Monday, November 26, 2007

Lessr Nighthawk Ruminations, Barnacle Goose Photo, and report from Two Mile Beach

[Looking at the Lesser Nighthawk (whereabouts currently unknown), yesterday, Cape May Point State Park. Photo by Karl Lukens. Jessie Barry and others were able to add the bird to the Hawk Watch Platform list by backing their way to the platform and reaching up to touch the platform with the nighthawk in their bins.]

New news of the nighthawk will be posted here immediately.

We were very lucky the nighthawk was perched, and very lucky that nighthawk i.d. has come so far - as the story below will show. Jason has given an excellent summation of the field marks of the Lesser Nighthawk in an earlier post, along with photos.

I drove hastily to Cape May Point when I heard about the tentative i.d., approaching the matter with a healthy dose of caution, but feeling better upon learning it was Michael O'Brien who identified the bird initially.

The caution comes from a nighthawk discovered in Washington, D.C. October 29, 1985, not positively identified until excellent photos were obtained on November 10, and which remained until November 15, 1985. Up to November 10, the obsevers leaned very strongly towards Lesser Nighthawk. . .until the photos showed it was in fact a Common Nighthawk.

I didn't see that bird, only read about it in Birding (June,, 1986, vol. 26:3, pp. 169-173), but when, after looking at the Cape May nighthawk yesterday, I mentioned the D.C. story to Michael, he replied "I saw that bird. It shows how far we've come."

Quoting from the Birding article (written by David Czaplak and Claudia Wilds), "Optimists on the East Coast have always hypothesized (on no particular evidence) that a winter nighthawk is likely to be a Lesser. . .Inspired by hundreds of quick glimpses under lamentable conditions of visibility, by memories of flight patterns of birds seen thousands of miles away months or even years before. . .and by two or three dubious behavioral distinctions described in a half-dozen field guides, honest and competent observers found it almost irresistable to turn an out-of-season bird into one that was wildly out of range - especially when the group will was totally focused on the possibility of establishing a first regional record.

". . .Luckily, in the end conclusive evidence was provided - evidence that only a photographer or bander [or a sketched and carefully described perched bird - DF] could have supplied. . .The shortness of the wings and the "way out there" location of the primary bars vanished in the illumination of the camera

". . .In this case at least, relying on jizz alone would have given the region its first record - and it would have been completely erroneous. But should jizz ever be used to identify a vagrant for the public record when plumage and (where necessary) soft parts and voice are not unequivocally documented? If so, under what circumstances? And why?"

This article is worth tracking down and reading in its entirety, as is a nighthawk photo quiz Michael penned in the October, 1994 issue of Birding.

Armed by the latter article, read over 13 years ago, I arrived in Cape May knowing at least that I had to establish EXACTLY where the white primary bar was on the bird, and how extensive, and the first thing I did was crudely sketch the 5 exposed primaries, the position of the rearmost tertial, and the location of the white bar. I'd forgotten a number of other subtle hints, but Michael filled me and many other birders in with all the marks Jason lists below.

Good stuff. Speaking of which, here is a photo of the somewhat elusive Cape May Barnacle Goose:

[Barnacle Goose, Lily Lake, Friday 11/23/07. Photo by Karl Lukens.]

Finally, before the chase for the nighthawk Sunday afternoon, I birded Two Mile Beach and vicinity, where 19 Great Egrets, 3 Little Blue Herons, and an American Bittern foraged in the marshes along Ocean drive. Two adult Great Cormorants were perched on the pilings at Poverty Beach, and a flock of Purple Sandpipers fed on the jetty at Cold Spring Inlet. There's still at least one Cave Swallow around, and two Fox Sparrows were in full song. The full list is below.

Location: Two Mile Beach
Observation date: 11/25/07
Notes: Birded Two Mile Landing, the ponds along Ocean Drive, and walked to the jetty.
Number of species: 66
Brant 300
American Wigeon 10
American Black Duck 100
Mallard 25
Northern Pintail 25
Surf Scoter 200
White-winged Scoter 10
Black Scoter 25
Bufflehead 50
Hooded Merganser 60
Red-breasted Merganser 2
Red-throated Loon 40
Common Loon 2
Northern Gannet 50
Double-crested Cormorant 20
Great Cormorant 2 Both adults on pilings at Poverty Beach
American Bittern 1 Seen behind the restaurant flying & landing in marsh
Great Blue Heron 2
Great Egret 19
Little Blue Heron 3 2 imm, 1 adult
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1 Found freshly dead, not emaciated
Northern Harrier 1
Cooper's Hawk 1 Calling
Killdeer 6
American Oystercatcher 20 on beach near jetty
Greater Yellowlegs 5
Ruddy Turnstone 6
Sanderling 200
Purple Sandpiper 20
Dunlin 100
Laughing Gull 1
Ring-billed Gull X
Herring Gull X
Great Black-backed Gull X
Forster's Tern 6
Royal Tern 1
Rock Pigeon 20
Mourning Dove 5
Belted Kingfisher 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 2
Blue Jay 5
American Crow 5
Fish Crow 10
Tree Swallow 200
Cave Swallow 1
Carolina Chickadee 5
Carolina Wren 5
Hermit Thrush 5
Gray Catbird 5
Northern Mockingbird 2
Brown Thrasher 1
European Starling 75
Yellow-rumped Warbler 50
Fox Sparrow 2 Singing vigorously and beautifully!
Song Sparrow 5
Swamp Sparrow 5
White-throated Sparrow 25
Dark-eyed Junco 5
Northern Cardinal 2
Red-winged Blackbird 5
Boat-tailed Grackle 5
Purple Finch 5
House Finch 10
American Goldfinch 5
House Sparrow 10

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