Saturday, April 12, 2014

Acquiring the Colors of Spring

In the natural world, spring brings with it many things - warmth, lushness, regeneration and - often - rich colors. We are all used to seeing somewhat drab-looking birds in spring, that miraculously become bright and colorful in spring, ready for the forthcoming breeding season. How do they do this? Well, this very subject came to mind with me recently when Jim Cremer brought two dead Eastern Bluebirds into the Northwood Center. While such an event is of course tinged with sadness for the two bluebirds, it does give a rare opportunity to study birds closer and to learn more about them. I studied two things on the two bluebirds - the transition from non-breeding to breeding plumage and the difference between first-year and older birds. I'll cover the latter subject at a later date, but acquiring the colors of spring is waht we will look at here.

Birds are an amazing study in evolutionary processes. To be able to fly, they need to be as light as possible, while still covering all the other essentials of life - breeding, keeping warm, staying alive! They have developed feathers which are very light and open structured, yet keep them warm. These feathers have then evolved to serve as seasonal queues to each other - a male in full breeding plumage says to another male 'stay of my patch' and says to a female 'I'm fit and well and able to support a family'. But there's a pay off; feathers are relatively weak, so damage and wear out relatively easily compared with the fur of mammals or the harder skin coverings of reptiles. To compensate for this, birds molt - switch out their old feathers for new ones.

Now molting is of course expensive in terms of energy costs, so if a bird can make its feathers last as long as possible that's certainly beneficial. So some birds have evolved a trick that allows them to come into breeding plumage without actually molting - something known as acquiring plumage by abrasion. Put simply, the tips of the feathers wear away due to simply rubbing against vegetation or the rough and tumble of winter weather, to reveal a different color underneath. Other birds seem to get by with a molt over the late winter and spring period - so how do we tell which species does which. Here's where the bluebirds come in, along with some other pointers for you to look out for:

A close up photo of the feathers on the mantle of an Eastern Bluebird reveals blue feathers with dusky, brownish tips. In winter, these brownish tips are extensive and overlap, in some individuals almost completely masking the blue underneath. As the season progresses, these loose, open tips gradually wear away to reveal the glorious blue - and hence the bird comes into breeding plumage without having to molt [photo by Mike Crewe].

In the field, it is possible to see this dusky-fringed effect and thus work out which species use this process. The Northern Cardinal is a classic example, as seen here. Note the gray fringes to the mantle feathers; earlier in the weinter these fringes can be much more extensive than on this bird, which was photographed in late winter [photo by Mike Crewe].
 
The alternative to acquiring breeding plumage by abrasion is to feed up well and go through two molts a year (pretty much all birds go through one full molt a year at least, usually in late summer after the stress of the breeding season). So how do we tell these birds from the abrasion ones? American Goldfinch is a classic example of an easily-studied species that acquires breeding plumage by molt. Here's a typical, rather drab-looking goldfinch in winter [photo by Mike Crewe].

By late winter/early spring, you will start to see some American Goldfinches looking like this. This male goldfinch is gradually replacing the brown of winter with the gold of summer and the result is not a bird with neat, regular patterning, but a rather blotchy looking individual with a mix of the two plumage colors [photo by Mike Crewe].

A little further into spring and we can see a male American Goldfinch emerging - the black cap is starting to show now and yellow is coming on the underparts [photo by Mike Crewe].

Full-on gold!! By May, male American Goldfnches look pretty snazzy! [Photo by Mike Crewe]
 
Another common bird that acquires breeding plumage by abrasion is the European Starling. These spangled winter birds will lose those white tips and turn into mostly black birds with glossy green and purple reflections. One other change that takes place in many birds is a change in bill color. Note here that the front bird (sexed as a female by the pale eyering) still has a dark bil, while the two behind have yellow bills, indicative of breeding condition. Though hard to see on this reduced, web version, you might just notice that the nearer bird has a bluish base to its yellow bill, indicating a male, while the bird behind has the pink base of a female [photo by Mike Crewe].
 
If you still have your back yard feeders out, check out the species that come in regularly and see if you can tell the abraders from the molters as spring progresses!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Week in review: 5 – 11 April, 2014

CMBO is pleased to provide weekly summaries of the Cape's birding highlights. Coverage is limited to sightings in Cape May County. Readers should keep in mind that some reports may not be confirmed. The vast majority of information utilized in these reports comes from eBird data and "Keekeekerr" text alerts. Observers are encouraged to send reports and photos to compiler Tom Reed (coturnicops at gmail dot com).

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Weather: The period began with seasonable and clear conditions 5 Apr, with gusty northwest winds. Winds weakened through 6 Apr under continuing sunny skies, and a light southerly breeze took hold during the overnight hours 6–7 Apr. Winds again shifted, this time to the east, and increased through the daylight hours of 7 Apr, ahead of a warm front that produced some rain showers during the evening hours. Pleasant weather returned for 8–9 Apr, courtesy of ample sunshine and a steady breeze out of the west. A southerly flow developed during the second half of 10 Apr and strengthened through 11 Apr, bringing with it the year's first 70ºF day.

Birding Summary: Observers submitted sightings of 177 species during the period 5–11 Apr. This week's arrivals included Sooty Shearwater, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Upland Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Pectoral Sandpiper, Royal Tern, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Chimney Swift, Eastern Kingbird, Bank Swallow, House Wren, Louisiana Waterthrush, Worm-eating Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, and Indigo Bunting.

Notable rarities included "Eurasian" Green-winged Teal, Swallow-tailed Kite, Northern Goshawk, Sandhill Crane, Black-headed Gull, Snowy Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Painted Bunting, and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Location Abbreviations: CMP (Cape May Point), CMPSP (Cape May Pt. State Park), SCMM (South Cape May Meadows), SHPt (Stone Harbor Point). 

--===============--
  
WATERFOWL THROUGH HERONS  
       Waterfowl numbers finally saw a significant decrease this week. There were no reports of Redhead, the lingering Tundra Swans and Canvasbacks departed CMP 6 Apr, and Snow Geese have apparently gone missing from the bayshore marshes since 5 Apr. A female Eurasian Wigeon appeared at SCMM 9 Apr (CV), but there were no reports of the species along Ocean Drive this week. The "Eurasian" Green-winged Teal continued to put in sporadic appearances at CMPSP, last noted from the east end of Lighthouse Pond 11 Apr (MP). A strong waterbird movement past CMP during the AM hours of 11 Apr included 831 Surf Scoters, 13 White-winged Scoters, 356 Red-throated Loons, 71 Common Loons, 3,238 Northern Gannets, and 1,841 Double-crested Cormorants (TR et al.). An early Sooty Shearwater was seen from CMP the same day (CV et al.). Red-necked Grebes continued to thin out-- reports included 7 near the Ocean Drive fish docks 5 Apr (MP), 1 at Cape May Harbor 8 Apr (SW), and 3 at Champlain Drive, Villas 10 Apr (TM). A total of 14 Yellow-crowned Night-Herons could be found at 44th Street in Avalon 9 Apr (m. ob.), while Tricolored and Little Blue Herons became increasingly regular at Nummy Island through the week (m. ob.). The year's first Green Heron dropped in at SCMM 8 Apr (MP); the first Cattle Egret was reported from Route 9 in Swainton on 11 Apr (SG). 

[Great Cormorants have been seen recently at CMP and Nummy Island. 
The pictured bird was flying over CMP on 10 Apr. Photo by Tom Reed.]
 
RAPTORS THROUGH OWLS   
       Osprey continued to filter in on a daily basis. Many nesting platforms along both the Atlantic Coast and the Delaware Bayshore now host returning pairs. Northern Goshawk is a very rare spring migrant, but that didn't stop an imm. from flying over Jake's Landing 10 Apr (CS). A Swallow-tailed Kite flew past SHPt during the strong westerlies of 5 Apr (TR). It was last seen continuing north over 30th Street, Avalon (GDw). Those same westerlies were likely responsible for the Sandhill Crane that passed over CMP 6 Apr (GDa, MC et al.). Black-bellied Plovers were on the move this week, illustrated by 12 migrating past SHPt 8 Apr (TR) and a total of 92 on the flats at Norbury's Landing 10 Apr (TF). The first noticeable push of Willets occurred 11 Apr, when 38 migrated north past CMP in small flocks (TR et al.). A group of 3 Western Sandpipers at 120th Street, Stone Harbor 8 Apr were apparently recent arrivals (TR). There were very few sightings of the species in the county this winter. Another likely arrival was the single Red Knot roosting at Nummy Island 9 Apr (m. ob.). Whimbrel made its first appearance of 2014 at Nummy Island 6 Apr, a slightly early date (TB, MP). An increasingly rare spring migrant, one Upland Sandpiper was calling as it flew over SHPt 11 Apr (TR). A bit more expected were the two Pectoral Sandpipers photographed at the Higbee Dike 8 Apr (MP). At least two Black-headed Gulls remained along the lower Delaware Bay this week, with sightings of 1-2 birds at Miami Avenue in Villas, as well as Pierce's Point (m. ob.). Laughing Gull "officially" arrived this week-- 1,180 migrated past CMP 6 Apr (MC, GDa) and a minimum of 2,500 could be seen and heard at Nummy Island 9 Apr (m. ob.). Lesser Black-backed Gulls were regular at CMP and SHPt through the week (m. ob.). Numbers of Forster's Terns increased daily, and the season's first Royal Terns entertained birders at CMP 11 Apr (CV et al.). 

 [Swallow-tailed Kite has become an increasingly frequent spring visitor at Cape May. This individual made for a bizarre sight as it flew over the ocean near SHPt on 5 Apr. Photo by Tom Reed.]

DOVE THROUGH TREE SPARROW
       A single Eurasian Collared-Dove stayed at CMP this week (m. ob.). The neighborhoods bordered by Coral, Harvard, Lehigh, and Lincoln Avenues are typically the best places to search for the dove. SHPt continued to host 2 Snowy Owls through 6 Apr (TR), and at least one lingered through 10 Apr (m. ob.). A Snowy Owl also remained along the Avalon beachfront until at least 10 Apr (TR), while another was reported at Congress Hall in Cape May City 5 Apr (fide MO'B). The spring's first Eastern Whip-poor-will was audible at Jake's Landing 11 Apr (KJ, BJ). Bank Swallow arrived near Cold Spring 6 Apr (TR), and Chimney Swift arrived at CMP 8 Apr (TR et al.). The Black-capped Chickadee was apparently not seen at CMP this week (fide GDa). A Pileated Woodpecker was an exciting find at CMP 6 Apr (GDa, m. ob.). Most Cape Island sightings of this species have occurred during Apr and May. A small flight of American Kestrels and Merlins was visible along the barrier beaches 5 Apr (m. ob.). CMP's first Eastern Kingbird of the year flew past on 11 Apr (RC et al.). White-eyed Vireo appeared at multiple locations on Cape Island 11 Apr (m. ob.), and House Wren arrived at CMP 11 Apr (MP, GDa). Multiple warbler species also returned 11 Apr-- Black-and-white and Worm-eating at Belleplain State Forest (JA), Northern Parula at CMP (MC), and Common Yellowthroat at SCMM (MP). Yellow-throated Warbler, Pine Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush filled appropriate habitat at Belleplain State Forest through the week (m. ob.). An Indigo Bunting fed in the dunes at CMPSP 10 Apr (CV). Finally, the Painted Bunting continued at 113 Harvard Avenue, CMP through at least 9 Apr, and the Eurasian Tree Sparrow was also noted here the same day (m. ob.). 
 [One of two Snowy Owls at SHPt, 5 Apr. How much longer will 
these birds remain in Cape May County? Photo by Tom Reed.]

--===============--
Contributors: 
Jesse Amesbury (JA), Tom Baxter (TB), Mike Crewe (MC), Richard Crossley (RC), Glen Davis (GDa), Gail Dwyer (GDw), Tim Freiday (TF), Sam Galick (SG), Brian Johnson (BJ), Karen Johnson (KJ), Tom McParland (TM), Michael O'Brien (MO'B), Mike Pasquarello (MP), Tom Reed (TR), Clay Sutton (CS), Christopher Vogel (CV), Scott Whittle (SW).

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References:

eBird. 2012. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Accessed 11 Apr 2014. Available: http://www.ebird.org
Fogg, B. 2013. Keekeekerr: Recent Text Alerts. Accessed 11 Apr 2014. Available: http://www.keekeekerr.com

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Raptor wars, turkeys and more...

Spending time at Cape May Point on the Cape May SpringWatch project has allowed me to enjoy some wildlife encounters that I might otherwise have missed. Some foggy mornings have played havoc with photographic opportunities but, nevertheless, here are some recent highlights involving the birdlife of Cape May Point....

Though our count locations for Cape May SpringWatch vary a little according to weather conditions, we usually try to be somewhere with a good panoramic view. Recently, the fish really seemed to be running in the bay and the hotspot for fishing was right in front of us. Bottlenose Dolphins and plenty of Red-throated Loons were gathered and, at one point, six Ospreys were queueing up to dive for breakfast. This bird came out with a nice Striped Bass, but soon looked as though it might be in trouble....

One of our local, bullyboy Bald Eagles came steaming in to relieve the Osprey of its meal - but the Opsrey got a reprieve when the eagle pulled up and dropped down onto the beach. When I went to investigate, I found that the Baldie had decided to scavenge a dead skate from the tideline.

Having had a good meal, the Bald Eagle came scampering right past us - why was it in such a hurry? Well...

...it was being chased by the one bird that always seems to be in a bad mood - the local Merlin! [Photos by Mike Crewe]
 
Fog and early morning means very poor light and consequently very poor photographic conditions. Still, I couldn't resist getting at least some record shots of something you don't see all that often around Cape May - a Horned Grebe in breeding plumage! Of six birds that flew past on the SpringWatch count last Saturday morning, three of them were in breeding plumage. This bird was feeding actively off Cape May Point on Sunday morning and shows how the black and white of winter is replaced by rich chestnut with golden head plumes [photo by Mike Crewe].
 
Who's looking at who? This evening saw a new addition for my Northwood Center list as a glance out of the window revealed this scruffy individual looking back at me...
 
At least four Wild Turkeys have been reported intermittently from the streets and backyards of Cape May Point over the past three or four weeks and one of them decided to stop by the Northwood Center feeders for a quick snack. Remember, a turkey is not just for Christmas.... [photos by Mike Crewe]

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Classic Cape May SpringWatch Day

With the forecast of a chilly, northerly wind making prospects for today seem not overly promising, it looked as though birding Cape May Point might be something of a challenge today. Starting a Cape May SpringWatch count at a little after 06:30 this morning I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see plenty of birds ferrying up and down the Delaware Bay. A three-hour count this morning eventually turned in a count of over 1100 Laughing Gulls heading north, making it the first really big push of this species so far this spring. With them came a scattering of Forster's Terns and Bonaparte's Gulls, the beginnings of a serious northward push of Double-crested Cormorants and a continuing build up of Red-throated Loons in The Rips.

Passerines came today also; small numbers of Barn and Tree Swallows trickled along the beach, Pine and Palm Warblers moved through the dunes and dune scrub and interest came in the shape of a couple of Wood Ducks, Bald Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk, six Horned Grebes (three of which were in full breeding plumage) and the addition of three Lesser Black-backed Gulls to the local collection of American Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. But it was Glen Davis who was to have the luck today - though a handful of us were lucky enough to share his finds. Driving through the streets of Cape May Point, Glen spotted a Pileated Woodpecker which crossed the road in front of him. Within seconds he had alerted me to the bird and, just a few minutes later, I caught sight of this magical bird as it rose high above the houses. As always seems to be the case on such occasions, my camera's autofocus dec ided to have an off day and I singularly failed to record the moment. Glen returned shortly after and together we watched the bird sneak back across the road (I got a perfectly-focused photo of telephone wires with a mysterious smudgy blob in the middle) and disappear behind the houses. The bird was later seen by one or two observers near Lighthouse Pond at the state park and later still at The Beanery. Maybe it will be around tomorrow. Being out in the field for Cape May SpringWatch had paid off - and we were shortly to be rewarded again when Glen spotted a Sandhill Crane cruising slowly away from us. It's unclear where this bird had suddenly come from, but it seems likely that it had arrived from the north, spotted the bay ahead and decided to turn back the way it had come.

Quite a start to the day and a clear sign that birds are really on the move in our area now. I rounded off the day with a Louisiana Waterthrush singing in woods on the east side of Lighthouse Avenue around 7PM. It then came into the Northwood Center woods and called for a short while before flying back across the road again. A pretty typical date for this species and a sign that Belleplain State Forest will seen be busy with breeding warblers. The two Tundra Swans that had been hanging out at the Plover Ponds also seem to be getting itchy feet as they flew north over the Northwood Center this evening, yapping like small dogs. Every moment in the field counts from now on - it's time to get out and get recording, logging your observations for the future and helping us build a better picture of what our birds are up to.

Here comes tomorrow!!

After an absence long enough to make most of us feel that it had moved on, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow turned up at the Cape May Point feeders again on Saturday and continued to spend time on Harvard Avenue today [photo by Mike Crewe].
 
Out with the old - dainty Bonaparte's Gulls can be seen skipping along the wave tops as they head north up the Delaware Bay now. These birds have wintered with us and our now beginning their journey northward to the boreal forests of Canada to breed [photo by Mike Crewe].

In with the new - having wintered in milder climes to the south, Eastern Phoebes are now returning to breed with us. Look for them along open field edges such as at Higbee Beach, The Beanery or Cox Hall Creek WMA [photo by Mike Crewe].
 
Northern Gannet numbers have yet to really get going this year - perhaps the cold winter had pushed them further south than usual. But a few are passing through the bay now and the gray backdrop of Saturday morning's foggy start set them off a treat [photo by Mike Crewe].

Famous for never being able to keep a straight line for long, packs of Double-crested Cormorants are now trickling in over Cape May Point. This trickle will become a flood pretty soon and this species is a real icon of visible migration along the eastern seaboard [photo by Mike Crewe].

Another iconic sight of spring in Cape May - breeding-plumaged Common Loons heading due north over the rooftops! [Photo by Mike Crewe]
 
And it's not just birds that are stirring from the winter doldrums. This Striped Skunk was ambling along looking for a good meal near Lake Lily a few days ago - you need a peg for the nose to get close shots of these guys.... [photo by Mike Crewe].

Friday, April 4, 2014

Week in review: 29 March – 4 April, 2014

CMBO is pleased to provide weekly summaries of the Cape's birding highlights. Coverage is limited to sightings in Cape May County, and readers should keep in mind that some reports may not be confirmed. The vast majority of information utilized in these reports comes from eBird data and "Keekeekerr" text alerts. Observers are encouraged to send reports and photos to compiler Tom Reed (coturnicops at gmail dot com).


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Weather: The period began with seasonable but wet conditions 29–30 Mar, ahead of an approaching cold front. Skies gradually cleared through the afternoon hours 31 Mar, as temperatures slowly reached 50ºF and gusty northwest winds topped 30mph at times. Conditions improved during the first two days of Apr, as light and variable winds and spotty sunshine prevailed. Temperatures surged toward 60ºF by the late-afternoon 2 Apr. A light onshore flow developed through the second half of 3 Apr, followed by a few light showers during the overnight hours 3–4 Apr. The onshore flow continued to strengthen throughout 4 Apr, as northeast winds increased to 20–30mph along the immediate coast.

Birding Summary: Observers submitted sightings of 159 species to eBird during the period 29 Mar – 4 Apr. The best diversity day occurred on 2 Apr, when 120 species were reported. This week's arrivals included Little Blue Heron and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Notable rarities included "Eurasian" Green-winged Teal, Red Phalarope, Black-headed Gull, Little Gull, Snowy Owl, Black-capped Chickadee, and "Gambel's" White-crowned Sparrow.

Location Abbreviations: CMP (Cape May Point), CMPSP (Cape May Pt. State Park), SCMM (South Cape May Meadows), SHPt (Stone Harbor Point). 

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WATERFOWL THROUGH HERONS
      
Lingering waterfowl were again in the news this week. Two Tundra Swans continued to evade the resident Mute Swans at CMPSP/SCMM through at least 3 Apr, two Canvasbacks remained at SCMM through 3 Apr, and three Redheads could also still be found at SCMM through at least 1 Apr (m. ob.). Interestingly, there are no previous April eBird records for Tundra Swan or Redhead in Cape May County. The two male Eurasian Wigeon along Ocean Drive were joined by a third individual 31 Mar (SWh). The "Eurasian" Green-winged Teal was last reported from Lighthouse Pond at CMPSP 2 Apr (m. ob.). Harlequin Duck is a scarce bird in Cape May County, so a total of 4 at Cold Spring Inlet 2 Apr was notable (CH). Two Wild Turkeys, rare at CMP, continued their stay in town through at least 3 Apr (m. ob.). Red-necked Grebe reports dropped off again this week, though 5 could still be found near the 80th Street Municipal Dock in Stone Harbor 2 Apr (SG) and 3 stayed put at Cape May Harbor through 2 Apr (SWi). Wading birds continued to filter in. At least 32 Great Egrets were roosting along Reed's Beach Road during the evening of 1 Apr (TR), and 21 migrated past CMP 3 Apr (MiC). The year's first Yellow-crowned Night-Heron arrived at 44th Street, Avalon on 30 Mar (TR), while the first Little Blue Heron was flying over Cold Spring the same day (TB). 
 [Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Avalon, 30 Mar. Photo by Tom Reed.]

RAPTORS THROUGH OWLS       
       Conditions were again poor for raptor migration, though small numbers of Northern Harriers and Ospreys could be seen moving north on days with more favorable conditions. A group of 6 Northern Harriers occupied Nummy Island 30 Mar (TR). Foggy conditions were likely responsible for the Red Phalarope that flew past SHPt 30 Mar (TR). At least one Black-headed Gull continued to put in occasional appearances at Pierce's Point and High's Beach through 2 Apr (m. ob.). One or two Little Gulls entertained observers between High's Beach and Reed's Beach 30 Mar (WK, TR et al.). A single Eurasian Collared-Dove remained at CMP this week (m. ob.). The neighborhoods bordered by Coral, Harvard, Lehigh, and Lincoln Avenues are typically the best places to search for the dove. Snowy Owls returned to Cape Island this week, with individuals noted at CMPSP 30 Mar (BG) and at CMP 2 Apr (TR). At least one Snowy Owl continued at SHPt through 4 Apr (m. ob.), and additional big white owls were found at the Wetlands Institute 1 Apr (WK) and at 54th Street in Avalon 2 Apr (TR). Short-eared Owls continued to be in short supply-- singles were glimpsed at Reed's Beach 30 Mar (TR) and at Jake's Landing 1 Apr (CV). A Northern Saw-whet Owl was heard at CMP 31 Mar (GD). 
  
[Snowy Owl flying past the Cape May Lighthouse, 2 Apr. Photo by Tom Reed.]

SWALLOWS THROUGH SPARROWS
       Songbird migration was generally unimpressive during most of the period. A small influx of Eastern Phoebes, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Northern Flickers, and Dark-eyed Juncos was noticeable at Cape Island and along the barrier islands 2–3 Apr (e.g., 7 Flickers, 5 Phoebes, and 20+ Juncos at SHPt 2 Apr). Cape May County's 4th Black-capped Chickadee was last observed at CMP 3 Apr (m. ob.). It is frequently seen along the south end of Yale and Lincoln Avenues. A morning vigil at Coral Avenue, CMP on 2 Apr produced 17 migrating Pine Warblers (TR). The adult "Gambel's" White-crowned Sparrow continued along the west end of Sunset Boulevard through 1 Apr (MeC, MiC). It is often seen in the vicinity of the Sunset Beach gift shop. There were no reports of the Painted Bunting or Eurasian Tree Sparrow at CMP this week. 
 [Pine Warbler at CMP, 2 Apr. Photo by Tom Reed.]


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Contributors: 
Tom Baxter (TB), Megan Crewe (MeC), Mike Crewe (MiC), Glen Davis (GD), Sam Galick (SG), Brett Gibbs (BG), Chris Hajduk (CH), Will Kerling (WK), Tom Reed (TR), Christopher Vogel (CV), Scott Whittle (SWh), Sam Wilson (SWi). 

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References:

eBird. 2012. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Accessed 4 Apr 2014. Available: http://www.ebird.org
Fogg, B. 2013. Keekeekerr: Recent Text Alerts. Accessed 4 Apr 2014. Available: http://www.keekeekerr.com

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Thinning out the mantids revisited

The wonderful cadre of naturalists that we are blessed with around Cape May means that there is often good opportunity to exchange ideas and to chat to people who know a whole bunch of things about topics that may not be our own strong points. Occasionally, a fortuitous coming-together of coincidental events results in all of us learning more. Such a turn of events happened recently and has resulted in me making major changes to an article I posted to our blog last year, entitled Thinning out the mantids.

It was really starting to bug me (pun intended!) that I was finding good quantities of the eggcases of the Carolina Mantis, but I was not finding the adult insects. I gradually convinced myself that this was simply because the behavior of this species was different to that of the introduced Chinese Mantis. The latter spends most of its time stalking prey around flowering plants. The former, I reasoned, must spend its time stalking insects in leafy, shrub enviornments and this would account for its usually browner and more speckled appearance, designed to blend in better with woody branches rather than with green leaves.

Things came to a head when Pat Sutton recently (and very kindly) encouraged people to read my blog post about mantises and to consider the message that it contained - that we should be removing the non-native, destructive species from our landscapes. Prior to this, CMBO associate naturalist, Kathy Horn, had mentioned to me that she had photographed a mantis last summer, in the process of laying one of those long, thin eggcases - clearly the native species that I had not been able to find I thought. When Kathy sent me the photos however, a cold shiver ran down my spine; here, very clearly, was a large Tenodera species - an Asian mantis, and it was indeed laying one of those elongated eggcases. A scramble through as many references as possible revealed the horrible truth - we have a third, invasive mantis species in Cape May County.

So, I write this note here because, firstly, I am always keen to admit to my mistakes and have the record set straight and, secondly, I want anyone who may have saved, printed or otherwise downloaded my original mantis post to delete it and go back to the post again as I have corrected the error (you can use the link in the first paragraph above to go straight to it).

Do we have a mantis problem? Yes we do! As an example, here's a batch of 254 Tenodera eggcases, removed from a field in Erma by my wife and me recently - perhaps a quarter of what was actually there. Bear in mind that 50-100 mantis nymphs might emerge from any one of these - you do the maths!! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Please, please, please, do not release non-native, potentially highly invasive insects into your garden. If you garden in an environmentally friendly way, nature's own native predators will arrive and deal with any outbreaks of pests you might have, provided you garden thoughtfully. If you plant a monoculture, you will get a pest problem that you might need to deal with. Plant a balanced garden with a good mixture of plants, and very little is likely to become dominant and overwhelming - at the very worst you will get a few holes in some of your leaves. Do bear in mind that these introduced mantises prey mostly on essential plant pollinators - they are in your garden eating bees, butterflies, beetles and other beneficial insects. They do not know the difference between what you might consider a pest and an insect that is beneficial to your garden. How would they?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spotlight on… Broad-headed Sharpshooter

North America has a tremendous number and variety of leafhoppers; more than 2500 of them hop (and munch) their way across the continent’s plants. One of the most widespread in our area – and one of the first to make an appearance in the spring – is the Broad-headed Sharpshooter. For a leafhopper, this one’s a monster, measuring nearly a half-inch in length. It’s so big that when it was first described, back in the late 1700s, the entomologist who named it thought it was a cicada!

The sharpshooters (more than a dozen of them in total, found mostly in the American west) get their name from the way they expel their watery waste: with such force that it makes an audible pop and spurts some distance.

Broad-headed Leafhopper, photographed by Will Kerling

Female sharpshooters sometimes show large white oval patches on their forewings. These marks are piles of brochosomes – large protein molecules made by their excretory systems. When they’ve laid their eggs (in a slit made in a plant stem, or some other plant tissue), the females use their back legs to scrape some of the brochosomes off their wings and onto the egg slit. The waxy white powder helps to keep the eggs from drying out, and may help to protect them parasites.

Like all leafhoppers, Broad-headed Sharpshooters suck sap from the plants they feed on. They eat herbaceous plants in fields and meadows during the spring and summer, then move to more sheltered areas in fall, changing their diet to include trees and shrubs. Their plant-sucking habits can cause problems, as they are the primary vectors of the bacteria species that causes phony peach disease, which severely stunts and impairs fruit production in peach trees.

Although they’re most common in our region in June and July, some adult Broad-headed Sharpshooters emerge early in the year and can be seen on some of the first warm days of spring. Keep your eyes open while you’re out and about, and see if you can find one!