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!!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bringing people and birds together

If there is one thing that Cape May really does well, it's bringing people and birds together. The excitement of a rarity, the anticipation of what the next cold front will bring, or just the sheer pleasure of the exuberance of fall migration. As we enter the final run up to the 68th Annual Cape May Birding Festival, the stage looks set for a wonderful week of birding; this morning's walk at Higbee Beach provided us with great views of the species that might be considered 'classics' of mid-October - Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers busied through the trees, Swamp and White-throated Sparrows danced through the grassy fields and all the while, Blue Jays flew overhead. Nothing unusual there you might say. And that's the point of this post. For sometimes, fall migration knocks you out using nothing more than the spectacle itself.

Bird populations in temperate regions of the world are at their greatest at the end of the breeding season. A stressful migration, difficult winter, and troublesome return journey, have not yet taken their toll on the year's youngsters. Huge numbers pour south - individual birds may be tiny, but their volume allows us to see them on radar as they head southward. Weather trends start to come into play - a scattered shower here, strong winds there; and even geographical features have an effect - a large coastal bay cuts off rising warm air, offering less than perfect conditions for continuing a journey.

The picture is beginning to emerge; Cape May has a fabulous - and fortunate - combination of favorable winds (from the birdwatchers' perspective at least) and geography that mean that birds will and do come our way. Though rarities are certainly a regular feature of a Cape May fall, the excitement of folks in town today was created by nothing more than the pure spectacle of a Cape May Friday, heading into a Cape May weekend - there's no need to wait for the weather forecast, there WILL be birds at Cape May in October!!

Think October, think spectacle! Southbound migrants are pouring through Cape May once the cooler days of October really inspire them to head out. While we might intuitively head for the point in September, from October onward it can be more productive spending time at Avalon, where the Seawatch will be producing almost daily spectacles - such as these Black and Surf Scoters heading southward [photo by Mike Crewe].

Double-crested Cormorants always seem to struggle to hold a formation as they head south to the gulf. Large numbers pass through Cape May during October, offering plenty of opportunity to scan for the season's first Great Cormorant among their number [photo by Mike Crewe].

As October draws on, Broad-winged Hawks reach their peak of migration through Cape May. We are too far north to hit the gob-smacking numbers that are counted on migration through Mexico, but these birds still present a fine sight as they circle over the Cape May lighthouse and ponder the Delaware Bay [photo by Mike Crewe].

For many of us, migration is about numbers, not just the rarities. The chance to witness the usual doing the unusual is always an exciting prospect and Blue Jays have certainly been providing a spectacle this month. This tiny part of a much larger flock shows what has been happening over the past week, with single flock counts of over 200 birds being commonplace right now [photo by Mike Crewe]
Higbee Dike can be frustrating at times, as distant specks flash by and remain unidentified. But windy weather in October can drop the birds much lower, offering much better views of birds such these Cedar Waxwings [photo by Mike Crewe].

Sparrows feature heavily during October migration and the month offers a great opportunity to study these interesting birds. For me, autumn is complete once I get an up close and personal moment with a perky Swamp Sparrow - tail cocked and surveying the landscape [photo by Mike Crewe].
Migration often results in birds having to ride out a day outside of their usual habitat, giving brief but exciting opportunities to get to study species that can otherwise be very hard to see. Most years, one or two Sedge Wrens are found in grassy hedge bottoms around Cape May - this one spent a day in the corner of a field at Higbee Beach recently, but still managed to remain hidden for much of the time. Just how many of these do we miss? [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Big Sit, Big Success!

The annual Big Sit event took place on Sunday, October 12.  Each year, teams across the country and around the globe participate in this 24 hour birding extravaganza.  The goal is to see and hear as many different species of birds as possible, and all the birds must be counted from within a 17-foot diameter circle.

Cape May's Big Sit takes place on the Hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point State Park.  It is a great location because a variety of nearby habitats provide a great diversity of birds.  The team had a goal to beat the North American Big Sit record of 146 species. This record was established in 2009 at Cape May.

A few very dedicated and valuable birders showed up at the Hawkwatch platform right at midnight to begin the count.  They were able to start the list off strong by listening to nocturnal flight calls.  They even heard a Barn Owl!  As the sun came up, more birders arrived and more species were counted.   All were thankful that the weather cooperated, especially after having so much rain the day before. There was definitely a possibility of breaking the record!

Big Sit birders scan the sky in all directions as they continue to add species to their list. 
[Photo by Mary Raikes.]
Around 5:00 pm, it happened.  David La Puma spotted a Baltimore Oriole (species  number 147), and the record was broken!  The Big Sit 2014 was officially an incredible success.  But the count did not end there.  Three more species were observed, setting the new record at 150!!  (A new goal to try to beat next year :))

Special thanks to Skye and the crew at the Avalon Seawatch for giving the Big Sit birders a heads up on some birds that were headed their way.  Also thanks to team captain Tom Reed for getting Cape May involved in the event.  Congratulations to everyone who participated!

Big Sit species list:
Waterfowl: Brant, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Wood Duck, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Ruddy Duck
Quails to Grebes: Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Red-necked Grebe
Petrels to Pelicans: Northern Gannet, Double-crested Cormorant, Brown Pelican
Herons to Ibises: American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron
New World Vultures to Eagles: Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Golden Eagle
Rails to Cranes: Common Gallinule, American Coot
Shorebirds: Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, American Oystercatcher, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Wilson's Snipe, American Woodcock
Gulls to Auks: Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Caspian Tern, Common Tern, Forster's Tern, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer, Parasitic Jaeger
Pigeons to Nightjars: Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Common Nighthawk
Swifts to Falcons: Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon
Tyrant Flycatchers to Vireos: Eastern Phoebe, Red-eyed Vireo
Crows to Wrens: Blue Jay, American Crow, Fish Crow, Tree Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Barn Swallow, Carolina Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, House Wren, Carolina Wren
Gnatcatchers to Snow Bunting: Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Bicknell's Thrush, Swainson's Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, American Pipit, Cedar Waxwing
Wood-warblers: Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler
New World Sparrows to Dickcissel: Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting
Blackbirds to House Sparrow: Bobolink, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Rusty Blackbird, Common Grackle, Boat-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Baltimore Oriole, Purple Finch, House Finch, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

Vermilion Flycatcher makes it a triple platinum season

When the Whiskered Tern showed up at Cape May Point on September 12th, we were ecstatic; a fabulous bird to see and enjoy - and clearly a bird that was going to be the star prize for the autumn. Only the third record ever for North America, it was high on the wanted list for us newcomers, as the species had been seen in Cape May before.

Roll forward to September 27th and there was suddenly competition for 'bird of the year'; a Zone-tailed Hawk passed through our air space. Better than the Whiskered Tern from a local perspective, as it was a first record for New Jersey - but not as good as the tern in that it breezed right on through and didn't pay proper dues to all who would have loved to have been there.

Could this amazing run of staggeringly good birds continue and see Cape May go 'triple platinum'? After the temptation of a Common Raven (a common bird, but rare in Cape May, this being the first here for quite a number of years), there was a brief respite, but patience paid off. Richard Crossley did the birding community an enormous favor this morning by having far too much on his mind and turning left instead of right on his morning coffee run. This took him up past the Rea Farm fields on the intersection of Stevens Street and Bayshore Road. Fate is a funny old thing sometimes and Richard's tiny slip resulted in him finding a Vermilion Flycatcher, perched all perky atop a nearby shrub. As I write, the bird is still performing for a steady trickle of admirers as it feeds around the area just north-east of the Rea Family farm stand and to the east of the main pond there.

A male Vermilion Flycatcher was found at the Wetlands Institute at Stone Harbor in May 2003, so those of us that missed that bird have had a long wait to plug a gap in our lists. But the wait was well worth it. This constitutes only the second record for New Jersey, though there has been a handful of records of this species throughout the north-eastern US over the years. The species is widespread and common from Mexico south well down into south-central Argentina and extends northward across the border into the southern and south-westernmost corner of the US. Despite being common in its natural range, this is such a stunning bird that it is always a phenomenal species to see. Let's hope it decides to stay for a few days - we'll keep you posted via our Twitter feed.

Though rare birds are not the first priority when it comes to conservation, wandering migrants during the fall are prone to the same weather displacements as other birds. As large numbers of tired and hungry migrants descend on Cape May - through a chance combination of weather and geographic influences - we should all be grateful of sites such as the Rea Farm, that remain as islands of prime habitat amid a slowly creeping sea of development. Hopefully we can continue to support legislation and funding that allows for such places to be preserved. Migrants not only need safe breeding and wintering grounds, they need safe migration stop-overs too.

Male Vermilion Flycatcher at the Rea Farm today. The white throat and largely gray crown show this to be a hatch-year bird who is certainly a long way from home [photo by Mike Crewe].

Friday, October 10, 2014

Into October...

Though September is awesome for birds at Cape May, October can be truly spectacular. September is most often the month that provides the widest range of species for those chasing bird diversity. But October is the month that provides the migration spectacles - species diversity tails off, but sheer migratory exuberance kicks in as huge numbers of birds from the boreal forests start to head south with the first cold fronts. The past two days at Cape May Point have been wonderful for those lucky enough to be here - though it's always annoying when such things happen on a week day!
The first really impressive run of birds accompanied by a north-west front has provided an October treat in fine style. The season's first Golden Eagle put in a fly by at the Hawkwatch, the Morning Flight provided watchers with a fabulous fall out of Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, and the Seawatch started to crank up its daily dose of ducks, cormorants and more (including some great jaeger counts!). Check out our Seasonal Research blog to get regular updates on how the various counts are going (for example, 1004 Sharp-shinned Hawks yesterday) - it really is the best way to keep up to date on bird movements through Cape May.
If you are heading this way this weekend, the weather looks a bit touch and go for Saturday, but rainy weather at this time of year can not only hold down birds that have already arrived, but can produce some good views of birds in the wetland areas too - how about getting out on a boat trip? Sunday promises good things again, so we are keeping fingers crossed as it is the day that we shall be taking part in The Big Sit - a nationwide, 24-hour competition to see how many species can be recorded from a single location. As ever, Cape May birders will be taking part at the Hawkwatch Platform, courtesy of Cape May Point State Park, so do stop by, see how the count is going - and maybe even add a species to the count.
The now expected trickle of Eurasian Wigeon through Cape May Point has began with the bird on the left here being one of three males currently gracing Bunker Pond in front of the Hawkwatch Platform [photo by Mike Crewe].

Perhaps a little earlier than expected, this Rufous Hummingbird turned up at Bill & Edie Schuhl's garden on Coral Avenue today. Though a western species, small numbers of Rufous Hummers are now expected in the East, with some attempting to overwinter most years [photo by Mike Crewe].

Surprises come thick and fast at Cape May and the past two days have seen a lot of birds feeding in trees around the Northwood Center and the north end of Lake Lily. In addition to three species of vireo from my office window today (I know, bragging again!) this adult Peregrine dropped in and perched in one of the Siberian Elms at the store during a wet spell. It just goes to show, you never know what you are going to see when you get up in the morning... [photo by Mike Crewe]

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ravenous for a Raven?

 Common Raven flying over the lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park. [Photo by
Tom Johnson.

October 1, 2014 brought Cape May its first Common Raven of the 21st century!  It was first spotted from the Hawkwatch platform around noon by the hawk counter, Tom Reed.  The raven circled around the state park for about 20 minutes, and made a second appearance later in the afternoon.

The most recent previous sighting of a Common Raven in Cape May was during the summer of 1997. Since then, incredible birds like Yellow-nosed Albatross, Ivory Gull, White-tailed Tropicbird, Black Swift, and two Whiskered Terns have made appearances in Cape May before another raven did.

Coincidentally, Common Raven was the featured bird on the Sibley calender for October 1.
[(c) copyright David Sibley.]

Historically, ravens were not uncommon in New Jersey, but numbers declined dramatically as humans settled the land.  By the early 1900s they were considered very rare. However, ravens are intelligent birds and are adapting to living with humans.  They have a diverse diet and can live in many different types of habitats.  They are now increasing and expanding their range back in to New Jersey.

Common Raven. [Photo by Tom Johnson.]
Ravens are larger than American Crows and often soar like hawks. They have a wedge-shaped tail, a large beak, and long, narrow wings.  Our Cape May raven is a juvenile, which can be determined by the uniform appearance of its feathers and the jagged look to the trailing edges of the wings.  Several people reported hearing the raven's unique call.

Common Raven is another bird to add to the list of rare sightings this season.  I can't wait to see what will be next!