Monday, December 17, 2007

Cape May CBC highlights, report from Barnegat Light, and some CBC ruminations

[Drake Harlequin Duck posing at the foot of the Barnegat Lighthouse, Saturday December 15. Photo by Don Freiday. Click to enlarge all photos.]

The Cape May Christmas Bird Count was conducted yesterday, Sunday December 16, with the typically amazing (for anywhere else) results. The Ash-throated Flycatcher count (3!), for example, will exceed what they find on many counts in the southwest where Ash-throateds breed!

I missed the Cape May count this year (see below for where I was), but Paul Lehman reports the following highlights: "The Cape May CBC on Sunday, Dec 16, had a surprisingly good morning (between the overnight heavy rain and afternoon strong winds) and recorded approximately 163 species (plus 5 count-period birds). The best rarities included THREE Ash-throated Flycatchers (the long-staying bird at Cape Island Creek near West Cape May, plus new birds at Higbee Beach (3rd field) and at Cape May NWR property near Green Creek), the continuing Barnacle Goose (seen in fields along Batt's Lane--first sighting in a week), a Dovekie that stayed for hours near the jetties at the mouth of Cape May harbor, and a Prairie Warbler near Dias Creek.

Other highlights included 4 King Eiders, 10+ Common Eiders, Osprey, 4 Goshawks, Willet, Laughing Gull, 2 Iceland and 1 Glaucous Gulls, Sedge Wren, 4 House Wrens, Nashville and 2 Orange-cr Warblers, Yellow-br Chat, high counts of 13 Saltmarsh and 7 Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows, 3 Baltimore Orioles, Red Crossbill, 6+ Common Redpolls, and Lapland Longspur. Count-week highlights included PACIFIC LOON (fly-by at Avalon Seawatch on 12/14), 2 CAVE Swallows (2 on 12/13 at C. M. Point), White-winged Crossbill (12/14 at C. M. Pt.), and several Razorbills."

[Birders watching the Harlequin pictured above. This is a rather unusual spot to see a Harlequin - normally they are far out the Barnegat Jetty but powerful north winds created crashing waves on the jetty Saturday, inducing most of the sea ducks to linger in the lee of the jetty at the tip, and this bird to ensconce itself in an even quieter location. Photo by Don Freiday.]

CMBO's "Harlequin Romance" field trip to Barnegat Light and environs on Saturday was a great success, as this trip always is, though conditions were challenging. I posted lists from the trip at the end of this blog. A high tide combined with 20-30 mph north winds drove waves crashing onto the jetty, making it unsafe to walk on. However, the conditions also put most of the target birds in the lee, or south side of the jetty, thus for example we had outstanding, very close views of Purple Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones perched on rock faces out of the wind, reminding me of birds nesting on sea cliffs.

As I had hoped, when we had trekked in the sand all the way to the end of the jetty, we found the main group of Harlequin Ducks feeding in the lee, and nearby was a group of 40-50 Common Eiders in all plumages. Both Eider and Harlequin numbers at Barnegat Light have increased in recent years, something I attribute to an increased food supply in the form of mussels and other invertebrates attracted to the jetty. The main jetty at Barnegat was built something like 15-20 years ago, I'm not exactly sure, but regardless it takes time, when you drop a rock in the ocean, before life is attraced to it.

On this trip I always check Barnegat Bay from the vicinity of Harvey Cedars - there's a public park on the bay side of Long Beach Island immediately south of the Harvey Cedars water tower - and this didn't disappoint. Two Lesser Scaup, a few Common Goldeneye, and many Bufflehead and Red-breasted Mergansers were present. Somehow we couldn't track down a single Horned Grebe, very unusual.

At Manahawkin WMA, Stafford Avenue (a.k.a. the road to nowhere) was a mess, not something you want to drive down in a vehicle with low clearance. There also wasn't much there, just a few harriers, redtails, and a Kingfisher. The WMA is heavily hunted in season, and I find that stopping here in February or March, after hunting season is closed (and there are no longer duck and small game hunters pushing the birds elsewhere) is much more productive. I don't have a particular quarrel with hunting, in fact I do it myself, and the WMA's have been acquired in part through fees from hunting licenses, but spots like Manahawkin and Tuckahoe/Corbin City are much better out of hunting season.

Cedar Run Dock road, the other area Short-eared Owl option, was cold, windy, and as a result not so awful productive either. Chuck Slugg did pick a very distant Short-eared (with his new Kowa 88 mm scope, which is an awesome scope by the way), which I glimpsed a few minutes later, but viewing conditions were, um, challenging.

I missed the Cape May CBC because of one of those annoying count conflicts - Cape May always coincides with the Northwest Hunterdon CBC, which I've done forever. I'm not sure if I'll ever get a chance to do Cape May, which of course I'd love to participate in. Not only for the rarities, in fact rarities don't mean so much to me. One thing about doing a south coastal count, at least if you get a good territory, is that species diversity is much higher. Yesterday in Hunterdon, my "party" (consisting of me and my friend Dave Womer) found 59 species, one of our best totals ever. In my Hunterdon territory, west of Clinton, in the 15 years I've done the count, we've compiled 87 total species. In contrast, Pete Dunne told me he had about 80 species in Cape May yesterday, and I hear that Paul Lehman had over 100 in his Cape May territory.

But tradition is important, and it's fun to watch the numbers year to year in your own patch of CBC turf for changes, up or down. At our round-up, for example, we remarked that House Finch is a declining species, which isn't so much something to get upset about since the species is introduced in eastern North America, but still interesting and something we wouldn't know about without the CBC. In my own patch, we averaged 100 House Finches a day in the early 90's, and about 50 in the past few years. This is a small sample size, but thanks to Birdsource,, we can look at all CBC data for any species.

[Graph of House Finch numbers, normalized by party-hours, on all NJ CBC's over the last 40 years, created on birdsource.]

We should be upset about what's happening with American Kestrel. Again, just in my little patch we would find 4-5 in the early 90's, and now we generally don't find a single Kestrel, period. Statewide CBC data is even more alarming:

[Graph of American Kestrel numbers on NJ CBC's over the last 40 years].

[Conditions for the Northwest Hunterdon CBC were challenging - sleet/snow/rain all night, sleet and rain most of the day, temperatures never leaving the low 30's, and constant howling wind. But birds were there to be seen regardless.]

[A continuous east wind coupled with the sleet/snow/freezing rain to grow icicles on a diagonal on this Hunterdon county fence. Beyond the fence, however, were 17 White-crowned Sparrows, a Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrows, Tree Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a hunting male harrier. The sparrows were later scattered by a young and hungry Cooper's Hawk.]

"Harlequin Romance" field trip results follow.

Location: Barnegat Lighthouse State Park
Observation date: 12/15/07
Notes: CMBO "harlequin romance" trip, with Chuck and MJ Slugg & 25 participants. High tide 11:00 a.m. + strong north wind = no walking on jetty, luckily birds were tucked in on s side of jetty. Also went to Harvey Cedars and bay sites.
Number of species: 38
Brant 300
Common Eider 46
Harlequin Duck 35
Surf Scoter 50
Black Scoter 50
Long-tailed Duck 50
Red-breasted Merganser 35
Red-throated Loon 5
Common Loon 5
Northern Gannet 75
Great Cormorant 2
American Kestrel 1 one female flying north across the inlet, into a strong north wind!
Black-bellied Plover 3
Ruddy Turnstone 10
Sanderling 25
Purple Sandpiper 40
Ring-billed Gull X
Herring Gull X
Great Black-backed Gull X
Rock Pigeon X
Mourning Dove 10
Blue Jay 5
American Crow 10
Horned Lark 1
Carolina Chickadee 5
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
Hermit Thrush 1
American Robin 25
Northern Mockingbird 3
European Starling 150
Yellow-rumped Warbler 25
Savannah Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 5
White-throated Sparrow 25
Dark-eyed Junco 10
Northern Cardinal 5
House Finch 25
House Sparrow 50

Location: Harvey Cedars
Observation date: 12/15/07
Number of species: 18
Brant 25
Canada Goose 75
Mute Swan 30
American Black Duck 10
Mallard 25
Lesser Scaup 2
Long-tailed Duck 10
Bufflehead 50
Common Goldeneye 10
Red-breasted Merganser 25
Bald Eagle 2
Ring-billed Gull X
Herring Gull X
Great Black-backed Gull X
Rock Pigeon X
Mourning Dove X
American Robin X
Song Sparrow 5

Location: Manahawkin WMA
Observation date: 12/15/07
Number of species: 29
Brant 50
Canada Goose 10
Mute Swan 10
American Black Duck 20
Mallard 10
Hooded Merganser 25
Great Blue Heron 5
Northern Harrier 3
Red-tailed Hawk 2
Ring-billed Gull X
Herring Gull X
Great Black-backed Gull X
Mourning Dove X
Belted Kingfisher 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 5
Blue Jay X
American Crow X
Carolina Chickadee 3
Carolina Wren X
American Robin X
Northern Mockingbird X
European Starling X
Yellow-rumped Warbler X
Song Sparrow X
Dark-eyed Junco X
Northern Cardinal X
Red-winged Blackbird X
House Finch X

Location: Cedar Run Dock Rd.
Observation date: 12/15/07
Number of species: 18
Brant X
Canada Goose X
Mute Swan X
American Black Duck X
American Black Duck x Mallard (hybrid) X
Mallard X
Bufflehead X
Great Blue Heron 5
Northern Harrier 8
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Herring Gull X
Great Black-backed Gull X
Rock Pigeon X
Mourning Dove X
Short-eared Owl 1
Northern Mockingbird X
Red-winged Blackbird X
House Sparrow X

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