Thursday, June 30, 2011

Baby Boom

Firstly, apologies to regular readers for the lack of posts lately; for some reason our blog hasn't been allowing us to upload pictures - so here goes, let's see how we get on!

I was recently sent a nice set of pictures of the latest Cape May babies, and certainly mid-summer is a good time to be out and assessing how the breeding season is going for your local birds. Personally, I'm certainly noticing a lot of fledgling Carolina Wrens, Gray Catbirds, European Starlings and Common Grackles around Cape May at the moment so they all seem to be doing OK. Last week's Wednesday morninig walk also turned up fledgling Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Here's some recent photos of Cape May Babes:

Outrageously cute! Nancy Watson got a great shot of this stumpy-tailed, young Carolina Wren in her backyard.

Beth Polvino (who has far too much good luck for one person!) sent me a great series of shots of a Clapper Rail with two youngsters which certainly deserve to be seen by a wider audience. This youngster emerged with a small fiddler crab...

...and took it down to the water... get all that horrible mud off before swallowing!

Mum then emerged with her young charges...

...and a good bathing session followed...

...which was wrapped up with a good preen.

Sightings update: Bird news has been predictably quiet now that mid-summer is upon us. Indeed, so quiet has it been, that I was actually startled when my phone went off yesterday. Checking my text messages, I discovered it was a test message from NJ Birds!! No news for several days on the Purple Gallinule, though it could easily be lurking unseen. Two pairs of Black Skimmers continue to show interest in the south beach and a trickle of fall shorebirds has started, with Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers at the state park on Wednesday.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ugly Ducklings

It's molting season again! Yes, it's that time of year when most of our local birds go through their annual complete molt - as anyone who has been on one of my recent walks will know!  One way that this annual molt is obvious to us locally is the shear volume of dropped flight feathers from ducks, geese and swans in Bunker Pond - a veritable tideline! The reason why we see this is because these waterfowl have a short, sharp shock strategy when it comes to molting. These birds drop all their flight feathers in one go, which means they are effectively flightless for a short period. This is a risky strategy, but it means that they can go through the molt relatively quickly and soon be back on the wing and ready to head south for the winter (since most of our waterfowl breed at northern latitudes and migrate south in fall). To help protect against being caught by a predator, these birds will flock up as there is safety in numbers (if a predator gets a meal, chances are it won't be you!) and they will also tend to move to traditional molting areas that have been used for many generations.

First signs of molt - eight Mute Swan primaries, all shed in a single wing flapping session on Lake Lily!

Mallards (and other ducks) have a main molt now too and it is at this time that the males go into what we call their 'eclipse' plumage. This sees the normally rather colorful males adopting the drab colors of females which perhaps makes them less obvious to predators during a time when they are more vulnerable to attack. It may also mean that the birds can flock up to molt together without getting too stressed at being that close to another male! So if you're at the South Cape May Meadows any time soon, don't be surprised if you don't see any apparent male Mallards. The thing to do is to check the bills; females have brown and orange bills, males have a bill which is greenish yellow (brighter when breeding) and looks like an unripe banana.

Another group of birds showing rather severe molt processes at the moment are the larger gulls, and boy do they look a mess. Indeed, I reckon they're so ugly at the moment that no-one is interested in photographing them. I spent some time last night trawling the internet for photographs of young gulls taken in late June or early July and I really couldn't find any! With a late run of horseshoe crabs along the beaches at the moment, I went out to look at some local gulls and found - well, a mess! Here's a few of them:

Here's what I would consider to be a pretty 'average' American Herring Gull, for its age and time of year. This is what you can either refer to as a first-summer, or second-calendar-year bird. In other words, it was hatched last year. I've desperately tried to use other molt or plumage terminology such as cycles or words such as basic or alternate but find them totally non-intuitive and of no use when trying to get people off the starting blocks with understanding the subject. The problem in trying to define a first-summer plumage for these gulls, however, is that they don't really have one! During their first 12 months or so after losing juvenile plumage,  some species of larger gulls are pretty much continually molting from first-winter to second winter, gradually replacing the full suite of feathers.

Here's a bird that is a little more blotchy and darker than the bird above, but still fairly typical of what you see here; again, it's an American Herring Gull and shows a classic half pink, half black bill and a lot of dark body blotching. They also tend to be rather dark at the back end with dark bands wider than pale bands on the upper and under tail feathers. It might be easy to mistake this for a Lesser Black-backed Gull, based on the darkness of the upperpart feathers, but that species is much paler on the under and upper tail feathers as well as on the body feathers in general, while the bill is usually all dark at this age.

Now here is an ugly gull - I'm sorry, no offence intended, but it is pretty bad! Birds like this are pretty common here too and can be rather confusing as they're not in the field guides! This too is an American Herring Gull, though most of it looks pretty pale. This is most likely due to the bird having wintered well south of here - perhaps in Florida - where the sun really bleaches out the feathers and breaks then down. Thus, all the pale feathers are old ones, whilst the dark blotches are new feathers coming through. This bird struck me as surprisingly heavy-billed, giving it a Great Black-backed Gull look, but I think this may be due to a thinning of the head feathers which actually makes the head look smaller relative to the beak.

Here's the same, heavy-billed American Herring Gull as above in a more convincing pose, showing the dark tail and relatively dark rump. Look at how the outer primaries have been reduced almost to just the central shafts which must make flying much harder! New, grayer, inner primaries are coming through, while some of the wing coverts are completely missing, leaving a strange white patch in the middle of the wing.

For reference, here's a typical second-summer (third-calendar year) American Herring Gull. By this age, the adult back color is apparent and can safely be used to help identify the species. Look just how worn those old wing coverts are now though! Notice too that the bill is now largely yellow, though still with much black towards the tip.

Also for reference, here's a typical first-summer Great Black-backed Gull. Note how the upperparts are much more strongly checkered in appearance, while the feathers under the tail show more pale than dark.

Sightings update: Both the Eurasian Collared Dove and the Purple Gallinule remain at Cape May Point and up to six Lesser Black-backed Gulls are being reported variously along South Cape May Beach. Small numbers of Glossy Ibises are feeding in pools which are drying out and getting ready for returning shorebirds...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cape May Birding Hotline 6-23-2011

Hotline: Cape May Birding Hotline
To Report: call (609) 884-2736, or email
Coverage: Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties , NJ
Compiler: David Lord, Cape May Bird Observatory
URL: ;

This is the Cape May Birding Hotline, a service of New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory. This week's message was prepared on Thursday, June 23, 2011. Highlights this week include sightings of EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE, PURPLE GALLINULE, BLACK-NECKED STILT, MISSISSIPPI KITE, ROSEATE TERN, COMMON NIGHTHAWK

The EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE was last reported on Whildin Ave. in Cape May Point, between Yale and Lincoln Avenues, on Tuesday, June 21st, 2011.

The PURPLE GALLINULE was last reported at the Cape May Point State Park in the Second Plover Pond on Sunday, June 19th, 2011.

Two BLACK-NECKED STILTS were sighted briefly at Cape May Point State Park in Bunker Pond on Sunday, June 19th, 2011. A MISSISSIPPI KITE was observed from the Hawkwatch in the CMPSP on the same date. All three birds have not been seen since.

A ROSEATE TERN was observed flying south past Sunset Beach in Cape May Point on Monday, June 20th, 2011.

A COMMON NIGHTHAWK was observed at the intersection of Jackson Street and Beach Ave. in Cape May on Sunday, June 19th, 2011.

-For up-to-the-minute Cape May sightings information, photos and downloadable birding maps and checklist of Cape May, visit . Follow rarity sightings, many spring arrivals, and spectacles on -


******CMBO SUMMER HOURS are as follows: Northwood Center on East Lake Drive in Cape May Point is open every day except Tuesday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Center for Research and Education on Rt. 47 in Goshen is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30am to 4:30pm; closed Sundays and Mondays. ******

The Cape May Birding Hotline is a service of the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory and details sightings from Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties. Updates are made weekly. Please report sightings of rare or unusual birds to CMBO at 609-884-2736. Sponsorship for this hotline comes from the support of CMBO members and business members, and should you not be a member, we cordially invite you to join. Individual membership is $39 per year; $49 for families. You can call either center to become a member or visit. Become a member in person and you'll receive a FREE gift (in addition to member discounts in the stores).

Good Luck and Good Birding!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Skimmers A-Courting

A couple of days ago I was sent a nice series of pictures of Black Skimmers from South Cape May beach. The great thing about these pictures is that it shows classic courtship behavior, the male presenting the female with a fish, just to prove he can provide for a family - you know the kind of thing! And what's so great about it is that we don't yet have Black Skimmers nesting at Cape May Point, but for the last couple of years, a few skimmers have been hanging out here during the summer, so maybe next year - it's probably already too late for this year.

So here's a set of pictures, all taken by Jane Ellison on the beach behind the South Cape May Meadows (copyright remains with the photographer).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Weekend Catch-up

It might be late June, but the birds at Cape May just keep coming and, as I commented a short while back, it's a time for strange things to turn up! The Eurasian Collared Dove seems to have settled into a routine of hanging out on the east side of the residential are at Cape May Point, currently still favoring the blocks between Whilldin and Lehigh Avenues. No word of the Purple Gallinule yet this morning but it has been favoring the furthest pool in the State Park, just north of the plover ponds. The two Black-necked Stilts seemed to move on and were only here for the one day, while Sunday also provided a Mississippi Kite for those viewing the stilts.

A few oddities continue to pop up and sing here and there, including a first-year male Summer Tanager in the State Park on Saturday and a Northern Parula singing near the Northwood Center on Saturday and still present as I type...

Some 50 or so Wilson's Storm-petrels were logged off the point on Sunday while I heard a rumor of a count of 12 Lesser Black-backed Gulls around the beaches on Saturday. Scott Whittle has reported 10 Brown Pelicans heading past the point this morning, continuing a run of sightings of this species over the past few days. Whilst at one of our favorite crab shacks on Saturday evening, we were a little surprised to see at least 14 Willets flying around over the saltmarsh - a shame if they were all failed breeders. Breeders that have faired better include the local American Oystercatchers (as seen below) but the Least Tern colony is being systematically eaten by a local gang of 10 or so Fish Crows that have worked out there's an easy meal to be had...

Even little wings need stretching! This still downy oystercatcher chick is certainly putting on the pounds now!

Monday walks at the Meadows always turn up interesting birds; this Eastern Kingbird was a nice talking point recently, having chosen to nest rather prominently in a mulberry there. No need to get out of bed for a snack!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Black-necked Stilts on Bunker Pond

Frank Sencher discovered two Black-necked Stilts on Bunker Pond this morning. The birds were still present through at least 11:30am, and were spending most of their time in the northwest corner of the pond.

Black-necked Stilts on Bunker Pond [photo by Mike Crewe]


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cape May Birding Hotline 6-18-2011

Hotline: Cape May Birding Hotline
To Report: call (609) 884-2736, or email
Coverage: Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties , NJ
Compiler: David Lord, Cape May Bird Observatory
URL: ;

This is the Cape May Birding Hotline, a service of New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory. This week's message was prepared on Saturday, June 18th, 2011. Highlights this week include sightings of EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVE, WOOD STORK, CORY’S SHEARWATER, PURPLE GALLINULE, SOOTY SHEARWATER, ROSEATE TERN, CATTLE EGRET.

A EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE was found near the corner of Lighthouse and Whildin Ave. in Cape May Point on Monday, June 13th, 2011, and was last reported on Saturday, June 18th, 2011 on Lehigh Ave., also in Cape May Point.

A WOOD STORK was noted from Soc’s Lane in West Cape May on Thursday, June 9th, 2011, and was last seen heading toward Delaware on Monday, June 13th, 2011.

Two SOOTY SHEARWATERS and one CORY’S SHEARWATER were noted heading Northeast off Cape May Point on Tuesday, June 14th, 2011.

A PURPLE GALLINULE was discovered in Cape May Point State Park at the second plover pond on Sunday, June 12th, 2011, and was last seen there on Saturday, June 18th, 2011.

A ROSEATE TERN was seen flying south past St. Peter’s Jetty in Cape May Point on Saturday, June 18th, 2011.

A CATTLE EGRET was observed sitting on the railing around Bunker Pond on Sunday, June 12th, 2011.

-For up-to-the-minute Cape May sightings information, photos and downloadable birding maps and checklist of Cape May, visit . Follow rarity sightings, many spring arrivals, and spectacles on -


******CMBO SUMMER HOURS are as follows: Northwood Center on East Lake Drive in Cape May Point is every day except Tuesday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Center for Research and Education on Rt. 47 in Goshen is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30am to 4:30pm; closed Sundays and Mondays. ******

The Cape May Birding Hotline is a service of the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory and details sightings from Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties. Updates are made weekly. Please report sightings of rare or unusual birds to CMBO at 609-884-2736. Sponsorship for this hotline comes from the support of CMBO members and business members, and should you not be a member, we cordially invite you to join. Individual membership is $39 per year; $49 for families. You can call either center to become a member or visit. Become a member in person and you'll receive a FREE gift (in addition to member discounts in the stores).

Good Luck and Good Birding!

When is a Collared Dove not a Collared Dove?

When is a Collared Dove not a Collared Dove would appear to be a pretty basic question - answer: When it's another species! Yet in North America that doesn't seem to be such an easy question - or answer! I got dragged into the subject this morning when I went to Cape May Point hoping to see my first North American Eurasian Collared Dove. What I saw, left me scratching my head!

I was aware of potential problems with the identification of Eurasian Collared Doves as we sometimes have the same problem in the UK, the problem being the domesticated Barbary Dove (or Ring-necked Dove - unfortunately a name already used for another African species!). Barbary Doves have been in domestication so long that their origin is obscure, but it is believed that they were brought to the Mediterranean from Africa by traders in Roman times, or perhaps even back in ancient Egyptian times. This obscurity has left people uncertain of what to call it 'officially', but it is usually refered to as Streptopelia 'risoria', the specific epithet best put in inverted commas to indicate uncertainty as a true species. Certain plumage features and - especially - its call indicate that it is most likely decended from the African Collared Dove (Streptopelia roseogrisea) and thisd would fit in with the assumed irigin mentioned above.

The Eurasian Collared Dove is said to have been introduced into Bermuda in the 1970s, from there spreading to Florida where it was first detected in 1982. From Florida it has shown the same invasive tendencies that it has shown in Europe, in both cases - interestingly - spreading north-west. Incidentally, the Eurasian Collared Dove spread into Europe from Instanbul where some now believe it was introduced, perhaps from Iran or India by traders. Now the problem comes in the USA, for domesticated forms of Barbary Dove were already established in Florida and it seems quite likely that the vanguard of Eurasian Collared Doves may well have hybridized with Barbary Doves. Pigeon Fanciers (like dog breeders, cat breeders and many other specialist folks) take pleasure in oddities and variety and a high proportion of Barbary Doves show elements of leucism in their plumage (that's abnormally pale coloration to you or I!). This may well have continued into the new hybrid population and even into any pure Eurasian Collared Dove pairings that may have occurred subsequently.

So, how does this relate to the Cape May bird I hear you ask. Well, my immediate reaction upon seeing the bird was - this is not a Eurasian Collared Dove, it's far too pale. However, spend a little longer with a bird and you get lots of different views under different light conditions. Here's some pictures of the bird with comments.

First impressions are of a rather patchily-plumaged bird, typical of the irregular leucism shown by Barbary Doves. Note also the paleness of the primaries which don't contrast particularly strongly with the rest of the plumage.

Up on the roof in better light, some of the plumage patchiness is burned out and less obvious, but an overall lack of contrast between primaries and other feather tracts still seems to hold.

Again, a rather scruffy looking bird with primaries that seem to be the color of dark, milky coffee rather than showing any gray tones.

Now the big but... Continued watching throws a few spanners into the works! A clear view of the undertail coverts while preening reveals them to have a gray cast - a feature of Eurasian Collared Dove. This is wrong for Barbary Dove which should be white here. The very strong contrast between dark inner and pale outer halves to the tail feathers also suggests Eurasian Collared Dove.

For me, this picture - taken during a fortuitously-timed wing stretch - clinches the bird as Eurasian Collared Dove and lays the ghosts to rest. It also makes it easy to understand what's happening with this bird. The brownish primaries with their pale tips are easy to see here - at least the outer five are. Doves should have 10 primaries with the outer (No 10) long unlike songbirds which generally have a very small 10th primary. So we can number inward from 10 to 2, but find that number 5 is very short and we are one missing. In fact, I reckon that 5 is so short that we can't see it and 4 is the half-grown one. The point is, these inner primaries are new and are much grayer than the old, brown, outer primaries. Couple this with the pale pink (not reddish) legs (see other photos!), rather small black collar and small amount of pink wash on the chest and it is clear that this is a molting youngster.

Back on the ground under the trees again, the bird returns to looking patchy and unconvincing, but here it is possible to see the gray undertail feathers, while the dark gray inner primaries can also just be seen poking out from under the secondaries. One other feature apparent here too is the rather scaly appearance to the wing coverts, produced by typical juvenile feathers which are shorter than those of adults and produce a slightly different effect in the way that they overlap each other (this same effect can be used for ageing shorebirds).

I'm not sure how this zoomed in and cropped picture will appear on the blog, but hopefully it should be possible to see that the eye is chestnut brown and not ruby red. Again, this is a feature of immaturity.

Currently this bird appears to be favoring the residential part of Cape May Point not far from the entrance to Cape May Point State Park. I suggest trying the block centered on Lehigh/Whilldin Avenues and Lincoln/Yale Avenues or a block in either direction of there.

A Farewell to Alaska

 [Glaucous Gulls argue over a piece of blubber, Barrow AK yesterday.]

We're in the home stretch of the CMBO/ New Jersey Audubon Eco-travel tour of Alaska, we being me, popular Cape May guide Mark Garland, and 12 fantastic participants, including several familiar to CMBO members - since they're volunteers.

How's it been? Pretty d__n fantastic. Some highlights can be found on my blog, and a full trip report will be up on the New Jersey Audubon Eco-travel website soon.

 [Smitth's Longspur on the Denali Highway's alpine tundra.]

[Mark Garland surveys the tundra.]

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Recent Pictures

My recent posts on getting close to nature and interacting with wildlife struck a chord with many readers and I've had some nice observational notes sent to me by a number of people - thank you all for sharing with me. Lambert Orkis from Virginia told me a particularly touching story about an apparently injured Downy Woodpecker which seemed to be reassured by hearing a calm voice and allowed Lambert to experience some close moments with it.

Lambert Orkis sent me this great portrait of the amazingly obliging Yellow-breasted Chat that has been on territory at Higbee's Beach this year; Lambert writes " Tom Reed mentioned as he was co-leading us in a Belleplain Walk during the Cape Maygration festival, that he felt a certain frustration towards Yellow-breasted Chats as they were so audible yet hard to find. I mentioned to him the rather visible Chat at the First Field in Higbees Beach. He admitted that was the exception. Accordingly, because of the high visibility of this bird at First Field for me in the Spring 2010 and its high visiblity this Spring especially when the birding was slow, I would like to nominate this bird as the Official Spring-time Greeter of First Field. He is musical, colorful, and co-operative.
Another one of Lambert's recent photos seems to fit into my Nature Detective post. So what is going on here? Actually, I'm not sure, but three adults at one nest is not usual and its also of interest to note that the bird in the middle is carrying the fish the wrong way round! By the sound of it, this was a case of one Osprey trying to steal a fish from another and simply taking it too far!

I'm adding in this Cedar Waxwing photo from Kevin Inman for two reasons - one, because it's a nicely framed shot of two birds interacting and tweo, because Kevin took it from a kayak! Birding by kayak really is taking off  and the quietness of travelling without an engine certainly gets you closer to nature.

Finally, it was a fairly quiet walk in a cool NW wind at the state park this morning, but its good to be able to report that the Purple Gallinule is still feeding in its favorite pool just north of the second plover pond.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Drifters and Loafers Continue

The typical mix of early June oddball birds continues around Cape May. After David LaPuma's Blackburnian Warbler singing in the Villas a few days ago, I had a Northern Parula singing at the pond at Higbee's Beach yesterday, while Tom Reed reported a Mourning Warbler in his yard. A Eurasian Collared Dove was seen to fly off from Lighthouse Avenue towards Lake Lily yesterday evening but so far there has been no further reports of it.

This morning, the Purple Gallinule is still present but is staying east of the trail into the state park from the plover ponds, so early morning is not the best of times to view! More drifters included some 40 Glossy Ibises passing in two flocks, two adult Double-crested Cormorants heading north and a Great Crested Flycatcher in the dunes at St Peter's. Loafers offshore included five Surf Scoters. Two Sooty Shearwaters and a single Cory's Shearwater flew north-east, probably heading up the coast, about 08:10AM. There's more to come I feel today!

A couple of recent great birds at Cape May have proved elusive as far as camera lenses are concerned! Karl Lukens managed to get these digiscoped record shots under difficult conditions of the Wood Stork and Purple Gallinule. The Wood Stork keeps moving around too much and the gallinule keeps standing on the wrong side of the pond!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Gallinule Continues, Plus Birds Offshore

The Purple Gallinule continues at Cape May Point State Park this morning, now in the marshy area just north of the second plover pond having probably roosted overnight in the bayberry hedge there.

A bit of early morning activity offshore at St Peter's and St Mary's included up to 20 Wilson's Storm-petrels, a Sooty Shearwater, two Royal Terns and all three species of scoter. The single White-winged Scoter that I saw was a very pale, washed out bird and I would guess is probably the same bird that has been at Poverty Beach recently. A female Common Goldeneye was something of a surprise off the point this morning too, while a Roseate Tern flying by indicates that the species is still worth looking for today.

One bird I forgot to mention from the Coastguard Unit on Saturday was a male Northern Harrier which was unexpected there in June - but that's birding!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

More Than A Moorhen!

Shortly before 6:30PM this evening, Tom Reed received word of a probable Purple Gallinule at the plover ponds at Cape May Point State Park on Saturday evening. Three of our keen regulars had been taking an evening walk, spotted what appeared to be a Common Moorhen and quickly realised there was no racing stripe down the side... Some of us were well into a meal at one of our favorite crab shacks, so Tom dutifully did the honors and graciously waited until we had finished eating before re-finding the bird at the same location this evening. It appeared to go to roost in a line of bayberries at the north-west corner of the second pond, so hopefully will be around tomorrow morning.

Also at the point today, the itinerant Wood Stork put in an appearance over Stephens Street and was also seen from the Hawkwatch Platform before disappearing to the north. A Cattle Egret was on the railing at Bunker Pond with the terns and up to three Roseate Terns are being seen variously around the point - try the South Cape May Meadows or the stone jetties off St Peter's as most likely venues for them. At least three Wilson's Storm-petrels and a Brown Pelican were off St Peter's on Saturday morning and up to four Royal Terns and a scattering of Black Skimmers continue around the beaches.

Somewhat off-beat was a Blackburnian Warbler singing in residential streets in Villas today, while a scattering of Willow Flycatchers can be heard singing from scrubby corners, including Pond Creek Marsh, Cape May Point State Park and the Coastguards Unit in the last couple of days.

Following up on some future ideas for CMBO walks, I was invited to have a look around the Coastguard Unit with our man on the spot Chris Hajduk. Chris showed me an amazing American Robin that has been there for a couple of months now and appears to be a rather bizarre, black-and-white bird. The highlight of any walk we may be able to do there in the future will be a visit to Poverty Beach, where interesting birds are often to be found lurking among the wooden pilings. On Saturday, a rather pale and heavily-abraded White-winged Scoter was there with a mottly collection of young Double-crested Cormorants.

The appearance of this American Robin certainly puts it in the 'that ain't right' category! This bird is singing and maintaining a territory in coastal scrub on the Cape May Coastguard Unit [photos by Mike Crewe]

Also in the 'that ain't right' category is this Great Black-backed Gull, one of several currently nesting in some pretty peculiar places at the Coastguards Unit. Most are up on flat roofs but this bird chose a very vulnerable spot. Chris Hajduk has roped the site to give the birds a little protection from anyone thinking of cutting the corner into the parking lot! [photos by Mike Crewe]

The Great Black-backed Gulls breeding at the Coastguards Unit are part of a common trend found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, where the species is progressively spreading southward as a breeding species. In New Jersey, the first recorded breeding was as recent as 1966, while on the other side of the Herring Pond, Great Black-backs have been recently found breeding in southern Morocco, apparently alongside the rather similar Kelp Gull which has been gradually spreading northward from South Africa.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nature Detective

One or two events recently have found me kicking back to my childhood - a time in our lives when I reckon we all have the potential to get the most out of the natural world. The one thing that children do so well is ask questions - interminably! You know, "Are we nearly there yet?", "Are we going soon?", "Why did Johnny get more than me?" and the completely indescriminate "Why?" to just about everything. Applying this questioning to the natural world as we get a little more adventurous - and more focused and directional in our questioning - is how we learn and, as I said to someone just a couple of days ago, the day we stop asking questions is the day we stop learning anything new!

What am I babbling about? Well, here's a few pictures I took yesterday that should instill questions in us all. The sort of pictures that turn us into nature detectives...

I pass the wooden jetty on bunker pond almost daily and it can be easy to become glib about the Forster's Terns that are almost always there this time of year. Yesterday though, they caught my eye. Why? Well, there heads look a bit odd don't they? What are they doing? One thing I learnt a long time ago is that birds have much better eyes than me and are very good at spotting predators - they have to be! Birds eyes are fixed in their sockets (they can't look left and right before crossing the road!) so they have to turn their heads to look in different directions. These birds have their heads cocked to one side because they are looking up. Keep an eye out for this behavior and take a cue from the birds. I looked up and there was a Mississippi Kite! So high, I couldn't get a photo of it, but the birds had spotted it and were checking it out. I have seen many birds of prey in this way, by noticing the bird I am watching looking up...

Blue Dashers are very common dragonflies and one of the few that tolerate sub-optimum, disturbed habitats so do well at Cape May Point State Park. What we must ask about this guy is why is he trying to stand on his head?! The answer is that this behavior is called 'obelisking'. Why do they do it? It was pushing 90F lunchtime yesterday at the state park and the sun was high in the sky. The best way for a dragonfly to stay a little cooler whilst still being able to stay out and hunt for food is to minimize the surface area of its body that is presented to the sun. Pointing the abdomen straight up is the simplest solution - even if it does make you look a bit silly!

Anyone who has visited Cape May Point will know that Fish Crows are a serious problem down there, systematically working their way through all the eggs and chicks painstakingly cared for by Nature Conservancy and DEP staff. The solution is very simply but not popular, but while I was at the state park yesterday this bird flew past me and gave me another nature detective episode - what species of bird is it having for lunch? While the possibilities may seem endless, we can actually get there quite quickly. We can rule out pretty much all non-passerines by the long hind toe, which is as long as the fore-toes. Several groups can be ruled out by having black or gray legs, while others, such as woodpeckers and cuckoos have two toes forward and two back instead of three forward and one back. I quite quickly found myself reckoning this to be a pigeon of some sort, with the pale pink suggesting it is (or was) a young bird. I would therefore presume (it being Cape May) that it's either a Mourning Dove or Feral Rock Dove. I guess that's better than a Piping Plover...

My day of nature detection yesterday continued right through to the evening when I was about to brush this tiny ant off my shorts. Something somehow struck me as unusual so I gave it a second look. This thing is tiny (here it is on my finger nail), just like those annoying minuscule ants that seem to come as a compulsory extra in kitchens around here, yet it somehow seemed different.

Here's a closer look and we can now make a call on what it is. In both pictures, what should be apparent is that this minibeast comes in two - we could loosely call them a head and a body. Ants are typical insects and have three sections - the head, thorax and abdomen. In addition, this closer picture reveals at least six eyes - two of which are placed at the back of the elongated head. You can also just make out two large, forward facing eyes on the front, like a pair of goggles - and all of the eyes are simple, not compound. This is all pointing towards a spider, and that is what we have. An amazing spider which mimics ants as a way to get closde to its prey. It probably also means that it gets left alone by potential predators whi hdon't want to tangle with an ant and all that formic acid thing that they have going on! This looks like one of the antmimic jumping spiders so I'm hoping spider fanatic Dick Walton can help me with this one!

Just for balance, here's one I keep missing! My nature detective radar keeps letting me down on Roseate Terns, which pop up at time to time here - I've yet to see one at Cape May! This bird was photographed at the South Cape May Meadows yesterday afternoon by Karl Lukens. Roseate Tern is an intensively-studied species and pretty much all birds that turn up in Cape May are banded.

Suggestions for the weekend - water levels at the South Cape May Meadows are excellent at the moment and the site is currently attracting large numbers of terns and gulls and a few shorebirds, egrets and herons. Try an evening walk there, any time after 5PM and scan through the flocks in search of Black or Roseate Terns. Marsh Wren can be heard on the main (west) path and you might get Virginia Rail or  Black-crowned Night Heron too. (Don't forget to get your pass on the way in - $5 for the whole year is pretty good value for money and helps pay for habitat maintenance).

How's the Tour Going?

 [Welcome to Alaska: breaching Humpback outside Resurrection Bay near Seward. Click to enlarge all photos.]

NJA VP of Education Dale Rosselet sent Mark Garland and I a text message yesterday asking how the Alaska tour we are currently leading for New Jersey Audubon/CMBO was going. Answer: Awesome!

Mark's laptop unfortunately died, but you can follow our progress on my blog at .

New Jersey Audubon's Eco-travel Program, in my humble opinion, is as good as any tour company's and better than most, with the combination of broad natural history focus and great success on finding targetted birds on any tour they offer.

 [Horned Puffins are common to abundant in parts of coastal Alaska.]

[Our NJA/CMBO group with the Aialik Glacier in the background, and a piece of it in Chuck Slugg's hands.]