Monday, October 25, 2010

Updates, Looking Ahead to Another KICKING Weekend, and a Blog of Sparrows

 [Savannah Sparrow at the Beanery yesterday, one of eight kazillion there. Short tail, clean markings, yellowish supraloral. Click to enlarge.]

First, the weekend: the stars and weather are aligning. Check out the frontal passage forecast for Thursday if you don't believe me. With south winds until then limiting migration, and northwest for Friday, Friday night and Saturday, if I were you I'd get on the phone right now, 609.861.0700 and see if you can still get in on CMBO's 64th annual Cape May Fall Weekend , this Friday through Sunday October 29-31.

A lot happened yesterday, but I'll be darned if I can remember it all. . . Luckily, we have View From the Field to fall back on, and, ah yes, there was a spectacular scoter movement of over 43,000 birds at the Seawatch, and a decent hawk flight early that collapsed at noon when the wind died. An American Bittern has been flirting with hawk watch observers, and Bob and Mary Ellen Claussen had a Clapper Rail on Lighthouse Pond east on Saturday, unusual for the site, since it's freshwater.

Perhaps yesterday's avian high water mark was, can you believe it, the House Finch flight - anyone who was paying attention noticed them, and Tom Reed, Sam Galick and others were more than paying attention. Per Tom Reed: "Regarding today's [Sunday's] finch flight- it's probably safe to say that there were at least 3000-3500+ House Finches moving through Cape May today, as Sam and I only started counting once we realized there were a lot of them, and there were still flocks moving through after we stopped counting at 10:15, continuing into the early afternoon. Tom had about 1500 from the Dike; not sure how many of his were the same as ours, as most of ours were coming in from the E or NE, and most of Tom's were also southbound."

Orange-crowned Warbler was a nice find on the Villas WMA walk yesterday, and Cynthia Allen noted another from her yard - now's the time to look for this species along field edges with rank, weedy growth next to brush or woods.

Today [Monday] has been pretty busy, e.g. Northern Goshawk at the hawkwatch and also an American Golden-plover mixed in with a flock of Black-bellieds as flybys there. The South Cape May Meadows Green-winged Teal flock has grown to well over 200 birds. Other meadows walk highlights included 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the beach (photo at field trip reports), several Eastern Meadowlarks, and nice looks at scoters and Northern Gannets offshore.

So yesterday I worked, really worked, the Beanery fields for sparrows, which leads me to philosphize about what that means.  Sparrows are a pain, or a challenge, depending on your point of view.  First, you have to dig for them, working the thickets or fields as they flush up in front of you, drop out of sight, and only rarely give you the kind of look you'd like. There's no substitute for patience, stealth, occasional pishing, more stealth, a flamethrower (kidding. . .) For example, yesterday I'm fairly certain I saw a dozen different Vesper Sparrows, but do you think I could get a clean photo of one? No.

[Part one of the sparrow challenge - they're elusive.  Here we have a Dickcissel (okay, it's not a sparrow, I know) top right, and the short-tailed streaky thing top left is a Savannah Sparrow.  I'll leave the bottom one to you, you've likely seen dozens or hundreds of them.  Despite the fact that even drab female Dickcissels are fairly distinctive, and have an obvious, easy to learn call (bzzzt, like flicking an electric razor on and off), I saw this one exactly once, for about 10 seconds, then it disappeared into the maze of weeds and other sparrows at the Beanery and I never found it again. Click to enlarge photos.]

 [Part Two of the sparrow challenge - they look alike. Song Sparrow in the foreground and Savannah Sparrow in the background. compare the nature of the dark and, especially, light streaks on the head. Beanery yesterday. Click to enlarge photos.]

 The other thing about sparrows is, once you've dug one out, how do you identify it?  By way of illustration, the other day on the hawk watch I was talking with someone who mentioned a series of photos posted online with the caption, "Possible Grasshopper Sparrow?" The bird apparently was an "obvious" Grasshopper sparrow, but to normal people (i.e. non birders or new birders), there's no such thing. Sparrows require a refined way of looking at things. Taking Song and Savannah Sparrows as examples. They have much in common - small birds; streaked with brown above and below; that similar striping pattern on the head shared by many sparrows in a general way. If you played "which one of these is not like the other" with a Savannah Sparrow, a Song Sparrow, and a Golden Eagle, anyone would figure out the eagle was different, but I wonder how many non-birders would realize the sparrows were different, too? [Maybe someday they'll start putting questions like this on the SAT's and GRE's and birders will finally get their chance to rise to the top.]

And yet: Song Sparrows have long tails; Savannahs have short tails. The pale head stripes on Song Sparrows are gray; on Savannahs they are white, off white, or yellowish, but not gray. Song Sparrows have thick, coarse streaking;  Savannahs have fine, crisp streaking. Song Sparrows pump their long tails when they fly off, and fly off low, often into cover; Savannahs fly off in a rapid but erratic, somewhat jerky flight and often land on top of bushes or even trees. Song Sparrows have rounded heads and fairly stout gray bills; Savannahs often show a crest or peaked head and have small, mostly pale bills. Their calls differ. They are not even in the same taxonomic genus.

[And then there's this nonsense: variation by season and age.  I lifted this photo from Tom Johnson's post on View from the Field. It's a Clay-colored Sparrow, except Clay-coloreds aren't supposed to have obvious thick streaking . . .except when they are juveniles, or have retained some of their juv. plumage, as this one has. Then there are the rusty-capped sparrows, losing their rusty cap in the fall, and the immature White-crowned Sparrows without white crown stripes. . . makes you want to sign up for our Sparrow Workshop next year. Details aren't available yet, but mark your calendars for October 15-16.]

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