Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Swallow Spectacular at Cape May Point

[One of very many Barn Swallows over
Cape May Point last evening. Photo by Tom Reed

Yesterday's very strong northwest winds ushered in a few hundred swallows (and one Swallow-tailed Kite) to Cape May- and while I didn't hear of any Kite reports today, there were still a large number of swallows to be found along the beaches, marshes and ponds between the 2nd Avenue jetty and Bunker Pond.

[Well over 30 Cliff Swallows could be found between Bunker Pond and the South Cape May Meadows last night-- a notable spring count. Days with northwest winds always tend to produce at least a few of these in April. Photo by Tom Reed.]

[Chimney Swift at eye-level over the east path of
the Meadows last evening. Photo by Tom Reed.]

Sam Galick and I spent a bit of time perusing the swallows late in the morning, and came up with the following very broad estimates: 525 Barn Swallows, 250 Tree Swallows, 125 Purple Martins (many of these likely belonging to the State Park colony), 40 Bank Swallows, 30 Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and 20 Cliff Swallows. Over 100 Chimney Swifts were also evident. It should be noted that there were actually quite a few more Bank and Cliff Swallows last evening, and it appears that some of these escaped on today's more subdued breeze out of the east.

[A Bank Swallow over Bunker Pond. Photo by Tom Reed.]

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bug of the week (or Where's Waldo?)

[Click on image(s) to see larger version(s). All photos copyright by Tony Leukering.]

While I really had intended this semi-regular feature to treat only those groups of arthropods that are not very popular with birders and other naturephiles (thus, no butterflies or dragonflies/damselflies), today I took a picture that just screamed to be used on the blog. So, this one time only, here's a dragonfly as the bug of the week.

Harlequin Darner is about the earliest dragonfly species to emerge each spring in southern New Jersey, flying from early April into June, at the latest. In my previous springs here in Cape May, I've spent most of my field time on Cape Island, which has so little native forested habitat left that Harlequin Darner is very rare there. This spring, though, I've been concentrating my field time in the northern half of the county, in an endeavor to learn the early-season dragonflies to be found there and not on the island. I've been amazed at how common Harlequins are there, particularly on the various powerline cuts that I've wandered through.

Today's wanderlust had me heading to the Swainton area, specifically to look for Frosted Elfins, but I think that it was just a wee bit cool for them. Harlequin Darners, however, were quite common. Despite the many that I've seen this spring, I was very surprised when watching one fly around and then land on the bole of a Pitch Pine to note that there were others perched on that same pine! In fact, more than just a few others! Hopefully, you can find the seven individuals in the picture, above.

Darners, as a group, tend to perch hanging from vegetation, though some, like Harlequins, will perch on the trunks of trees; perching on the ground is somewhat rare in the group. So, I also spent some time photographing Harlequins perched on the ground.

One of the nicest aspects of Harlequin Darner for photographers, at least, is their penchant to hover in place for long enough to get a camera focused on them. Thanks to the bright sun, I was able to have both reasonable depth of field and a fast-enough shutter speed to both get the whole bug in focus and to nearly freeze the wings. Thanks, Sun!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spring bug progression, too

[Click on image(s) for larger version(s). All photos copyright by Tony Leukering.]

While Tom Reed noted the progression of arrivals of bird species in the past week or so, bug season, too, is progressing from the very earliest overwintering/emerging/arriving species to later-spring species. So, while Blueberry Azures are now quite hard to find, recently-emerged species such as Lilypad Forktail,

Painted Skimmer,

and Frosted Elfin are now in evidence.

Though those second and third bugs (above) appeared around normal first dates, the Lilypad Forktails were apparently about a month early! Josh Nemeth found the first, a pair at Beaverdam SWA on the 16th; the previous first-date record for New Jersey was something like 15 May. Just to see if that was a local phenomenon, Glen Davis and I visited the best-known site for the species in Cape May County, Tarkiln Pond, on the 20th, and found them out in force (the photograph above was taken then). Also out now are Cobweb Skippers (below), a very local and rarish beast in Cape May County; I photographed two different individuals on the 20th.

A lot of other insect species are out now -- most of which are not biting things! -- and birds are taking advantage of them. While toodling around Belleplain SF near Lake Nummy on the 13th, I photographed both female and male Blue-gray Gnatcatchers stealing silk from a Tent Caterpillar nest for their own nest.

Tent Caterpillars are the larvae of a couple species of tent catepillar moth, particularly the Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth, which fact provides an adequate segue to the next topic:  the new moth guide!

Yes, it's out! Finally!

This new guide in the Peterson series covers southeastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. and presents photos of individual moths in life as we find them, rather than as pinned specimens with wings spread unnaturally. The book presents nearly 1500 species of the "few thousand" present in the area covered, a considerably better ratio than all other North American moth guides, particularly as it doesn't skimp on the micros -- those very small moths that most guides ignore because they're a) difficult, b) mostly not sexy by the casual moth-lover's standard, and c) tiny. Did I mention that they're tiny (most measured in single-digit millimeters)?

I have been test-driving the book for a few days and find that it is fairly useful. The biggest drawback is that southern New Jersey is near the southern boundary of the area covered by the guide, such that I suspect that the percentage of local species covered in the guide is smaller than might be true for, say, the eastern Great Lakes region. Regardless, it's a magnificent new resource, and I have already identified a number of lifers! The book is available for purchase at both CMBO centers.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mixed bag of birds, weather

Spring continued to proceed nicely in Cape May this week. An early leaf-out was accompanied by a few nights of southerly winds, which helped usher in a number of new migrants. I heard from a few folks who visited Belleplain Saturday morning, and their reports included an early Summer Tanager along with Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-winged Warbler and Hooded Warbler.

[A Pine Warbler in Belleplain this weekend-- one of 14 species of warblers
found there during the past few days. Photo by Tom Reed.

Seawatching from Cape May Point continues to produce fair numbers of Northern Gannets, and the occasional Parasitic Jaeger or Common Tern is also now a possibility. A widespread flight of Double-crested Cormorants could be viewed throughout the peninsula on Saturday.

[While Gannets are easy to see this time of year, most aren't as close as
this one, which passed over the dune crossing at St. Pete's during a
windy morning earlier this week. Photo by Tom Reed.]

Shorebird numbers are also on the rise. The first reports of Semipalmated Sandpipers have started tricking in, while Western Sandpipers have been fairly reliable in the Nummy/Stone Harbor area, with a high count of 34 on Wednesday (a good total for April). Dowitcher, Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover numbers are all increasing, and Whimbrel are beginning to infiltrate Atlantic Coast marshes. I counted over 40 migrating north past the South Cape May Meadows on Friday morning, and nearly 60 were in the marshes behind North Wildwood today.

It's also worth visiting a nearby salt marsh during a calm evening in the near future. Clapper Rails, Willets, Marsh Wrens and Seaside Sparrows are all very vocal right now at locations such as Cook's Beach, Jake's Landing and Stipson's Island. Enjoy these marsh-dwellers before biting insect season really starts.

[Now is a great time to see and hear Seaside Sparrows, such as this one at Cook's Beach yesterday. You may notice that it's banded! Photo by Tom Reed.]

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Boat Trip Cancelled

Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, we have had to cancel the Great Egg Harbor River Cruise on April 28th. Rest assured, however, that we shall be looking to do similar trips in the future, so do keep an eye on our Events Calendar!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bella Bellaplain - 2

I was back up in Belleplain State Forest today for our first 'Belleplain Wildlife' walk, which turned into a really nice day. Though we had seen some light rain overnight, the clouds slowly eased away and, by the start of our walk at a comfortable 10:30AM, the sun was pushing through and temperatures were climbing. It was amazing just how much we were able to fit into a 2-hour walk (well, OK, 2.5!!) and all the Bs - birds, beasts & botany all put on a good show. Yellow-throated, Black-and-white, Pine and Worm-eating Warblers and Ovenbirds were all in song and we watched a female Pine Warbler gathering duck feathers to line a nest way, way up in a stand of white-cedars. We studied Slender Parsley-piert, an introduced, European plant which is not yet 'officially' on the New Jersey state list, then we checked out a tall Sweetgum which was loaded with balls of American Mistletoe. The dirt roads provided us with some nice insects, including Harlequin Darners and both Brown and Eastern Pine Elfins, as well as good close-ups of both Blueberry and Holly Azures. After then marvelling at the amazing green iridescence of a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, we watched a female Twin-spotted Spiketail egg-laying in a nearby stream. All great fun - don't miss out next time! Here's some photos from today's outings:

This Harlequin Darner finally settled on a pine trunk and allowed us to get a close look at its intricate markings [photo by Mike Crewe]

A Yellow-washed Metarranthis (Metarranthis obfirmaria). This day-flying moth was fairly common on our walk today and often caused confusion as we looked for elfin butterflies [photo by Mike Crewe]

What better sign of spring than a bird feathering her nest?! This female Pine Warbler had found a ready supply of duck feathers and returned repeatedly to the same spot to get a cosy lining for her nest [photo by Mike Crewe].

Once recognized as a single species, the Spring Azure, this group of butterflies has now become a nightmare scenario! This (probably) is (I think) a Blueberry Azure - or maybe it's something else!! Actually, the very small size (that's my thumb nail it's sitting on!) and the slightly violet tinge to the blue uppersides of the wings (visible in flight) certainly suggest that species, though our resident butterfly guru, Will Kerling informs me that it's a Holly Azure - back to the drawing board I guess!! [photo by Mike Crewe].

As a direct comparison with the above butterfly, here's a pair of Eastern Tailed Blues - note the orangey spots which separate this species from the azures, as well as the tiny tails on the back edge of the hindwings [photo by Mike Crewe].

A great way to round off the day! It's not often that you get a chance to look up at a snake, but Tony Leukering and I did just that when this Black Racer decided to escape from us by climbing a tree! We saw two Black Racers and a Northern Water Snake after this morning's walk - a sure sign that things are warming up [photo by Mike Crewe].

Recent Reports
Seven Stilt Sandpipers were on Bunker Pond in the state park for a short while this morning before heading off northward, otherwise much of the news has involved warblers again today. Bob Fogg reported a singing Nashville Warbler at Del Haven, Prothonotary Warblers were reported from Beaver Dam, Belleplain and Mauricetown and Ovenbird and Northern Parula were noted at Peaslee WMA. Dave Lord rounded off his day with a Green Heron at Goshen Landing in the evening. Things should continue to arrive over the next few days, though clear weather may see many birds moving quickly through rather than hanging around.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Migration weather

Light south-westerlies gave perfect conditions for migration last night and, though we are still a way off any numbers of migrants, certainly a few slipped through under cover of darkness. A scattering of reports of singing warblers came in from Cape May Point right up to Belleplain and by lunchtime, Karen Johnson reported a 10-warbler species day! Sightings included Worm-eating, Black-and-white, Prairie, Pine, Palm, Yellow-throated and Yellow-rumped (of course!) Warblers, Northern Parula, Louisiana Waterthrush and Common Yellowthroat. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers could be heard in many places around Cape Island and both Eastern Kingbird and Blue-headed Vireo were reported from the state park.

The South Cape May Meadows with its well-managed habitats continues to attract a nice range of ducks, including both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal and at least 15 Wilson's Snipe were noted there on Friday. Four pairs of Piping Plovers are back on territory on the south beach and the annual Northern Gannet show continues offshore. Small numbers of Willets and Short-billed Dowitchers are filtering along the coast - it will soon be time to be at Heislerville!

Butterflies continue to be in the news, with Will Kerling reporting a Common Sootywing at the Rea Farm and at least two Monarchs reported today. For a really thorough account of the remarkable events of this spring so far, I strongly recommend visiting the South Jersey Butterfly Log, which gives an excellent overview of happenings in the world of butterflies - you might even considering becoming part of this great project, which is giving us a hitherto unknown insight into South Jersey's butterfly fauna.

Cape May Point's Eurasian Collared Doves continue to draw a regular trickle of admirers, though it's hard to be sure what is going on down there at the moment. To our knowledge, at least two nests have been built, but neither seems to be occupied. I took a walk along Whilldin Avenue today and found all three birds at their favorite corner, on the intersection with Lincoln Avenue. From the behavior of the two birds with puffed out necks that were calling intensely, I could deduce that they were males while the third bird, being heavily pestered by one of the males, was presumably a female. This vanguard of birds moving up the East Coast most likely consists of young birds seaking new territories and it is possible that, in their first year, they may need a little practice before they finally get down to raising a family! [Photos by Joe Siekierski]

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Some recent pictures

There's more competition among Cape May birders now, as Tom Reed joins the ranks of big-lens-toters and has just sent me some of his first shots. Looks like I'm going to have to get out more!

Early-arriving warbler species such as Pine and Yellow-throated Warblers have been well-recorded already this spring, but we're currently having something of a pause now as we wait for the main spring wave to advance northward. This Black-and-white Warbler has already made it to C ape May though and was singing in Middle Township at the weekend [photo by Tom Reed].

Single Brown Pelicans are being noted on and off now, but four this early in the season is certainly unusual. These were heading west off the South Cape May Meadows [photo by Tom Reed].

Close encounters with Northern Harriers are always exciting, but perhaps never more so than when you have a new camera in your hand!! This bird was at the state park Sunday morning  [photo by Tom Reed].

Sometimes a second look is required to see the less common... an ordinary, everyday American Herring Gull - but it's holding a seahorse in its beak! This bird was photographed at Stone Harbor beach recently [photo by Beth Polvino].

Borne in 2012! The breeding season is well under way for some, including this Killdeer with a hatched chick on a school field in Cold Spring yesterday [photo by Tony Leukering].

Other news
Up to three Cattle Egrets have been reported intermitently over the past few days from the Eastern Shore Nursing & Rehab Center which is on Route 9 opposite the Avalon Golf Club, a few miles north of Cape May Court House. On April 8th, a Black-legged Kittiwake passed south off Sunset Beach with a group of Bonaparte's Gulls, while Don Freiday and Beth Ciuzio struck gold with a Swallow-tailed Kite which flew right over them on the parkway somewhere around the 3-mile mark. On April 9th, three White-faced Ibises were reported from Brigantine, no doubt associated with the now noticeable northward movement of herons, egrets and cormorants through Cape May. Other interesting birds included a fully breeding-plumaged Red-throated Loon at the concrete ship on 10th and a singing White-crowned Sparrow at the corner of Bayshore and New England Roads, also on 10th. Piping Plovers continue to increase in number, with eight on the beach near the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse recently - and two River Otters also there!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fair weather and a trickle of birds

It will be a while before we expect the migration floodgates to open, but a little trickle is getting through and there's certainly a scattering of nice birds around to keep weekend visitors happy. The highlight today was a Little Gull, reported by several birders around lunchtime today from Miami Beach in Villas. A Sandhill Crane was seen flying over The Beanery around 11:30AM but so far I have heard of no further sightings. A Marbled Godwit was seen flying over Stevens Street on 5th, while a Caspian Tern was at Brigantine the same day. At least one Red-headed Woodpecker remains at Cox Hall Creek WMA and a Yellow-throated Warbler was in song there on our Thursday morning walk on 5th. Yellow-crowned Night Herons are secretly sneaking back to their traditional breeding sites on the barrier islands and Black-crowned Night Herons were certainly in evidence when I was at a barbecue with friends last night, calling as they passed overhead - Clapper Rails are pretty noisy after dark now too! For up-to-date news from our walks, be sure to check the latest postings on our Field Trip Reports page.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bella Belleplain!

Belleplain is about to burst! No, there's no need to take cover, Belleplain State Forest is about to burst forth with spring vigor, just in time for our spring Belleplain programs which step up the pace over the next week or two. Our Saturday bird walks started March 31st, Thursday morning walks begin April 5th (yes, tomorrow!) and our 'Hidden Corners of Belleplain' Tuesday walks begin April 17th. In addition, we have a new Sunday walk, starting April 15th, which will look at all aspects of Belleplain wildlife, whether it be birds, botany, bugs or beasts. Indeed, it was in preparation for this last walk that I had a quick run around the area this morning after our Cape May Point State Park walk and, with temperatures snuggling nicely into the low 70s, there was already plenty to see. The good thing about April is that the native flowers really start to come out; yes, a few just squeak in at the end of March (especially in this crazy spring we are having!) but generally, pretty much everything you see in flower in March will be an alien introduction.

So, give our Belleplain walks a go this year and come and see what Cape May County has to offer at the 'top end'. Here's a few pictures from today to whet your appetite...

Singing from a Pitch Pine near you! Yellow-throated Warblers are one of our earliest spring migrants and good numbers were already singing in Belleplain before the end of March. This species is very much tied to pine trees for breeding and foraging [photo by Mike Crewe].

Mind your step! Many of our native spring wildflowers are small and easily missed without a careful eye. Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) is flowering in many places right now but needs to be carefully searched for [photo by Mike Crewe].

Much rarer than the violet, the tiny yellow flowers of Ipecac Spurge (Euphorbia ipecacuanhae) are just emerging now. Look for them in bare, sandy patches - but you might need to get down on your hands and knees! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

April is the month when dragonfly fans come out of hibernation and Tony Leukering alerted me to these two species (above and below) which are now on the wing. Though the one above is rather uninspiring at first glance, it does have some nice, delicate orange markings and smart pale bluish patches at the bases of the wings - and it has the wonderful English name of Uhler's Sundragon [photo by Mike Crewe].

The other dragonfly out at Belleplain at the moment is more imposing; the wonderful black and pale yellow Twin-spotted Spiketail. Spiketails generally like running water and prefer streams with sandy bottoms, a habitat that is not common in Cape May, though this species is common in other parts of New Jersey. Perhaps not surprisingly this year, Tony Leukering's discovery of this species on April 3rd probably sets a new earliest date for the species in New Jersey. [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Recent Reports
As well as Yellow-throated and Pine Warblers in Belleplain today, I was pleased to come across a superb male Black-and-white Warbler, singing whilst investigating a tree trunk just two feet off the ground. Karen Johnson reported another from near Tarkiln Pond today and she also found a White-eyed Vireo on Tom Field Road (near Sunset Bridge). Michael O'Brien was busy logging birds in his back yard this morning and noted Solitary Sandpiper, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (also at Belleplain today) and Dickcissel there. Just across the bay, Tony Leukering reported news of a remarkably early Black Tern which flew north off Rehoboth Beach, Delaware today. At the point this morning, the Northern Gannet movement was dramatic for another day, while our walk group also added two White-winged Scoters, an impressive showing of fly-over, full breeding-plumaged Common Loons, incoming Glossy Ibises and Double-crested Cormorants, a Merlin worrying the Purple Martins for the second day running and an amazing Virginia Rail at less than 10 feet! Also of interest, Peter Bosak reported a Sandhill Crane flying west over Beaver Dam, South Dennis on 3rd, while Jim Cremer had a single Sandhill flying over the South Cape May Meadows this morning (4th). Sandhill Cranes remain pretty uncommon here and details are bound to be asked for. Of course a Sandhill Crane is easy - an all gray bird with a long, outstretched neck and long legs, but Great Blue Herons sometimes fly with their necks out too! How to be sure you have got it right? Well if you can take a photo, you could save yourself a lot of description writing (see below)!!

Warren Cairo sent me this picture of a group of loafing gulls at South Cape May Beach which includes three Lesser Black-backed Gulls - I'll let you find them!

Both Jim Cremer and Peter Bosak were able to get 'record shots' of their Sandhill Crane sightings, perfect for helping with any claim of an unusual bird. This is Peter Bosak's bird at Beaver Dam on 3rd.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dog Eat Dog

We all know that nature can be tough at times. It's dog eat dog out there, eat or be eaten. Certainly this has been the order of the day today, as my day started with the EZ Birding walk at Cape May Point State Park and one of the surprise events came right near the start. Our local Purple Martins are only just arriving back on the breeding grounds and keeper of the martin boxes, Dave Thomas, had only just left the state park when I turned in response to panicked calls from the Purple Martins - a male Merlin was gliding to the ground and sat slap bang in the center of a near-empty parking lot, with a Purple Martin in its talons! Sadly thats one that won't be passing its genes on this year, but a Merlin has to eat. My day ended with a selection of great photos from Sam Galick, among them several that followed a similar theme so I've posted them below.

Spring migrants continue to trickle in, with small parties of both Great and Snowy Egrets crossing the bay this morning and at least one Pine and three Palm Warblers at the state park. Osprey and Laughing Gull numbers continue to grow with at least six of the former hovering over the state park ponds this morning. Tony Leukering reported hearing a Broad-winged Hawk at Belleplain today and a Louisiana Waterthrush was reported from there on March 31st.

For once, an Osprey gets the better of a Bald Eagle! Aerial combast between these two is commonplace in the skies over Cape May County, with a fish lunch the prize for the winner! [Photo by Sam Galick
Eyes bigger than his stomach? Birds have a kind of holding center for food called a crop. Its like a sort of bag that allows them to eat large amounts of food in one go, which can then gradually make its way into the stomach proper in smaller, more manageable amounts. A raptor that has eaten well recently is often recognizable as such by the bulge in its upper chest (food sitting in the crop) but this Red-tailed Hawk literally does seem to have bitten off more than it can chew - and it still has the best part of the Muskrat to go yet! [Photo by Sam Galick]

Recent incoming migrants include Yellow-crowned Night Herons and Sam Galick photographed this one at a breeding location in Avalon on March 31st. Actually, Tom Wilson emailed me a while ago to say that five had already returned to a breeding site in Brigantine on March 23rd.

The weather looks set fair for the next four days or so, so it should be a good time to get out and look for emerging insects. Today, Tony Leukering reported to me Eastern Tailed Blue, Falcate Orange-tip and Eastern Pine Elfin all on the wing, while I noted a couple of American Ladies in the state park. On the dragonfly front, there is finally more than just the odd migrant Green Darner out there now, with Twin-spotted Spiketail, Uhler's Sundragon and Orange Bluet all out today. Maybe not so good for migrant birds though, with winds mostly predicted to be from the NW, shifting to NE by Friday.