Monday, December 20, 2010

Cape May Christmas Bird Count 2010

Yesterday, dozens of birders collaborated on the Cape May Christmas Bird Count (CBC) around the southern part of the peninsula. This was the first weekend of the CBC season and things got off to a nice start. The Cape May count tallied around 153 species at last count (Tom Reed chipped in an eleventh hour Barred Owl late last night). At the wrap-up celebration afterwards, count organizer Louise Zemaitis remarked that all those great cold fronts we had earlier this fall (remember the great hawk flights and 100,000 songbird days?) just kept on coming into early winter, and probably didn't help the half-hardy and freshwater-loving species that often linger into mid-December. Much of the peninsula's fresh water was frozen given temperatures in the 20s (F) over the last week. This was my first time helping out with the Cape May CBC; I covered the central part of Cape Island along with Andy Bankert (visiting from Florida) and Tony Leukering. Here are few photos from our day:

Along with many other ducks typically found on freshwater ponds (unless those ponds are too cold to float ducks), this Hooded Merganser was on the open tidal sloughs flowing into Cape Island creek.

My CBC party only detected 4 individual cormorants yesterday - 3 Double-crested and 1 Great. Early in the fall season, Great Cormorants make up only a very small proportion of total cormorant numbers, but by the winter, the tables turn and Great Cormorants become much more relatively abundant. I always get a kick out of the structure of Great Cormorants in flight - just look at how this bird's ginormous head and neck combine to make up roughly the same bulk as its entire chest/ body - Double-crested Cormorants usually appear to be much less well-endowed in the head and neck area, and often look downright skinny-necked.

A sand-moving operation on the beach at Cape May Point State Park has been attracting gulls as of late. Tony Leukering turned up this cute little first cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull on the beach there yesterday, and Mark Garland found a Glaucous Gull there just a few hours later. It seems like that's a bit of a hotspot for the gulls!

For a Pennsylvania boy like myself, where shorebirds on a ridge-and-valley CBC are really the exception to the rule (with the occasional exception of Killdeer and Wilson's Snipe), the number of American Woodcocks around during the winter in Cape May is really spectacular. While I was looking for owls in the early morning hours along Sunset Boulevard, I was surprised to see 12 woodcock zipping by, heading back into brushy hiding spots from their nocturnal foraging exploits. In the evening, Tony Leukering organized a bit of systematic woodcock-watching - different observers claimed stakeouts in good brushy habitat around Cape Island and waited until dusk for woodcocks to fly out to prime worm-hunting territory. In the area around the Rea Farm/ Beanery, Andy Bankert and I tallied 10 woodcocks, including 3 alongside the roads that we got to watch in the headlights as they did their groovy, body-thrusting, foot-tapping walks in search of food in the ground. I was also lucky to run into the individual pictured above during the middle of the morning along Bayshore Rd. Fantastic birds!

While they were still around for the CBC, half-hardy birds like Hermit Thrushes and Gray Catbirds seemed to be decidedly down in numbers from just a few weeks ago. It seems plausible that the cold weather we've seen recently might have had a hand in this difference.

While there are a number of uncommon birds recorded on the Cape May CBC each year, this one might represent the rarest bird taxon on a global scale that is regularly recorded here. "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow breeds almost exclusively on Nova Scotia's Sable Island and has a population of only about 6,000 individuals. They winter on the Atlantic Coast, typically in a thin strip of sparsely vegetated beach/ dune habitat along the ocean, and are remarkably different looking from continental Savannah Sparrows, being large and pale, pastel gray with lovely reddish brown details and fine underparts streaking. A nice article by James Rising on the current situation of Savannah Sparrow taxonomy can be found in a recent article of the ABA's Birding magazine (accessible online here). This article helps to explain why Ipswich and Savannah Sparrows are currently considered conspecific, but also describes the level of isolation and how Ipswich are much more divergent than most of the other named Savannah Sparrow subspecies. Anyway, check out Rising's article - it is well worth consideration. Then go out to the dunes and see if you can find Cape May's rarest bird!

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