Saturday, July 23, 2016

Circumnavigating Delaware Bay - a day trip


While most of the year you can find our Associate Naturalists leading walks and programs for the public in Cape May, every once in a while we get to take a field trip to explore somewhere we haven’t been yet, or haven't been lately. On July 19, eight of us took a day trip to Delaware to explore our sister cape, Cape Henlopen, the Delaware side of Delaware Bay, and pay a visit to our friends and allies in the protection of the Delaware Bay, the American Birding Association, headquartered in Delaware City. 

Our trip began on the 7:00am Cape May - Lewes Ferry. It was a gorgeous morning with clear skies and a calm crossing of the bay making for excellent views of inshore bottlenose dolphin as well as several good looks at WILSON’S STORM PETREL. Other birds encountered were a single Bonaparte’s Gull near the New Jersey side, a flyby Solitary Sandpiper, and two flocks of lingering (presumably non-breeding) Black Scoter, one about midway across and the other on the beach near the ferry terminal in Lewes, Delaware. 

Upon arriving to Lewes we were greeted by several Osprey nests with young…the pair breeding right atop the boat lift at the terminal makes you question whether this species is susceptible to human disturbance! At least this pair doesn’t mind the constant attention. Once back on dry land we drove into Cape Henlopen State Park and stopped first at the Seaside Nature Center to walk the interpretive trail. Almost immediately we were greeted by both Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCHES, the latter being a species that doesn’t regularly occur in New Jersey but is quite widespread in the state park on the Delaware side. Therefore seeing and hearing them, often quite comical in their antics, was a treat for all of us. Walking out to the water we found few birds, but once we reached the water Warren spotted a duck about a quarter mile away. Walking closer we realized it to be a Red-breasted Merganser, most likely another non-breeding bird that lingered through the summer. Our loop back to the cars turned up several of the regularly expected species, including Great-crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, and Eastern Wood-Peewee. 

After a short break in the nature center we headed south to the parking lot opposite Herring Point, where we walked the newly constructed Gordon’s Pond connector trail - a state of the art multi-use boardwalk trail that traverses dunes, pine forest, marsh, and eventually Gordon’s Pond at the very south. This trail is very popular with day bikers and cyclists alike, and so requires one to pay close attention to where you’re standing! That said, the birding from here is excellent, and there are several pull-out sections that allow you to sit and enjoy the scenery while the commuters whiz by. At the beginning of the trail we spotted an Eastern Hognose snake. Eastern Hognose display some of the most fascinating anti-predatory behaviors. As Catherine Busch approached the snake, it flattened out its head like a cobra and assumed the strike position! Then it rattled its rattle-less tail mimicking a rattlesnake, and finally, once Catherine picked it up to show the group, it wrapped itself in a writing ball, defecated, and flopped its head back with its tongue lolling out the side; playing dead!!! Check out the photos for the full experience.

Along the 1.5 mile stretch we walked, we encountered several BLACK-NECKED STILTS, various expected terns and gulls, Blue Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, and more of the common marsh/scrub species. Several more Brown-headed Nuthatches were also seen and heard along the trail. While several species of dragonfly were present, the Seaside Dragonlet (Erithrodiplax berenice) was the most abundant as we crossed the salt marsh. Males and females of varying ages, and therefore varied in color and pattern, were everywhere. 

Doubling back, we returned to our cars and headed for Bombay Hook, but not without first stopping at the famous Sambo’s Tavern for some local seafood and a cold drink to temper the rising heat of the day. 

Although we arrived as the tide was falling fast, Bombay Hook still produced good numbers of shorebirds and wadingbirds. Hundreds of Short-billed Dowitchers (no definitive Long-billed this time though) joined a mix of Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, with Westerns in much higher numbers than we typically get in New Jersey.  More Black-necked Stilts were present along the refuge drive, while Cattle, Great and Snowy egrets joined Great Blue and Little Blue herons. We were unable to turn up any American Avocet, which are common here in the late summer, probably due to the poor timing with the tides. Even still, Bombay Hook is aways worth the visit, even if you spend an equal amount of time trying to deter the greenhead flies from biting you as you do scanning the flats for the odd shorebird! 

Leaving Bombay Hook we headed for Delaware City where we would meet up with Jeff and Liz Gordon, the President and First Lady of the American Birding Association. Delaware City is a quaint town with a great little waterfront on the Delaware River, just above the mouth of the Delaware Bay. This town is the gateway to the Delaware marshes and now boasts a 14 mile bike path connecting Delaware City to Chesapeake City. The bike path terminates (or begins, depending on your destination) right outside the American Birding Association headquarters, a four-story building with a rich history as a hotel, seafood packing house, and rowdy bar. Fully restored now it’s a beautiful example of historic preservation meets modern amenities. Jeff and Liz gave us the full tour, which wrapped up with a few beers on the back deck where we engaged in a great conversation of the history of the ABA, and the future of birding. 

Also right outside of ABA headquarters is the dock for the ferry to Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island a mere mile out into the river. On the island is both a heron rookery, and a great living history exhibit within the walls of the fort. On this trip we decided not to venture out to the island due to time, but did spend an hour watching the herons flying back to the rookery as the sun set. It was quite beautiful with Cattle Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibis making up the bulk of the birds. A Black-crowned Night-Heron made an appearance just before we headed to dinner. 

Dinner was had at Lewinsky’s on Clinton, a great little gastro-pub which also happened to be hosting trivia night. You can imagine, with a team of associate naturalists, who won that game; We did! Following dinner we made our way back to Cape May via the Delaware Memorial Bridge, completing our full circumnavigation of the great Delaware Bay, and introducing us (or reintroducing us) to some of the wonderful birding and birder-centric stops in our neighboring state. 


For anyone interested in joining us on a future visit to Delaware, CMBO and the Nature Center of Cape May are teaming up for a “Birds and Beers by Bike” tour of the twin capes. Saturday August 13th will be the Cape May area, and Sunday August 14th will be Cape Henlopen in Delaware. 

Click Here for more information, and contact the Nature Center of Cape May to register; this trip is always a ton of fun!


Photos by Barb Bassett, B.J. Pinnock and the Author



Monday, July 18, 2016

Shorebird feature - Solitary Sandpiper

July is sometimes thought of as a slow month for birding, but shorebird migration is ON in a major way in the Cape May area, with new birds arriving from the northern breeding grounds in the boreal forest and Arctic tundra each day. In a series of posts, we will focus on a few species of shorebirds to help get us ready to identify and enjoy watching these migration athletes in flight!

Solitary Sandpipers have started to move through the mid-Atlantic region on their southbound migration, though they are a bit harder to detect than the obvious flocks of yellowlegs and dowitchers that are rushing through along the coast right now. Solitary Sandpipers tend to migrate in a, well, solitary fashion, and it's fairly easy to overlook one.




One tip that can help you detect and identify more Solitary Sandpipers is simple - learn the flight call! The thin, high flight call is typically doubled in a piercing "Tsee-Tsee!", higher and apparently less variable than similar calls given by Spotted Sandpipers.

To have a listen, check out this great recording from Mike Andersen at the Cornell Lab's Macaulay Library: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/132487

The flight calls on the recording starting at the 15 second mark are the ones that I hear most frequently on migration.

So, you hear that sharp "Tsee-Tsee!" call - what next? Look up! Typically, a Solitary Sandpiper makes that doubled call in flight. Dawn and dusk are particularly good times to see these shorebirds flying over, but it can happen at any time of day.

Solitary Sandpipers are small members of the genus Tringa, the same genus that includes the yellowlegs and Willet (and a number of Old World species that we won't discuss here). Yellowlegs, Lessers in particular, are relatively similar in appearance to Solitary Sandpipers, but they are longer in wingspan and body length, with longer legs that stick out farther beyond the tail in flight (on Solitary, just the tips of the toes project beyond the tail in flight).

Two things in particular stand out to me when I see a Solitary Sandpiper in flight:

1) Dark underwing. The underwing coverts of a Solitary Sandpiper are barred dark and white, but in real life when a Solitary flies overhead rapidly, this pattern just appears really dark, contrasting strongly with the bird's white body. Yellowlegs have a lot more white in the barred underwing coverts, so their underwings don't contrast nearly as much with their white bodies.



2) Flight posture and style. Solitary Sandpipers cover a lot of sky in flight while in a tucked position with the wings mostly folded in to the body. This gives the bird's flight a bounding look with the wings outstretched for relatively short periods of time during each quick flap. In comparison, yellowlegs have more regularly spaced wingbeats and aren't nearly as bounding in flight.



These three photos are all of the same Solitary Sandpiper flying over at the Meadows (AKA The Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge) in Cape May on 17 July 2016.

Check this space for more identification tips and updates on shorebird migration. Good luck out there!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

WHY OH whydah?!

In Cape May, bird-wise, it seems like anything can happen at any time.  The Monday morning walk at the Meadows with Pete Dunne, Steve Weiss, Barb Bassett, Chuck Slugg, and others spotted a male Pin-tailed Whydah fluttering up from high grasses and flying toward the State Park.  

Whydahs and indigobirds are in the small family of songbirds, Viduidae, of 20 species, all native to sub-Saharan Africa. Pin-tailed Whydah is currently established and nesting in the Western Hemisphere, in southern California and Puerto Rico, as introduced or escaped exotics. Just like cowbirds of this hemisphere and cuckoos from the Eastern Hemisphere, these birds are brood parasites.  This means that they find nests of other songbirds and lay eggs in them so that the "host" bird family raises the young as its own.  In Africa, individual whydah species often specialize in one species to parasitize.  Baby nestling whydahs even have mouth colors to mimic the host nestlings and learn the song of their hosts while still growing in the nest.  That's one exotic and fancy exotic!

How did this species get to Cape May this week?  Often it is prudent to suspect an escaped caged bird.  Pin-tailed Whydah is kept in cages, but not as often as other Old World finches. Because of its parasitic nature it is difficult to breed in captivity.  While an escape is still a very viable possibility, we shouldn't eliminate the idea that this bird came from one of those established populations. But I will withhold any judgment, just simply present some possibilities. We may never know, or we might keep paying attention and some good hint will present itself.

In Puerto Rico this introduced whydah reproduces successfully because of the equally exotic presence of Orange-cheeked Waxbill. In California the known host species is the introduced (noticing a trend here?) Scaly-breasted Munia, aka Nutmeg Mannakin. The common thread here is that whydahs seem to only nest with estrildid finches (family Estrildidae). Along those lines it would take another introduction to establish a whydah anywhere. Or perhaps they could adapt to another group of birds? House Sparrow isn't very distantly related from the common hosts of whydahs. Or perhaps the complex songs of our Fringillid finches (goldfinches, for instance) might help the whydahs to find breeding success. 

Once species adapt to some new "thing" and some new place we can observe very rapid changes.  I'll leave you to your own thoughts of bird distribution and evolution while reminding us that we should always be ready to be surprised.  Cattle Egrets found their way (whether boat-assisted or flying across the Atlantic Ocean) to northern South America from sub-Saharan Africa in the 1870's. But it wasn't until 1953 that their presence was acknowledged in North America as a likely expansion of those colonizing South American Cattle Egrets. In case you are wondering, those first accepted sightings in 1953 came from Florida, Massachusetts, and....   Cape May...  of course! And these egrets were nesting and able to survive in more northerly clines in a very sudden way.

While you are out looking for whydahs this month (haha, why not!?) go ahead and also find a Ruddy Shelduck or Black-bellied Whistling-Duck-- then we'll have plenty more to think and talk about!

Pin-tailed Whydah pair, from http://www.lynxeds.com/hbw/photo/pin-tailed-whydah

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Countdown to the WSB: Notes on birds and weather

The 33rd Annual World Series of Birding is right around the corner! Am I tired? You bet. Am I excited? **** Yes! This game isn't just about the 24 hours of the main event; it's everything: the months of planning, the appeals to prospective donors (thank you! thank you! thank you!), and the exhilaration of seeing so many faces, both familiar and new, of the birders who make their way to New Jersey for the biggest birding fundraiser of the year.

This spring has been different, though. The weather hasn't been good. It has been amazing! Low pressure over New Jersey has set up shop, and as a result strong westerly flow has affected birds migrating over the carolinas and Virginia, while light and variable winds over southern New Jersey have either had no effect, or put birds down statewide. This perfect storm of wind vectors and the addition of precipitation has lead to some of the most amazing fallouts of birds I've ever seen in spring Cape May! But what about on Game Day? What does the weather look like? 

The weather forecasts leading up to the weekend have been poor at best. That said, if the forecast is moderately accurate going forward, there are a few points that seem safe to make.
  1. The first one is not weather-forecast related at all, really...but it's important! There are lots of birds currently on the playing field. I mean L O T S of birds. Over 30 species of warbler have been tallied in Cape May County over the last 48 hours and the last big wave of boreal songbirds (Cape May Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, etc.) have been hitting central and northern NJ yesterday and presumably today. Flycatchers have been hitting southern NJ over the last week but empids (other than Acadian) are scarce thus far (as I type this, the first Eastern Wood-Peewee sang outside the window; clearly a new arrival this morning). 

  2. Friday and Saturday will experience precipitation across the state as a series of cold fronts move through on both days. The timing of these fronts so far looks like they will convey birds up into the playing field during both Friday and Saturday nights, and the combination of precipitation and migration will mean birds being grounded throughout the area. 

  3. Wind will build on Saturday which will be a consideration for both listening for birds, and finding them in exposed areas. Plan your route accordingly for nocturnal flight call listening on Friday night, and sheltered listening on Saturday night. This year promises to be a great one for those teams who can roll with the unpredictable weather!
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Accumulated Precipitation Forecast for the Mid-Atlantic region from Thursday through Sunday AM. Note the two fronts moving through the region during Friday and Saturday. 

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Surface wind forecast for the region from Friday through Sunday AM.

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Winds aloft forecast for the region from Friday through Sunday AM.

So as you can see, the weather for the 33rd Annual World Series of Birding is interesting, to say the least. In preparation for the Big Day, please try and have at least one member from your team attend the swap meet. This will ensure you have the most up-to-date scouting reports.

For the South, the Swap Meet will be held at 6:30pm at the Center for Research and Education, 600 Route 47 North, Cape May Court House, NJ 08212.

The Northern Swap Meet will take place at Jumboland Diner at 6:30 pm on Thursday, May 12th. It is being loosely organized by Jackson Mesick, who can be reached at jmesick@bu.edu. The address is 438 US-206, Branchville, NJ 07826

And now for some eye-candy, all taken in the last few days in Cape May while scouting for the World Series of Birding...

Cape May Warbler © Michael Lanzone 2016

Black-throated Green Warbler © Michael Lanzone 2016

Black-throated Blue Warbler © Michael Lanzone 2016

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher © Michael Lanzone 2016

Mixed shorebird flock including 15+ Purple Sandpipers © Michael Lanzone 2016

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler © David La Puma 2016

Prothonotary Warbler © David La Puma 2016

Indigo Bunting © David La Puma 2016

Orchard Oriole © David La Puma 2016

Bobolink © David La Puma 2016

Northern Waterthrush © David La Puma 2016

(Yellow) Palm Warbler © David La Puma 2016

Friday, May 6, 2016

Why is Cape May so full of birds?

That's the question on everyone's mind. Yes, Cape May is mecca for birds and birders, but spring in Cape May is typically fast and furious for songbirds, with new waves coming on the heels of the last and fallout conditions not nearly as common as those in fall. So what's going on this year, where birds are both diverse and absolutely abundant throughout the Cape May region? Over 30 species of warbler have been seen during the last three days, oodles of Grosbeaks, Tanagers, Orioles, Buntings, and Sparrows are flushing from underfoot for anyone willing to brave to wet cool conditions at Higbee Beach WMA. The streets of Cape May Point have been host to over five species of thrush with the most numerous being Veery and Wood Thrush, aside from our ubiquitous Turdus migratorious (the glorious American Robin). So, what do we attribute this all-out-fall-out of spring migrants? The weather, of course. It all started on the evening of May 1, when strong southwesterly flow over Virginia and the Carolinas shunted the leading edge of a major migration to the east coast, specifically the Delmarva and Cape May Peninsulas. The Delmarva received the lion's share of the birds, but Cape May has the added benefit of being a small bit of land in comparison, which magnifies the impact of a wave of new arrivals proportionally. Here is the radar from May 1 to May 2nd, showing the strong flow of birds from the southwest to northeast.

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Base Reflectivity night of May 1st to morning of May 2nd


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Base Velocity, showing direction and speed, from night of May 1st to morning of May 2nd

So from the videos above show strong southwesterly flow pushing the birds over the Delmarva and up to Cape May. What you can't see is the absolutely massive migration of birds from the south, over Virginia and the carolinas, that are feeding this wave of birds.

Below is the radar from the next night into the following morning (May 2nd to 3rd) where more of the birds from the south were again pushed up into the Delmarva, and more of the Delmarva birds moved up into New Jersey. 

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Base Reflectivity showing the density of birds (covered by precipitation) moving from WSW->ENE 


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Radial Velocity showing the direction and speed of precipitation and birds (underneath the precip) moving initially SW->NE, but later WSW->ENE 

The videos above show another wave of migrants hitting the east coast, mixed with some heavy precipitation which both limited the distance (although density remained very high under the precipitation) of bird migration, resulting in more concentration at Cape May and little birds leaving the region. The next two nights we saw little to no migration over our region resulting in only local movements of birds into better habitat. The result on the ground has been excellent birding at all the hotspots, especially the Higbee Beach WMA, The Rea Farm (Beanery), Cox Hall Creek WMA, and The Nature Conservancy's Cape May Meadows. The woods around the Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center has been absolutely flooded with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (up to 12 at once), a number of Blue Grosbeaks, dozens of Indigo Buntings, and a smattering of warblers and vireos. 

One of the most unexpected finds, though, was this stunning Snow Bunting originally found by Rod MacKenzie  in the afternoon of May 4th, and still showing very well at Cape May Point State Park as of this afternoon! Here is a photo by local ornithologist Michael Lanzone. Mike also noted that a Snow Bunting looking very much like the same individual was sighted at the south end of Cape Hatteras on May 2nd!

Snow Bunting © Mike Lanzone 2016

So, what does the future hold? Well, if you believe the weather forecast (which this author does!) it's looking like we should see more birds coming to Cape May over the next week! Over the weekend the weather should keep most of these birds around, but early next week we will see the arrival of another low pressure system with a nice southwesterly flow to our south, and west/northwest flow to our north. That combination makes for great birding in Cape May, and is actually more the exception than the rule in a typical spring...but this is no typical spring!

We've got a few big things coming up over the next few weeks you should be aware of. First is the 33rd Annual World Series of Birding (http://worldseriesofbirding.org) a 24-hour bird-a-thon fundraiser where over 200 species are routinely tallied each year across New Jersey. Cape Island alone usually sports a cumulative list of over 200 species and I expect given the way this spring is going, this will be a year for the record books! 

Almost immediately following the World Series of Birding is our Cape May Spring Festival - SO.MANY.BIRDS! where you can join three hundred of your best birding friends on everything from guided bird walks, small-group van trips, excellent workshops, hear wonderful keynote speakers, partake in shorebird banding demonstrations, and take a moonlight walk to witness the arrival and spawning of the prehistoric Horseshoe Crab! It's going to be a bird-filled extravaganza! You can get more information about the festival here:


And of course you can find out everything going on here in Cape May within the pages of our Kestrel Express quarterly publication, downloadable by clicking here.

So from all of us at CMBO, we hope to see you here soon!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

No Money, No Mission? Yes, but...No Volunteers, Definitely No Mission

[Gretchen Whitman, director of New Jersey Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May, speaks to the value of volunteers in non-profits like ours.]

In this rapidly changing nature venue of late April and May (Swallow-tailed Kite! Parasitic Jaegers in the rips! Breeders at Belleplain!), New Jersey Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May and Cape May Bird Observatory still have more mundane but still important work to do. Above, Gretchen details the value of volunteers, who did yeoman work at both the nature center and at the CMBO Northwood Center, where you can explore our newly created birding trail.

[New Jersey Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May on Cape May Harbor has a new but long-expected resident - one of the most viewable nesting Osprey pairs on earth.]

Friday, April 22, 2016

There's Still a Little Time to Catch the Gannet Show, and Various Birding Updates

[Over one thousand Northern Gannets gathered behind and around the Cape May- Lewes Ferry on April 10, 2016. This happens every year in late March and April; gannets stage in Delaware Bay before migrating onward. Click to enlarge photos.]

I love this time of year.  Every day there's a new bird. Early this morning, I cruised the streets of Cape May Point, NJ with the windows open (an excellent strategy to start your Cape May day, by the way) and discovered that House Wrens had returned in force since I'd been down here three days ago. I then joined my friend Tom Reed at his spring watch from the dune crossover at Coral Avenue, where among many other things we saw a flock of 61 Glossy Ibis come in off the bay, a flock of dowitchers fly into the bay, and many Northern Gannets, although that species' peak has come and gone. There are still plenty of gannets, don't get me wrong, so if you want to catch the show, go to a dune overlook and watch, or get on the ferry.

My personal songbird highlight of the week was a singing Cerulean Warbler on April 18 at Cox Hall Creek WMA. Cerulean is very scarce bird in Cape May, and has declined throughout its range, and I believe this was also the earliest arrival date ever recorded for the species by several days.

Birds happen, and with climate change, they are going to happen more.

Another change factor is simply that bird ranges are not static; the range maps in old field guides in many cases are no longer accurate. Case in point is Common Raven, at least one of which has been haunting the Rio Grande, NJ area for weeks. A best guess is that there is some form of a cell phone tower that this bird (or birds) is using, since that is where the species now mostly nests in northern NJ.

Warblers and butterflies are now readily available in Belleplain State Forest, and shorebirds are filtering into Heislerville and elsewhere. Like I said, I and all naturalists love this time of year. . .which is why CMBO offers such a large suite of spring field trips and events.

[Gannet point-blank from the ferry, April 10, 2016.]