Friday, December 10, 2010

November's Peaks & Troughs

With the manic excitement of October to compete with, November was perhaps always going to be an anti-climax, but the month did have its high points. November can be an interesting month at Cape May for wildlife - or at least for birds, as most other things are hunkering down for the winter as the first frosts begin to bite. Typically, the first week can still produce a little of the feel of late October as late migrant songbirds continue to move through, to be gradually replaced by movements of ducks. Then there is the rarity season; strange, out-of-range species can and do pop up from time to time and November certainly has a good track record for producing the unexpected. So, here's November's highlights, as my Cape May year list begins to draw to a close:

November 1st
The mayhem of the last few days of October was now behind us and songbirds continued to return to more expected levels. However, the Hawkwatch team were kept busy and I managed to find two Golden Eagles today, one flying south which I saw from my office window (that's a list that's growing nicely now!!) and another which I found at lunch time from the Hawkwatch Platform. Today was also a good day for Eastern Bluebirds as good numbers seemed to be heading south (this is typically a pretty late migrant). I say seemed to be as bluebird migration can be tricky to monitor because the birds often pass very high overhead and more often that not, it's a case of recording ones you hear rather than see. This year, though, several took up temporary residence on wires along Bayshore Road and at least 35 were present not far from our house today.

November 2nd
A pre-work walk at the state park was rather quiet, though two Eurasian Wigeons and a male Lesser Scaup were with the regular ducks on Lighthouse Pond. After work, I did a sundown vigil at the Migratory Bird Refuge which proved to be a good move. As the sun painted the whole sky a million shades of orange, an American Bittern and six Black-crowned Night Herons flew up from the cattails to continue their southward journey and a seemingly endless stream of ducks came into the ponds from their more secluded daytime hang-outs to feed under the safety of darkness. Northern Pintail, Mallard, American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal appeared in good numbers and put on a fabulous show.

This female Eurasian Wigeon, paired with a male American Wigeon, has been on Lighthouse Pond for a while now. Not all identification features can be seen here, but notice that the head has a rusty tone to it, matching that of the body. Female American Wigeons usually have a head that is a beige or fawn colour which contrasts with the body.

November 3rd
More signs of impending winter as I noted the first two female Buffleheads and a pair of Hooded Mergansers on Lake Lily.

November 6th
The first chunky Fox Sparrow returned to our yard today and a nice first-winter White-crowned Sparrow was with it.

November 7th
A cold and windy day, but the wind brought birds to Cape May Point, including a good scattering of Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks and good numbers of itinerant Turkey Vultures. A Pine Siskin at work continued what has been a good autumn so far here for this northern species that doesn't always get down to Cape May and both White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches were at the feeders. At lunch time, the odd, pale Red-tailed Hawk that has been hanging out at the state park was trapped by the hawkbanders and brought to the Hawkwatch Platform for release, so I got a chance to get a close look at this unusual bird. Much talk has gone on about the correct term for the condition of this bird, and I don't think any real conclusion was reached. Albino birds - with all white plumage and pink eyes - are easy, but there's a whole host of other conditions that can occur within a bird's DNA and which can have a strange effect on the colour and or markings of the bird. Finally today, as if another sign of winter were needed, I heard Snow Geese passing high overhead at 11;15PM as I lay in bed - always a chilly sound!!

Male Red-tailed Hawk at Cape May Point State Park with aberrant, light plumage.

The same male Red-tailed Hawk, seen from above. This bird has been surprisingly confiding and has been hanging out at the state park for a while now.

For comparison, here's a 'normal' juvenile Red-tailed Hawk at the state park, which has more saturated brown in the plumage.

November 9th
A rather late Lark Sparrow had been seen at Cape May Point State Park yesterday, so I popped in there before work this morning to see if it was still around. There was no sign, but I did make up for missing the bird by finding a nice Ash-throated Flycatcher. This is one of those western species which is famous for turning up in November. Somehow, some species that should be heading south from the Rockies to warmer climes for the winter, seem to find there way to Cape May by some strangely circuitous route. Unless we are able to satellite tag these birds, we may never know by which route they arrive, or even where they go after they leave us. While there, a superb Golden Eagle cruised right over the car park - it's turning into an amazing autumn for that species - while at work, the feeders attracted at least five Pine Siskins and three Purple Finches.

Ash-throated Flycatcher at Cape May Point State Park. I found this bird right by the entrance gate while looking for a Lark Sparrow - a nice result! Though it was the second one of the autumn, no 'twitch' can compare with finding your own!

Ash-throated Flycatcher is one of a tricky group of tyrant flycatchers which need a careful look to be sure of the species. Call can be useful, but migrants are often silent. This bird was easy though; note how little yellow there is underneath and note how the dark brown on the outer web curves across the inner web towards the tip of the outer tail feather.

This Golden Eagle was a real bonus to my pre-work birding this morning as it cruised right over the car park at the state park

Another shot of the same juvenile Golden Eagle as above.

American Goldfinches have been flocking to the feeders at work of late and occasionally bringing with them less common birds - though here they are joined by one of the local Carolina Chickadees.

It's been a great autumn for Pine Siskins, little streaky finches that ship out of the north-west when the living gets tough up there.

Our resident female Red-bellied Woodpecker at work continues to pull contortions to get food from feeders that really were only meant for birds half her size!

November 10th
This week's Wednesday walk was preceded by a quick look for Long-eared Owls. These owls pass through Cape May in unpredictable numbers each autumn, migrating at night and hiding in dense vegetation during the day. As they are easily disturbed at roost and need to rest during the day, roost locations are generally not disclosed here, to allow the birds some peace. However, it doesn't hurt to keep an eye out of you happen to be in a likely-looking spot and this morning I actually flushed one from some trees by mistake. I was stood watching some other birds for several minutes, when suddenly a gentle wing-snap right above me head caught my ear. It was a Long-eared Owl which had actually been in a thick patch of cover right over the trail and had probably sat, hoping I wouldn't see it (which I hadn't done until it flew!), but who probably lost his bottle after I had stood there for a while. North American birds appear to be much greyer than the birds I am used to in the UK, which gives them a really quite different feel.

Pine Siskin in the American Holly right outside my office window.

Another Pine Siskin at work. I'm still scratching my head a bit on how to age and sex this species as the books seem to be a little unhelpful. This bird was noticeably much browner than all the other birds present on the feeders.

Well, an adult breeding-plumaged Wood Duck is a fine sight, and I did see one on Lake Lily, but I only managed to get photos of this scruffy old moulting bird. Still, he'll get there eventually!

November 11th
A phone call from Tony at the Hawkwatch Platform alerted me to a Golden Eagle that was heading towards the Northwood Center - and sure enough there it was; by the time I had grabbed my camera and we all ran outside, it was drifting right over Lake Lily towards us with a loose party of Turkey Vultures. This was a really quite amazing bird, a juvenile with an exceptional amount of white in the wings, making it look particularly attractive. In the afternoon, nine Hooded Mergansers and three Lesser Scaup appeared on Lake Lily, while at lunchtime, I shot down Sunset Boulevard for some quick photos of my second Western Kingbird of the year - another one of those November western specials!

This juvenile Golden Eagle passed right over the Northwood Center and was one of the real highlights of the whole autumn. Juvenile Goldies vary considerably in the amount of white that they show in the wing and this one really must be at the very extreme of whiteness - compare it with the more typical bird above.

There's something pretty magnificent about Golden Eagles and there's certainly something pretty magnificent when you can get them flying right past your office window!!

Western Kingbird on Sunset Boulevard - a tricky bird to photograph because, although it was nice and approachable, the problem with birds on roadside wires is that if you get too close, you end up get a nice shot of their bellies and not much else!

November 29th
Having returned from our Thanksgiving trip down to South Carolina, this morning was the first chance I had had to go and see what was happening with the Cave Swallows over in town, along the seafront. Cave Swallows were once an extreme vagrant to Cape May from the far south-west of North America, but these days, one or two are pretty much expected in November. However, this year they went really crazy and turned up in unusually high numbers, with perhaps 80 or so birds being recorded over the Thanksgiving weekend. Sadly, the drastic change in weather which brought some bitterly cold nights was having a dire effect on these birds and I heard many stories of individual Cave Swallows just dropping dead onto the ground from their chosen nighttime roost site in the roof eaves of Congress Hall. The poor things looked so pathetic and many a local birder had a collection of little corpses in their home freezer, waiting to be sent to a museum. Most of the birds had gone by this morning - hopefully some had managed to fly on southward and they hadn't all succumbed - but I was lucky enough to find six further along the seafront near the Sea Crest Inn, which were decidedly less moribund and were hunting actively, low over the duneside vegetation. They took preening breaks on a nearby balcony which allowed me to get some quick shots of them.

A not too unhealthy-looking Cave Swallow along Beach Avenue. Let's hope this one made it back to the deep south.

Young Cave Swallows on a balcony along Beach Avenue - so tough for them to find food when all the habitat is gone...

Just when the Cave Swallows needed Mother Nature to extend a helping hand, she deals them a Cooper's Hawk. Of course, the natural world is always tough; it is, after all, survival of the fitest and it doesn't take long for a local predator to spot an easy feeding opportunity. This female Cooper's Hawks spent a couple of days skitting around the rafters and window ledges of Congress Hall for an easy meal.

After the wonderful show of white flowers from the Frost Asters in October, our meadow turned a bright golden brown in November as autumn tints developed in the Virginia Beard-grass. Sad that some people hate this wonderful display from a native species and would rather have boring, invasive alien grasses, shorn within an inch of their lives and devoid of any value to anything but humans....

So tiny, yet so amazing. The parting shot for this post is this Ruby-crowned Kinglet in our garden. These birds have passed through in their thousands this autumn and a few still hang out here despite the ever more chilly conditions. Species as vulnerable as this survive purely by producing as many young as possible and hoping that the law of averages dictates that some will make it back to breed next year. A thought-provoking example of life on the edge....