lining my route home from work.

And just to rub it in yet again; yes, you get some fabulous sunsets here, especially when a tall sailing ship cruises through your viewfinder on a lightly-rippled Delaware Bay.