Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jaegers in the Rips

Tis the season when all three species of regularly-occurring Jaegers (Skuas for our friends across the Atlantic) vacate their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra and flood down both coasts to spend their non-breeding life out at sea. Here in Cape May our most common jaeger seen from land is the Parasitic Jaeger (Pomarine are more often far offshore, and Long-tailed are simply rarer, but regularly encountered on offshore pelagic trips in small numbers).

While individual Parasitic Jaegers can be seen year-round here (which include some non-breeding birds that spend the summer offshore), fall is one of the best times to see numbers of these pirates of the high seas including their wide range of variation in age and color morph. One of the best areas to view these birds is in the Cape May "Rips", the tumultuous upwelling caused by rising and falling tides streaming over and around underwater topography at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. These upwellings bring nutrients to the surface, which increase food availability from the tiniest zooplankton to the largest marine mammals. In the middle of this faunal continuum, of course, are the birds; dominated by gulls and terns.

Three adult light-morph Parasitic Jaegers harassing a Laughing Gull
© David La Puma
Cape May "Rips", October 2015.
Parasitic Jaegers get their name from their tendancy for hunting down gulls and terns and chasing them until they regurgitate their last meal, then swooping down and gobbling it up themselves. Kleptoparasitism, literally parasitism by theft, is the term used to describe this behavior. Knowing this behavior can actually help you determine whether you're looking at a jaeger in the melee of feeding gulls and terns.
A more "typical" view from shore, a distant immature dark-morph
Parasitic Jaeger circling back on a laughing gull. © Clay Taylor
Cape May "Rips", September 2016.
Now is a good time to keep track of the local tides, and get out to one of several locations around Cape May Point where viewing the rips is best. The Coral Avenue and St. Mary's dune crossovers can be excellent, as can the dune crossover at Brainard Ave. Our 2016 Hawkwatch Counter, Erik Bruhnke, has also been seeing them right from the hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point State Park! The best time to maximize your chances of seeing multiple jaegers is during the three hours before low tide, as the Delaware Bay empties into the Atlantic Ocean, bringing many nutrients with the outgoing water. The second best time is on the rising tide, again, beginning about three hours prior to high tide. Of course the magnitude of the rips behavior is dictated also by the amount of tidal fluctuation, so tides closer to new and full moons are going to produce more upwelling activity, which means that right now is a great time to scan the rips for jaegers! (the full moon was only a few days ago). As of yesterday there were up to six Parasitic Jaegers visible during the hours prior to low tide. How many will there be today? You'll have to go and find out!

A lone Common Eider was also present near shore on the east side of the
St. Peter's Jetty © David La Puma

Swarovski Optik Nature (North America)'s Naturalist Market Manager,
Clay Taylor, digiscopes jaegers a mile away through his Swarovski ATX
spotting scope. © David La Puma

Gulls are a stumbling block for many new to birding...
but when they pose together nicely like this, they're downright easy!
L->R: Herring Gull, two Great Black-backed Gulls, and Lesser Black-backed Gull
© David La Puma

For more information please feel free to stop by NJ Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory, at 701 E Lake Drive, Cape May Point, 08212. We're open and here for you daily from 9:30am - 4:30pm.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Not Just A Hawkwatch

A hawkwatch has been conducted at Cape May Point State Park every year since 1976 - yes, we're celebrating the 40th Anniversary (check out all the exciting happenings at the Cape May Fall Festival)!! But, it's so much more than just a great hawkwatch. It's the social hub of the Cape May birding scene, a source for birding and local information, and one of the best sites in Cape May for all types of birding. From cormorants to warblers, you can see it all from one place. With the water levels receding in Bunker Pond, directly in front of the platform, the herons, egrets, gulls, terns, and shorebirds have been taking center stage. September alone has produced a number of notable sightings, including Red-necked Phalarope, Wilson’s Phalarope, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Marbled Godwit. And don’t forget – there’s lots of hawks, too. Come out and join us!!

© Brett M. Ewald

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Welcoming the Class of 2016 fall counters and interpretive naturalists

The Cape May population swells in summer, by some estimates between 40 and 50,000 tourists. By Labor Day, though, the throngs of beach goers subside and a new group of visitors begins to replace them. The birders. Cape May, as you know, is Mecca for birds and birders each fall and New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory is the organization that serves both of them. Each year since 1976 CMBO has counted the hawks migrating over Cape May, en route for points south, from the Hawkwatch Platform at Cape May Point State Park. Since 1990 CMBO has counted the monarch butterflies migrating en route to Mexico, our second longest running monitoring project. Since 1993 we have had a paid counter positioned in Avalon to quantify the migration of southbound waterbirds, most recently from September 22 to December 22, sunrise to sunset, on the beach between 8th and 9th street at our new Seawatching Center constructed by our partners, the Borough of Avalon. Since 2003 we have staffed a daily count of visible songbird migration that occurs in the first hours after sunrise, from atop the "Higbee Dike" dredge spoil, at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. In short, CMBO has its finger on the pulse of migration in Cape May. But collecting data is only part of the equation, and just as important as collecting data, is connecting people to nature through our innovative programming. We, of course, do this throughout the year with our all-volunteer Associate Naturalists and Field Trip Leaders, but each fall we also bring on a crew of Interpretive Naturalist Interns in addition to our counting staff, to engage all of the visitors who come through Cape May during the autumn migration period. This great team of naturalists represent the future of conservation, and will forever carry forth the torch of New Jersey Audubon wherever they go from here.

Before the start of the season, we held the first "orientation week" in the history of these seasonal positions, and it was a roaring success. A mix of presentations and experiential learning, led by the region's top ornithologists, educators, conservationists and field naturalists, the Class of 2016 experienced a full immersion into Cape May migration ecology and interpretation. Now we'd like to introduce to you our Class of 2016 interpretive naturalist interns and counters, and hope you will come and visit them at the various count sites throughout the 2016 fall season!

In alphabetical order:

Jesse Amesbury – Interpretive Naturalist
I was born and raised in northern New Jersey, but have lived in Cape May County the last 3.5 years, so I am no stranger to the magic of birding in Cape May. I became fascinated with birds at the age of 6 and have never looked back since. My passion for birds and wildlife brought me to Stockton University where I majored in Environmental Science. After graduation, I worked at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, where I was involved in various marsh related studies involving sea level rise, as well as American Black Duck carrying capacity. For the past 2 years I worked with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ doing Piping Plover monitoring. When I'm not watching and photographing birds, I like playing basketball and tennis. 

Lindsey Brendel – Monarch Monitoring Project
Lindsey grew up on a farm in White Lake, Michigan and developed a love of nature early on. She attended Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan where she studied film, focusing on the genre of documentary. This is her third year working as a naturalist for the Monarch Monitoring Project in Cape May, New Jersey. Before heading to Cape May for the fall, Lindsey spent the summer working as a naturalist at the Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, Colorado where she taught programs, lead guided hikes on Vail Mountain, and also gained her accreditation as a Certified Interpretive Guide through the National Association for Interpretation. Lindsey has also worked for New Jersey Fish and Wildlife as a field technician on their endangered non-game species team, monitoring endangered beach nesting birds along the Atlantic coast. When at home in Michigan, Lindsey is a volunteer at the Organization for Bat Conservation, where she has enjoyed learning about and taking care of insectivorous, fruit, and vampire bats. She is thrilled to be working as a naturalist once more for the Monarch Monitoring Project and for the chance to experience the magic of fall in Cape May.

Erik Bruhnke – Cape May Hawkwatch Counter
Erik Bruhnke has had a love for birds since he was a child. He graduated from Northland College in Wisconsin with a Natural Resources degree in 2008. Erik taught field ornithology various times at Northland College. During his first six fall seasons following college, Erik worked as an interpreter at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Minnesota and was a board member of the Duluth Audubon Society. He has counted migrating raptors at the Corpus Christi HawkWatch in Texas. Erik’s wildlife photography has won national awards, and his writings have been featured in Birder’s Guide via the American Birding Association, BirdWatching, and Birdwatcher’s Digest. Erik leads tours for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours as well as his own business, Naturally Avian Birding Tours. He loves to cook and bake in his free time, often while sipping bird-friendly coffee.

Glen Davis – Morning Flight Counter
Glen hails from Brooklyn, NY, but has called Cape May home for more than 16 years. Simply put, he loves living and birding here! Working for CMBO in the fall of 1999 (and subsequently in 2007, 2014, 2015, and 2016) made the biggest of impacts on him. Glen has/has had lots of jobs: professional tour leader, biological consultant, start-up-tech-company tech, grad student, bartender, musician, school teacher, garbage man, veterinary technician to name a few. He has traveled, explored, and birded in 47 states and over 20 countries. Glen has worked seasonally for CMBO as a researcher, naturalist, and salesperson and is very excited to be returning for a third consecutive year as the 2016 fall season's official songbird counter with the Morning Flight Project. He resides and engages in BBQ in Cape May Point with his wife, Christina "Kashi" Davis. 

Kirsten Fuller – George Myers Naturalist
Hi, my name is Kirsten Fuller, and I am the George Myers Naturalist Intern this year. I am from Woodstown, New Jersey and a graduate of Rowan University. I have a bachelors degree in biology and a minor in secondary education. So far, I have truly enjoyed my time working for New Jersey Audubon, and my experiences here have strengthened my interest in becoming a science teacher in the future.

Meaghan Lyon – Seawatch Counter
I am a recent graduate from College of the Atlantic. I grew up along the coast of New Jersey watching shorebirds with my Mother. Since then, I have immersed myself in seabird research and monitoring efforts. For two seasons I studied breeding colonies of gulls, guillemots, and petrels on offshore islands in the Gulf of Maine. Most recently, I monitored Piping Plovers and Least Terns breeding on the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Whether I am banding a seabird or observing through my binoculars, I always enjoy my time being in nature and watching birds. 

Tom Reed - Migration Count Coordinator
A 6th-generation area resident, Tom is one of very few birders who can truly call Cape May home. He discovered birds at the age of ten and was immediately captivated by the spectacle of migration that engulfs the Cape May area. Tom has traveled through much of North America since graduating Rutgers University in 2011, with assignments that have ranged from wintering Piping Plover surveys in the Bahamas, to breeding bird atlas work in Wisconsin, to tour-guiding in Alaska, and of course, several fall seasons at Cape May. One of the area’s most in-demand birding guides, he has also appeared at various local and national birding events and represented CMBO at the 2016 Champions of the Flyway competition in Israel. In his spare time, Tom is a Regional Editor for the journal North American Birds, sits on the Board of Directors for the Hawk Migration Association of North America, serves as a statewide editor for eBird, and is a voting member of the New Jersey Bird Records Committee. Tom is perhaps the only person who has logged over 1,000 counting hours at both the Avalon Seawatch and Cape May Hawkwatch, and he was also responsible for developing the Cape May Springwatch, the area’s first full-time spring migration count. Tom’s leadership was instrumental in the creation of the Migration Count Coordinator position in 2015, and CMBO is thrilled to have him return in that capacity for Fall 2016.

Maria Smith - Interpretive Naturalist
Maria is from Mount Airy, Maryland, and she grew up enjoying wildlife she found in her yard and on road trips with her dad. She recently graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, with a degree in Biological Sciences. Maria has enjoyed opportunities to travel and conduct field research on Black-throated Blue Warbler and Western Bluebird behavior. Her recent public outreach position at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology allowed her to share her love of birds and other wildlife with visitors through tours and trail walks. Maria is excited to be joining the naturalist team at CMBO and continuing to interact with the public. She hopes to study bird behavior in graduate school and begin a career involving teaching.

Diane Tassey – Monarch Monitoring Project
Diane is a veteran monarch enthusiast with many years of public school teaching which included a focus on cross-curricular monarch studies. She also travelled to Mexico with Dr. Bill Calvert to visit El Rosario and Chincua - two major monarch overwintering areas. With a Master 's Degree in Environmental Education, Diane has organized much community outreach. She also studied rainforest ecology in Belize, and was an Earthwatch participant in Washington to help restore salmon habitat. She has frequently visited Cape May during the fall to witness the monarch migration.

David Weber – Montclair Hawkwatch Counter
David grew up near Vineland, NJ. and has loved nature and animals his whole life. He recently graduated from Cornell University, where he took his birding skills to new levels, gained research experience with Acorn Woodpeckers, and traveled to other countries for classes. At Cornell he also worked for the eBird Team and lead tours and guided walks at the Lab of Ornithology. David is excited to fine-tune his raptor identification skills and contribute to a 60-year dataset at the Monclair Hawkwatch. David intends to continue his education by seeking a Master's degree next year.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Black Tern Bonanza

Black Terns are one of those uncommon birds at Cape May that everyone likes to see, showing a classic blackish and white pattern that stands out amongst the other terns. This fall has been a banner year for them, with numerous sightings from the hawkwatch platform, Coral Ave., and Sunset Beach – the top count has even exceeded 100. Bunker Pond at Cape May Point State Park has often offered prolonged views and great comparisons with other terns. Black Terns are unique in that they were historically less common in the spring than now, but much more common in the fall (peak years in the 1920s, with 600 occurring on August 22, 1923. With their migration period waning (often departing by the end of September) and a population declining due to habitat loss, get out and enjoy them while you can! -- Bret Ewald

©John McNamara

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fall is (almost) HERE! Come Birding!

Fall is here! Okay, so the Autumn Equinox is still weeks away, but we all know that bird migration happens year-round, and what we consider "fall migration", the southbound movement of billions of birds each year, begins in earnest while tens of thousands of tourists are still flocking to our summer beaches. But recently we've had some drier winds from the northwest, we've even seen cooler temperatures showing up farther north, albeit from our weather apps and weather stations, but it's still clear as day that fall is indeed coming, even if it's not officially here. A few offshore storms are setting the surfers into overdrive as well, and birders anxiously await anything pelagic that might blow in. This is also the time for Jaegers to begin their southbound movement out of the Arctic breeding grounds and down both coasts, so seeing a jaeger offshore of Cape May now isn't rare at all, but seeing one overhead, over land, is always a head-scratcher and draws some excitement. So today when the alert came out that a Jaeger species was soaring over Stevens Street with Turkey Vultures, I had to smile and think "yup, Cape May!"

Here's a photo of the bird, with a Tree Swallow, taken by the original observer and resident of Stevens Street, Michael O'Brien. Michael later confirmed that this was indeed a young Parasitic Jaeger, the "expected" jaeger species from shore here in Cape May.

Fall is (almost) HERE! Come Birding!

Juvenile Parasitic Jaeger soaring overhead with a Tree Swallow above it.
Steven's Street, West Cape May, NJ Aug. 30, 2016. © Michael O'Brien

Friday, August 5, 2016

Identifying shorebirds in flight - Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpipers are moving through Cape May right now and can be found most days in the freshwater marshes at the southern tip of the peninsula - especially the Meadows and Cape May Point State Park. While this species is highly distinctive and quite striking in breeding plumage, I still think of it as a "tweener" shorebird - a species that can be easily mistaken at a glance for a few other species (Pectoral Sandpiper is another such "tweener" shorebird, easily mistaken for Least Sandpiper, Ruff, and others depending on the context, distance, etc). In this case, flocks of yellowlegs and dowitchers can easily provide "cover" for Stilt Sandpipers. With a careful look at the structure, colors, and size of Stilts, they become much easier to pick out of flocks.

July-August is when adult Stilt Sandpipers molt from their dark-barred alternate (breeding) plumage into the duller basic (winter) plumage. This flock of adults still shows plenty of heavy barring across on the underparts; among our American shorebirds, this pattern is unique to Stilt Sandpiper.

The slim shape and gray and white colors may recall the pattern of yellowlegs, but these Stilt Sandpipers in their unbarred, basic plumage are more compact in wing shape and overall length. The underwing pattern, a white stripe on the underwing coverts isolated in gray, helps set the species apart from yellowlegs and dowitchers which have more evenly patterned underwings. 

This photo of a Stilt Sandpiper (left) with a Lesser Yellowlegs (out of focus at right) gives an idea of the relative shape and size of these two species. The yellowlegs is relatively leggy and shorter-billed than the sandpiper. You can also see the underwing of the yellowlegs, which is more uniformly pale/ evenly barred than a Stilt Sandpiper.

Stilt Sandpipers often feed in deeper water with Short-billed Dowitchers, and so you often see the two species together in flight. Note the slim shape of the Stilt Sandpiper's body and wings, the leg projection beyond the tail, and the slightly droopy bill. Compare the isolated white stripe in the middle of the underwing of the Stilt Sandpiper to the evenly barred underwing of the dowitcher.

Of course, dowitchers (of both species) show an obvious white stripe running up the back, which Stilt Sandpipers lack. Here, a Stilt Sandpiper (at left) shows off its pale hind end and dark back, strikingly different from the high contrast backs of the four Short-billed Dowitchers.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Summer's Main Event

Mike Kilpatrick operates a nature photography guide service specializing in New Jersey coastal marsh and seashore subjects.  A life-long resident of North Wildwood, NJ his work has appeared in national publications, including Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. 

Summer's Main Event
by Mike Kilpatrick

The main event of salt marsh bird life in the summer is the nesting season of colonial gulls and terns.  Colonies of Laughing Gulls, Forster’s Terns and Common Terns are strung along the tidal waterways behind the Atlantic coast barrier islands, where nests can be found in very high density.

Laughing Gull on nest with young © Michael Kilpatrick
Laughing Gull with chicks, nesting in wrack on marsh edge.
© Michael Kilpatrick

In order to avoid losing nests to tides, the gulls and terns tend to nest on wrack.  Wrack forms as the tide ebbs and flows across the marsh, pushed into masses of dead reeds.   It accumulates in, and along, the taller grass boarders of breached ponds and creeks and forms slightly raised platforms used to support nests.   Predominant among the wrack nesters is the Laughing Gull and Forster’s Tern. 

Pair of Forster's Terns engaged in ritual behavior at the nest. © Michael Kilpatrick
Pair of Forster's Terns at the nest.
© Michael Kilpatrick

Less frequent is the common tern being more associated with beach nesting colonies yet they join the wrack nesting community with enough frequency that finding a few nesting on the marsh is not a surprise. 

Common Tern nesting in wrack © Michael Kilpatrick
Common Tern nest in wrack.
© Michael Kilpatrick

Amidst the colony drama created by many thousands of birds spread across a vast area, it is easy to overlook a rare player whose appearance on the stage is fleeting:  The Gull-billed Tern.  It, like the common tern, is more often associated with beach nesting locations but it is a nomadic and adaptable bird that has shown throughout its range a diversity of nesting locations including the marsh.   Once known as “The Marsh Tern”, nesting records in New Jersey, at the northern edge of its range, are sporadic.   On the Cape May Peninsula, such records are few and far between.

But exist they do, as I discovered this past season.  I was tucked in the tall grass edge of a breached pond in pursuit of photos with clear views of a line of Laughing Gulls and Forster’s Terns nesting along a small creek west of Stone Harbor/Avalon.   The colony soon forgot me and I watched parent birds tend to their nesting cuties. 

Gull-billed Tern with young © Michael Kilpatrick
Gull-billed Tern with young.
© Michael Kilpatrick

The chorus of calls around me included Laughing Gulls and Forster’s Terns along with an intermittent Clapper Rail, passing egrets and Herring Gulls.   A second tern voice emerged in the background:  a Common Tern.   Then there was another addition to the choir, a different voice, it was a Gull-billed Tern. As my attention turned to this voice, it became a consistent presence in the marsh chorus.  It was not just one bird.   It was with excitement that I set out to locate the source of these voices.  One Gull-billed Tern passing overhead turned into another and then two more passed overhead.   Following their flight, they appeared to be landing and rising from the same spot.    When a passing Herring Gull was quickly met by a mob of Common and Gull-billed Terns rising off the marsh, I had one thought: “Nesting?”    When finally approaching this area, it was apparent.   On a mat of wrack there were twenty-one Gull-billed Terns with eight nests along with nests of Common Terns present in slightly higher numbers.

Gull-billed tern adult apparently teaching its chick to respond © Michael Kilpatrick
Gull-billed Tern and chick exchanging calls.
© Michael Kilpatrick

That afternoon, I embarked on an obsessed search of the literature, as books flung from the shelf began to form chaotic piles upon the floor.   I uncovered a timeline spanning hundreds of years of natural history observations, starting with writings of Philadelphia Naturalist William Bartram in the 1700’s through recent sightings on eBird.  Across the observations of naturalists and plume hunters and information contained in modern research papers and state survey records, one conclusive truth emerged.  There is very little information about the Gull-billed Tern nesting in Cape May County.    

But, the record was not entirely empty.   The most compelling information on the gull-billed tern was offered by Charles S. Shick in 1890, published in The Auk, who wrote “A rather common visitor.  Breeds on meadows and sand flats at the southern point of the island.   I have found it to breed in the company with Larus artricilla.  Mr. Harry G. Parker has also taken eggs in the same locality.”

Adult Gull-billed Tern reacting to a Laughing Gull chick that entered its territory © Michael Kilpatrick
No Laughing Gulls Allowed!
Gull-billed Tern driving off a Laughing Gull chick from its territory.
© Michael Kilpatrick

The island he references is the Seven-mile Beach Island, know better today as Stone Harbor and Avalon, described by Shick as “one of the richest ornithological fields open to collectors.”  It is interesting that Witmer Stone, in his iconic “Bird Studies of Old Cape May” leans toward discrediting Shick’s account of the gull-billed tern.  Yet, on the morning of July 2, 2016, as I stood on a marsh island behind Stone Harbor and Avalon, the gull-billed tern was present and nesting, surrounded by Larus atricilla (laughing gull).

the stately Gull-billed Tern showing off its namesake feature © Michael Kilpatrick
The stately Gull-billed Tern showing of its namesake feature.
© Michael Kilpatrick

The 19th century records are complimented with two other references confirming nesting in Cape May County.   The US Fish and Wildlife Service Status Review and Conservation Recommendations for the Gull-billed Tern in North America notes no research studies specific to the Gull-billed Tern have been conducted in New Jersey other than annual aerial censuses of mixed gull and tern colonies. Still, very few nests are actually discovered despite this bird being an annual breeder.   Clay and Pat Sutton make reference in Birds and Birding at Cape May of two pairs nesting on Stone Harbor Point in 2003. 

Gull-billed Tern adult and chicks vocalizing © Michael Kilpatrick
Gull-billed Tern family vocalizing.
© Michael Kilpatrick

The lack of accessible references about the Gull-billed Tern on the Cape May Peninsula may not represent the entirety of what is, or was known.   It is likely that only a fraction of what was observed regularly makes it into the public record.

Today we have the luxury of advanced tools and technology that allows all of us to participate and contribute, at any level, to the ever evolving ornithological record.   From novice to expert, from research scientist to casual vacationer, from birder to photographer to fisherman to hunter, thanks to citizen science tools like eBird, the ornithological record now accommodates participation.  As a result, in the future this record will be much more complete.

It’s always a memorable moment when a Gull-billed tern crosses over head and it is certainly exciting to find them nesting in Cape May County. It is also thrilling to take a journey through the ever evolving ornithological record: combing through historic references, the experience of the present moment (as mine on the morning of July 2nd),  and imagining someone 100 years in the future creating their own map of discovery from the references recorded today. 

Editor's Note: Annual aerial surveys by the State of New Jersey do detect Gull-billed Terns each year in the marshes from Stone Harbor northward. Their low-density nesting does indeed make them harder to find than other species. For those interested seeing more of these marsh breeding species, our Birding by Boat trip on The Osprey and/or The Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari are both highly recommended.