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.