Saturday, January 29, 2011

Feathered Cats and Hairy Trousers!

January, sick and tired you been hanging on me...

Remember that old line from the song by Pilot in the 1970s? Well, this January has been a bit like that here. One snow storm after another just keep hitting us - with another forecast in the next couple of days. We haven't had any big falls of snow at Cape May (yet!) but what has fallen has just been so persistent due to the never-ending cold weather. We've had days and days on end where the temperatures haven't gone aboving freezing, making a walk along the beach not all that it should be!! According to my thermometer at home, our local temperatures have so far bottomed out at a pretty chilly 8F (-13C) which is certainly not what I was used to in the UK! Lakes remain frozen here and it's tough finding birds, though they are out there somewhere; recently I ran a two-day winter birds workshop and we certainly had a lot of nice birds, including a Grasshopper Sparrow (a new Cape May bird for me, having only previously seen it in Mexico), a nice gathering of 32 Tundra Swans up at Tuckahoe and some amazing close views of the seasuck flocks at Avalon, where masses of Surf and Black Scoters were courting and whistling and we enjoyed close encounters with Horned Grebe, both Red-throated and Great Northern Divers, a female Greater Scaup and a wonderful adult male Harlequin Duck.

So what else is new? Well, another new Cape May bird for me was Common Redpoll. This is the same species that we call Meally Redpoll in the UK and are more frosty than the Lesser Redpolls of Western Europe. Common Redpolls are irregular visitors this far south and some years there are none reported in Cape May. This has not been a big winter for them here, but there has been a scattering of reports of single-observer sightings, so it was nice to be in the right place at the right time when a party of six was found on the beach near Cove Pool. Here's a piece on the redpolls that I put together for our bird observatory blog:

The text message from Sam Galick said "core at grsp spot"; complete gobbledegook to most, but birders at Cape May instantly knew that he had found a Common Redpoll. When, just a few minutes later, the next message said "Make that 4 core feeding on goldenrod", I knew that this wasn't just another fly-over, single-observer sighting and I had to find an excuse to shoot over to the beach near Cove Pool. When I got there, Sam was still present and the redpoll count had increased to six! After a while Karl Lukens joined us and we were able to get excellent views of the birds as they fed on the copious amounts of Beach Goldenrod seed.

Common Redpolls choose to winter well north of Cape May in most years, but occasionally their winter wanderings (usually due more to food availability than weather) bring them down to the point. This winter has seen a fair scattering of reports of one to two birds, but almost always involving fly-overs or birds that moved quickly on and didn't stay to be enjoyed by the masses. This time though, this little party allowed close approach and it was even possible to name them to subspecies. These birds were of the more-expected nominate race flammea, a widespread form which breeds in northern birch and spruce forests around the globe, from Alaska eastward to, well, Alaska! There is something of a gap in the range, however, with different races breeding in Greenland and Iceland. The Greenland race, rostrata, has, according to Sibley's Birds of Cape May, been recorded just once at Cape May, with all other birds that could be assigned to race, being considered to be flammea. Greenland birds are typically large and chunky and clearly much browner and more smudgily marked than flammea. They have slightly heavier bills, a larger black bib under the bill and usually far less white on the rump - but (of course!) there are a few birds that seem somewhat intermediate and defy strict classification.

Ageing and sexing redpolls is notoriously difficult, unless dealing with a full-blown, rose-pink adult male. Birds with no pink below may be adult females, or first-winter birds of either sex. Due to molt timings of the various age-classes, generally the only safe ageing criterion is based on the shape of the tips of the tail feathers. I never really got an ideal look at this one, but it deem seem quite pointed and a little abraded, indicating that it is probably a first-winter bird.

The same bird as above. Common Redpolls of the form flammea are usually intermediate in every way between the dark, heavy-billed rostrata birds of Greenland and the small-billed, frosty snowballs that are Arctic Redpolls.

One useful fieldmark for separating Common and Arctic Redpolls is the presence or absence of dark shaft streaks on the under tail coverts. The broad-based, dark streak seen here would typically not be found in an Arctic Redpoll (and this photo shows that this is not an easy thing to assess in the field!).

The pink flush on the chest of this individual rules out a first-winter female Common Redpoll, but adult females can be this rosy so we are not much wiser on this one...

This bird has an extensive pink wash on the underparts, extending well down onto the flanks and indicating that it is almost certainly a male.

Another look at the same bird as in the last picture; note that the pink flush extends well up onto the face too.

So what of the header for this post? Well, two new experiences for me this month involved peculiar-looking things in holes! Firstly, we learned that a friend of ours who lives just a couple of hundred yards away has a bird box in full view of her kitchen window - and in the box was a bird that had so far completely eluded me...

Looking at the box we could see Bev's resident, who had developed a routine of idly watching the world go by each evening before coming out to hunt. So what is it? With a flat face - and an ear sticking up at the back there - it just has to be a cat with feathers!

A closer look - and it still looks like a cat with feathers! This is his (or her!) routine every evening; until eventually....

....he braves it and sticks his head right out. He sat like this for nearly half an hour, looking around, taking in the scenery, until eventually, it was dark enough for him to want to take on the world. This is my first Eastern Screech Owl a common bird but a small species and not at all easy to get a look at. They come in grey or rufous and this is one of the smart rufous morph birds.

My other 'hole experience' came at Cape May Point - I won't say exactly where as there are a lot of people here who like to kill or maime small animals for no other reason than as a 'pleasurable passtime' - and it's legal!!! Any way, I have a thing about raccoons which fascinates me. They are amazingly adaptive animals and can certainly make nuisances of themselves if you're one of those people who can't be bothered to adapt your life to accomodate them. Well, I've still yet to get that desirable shot of a raccoon, but when I came across one curled up in an oak tree, I realised that my moment had come - but I didn't have my camera!!! Shooting back home for it, when I returned I discovered that the wonderful full face shot I was after probably wasn't going to happen. What was I faced with?....

....a pair of hairy trousers!!!

This was a really bizarre experience as it took the raccoon some ten minutes to squeeze itself into the hole that really wasn't big enough for it's all too chunky body! It hung, head in the hole, legs waving in the air and, to be honest, just looking plain silly! But eventually, the furry bundle disappeared and no doubt curled up snug and warm until nightfall.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Rounding Off the Year

So, another milestone achieved as we completed our first full calendar year at Cape May. It was a pretty amazing year, with all that snow last winter, then the very wet spring, followed by an above-average heat wave in summer. Such unpredictable and wildly changing conditions have all been forecast by those who know what they're talking about as being typical of accelerated climate change - as helped on by Man's continued abuse of the planet. But hey, those people who never studied meteorology and say it's all bunkum must surely be right, yes?!!

Any way, time to empty out my pending folder of pictures from December and to stride boldly into 2011, so here's my final diary round-up for 2010 and the final counts for the year and house list.

December 2nd
Not traditionally a month in which one hopes to find a rare bird, December opened with a blast for me as I found a White-winged Dove at the feeders right outside my office window!! Though White-winged Doves have turned up as vagrants a number of times around Cape May now, this is still a star find as their normal range brings them no closer to us than Texas! Unfortunately, the bird only stayed for about four minutes, long enough for my work colleague, Gail, to see it, but not even long enough for me to finish sending out a text message about it! Luckily, it turned up again a week later, then for a few more days after that, but mostly its visits were fairly brief and a lot of people unfortunately didn't get to see it.

Year bird: White-winged Dove

My first shot at the White-winged Dove, perched a-top our feeder at work - not a bad break from wading through emails!

December 2nd is a pretty late date for this first-winter Black Skimmer to still be hanging out on a Cape May beach! These birds largely head south for warmer climes in the winter.

A lunchtime check of the beach for gulls turned up surprisingly few birds, but these Turkey Vultures out on the sands made me think just how different birding can be in the USA compared with the UK!

December 8th
A real cold turn to the weather and many of the lakes froze over locally, causing a shift around in the ducks and bringing good numbers of them to Lake Lily, in front of our information centre. Gadwall, American Wigeon, Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks were all out on the lake this morning, keeping on the areas kept ice-free by the aerator bubble systems. Richard Crossley texted to say that four Sandhill Cranes had just flown south over his house, so it was just a matter of time before, wait for it, any minute now, yep, there they go, heading back north right over my office window! Winter birds were present at the feeders at work in good numbers today, with Fox Sparrows peaking at 14, at least five Purple Finches and a nice Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

A lunchtime walk at the state park turned up some busy feeding parties of American Robins and Hermit Thrushes, single Grey Catbird and Brown Thrasher and a couple of Cedar Waxwings. A very late Pine Warbler was a pleasant surprise, but, conversely, the single Yellow-rumped Warbler present only served to highlight that species almost complete absence of late, when it would be usual for them to be wintering around here. My lunchtime highlight, though, came in the discovery of a roosting Long-eared Owl not far away, which kept its cool and remained on its perch for me to get some nice photos.

Fox Sparrows are plentiful around Cape May in the winter and remain one of my favourite birds here. They're bigger and chunkier than the other sparrow species and are fun to watch as they employ their two-footed scratching technique.

Finding an owl at a daytime roost is always a highlight and this Long-eared Owl brightened up my lunchtime walk no end. These North American birds are much greyer above than UK birds and have heavier blotching underneath.

December 9
One bird certainly notable by its absence this winter is American Tree Sparrow. Though they are generally scarce in southern New Jersey these days (though once they were far more common), one usually expects to see a few, but one under the feeder at work today was my first this winter at Cape May - and it was gone the next day.

December 12
It's perhaps ironic that, on the very morning that I was staring at our feeder at home, wondering why we spent so much money feeding little but a mass of introduced House Sparrows, a Dickcissel goes and turns up! Generally a scarce but regular migrant through Cape May, winter records are rare, so we were pleased to have a special visitor. It remained with us into the New Year and delighted a good number of people that stopped by to see it.

A brief glance could easily pass this bird off as a female House Sparrow, but the pointed tail, narrow flank streaks and suggestion of streaking in the crown are all suspicious....

....and it turns out to be a Dickcissel at our feeder - albeit a very unimpressive one!

During December, it wasn't just us Humans who were keeping an eye on the local feeders; this smart adult male Sharp-shinned Hawk was particularly attracted to some tasty-looking birds at our work feeders....

....while this young Red-tailed Hawk spent many an hour right outside my office window, keeping a very close eye on the local Grey Squirrels (and me at times!).

The return of the White-winged Dove allowed me to get slightly better shots of it, though the weather had been dreary and overcast throughout most of its stay, making photography tricky.

December 16
Christmas Count Week started today, and saw three inches of snow falling. The White-winged Dove had become a little more predictable over the last few days, then promptly disappeared and didn't make it onto the count list, despite much searching! Our Dickcissel was more obliging though and even got onto the actual count day list.

Just for the record, the Christmas Bird Count at Cape May this year totalled 153 species of birds - not bad for the middle of winter at this latitude. In addition, Cape May County finished the year with a grand total of 330 species recorded within the boundaries of the county and the all-time number of species stands at 422.

We rounded off the year with a visit to the UK and a week spent with my relatives. The snowy weather in the UK was just like Cape May so there was no reprive for us, but at least it meant we didn't miss out on a few snowball fights! Daily Red Kites over the house and a flock of 54 Bohemian Waxwings in the local supermarket car park were nice highlights, as well as all that cosy Christmas stuff with the family!!

As for my own lists for the year; well, my Cape May County list finished on 291 species. As always, I missed a few due to other commitments (like work!) but I was pretty pleased with that total. I had quietly wondered whether it would be possible to see 300 species in the county during the course of a year and I think that it wouldn't be too difficult. There was a number of species that I could have made more of an effort to see without too much trouble and which would have taken me to the magic number. This coming year, I'll maybe give it a rest and have another go at it another time - or maybe I'll just enjoy finding my own birds!!

And the yard list? Well that stands at 145 species since we moved in last January - not a bad start!