Friday, August 28, 2015

Kingbirds, Orioles, and Redstarts, Oh My!

It’s still amazing to me what a couple days of Northwest winds can do for birding in Cape May. Those of us who dragged ourselves out of bed and hiked up the Higbee dike before dawn were rewarded with the first big push of migrant songbirds. Birds are everywhere. Even now as I sit here at the Northwood Center writing this post, I can glance out the window and see a handful of warblers, vireos, and flycatchers working their way through the treetops. But like all migrations, there is a seasonality to our diversity and a few species have invaded us with impressive force.

A Chimney Swift heads north past the Higbee dike. One of many migrants that made their way to Cape May this week in what was our first big push of songbird migration. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]
Another songbird in flight past the Higbee dike, this Prothonotary Warbler was a special treat Sunday morning, signifying the beginning of a large influx of migrants. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

It seems pretty much anywhere you look, whether it is the elevated view from atop the dike or walking the fields around Higbee, Eastern Kingbirds are abundant. Their chasing and diving after one another is nicely contrasted with a tendency to pose in the tops of trees. It’s quite the spectacle to behold when they all lift up at once, swirling and swarming in groups of a hundred or more. Our Morning Flight count for Eastern Kingbirds hit a high of 664 individuals on Thursday. With that many birds around, their presence is always apparent.

Another common sight this week, much to the pleasure of our photographer friends, are Baltimore Orioles. These vibrant, freshly molted migrants can be seen throughout Cape May right now and their sweet, whistled calls have been the soundtrack of Higbee mornings. There is nothing quite like watching a male Oriole flying past the dike at eye-level, with the rich blue water of the Delaware Bay as a backdrop, to remind yourself why you love birding so much.

An Eastern Kingbird taking a moment to rest and take in its surroundings before it undoubtedly puts on an aerial display with a couple hundred others. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

This Baltimore Oriole, one of many seen around Higbee WMA, was one of the migrants moving through Cape May this week. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

My personal favorite about town right now has to be our American Redstarts. Their striking plumage, seemingly incessant movement, and frequent tail fanning gives them a tenacity that you can’t help but love. Couple that with a foraging technique that looks like they suddenly took a tumble out of the tree and you have a warbler that never fails to entertain! With nearly 600 counted during Thursday’s Morning Flight, you would be hard pressed to go birding around Cape May and not see a few.

American Redstarts, like this one flying past the Higbee dike, are a common sight around Cape May this week. One of the easier warblers to pick out during Morning Flight thanks to their unique tail pattern and strong zig-zagging flight line. [Photo by Sam Galick.]

A couple other species worth noting (that didn’t fit into my catchy title) include Red-eyed Vireos and Black-and-white Warblers. For a relatively small bird, Red-eyed Vireos make a significant amount of commotion as they jump, hover, and sometimes crash through the trees looking for insects and berries. Our eyes can’t help but be drawn to all that movement, so I have found myself studying a disproportionate number Red-eyed Vireos this week. The trees are also crawling with Black-and-white Warblers, literally. This bird was once described to me as a “Zebra creeper” and I think it’s one of the better nicknames I have heard. It’s fascinating to watch them work their way along a branch or trunk as they check every nook and cranny for morsels of food. They are remarkably efficient and I doubt much gets left behind.

Black-and-white Warblers have a curious manner about them. This one outside the Northwood Center made sure he checked out everything, including our Geocache, though I doubt he stopped long enough to sign the log! [Photo by Mike Crewe.]

As August draws to a close, the weather has cooled and the birds are bountiful. Yes, Northwest winds do wonderful things for us in Cape May. Make sure your camera batteries are charged, your binoculars are clean, and keep an eye on the winds. Early mornings are much more enjoyable when you spend them outside, so get up and go birding! Fall is here and it’s downright delightful!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Real-time Data from the Cape May Bird Observatory

New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) was born on the premise that someone needed to be monitoring the massive spectacle of migration happening in and around Cape May each year. More precisely, it was the hawk movement as witnessed by those who were banding hawks here at the time that inspired the initiative to establish a bird observatory on the southern tip of New Jersey. Bill Clark was the bander, and New Jersey Audubon was the organization that would provide the nonprofit status to make it happen. That year was 1976, and the first official counter of the Cape May Hawkwatch was my predecessor, Pete Dunne. 

Pete Dunne atop the "platform" in 1976. Rosalind Holt stands by as one of the first official visitors.

It’s safe to say that migration monitoring is hardcoded into the DNA of this organization. 

Since then, the Monarch Monitoring Project (26 years old), the Avalon Seawatch (23 years old) and the Morning Flight Songbird Count (13 years old) have all been established to do the same thing: keep our finger on the pulse of migration through Cape May so that the long-term record may support necessary conservation efforts, and provide compelling information to engage the public, for true conservation is impossible without public support. All of this, of course, fits squarely within the mission of New Jersey Audubon: Connecting people to nature and stewarding the nature of today for the people of tomorrow.

One year ago the VP of Research for New Jersey Audubon, David Mizrahi, and myself, set out to bring these datasets into the modern era of “big data”. That meant rethinking the way we store and interact with the migration information to come up with a solution that would allow for wide collaboration with research partners, and the ability for public exploration and interaction with the data. It’s really quite simple in theory: create a cross-platform database system that is standardized across projects and provide an interface for both data entry as well as public interaction. Since we began this effort we have developed a database schema and, with the help of some wonderful volunteers, have begun normalizing the data to bring it into the database. We plan to have some of this historic data available to the public via our website this fall, although full implementation will take another year. 

This brings me to our big announcement: Last fall I was visited by a young entrepreneur and birder, Russell Conard. Russell founded a company called Ornicept, which makes a product called Specteo designed specifically to collect observational data in the field. To make a long story short, last spring we tested Specteo for collecting large amounts of waterbird data, and our experience proved to us that it was both stable and efficient at collecting the data we need, reduced the chance of data errors associated with transferring from paper to digital, and has the capability of transmitting this data in real-time time to servers in the cloud. As part of the Specteo Ambassador program, Specteo engineers have constructed several web portals for CMBO to display the data we are collecting this year. On these sites you will be able to view count data as it comes in, as well as explore data from the 2015 field season. During the season I will continue to reach out to you and let you know about the historical data on our website. In the meantime, enjoy the first ever live-streaming of migration data from our Morning Flight Songbird Count (live NOW!), Cape May Hawkwatch (begins Sept. 1) and Avalon Seawatch (begins Sept. 22). Thanks to Carol, Russell and K.C. at Specteo for helping us bring our data to the forefront of modern technology. 

Example of the daily and seasonal data on species composition produced by Specteo. 2015 Morning Flight Songbird Count.

If you are interested in supporting CMBO’s continuing efforts to collect, analyze, and disseminate these data, please consider both becoming a member of CMBO, and making a tax-deductible donation. You may do both on our new website, and following the Member or Donate items in the top menu.

Thank you in advance for your support!

More Links:

Background information on all four of our Migration Monitoring Projects

Sunday, August 16, 2015

All Change

Though the beach-going tourists flocking to Cape May right now might think that it's high summer, the birdwatching calendar has most decidedly turned the corner into fall, and mid-August marks two classic fall events for Cape May birders - the Maurice River Purple Martin spectacle and the start of CMBO's Morning Flight count at Higbee Dike. Ashamed as I am to admit it, I had not previously witnessed the post-breeding gathering of Purple Martins on the Maurice River before this weekend, so volunteering with my wife to help on the river cruise, organized by Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River aboard the Bodacious seemed the ideal thing to do.

Purple Martins are nothing if not sociable, and gathering in large flocks is typical behavior for them outside of the breeding season. As with many species of birds that employ communal roosting behavior, Purple Martin roosts tend to occur at traditional locations and large numbers can build up over a period of years. Provided the sites are left unaltered and are considered safe by the birds, such traditional roosts may be used for very many years and older sites can attract very high numbers of birds. The roost on the Maurice River has, in recent years, moved around a little, but has generally been centered on dense stands of Common Reed a little north of the Rt 670 bridge at Mauricetown. Though the roost is visible most years (though sometimes distant) from the bridge itself, little can compare with the experience of being out on a boat on the river while tens of thousands of birds swirl around, chortling overhead. The roost is generally in evidence at this location throughout most of August, so if you have not yet made the pilgrimage, then I suggest you contact Citizens United and see if you can get yourself on a boat trip. Be warned though, these trips are very popular and there may well already be a waiting list.

Purple Martins swarm above the heads of their admirers on the Maurice River last night [photos by Mike Crewe].

As if the dynamism and excitement of rushing hordes of pre-roost Purple Martins was not enough of a buzz, the trip up river also allows for some excellent Bald Eagle watching - we saw at least six different birds - as well as the ubiquitous Ospreys and assorted migratory waterbirds. Swirling against a pink-stained sky as the sun sets low to the west, the Purple Martins produce a wonderful sight, but the gatherings mark the end of another breeding season for them and the roost will gradually fall in number as parties of birds head south to winter mostly in Brazil, where they will remain highly gregarious throughout the northern winter. Much has been learned about Purple Martin through the efforts of a variety of scientific research programs and the collective data of the Purple Martin Conservation Association and its affiliates, but we still don't know all that much about the make-up of these post-breeding roosts; how long does an individual bird remain in the roost before heading south? Are individual birds site-faithful to a single roost or do they move around from night to night - or year to year? There's still so much to learn about these intriguing birds.

And so to the second of our mid-August landmarks - the Morning Flight count. This year's count kicked off a little quietly, it is fair to say, and I am sure many birders looked at the weather forecast the night before and thought "You know what? I think I'm going to have a lie in". For migration is nothing if not weather dependent and this morning's weather was clearly not going to be dropping scores of drift migrants onto Cape May. However, scientific data needs to follow strict protocols, and the start date is predetermined by previous year's protocols. So it was that a small but faithful band - including Glen Davis, the 2015 Morning Flight official counter, and Tom Reed, swing counter and count co-ordinator, among others, climbed the slippery slope onto the dike and at precisely 5:59AM, we all looked aloft and counted... well, not much at first. But this is science, and if there's nothing to count, that needs to be recorded too. Eventually, something of a trickle came our way and the 2015 count was well and truly started. But things were not the same this year; for a brief period (until it broke!) a chair made an unprecedented appearance on the dike, but far more importantly, a tablet, containing a spanking new computer program made its inaugural appearance. Yes, 2015 sees the introduction of a new way of logging and storing data for the CMBO seasonal counts which will mean a lot less time spent inputting data from paper sheets in the future. Even more importantly for onlookers, however, is the fact that you can now go online and see how the counts are coming along - almost in real time! This facility will be available right through the season for Morning Flight, the Hawkwatch and the Avalon Seawatch, so do check out the site once we go live (very soon!) - it's the next best thing to being here!

As well as being generously sponsored for another year by Swarovski Optik, this year the CMBO counts are assisted by product and computer programming from Specteo, a company that offers computer logistics in the field for collecting, storing and reviewing scientific data.

Small but select describes this morning's Morning Flight watchers. Higbee Dike is a remarkable place to be during fall, offering opportunities to watch not only the intriguing phenomenon of the morning flight itself, but also the comings and goings of a wide range of both land and waterbirds [photo by Mike Crewe].

Two screen shots of the new data presentation now available of the CMBO counts through Specteo. Data is updated every two minutes, so presentations are almost in real time - check back regularly to see how the season develops for our three seasonal counts. Morning Flight started today, the Hawkwatch starts September 1st and the Avalon Seawatch starts September 22nd.

Though day one of the 2015 Morning Flight was relatively quiet, there were some stalwarts to keep us interested. Indigo Buntings are present throughout much of the count period and seem to have a very protracted migration. At the start of the season, blue males can still be seen, but these will later be replaced by drab brown juveniles [photo by Mike Crewe].

You might be surprised to learn that even common 'resident' species such as Northern Mockingbird pass through and head south in the fall. But even these species take part in seasonal movements to a greater or lesser degree and many early birds on the move will be juveniles that are not so much migrating as dispersing away from natal areas. Note the dark flecking on the body of this bird which marks it out as a juvenile - a party of seven passed the dike at one point this morning [photo by Mike Crewe].

This is Cape May, so don't forget there's plenty of options for birding in other areas beside Higbee Dike. This adult Sandwich Tern and its fledged youngster were at Cape May Point State Park briefly this morning before beach traffic pushed them off. Hopefully they may stay in the area for a few days. At this time of year 'pairs' of terns on the beaches typically consist of an adult and a youngster rather than two adults [photo by Mike Crewe].

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Preparing for Fall (and expecting the unexpected again)

After a relatively wet first half to the year, these past few weeks have been stiflingly hot and dry, which is really not good for the environment. Cape May has a water shortage approaching crisis level, and yet local townships allow those that so choose to throw water on their manicured lawns as though it were an infinite commodity. Thankfully, some of us are gardening for wildlife and thinking about future generations and, though our own property is looking a little sorry for itself we have not, yet, once had the hose pipe out this year.

The shortage of rain is showing itself in our local wetlands too, with the ponds at the The Meadows, for example, reduced to a narrow channel running through the middle of the site. But this is not all bad, as there is good feeding habitat here for migrant shorebirds - and the shorebird show is certainly now under way. Least, Pectoral, Stilt, White-rumped, Spotted and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and more are all enjoying a good feed before continuing their southward journeys. At the moment, we are at prime time for returning adults, but the first few juveniles - in their spangly, pristine plumages - are now arriving too, and this is a great time to be in Cape May and checking out those 'confusing little brown jobs'...

While there is plenty of good birding to be had right now - terns on the beaches were perfect for our terns workshop yesterday and shorebirds are lining up for our suite of shorebird workshops coming up (check out our online calendar for details of these and other workshops) - it will continue to get better and better as the season progresses. Recently, a small band of us got together and did the annual tidy-up at Higbee Beach, in preparation for the start of our fall research season. August 16th will see Glen Davis climb the dike around dawn and check off the first flight call of a northbound migrant that will mark the official start to the season. Of course, migrant songbirds are already coming through even now and Yellow Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstarts, Indigo Buntings and both Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes have been noticeable lately.

That's the preparation dealt with, so what of the unexpected in the title? As ever, nature is producing its surprises for us and intrigue this season has started with a phenomenal and probably unprecedented northward movement of White Ibises. While small numbers of White Ibis are almost to be expected at the end of the breeding season, as birds spread out from southerly breeding grounds, numbers in recent years have been showing a steady increase. Single-figure counts are now expected, and even gatherings of up to 100 birds have been known to occur at least as far north as Delaware. But the estimate of 1,700 White Ibises reported from Chincoteague, Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula caught everyone by surprise! While numbers in Cape May have so far been very modest in comparison, it's worth keeping an eye out for these birds at wetlands along our coast.

The stage is set, the ground is prepared, our seasonal staff will be here to greet you. Come on down to Cape May, the good times are already starting!

Perfectly-timed for our tern workshop, this juvenile Gull-billed Tern put on a great display for us as it snapped up dragonflies over the plover ponds. Gull-bills as young as this are not a regular sight in Cape May, so it was nice to get to grips with this distinctive bird, with its dove-gray wings, brown-speckled upperparts and distinct orangey tint to legs and bill [photo by Mike Crewe].

It's worth being out and about at wetlands during August to witness returning adult shorebirds. Such birds are generally darker and show more patchy plumage than the dapper juveniles that will come later. On the Lesser Yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpiper above, note the mix of black-centered, Alternate (breeding) plumage scapular and mantle feathers, and the pale gray, white-edged feathers of the incoming basic (non-breeding) plumage [photo by Mike Crewe].

Keep an eye out for the unexpected over the coming weeks - these three juvenile White Ibises were on Bunker Pond for a short time on August 5th, but at least 1,700 are 'absent without leave' from Chincoteague and they have to be somewhere! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

A White Ibis ponders the lack of white in its plumage... [photo by Mike Crewe].

Expecting the unexpected doesn't always throw up pleasant surprises. Though Black Swans are unarguably graceful birds, the place for them is in Australia, not on Bunker Pond, adding to the eutrophication of the water already being caused by record-high (and still growing) numbers of non-native Mute Swans and introduced Canada Geese there. Our migratory birds desperately need good, well-managed habitat to rest and feed up in before continuing on their arduous journeys - providing such habitat at critical stop-over sites like Cape May seems to be the very least we can do for them [photo by Mike Crewe].

Getting prepared - our brave die-hards risk life and limb tackling invasive aliens to ensure that Higbee Beach is ready and waiting for the birds that will surely be arriving soon. Preparing the ground will ensure we can continue with long-term migration studies using thorough protocols that will provide us with the right answers when questions about the environment need to be asked [Photo by Mike Crewe].

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Expect the Unexpected

High summer can feel like a 'dead' time for birdwatchers; spring migration is over and serious fall movements seem like an eternity away. But it's not a signal to lay down binoculars and cameras, it's a chance to look at what else is out there - and to expect the unexpected. Summer is an interesting time in the natural world and broadening your horizons and studying other natural groups can certainly be a great way to occupy yourself. Over the past couple of weeks, I have had a couple of opportunities to get involved in some non-birding events, in association with other natural history groups in the area. As a birder, I might have decided to spend the time around the house, sorting out domestic chores and dealing with a whole bunch of other affairs that might keep me indoors. Instead, as an all-round naturalist, I was out in the field at a time when little was being reported, and discovered that there is so much that we can all add to our knowledge of the natural world. By being outside, and by keeping careful and accurate records of what we see, we can all contribute to the bigger picture and fill in the gaps in our collective knowledge.

When it comes to protecting rare or threatened species, we have a good system in place for ensuring that these species are looked after through a structured legal system. But knowing which species we should label as rare or threatened depends wholly on field work, and that is where local naturalists can help. If we rely simply on state officials to do the legwork, it would take an awful lot longer to get an accurate idea of the distribution and population estimates of species. Getting out in the field and expecting the unexpected is not only important, it's great fun. But then we all need to follow up with our finds and get them reported so that we can ensure that we can continue to enjoy the natural world around us. In South Jersey, we have some very active botanical, entomological and ornithological groups, all of which can be reached online and all of which would love to hear about your interesting finds. If you think you have something interesting, takes notes, take photos (always important if you can manage it!) and send in the information. If you don't know who to contact, you can always contact us at Cape May Bird Observatory, we'd love to hear from you.

As for my own 'unexpecteds' of late, here's a few photos of some Cape May finds to get you fired up to go out and see what you can find. I might also add to this the wonderful Great Spangled Fritillary that twice flew around me for prolonged views at Hidden Valley last Sunday but never once settled for a photograph... Most days, you won't find anything startling but, the day that you go out and don't see something of interest, is the day to think about hanging up your optics - and that would be a sad day indeed!

The unexpected may not always be a rare species, but rather a rare opportunity. Recently I was driving along a dirt road when a Seaside Sparrow decided to land right on the road and hang out for a while. This is a very common saltmarsh species, but typically these birds will keep themselves well-hidden. Always having the camera to hand is the best way to make the best of these rare opportunities. [Photo by Mike Crewe] 

Recently my wife and I were on the trail of Dwarf Azalea, a species that is listed as State Endangered in New Jersey and which has a world distribution that extends only along the coastal plain from New Jersey to Georgia. Having found some at a known site, we then chanced across an extensive population of this species elsewhere in the county, adding to our knowledge of the range and distribution of this attractive plant. Although collected as early as 1743, this plant was overlooked and not formally described for science until 1913. As such, it does not appear in many of the earlier plant books and may well be overlooked. Careful recording and study will help us to better understand the range of this species and thus be better placed to ensure its survival. [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Another species listed as State Endangered is the Pine Barrens Treefrog. Although it can be locally quite common, this species is protected as its habitat is very vulnerable to being permanently damaged, so we need to be aware of its distribution so that we can best ensure that suitable habitat is protected in appropriate areas. The official page for this species on the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife website does not indicate this species as occurring in Cape May. Despite this, a number of diligent naturalists have noted this species here, and those of us on a joint botanical and entomological field trip were delighted when Jamie Cromartie (associate professor of environmental studies at Stockton College and now awesome frog catcher) spotted this little beastie just hanging out on a dirt track in Belleplain State Forest. Pine Barrens Treefrogs are clearly in our area! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

And, of course, it is not just me that gets a chance to enjoy the unexpected. We all know that Prothonotary Warbler is a top prize for those who wait patiently in mosquito-ridden maple swamps. So imagine the delight of Pat & Clay Sutton when they were treated to a pair of Prothonotaries nesting in a wren basket that swings from a hook on the front porch of their house! If you got this phone call and it wasn't Pat and Clay, you would definitely get the feeling that the observer had been hitting the bottle! But again, the power of a camera helps to establish your claim. [Photo by Mike Crewe] 

NJDEP's Natural Heritage Program ranks species rarity according to our knowledge of distribution and population density (among other things). All of this information is based upon sound, demonstrable observation in the field and ensures that the rarer species are monitored and protected. Currently, Mocha Emerald is listed as an S2 species (state imperiled) because of apparent rarity - S2 indicates 6 to 20 occurrences in the state in recent years. However, this is an elusive species; it is dull brown and habitually flies low in wet woodland, well away from the eyes of the average passer-by. Over the past four years, we have located this species at five different locations (the one above being photographed just a few days ago) in Cape May County - a county which officially has no records for this species. So having keen eyes out there can actually help us to locate species that may in fact be more common than we might think. [Photo by Mike Crewe]

I deliberately finished on a rare dragonfly since it leads me nicely into a little plug for our regular dragonfly workshop which takes place on Saturday, July 11th this year. We'll have a short tutorial on dragonfly ecology, then spend the rest of the day in the field, learning how to identify dragonflies and studying their behavior. Past workshops have given us a wide range of species, from tiny Citrine Forktails to brutal Dragonhunters. For more details, contact our program registrar on 609-861-0700. I look forward to spending time with you in the field - let's see if we can find the unexpected!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Celebrating Turtles!

In honor of last week being Sea Turtle Week, I thought I would write about our resident marine reptiles and their relatives. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “We don’t get Sea Turtles in Cape May.” True, they don’t nest here, but you can surely see them by boat once you get offshore. Also, I completely missed World Turtle Day, which was May 23rd, so here is my belated turtle-related post.

A Loggerhead Sea Turtle seen about 50 miles offshore during a recent pelagic birding trip. Though these turtles don't come onto our beaches to nest, a solid number can be spotted by boat. One even hung out in one of the salt marshes around Cape May last summer. [Photo by Jesse Amesbury.]

Most people know the basic life cycle of the world’s seven species of sea turtles and you may even be familiar with the biological mystery of where juvenile sea turtles went from the time they hatched to sub-adulthood known as “the lost years”. Now, thanks to research from the mid 1980’s, we know these little cuties hatch from our beaches and head out to the Sargasso Sea where they ride around on mats of sargassum algae, eating small fish and invertebrates they find within their floating microcosm.  Unfortunately, these sargassum mats attract pollution in addition to young animals. Pieces of plastic and Styrofoam, monofilament fishing line, and oil can all be readily found amongst the algae.

Plastic pollution is currently one of the greatest hazards to our oceans, especially plastic bags and Mylar balloons. All seven species of sea turtles regularly eat jellyfish, with one species in particular, the Leatherback Sea Turtle, who specializes predominately on jellyfish. To a turtle, a floating plastic bag or balloon looks a lot like a jelly. If they don’t choke, or the toxins within the material don’t kill them, then many turtles starve to death with a belly full of plastic. It’s not a pleasant death, and it’s not isolated to turtles. Countless species of dolphins, whales, sharks, tuna, and birds like Albatross are impacted by this plastic pollution. You may be surprised by how many balloons make it into our oceans. A couple weeks ago I was on a pelagic birding trip where we fished out half a dozen Mylar balloons nearly 80 miles offshore. Just last week, staff at the Holgate Wilderness Area of the Edwin B. Forsyth National Wildlife Refuge picked up over 100 balloons on their beaches! Whether you live on the coast or 1,000 miles inland, balloons find their way to our oceans and have catastrophic impacts on our marine wildlife. So please do not release balloons, they are one of the most destructive forms of pollution to wildlife.

Birders on a pelagic birding trip practicing what they preach and retrieving a Mylar balloon out of the ocean nearly 80 miles offshore. We pulled about 6 balloons out of the water that day, most of which had the message "Happy Mother's Day". [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.] 

Our resident, semi-aquatic turtles found closer to land have their own set of challenges. Diamondback Terrapins are unique in that they are the only turtle species in the western hemisphere that spends its entire life in the brackish water of back bays and estuaries. These beautiful, speckled-blue turtles used to be the main ingredient in Turtle soup but the popularity of the dish has waned, in large part due to Prohibition and the inaccessibility of a key ingredient, sherry. Nowadays, these turtles face threats caused by crab traps and roads.

Though they specialize on eating shelled animals like snails and mussels, Terrapins will indulge in a variety of foods, including dead fish and chicken livers (aka crab trap bait). Just like the crabs, the turtles enter the trap and cannot get out, but unlike crabs, all turtles have lungs and eventually they drown. In the mid 1990’s, biologists at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor developed special plastic squares called Terrapin Excluder Devices (TEDs) that are just the right size and shape to keep medium to large turtles from entering the traps. Since the implementation of TEDs the amount of terrapin by-catch in crab traps has been reduced dramatically and has even been shown to help keep crabs from escaping the traps, so it’s a win-win. In New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland it is required by law that all crab traps used in tidal creeks less than 150 feet wide must be fitted with TEDs. Unfortunately, this is not the case throughout the entirety of the Terrapin’s range, so crab trap mortality still poses a large threat in some parts of the country. In fact, one abandoned trap recovered in a tidal creek on Jekyll Island, Georgia contained 94 dead Diamondback Terrapins.
A Terrapin Excluder Device (TED) developed by the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, NJ. These required additions dramatically reduce the number of Diamondback Terrapins accidentally caught in crab traps. [Photo courtesy of the Wetlands Institute.]

94 dead Diamondback Terrapins, the contents of one abandoned crab trap found in a tidal marsh on Jekyll Island, Georgia. This was one of about a dozen abandoned traps in that same tidal creek. For a turtle that takes 5-7 years to reach sexual maturity, a loss of this many individuals at once can have catastrophic effects on their population. [Photo by Andrew Grosse.]

Like all turtles, Diamondback Terrapins must lay their eggs up above the high tide line, if their eggs get inundated, they’ll die. Unfortunately, the highest part of our salt marshes around here tends to be roads. Each year, despite signs warning motorist, hundreds of female terrapins are hit and killed on causeways around Cape May. The fact that road mortality is skewed to females is a doubly whammy to their population. When it comes to population ecology, scientists don’t really fret about how many males there are (sorry guys); they typically only take the female population into account since they are the ones who determine how many offspring can be produced each year.

A female Diamondback Terrapin getting ready to cross a busy road in order to find suitable nesting habitat. Much of the desirable habitat along salt marshes has been developed for businesses or houses, forcing these turtles to look for places to nest that are extremely dangerous. [Photo by Brian Crawford.]

Roads pose an equally large threat to our native terrestrial Box Turtles as they do to Terrapins. These turtles can frequently be seen crossing roads in the springtime or after heavy rains.  Box Turtles are small and well camouflaged so they can be hard to see along roadsides, especially at night. Sadly, a recent study out of Clemson University showed that a number of drivers would swerve to intentionally hit rubber dummy-turtles placed in the road. If you do find a turtle attempting to cross a road you can help them by placing them safely off to the side of the road they were heading (if you put them back in the direction they’re coming from they will just try to cross again) but always be conscious of the safety of you and others on the road. Road mortality, coupled with taking turtles from the wild for the pet trade, has caused a dramatic decrease (over 30%) in Box Turtle populations.

An Eastern Box Turtle edges up to the road in an attempt to cross. Roadways frequently cut through these terrestrial turtles home ranges and therefore put these slow-movers into harms way. Please keep an eye out for turtles and help them across by moving them onto to the side of the road in the direction they were heading. [Photo by Todd Pierson.]

Whether it’s Sea Turtles 50 miles offshore, Diamondback Terrapins along salt marshes, or Box Turtles in your own backyard, these long-lived and dare I say, adorable, reptiles can be observed all over the place. Our actions can have unintended consequences that ripple throughout an ecosystem. So do our shelled-friends a favor and slow down on roads, don’t release balloons, and help them out of a dangerous situation from time to time. The turtles and your fellow turtle-lovers thank you!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Right in your own backyard

This past weekend, naturalists from Cape May Bird Observatory and the Nature Center of Cape May hosted an event named Birds and Beers on the Bay by Bike. Starting in Cape May, we biked and birded our way through Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area. We were serenaded by Orchard Orioles, Wood Pewees, and lots of Catbirds as we took a leisurely ride around the WMA before making our way to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. A handful of Wilson’s Storm-petrels accompanied us along our route to our sister cape and Delaware greeted us with an unexpected White-winged Scoter. We took a beautiful ride around Cape Henlopen State Park and over to Gordon’s Pond where Black Skimmers and Common Yellowthroats were putting on a show.

CMBO Director, David LaPuma, showing off his biking-with-a-spotting-scope skills while biking along Gordon's Pond in Cape Henlopen State Park for the Birds and Beers on the Bay by Bike tour. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]
No birding trip to Delaware would be complete without some adorably-squeaky Brown-headed Nuthatches, and though the looks were fleeting, we got them nevertheless. We had to peddle hard up to Rehoboth Beach to stay ahead of a looming thunderstorm and made it to Dogfish Head Brewery just before the skies opened up. After some good food and even better beer, we made our way back to Lewes via the Junction & Breakwater Trail. This spectacular path winds through old growth forest and wetlands, giving you a sense of being miles away from civilization. Yet, this trail opens into a new, extremely manicured housing development, where native plants have been replaced with non-natives and retention ponds are zig-zagged with wire to keep waterfowl out. It was a stark contrast to the natural places we had been exploring but presented a great opportunity to discuss the landscaping choices we make in our own properties. We would never end on a bad note though, so a relaxing ferry ride brought us back to Cape May where we capped off the event with a much-deserved Cape May Brewing Company beer.

Ominous skies looming overhead at Gordon's Pond in Cape Henlopen State Park caused us to peddle faster towards Rehoboth Beach to the promise of shelter (and beer) at the Dogfish Head Brewery. We made it in the nick of time and were inside while Mother Nature gave the rest of the area a drink too. [Photo by Phil LaTourette.]

I discovered that it is not easy (and sometimes dangerous) getting a clear picture while biking, especially after visiting Dogfish Head Brewery! Here are some of our Birds and Beers on the Bay by Bike tour participants taking in the beautiful scenery of the Junction & Breakwater Trail between Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, Deleware. [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.]

Our group of fifteen consisted of a wide range of ages and experience, from skilled birders to one woman who was afraid of birds. By the end though, I think we converted most of our new friends to bird lovers! One reoccurring comment throughout the trip (other than how much they were learning) was how they never knew these beautiful wildlife places even existed. As one of our participants Greg noted, “I’ve been living around the corner from here for years and I never knew Cox Hall Creek was there!” Which got me thinking, how many people pass by these natural places everyday, complete unaware of their existence?

Newly-converted bird enthusiast, Solomon, takes a closer look at a perched Blue Grosbeak during one of the stops along a marshy section of Cape Henlopen State Park on the Birds and Beers on the Bay by Bike tour. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]
As an avid birder and all-around nature lover, I am constantly outside, exploring the natural areas we have throughout the county. Though to be honest, I learned of these places by word-of-mouth or attending one of our CMBO walks. A visit to one of our NJ Audubon Centers can provide a wealth of information and maps to natural areas to go hiking and birding, but what about areas that occur outside the county or even outside the state? That led me on what I am lovingly referring to my Search for Natural Areas Around Me Search Engines! Type in “natural areas around me” into your favorite online search engine and you will be bombarded by some helpful, but many not-so-helpful, websites. So, I went through them for you and at the bottom of this post you will find a compiled list of helpful websites (with links!) to aid you in your search for places to explore.

There is no shortage of scientific research that suggests communing with nature can result in a wide range of health benefits from reducing anxiety and depression symptoms, to increasing Vitamin D and focus. Just being outside and active, whether it’s biking up the bayshore or walking the trails of your local park, can release feel-good neurotransmitters like endorphins and serotonin. Spending time in natural light can also help normalize your internal clock (circadian rhythm), renewing your eating and sleeping cycles, and who doesn't need more sleep nowadays? Simply put, being outside is good for you!

So I encourage you to search around the areas you live, or the areas you like to vacation, and find somewhere to get away from it all. Go outside, listen to the birds, watch the tides move in and out, and unplug from the constant bombardment of stress technology grants us. Your mind and body will thank you. You may even come out of the experience with a whole new appreciation for the beauty and serenity you can find around your area, even in your own backyard.

Some helpful links to find natural places and events around your area.

NJ Audubon Calendar of Events:

New Jersey State Parks: (two search options on the left side of the page)

National Parks:

National Wildlife Refuges:

National Wildlife Federation:

Unfortunately, NJ Fish & Wildlife does not have search capabilities on their website, but you can use these next two links together to first find a WMA in your county of choice, then locate a road map:

New Jersey Wildlife Management Areas:

New Jersey WMA Road Maps: