Monday, September 15, 2014

Hawk Watch Update

[Merlins have been offering great looks from the Hawk Watch platform lately.
Photo by Tom Reed

Hi everybody! It’s Emily, your George Myers Field Naturalist this season.  I am excited to start posting updates on how things are going up at the Hawk Watch platform and around Cape May.

The Hawk Watch was quite eventful this past week.  We had some great migration days that brought large numbers of Osprey, accipiters, falcons, and more. On Sunday, Mary counted an all-time single day record of Bald Eagles. That is 50 Bald Eagles in one day!  While Mary had her eyes on the sky, most of us had our eyes on the Whiskered Tern that was flying around Bunker Pond.  A combination of the great hawk flight and the Whiskered Tern brought nearly 1000 visitors up to the platform on Sunday.  The excitement is likely to continue this week.  The forecast looks promising for several days of good hawk flights-- and hopefully the Whiskered Tern will hang around a little longer so that even more folks can get a look at such an amazing bird! Some more photos of the tern, and its admirers, can be found below. 

Lastly, the Avalon Seawatch starts one week from today, on September 22.  Be sure to get out there and meet this year’s counter, Skye Haas!

[Whiskered Tern on the beach. Photo by Tom Reed.]

[A full platform of birders observing the Whiskered Tern. Photo by Tom Reed.]

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Whiskered Tern continues

Cape May has seen a continuous parade of visitors to the Hawkwatch Platform this weekend, at times almost a who's who of American birding, as people from ever further away made the pilgrimage to see the Whiskered Tern. Our illustrious visitor has put on a fabulous show for all comers this weekend and was still in residence last thing on Sunday. It set up a fairly regular routine of feeding over Bunker Pond, followed by rests on the state park beach with the other terns assembled there. Interestingly, it and the temporarily resident Black Tern, seem to have been sticking together a lot and their feeding sessions often coincided. On one or two occasions, the Whiskered Tern has also taken rests on the wooden railing on the south side of Bunker Pond.

Many people have been asking for details of the previous two records of this species for North America - they are as follows:

Cape May, NJ: 12-15 July, 1993 with presumably the same bird in Kent Co., Delaware, 19 July-24 August.

Cape May, NJ: 8-12 August 1998.

Although these two occurrences count as two separate records, due to the five-year gap between them, many people believe they may both involve the same individual. However, it seems almost certain that this year's bird is a different individual, and it is possible, given the appearance of the wing molt and plumage, that the current bird could be a third-calendar year bird.

If you haven't been able to get here for this bird yet but plan coming during the week, we'll do our best to hang on to it for as long as possible for you!

Photo opportunities for the Whiskered Tern have been many and some great portraits have been achieved this weekend. In contrast, here are some shots that tell stories about the behavior of the bird. Here, it's grabbing a Green Darner; dragonflies often make up a significant part of the diet of this species, though they will eat a wide range of insects, as well as small fish, tadpoles and even frogs [photo by Mike Crewe].
The Whiskered Tern often consorts with a juvenile Black Tern and the two can sometimes be seen hunting close enough together to make direct comparisons of structure and plumage features.  Seen on the right here, the Black Tern is clearly darker, a little smaller and narrower winged, and smaller-billed [photo by Mike Crewe].

On occasion today, the Whiskered Tern took to taking short snoozes on the wooden railing on the south side of Bunker Pond. This gave many folks some great photo opportunities (note here the newly-molted, pale gray primary, contrasting with the older, muddy-brown primaries) [photo by Mike Crewe].

Week in review: 6 – 12 September, 2014

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

Location Abbreviations/Explanations: CMP (town of Cape May Point); CMPSP (Cape May Pt. State Park); HB (Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area); Higbee Dike (dredge spoils at northwest corner of Cape Island, site of CMBO's Morning Flight count); SCMM (South Cape May Meadows).


       Dabbling duck densities and diversity increased during recent days. Totals at Cape Island 12 Sep included 14 Gadwall, 12 Northern Shovelers, 7 Northern Pintail, and 15 Blue-winged Teal (m. ob.). An early Greater Scaup was seen from the Higbee Dike 7 Sep (TR). A pelagic trip out of Wildwood Crest crossed paths with multiple Cory's Shearwaters (including one "Scopoli's"), along with Manx Shearwater, Great Shearwater, and Red-necked Phalarope (m. ob.). A Great Cormorant was a bit early at Cold Spring Inlet 12 Sep (VE, BL). A nice total of 14 Brown Pelicans was notched from CMPSP during southerly winds 12 Sep (TR). The season's best hawk flight to date occurred 12 Sep, and included 160 Osprey, 68 Sharp-shinned Hawks, and 41 Bald Eagles at the Cape May Hawk Watch (MR).  At least 1 Marbled Godwit was seen at Jarvis Sound 10 & 12 Sep (VE, BL). A Red-necked Phalarope was reported from Avalon during strong easterly winds 9 Sep (KG). Other shorebird highlights included a Baird's Sandpiper at SCMM 6–7 Sep (m. ob.), a Buff-breasted Sandpiper (m. ob.) and a Wilson's Phalarope (JN, DW) at SCMM 7–8 Sep, and a Long-billed Dowitcher at SCMM 7–9 Sep (m. ob.). An adult Little Gull put in a brief appearance at CMPSP 12 Sep (m. ob.). A WHISKERED TERN made for a shocking find at CMPSP 12 Sep (AH, LZ, m. ob.). This individual represents the 3rd record for North America-- amazingly, all 3 have occurred at Cape May. At least 2 Black Terns were seen at CMPSP through much of the period. 

       A White-winged Dove was found along New England Road 7 Sep (KG), and what was potentially the same individual flew past the Higbee Dike 8 Sep (TR). At least 2 Eurasian Collared-Doves continued at CMP through the week (m. ob.).  The season's first Western Kingbirds were seen 8 Sep, when 2 flew over West Cape May (MO'B). A Kentucky Warbler made for a surprising sight at the Higbee Dike 10 Sep (KG, TR). A strong songbird flight at the Higbee Dike 12 Sep included 273 American Redstarts, 109 Northern Parulas, 66 Palm Warblers, 48 Black-throated Blue Warblers, 2 Bay-breasted Warblers, and a Prothonotary Warbler (GD). Other songbird highlights included 2 Golden-winged Warblers at HB 7 Sep (MO'B, LZ et al.) and a Lark Sparrow at CMPSP 7 Sep (TR). 


Glen Davis (GD), Vince Elia (VE), Kevin Graff (KG), Alec Humann (AH), Bob Lubberman (BL), Josh Nemeth (JN), Michael O'Brien (MO'B), Mary Raikes (MR), Tom Reed (TR), Dustin Welch (DW), Louise Zemaitis (LZ).


*eBird. 2012. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Accessed 14 Sep 2014. Available:
*Fogg, B. 2013. Keekeekerr: Recent Text Alerts. Accessed 14 Sep 2014. Available:

Friday, September 12, 2014

Whiskered Tern!

As if you needed telling, Cape May can produce some amazing birds - often when you are not quite expecting them!

Great excitement gripped the point today when a possible Whiskered Tern was reported, feeding over Bunker Pond, right in front of the Hawkwatch Platform. Why the confusion when the bird was right in front of the platform? Well, Whiskered Tern is an Old World species, of which there are only two previous North American records, so folks here don't get a chance to brush up on Whiskered Tern identification too often. As word got out, the bird headed away toward the beach, but review of early photos (thank you digital photography!) confirmed the identification.

It was decision time - some headed off to scour the Cape May Point beaches, where large numbers of gulls and terns are currently gathered, in between feeding bouts in The Rips; others decided to wait it out on the platform - after all, this is a marsh tern, a species that favors catching insects over freshwater ponds rather than fishing offshore. The waiters won out as the bird returned to Bunker Pond and put on a spectacular display before an ever-growing and ever-appreciative audience - seems like we will soon be needing a bigger Hawkwatch!!

As I write, a little after 2pm on Friday, September 12th, the bird is still present and delighting the crowds. When not feeding over Bunker Pond, it has been seen sitting on the beach at the state park with other gulls and terns.

Oh, and by the way, just to blow our own trumpet (sorry!) all three North American records have been seen in... well, you probably guessed :-)

Whiskered Tern, Cape May Point State Park, September 12th, 2014. Though this bird may superficially resemble a Common Tern, there are a number of differences; most obvious are the extensive, dark gray wash to the underparts and contrasting white cheeks, and the stouter, shorter, blood-red bill. Note also the relatively broader wing with shorter 'hand'. The behavior of the bird, as it hunted for insects over Bunker Pond with a Black Tern, is also different to the typical hover-fishing behavior of a Common Tern. The mix of gray and white feathers on the underparts is typical of a molting adult, note also the contrast between the fresh, light gray mantle feathers and the duller, as yet unmolted, wing coverts [photos by Mike Crewe]

CMBO Director David La Puma texts out the news as an out-of-focus Whiskered Tern crosses his chest - hawk counter Mary Raikes gets on with hawk counting...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

World Shorebirds Day

As a child, I grew up in Oxfordshire, right in the heart of England and almost as far as it is possible to get from the coast in the UK. This meant that I had little chance to get to know shorebirds (or waders as they are called in the UK) and found the various species very difficult to tell apart for many years. But I wasn't entirely starved of these birds; I have fond memories of wandering through grassy water meadows while Common Redshanks stood sentinel on nearby fence posts. Their alarm calls alerted me to the presence of fluffy chicks, hiding somewhere in the grassy tussocks, but I never found them, so good was their camouflage. And although I was starved of a variety of breeding shorebirds, I was still challenged each spring and autumn by migrants passing through - local gravel pits would regularly attract Little Stints, Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Common Greenshanks and others, and I remember rushing off to see my first Pectoral Sandpiper that had been attracted to a great, cavernous, wet hole that would eventually be concrete lined and become Oxford's second drinking water reservoir at Farmoor.

Adulthood saw me gradually getting to grips with these interesting birds and, in the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to be among some of the very first tourists ever to visit Sakhalin Island, off the Pacific coast of Siberia, and to see the strange and enigmatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper - three birds, sweeping their paddle-shaped bills through the mud in all their full, breeding-plumaged glory. During that period this bird was much sought-after simply for its uniqueness; nowadays, it is sought for its rarity value. In less than 20 years, Spoon-billed Sandpipers have almost completely disappeared from the globe, their critical migration stop-overs denied them as vital tidal habitats have been permanently flooded for the benefit (benefit?) of mankind. Nowadays, a single thread of hope for this species remains in some captive breeding programs - not an easy thing to achieve with a migratory species.

Saturday, September 6th was World Shorebirds Day - and I'm prepared to bet that it passed an awful lot of people by. To the vast majority of people, shorebirds are not something they tend to be aware of, since the birds don't tend to hang out in urban areas; to those who are aware of them, it may simply be that these waifs of the shoreline are considered a major inconvenience when areas of pristine sandy beach are roped off during the summer months, denying pleasure-seekers of a little fun. Even among birdwatchers, it often takes a special kind of dedication to really get interested in a group of birds that might be considered to largely consist of a mottly selection of 'little brown jobs' that hang out in some rather unsalubrious locations.

All of this is a shame, for shorebirds in general are great indicators of the health of our wetlands and hopefully there is no-one who would disagree that a healthy human population needs healthy wetlands, for we all need water to drink. On a global scale, wetlands are disappearing even faster now than they have ever done before - even with all the protection that we may feel that we are affording them. So there has never been a more urgent time to review and monitor the state of the world's shorebirds. Take a moment to visit the World Shorebirds Day website and, if you were out and about this weekend, consider entering your shorebird sightings into eBird, from where they may be used to help us understand population levels, distributional patterns and much more about these amazing birds.

To celebrate the variety and vibrancy of some of the world's shorebirds - and to show you that they are not all grotty little non-descript things (although some are!) here's a few special birds from around the world - as well as from Cape May:

Pectoral Sandpipers are attractive shorebirds, but don't especially stand out from the crowd when seen on migration. However, the males really come into their own on their Arctic breeding grounds (as here, in Alaska) when they inflate air sacs in their necks and start making wobbly, booming noises! So always be prepared to be surprised by shorebirds [photo by Mike Crewe].

Perhaps one of the things that shorebirds are best known for are their sometimes quite extraordinary feats of migration. The Bristle-thighed Curlew breeds in Alaska and winters in islands of the central and south Pacific. These birds depart the southern Alaska coast and make non-stop flights of at least 4000km over open ocean. And as if that was not enough, the adults leave first, with the juveniles make their first southward migration unaided [photo by Mike Crewe].

Not all shorebirds are, well, shorebirds. The Peruvian Thick-knee, with its wonderful duck-egg green eye, is found in semi-arid grassland and sub-desert habitats from southern Ecuador to Northern Chile. Species such as these, that live in very dry areas, are very susceptible to sudden changes in habitat and the resultant loss in what little water there may be for them [photo by Mike Crewe].

Shorebirds have populated almost every corner of the globe, with some isolated locations holding some truly unique species. The Diademed Sandpiper-plover is a remarkable bird that breeds at over 12,000feet in the high Andes of South America. Though it has quite a wide distribution, it is nowhere common, usually occurring in isolated pairs in suitable patches of mossy bog, high above the limit of the tree line. Its world population is completely unknown and can only be guessed at [photo by Mike Crewe].

Some of the world's shorebirds give real cause for concern; the Madagascar Plover's entire population can be found in coastal southwestern Madagascar, where there may be fewer than 1000 birds left. Its decline may be due to competition with Kittlitz's and White-fronted Plovers - two species that have relatively recently arrived in the region, most likely as a result of man-made or man-influenced changes to the environment [photo by Mike Crewe].

Who said shorebirds were boring little brown jobs? Some of the world's shorebirds are truly stunning to look at, perhaps none more so than the enigmatic Egyptian Plover - a bird that is neither a plover, nor Egyptian, though it did formerly occur there. Decked out in powder blue, blushing peach and striking black lines, this bird is the Crocodile Bird of Socrates, said to enter the open mouths of the great reptiles and clean their teeth. Sadly, this behavior has not been reliably reported in modern times and seems to be a myth [photo by Mike Crewe].
Closer to home, Cape May hosted this American Golden Plover for several days last week, a species that, like the Bristle-thighed Curlew, performs a great feat of migration. These birds breed in the high Arctic tundra of North America and winter in the grasslands of southern South America; and yet in the past they served as alternate 'fun' for thousands of shooters who turned to these and other grassland shorebirds such as the Eskimo Curlew after the Passenger Pigeon had been wiped out. The birds receive protection now, but numbers continue to decline as habitats on the breeding grounds, migration routes and wintering areas all continue to degrade or disappear [photo by Mike Crewe].

Wetlands in the Cape May area are also degrading, in part due to poor, or even a lack of,  management strategies for conservation. Thankfully this year, the area's birdwatchers - and its birds - have been very grateful for the efforts of The Nature Conservancy who, despite adverse weather at times - have done excellent work in beginning a water control strategy at the South Cape May Meadows, aimed at providing prime shorebird habitat during spring and fall migration periods. Today, the site bustled with vibrant shorebird activity and sightings include Buff-breasted, Baird's, Stilt and Pectoral Sandpipers among at least 15 species of shorebird present. Seen above, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher and Lesser Yellowlegs all enjoy the delights of benthic invertebrates for breakfast [photo by Mike Crewe].

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Week in review: 30 August – 5 September, 2014

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

Location Abbreviations/Explanations: CMP (town of Cape May Point); CMPSP (Cape May Pt. State Park); HB (Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area); Higbee Dike (dredge spoils at northwest corner of Cape Island, site of CMBO's Morning Flight count); SCMM (South Cape May Meadows); SHPt (Stone Harbor Point).


       CMPSP continued to host an abnormally large congregation of Mute Swans, with a recent high of 38 on Bunker Pond (m. ob.). Dabbling ducks established a more obvious presence at Cape Island-- 26 Blue-winged Teal made for a nice sum at CMP 5 Sep (MO'B), while 13 Northern Shovelers were noted at CMPSP the same day (m. ob.). Several Green-winged Teal put in appearances at CMPSP and SCMM most days (m. ob.), and another was migrating offshore CMP 4 Sep (TR). Wild Turkey has become an expected sight along New England Road; close to three dozen continued to be seen at times, particularly during the morning hours (m. ob.). A fishing trip to ca. 30 miles east of Cape May found 2 Cory's Shearwaters, 3 Great Shearwaters, and 5 Wilson's Storm-Petrels 4 Sep (JC, CH). Over 200 Double-crested Cormorants migrated south past CMP on easterly winds 4 Sep (m. ob.). A Least Bittern was noted in the Tuckahoe marshes, where the species nests, 30 Aug (TB). The first appreciable hawk flight of the season overtook CMP 3 Sep, and included 216 Ospreys, 11 Bald Eagles, 21 Northern Harriers, 138 American Kestrels, and 10 Merlins (TR, SB). 

[Cooper's Hawk at CMPSP, 4 Sep. Photo by Tom Reed.]

       A migrant Clapper Rail made for an odd sight on Bunker Pond, CMPSP 3 Aug (m. ob.). A minimum of 2 Soras could be found at SCMM some days (m. ob.). At least one adult American Golden-Plover entertained observers at SCMM and CMPSP 30 Aug–3 Sep (m. ob.). Early-Sep is likely the best time to seek out Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Cape May. Flyovers were notched at CMP 1 Sep and at the Higbee Dike 3 Sep (GD). Another dropped in at SHPt 3 Sep (EH). The morning of 1 Sep brought a nice movement of shorebirds past Cape Island, including 19 Solitary Sandpipers, 112 Lesser Yellowlegs, and 22 Pectoral Sandpipers tallied at CMPSP (VE, MR, TR). A juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger put in a brief but exciting appearance at CMPSP 1 Sep (TR et al.). The majority of land-based records of this species have occurred in early-Sep. Parasitic Jaeger will become a more regular sight in coming weeks; at least 1 was reported from CMP on several days (m. ob.). Multiple Lesser Black-backed Gulls continued to be found at oceanside beaches such as SCMM and SHPt (m. ob.). Notably late were 2 adult Roseate Terns at CMP 30 Aug (MO'B, m. ob.). Least Tern reports continued through 3 Sep (m. ob.), but the species will soon be gone until next spring. The aforementioned fishing trip also encountered 2 Bridled Terns and a Black Tern offshore Cape May 4 Sep (JC, CH). Additional Black Tern reports included 1 at Jarvis Sound 2 Sep (VE, BL, m. ob.) and another at CMPSP 5 Sep (m. ob.). 

[Long-tailed Jaeger at CMPSP, 1 Sep. Photo by Tom Reed.]

       A White-winged Dove was discovered near Coral Avenue, CMP 2 Sep (MO'B, m. ob.). There have been no reports since-- this potentially represents the 4th individual seen in Cape May County during 2014. Eurasian Collared-Dove continued to put in sporadic appearances at CMP. One flew west over CMPSP 3 Sep, and a pair did the same the next day (TR). A Barn Owl flew west past SCMM at dusk 1 Sep (MO'B), the third recorded this season. Light westerly winds brought a noticeable movement of Common Nighthawks over Cape Island during the evening hours 3 Sep, including 100+ seen over West Cape May during a 5-minute period (MG). An impressive songbird flight was witnessed from CMPSP 4 Sep which included 7500 Bobolinks, 315 Eastern Kingbirds, 200 Northern Waterthrushes, 750 American Redstarts, 80 Yellow Warblers, 40 Black-and-white Warblers, 2 Connecticut Warblers, and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (TR, SW, VE). A strong songbird flight was also noted at the Higbee Dike the same day, with highlights including a Philadelphia Vireo, 2 Bay-breasted Warblers, and a Dickcissel (GD et al.). A "Lawrence's" Warbler was detected at HB 2 Sep (CBN), and a "Brewster's" Warbler put in an appearance at CMPSP 4 Sep (KL). Small numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches were recorded most days at the Higbee Dike, HB, and CMP (m. ob.). The fall's first Clay-colored Sparrows were photographed at CMPSP 1 Sep (JA) and at SHPt 2 Sep (KH et al.). 

[Chestnut-sided Warbler at the Higbee Dike, 5 Sep. Photo by Tom Reed.]


Jesse Amesbury (JA), Steve Bauer (SB), Tom Baxter (TB), Jacob Cuomo (JC), Glen Davis (GD), Vince Elia (VE), Mark Garland (MG), Chris Hajduk (CH), Emily Heiser (EH), Kathy Horn (KH), Karl Lukens (KL), Bob Lubberman (BL), Claus Brostrøm Nielsen (CBN), Michael O'Brien (MO'B), Mary Raikes (MR), Tom Reed (TR), Scott Whittle (SW).


*eBird. 2012. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Accessed 6 Sep 2014. Available:
*Fogg, B. 2013. Keekeekerr: Recent Text Alerts. Accessed 6 Sep 2014. Available:

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mixed success for beach nesting birds

I really can't imagine that there are many birds that have a tougher existence than the beach nesting birds of New Jersey. New Jersey is synonymous with the beach - the Jersey Shore. Mile after mile of golden sands, just crying out to be enjoyed as the perfect summertime playground for hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals alike. Rest and relaxation are, of course, important to our well-being, but there are some species that have no choice; New Jersey's sunny, sandy beaches are not their playground, they are their homes, where life and death struggles are played out on a daily basis.

It's sad to report that not a single Piping Plover chick survived on Cape May's beaches this year. A sad landmark in the history of the species in our region. Doing some quick measuring on Google Earth, I discovered that we have 44 miles of sandy beaches suitable for beach-nesting birds in Cape May County, stretching from Ocean City in the north-west, south around Cape May Point and up the bayshore to Del Haven - after which, the beaches get rather narrow and of unsuitable structure for beach-nesting birds. Of these 44 miles, just over 2 miles are fully protected for beach-nesting birds - that's just 5% of the available beach area. What do I mean by properly protected? Well, the birds need unhindered access from nest locations to feeding locations along the intertidal zone, so there needs to be no disturbance along the seaward side of the beach. So, 95% of beaches available for play and fun; 5% available for the continued existence of a species. I'll leave that one out there....

Let's finish on an upbeat note. Black Skimmers have had a checkered history in our area, but news has been better than average this year. A small colony of birds popped up out of nowhere and promptly set about breeding at the north end of Cape May this year. I say popped out of nowhere; Black Skimmers have a habit of moving around periodically and disturbance at one location can move them on and cause them to appear somewhere else mid-season - and Black Skimmers do seem quite good at starting late broods if they get a chance. The good news is that this colony raised over 30 youngsters to fledging - the first Black Skimmers known to have fledged in the County for many years. So here's some photos to celebrate a bunch of young skimmers with South Jersey accents!!

Nest-scraping with feet kicking backward and head held high is the first sign that things are happening down on the beach.

Nest scrapes can be surprisingly deep and chicks will use them to hide in for some time after hatching - can you spot chick number 3 here?
I know, I know, you haven't eaten for, like, ever....

The number of chicks that fledge is very much dependent on food availability and adults will always favor the largest sibling that begs for food. The end result is often not good for the little one...
Cape May's chicks start to stretch their wings and will soon be hanging out with all the other Black Skimmers near the 2nd Avenue jetty

I know it's a matter of opinion, but Black Skimmer chicks are, well, not always the prettiest of birds!
Let's wish these guys well and hope to see them back here again next year [all photos by Mike Crewe].