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.]

Friday, April 15, 2016

Good Things Come in Threes

We've got a lot going on this spring and I'd like to bring three important items to your attention to ensure you're in the know.  First off, tomorrow and Sunday (4/16-17) we will be holding our 21st Annual Cape May Optics Sale at our Center for Research and Education. If you come, you’ll receive one-on-one service to help you choose the best optics for your budget and needs and our staff and volunteers look forward to serving you. Doors open at 9am; I’ll be there at 8am serving fresh brewed Birds & Beans bird-friendly coffee so come early and secure your spot in line! Personal attention, optics experts, and all profits go to supporting our conservation mission. How can you beat that?



Second, May 14th is the 33rd Annual World Series of Birding. You can get more information at worldseriesofbirding.org but if you’ve been thinking about fielding a team let me tell you this is the year to do it! We’ve recalculated our Limited Geographic Area (read: counties) PAR system to reflect current bird distributions, we’re rolling out the World Series of Birding App for entering your checklist on game day, complete with photo uploads for documentation, and some other great bells and whistles. I know you’re going to love it! We have moved the Photo Big Day to Saturday April 30th from 9am - 9am (the following Sunday) which does two things: first it allows you to compete in both the Photo Big Day and WSB, and it also gives you more shooting hours so Photo Big Day participants can actually cover the entire state in 24-hours. Check out our website for more details, and if you’re interested feel free to contact lillian.armstrong@njaudubon.org for additional information.



Now to my final point.

I remember reading Jack Connor’s Season at the Point: The birds and birders of Cape May back when I was a graduate student at Rutgers University. My friend, and fellow Floridian, Jeff Bouton was featured prominently, and the cast of characters throughout the book were familiar (although only tangentially at the time): Pete Dunne, Vince Elia, Pat and Clay Sutton, Paul Kerlinger, Richard Crossley. At the point of reading the book I didn’t know I’d end up living in Cape May, and certainly didn’t know I’d become the director of CMBO. What I did know, though, was that Cape May was a special place and this book ported me to that world in vivid detail. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. 

The book was published in 1991, some twenty five years ago (hard to believe!). As part of our Cape May Spring Festival this May we have put together a special event to commemorate this milestone. On Saturday May 21 we will be holding a lunch-time panel discussion with many of the historic figures from the landmark book. Jack Connor will lead the panel, and all participants will get the opportunity to ask the questions they’ve accumulated over the last 25 years! So I hope you’ll join us this May for our festival and this special event. Registration is now open at 

From all of us at New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory, we look forward to seeing you in Cape May soon!



Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Gannet "Thing" IS On!

[A small part of a flock of over 1,000 Northern  Gannets sitting on Delaware Bay off the mouth of Cox Hall Creek, waiting for the rain to stop so they could resume fishing and migrating. Click to enlarge.]

A flock of over 1,000 Northern Gannets was a nice way to come down from a week in Eilat, Israel, where the Leica Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers (me, captain Doug Gochfeld, Ben Barkley, and Tom Reed) competed in the Champions of the Flyway event. More on that later. For now. . .there are a LOT of birds migrating through Eilat right now. Like, we saw over 3,500 raptors of ~ 10 species (Steppe Buzzards, Steppe Eagles, Pallid Harriers, Imperial Eagles, Egyptian Vultures. . .) in a half hour of watching in the Eilat mountains.

This would be a very good weekend to ride the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to watch gannets, scoters, and Red-throated Loons.