Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane bonanza!

Hurricane Irene passed by Cape May in the wee hours of Sunday morning, 28 August, making landfall (eye -- or center of circulation -- crossing onto land) up the coast at Little Egg Inlet sometime after 5 am. The numbers tallied of individual species noted below should be considered preliminary, as the list-keeper (me) was not always able to keep up with all the sightings (or heard about them).

6:00 - 7:00 -- Though it couldn't be seen from here, sunrise saw Michael O'Brien and me standing vigil at Sunset Beach in the lee of the southwesterly winds provided by The Grille (we arrived at 6:15), waiting for birds. Which species, precisely, we could not guess, but waiting none-the-less. Upon our arrival with no problems with the roads, we texted that fact out, and others started to arrive; Vince Elia promptly and Dave La Puma after making his way down from Villas. In the first 45 minutes of watching and hoping, we noted a single Least Tern (getting late for the season) and a sizable northward movement of Barn Swallows (57).

[The Grille at 6:58 am.]

7:00 - 8:00 -- Bob Fogg had arrived at Norbury's Landing pre-sunrise and struck paydirt first -- a bit after 7 am -- with an Arctic Tern. Michael countered with a one-upping adult and juvenile Roseate Terns on the beach before 7:30. Bob came back almost immediately with a Parasitic Jaeger heading north. Around 7:35, Bob came back with an immature Lesser Black-backed Gull past Norbury's Landing. At this point, Tom Johnson, who was heading toward the Cape from the Philadelphia area, cruised the sod farms in Salem Co., noting large numbers of shorebirds and Laughing Gulls, along with a Baird's Sandpiper and a Black Skimmer, a species quite rare that far inland. After the Roseate Terns, the best that the Sunset Beach gang (which now included Scott Whittle and Sam Galick) could find in this hour were two Wilson's Storm-Petrels, singles of Black Tern and Least Tern, two Sandwich Terns, and the continuing northward movement of Barn Swallows (31).

[Click on image(s) to see larger version(s). Juvenile and adult Roseate Terns (back row, 2nd and 3rd, respectively, from left) with juvenile and adult Common Terns; note the bright white top edge of the wingtips, a distinctive feature of the species, and the juvenile's dusky forehead, which is a good species indicator for that plumage.]

8:00 - 9:00 -- Scott Whittle found a female-plumaged Surf Scoter on the water which, due to the high seas, played hide-and-seek with everyone. Bob noted a second northbound Parasitic Jaeger early in the hour, with the Sunset Beach gang finding a "definitely probable" juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger that may or may not have been the same distant dark jaeger as noted a couple minutes earlier. Unfortunately, after this point, Bob's phone ran out of juice, so I don't have any record of the rest of his Norbury's Landing count and, unless noted, all sightings are from Sunset Beach, which talled singles of Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Least Tern, and Chimney Swift (this becomes important later) in the hour.

9:00 - 10:00 -- Shortly after the start of the hour, two adult and one age-unknown Sooty Terns initiated a flyby to the great joy of the building crowd, which now included Mike Fritz and Glen Davis, among others. In fact, Mike found the next "good" bird, and what a doozy it was, an adult White-tailed Tropicbird! Because of the unprecedented number of the species found on seabird cruises in the northwest Atlantic Ocean this past summer, some of us were considering that this species, of which there is only one previous New Jersey record, might be seomthing that we could find this day. A long shot, yes, but possible. Make that DEFINITE! Also passing this hour were a Wilson's Storm-Petrel, two flocks of 2 Red-necked Phalaropes (southbound), 2 Black Terns, a Parasitic Jaeger, and -- after an hour with none following a strong northward movement early -- 16 Barn Swallows southbound.

10:00 - 11:00 -- WIND, WIND, and more WIND! For nearly all of this hour and some of the next, the wind kicked up a few notches, sand-blasting our cars in the parking lot (and any leaving the safety of the The Grille's porch) and breaking a cable over the parking lot, which then twisted in the wind. Sometime during this hour, the highest Irene-spawned on-land-in-New Jersey wind gusts were recorded, with the peak of 71 mph at Cape May. Visibility was, at best, quite skinny and few birds flew, at least, in the direction that they faced and with only 8 species recorded in the hour. The number of observers crowding onto the deck at the The Grille increased further, with the arrival of some younger Pennsylvania birders and Kevin Karlson, among others.

11:00 - 12:00 -- With the lessening of wind speed and lightening of cloud cover, bird movement picked up in the last half-hour. Among the more "mundane" species, 2 adult American Golden-Plovers, a flock of 24 Pectoral Sandpipers, a Red-necked Phalarope, an unidentified phalarope (Red/Red-necked), and an unidentified jaeger were enjoyed by all, particularly the golden-plovers, which flew right down the shore past us.

An adult Bridled Tern heading north woke everyone up, but was upstaged by something paler. Actually, two somethings paler. Just before noon, Tom Johnson yelled out -- and I mean YELLED -- "TROPICBIRD!" Someone else who quickly got on Tom's bird YELLED, "TWO!" Many of the photographers in the crowd raced out to the beach to photograph the TWO ADULT White-tailed Tropicbirds flying south offshore in tandem.

[Adult-like Bridled Tern at Sunset Beach; upper picture was taken while the bird was over land behind The Grille.]

[White-tailed Tropicbirds; in tandem (above) and one of the birds alone (below).]

12:00 - 13:00 -- While singles of Western Sandpiper and Belted Kingfisher were new for the day -- as were the bits of blue sky, this hour saw the rise of numbers of "tropical" terns, those dark-backed pelagic species that are nearly synonomous with hurricane fallouts, Bridled and Sooty terns. Three adult Sooty Terns were tallied, along with one adult-like Bridled Tern that put on a good show for viewers and photographers. This individual flew close by The Grille, even flying over land between Sunset Beach and Alexander Avenue, as it waffled on its plans, eventually flying back north.

13:00 - 14:00 -- The first Purple Martins (38) of the day were noted among the increasingly swirling batch of Barn Swallows and a flock of 15 Pectoral Sandpipers heading south past us hosted the only White-rumped Sandpiper of the vigil. Another Wilson's Storm-Petrel was tallied and 3 Stilt Sandpipers were sorted from a southbound flock of 13 Lesser Yellowlegs. The hourly highlights were 3 Bridled Terns and 1 Sooty Tern.

14:00 - 15:00 -- A bird seen up the bayshore shortly after 2 pm and first thought to be another tropical tern became, upon slightly closer approach and better angle, a Black-capped Petrel. Though many present had been hoping for multiple Pterodroma petrels (and multiple species thereof), this would be the only one noted. Additions to the tallies of already-recorded species included singles of Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Pectoral and Stilt sandpipers, and Least and Sandwich terns; 2 Red-necked Phalaropes; 2 Sooty Terns; and 4 Bridled Terns. Species added included Short-billed Dowitcher (3) and Lesser Black-backed Gull (1). Jim and Deb Dowdell joined the ever-growing crowd. Little did we all know though, that Black-capped Petrel and White-tailed Tropicbird were both about to be forced down a notch on the list of Best Birds of the Day!

[Black-capped Petrel, shortly after 2 pm.]

[The Grille at 2:10 pm.]

Around 2:24 pm, I was standing in the parking lot in front of the Sunset Grille when I noticed a dark, long- and narrow-winged bird north of the gift shop across the parking lot from the Grille that I first thought was a small falcon. However, I quickly realized that it was a SWIFT. Wow, a two-swift day! I turned and shouted for everyone to "GET ON THIS BIRD!" This big, apparently-all-dark swift with very long wings that were pinched in at the base, an attenuated rear end, and a flaring and notched tail exhibited wingbeats that were quite slow and deep for a swift as it was drifted north away from us by the wind. Our collective opinion was that the bird was probably either a White-collared Swift (Streptoprocne zonaris) or a member of one of the species of Old World swift in the genus Apus. Alpine Swift (Apus melba) has occurred on Barbados, so that was in the mix, but that species sports a bright white throat and belly. Though none of us had experience with Old World swifts, most Apus have more-deeply notched tails than exhibited by the Sunset Beach swift. Those of us with Middle American experience all considered that the bird was not inconsistent with an identification of White-collared Swift, a species with a few ABA-area records, including one from the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Tom Johnson obtained a number of semi-reasonable pictures of the bird that we have sent off to various experts for their thoughts. The pictures prove that the bird was not an adult White-collared Swift, but the white on juveniles is restricted to the nape. Personally, until I hear otherwise, I consider the bird to most likely be referable to White-collared Swift. Should that ID be correct and should the New Jersey Bird Records Committee accept the record, it would be a first for the state and for the northeastern United States.

[This and others of Tom Johnson's pictures of the large swift can be found at his Flickr site.]

15:00 - 16:00 -- More interesting terns were added to tallies this hour, including 5 Blacks, 2 Bridleds, 1 Least, and 3 Sandwich. The swallow show picked up even further, with some Purple Martins and Barn Swallows heading out across the Bay into a 30-35 mph SW wind. Quite a few species were added for the day: Osprey, American Oystercatcher, Willet (a juvenile of the western form), Common Nighthawk (over the Bay), and Tree and Bank swallows.

16:00 - 17:00 -- Tern tallies this hour included 5 Blacks, 2 Sooty, and 2 Sandwich. Bald Eagle and Ruby-throated Hummingbird put in their only appearances of the day at the site. With conditions improving, both atmospheric and aquatic, the number of "interesting" birds was on the decline and the gang started breaking up, with most leaving shortly after 5 pm to see what could be seen elsewhere. The final tally of species noted from the Sunset Grille was 53, but that count included only 6 species of passerines (4 swallow species, Bobolink, and House Sparrow). Yes, a paltry number for late August in Cape May, but I didn't hear anyone complaining.

Elsewhere - Glen Davis reported a juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper at the South Cape May Meadows and the Brown Booby continues in Jarvis Sound. Speaking ... er, writing of which, the landowner at Two-Mile Landing is becoming quite annoyed with birders, so please exercise extreme consideration if visiting the site; park well away from the water back by the trailers; drive slowly; obey all signage. This is private property and we could easily be excluded from ALL access. Don't ruin it for everyone else!

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