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!!

No comments: