Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Zugenruhe, Morning Flight (or is that swarm) - not a day to spend indoors

Last night American Redstarts and Yellow Warblers fed actively in my cherry tree until dark, at least when not chasing each other in whirling loop-de-loops. These birds, I thought, were surely going to migrate tonight. They displayed classic Zugenruhe, a German term meaning "migration restlessness."

And they did migrate - along with many thousands of others, I'm sure. This morning's flight at the Higbee Dike was proof - Sam Galick, our migration counter, was clicking Redstarts off in 10's. Around 7:30 a.m. Sam showed me his redstart clicker - it read 71, as in 710 Redstarts. Second in abundance was probably Northern Parula, though Black-throated Blue and Northern Waterthrush vied for that title while I was there. Some goodies spiced the mix - several Connecticuts, a few Blackburnians, a solo Dickcissel, and an immature Parasitic Jaeger migrated down the bay in front of the Higbee Dike.

Birding from the dike is a different, exciting, and sometimes frustrating experience - the low-angle light makes everything look yellow, the birds pass rapidly in waves, darting this way and that, and yes, they are fall warblers, and yes, people are identifying them in flight. It's fun even if you can't identify most of the birds - where else can you see a few thousand warblers in a morning?

I haven't had the good fortune to spend much time watching Cape May's morning flight, and decided this morning that the first thing you learn at the Higbee dike is that if you thought you were quick before, you need to learn a whole new version of quickness: quickly spot the bird, quickly and normally naked-eye decide if it is something "different" (meaning, this morning, not a redstart) , quickly get your bins on it, quickly focus, and quickly absorb what you can see. That's really your first order of business when you try to i.d. ephemeral targets - get fast while staying careful. Some birders are naturally quicker than others, but I think it's as much training as talent.

Sometimes what you can see is the same stuff you use on a bird in the woods - streaks and an eyebrow on a Northern Waterthrush, for example, or wingbars on a "baypoll." Other times, you get only a gloss of pattern, like Connecticuts are big and hooded. And out on the edge, you use stuff not really in books - Blackpolls are streamlined, almost bullet-like in shape with very long wings and, even, a powerful chest. A powerful chest on a warbler? On that one, yes, and it makes sense since Blackpolls migrate so far.

Michael O'Brien, Vince Elia, and others have said the only way you can learn to bird the dike is to bird the dike, or bird from the platform where CMBO has an interpreter stationed. Some of the birds do perch briefly, before winging northward to find suitable habitat.

Then there's the business of calling out birds. Part of the problem is if you talk, you can't hear flight notes and can't concentrate, so this morning we were mostly silent, most of the time. Then there's the different-bird problem: I call out Blackpoll and you're looking at a Redstart, thinking I've lost it.

And of course, there's the bravery problem. Do you have the guts to sing out Connecticut Warbler on a fly-by 40 yards away, in front of a group of other birders, including some of the best anywhere? It's instructive to note that every single person on the dike this morning that named some birds out loud got a few wrong, at least initially, and commonly heard words included "I'm not sure," "Did you get anything on that bird?" and simply, and perhaps wisest, "I don't know." Mistakes are expected, and you can't learn without them.

I haven't heard any reports on how the woods birding was this morning, but I'm guessing it was excellent, and at the hawkwatch a few kestrels and accipiters were already evident at quarter to nine. Chris Brown, our "swing counter" (he pulls duty at the hawk watch, sea watch, and occasionally morning flight) reported a good morning passerine flight from the hawkwatch, too.

Shorebirding at the point continues to be excellent. Yesterday a Wilson's Phalarope paused briefly at Bunker Pond, seen from the hawkwatch platform. That bird, unfortunately, left after about 20 minutes with a group of yellowlegs and apparently didn't come back. Baird's and Buff-breated Sandpipers have been steadier, as have Stilt Sandpipers, White-rumpeds, and all the regular common species.

Word is Sabine's Gulls are showing up in New York State, perhaps that will be our next rarity. But rarities or no, 'tis the season to be in Cape May.

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