Thursday, February 11, 2016

We, and The Champions of the Flyway, Need Your Help!

Friends and CMBO members, please check out our team page on the Champions of the Flyway website, and consider supporting us in this massively important conservation initiative!

You can read more about it on the American Birding Association Blog. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Welcome Back"

[This adult Red-shouldered Hawk greeted me along Lighthouse Avenue in Cape May Point on my first day (back) at work for CMBO. Click to enlarge photos.]

"Welcome back." That was the note my longtime friend Pete Dunne left me this week as I started work for the Cape May Bird Observatory for the second time. From 2007 to 2009 I was Director of Birding Programs here, a wonderful time in my life. Now, after five challenging but rewarding years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (think government shutdowns, northeasters, direcho winds, and of course Superstorm Sandy) here I am again, as Program Director.

Mike Crewe, former Program Director and beloved by many, has returned to the U.K. and will work as a birding tour leader. Mike was great, a good friend, and I'm not trying to fill Mike's shoes any more than he tried to fill mine when he started; we have our own shoes.

What to expect? A continuing slate of great field trips, workshops, and events, for sure. Perhaps an eco-tour or two each year (you will hear about them here.) Regular blogs on birds, birding and other natural history (and I hope to continue my personal blog, the Freiday Bird Blog).  Excellent migration counts. The Monarch project. And, I hope, a lot of fun for you and I. I'm especially looking forward to working with the team CMBO Director David La Puma has put together. This is a great organization, and it's getting better. Thanks for your support.

Feel free to stop by to say hello, or drop me a line at . I'll normally be at the Center for Research and Education in Goshen Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and at the Northwood Center in Cape May Point Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I'll be picking up the Wednesday morning South Cape May Meadows walks beginning March 16, and will likely show up for a few others now and then.

[Two Red Knots and one of the thousands of Knobbed Whelk shells that washed up on Cape May beaches during last week's northeaster, which featured the highest tide ever recorded in North Wildwood, higher than Sandy and higher than the storm of 1962. People always talk about hurricanes, but it is actually fall and winter northeasters that normally do the most damage to coastal NJ. Two Mile Beach Unit of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge on the morning of Monday, February 1. Click to enlarge.]

Friday, December 18, 2015

Location, location, location

As the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Seawatch Migration Count season comes to a close, it’s only natural that we take a moment to reflect on the highlights of past 3 months. Overall this season has been fantastic, if not a little weird. With 70-degree weather in December, late-season big Scoter and Red-throated Loon flights, and rarities like Sooty Terns and a Masked Booby, it’s been anything but boring.

As most of you are probably aware, Cape May Bird Observatory’s Avalon Seawatch moved to a new and improved location, complete with a beautiful little hide to keep counters and visitors sheltered from the elements. Now located directly on the beach between 8th and 9th street in Avalon, counters and visitors alike have an over 200°, unobstructed view from which to enjoy the spectacle of seabird migration.

An aerial map of the Avalon coast is a perfect way to see some of the benefits of the new Avalon Seawatch location--a wider field of view that is closer to the main flight line!

When asked about the new location, local birders have some pretty positive things to say. Michael O’Brien thinks it’s fantastic that you can now get prolonged looks at birds as they make their way past the end of the jetty and around the corner, which is when they are closest to shore. Mark Garland feels the new location, complete with the shack that allows visitors to get out of the elements, gives the count a new sense of professionalism and makes it a better destination for birders to visit while in Cape May. The benefit of being directly on the beach and behind the jetty are instantly obvious to most birders, with shorebirds, gulls, and terns feeding and resting just a stone’s throw from you. In fact, the counters and a few well-timed visitors have been treated to Red Phalaropes and Black-legged Kittiwakes who decided to take a break on the beach in front of the shack.

Visitors and Migration Count Coordinator, Tom Reed, enjoying the shelter at the new Avalon Seawatch location. Just being able to sit and get out of the wind make a huge difference to the counters who are up there from dawn to dusk! [Photo by Mark Garland.]

A Red Phalarope and Sanderlings decided to take a rest on the beach directly in front of the Avalon Seawatch shack between 8th and 9th streets. Having the shelter on the beach allows the counter and visitors to stay in the middle of the action despite lousy weather conditions. [Photo by Tom Reed.]

For the counters, the new location has so many benefits. For the first time in the 5 years he’s been involved with the Avalon Seawatch, Migration Count Coordinator Tom Reed finally feels like he is a part of the count, with birds flying directly in front of him, over him, or even sometimes behind him. At 7th street, the counter had a restricted field of view that was pretty far from the flight line and therefore removed from the action. Primary Seawatch counter, Skye Haas feels the new location results in greater accuracy. He has double the time to precisely count flocks of Scoters or pick out each species in a large mixed duck flock. Skye also noted that thanks to the new shack, on days with less than desirable weather he doesn’t have to battle with the wind shaking his scope tripod or the raindrops blurring his binocular view. Instead, he can devote all of his energy and focus to the count.

A Northern Gannet gives a great example of how close the flight can be at the new Seawatch location. Birds will fly directly over the end of the jetty, allowing visitors photographic opportunities like this one! [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

The new Seawatch location gives observers more time to study the birds heading south. That extra time can be the difference between catching or missing a Great Cormorant in a flock of Double-crested Cormorants, like the one pictured here. [Photo by Tom Reed.]

With any kind of change there inevitably comes doubts and unknowns, but there also comes new opportunities. There is a beautiful relationship blooming between CMBO and the city of Avalon, who has been hugely supportive and excited about the new location. Overall, this experiment has been a very successful one and goes to prove that sometimes you don’t realize something is broke until you fix it! If you haven’t made it to Avalon this season, the count goes til December 22nd so you still have a couple days. I encourage you to visit and experience it for yourself.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

No birds at my feeders...

Generally we get a very wide range of inquiries through Cape May Bird Observatory, either from visitors or via phone calls and emails; but now and again a trend in the questions starts to show through, and it can set one thinking... Of late, we have had a rather large number of inquiries regarding bird feeders, and the general question has been "Why are there no birds at my feeders". As it turns out, this is not an uncommon question at this time of year, since the clocks have gone back, the evenings are getting darker - surely winter is on its way and I should be putting food out for the birds...

So what is going on and, in particular, what is going on this year? Well we often do have a relatively mild spell in the run up to the holiday season, but this year it is even more mild than usual. Why should this affect the birds? Well, strange as this might sound, feeding birds is not as straightforward as you might think and often the birds 'know' better than we do. Rest assured, I am not going to tell you not to feed your backyard birds, but I would certainly encourage you to think about what food you put out, how, and when.

Exactly why there are no birds at your feeder right now will depend on where you are and what species of birds you typically get. For many of us in the Mid-Atlantic States, a large number of the birds at our feeders will be winter visitors from the north. These birds are escaping the worst of the weather and will remain until well into spring before heading back north. Species such as Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows are typical of this group, but may also include birds such as Northern Cardinals and American Robins, which are both resident and migratory. Put simply, these birds appear not to be at our feeders yet simply because it's still so mild so they really don't seem to have headed our way in any great number yet.

Other feeder birds include our local residents, such as Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Downy Woodpeckers and the like. These birds will still be in your area, but they will be feeding elsewhere. What does this mean? Well, the answer is twofold; firstly, feeders are not exactly the most comfortable of places to hang out for many birds. There is much jostling for position and any number of potentially stressful situations. It's a bit like comparing a dinner for two at a quiet, back street restaurant with the hustle and bustle of a food stand at a carnival parade! Secondly, there's plenty of natural food still out there, since there's been very little frost to shrivel the berries, and no snow to cover the ground.

So, there's plenty of natural food out in the wider countryside, where birds can feed comfortably, at a natural pace, without all the hurly burly of the backyard feeder and all the undue attention and rivalry from other birds. But there are other issues with feeders too. The unnaturally high density of birds can be a magnet for local predators, whether it be Cooper's Hawks or the neighbor's cat - again putting undue stress on the birds, since they need to be constantly on the lookout for such threats. Then there's the problem of infectious diseases; such diseases may be more readily spread around bird populations if they are not only in close proximity with each other, but also stressed. Finally, research in the UK and New Zealand has revealed that the type of feeding opportunities that backyard feeders provide tend to encourage the 'bullies', the species which dominate at such locations, which in North America includes non-native species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows.

It may be starting to sound as though we shouldn't be feeding birds, but that isn't entirely the case. You should consider very carefully how and when to feed; don't put your feeders close to places where predators might easily lurk within catching range, such as close to shrubby borders or edges; don't put out large amounts of food - it's better to put little and often, and let the food run out for a short while between feeds. It's also good to put out as wide a range of foods as possible to provide a balanced diet. But do remember, if you do put out food, it is vital to keep it going during hard weather, since that artificially high population of birds that you have created may become dependent on the food during such periods.

For the very best advice on feeding birds, we have a great range of publications available at our stores, and our staff will be happy to advice you on best practice, based on sound research.

If you have few birds at your feeders right now, rest assured that it is not because their populations have suddenly and dramatically crashed; the birds are out there somewhere, rummaging in the undergrowth and enjoying a balanced diet from nature's food closet, and they will be heading your way eventually...

Birds arriving at backyard feeding or drinking opportunities find themselves in unusually close proximity to each other. This is OK while numbers are small... more birds are attracted to the treats, pressure increase - here a White-throated Sparrow literally gets trampled underfoot by a boisterous House Sparrow...

...and once the 'pack' really arrives, there's little room for anyone else and less aggressive species will choose to move away from your yard, as has been shown from recent studies. Here, a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird is the only one brave enough to stick it out at the lido!

If you put up artificial feeders, those with individual feed ports have been shown to be less stressful for the birds than hopper types - Tufted Titmouse, American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin all manage to find a space here at the Northwood Center feeder.

The high number of birds visiting some feeders creates ideal conditions for infectious diseases to spread. In Eastern North America, a form of conjunctivitis is virulent in House Finch populations and it is imperative that high standards of hygiene are maintained at backyard feeders to prevent this, and other diseases, from becoming a major concern.

Through research studies, aggressive species have been shown to become even more prevalent in areas where there are significant backyard feeder opportunities. Although Common Grackles are native to our region, they naturally form roving flocks in the winter that move constantly through an extended home range. Keeping backyard feeders well stocked could be encouraging them to target specific locations more often than they would naturally; this not only enables an even larger population of these aggressive birds to develop, but can have negative impacts on other species, causing them to move away from the area.

Though we might think we know best, nature usually does offer the best solution to natural problems. Feeders are fine in moderation, but do consider also providing natural foods so that a wide range of birds can enjoy your natural space - and you'll enjoy them too! Eastern Bluebirds are regular visitors to our pokeweed patch, which is growing well away from the feeders on the other side of the house and away from any 'bullies' that might drop by.

And finally, don't forget that water is vital to birds, especially during prolonged cold spells. Cedar Waxwings are exciting birds that can be attracted to the garden by keeping one or two native red cedars in the corners of the yard, but they need plenty of water to help them cope with the astringent berries.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

To Be Thankful

If you put the word ‘thankful’ into an internet search engine you get any number of results. But this morning, my favorite was from the Merriam-Webster dictionary website: glad that something has happened or not happened, that something or someone exists, etc. Thankful that someone exists…what an incredible sentiment.

This year we have much to be thankful for. Here in Cape May, we are thankful that we get to live in one of the most beautiful places in the country. We are thankful for our birding community, the birders who travel to visit us each year, and of course, the birds! We are thankful we have the time and energy to be outside and exploring. We are thankful that we live in an age where we can communicate and support one another from the other side of the world. We are thankful for the moments we get to spend with our friends and families, and the memories we share with those who left us too soon.

Personally, I am thankful for the guidance from mentors who have helped me become a better naturalist, a better teacher, and a better person. I am thankful for a supportive collection of friends who have welcomed me into their hearts and homes. I am thankful that I get to do what I love and share it with like-minded people. But most of all, I am thankful for the beauty and goodness I find in the world everyday.  

From all of us here at Cape May Bird Observatory, we thank you for your support and friendship, and we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday's sunset over Lake Lily in front of Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center. It's picturesque moments like this that make us slow down and be thankful that we are able to do what we love. [Photo by Mike Crewe.] 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Freaky Friday the 13th

Franklin’s Gulls are in town! Thanks to strong storm systems working their way east across the country, Cape May (and the East Coast in general) has experienced the greatest influx of Franklin’s Gulls it’s ever known. These birds aren’t exactly annual visitors, though we do get a couple every 2 to 3 years, typically as rare vagrants. The previous NJ record of Franklin's Gulls was another storm-driven invasion from November 14-15, 1998 of 50+ birds between Avalon and Cape May. A group of 3 individuals were reported in 2005, but all other records are of single birds. However, after reviewing information complied from eBird reports, photos, and personal accounts, it’s estimated that Cape May County saw roughly 350 Franklin’s Gulls yesterday.

eBird reports of Franklin's Gulls from November 2014. A single individual was spotted at the Avalon Seawatch and another individual hung out for about 10 days at a Waste Water Treatment reservoir in Maryland, but the rest of the east coast is barren.

eBird reports of Franklin Gulls from November 2015. As you can see the entire Northeast and East Coast has been invaded by vagrants pushed east by recent storms.

Birders here in Cape May had been watching the weather and the numerous reports of Franklin’s Gulls west of us all week, salivating at the idea of a good invasion. It started Friday morning with flocks of anywhere from 4 to 15 just off shore at Coral Avenue. Then reports started coming in from the Hawkwatch, Sunset Beach, and the Avalon Seawatch: we were indeed being invaded! Later in the afternoon, Megan Crewe found a flock of 62 sitting on the ocean off of Cape May City. That flock lifted up and was spotted by observers kettling over the Grand Hotel, over The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows, and eventually out towards the Delaware Bay. A couple Franklin’s Gulls have even been cooperative enough to hang out at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal, close enough for great photographs. It was a race all over town for birders to get Franklin’s Gull on their yard lists, office lists, county lists, and even life lists.
A group of Franklin's Gulls taking off from the water where they were resting just off-shore in Cape May City. [Photo by Tom Johnson.]

The same flock of Franklin's Gulls visible from the beach access in Cape May City. It was counted to be about 62 individuals--more than has ever been documented in New Jersey at one time! [Photo by Tom Johnson.] 

Franklin's Gull flying past the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal in Cape May. This individual hung out all afternoon which allowed for fantastic opportunities to observe and photograph this rare vagrant. [Photo by Tom Johnson.]

A Laughing Gull (left) sits on the water alongside a Franklin's Gull (right). Note the smaller size, smaller bill, and dark helmeted look with pale nape on the Franklin's Gull. [Photo by Mike Crewe.]

Today, the Franklin Gull show has died down considerably, with a few still being spotted here and there (including the Ferry terminal). Saturday’s excitement belongs to Cave Swallows, with over 400 counted from Coral Avenue as of 1:00pm today. We have two sub-species of these beautiful little birds in North America: populations throughout Texas and one down at the very southern tip of Florida. Nowadays, we regularly get an influx of Cave Swallows along the East Coast and the southern Great Lakes that expand their ranges northward at the end of the breeding season to exploit food resources. This year however, like the Franklin’s Gulls, we have experienced unprecedented numbers. Yes, November is the time for rarities and invasions. Come on down and see for yourself!

A Cave Swallow feeds on insects over Bunker Pond in front of the Hawkwatch platform at the Cape May Point State Park. [Photo by Mike Crewe.]

Another shot of a Cave Swallow from Bunker Pond at the Cape May Point State Park. Note the pale rump and collar, dark throat, and short, blunt tail. [Photo by Mike Crewe.]

Friday, November 6, 2015

Not all is quiet on the Eastern front

It’s November: the time of year when the trees become bare, sweaters and hats become necessities (usually), and the locals reclaim their town. Yes, all of our seasonal naturalists and visiting fall birders have packed up and moved home, leaving nothing but the counters, the staff, and a barren Hawkwatch platform behind. The weather isn’t the only one to blame for the mass exodus of friendly faces though; November has always been known as the beginning of the end for Fall migration here in Cape May…but is it?

It is true that it has been miserably slow at the Hawkwatch on the Point, with just over 500 birds tallied since the start of the month. However, the Avalon Seawatch is cruising steadily with very close flocks of Scoters, Gannets, and Red-throated Loons. As someone who doesn’t have an immense amount of experience seawatching, I find it almost magical to watch a flock of 250 Surf Scoters flyby in their stacked formation, so close that you can see their skunk-heads without bins. I still gasp every time I watch a handsome Northern Gannet dramatically plunge-dive into the water. And I can’t help but smile as I count a loose squadron of delicate looking Red-throated Loons that somehow manage to be awkward and graceful at the same time.

A mixed flock of Scoters heading past the Avalon Seawatch. These fast-moving, stacked flocks, with constantly shifting lines, are a great ID characteristic for Scoters. Now, can you pick out the Black Scoters from the Surf Scoters? [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

These Red-breasted Mergansers, another migrant that can be seen from the Avalon Seawatch, were making a pass around the jetty. Many of the migrants can fly very close to shore, affording visitors fantastic looks! [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

Common Loons, though not as numerous as Red-throated Loons, can also be observed in Avalon. These birds have an overall chunkier look to them, with big, obvious feet and a large bill. This individual came directly over the jetty in front of the CMBO Seawatch shack. [Photo by Sam Wilson].

Since November 1st, those of us who have visited Avalon have been treated to flyby Harlequin Ducks, the first real movement of Long-tailed Ducks, over 22,500 Northern Gannets, and over 30,500 Scoters, not to mention the numerous Hump-backed Whales putting on a show just off-shore! In fact, Thursday’s Northern Gannet flight set a new single-day record for the 2015 season with a total of 11,705 tallied all day. Even more impressive is that over 8,500 of those birds came by between 7:00 and 9:00am--that comes to nearly 72 birds per minute (I did the math)! If you find yourself with some time this weekend, take a visit up to Avalon between the 8th and 9th street beach accesses and see the spectacle for yourself.
A Northern Gannet gives a close fly-by during the big flight on Thursday. These beautiful birds are pointy in all directions and take dramatic plunges into the water as they hunt for fish. Cape May is a fantastic place to see Gannets, as they overwinter with us, but witnessing the spectacle of their Southern migration is something else all together. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

When migrating, Northern Gannets will frequently take these loose flock formations or even fly in long lines. Thursday's big migration push saw flocks both near and far from the Avalon Seawatching shack. It's the perfect place to learn the various plumages as well as the flight style of these magnificent seabirds. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

As exciting and busy as the Avalon Seawatch shack-mahal currently is, the Hawkwatch platform has become a lonely place, especially without the infectious enthusiasm of our interpretive naturalists. Tara, Erin, and Jacob have all moved on to their next adventures: from cross-country road trips to birding excursions, they have scattered back from whence they came. On behalf of all of us here at CMBO and the visitors they helped orient and teach, I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for the hard work and dedication they put in to sharing their knowledge of birds, migration, and conservation. I hope the three of them learned as much as they taught and they will look back on this season at CMBO with great fondness. Just remember, once you’re here, you will always be a part of the Cape May birding community, whether you like it or not! So Tara, Erin, and Jacob: we wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors and please remember to come back to visit us! 

The 2015 seasonal Naturalists smile for a final picture atop the Hawkwatch Platform at the Cape May Point State Park. It's hard to believe how quickly the season passes. Good luck to our Interpretive Naturalist! Pictured left to right: Tara Camp (Interpretive Naturalist), Jacob Drucker (Interpretive Naturalist), Margeaux Maerz (George Myers Naturalist), and Erin Rawls (Interpretive Naturalist). [Photo by Megan Crewe.]