Monday, December 31, 2007

White-winged Dove at Villas, Northern Shrike, White-eyed Vireo & more at Turkey Point

Bill Boyle gave me a call yesterday (Sunday) to report having just seen, with Bob and Stephanie Brown, who discovered the bird, a White-winged Dove at Villas WMA, a.k.a. the old Ponderlodge golf course. This may be the first winter record for Cape May, and is very likely the same bird that was reported there on and off during the fall. The bird was apparently more or less in the center of the WMA.

Yesterday was also the Cumberland Christmas Bird Count, and among the highlights was an adult Northern Shrike at Turkey Point, at the end of Turkey Point Road, in the rain around 4:00 p.m. The bird went to roost while we were there. Other count highlights included White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Great Egret, Short-eared Owls, Sedge Wrens and many raptors. Clay and Pat Sutton had Red Crossbills, but I don't know the details at present. If other highlights emerge, we'll report them here.

For many years I've done the Cumberland Count with Pete Dunne and a varying cast of characters, often including Linda Dunne, in an absolute peach of a territory: Dividing Creek and surrounds, focusing on Turkey Point and the Natural Lands Trust's Glades preserve. If you've never been, make the trip - the area is treated in Bill Boyle's Birdfinding in New Jersey, 2nd edition, beginning page 398. Or, join Karen Johnson and Janet Crawford for some of CMBO's Sunday morning birding field trips there, which begin January 20 and run through March 23. these field trips meet at the end of Turkey Point Road, and run from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. No pre-registration is necessary.

Just as dawn broke I nearly enticed a Short-eared Owl to perch on my head by squeaking at it from the edge of Turkey Point Road. Pete and Linda found two Sedge Wrens along the road, near the dog leg with the interpretive signs and pull-offs. In the marsh at the end of the road, across the footbridge, we squeaked up 1 Salt-marsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, two Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows, and a number of Seaside Sparrows. Standing on the tower, Pete picked a very distant male Yellow-headed Blackbird from a flock of Red-wingeds.

Another rarity highlight was a White-eyed Vireo, which we found along Turkey Point Road about midway between Maple Street and Hickman Avenue - more on this bird below.

Turkey Point is justly famous for raptors. In a single 360 degree scan from the tower shortly before the rain began, we had an actual count, as opposed to an estimate, of 45 (!) Northern Harriers, not to mention 4 Bald Eagles, 2 Peregrines, and several Red-tailed Hawks. Apparently the birds knew weather was coming and were getting in a last feeding effort. During the day we encountered multiple Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, and we had a second Short-eared Owl during the day, and several Screech Owls, 8 Great-horned Owls, and single Barn and Saw-whet Owls at night.

The Great Egrets were seen via scanning from Turkey Point Road. There's also been a Great Egret in a marsh south of Goshen along Route 47 several days during the past week.

The Turkey Point area is thick with land birds generally - lots of Hermit Thrushes, Towhees, Thrashers, Fox Sparrows, and so forth. Our full list for just our territory is below.

About the vireo, here's an exercise to try. Without looking at a field guide, either sketch a White-eyed Vireo or write down a complete description of one. Perhaps you'll have the same experience I did when I first saw the vireo yesterday - it's amazing how often I will realize I don't really know what a common bird looks like, and the vireo was a case in point, probably because I've seen hundreds, normally heard them before I've seen them, and never had to think about trying to prove I'd seen one.

The vireo sighting began with me seeing a warbler flash across the road, and after the briefest of binocular views I called out, "Orange-crowned!" Pete and Linda never got on it, and we never relocated it, so that was one that got away - all I know is mainly that I thought I recognized it as Orange-crowned, that it was green backed, lacked wing bars, and had yellow under the tail.

While we were trying to track down the Orange-crowned, pishing softly, the vireo popped into my view and again I had something to blurt out: "Hey! White-eyed Vireo!" Pete and Linda said, "Your kidding!" in about the same breath, and justifiably - the nearest White-eyed Vireo regularly winters is coastal North Carolina, and I'm pretty sure it's new for the Cumberland count, though it has been found on the Cape May count before.

I saw this bird perfectly well, though briefly, then it disappeared into a tangle before anyone else saw it. I really wanted someone else to see this bird. One thing you don't want to have happen is find a rare bird that no one else sees, let alone two back to back - can you say, "stringer"?

Luckily the bird did reappear - for me. And I began second guessing. It had a dark eye, which is fine, because of course young White-eyeds do and you'd expect a bird where it wasn't supposed to be to be a young one. It had a vireo bill, with the slight hook at the tip that recalls the apparently close genetic relationship vireos have with shrikes. But is a White-eyed Vireo's head supposed to be mostly gray? Can the spectacles be whitish-yellow rather than bright yellow? How much yellow can they have below - this one had a lot, and it was lemony-bright. Are their backs really that green? Is that thick dark line from eye to bill normal? I thought the answers to all those questions were yes, but I didn't really remember.

All this points out something that has been said before - experienced birders don't identify birds, they recognize them. Once I had to mess with field marks on the vireo, I didn't feel so awful experienced, even though I saw my first White-eyed Vireo at Brigantine sometime in the early 80's!

Pete finally got on it and said simply, with a touch of surprise, "White-eyed Vireo." Thank goodness. Here's a New Year's resolution - learn your common birds well. Not that we don't all already know that. Perhaps we'll make that a theme for tomorrow's CMBO field trip, Kick Off Your Year List in Cape May.

Location: Turkey Point
Observation date: 12/30/07
Notes: Cumberland CBC. With Pete and Linda. Calm, clear but damp in early morning, cloud during day, rain beginning at 3:00ish.
Number of species: 92
Snow Goose 1000
Canada Goose 100
Mute Swan 25
Gadwall 45
American Black Duck 150
Mallard 40
Green-winged Teal 800
Bufflehead 30
Hooded Merganser 20
Common Merganser 1
Red-breasted Merganser 14
Ruddy Duck 8
Wild Turkey 14
Great Blue Heron 18
Great Egret 6
Black-crowned Night-Heron 3
Turkey Vulture 2
Bald Eagle 10
Northern Harrier 55
Sharp-shinned Hawk 3
Cooper's Hawk 7
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 12
American Kestrel 1
Peregrine Falcon 3
Clapper Rail 10
Virginia Rail 10
Greater Yellowlegs 30
Western Sandpiper 8
Dunlin 1000
Wilson's Snipe 3
American Woodcock 2
Ring-billed Gull 30
Herring Gull 300
Great Black-backed Gull 20
Mourning Dove 35
Barn Owl 1
Eastern Screech-Owl 6
Great Horned Owl 8
Short-eared Owl 2
Northern Saw-whet Owl 1
Belted Kingfisher 5
Red-bellied Woodpecker 10
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Downy Woodpecker 15
Hairy Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker 8
Northern Shrike 1
White-eyed Vireo 1
Blue Jay 20
American Crow 25
Fish Crow 3
Carolina Chickadee 75
Tufted Titmouse 10
Red-breasted Nuthatch 5
White-breasted Nuthatch 3
Carolina Wren 25
Winter Wren 2
Sedge Wren 2
Marsh Wren 12
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4
Hermit Thrush 30
American Robin 600
Gray Catbird 8
Northern Mockingbird 12
Brown Thrasher 20
European Starling 20
Cedar Waxwing 70
Yellow-rumped Warbler 80
Common Yellowthroat 1
Eastern Towhee 35
American Tree Sparrow 3
Field Sparrow 18
Savannah Sparrow 12
Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow 2
Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow 1
Seaside Sparrow 15
Fox Sparrow 10
Song Sparrow 20
Swamp Sparrow 30
White-throated Sparrow 40
Dark-eyed Junco 12
Northern Cardinal 24
Red-winged Blackbird 350
Eastern Meadowlark 1
Yellow-headed Blackbird 1
Rusty Blackbird 40
Boat-tailed Grackle 72
Purple Finch 5
House Finch 2
American Goldfinch 4
House Sparrow 6

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