Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Season's Passage

As I sit in my office, with the hammer, hammer, hammer sound of another batch of new houses being squeezed into Cape May Point, it seems like a really good time to reflect on where we are and what we are doing. During the wonderful migration that takes places through Cape May in fall (and still continues offshore at the Avalon Seawatch), there is little time to look at our surroundings; we are awash with birds, everyone is having a fabulous time and all is great with the world. But as the door of the Northwood Center starts to stay closed just a little longer, the sun sinks below the horizon beyond Lake Lily and the Spring Peepers realize it really is time to go to sleep now,  it leaves at least a little time to actually think ahead and ponder the plight of our migratory birds.

A common misconception for many people is that birds flock to Cape May because it has fabulous habitat for them - and that's why they come. Cape May does indeed have some important pieces of habitat, but is there enough? And are these patches in the right place? Migratory birds come to Cape May largely as a chance result of geography and weather patterns. Prevailing north-west winds in the fall, coupled with the funnelling effect of the Atlantic Coast and Delaware Bay, concentrate unnaturally large numbers of birds at Cape May. Unnaturally large? Well, yes, because, given the choice, these birds would not choose to all end up in a big heap on when small spit of land. So, it does seem as though we therefore need to provide an unnaturally large amount of space for them - if we consider it our place to care about them that is... This means that these migrants need to find food and shelter when they arrive at Cape May. They need woodlots, field edges and a good supply of insects and berries. Every day throughout the entire year, one can drive around the area and see habitat disappearing; the parkway is being 'improved' to allow even more traffic to have ready and easy access to the area; arguments rage in every coastal community about just how much land do these birds really need to nest on - and what harm does all that beach raking do anyway?

It seems that the challenge of stopping the advancing wave of 'progress' is too great. So perhaps our best hope is to gather information on these birds; perhaps we can find ways to learn how these birds migrate, where they come from, where they go, how long they stay at each stop-off point on the way. For one thing is for sure; we can spend all the time and money we like on saving breeding and wintering grounds, but if we don't give them somewhere to rest up on their migrations, well, we could just be wasting our time...

Now that the crowds have gone, these Black Skimmers can rest on the beach at Ocean City. Along with a number of other species, long-term observations are showing that Black Skimmers are staying ever later into the end of the year in New Jersey - but what does this mean? Is it a response to climate change? Are they changing their behavior because their food items are changing theirs? Long-term data collection using robust protocols is surely the best way to find out [photo by Viv Buckley].

Occurrences of rarities are always fun, and the best way to guarantee getting a birder out of a stuffy office!! Recording the occurrence of a rare or uncommon bird - such as this American White Pelican over Cape May Point last Sunday - may seem frivolous, but accurate identification, recording and monitoring of such birds can give us a valuable early insight into potential changes in bird behavior. Since birds move more readily and generally over far greater distances than most other forms of life, they are great indicators in not only the health of our planet, but also in possible changes that might be occurring in either weather trends or macro-ecosystems [photo by Karl Lukens].

Long-term, continual monitoring offers the greatest opportunity to understand birds. People often question why - for example - banding projects continue. Don't we know where the birds go by now? Well yes, perhaps we do. At least for now. But if we stop monitoring, how do we know if those destinations change? How do we know if the timing of the migration, or the route changes? If we know such things, we are better placed to help wildlife. Red Knot populations on the western Atlantic Flyway have been monitored for many years, initially using metal, and colored plastic leg bands - and then small leg flags...

...In recent years, technology has allowed geolocators to be miniaturized and fitted to the legs of Red Knot (note the yellow leg band and lump of data collector on the bent leg). These pieces of kit record data based on day length and timing of sunrise and sunset, allowing us to calculate where the bird is.

Geolocators are slightly limiting in that they have to be retrieved for the data to be collected - ie, the bird has to be caught again. With ever-more inventive technology, some Red Knots are now fitted with transmitters (note the thin wire sticking out of the back end of this bird); using receiver equipment, researchers can now track these birds without having to recapture them, and the transmitter can be designed to fall off after a period of time and - hopefully - retrieved. These photos of Red Knot were taken this week at Avalon and will be invaluable to researchers in plotting the routes of these birds. [Photos by Sam Galick]

The vast majority of bird banding, and other schemes, rely heavily on other people to be observant, notice the birds, and send in their findings. If see a marked bird, record as much as you can about location, habitat, time, date and other associated birds, and send your findings to the Bird Banding Lab. The best way to do this is through their website which you can reach by clicking here. For any banded shorebird here in New Jersey, you may also visit the DuPont sponsored, Delaware Estuary Initiative site.

Remember, the more that we know, the better we are able to help...

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cumberland County beckons

As news reaches me of a Black-headed Gull in Cumberland County, I am reminded that this coming Sunday we will be running our 'Bayshore Birding at its Best' visit to the very best birding locations in that very same county. Though it is tough for pretty much anywhere on the east coast to compete with Cape May when it comes to migration, the upper reaches of the Delaware Bay really start to come into their own once November arrives and the winter birds start to flood in. Weather patterns over the past few weeks have produced relatively mild weather for the time of year, but the first early morning frosts are starting to provide Cumberland County with a great range of early winter birds.

Cumberland County offers some spectacular wide landscapes, with vast, sweeping views across the expansive saltmarshes of the Delaware Bay. Snow Geese will soon be flocking there in great number and, already, numbers of wintering Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers are building up. Nearby, a rolling landscape made up of a patchwork of farm fields and wood lots ensures there is always plenty of birds to be found; a wide diversity of sparrows, juncos, towhees and other seedeaters feed quietly in the leaf litter along the woodland edges, Wild Turkeys gather in droves to feed on spilt corn, and great black clouds of blackbirds and grackles flow across the landscape.

Cumberland also has a great number of working and abandoned sand pits, offering a good number of places to seek out a wide range of ducks and other waterfowl. A number of the pits are relatively deep and well stocked with fish, which makes it a great place to look for a number of diving duck species, as well as the usual dabblers. This is a fabulous time of year to be out and about in Cumberland County, and there is no better way to explore this area than with CMBO volunteer naturalists and keen Cumberland fans, Karen Johnson and Janet Crawford - a good time will be had by all!!

To book one of the last places or find out more about this pre-registered walk, contact our program registrar on 609-861-0700. See you there!

Great flocks of dabbling ducks - such as these American Wigeon - add a kaleidoscope of color to Cumberland's ponds and creeks [photo by Mike Crewe].

Busy parties of Buffleheads are now arriving at coastal waterways and Cumberland County offers some great opportunities to enjoy these smart ducks [photo by Mike Crewe].

Our November trips are always full of a great diversity of sparrows and we offer plenty of opportunity to get to grips with these birds. High on the list of priorities will be seeking out the wonderfully skunk-headed White-crowned Sparrow [photo by Mike Crewe].
In scenes sometimes more reminiscent of parts of Alaska, Bald Eagles can put on spectacular views in Cumberland County, as birds come from far and wide to winter along the Delaware Bayshore [photo by Mike Crewe]

Northern Harriers find plenty of good hunting in the open fields and marshes of Cumberland County and the sight of a 'Gray Ghost' slipping silently down the edge of a meadow as a watery sun gives the tawny grasses a golden glow is truly the essence of a November day's birding along the Delaware Bay [photo by Mike Crewe].

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Farewell, Friends!

Northern Harrier and Red-tailed Hawk circle over the Hawkwatch platform.
 [Photo by Emily Wilmoth.]

I am writing my final blog post with a bittersweet feeling. Working in Cape May this fall was an absolutely amazing experience that went by way too quickly.  All the birds that were seen and the conversations that were had made this season unforgetable.  On behalf of Margeaux, Jordan, and myself, I would like to thank everyone for being so kind and encouraging.  Thanks for sharing your knowledge, experiences, and food with us. :)

Throughout September and October, a whopping 231 species of birds were spotted from the Hawkwatch platform.  This list includes Whiskered Tern, Common Raven, and Zone-tailed Hawk as some highlights.  It is incredible how much diversity can be seen from a single location in as little time as just two months.  Mary will continue counting hawks through November, so there is still time to add even more species to the season Hawkwatch list.

This past week in Cape May was just as exciting as any.  A variety of ducks continued to show up on Bunker pond, including the first Redhead and Bufflehead of the season.  Thursday was the highest hawk count of the fall so far, with 2,003 hawks (including a Rough-legged Hawk).  A Great Horned Owl perched in a tree at the State Park that evening added a special ending to an outstanding day.

A female Redhead on Bunker Pond. She is not always the easiest bird to spot as she spends a lot of time diving under the surface. [Photo by Emily Wilmoth.]
One of the 68 Red-shouldered Hawks counted on Thursday, October 30.
 [Photo by Emily Wilmoth.]

With so much excitement going on, it is really difficult to say goodbye.  However, I am certain that this is not the last you will see of your 2014 seasonal naturalists.  We all love Cape May and will definitely be back to visit in the future.  So, we will just say see you later!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Rough-legged Hawk - the heady Hawkwatch continues

After the stunned appreciation of the Zone-tailed Hawk that passed over the Cape May Hawkwatch Platform on September 27th (where is it now, I wonder...), plus an awesome season for many other raptors here, thanks to persistent north-west winds, one might be forgiven for thinking that we have had the cherry on the cake for this year. But not so it seems - and anyway, who says cakes have to have just a single cherry?!

Though Rough-legged Hawk is by no means a rare visitor to Cape May County, in a typical year one might expect to see just one or two, generally spending the winter in the extensive, open marshes at the northern end of the county - Jake's Landing and Tuckahoe WMA are the 'classic' locations. Further south they are far less likely, while a bird south of the canal is always something to cherish. Those lucky enough to be at the Hawkwatch Platform around 2:30pm yesterday were therefore in for a treat, as Steve Bauer called out a Rough-legged Hawk, way, way out there, somewhere over West Cape May. As we struggled to find detail on the bird, but consoled ourselves that we really could see the suggestion of a dark belly patch and a pale leading edge to the wing, the bird set a course that was going to bring right past the platform.

And so it came, in a dead straight line, heading out of a bunch of Turkey Vultures and passing right over the bunker. Then it did what Rough-legs do - it headed right out over the bay; no pausing, no chickening out like the vultures do; no aimless circling and wondering what to do. Because Rough-legs, like Northern Harriers and Bald Eagles, are flapping birds and don't think twice about crossing water. A single sighting of a Rough-legged Hawk is not something to draw too many conclusions from, but this is a relatively early bird and, if it is a precursor of a 'rough-leg winter', I, for one, will be very happy...

Rough-legged Hawk at Cape May Point yesterday. Rough-legs are rather variable in plumage, but light morph birds such as this are a fabulous sight and readily identified by the solid black belly patch and large, black carpal patches on the wings [photo by Kevin Karlson].

While you are there... don't forget to scan around you at ground level while at the Hawkwatch Platform. Bunker Pond, the nearby cedars, and even the grass in front of the platform are all great places to find birds - this American Bittern has spent a couple of days now, feeding in the open along the edges of Bunker Pond and giving excellent photo opportunities [photo by Kevin Karlson].

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Autumn Weekend - the Afterglow

One of these days, I just know we are going to fall flat on our smug faces, but not this year. For once again, the weather did its bit, geography played its part, Pete Dunne said there would be birds - there were birds...

Cape May in fall really is a phenomenal place; I know we've said it before but, so long as the birds keep coming, you can't blame us for crowing a little (pun intended!). The 2014 Cape May Autumn Weekend is over, the dust is just about settling (once the emails have been dealt with!) and we can reflect on what has been an amazing event. First and foremost, we at Cape May Bird Observatory should like to thank those of you who came, for without you, there would be no event. We should also like to thank the donors, vendors and other supporters, without whom their also would be no event. And we should also like to thank the incredible army of volunteers that help CMBO and New Jersey Audubon for, without them, there might be an event, but it wouldn't be a success.

All of the above can be arranged, and was, mostly by the amazing organizational skills of Rene Buccinna - for much of the time, the rest of us just did as we were told. But what could not be arranged was the birds, so here I want to celebrate at least some of them - for 205 species of them not only showed up, but disported themselves before our delighted audiences and I don't have space to celebrate them all here. I should also like to thank the generosity of those who came to the event, then took time to forward photos for inclusion on this blog - thank you one and all.

Any great day in the field at Cape May begins at dawn [photo by Lambert Orkis]
Early morning brings great birds, and high on everybody's list of things to do was a walk at The Meadows, where up to three Short-eared Owls could be found over the weekend. These two put on a great display for one of our walk groups [photo by John Patterson].
Early morning light plus close fly-by equals great Short-eared Owl shots! [Photo by Karl Lukens]

And it's worth another shot - for the identification officianados, note the way the dark on the primaries bunches towards the wing tips - Long-eared Owls have more regularly-spaced dark bands [photo by John Patterson].
Of the three seasonal watches that CMBO co-ordinates, the Morning Flight is perhaps the hardest to appreciate, since identifying tiny blips by call as they fly overhead is not everybody's thing. But just enjoying the spectacle can often be exciting in its own right. Watching tiny waifs such as this Ruby-crowned Kinglet tumble by in a blustery head wind is a very special way to converse with nature [photo by Doug Gochfeld]
Sharp-shinned Hawks were a major feature of the Autumn Weekend, with sometimes up to 20 in the air at once, all giving some serious grief to the Northern Flickers, Blue Jays and assorted smaller fayre that make up a smorgasbord for these feisty hunters (or should that be smorgasbird? - You had to be there on Friday night) [photo by Doug Gochfeld].
Every bird had a story to tell this weekend - Thursday the 23rd saw a spectacular movement of over 600 Killdeer pass the Hawkwatch Platform and smaller numbers continued over the weekend, bringing with them an assortment of other shorebirds [photo by Lambert Orkis].
Iceland Gulls pass Cape May from time to time, but never seem to hang around. Though they may be regular in small numbers, most occur in late winter or spring, so a late October bird is something to cherish on your list [photo by Alex Lamoreaux]

Another view of the Iceland Gull as it drifted past the Hawkwatch Platform on Saturday. Note the all dark bill and subtle dark markings on the flight feathers and tail [photo by Doug Gochfeld].

Some birds are prone to soaring, others are not. But sometimes, some birds just don't read the books! A Yellow-billed Cuckoo, gaining height over the state park parking lot in late October and heading out over the lighthouse is something that will almost certainly be a once in a lifetime thing, for those of us who were there to witness it [photo by Doug Gochfeld].
And talking of the lighthouse; Cape May birders get great pleasure in photographing their birds with the Cape May lighthouse in shot - so it is only fitting to offer up a Bald Eagle being very obliging over the weekend [photo by Doug Gochfeld].

Here's looking at you kid! Merlins certainly have attitude, and if you can get away with one simply looking at you and not swooping down to part your hair as it races over the Hawkwatch Platform, then you are doing well! [Photo by Doug Gochfeld]
Ducks were high on everyone's list of things to be appreciative of this weekend, as an amazing array of species was waiting to be studied over the weekend. This great flight shot shows what great opportunities came the way of photographers this weekend, as a party of American Wigeon passes the Hawkwatch [photo by Doug Gochfeld].

With so many walks going on at once, there will always be the one that got away - but sometimes, lady luck can be on your side. This American White Pelican made a grand pass over Cape May Point on Saturday and was well received by those who were in the right place at the right time [photo by Doug Gochfeld].

And then there are the falcons... American Kestrels - like this female at the state park - have put on a spectacular show this autumn. Passage often peaks in late September, but there were plenty still passing through over Autumn Weekend [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Cape May's dizzy mix of fall warblers peaks in late September, but even late October offers birds to enjoy and 17 species of warbler were reported over the weekend period. Yellow-rumped Warblers dominated of course, but good numbers of Palm Warbler also passed through - such as this bright yellow, eastern bird [photo by Lambert Orkis].
Late October is the time to start thinking about what the winter might bring, and first indications usually come with the unpredictable arrival of boreal finches. This autumn we are already seeing the start of another big Pine Siskin movement, as increasing numbers head over Higbee Beach or around Cape May Point [photo by Lambert Orkis]. 

Along with the Pine Siskins, we are seeing notably large numbers of Purple Finches passing through. Pretty much anywhere around Cape May in the early morning, you can hear the hollow knocks of these birds as they head south. Alternatively, you can take a walk and look for them along field edges, like this raspberry-colored male at Higbee Beach this weekend [photo by Lambert Orkis].
Whatever the year, kinglets seem always to pass our way, and a run of north-westerlies like we savored this weekend can bring high numbers of them. Golden-crowned Kinglets seem prone to over-shooting and finding these tiny bundles of feathers struggling toward land or hopping along the rock jetties on the barrier islands is not uncommon. That such areas have been stripped bare of habitat is certainly something we should be concerned about as life can be on a knife edge when you weigh just 5 grammes [photo by Doug Gochfeld].
The pace of life in the back bays steps up a notch during October too and a boat trip over Autumn Weekend is a great way to see more than just the familiar land birds. This American Bittern put in a show during one of our weekend trips, giving those on board some great photo opportunities [photo by Lambert Orkis].

As winter lurks around the corner, waterbirds return to Cape May in good number. Brant are flocking to the sounds now and this group of six Horned Grebes was a great bonus for those on weekend boat trips aboard The Osprey [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Everybody will have their stories to tell, their highlights, the 'big one' that got on their list, or maybe the 'one that got away'. Under both headings, I suspect that this Fork-tailed Flycatcher will find itself highly placed. The first in Cape May since a brief fly-by in 2010, this enigmatic bird was around for at least two days, yet was only glimpsed four times - this photo was taken on Sunday morning, when the bird obligingly cruised over the heads of an Autumn Weekend group at The Meadows [photo by Alex Lamoreaux].

A fine memento for the photographer - since this shot was taken as he calmly took tea on the patio at his home in West Cape May on Saturday afternoon - but a slap in the face for those that missed it (sorry folks!), this fine shot of our elusive Fork-tailed Flycatcher will at least ensure that it makes the record books [photo by Jake Cuomo].

And so to bed. As the sun sets on another spectacular Cape May Autumn Weekend, it's time to start looking forward to the next one, and time to ponder on how best to protect a place that can produce 205 species of birds over a single weekend in late October. Weather and geography will conspire to bring birds to Cape May, they don't come by choice. It must therefore be beholden upon us to ensure that sufficient good habitat is available to support these birds as they seek food and shelter, until conditions determine that is is time to carry on their way... [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Bird Show hits Cape May

One of the hardest things I have to do at this time of year is pace myself when writing blog posts - just when you feel like telling the world that migration just hit the top shelf, it steps up to another level!!

It might sound like another case of crying wolf, just trying to get people to Cape May under false pretexts but, well, if you were here, you would be able to confirm it... Yesterday morning, as I estimated some 400 Blue Jays wheeling around the lighthouse, a sheet of Yellow-rumped Warblers planed in off the bay and Golden-crowned Kinglets skipped through the dune bushes in search of cover, it seemed that fall migration had peaked. And in many ways it had but, like a mountain chain, a fall at Cape May can have many peaks and sometimes they come daily. The peaks happen first thing in the morning, the troughs (when you get a brief opportunity to eat!) happen in the afternoons.

Yesterday's mass wave of birds was spectacular, today's was just as fabulous. When I left the Hawkwatch Platform a short moment ago, the Killdeer count had passed the 500 mark for the day; Wilson's Snipe were also moving and, despite blustery and damp conditions, Pete Dunne's hawk workshop group were getting spectacular views of passing Merlins, American Kestrels and Northern Harriers. Right in front of the platform, the feeding sparrow flock included Savannah, Field, Song, Swamp, White-throated and White-crowned - as well as the obligatory House Sparrows.

The wave of herons and egrets that washed over the point first thing seems to have settled for the day - which means there are American Bitterns out there to be found among the cat-tails. We are heading into a spectacular weekend folks - hope you are going to be part of it!!

These visions of yesterday were kindly supplied by Lambert Orkis, who caught just a tiny fragment of the Tree Swallow flock that was wheeling around the bayberry bushes in the dunes, plus wonderful images of two of the young Bald Eagles that battled for air space right over Bunker Pond.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The 2014 Autumn Birding Festival Migration Forecast

Sometimes the stars align, and when they do, you put everything else aside for a cloudier day, and you go stargazing. I’m a person who pours over weather maps, speculating, calculating, planning. How many days since the last big push? Are we early in the season when birds are apprehensive to move on suboptimal conditions, or is it later and has the temperature begun to plummet, driving even the most cold-hardy species southward?

So now I’m pouring over the weather forecast, the Global Forecast System (GFS) model to be specific, since it’s the most long-range. I’m looking at the upper-level winds (925mb or ~3500 feet), the surface winds, and precipitation.

The forecast is calling for an area of low pressure to move off of the Mid-Atlantic by Wednesday night, setting up northwest winds over the Mid-Atlantic, but likely causing precipitation over New England. This should preclude many birds from leaving the New England coast, but will bring new migrants out of western New York and the eastern Great Lakes instead.

Upper-level Winds for Wednesday Night -> Thursday Morning

Surface Winds for Wednesday Night -> Thursday Morning

Precipitation Forecast for Wednesday Night -> Thursday Morning

By Thursday night the low is expected to be off of Cape Cod, sending us stronger northwest winds throughout the night and into the day on Friday. Again precipitation well to our north should preclude many birds from leaving under these conditions, but birds across New York, including eastern New York, should head south to Cape May.
Upper-level Winds for Thursday Night -> Friday Morning

Surface Winds for Thursday Night -> Friday Morning

Precipitation Forecast for Thursday Night -> Friday Morning

Then as the low tracks north towards Nova Scotia on Friday night, precipitation clears out of southern New England and solid northwest flow builds in over the entire northeastern US, conveying birds down to Cape May once again.
Upper-level Winds for Friday Night -> Saturday Morning

Surface Winds for Friday Night -> Saturday Morning

Precipitation Forecast for Friday Night -> Saturday Morning

On Saturday a cold front will pass over the region, and strong upper-level northwest flow will build in again, this time from the Hudson Bay region of Canada, all the way down into the lower Mid-Atlantic!
Upper-level Winds for Saturday Night -> Sunday Morning
Surface Winds for Saturday Night -> Sunday Morning

Precipitation Forecast for Saturday Night into Sunday Morning

Again on Sunday night we expect more northwest winds from the northern Great Lakes through the entire New England, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Upper-level Winds for Sunday Night -> Monday Morning

Surface Winds for Sunday Night -> Monday Morning

Precipitation Forecast for Sunday Night into Monday Morning

So there you have it, the stars aligning to bring many birds to Cape May this coming weekend. Of course weather forecasts may change some as we get closer, so be sure to check back with us right before you get here. I hope to see you out in the field as well as inside Convention Hall and enjoying the fantastic workshops and evening programs we have scheduled. If you still need to register, you may do so online here.

See you soon! Until then, good birding!!