Thursday, December 29, 2011

Festive Birds

The Holiday Season causes some minor upheaval in the flow of information from Cape May, as people head off to reunite themselves with family and friends. But the birds carried on regardless and ensured some happy times in the field over the past two weeks. Having been away during this period, I returned to a stack of emails (now mostly worked through!) and amongst them were a few photos which I've posted here.

As of today, the male King Eider remains at Avalon and the Bell's Vireo is present but elusive still, by the entrance gate to The Beanery. Today's big new arrival was an immature White Ibis reported by Glen Davis which showed up on Lake Lily, along with a Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron. This is a real oddball bird to turn up in late December but a nice end of year present for those lucky enough to see it. The bird flew off NW around 2:15PM but may well show up again at some point. Lake Lily down here at Cape May Point holds a great array of ducks at present (including Redhead and Eurasian Wigeon) and is certainly worth a visit.

 Other birds this past few days include a Dovekie at Atlantic City beachfront on 27th and another which flew into Hereford Inlet (between Stone Harbor and North Wildwood) on 28th. A Dickcissel has been hanging out with House Sparrows at 105 Harvard Avenue at Cape May Point for several days now and two Baltimore Orioles were at the Hawkwatch on 28th. A Glossy Ibis and up to four or five Blue-winged Teal continue to hang on at the point and Tom Reed reported two Rough-legged Hawks at Tuckahoe WMA today.

White Ibis on the island in Lake Lily today. The bird flew off towards Pond Creek Marsh early afternoon but may still be in the area [photo by Mike Crewe].

This Dickcissel continues to lurk in rose bushes along Harvard Avenue, just behind the dune in Cape May Point [photo by Karl Lukens].

Jimmy Dowdell and Clay Sutton found this Lark Sparrow at Ocean City, at the end of Seaview Road, on December 22nd [photo by Pat Sutton].

Avalon's King Eider is putting on a good show for its admirers [photo by Pat Sutton].

Monday, December 26, 2011

Avalon sea ducks and a few updates

[Photographs are copyright by Tony Leukering 2011.]

The spectacular adult male King Eider continues in the mixed eider/scoter flock at the Seawatch at Avalon, being seen this morning between the Seawatch and the inlet by Vince Elia. Yesterday, it put on a great show, providing incredible looks right in front of Seawatch. The flock of ducks with which it is associating is dominated by Common Eiders, which number nearly 80 (I counted 71 yesterday, Don Freiday counted ~80 the day before). As the flock is often close, it provides enjoyable opportunities to practice ageing and sexing of the various species, with the Common Eiders being most interesting in that regard (at least, in my opinion).

Yesterday, I noted a female Common Eider that was much grayer and more-strongly marked than most or all of the others, so was wondering about a different subspecies (dresseri, breeding from n. Quebec to Maine, is the regular form here; borealis from farther north, breeding from e. Nunavut east to Labrador, is the next best option). Unfortunately, my camera decided not to work, so I got no pictures and hadn't, yet, figured out how to separate them. Others may want to work on that; The Sibley Guide provides some good pointers, with his 'Atlantic' birds being dresseri and his 'East Arctic' form being borealis. Note overall color differences and the extent of the bill lobes and eye placement. Keep in mind that even in dresseri, adult and breeding-season females are grayer than juvenile and non-breeding females -- generally.

Unlike previous years when scoters dominated the Avalon wintering flock, the number of scoters this winter is very low, with no White-winged Scoters. Yesterday, I counted just 24 Surf Scoters and five Black Scoters (though I did see flocks of Blacks flying by). A male Long-tailed Duck with the flock (the only one with the flock then) had a neck that was nearly all blackish -- already well on its way in changing plumage to the one that male Long-taileds wear in spring. Finally, I counted five Purple Sandpipers on the jetty in front of the Seawatch.

Speaking of Seawatch, itself, the season's count ended -- as per usual -- on 22 December, so you're on your own there, until the start of next year's waterbird count on 22 September.

Jim Dowdell has been tracking the occurrence of a juvenile Great Cormorant that has been loafing and roosting at a most unusual location: Lake Champlain in southern Villas (Champlain Dr. east of Bay Dr.). He has seen the bird most times that he has visited the site since late October, though I hadn't seen it either of the two times that I'd visited, once each in November and December. This morning, Jim called to say that it was there, along with a Cackling Goose, which made Jim's first record of the species there in the 16 or so years that he's been visiting the site. I bopped on down and, lo and behold, both birds were still there, along with some 16 Hooded Mergansers and a variety of other waterbirds. The Cackling Goose was almost certainly the same bird as has been noted a few times recently just a flap or two away at the Cox Hall Creek WMA.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

2011 Cape May CBC

For many birders in the New World, the event of the year is the Christmas Bird Count, a program run since 1900 by the National Audubon Society and conducted these days in local 15 mile-diameter circles between 14 December and 5 January, inclusive. Due to extensive and intensive effort to find and count birds during the CBC season, a large number of rarities are turned up, continent-wide, as a result. What would this year's Cape May count uncover?

With no significant cold spells this fall and early winter in Cape May, there were high hopes for a high count, with visions of barely-hardy warblers and other wee beasties to get the blood racing. In the days leading up to the count, conducted 18 December, a goodly number of interesting/locally rare birds were found or noted as continuing (e.g., Redheads in a couple places, the Cape May Point White-winged Dove, the Cape Island Preserve Ash-throated Flycatcher, and the Beanery Bell's Vireo). Unfortunately, the White-winged Dove and Ash-throated Flycatcher went missing even before count week (three days on either side of count day), but the Redheads and Bell's Vireo stayed put to be tallied.

What was probably the best among individual birds found on count day (that is, not known to be present previously) was the Western Kingbird seen well in flight at the Coral Ave. crossover on Cape May Point by Glen Davis. Unfortunately, it apparently kept going and was not seen again. A bird heard calling at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (aka 'The Meadows') that may have been a King Rail was reported by Rick Mellon and company. As far as I know, the final verdict on that remains up in the air. A Common Merganser was a good find on Lily Lake. A hummingbird seen four times by Melissa Roach and Tom Johnson, but exceedingly briefly each time, went unidentified in the town of Cape May. There were no other unexpected surprises (if that's not too redundant of a term) and the tally included only four species of warbler (Orange-crowned - which were more numerous than usual, Yellow-rumped, Pine, and Palm.

The number of staked-out goodies bagged for the count were many and varied and included: Cackling Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, a Plegadis ibis of uncertain species, Osprey,Eurasian Collared-Dove, Rufous Hummingbird, Red-headed Woodpecker, and the aforementioned Bell's Vireo.

However, a number of species were notable by their absence on the count: Tricolored Heron, Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Least Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Eastern Phoebe, Horned Lark, Common Yellowthroat, White-crowned Sparrow, Snow Bunting, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin. Considering the large number of lingering Great Egrets counted, the lack of a Tricolored Heron in any of the extensive back bays seems incredibly odd, as the species is not all that rare here in winter. And given the benign fall, the lack of Eastern Phoebes -- a species that is present here in even atrocious winters -- is doubly odd.

So, the day ended with a fairly average count of 151 species. Still, that total will be one of only two count totals exceeding 150 species north of 38 degrees N latitude and away from the West Coast, and the other is south of us (Ocean City, MD). As per usual in an area as well birded as Cape May, the list of count-week species -- those found within the period on three days either side of the count, but not on count day -- is long: Laughing Gull, Common Tern, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Dickcissel, and White-winged Crossbill are the ones that come to mind at the moment.

Ah, perhaps next year we'll get back over 160!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Catching Up

On behalf of Mike and the blog team, I apologize for the lack of recent updates. 'Tis the season, after all, and the holidays are a busy time for us too. So, let me catch you up on what's been happening on the Cape recently-

The main attraction is currently a King Eider that joined the seaduck flock at the Avalon Seawatch on Thursday. It was still being seen this morning, and as the photo below demonstrates, it is truly worth going to see!

[King Eider (left) and Common Eider in front of the Avalon Seawatch on Thursday.
Photo by Karl Lukens; click to enlarge.]

Also at the Seawatch on Thursday was a fly-by Black Guillemot, quite possibly the same individual seen flying south along New Jersey's north shore the afternoon before. That bird hasn't been seen again. Other Seawatch sightings included another handful of Razorbills, a couple Red-necked Grebes and a few Black-legged Kittiwakes- not a bad way to end the season!

Speaking of Kittiwakes, a few have also been seen recently from Cape May Point. The past month has provided a surprisingly high number of Kittiwake sightings from shore, and it will be interesting to see if the trend continues into the new year.

The Cape May Christmas Bird Count was held last Sunday, and as always, it provided a number of highlights. Among these were the Beanery's Bell's Vireo (which hasn't been reported in the past few days), an unidentified hummingbird in Cape May, a lingering Glossy Ibis on Cape Island, the continuing Eurasian Wigeon(s) on the Point ponds, several Orange-crowned Warblers, Marbled Godwits at Stone Harbor Point, and a few other birds I'm sure I've forgotten.

Other recent goodies included a Lark Sparrow on Thursday, found by Jim Dowdell at the end of Seaview Road in Ocean City; continuing Cackling Goose and Red-headed Woodpecker at Villas/Cox Hall Creek WMA; and a handful of lingering Palm Warblers at the Beanery as of yesterday.

We wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One of those "You Never Know" moments...

You know what birding is like; you get up in the morning and you never quite know what is going to happen - that's what elevates birding above plane spotting (no offence to plane spotters but, you know, if you have a timetable you pretty much know what you're gonna see that day!!). This morning was just like any other December morning when it started - until two kind birders strolled into the Northwood Center and revealed that they had just refound the Bell's Vireo! Yes, the Bell's Vireo, that had been right at the entrance gate to The Beanery for just one day - December 3rd - and hadn't been seen since! Surely not? Surely it can't have been lurking there all this time ... unseen ...well, it seems that it can!!

I gave it a good shot on an early lunch break - an hour at the gate and no sign. Plenty of other stuff; both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Winter Wren, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Northern Flicker (all good fodder for the forthcoming Christmas Bird Count this weekend), but no vireo. I missed it before as its appearance coincided with our annual trip up to Barnegat Light for the wonderful Harlequin Ducks. Now I was missing it again. After an hour I left Karl Lukens who spent another 30 minutes there, still with no luck. But then Glen Davies gave it a shot and the message was out - Bell's Vireo at the gate and showing well!!

It seems that the Bell's Vireo likes to spend a lot of time feeding low amongst dense vegetation, so do bear this in mind if you come looking for the bird. Today it spent a fair amount of time hunting insects on the ground or very low amongst stands of Common Reed stems, just west of the entrance gate at The Beanery, on the north side of the first field, but also ventured east of Bayshore Road on the hedgeline that runs along the old railroad track. Please be aware that this is private farmland on the east side of Bayshore Road.

Bell's Vireo at The Beanery today [photo by Mike Crewe]

Other bird news
Time has flown by and it's been a few days since I posted latest news, but December can be a little quiet of course. As is to be expected, the keen eyes of Tom Reed have been turning up the goods at the Avalon Seawatch and it's certainly been a good season so far for Razorbill sightings with small numbers seen on several dates of the past few days. Both Little and Black-headed Gulls have been seen, but perhaps the highlight has been a Humpback Whale which has been feeding and hanging out off Avalon for several days to December 12th at least. The Ash-throated Flycatcher was last reported on December 10th, when it seemed to be ranging even more widely and had moved on to nearby private land. The three Eurasian Collared Doves continue to hang out in the vicinity of Whilldin Avenue and the White-winged Dove was reported again today (14th) after a brief disappearing act and is currently being seen on Stites Avenue.

A little further afield, Dave Lord reported the resident Sandhill Crane flock at Husted's Landing on 11th and two Tricolored Herons were noted at Barnegat Bay on 10th.

On a very different topic, this apparent Trumpeter Swan has been causing consternation it seems since at least late November at Brigantine. This species has a checkered history on the East coast; on the face of it, a true vagrant from the relatively small and threatened wild population that breeds in the north-western States and western Canada seems unlikely. Yet there are vagrancy records from many parts of the US so such an occurance should not be dismissed out of hand. Alternatively, we have to consider the possibility both of possible escapes from captivity or even possible hybrids with Tundra Swan. There are currently no accepted records of wild Trumpeter Swans in New Jersey - so this bird is open to offers... [photo by Marvin Hyett, December 8th ].

Friday, December 9, 2011

Lingering Birds...

It's been a fairly quiet few days at the back end of this week, though a stormy north-westerly on Wednesday night probably shook a few things up, as will have the white frosting on the ground that I discovered in the garden this morning. Our bird bath was frozen over for the first time this season and such temperature changes are likely to get things on the move again. The adult male Painted Bunting was not seen this morning (Friday) for the first time during its stay; it's a little early in the day to know whether it has left for certain yet, but it is a least a break in routine. We will keep you posted. I hear that the female Rufous Hummingbird is still visiting feeders up at our Goshen Center - tomorrow will make seven weeks that this bird has been around (and I still haven't seen it!!). There has been no word for a couple of days on the female south of the canal but it may still be around. It has been seen at various feeders and red-flowered Pineapple Sage plants in gardens around the Foster Avenue/Batts Lane area and adjoining part of New England Road.

At the Seawatch, Razorbills continue to be hot news with two settling on the water off 8th street this morning. A small whale reported off Avalon on 7th turned out to be a small Humpback, with a second whale seen briefly further out. Despite poor weather conditions, several observers managed to see this animal from shore. Avalon also produced late Brown Pelican and at least three Parasitic Jaegers on 6th and a fly-by Harlequin Duck on 7th. A Dickcissel was at a backyard feeder in Del Haven on 7th and 8th at least and a very late Osprey flew over The Beanery on 8th.

It seems likely that, if nothing else, this cold snap will put paid to the amazing late run of butterfly and insect records around Cape May County. Will Kerling tells me that 10 butterfly species have been recorded in the county this month and Will finally tracked down a Citrine Forktail for the month too. The butterflies recorded are: Small White, Clouded Sulphur, Orange Sulphur (by far the commonest species), Monarch, American Lady, Sachem, Fiery Skipper, Common Buckeye, Mourning Cloak, Red Admiral.

Tagging gives insight into migration routes
I've been looking for a lull to mention reports made during the Fall of wing-tagged Great Egrets around Cape May - and finally I have that moment! Thanks to Pam Higginbotham for alerting me to the presence of at least two wing-tagged Great Egrets, both of which appear to have been tagged at breeding grounds on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, near the communities of Collingwood and Southampton, Ontario - north and north-west of Toronto, Canada. Bird banding has long been used as a method for collecting data from birds during their lifespan, but colored patagial tags with a series of numbers and letters are far more visible to the casual birdwatcher and thus give a greater chance of sightings being made in the field. Such tags are used a lot for larger birds such as raptors and waterbirds and can give us a lot of information on movements of birds, including their migration routes and their breeding grounds.

Wing-tagged Great Egret (green tag with white 19M) at Cape May on October 27th. The same day, bird 18K was also in the county. Movement of feathers can make the alphanumerics difficult to read but it is worth persevering as the more accurate the data you can collect, the more useful it is to the researchers. [photo taken by phone by Pam Higginbotham]

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Heading to Brigantine

This coming Saturday, December 10th, sees the first of our two regular winter excursions to Brigantine (or the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (Brigantine Division) if you want its full name!). This is a full day birding excursion and - as usual - promises to be a great day out.  Brigantine hosts large numbers of Black Ducks, Snow Geese and a whole host of other waterfowl during the winter and never fails to provide some nice surprises. On a recent trip there recently with friends, we enjoyed a super adult male Lapland Longspur at point blank range on the main trail. Our trip finishes overlooking Mott's Creek which over the years has been one of the more reliable sites for wintering Short-eared Owls. A couple of recent cancellations has left us with a few spare places, so if you want to be in on the fun, contact Chris Tonkinson at 609-861-0700 for registration details.

Other bird news
Most of the messages of the last few days have involved the male Painted Bunting which continues today on Bayshore Road, just north of the Hidden Valley Riding Center. The Ash-throated Flycatcher continues today at Cape Island Preserve and at least one adult male Eurasian Wigeon is on Lighthouse Pond East with Blue-winged Teals. Baltimore Orioles continue to pop up in a variety of places (one is outside my Northwood Center window right now in fact!) and Jim Dowdell reported a very late Northern Waterthrush at the Cape Island Preserve today.

The Avalon Seawatch continues to produce a trickle of Razorbills with Tom Reed reporting eight this morning. Yesterday, an unidentified whale species was close inshore off Townsend's Inlet but hasn't been reported yet today. It was accompanied by three Parasitic Jaegers.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A December Day To Remember

Saturday December 3rd was a real day to remember in Cape May, with three major rarities and a strong supporting cast all south of the canal. Top award for bird of the day goes to the Bell's Vireo that was at The Beanery near the parking lot for most of the day, last being seen around 4PM on the woodland edge at the north side of parking area, right beside Bayshore Road. Unfortunately, though the bird was looked for today, it was not refound - though it may still be in the area of course. A mere 400 yards away from this bird, the stunning adult male Painted Bunting remained all day and showed well on and off at backyard feeders on Bayshore Road, just north of the entrance to the Hidden Valley Riding Center. Bronze medal of the day goes to the long-staying Ash-throated Flycatcher which, though elusive at times, remains relatively faithful to the south field at Cape Island Preserve off Wilson Street. Both the bunting and the flycatcher showed well today too.

Bell's Vireo at The Beanery on Bayshore Road on Saturday. [Photos copyright Michael O'Brien]

Other long-stayers around all weekend included the White-winged and three Eurasian Collared Doves at Cape May Point, up to three Eurasian Wigeon on Lighthouse Pond and at least one Cave Swallow still at the state park. Vince Elia reported 40 Snow Buntings flying past Cape May Point this morning and at just after 4PM today, Tom Reed reported a first-winter Iceland Gull seen from the Avalon Seawatch as it headed into the gull roost at the south end of Sea Isle City.

Some of us missed the vireo yesterday, but we were nevertheless enjoying ourselves on our annual early December Barnegat Bay trip for Harlequin Ducks. For pictures and to see how we got on click here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Painted Bunting, Bird News & Some Record-breaking Insects

Hot news today involves the discovery of a stunning adult male Painted Bunting at private feeders along Bayshore Road, just north of the Hidden Valley Ranch turn. At least, I say hot news, as it transpires that the bird was first photographed by a curious home-owner on Monday! Such situations always help to put things in context and remind us that there must surely be an aweful lot of birds that escape the avid rarity-hunters eyes! If you go looking for this bird over the weekend, please do respect the privacy of local home-owners and obey any on-site instructions.

Always a stunner! The adult male Painted Bunting on Bayshore Road today [photo by Karl Lukens].

Other recent news involves a good run of birds at The Beanery - which included Yellow-breasted Chat, two Blackpoll Warblers, Lincoln's Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler and four Palm Warblers, followed by four Baltimore Orioles there today. The Cape Island Preserve Ash-throated Flycatcher was last reported on November 30th but may still be worth looking for while the weather remains mild. The Rufous Hummingbird was still at our Goshen store on route 47 on November 30th at least. The state park continues to provide good views of parties of Lesser Scaup along with the other expected species there, as well as up to four Eurasian Wigeon (two male/two female at various times) and a female Redhead. One Eurasian Wigeon was briefly reported from Lake Lily too.

Blackpoll Warblers have certainly made the bird news here at Cape May with higher than expected numbers hanging around through November and feeding heavily on Porcelainberry fruits. [Photo by Tony Leukering]

A single Barn Swallow was at the state park on November 30th and at least three Cave Swallows were there on December 1st with a handful of Tree Swallows. A Dickcissel was reported flying over Cape May Point by Sam Galick this morning and Chuck and MJ Slugg enjoyed three Red-headed Woodpeckers at Cox Hall Creek WMA today. These birds have been hanging there for a while now and seem to be best looked for pretty much in the very middle of the site. While raptor passage is pretty much over for the season now, a few birds still find there way down to the point and it was intriguing to see some 80 Turkey Vultures and five Black Vultures thermaling over the point today.

Tom Reed continues to feed me little gems of information from the Avalon seawatch and sightings there today included two Red-necked Grebe, Harlequin Duck, King Eider and Razorbill. Further afield, it was nice to hear from Loralea Kirby at Egg Harbor Township, just outside our usual reporting area in Ocean County. Loralea had both Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a female Indigo Bunting in her yard on November 29th.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Egg Harbor Township [photo by Loralea Kirby].

Indigo Bunting at Egg Harbor Township on November 29th [photo by Loralea Kirby].

Record-breaking Insects.
Will Kerling has done more than most in furthering our knowledge of butterflies around Cape May this year and has also been known to turn his hand to dragonflies and damselflies. Aware of published data on latest dates for various species, Will and I have both been looking at trying to set new latest dates for any species that may happen to be around. Being from the UK, the very act of looking for such insects in December is pretty weird to me but, with temperatures not exactly warm at around 50F today, we did check a few places in bright sunshine and little wind at lunchtime and we did set some records - or at least the insects did! Will Kerling and Sam Galick both independently recorded Sachems today, while I found a very tatty-looking Fiery Skipper in Bill and Eddie Schul's front yard (unbeknown to me at the time, Bill had already left me a message about this individual, as well as two Monarchs). As far as we are aware, these constitute the first records of any skipper species for December in New Jersey - though there will of course be people with notebooks from earlier years still waiting to be published!! Bring out your sightings and we'll turn them into records!

Fiery Skipper at Cape May Point today [photo by Mike Crewe].

Turning to dragonflies and damselflies, the excellent New Jersey Odes website gives just one species as recorded in New Jersey in December - the ubiquitous Green Darner. Three damselfly species known to be common around Cape May Point all have latest dates of November 1st, so it seemed there was work to be done here! This is a fairly new data set so record-setting is perhaps not too difficult at the moment, but Will and I are still both pleased to have kept tabs on these three species of damselfly throughout November, with two of them making it into December. Pictures follow...

Male Rambur's Forktail at the Plover Pond on TNC property at the South Cape May Meadows, December 2nd [photo by Mike Crewe].

Male Familiar Bluet at the Plover Pond on TNC property at the South Cape May Meadows, December 2nd [photo by Mike Crewe]. Will Kerling also found one at Lighthouse Pond in Cape May Point State Park.

Male Citrine Forktail at TNC's South Cape May Meadows, November 26th [photo by Mike Crewe]. This species still eludes us in December at the moment!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hawkwatch Officially Over

It's always a sad day at Cape May. The first of December that is. Why? Because that is the first day since the end of August that you can go to the Hawkwatch Platform at Cape May Point State Park and see - well, no-one. I went down to the platform lunchtime under a chilly but sunny sky and was greeted by a telling sight. A car with Wisconsin plates, loaded to the brim with gear. This could mean only one thing - the last of our wonderful team of seasonal staff was heading out of town.

All packed up and ready to go. The time to head out of town is here.

If you only ever come to Cape May during the peak of migration, this is certainly a sight you are unlikely to ever see - a lunchtime hawkwatch looking like the poop deck of the Marie Celeste...

So how has the season been? Well, expert statisticians will do a better job than I, but you can make your own minds up by casting an eye down the seasonal totals for this year and comparing them with those of previous years. Most obvious to me are the figures for American Kestrel. This year's total for the whole season was not that much more than the record one-day count, set back in 1999. Not that long ago and a very worrying trend for this species. Compare too the seasonal totals (left hand column) with record totals (far right column) for Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk and Merlin...

Seasonal totals at the Hawkwatch (click on picture to enlarge)

Of course, one cannot draw conclusions from a single set of data - it might just have been a poor year weather-wise this year for drifting birds to the coast. But there are figures here that should at least have us all asking questions and seeking out more data for answers. Once duly processed and analyized, it is data such as these that allow important environmental and conservation decisions to be made which benefit not only wildlife, but the planet we live on - and therefore us...

Long term projects such as the Cape May Hawkwatch and Avalon Seawatch form part of the very backbone of what Cape May Bird Observatory is all about. And none of this would be possible without the help and cooperation from our neighbors and sponsors. We thank the Cape May Point State Park and their staff for allowing us to operate the Hawkwatch within their boundaries and we especially thank our sponsors - this year Swarovski Optik - for their greatly appreciated support.

But wait....

It's not over for all of us though; don't forget that birding continues year-round at Cape May and you can bet we are looking forward to the forthcoming Chrsitmas Bird Count (give us a call if you want to help!) and the excitement of the winter season. See you in the field!!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some Recent Bits and Pieces

As the season rolls on, the text messages thin out, but there's still plenty to keep us occupied with here. The weekend saw the three Eurasian Collared Doves on Lincoln Avenue finally behaving themselves and, though they have been here for several months now, I reckon this was the first weekend when they could actually be called 'easy to find'! This is the first time that this species has stayed for such a protracted length of time at Cape May and (provided they're not all boys or all girls!) it must surely be time to speculate on whether they will stay here and breed now. Perhaps the answer will lie in the weather we get over the winter period. To me, it is certainly interesting that I have not heard a single territorial call out of any of them yet. Along with the collared doves, a White-winged Dove appeared on Saturday too and hung out for most of the day on the corner of Lehigh and Lincoln Avenues. This may be the bird that was on Seagrove Avenue recently, but it appears to now have a chest injury of some sort.

White-winged Dove at Cape May Point on Saturday, looking a little under the weather [photo by Mike Crewe].

Close scrutiny of the White-winged Dove revealed an open injury on its chest (just  visible here) [photo by Mike Crewe].

The young male Redhead continued on Lighthouse Pond over the weekend and a female and two male Eurasian Wigeons were also present there. The Ash-throated Flycatcher at Cape Island Preserve continued to at least 26th and the same day saw another one found by Pat Sutton at Woodcock Lane. This location is a nice, walkable section of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge and is situated on Rte 47 at the small settlement of Dias Creek. Staying with flycatchers, a Western Kingbird was found on 26th at Exit 13 on the Parkway - that's the turn off for Avalon.

Ash-throated Flycatcher at Woodcock Lane on the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge [photo by Pat Sutton].

Stone Harbor Point continues to hold good numbers of Snow Buntings, though as ever they can be elusive. Kevin Karlson reported 80 there on 26th, along with two Short-eared Owls. Late news broke of a Northern Shrike photographed at Thompson's Beach on 27th, while the Avalon Seawatch continues to produce some wonderful birding experiences with another two Black-legged Kittiwakes in the mix this morning and Northern Gannets in large numbers. For me, an interesting sign of the times was that I saw 24 gulls on the South Cape May beach on Saturday and three of them were Lesser Black-backs - a remarkable percentage!

Purple Sandpipers are arriving on Cape May's stone jetties right now - this one was at Avalon at the weekend [photo by Beth Polvino].

As the autumn hawkwatch season starts to wind right down now, spare a thought for Melissa, doggedly sitting it out until the end of the month to round off this year's figures. But there's still a few raptors out there, as these wonderful photos show - and which I felt deserved a wider audience, in celebration of Cape May's spectacular annual raptor passage:

Adult male Northern Harrier checks out the platform [photo by Tony Leukering]

The Peregrine serves as a logo for Cape May Bird Observatory for a reason; this species is a common autumn migrant through here, having recovered spectacularly from the bad old days of DDT, they are awesome to watch and truly magnificent to watch. And when you get a close encounter like this...

... well, what else is there to say!! [Both Peregrine photos copyright Tom Johnson]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Gifts

Well, Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday gave us some nice birds to be thankful for, the highlight of which was undoubtedly the very obliging Le Conte's Sparrow - though sadly it appears to have been a one-day wonder. For me personally, Thanksgiving Day also gave me my 160th bird species fror my yard list - an Orange-crowned Warbler, which hung around long enough for photos! It seems to have been a good autumn for the latter species, with occasional reports from a number of sites over the past several weeks. If you are still looking for one, I would suggest checking weedy field edges where there is plenty of seeding goldenrod or Frost Aster; regular sites lately have been Cape May Point State Park, Cox Hall Creek WMA and Cape Island Preserve, but there is plenty of suitable habitat elsewhere too.

Le Conte's Sparrow at Higbee's Beach WMA on Thanksgiving Day. The small Ammodramus sparrows are inveterate skulkers, making identification potentially pretty tough. However, with patience and an ounce of luck, you can work your way into their world and study the finer details. Here, the combination of gray ear coverts and a shawl of chestnut spots on the nape, rules out all other species. [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Orange-crowned Warblers are typically late-season migrants through Cape May. This one graced my yard on Thanksgiving Day and was followed by an awesome roast turkey dinner with good friends - what a day! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

This morning I tried my luck at St Mary's as there has been something of a trickle of Black-legged Kittiwakes at Avalon of late as well as one seen by Tom Johnson off Higbee's Beach on 22nd. I had no luck with that species but there was a reasonable backwards and forwards of Black and Surf Scoters, a few Long-tailed Ducks, Bonaparte's Gulls and Forster's Terns and plenty of Northern Gannets. Though it was relatively short, there was also a nice overhead movement of American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Godlfinches, House Finches and Eastern Bluebirds this morning and a Red-breasted Nuthatch was on Lincoln Avenue, which reminded me that this was only my third one for the fall!

Black-legged Kittiwakes are worth looking for offshore right now. Note the 'dipped in ink' wing tips and dark shawl behind the head [photo by Tom Johnson].

Something of a holy grail at Cape May, this Northern Fulmar was photographed on 19th during an offshore boat trip to the southeast, so was perhaps in Delaware waters. Though this species is commonly seen from land further north in its range, down here they seem to prefer to stay well offshore [photo by Tom Johnson].

The seawatch at Avalon has been remarkable all week - rather than repeat all of Tom Reed's counts, I would suggest you check out his posts on our View from the Field blog. I can't believe that there are any more Red-throated Loons north of us, they must just be sneaking round the back and flying by repeatedly just to annoy us!! Perhaps the most interesting bird at the seawatch this week (on 22nd) was an odd-looking gull which may well prove to be a Black-headed x Ring-billed Gull hybrid. Such birds have been reported before and, though it seems like a weird combination pairing, the features of the bird would support this idea. Stone Harbor Point seems to be holding good numbers of Snow Buntings right now, with a high count so far of 90 on 24th, when a Lapland Longspur was also with them. Up to six Ipswich Sparrows are also at Stone Harbor Point. The occasional single Cave Swallow gets reported from the state park, but so far there has been no notable movement of this species recorded this year. Down at the point, recent reports have also included a scattering of Baltimore Orioles (two up at Del Haven on the bayshore too), a male Redhead and a second male Eurasian Wigeon on Bunker/Lighthouse Ponds on at least 24th and 25th, and a Short-eared Owl flying offshore on 24th.

The above two photos show the odd gull off Avalon on November 22nd. The overall appearance is of a Black-headed Gull, but note the darker upperparts, extensive dark smudging on the head, the slightly heavy-looking bill and that odd, dark streak towards the tip of the outer primaries [photos by Tom Johnson].

Finally, I hear that the highly elusive Ash-throated Flycatcher was re-found at Cape Island Preserve this morning (26th).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Le Conte's Sparrow today

This morning, Chris Vogel found a Le Conte's Sparrow at Higbee Beach that remained in the same spot all day long. The bird was in southwestern corner of the the northeastern-most field at Higbee - if you need a map, there's one below. The sparrow was hanging out in the grass along the path, marked on the map with a green arrow. This bird, very rare in Cape May, is extremely secretive but is confiding once located.

Le Conte's Sparrow (Higbee Beach, Cape May). 24 November 2011. photo copyright Tom Johnson

Map showing the location of the Le Conte's Sparrow at Higbee Beach (marked by green arrow). This is only a few hundred feet south of the parking lot at the west end of New England Rd. in Cape May.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Winter Lurks Around The Corner

Leaves falling from the trees is the one big sign that autumn is waning and that means that winter is not far away. But what is the first real sign of winter for you? For me here at Cape May, it's hearing a strange, chattering noise outside, somewhere around 8:30PM, well after it's dark. Even over the sound of the music I'm playing it's audible. Then I remember the date - it's the second half of November. It's not yet another group of beer-laden youngsters heading down to the canal woods, it's the first serious movement of Snow Geese passing over the point. And last night was a serious movement! Snow Geese were calling overhead in the evening later on when I went to bed; I awoke to their sounds a couple of times in the night and they were calling overhead when I got up for breakfast this morning. Indeed, skeins were still heading south as I checked the bay off Sunset Beach before work this morning.

Snow Geese over the Delaware Bay today - I think they're trying to spell out a message.... [photo by Mike Crewe].

Though so far it is only a small sample size, I couldn't help notice very few youngsters amongst the Snow Geese that I've seen this November. Of course, geese are relatively long-lived for birds and the odd poor season is not the end of the world, but it is worth getting into the habit of keeping a record of the percentage of young birds in a flock as a longterm guide to the health of the species. Arctic breeding birds have a cycle which centers around the boom-and-bust years of lemming populations. When lemmings are abundant, predators such as Arctic Foxes and jaegers feed on them, which means the goslings get left alone (they're harder to catch, usually because of the protection of their parents). In poor lemming years, goslings are top of the dining list! In the UK, these predater-prey relationships have been studied closely for some years and good breeding seasons for Brant, for example, are often apparent when the birds arrive to winter there from Russian breeding grounds. In poor lemming years, there is also often an earlier-than-usual passage of skuas as they head south to find better feeding areas (which usually means hassling Sandwich Terns along the UK coastline!).

The Avalon Seawatch also offers a great insight into the advance of winter, as Double-crested Cormorants are replaced by loons, and scoter are replaced by Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eider. This past two days, the seawatch has been truly spectacular and I was glad to have been there Monday afternoon and helping to count the total of 16,851 Red-throated Loons that we counted passing south - a new day record for the CMBO Seawatch. Check out Tom Reed's report of the events on our View From The Field postings. And yes, they were pretty much all counted, as groups were not big enough to have to estimate numbers, but continued pretty much non-stop all day at around 2,000 birds per hour on average. Now that is Migration Magic!!!

Other news from the past few days: The Nature Conservancy's Cape Island Preserve has been in the news since the Ash-throated Flycatcher showed up there on Friday and stayed - somewhat elusively - to at least 21st. Visitors there also added Orange-crowned Warbler and Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows, while Melissa Roach reported a Yellow-billed Cuckoo there this morning. This preserve doesn't get mentioned too much by us, but it is for a reason. There are no visitor facilities there and there is almost no parking so it's not an ideal place to encourage great numbers of people to. However, a small trickle of folk is manageable and the site is accessed at the east end of Wilson Street, off Seashore Road just north of West Cape May. One or two Purple Sandpipers and Great Cormorants can now be found at favored sites; the former at stone jetties anywhere along the coast, the latter most recently at Lake Champlain in Villas and on the concrete ship.

A late Least Flycatcher at the state park on 19th caused a few hearts to flutter temporarily with thoughts of Dusky Flycatcher, but it wasn't to be it seems. One or perhaps two Cave Swallows graced the Hawkwatch area over the weekend and reports of good bird numbers at Cox Hall Creek WMA included Red-headed Woodpecker, Orange-crowned Warbler and plenty of Eastern Towhees - the latter also showed up at my feeder, along with a female Purple Finch. Returning where we started, with winter birds, Tom Johnson reported a Black-legged Kittiwake flying north off Higbee's Beach this morning, while a couple of evenings ago, I took one of my regular strolls down to Higbee's Beach at dusk and counted 15 American Woodcock whirling around against a setting sun. There's birds out there - let's go birding!!

Friday, November 18, 2011

It's that man again!

Yes, it's that man again - Jimmy Dowdell, taking his dog for a walk and finding the first Ash-throated Flycatcher of the year south of the canal. I wouldn't mind so much if it wasn't for the fact that the rest of us have been tearing the place apart looking for one for weeks! Today's bird graced the western edge of The Nature Conservancy's Cape Island Preserve. This is a smallish tract of land, accessed from the east end of Wilson Street, off Seashore Road in West Cape May. If you go looking for this bird, please note that there is no parking area here and just a small amount of room for on-street parking.

Among other news this last couple of days, Cedar Waxwings, American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds continue to flock around the point and provide a fabulous spectacle. Best numbers seem to be around the state park and Cape May Point itself, as well as in the open areas around Cox Hall Creek WMA. Three Eurasian Collared Doves continue around Lincoln Avenue at the point and reports of single Nashville Warblers have come from the state park and Cox Hall Creek, with Blackpoll Warbler also still lingering at the state park and an Orange-crowned Warbler at Cape Island Preserve today. One or two Purple Finches are starting to turn up at local feeders now, after a few days of high-flying birds overhead. Continued diligence at the Hawkwatch Platform today produced five species of swallow (Bank, Cave, Tree, Northern Rough-wing and Barn) and a passing Golden Eagle, while Bald Eagles continued a presence at several sites - at least three could be seen over The Beanery at lunchtime for example. The Rufous Hummingbird was still present at CRE, Goshen today and Bob Fogg reported a Clay-colored Sparrow at the Schellenger Tract off Bayshore Road in Del Haven.

The Seawatch at Avalon continues to produce daily good sightings at the moment and I'm indebted to Tom Reed for keeping me kept up to date on sightings there. At least two King Eiders, three Razorbills, Black-headed Gull, two Red-necked Grebes, White-rumped Sandpiper and Marbled Godwit have all been logged in the last three days and large movements of Ring-billed Gulls and Northern Gannets have been enjoyed.

Ash-throated Flycatcher at Cape Island Preserve. For east coast birders used to bright yellow Great Crested Flycatchers, this can often appear a rather drab species [photo by Mike Crewe].

Bank Swallow - one of an impressive list of five species of swallow at the Hawkwatch Platform today [photo by Tony Leukering].

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Waxwings continue - and other observations

The wonderful flight of Cedar Waxwings continued today, though in lesser numbers than yesterday. Check out this link on youtube which Jenny Isaacs sent me. It was taken in Avalon and shows a wonderful gathering of Cedar Waxwings, coming to drink at a broken water pipe.  Our Wednesday morning walk saw several hundred birds wheeling around the state park, along with American Robins, European Starlings, Brown-headed Cowbirds and smaller numbers of Eastern Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Grackles and House Finches. Four Tundra Swans were noted (one on the Plover Ponds - which as been around for a few days - and three flying over) and a juvenile Bald Eagle was hanging out on the beach scaring all the Great Black-backed Gulls - about time someone did that! Just after the walk, single Blackpoll and Nashville Warblers and a Red-breasted Nuthatch were by the Hawkwatch Platform.

With all the American Robins around at the moment, someone was bound to spot a weird one! This spotty robin with a patchwork of white feathers on its upperparts was at Cape May Point on Tuesday. [Photo by Scott Whittle]

Ducks continue to be the main attraction at the state park right now and those who have been on my recent walks there will know that I like to use the white belly on a female Gadwall as a nice feature that separates them from the rather similar female Mallards. This photo, taken from the Hawkwatch Platform shows that feature very nicely in a great action shot taken by Tony Leukering.

Small numbers of Blackpoll Warblers still hang on around Cape May Point as a reminder of what a fabulous fall it was for them here. This bird, looking for food amongst garden weeds is a fine example of just how tolerant they have been of photographer's lenses! [Photo by Tony Leukering]

Despite all their misdemeanors, Brown-headed Cowbirds are pretty smart birds when you see them close up. A large flock of several hundred birds is currently in the state park with even larger numbers of European Starlings. When seen feeding together, look for the cowbirds' telltale sticky up tail! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

I got home a few nights ago to the sound of much rustling in the leaf litter right outside the back door, so went to investigate after first grabbing the camera (well you would, wouldn't you!). I was faced by this little stripey-faced chappie poking out from under our garden shed...

The great thing about skunks (yes, I really did write that!) is that their eyesight is pretty poor so you can stand six feet away from them and they don't even seem to know you are there - though I wouldn't recommend suddenly startling them! Striped Skunks are very variable in color and this one is well towards the whitest end of the spectrum of variation. Last night I saw the complete opposite in Cape May - a skunk that was completely black but for a tiny white tip to its tail!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

November - a time to be out there!

There's certainly a feeling that 'the season' is over at Cape May on the last day of October; the tourists and birders finally drift away, CMBO's program of walks and events starts to wind down in earnest and it can be tricky finding somewhere to eat out during the week. And yet those of us who live here know about - November! It's an exciting time; every songbird you see might be your last one of that species for the year - unless it's an incoming Snow Bunting, then it's even better - your first-of-season! Ducks are pouring by offshore, along with Northern Gannets and a scattering of loons and grebes and there's always that slight chance that you are going to find the big one! That major rarity that puts your name into the record books for all time!

Today is one of those other outstanding November days; no rarity outside my window, but a major migration event. Pretty much right from the moment I got up this morning, there's been a high-pitched ringing in my ears. No, not tinitis, but the calls of Cedar Waxwings, and I can still hear them now, hundreds of them, right outside the office window, laying into every berry bush and tree they can get to. On a fairly quick walk round the state park and a short drive past Lake Lily I reckon I set my eyes on some 5,000 Cedar Waxwings. I'm told that flocks are scattered throughout the county as far north as Goshen at least, along with similar numbers of American Robins. Just being out there is truly spectacular right now.

So what's been happening these past few days? Well, the Avalon Seawatch - as might be expected - has been producing a lot of good birding with highlights including three Red-necked Grebes on 12th and the same day producing a fabulous passage of Buffleheads, Green-winged Teal and Greater Scaup. So far today, the highlight there has been a fabulous inshore movement of Northern Gannets - and an American Coot on the sea. The latter is more interesting than it may at first seem, since most coot species really don't seem to enjoy saltwater at all and seeing one on the open sea is not a common event. Still on November 12th, a dapper male Eurasian Wigeon turned up on Lighthouse Pond and is still currently present and well worth seeing, three Snow Buntings on South Cape May beach increased to eight this morning and three Baltimore Orioles were seen on a single lot on Lincoln Avenue at Cape May Point. The same afternoon, a male Wilson's Warbler was on the north side of 6th Avenue in West Cape May and two Fox Sparrows were the first-of-season for the Northwood Center. Highlights on the 13th included a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at the state park, two Short-eared Owls at Jake's Landing and a flock of 80 Snow Buntings at Stone Harbor Point.

The two or three Eurasian Collared Doves are presumably still present at the point, but there has been no report of the White-winged Dove since November 12th. Hummingbirds remain in the news with a Ruby-throated in Villas on 13th, while the New England Road bird has so far refused to give itself up totally to the identification brigade, though Rufous seems most likely. Single Cave Swallows were reported on 14th and 15th and single Nashville Warblers on the same two dates. My own House Sparrow flock in the side yard attracted two adult White-crowned Sparrows on 13th and a Dickcissel on 14th.

This smart, adult male Eurasian Wigeon can currently be found most reliably on the west half of Lighthouse Pond. At least one female remains (seemingly paired to a local!) but tends to commute between Lighthouse Pond and Bunker Pond, making it tricky to pin down sometimes.

Karl Lukens did a good job getting this shot of the Selasphorus hummingbird on Cape Island - here seen at Foster Avenue. The appearance of molt in the upperparts and the pattern on the cheeks seem to suggest that this is an adult female rather than a young bird. The rufous at the base of the tail (which rules out Ruby-throated) can be seen here, while that white-tipped outer tail feather looks pretty broad and may be enough to rule out Allen's but perhaps not the highly unlikely yet not impossible Broad-tailed Hummingbird. This bird is still present today.

One of three Baltimore Orioles found together at Cape May Point by Chuck Crunkleton on November 12th [photo by Tony Leukering].

Snow Buntings are putting in a good showing at the moment. Tom Johnson captured these two images of a bird feeding on Beach Goldenrod seeds at South Cape May Beach on November 6th.

House Sparrows may not be popular, but if you have a resident flock in your yard, they may well bring in a few strays for you! This Dickcissel appeared in my own yard on 13th [photo by Mike Crewe].

When it's raining Cedar Waxwings, you don't mind getting wet! Numbers of these wonderful birds are at least into five figures today... [photo by Mike Crewe]

With so many Cedar Waxwings around at the moment, it's worth keeping an eye out for birds with orange instead of yellow tail tips. Such birds crop up fairly regularly (though not always as spectacularly-colored as this one!) and it is believed that the color change is due to pigmentation in the birds food at the time that the feathers are forming. [Photo by Mike Crewe]