Tuesday, May 26, 2015

You just never know

At first glance, it may seem like we are all about birds here at the Cape May Bird Observatory, I mean it is in our name and all. However, all you have to do is join our naturalists on one of our weekly walks and you’ll soon find out that most of us are all-encompassing nature nerds! Whether it’s identifying the various shrubs and wildflowers or calling out the names of dragonflies and butterflies as they whiz by, you’re almost guaranteed to walk away having learned something that extends past birds. This desire to share our broad passions with others allows for us to take advantage of the teaching opportunities that present themselves when we are out in the field. I’ve always said that one of my favorite aspects of environmental education is the unexpected, sometimes serendipitous, things that happen when you’re out on walks. It could be said that if you spend enough time outside, it’s inevitable that you will witness something really cool, but I think a lot of it just comes down to luck. Like seeing a falling star, you just have to have your eyes in the right place, at the right time.

Luck seemed to be on our side last week during a CMBO walk at the Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows. A large Black Rat snake was basking along the west path and seemed indifferent to our presence. So, I did what any good naturalist would, I picked him up and gave an impromptu lesson on snakes. This large male was very cooperative and downright sweet as I gently handled him and allowed our guests to take photos and interact with him. Snakes get a bad rap and it more than likely stems from a combination of social prejudices and wrong information. In fact, snakes are one of the rare groups of animals that are facing threats from malicious killings along with the usual habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, and disease. The truth is that snakes are typically non-aggressive, fascinating creatures that play a vital environmental role in controlling prey populations and acting as a prey item themselves for top predators, including many birds of prey. As someone who has taught herpetology for many years, getting to share a moment in the field with this guy was a treat for me!

CMBO's George Myers Naturalist, Margeaux Maerz,
handling a Black Rat snake. [Photo by Mike Crewe].

As we continued our walk through the Meadows, I was still abuzz with excitement from our new, scaly friend, when someone pointed out a Great Egret in one of the East pools. He was obviously trying to eat something rather large and I expected to see a fish or frog when I focused my scope on him. It was with audible surprise that I found him trying to eat a small mammal! From what we could see, and knowing the fauna of the Meadows, we believe he was eating a young Muskrat. Now, I have read of herons and egret eating mammals and I recall watching a video of a Great-blue Heron catching and eating a gopher that went viral on social media last year, but never had I witnessed this spectacle with my own eyes. We stood there, fascinated (and honestly, a little disturbed) as this egret dunked his prey into the water and manipulated its orientation a few times before swallowing the critter whole.
Great Egret eating what appears to be a young Muskrat at the
South Cape May Meadows. [Photo by Margeaux Maerz].

The morning’s excitement left me wondering for the rest of the day, how much do we miss when we are out in the field? In a time of birding that is so focused on lists, have we lost the art of passive observation? Animal behavior is a fascinating subject to ponder but requires a great deal of patience (and in some cases luck) to experience first hand. So, I encourage you the next time you’re on a walk, whether it’s with us at CMBO or in your own back yard to slow down and take your time. Don’t be so quick to identify a bird and move on to the next, but rather sit and really observe the bird’s behavior. It’s during moments when you’re quiet and still that animals seem to put on a show. You may find it liberating to stop worrying about what's around the next bend in the trail but rather, take time to savior the moment and soak it all in. You just never know what you might see.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Parental Care

As you explore around Cape May this time of year, it is impossible not to notice the energy that accompanies bringing forth the next generation of birds. From the Purple Martins at the State Park catching insect after insect to fill the many hungry mouths of their chicks, to the Mallards working to keep their brood of ducklings safely together at the South Cape May Meadows. New life is all around us! Parents tirelessly defend territories from potential predators and rival birds to ensure they have the resources to raise their young to fledglings. We hear their gorgeous singing and get to witness their skill and expertise as they build nests. We watch as they sit on eggs and cover young chicks to shield them from predators and the wrath of Mother Nature. In a matter of weeks, we will see parents teaching their little ones how to navigate their habitat and forage for food. We will hear the alarm calls when a predator is near and look around, searching for the danger ourselves. We are saddened by their losses and champion their success, and throughout it all, we watch in awe at their abilities to raise young in such a harsh world.

Prothonotary Warbler setting up a breeding territory at The Beanery. [Photo by Sam Galick].

In many ways, most birds act as a model of exceptional parental care. The same cannot be said for our other abundantly obvious wildlife this time of year: frogs. The frogs found around Cape May take a much more laissez faire attitude when it comes to taking care of their young (though to be fair, this is hardly the case for all frogs). Males relentless call for mates, and I stress mates for polygyny runs rampant in frog society. The male awkwardly grapples onto the female and the pair will lay and fertilize hundreds of eggs, only to then part ways, never to be seen again by each other or their young. Tadpoles hatch out and find themselves in a harsh, tadpole-eat-tadpole world with no protection from the seemingly endless predators and no watchful parents. All this is leading up to a major metamorphosis where they must survive an entire overhaul to their anatomy and physiology. Maybe this is the bigger picture Kermit was referring to when he claimed, “It’s not easy being green.”

Fowler’s Toads in amplexus. [Photo by Bob Ferguson].

Though the frogs’ style of parenting (or lack there of) may seem harsh, they have a point. As any parent could tell you, raising young is exhausting and taxing, not only on your body but also on your mental state. In fact, there have been multiple ornithological studies that show the number of young raised one year directly affects a bird’s ability to lay eggs and raise young in subsequent years. As parents, birds give a piece of themselves to their young, not just genetically, but through their efforts and dedication. So as you explore your local park, backyard, or even our habitats here in Cape May, take a moment to find animal breeding activity. For whether it’s a highly publicized Bald Eagle nest cam or the American Robin nest in your backyard, we all love to be a witness to the magic of spring and the new life it brings.--Margeaux Maerz, George Myers Naturalist

Osprey carrying nesting material in Jarvis Sound. [Photo by Sam Galick].

Sunday, May 17, 2015

We have Red Knots - because people care...

Cape May has Red Knots - it's official. Cape May Bird Observatory's Spring Weekend festival has been an awesome event once again and, though those pretty warblers were notably in short supply for us this year, everything else fell into place wonderfully. A quick straw poll of folks that were in town for a wonderful spring weekend drew one clear conclusion as to what the highlight was - the Red Knots. Delaware Bayshore beaches from Norbury's Landing to Reed's Beach, and up along the Cumberland County beaches, were favored by Red Knots yet again. Gone, of course, are the wonderful numbers of the past - as too are the stunning hordes of horeshoecrabs, but numbers are still high enough to impress - and it's all because people care.

A series of headline events in the popular media of late could make one feel that our planet is doomed (and it would be if some had their way!) but, turn the madness of the TV news channels off, ignore the nonsense from certain websites, and go look for yourself. For out on the back bays of New Jersey, Red Knots are here, because people care. Yes, there are those who simply see dollar signs when they look at the natural world, but there are those that are fighting back and there is an army of people who are realizing that we can all do good if we go out and get involved. Here's a photo essay that surely demonstrates - Red Knots are here because people care.

Because People Care - they came to our Spring Weekend Saturday evening event, where keynote speaker and author of 'The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab and an Epic Journey', Deborah Cramer, told us of the dedicated people of Argentina who care for Red Knots on the wintering grounds, way, way down in Tierra del Fuego - a place described as the "Uttermost end of the world". Because of these people, there are still Red Knots in the Western Atlantic Flyway - and here are some of them, arriving in New Jersey just a few days ago.

Because People Care - beach replenishment has been carried out along the bayshore after the ravages of hurricane Sandy. The beaches that were replenished can clearly be seen to be the ones now providing breeding opportunities for Atlantic Horseshoecrabs and these, in turn, provide feeding opportunities for Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling and Semipalmated Sandpipers. This was the scene at Cook's Beach on Saturday.

Because People Care - they came to see shorebirds being banded and learn the how, why, where and when of shorebird research. For without that knowledge, how can one make an informed decision? And surely this picture shows that you can never be too young to care about the planet!

Because People Care - they join organizations such as Cape May Bird Observatory, New Jersey Audubon, The American Littoral Society, or The Wetlands Institute. And some, like Pat Perkins here, become life members and give so generously of their time. Here, Pat is about to release a Red Knot that has just provided researchers with valuable information. The Wetlands Institute's Executive Director, Lenore Tedesco, is co-ordinating volunteers in the background.

Because People Care - they queued up for the opportunity to release a Red Knot on its way. From here, this bird will head all the way to Arctic Canada, before turning back south to southern Argentina again in late summer.

Because People Care - this Red Knot is able to continue to the Canadian Arctic, with a fat belly and a good energy supply in the tank for the journey. The application of small and lightweight leg flags allow individual birds to be identified and tracked in the field, without the need to recapture them. Birdwatchers can help with long term projects that study longevity and movements of these birds by noting the coding on the leg flag (together with the flag color) and reporting them on the shorebird banding website. Because we care about birds, we can all help in the process that allows us to understand birds better, such that we are better able to look after them.

Because People Care - they work together for the common good. Research into New Jersey's wildlife involves a consortium of many organizations; organizations that are coming together to form a powerful alliance, but which are nothing without your support. New Jersey residents regularly vote to conserve their open space and keep the Garden State green, and being a member of a conservation organization is all part of that process.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Not the best of views - but....

In the nick of time. This male Painted Bunting showed up this morning on Bayshore Road - fingers crossed that he stays until tomorrow, when viewing him against the light really won't matter! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

When you are taking photos against the light, you have to do a lot of tweaking in photoshop to get a reasonable picture - and you don't exactly get the best of views. And that about sums up the World Series of Birding - you don't exactly get the best of views, but getting the best of views is not the name of the game. Tomorrow, Saturday, May 9th, the Nation's bravest, craziest and most obsessive birders (as well as some thoroughly decent folks!) will be hot-footing it around New Jersey and checking off birds on their lists. A pointless exercise? Certainly not! For these great people are raising money for conservation, and for wildlife education and research. For every bird species they can check off, they will receive pledges from people who may not be taking part physically, but are very much a part of the day, for they have contributed the money that will serve wildlife for the coming year.

It might be too late for you to be a team player in the World Series of Birding for 2015, but there's still time to make a donation and feel that you are doing your bit. I would encourage you to find the time to visit the World Series of Birding web page and help us all on our way. The natural world that is so important to us thanks you for your generosity.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Week in review: 18 – 24 April, 2015

CMBO is pleased to provide weekly summaries of the Cape's birding highlights. Coverage is limited to bird 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 also encouraged to send reports and photos to compiler Tom Reed (coturnicops at gmail dot com).

Location Abbreviations: CMP (town of Cape May Point); CMPSP (Cape May Point State Park); South Cape May Meadows (SCMM)


       Waterfowl numbers took another dip in recent days, though overall diversity remained above-average for the end of April. An exceptionally late Tundra Swan continued to linger at CMPSP/SCMM through at least 24 Apr (m. ob.). Other tardy waterbirds included an American Wigeon at CMPSP through the period (m. ob.), 4 Lesser Scaup at CMP 23 Apr (m. ob.), and a Red-necked Grebe at Nummy Island 18 Apr (AC). Northern Gannets were again obvious from CMP and the Atlantic Coast through the week, though numbers have decreased since about 20 Apr. Double-crested Cormorants moved north in strong numbers, highlighted by 8500+ from CMP 22 Apr (m. ob.). Migrating Common Loons were again noted every day, with an unprecedented high count of 364 tallied from CMP 22 Apr (TR, GDa et al.). There were several Cattle Egret reports, including 5 along Route 9 in Swainton 23 Apr (CM). Rare but annual in spring, an adult White-faced Ibis put in at least two appearances at Jake's Landing 19–20 Apr (TR, SR). Strong westerly winds likely played a role in the appearance of 2 Sandhill Cranes over CMP 24 Apr (TR, KL, m. ob.). The birds were last seen departing the Rea Farm/Beanery toward the north.

        The Hereford Inlet area continued to host at least 8+ Piping Plovers through the period (m. ob.). Following the previous week's Upland Sandpiper reports, two individuals were discovered at the southeast end of Sumner Avenue, Woodbine 18 Apr (m. ob.). A single bird was noted at the same location 21 Apr (fide Keekeekerr). There were multiple reports of Caspian Tern, an uncommon spring migrant, including 2 at CMP 23 Apr (m. ob.). A record early Least Tern appeared at CMP 18 Apr (TR et al.), and two more arrived 22 Apr (m. ob.). More expected was the year's first Common Tern at Sunset Beach 20 Apr (DLP, TR), along with the first Black Skimmer at CMP 21 Apr (VE). Strong northwest winds and unusually cold temperatures delivered a major influx of swallows to Cape Island 24 Apr, including estimates of 2000+ Tree Swallows, 1200+ Barn Swallows, and 100+ Cliff Swallows at CMP (m. ob.). An overnight change in wind direction created a fallout of Yellow-rumped Warblers during the morning of 19 Apr, including 750+ at CMP (VE, TR et al.). Though conditions were largely unfavorable for migration through most of the period, a few more songbirds arrived, such as Baltimore Oriole at the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary 20 Apr (GDw), Orchard Oriole near Green Creek 21 Apr (SG, SW), and Blue Grosbeak at Hidden Valley 22 Apr (SR).



Alan Crawford (AC), Glen Davis (GDa), Gail Dwyer (GDw), Vince Elia (VE), Sam Galick (SG), David La Puma (DLP), Karl Lukens (KL), Christina Marks (CM), Mike Pasquarello (MP), Tom Reed (TR), Steven Rodan (SR), Sam Wilson (SW).


eBird. 2012. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: 25 April 2015).

Fogg, B. 2013. Keekeekerr: Recent Text Alerts. Available: http://keekeekerr.com/textalerts/keekeekerr. (Accessed: 25 April 2015).

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Spring’s Jigsaw Comes Together Perfectly

March can be a real drain on the patience of a Cape May wildlife watcher. Winter is over but spring still seems a long way off, and the daily changes can be so subtle that if you are watching every day they can pass you by almost imperceptibly. This spring, April seems not to have been much better than March, as winter’s grip has been difficult to release but, having been soldiering on through office work for several weeks, a window of opportunity gave me an insight into what is happening in the great outdoors recently.

Nature is nothing if not chaotic and yet, at the same time, there is a distinct order about it all. While the onset of spring can vary from year to year, largely according to local weather trends, it always amazes me how much of nature is synchronized so well, such that – by early May – it all seems to come together so perfectly. The gradual increase in day length brings on breeding behavior in our resident and wintering birds, causes the onset of many spring flowers and plays a part in a gradual warming of the region. This warming, in turn, initiates more spring activity from insects, with the whole coming together to produce a vibrant wealth of excitement that is May in Cape May.

Taking a leaf from nature’s book, CMBO’s spring program gears up right on time and in synchronization with the seasons too. Our weekly walks are finding ever more good birds to enjoy right now and, as we head into early May we will all be gearing up for the World Series of Birding. If you have ever enjoyed the wonderful wealth of wildlife that is Cape May in spring, or if you want it to be here for future generations to enjoy, you might like to consider donating to one of our awesome teams. It has never been easier to make a contribution – all you need do is go to the World Series of Birding page and click on the donate button. Your generosity, coupled with the excitement and fun of the day will spur on our teams and help to raise important funds that help to support New Jersey Audubon’s research, conservation and education programs. As with nature, together we make it better!

Looking slightly further ahead, the perfection of nature’s timing comes together in late May to produce one of the finest of natural phenomena in North America – the annual spawning of horseshoe crabs on Delaware Bayshore beaches. Nature’s chaos and nature’s order come together again here, as long-distance, migratory Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Sandpipers show up right on time to benefit from the short-lived riches, riches that in turn will sustain them until they reach high Arctic breeding grounds in June. This natural exuberance will be taking place during our Cape Maygration Spring Birding Festival at a time of year when many other migratory birds will be passing our way and local breeding birds will be busy in the forests, back bays and beaches of Cape May. If you’ve never been to a Cape May spring weekend, give it a go this year, it truly is an inspiring time to be out and about and witnessing spring’s jigsaw of pieces coming together!

Spring brings so much after the cold days of winter. Though the first butterflies of the year you see may well be those that have overwintered as adults, by mid-April the year’s first truly new species will be emerging and the stunning colors of an American Copper can brighten up many an April day.

A little more warmth sees the first dandelion flowers opening in grassy areas. Check out the flower heads and you may come across a bee-fly – a great group of flies that are bee mimics and are some of earliest pollinators. Of course, even for birders the appearance of such insects is cause for celebration for they mean...

...the appearance of insectivorous birds, such as this male Northern Parula in all its spring glory. As well as...

...plenty of swallows and martins. Right now, you can see an abundance of Barn, Tree, Cliff (above) and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Purple Martins and Chimney Swifts feeding over the ponds of Cape May Point.

Small insects bring larger insects to feed on them and, in turn, these larger insects provide food for larger migratory songbirds. Eastern Kingbirds are in town now and mark the start of the major push of neotropical migrants.

While late March and early April see a mass of color from our flora of introduced plants, late April is the time to start looking for native plants. In 2010, we logged the first ever records of the wonderful Tiny Bluets in New Jersey. A southeastern plant, this species appears to be spreading its range northward and this year, my wife, Megan, became the third member of the exclusive club who can claim to have found new sites for this species in Cape May County and we now have 14 locations for this plant in Cape May.

While staring at the ground for signs of spring, don’t be afraid to flip over the odd piece of roadside trash now and again (I wonder if we will ever live in a world where people fully respect the environment?) for these can be good places to find the first reptiles of spring. Eastern Worm Snakes are widespread and common but seldom seen as they spend much of their time hunting in the soil. But the warmth of spring will get them active and worth looking for right now.

And of course, signs of spring are everywhere now. Our boat trips on the back bays with the Osprey and the Skimmer give excellent opportunities to enjoy spring migration. Double-crested Cormorants never look better than in April and May, when their breeding crests are ruffled by the wind and their bottle-green eyes catch the spring sunshine.

Spring is gearing up, so are the birds and so is Cape May. It’s time to brush off the cobwebs, sign up for our May events and come and have the very best of times – the Red Knots will be here for you! (All photos by Mike Crewe)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Week in review: 4 – 10 April, 2015

CMBO is pleased to provide weekly summaries of the Cape's birding highlights. Coverage is limited to bird 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 also encouraged to send reports and photos to compiler Tom Reed (coturnicops at gmail dot com).

Location Abbreviations/Explanations: BSF (Belleplain State Forest), CMP (town of Cape May Point); CMPSP (Cape May Point State Park); Rea Farm ("The Beanery," West Cape May); WMA (Wildlife Management Area). 


       Snow Geese have essentially cleared out of the peninsula; the period's only report was of a single at the Rea Farm 4 Apr (fide eBird). Two Tundra Swans remained at CMPSP until at least 7 Apr, a relatively late date (m. ob.). Daily migration monitoring at CMP continued to produce increasing numbers of Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, Red-throated Loon, Northern Gannet, and Double-crested Cormorant (m. ob.).
Recent high counts included 482 Double-crested Cormorants 5 Apr, 289 Red-throated Loons 6 Apr, and 1,309 Northern Gannets 7 Apr (TR et al.). The first Green Herons arrived this week, with sightings at Cox Hall Creek WMA 5 Apr (DF) and CMP 9 Apr (CB, MP, TR). The first Cattle Egret was detected at West Cape May 10 Apr (DC, MP, m. ob.). Both Tricolored and Little Blue Herons were reported in the vicinity of the Wetlands Institute/Stone Harbor Boulevard through the period (m. ob.). Northbound Osprey were again noted most days (m. ob.), and the immature Northern Goshawk put in another split-second appearance at West Cape May 8 Apr (LZ).

[Osprey at CMP, 6 Apr. Photo by Tom Reed.]

        Rare at any season, a Sandhill Crane surprised birders at Cape Island 4–5 Apr (m. ob.). The species has now occurred during April in five of six years, starting with 2010 (fide eBird). It has been a poor spring to find Little Gull locally; an immature flew north past CMP 5 Apr (DLP, TR). Black-headed Gull apparently went unseen this week. There were also no reports of CMP's Eurasian Collared-Dove. Songbird migration suffered from a lack of favorable conditions, though some minor movements took place (e.g. 20+ Pine Warblers at CMP, 4 Apr). The week's list of arrivals included Chimney Swift at the Rea Farm 7 Apr (BB), Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Cape May Court House 6 Apr (DA, JA), Eastern Kingbird at CMP 10 Apr (MC, TR), Blue-headed Vireo at BSF 10 Apr (TR), Black-and-white Warbler at BSF 7 Apr (KH), and Northern Parula at CMP 6 Apr (MP). Notably early was an American Redstart singing at the South Cape May Meadows 10 Apr (SW). 

[Sandhill Crane over the Rea Farm, 5 Apr. Photo by Tom Reed.]



Dolores Amesbury (DA), Jesse Amesbury (JA), Barb Bassett (BB), Catherine Busch (CB), Dan Ceravolo (DC), Mike Crewe (MC), Don Freiday (DF), Kathy Horn (KH), David La Puma (DLP), Mike Pasquarello (MP), Tom Reed (TR), Scott Whittle (SW), Louise Zemaitis (LZ).


eBird. 2012. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Available: http://www.ebird.org. (Accessed: 10 April 2015).

Fogg, B. 2013. Keekeekerr: Recent Text Alerts. Available: http://keekeekerr.com/textalerts/keekeekerr. (Accessed: 10 April 2015).