Monday, December 30, 2013

Countdown to New Year

After yesterday's yucky, rainy weather, it was nice to be back out in the field today and doing some preliminary scouting for our New Year birding walk on January 1st. Though we have had the odd cold snap, this winter has so far been pretty mild, meaning that a good range of birds can be found around Cape May right now. Of course, right up at the top of the list of targets for January 1st will be a Snowy Owl and, with perhaps five birds still around in the area, there's a reasonable chance that we will stumble across one. Ducks will no doubt feature strongly too, and with the weather looking chilly but dry over the next couple of days, hopefully there will be no big freeze to push birds off the Cape May Point ponds. Today, I found Redheads at two locations, including four males and a female at the state park, while Hooded Mergansers and Buffleheads were in full display at several sites. In The Rips, a good movement of Northern Gannets, Long-tailed Ducks and Surf Scoters was taking place this morning, a Bald Eagle made a fine sight as it headed out (over a Snowy Owl!) to hunt and Purple Sandpipers were on the jetties.

Two Western Kingbirds look set to spend the winter with us (if the weather holds) at Cresse Lane, off Route 9 in Erma. The birds favor the edge of a vineyard at the east end of the lane, just north of the wildlife management area. Please note that this vineyard is private property and should not be entered without the owner's permission - I hear that one or two visiting birders have recently forgotten this common courtesy.

Other recent birds include a Ross's Goose with the Snow Goose flock north of Reed's Beach on 26th (which may still be present but this is a difficult site to view), Orange-crowned and Nashville Warblers and a Common Yellowthroat at Cresse Lane on 27th and a White-winged Dove at Cape May Point on 27th to 29th at least. A Rufous Hummingbird also continues at a feeder at Cape May Point.

Snowy Owls continue to delight birders along the Jersey Shore and offer us a great opportunity to share some great viewing with members of the public. This male has put in a few guest appearances around Cape May Point over the past 10 days or so but mostly seems very good at staying out of the limelight. While much media concern continues to get people stressed over the plight of these 'starving' birds, studies of trapped birds have shown them to overall be fit and healthy [photo by Mike Crewe].

These two female King Eiders have been hanging around the free bridge at Nummy's Island for some time and hopefully will continue to do so into the new year [photo by Mike Crewe].

One of two Western Kingbirds that have been along Cresse Lane in Erma since at least December 15th [photo by Mike Crewe].
This White-winged Dove was an unexpected bonus to the end of the year and has most often been seen along Harvard Avenue, Cape May Point since it was first discovered on December 27th. It was quite a few feathers missing from the left wing so may perhaps have clipped an overhead cable [photo by Mike Crewe].
As if to highlight how mild it has been, this group of Tree Swallows, resting on the South Cape May Beach was part of a flock of 24 birds seen there on Christmas Day [photo by Mike Crewe].

And finally, don't forget two things: a) always keep an eye on your own back yard and b) always keep the camera handy! This juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk was photographed one-handed, through my living room window, while I was in the middle of a phone call with Richard Crossley - thank heavens for image-stabilized lenses!!! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

With the CMBO offices closed between now and New Year, booking for our January 1st Kick off your year list walk is tricky - and there are still just a few places left. If you wish to attend and haven't booked yet, you can show up at Cape May Point State Park for a 10AM start, but do come with cash in hand to pay on the day.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Back into the old routine

Having been away for a couple of weeks, it's hard slotting back into the good old regular routine, so I'll start with a quick apology. Of course, this being Cape May, you can be sure that birds have been out there to be found in South Jersey and there has been much to enjoy. Primary on the minds of most folks has been - without question - the continuing invasion of Snowy Owls along the eastern seaboard of North America. Much has happened since we last posted on them and the fact that so many people are not only looking for, but reporting, these birds has meant that we may yet learn much more as the winter progresses. We encourage anyone seeing a Snowy Owl to get into the habit of entering the sighting into eBird, where data collected can be made available to those who are studying this notable movement of birds. If as many sightings as possible are lodged in a single place, rather than scattered across any number of different forms of media, it will be much quicker and easier to make sense of what is happening.

At the simplest level, studying photos of birds has allowed us to follow the local movements of a few birds. Further afield, a bird was trapped and had a satellite tracker attached; these pieces of kit cost over $2000 so we're not going to see too many of these out there, but the information so far received has already clearly demonstrated how much some of these birds are moving around. The bird was tagged at Assateague Island on the Maryland coast and has since moved north to Cape Henlopen, Delaware, across the bay to Cumberland County and was last reported from Cape May County. Cearly this bird is not just moving in one direction. You can read more about this story here:

Also of great interest are the reports coming from Bruce Mactavish in Newfoundland. The numbers of Snowy Owls have been truly staggering, with over 300 birds counted during a concerted effort a couple of weekends ago!! For a full story, follow this link:

As for our local situation; the last time I checked, there was still at least one, perhaps two, Snowys in Cumberland County, possibly up to seven in Atlantic County and around five or so in Cape May County. With no shame what so ever, I present here yet another set of awesome photos of Snowy Owls, photos that have been sent to me over the past couple of weeks by people enjoying these wonderful birds. If you still haven't been out to enjoy the bird that the Inuits call 'Ukpik' then it is likely that birds will be around for a while yet. Both CMBO through our regular programs and Scott Barnes and Pete Bacinski through NJA's All Things Birds programs will be running a series of winter birding programs that offer a chance to enjoy the great owl of the north; if you want to treat yourself to the very best of starts to the New Year, check out our January programs, book yourself a place and we will see you in the field!

Snowy Owls are birds of the high Arctic, where Humans are rarely perceived as a threat to them. As such, they can be surprisingly tame at times and probably look at us more with bemusement than anything else. This male spent time loafing on a rooftop in Stone Harbor, so check out all those plastic owls around the barrier islands - one of them just might be looking back at you! [Photo by Kimberly Royster]

Shiny white male Snowy Owls might be more immediately eye-catching, but beautifully marked females such as this bird at Stone Harbor Point have a magnificence all of their own [photo by Joe Debold].

As well as the open beach fronts and dunes of the barrier islands, it is worth checking all those Osprey nesting platforms that you can see from the boulevards across the marshes. Here's one idling away the daylight hours on a platform at the Forsythe NWR (Brigantine) recently [photo by E J Nistico].

This male was at Two-mile Beach until fairly recently and may look familiar in this photo if you have been studying all the birds posted so far... I particularly like this shot of a Snowy Owl sitting among the molted shells of Horseshoe Crabs - a real South Jersey special! [Photo by Karl Lukens]

This second shot of the Two-mile Beach bird reveals that this bird was at Stone Harbor Point back in early December and is one of two that I posted pictures of from there on this blog on December 2nd. Note, especially, the tail pattern and the pattern of the lower scapulars (sorry for being technical!) [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Other news
You could easily be forgiven for thinking that the Snowy Owls have driven all the other birds out of New Jersey, such has been their grip on the world of bird news - but far from it (though conversely, I noticed in town today that it is impossible to find a fluffy Snowy Owl gift anywhere in Cape May right now, but there's plenty of other species to choose from!) So what else has been happening? Well, most recently, the local highlights have included up to two Western Kingbirds at the eastern end of Cresse Lane in Erma, two female King Eiders that have been hanging out at the free bridge at Nummy's Island and - briefly on 19th at least - a male Harlequin Duck at Cold Spring Inlet.

The 2013 Avalon Seawatch finished on something of a yucky day of wintery rain and wind yesterday and massive thanks are due to Calvin Brennan for carrying out this sometimes demanding, but essential, count. Razorbills put in a good appearance towards the end of the count last week as well as a scattering of Redheads and Canvasbacks. News on the six Sandhill Cranes seems to have dried up of late, with the last report I heard of coming on the 17th, but they may still be in the area.

Other news includes continuing late hummingbirds at a number of feeders - with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds competing with Rufous Hummingbirds to be last of the year. A Baltimore Oriole was at a Cape May Court House feeder on 22nd, a presumed escapee Whooper Swan continues to be reported along East Moss Mill Road in Atlantic County and a Laughing Gull was at Sunray Beach on 23rd.

It seems that it is not just Cape May that has had a recent influx of Sandhill Cranes. Though small numbers of these birds have been established in Salem County for some time now, there has been a marked increase in number of late with perhaps 10 new birds having appeared. This photo shows 13 of a flock of 16 that was around mid-month [photo by Jeff White].

Sunday, December 15, 2013

2013 Cape May Christmas Bird Count

Another year, another Cape May Christmas Bird Count under our belts. The weather was better than expected- the system that went through our area cleared out in the early pre-dawn hours of the morning, enough so for us to find some owls hooting around! A brisk West-North wind all day kept the birds and trees as well as birders moving. We were able to get a couple new birds species for the count regardless, and plenty of hot soup, good food, and socializing to end our day together with a tally of the days' yield.

Without further ado... The list!

Abbreviations denoted: *- first for count;  CW- Count Week;  CMPT- Cape May Point

Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Tundra Swan - CW
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Canvasback- CW
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Eider
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Wild Turkey
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Northern Gannet
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Tricolored Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Northern Goshawk- CMPT
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Clapper Rail
Virginia Rail
American Coot
Black-bellied Plover
Semi-palmated Plover
American Oystercatcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Marbled Godwit- CW
Ruddy Turnstone
Western Sandpiper
Purple Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher- CW
Wilson's Snipe
American Woodcock
Laughing Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Black-legged Kittiwake- 2 Mile Beach
Forster's Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eastern Screech Owl
Great Horned Owl
Long-eared Owl- CW
Short-eared Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Winter Wren
Marsh Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Snow Bunting
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Nelson's Sparrow
Saltmarsh Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole- CW
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Write-in Species:

Eurasian Wigeon - 1 CW
King Eider - 3
American Bittern - 2
Osprey - 1 CW
Sandhill Crane - 6
Spotted Sandpiper - 1
Lesser Yellowlegs - 1 CW
Glaucous Gull - 1
Eurasian Collared-Dove - 1
Snowy Owl - 5
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - 1
archilochus sp. - 1
Rufous Hummingbird - 1
Western Kingbird - 1 
White-eyed Vireo - 1
Sedge Wren - 1
Nashville Warbler - 1
*Black-and-white Warbler - 1
American Tree Sparrow - 1
Vesper Sparrow - 1
Lark Sparrow - 1
Lapland Longspur - 2
*Blue Grosbeak - 1
Indigo Bunting - 1
Razorbill - 3

Total: 160 + 9 CW

An excellent find in winter around Cape May- White-eyed Vireo at the Coast Guard Base! [photo by Doug Gochfeld]

Wintering Lark Sparrows in Cape May are fairly rare, we'll see how long this one lasts at the Coast Guard Base! [photo by Doug Gochfeld]

This Ruby-throated Hummingbird has survived long enough at a feeder along New England Road to make its mark on this year's CBC! [photo by Michael O'Brien]

Many freshwater ponds that back up to the Great Salt Marsh serve thousands of wintering waterfowl here with big numbers of Hooded Mergansers, American Black Ducks, American Wigeon, and Ring-necked Ducks. Sometimes you get lucky and happen into other specialty Aythyas like these two Redheads on this year's count. [photo by Sam Galick]

One of three Orange-crowned Warblers at Cape May Point State Park the day before, a normal wintering number. The Coast Guard Base yielded four Orange-crowned Warblers on count day.
[photo by Sam Galick]

Friday, December 6, 2013


Ever since the first Snowy Owl showed up at Stone Harbor Point, I've gone there with friends everyday to see our arctic visitors from the north. I've had the pleasure of being in the presence of these regal creatures for a number of hours lately and I can't help to be transported to another place- the high arctic, where trees are non-existent, and tundra goes to to the horizon. Imagine what they have seen- what normal life is like for them day-to-day, and how out of place they must feel living on the Jersey shore for the time being. Being out of place for any bird comes with it's own challenges of finding food to eat and not becoming food themselves, even for top predators like Snowy Owls.

The morning trot out to the end of  the point.
I could go out here just for the sunrises- this only
lasted a few short minutes before it rose above the clouds.
Life is best with no filter- you never know what the day will bring!
[photo by Sam Galick]
Where prey and predators' paths meet- Snowy Owl prints crossing a small
rodent's. A recent study at Forsythe NWR in 2012 and 2013 revealed that the local Meadow
Vole (Microtus pennsyvlanicus) population was decimated from Hurricane Sandy- towards the end of
2013 the trend is finally on the rebound which is good for our winter raptors including Snowy Owls.

[photo by Sam Galick]

This female Peregrine is one of a pair that 
have been patrolling Stone Harbor Point this winter.
The big question  is- do you really want to take your vehicle
 beyond this point? Personally, I wouldn't chance it with her watching...
[photo by Sam Galick]

Terror from above- while watching the Snowy Owl
our eyes caught this bird coming in from a perch on Nummys Island 

zeroed in on the Snowy from over a mile away pumping low over the water.
[photo by Sam Galick]

Bracing for impact- The Peregrine dive bombing on the 
Snowy repeatedly caused it to throw it's wings out, making it appear 
much bigger and a threatening opponent.
[photo by Sam Galick]

"Come on, bring it!!"
[photo by Sam Galick]

[video by Tom Johnson]

What a show! This happened every morning at Stone Harbor Point the past few days- perhaps this is why there's a Snowy Owl now at a less exposed spot at the base of the toll bridge to Nummys Island perched on a boat. But is it the same bird from Stone Harbor Point? The chain of events and arrivals of birds in Cape May have been nothing short of complicated. Sometimes a timeline helps so let's have a go at it, shall we?!

Current distribution of Snowy Owls in the county.
[image courtesy of]

11/25 - 1 Stone Harbor Point; light-colored bird
11/29 - 1 Stone Harbor Point; dark-colored bird
11/30 - 2 Stone Harbor Point; two light-colored birds
12/01 - 2 Corson's Inlet SP; one light, one dark
12/02 - 2 Avalon Seawatch; two light-colored birds
12/03 - 1 Two Mile Beach; 1 light-colored / 1 light-colored different bird at Stone Harbor Point
12/04 - 1 North Cape May; single light-colored bird, 1 Ocean City- too far away to tell coloration
12/05 - North Cape May bird moved to Stone Harbor Point!

That's right! Michael O'Brien photographed the North Cape May Snowy Owl on 12/4 and Tom Johnson photographed the same bird at Stone Harbor Point the next day 12/5! The main marker between the two here is the cross on the back of the head.

North Cape May Snowy Owl photographed on 12/4
[photo by Michael O'Brien]

Stone Harbor Point Snowy Owl photographed on 12/5
[photo by Tom Johnson]
Continued efforts to pin down how many birds are here and passing through will allow us to better understand the magnitude of this flight. We'll see what the future will hold!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Snowy Owls make it a perfect weekend

Well, the prediction of a Snowy Owl for Thanksgiving certainly came true - and the wonderful run of Snowy Owl sightings looks set to continue. Trying to find time to work out how many we have in South Jersey is proving difficult simply because news of new birds just keeps on coming!

To date, the minimum number of birds in our neck of the woods seems to include three or four at Brigantine/Holgate, one at Barnegat Light, one in Gloucester County, one or perhaps two around Corson's Inlet and at least four different birds at Stone Harbor - and even as I write, news just came in of two flying south past the Avalon Seawatch, one of which landed on the 8th street jetty. How much overlap there is between sites we won't know until we can get time to properly study photos of all birds from all angles so I would encourage as many people as possible to send photos to CMBO to help us make sense of all these sightings.

As time progresses, owls are being reported from more and more locations along the eastern seaboard; yesterday, Newfoundland birders co-ordinated a count and came up with 138 Snowy Owls in the SE corner of the island - what an awesome total!! While at the southern end of the coastline, individual Snowys have reached Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and - believe it or not - Bermuda!

One thing that should be mentioned here is a word to allay fears. For many years, it was always assumed that irruptions of Snowy Owls like this one - which are actually not that unusual - are an indication that the birds are starving and that the movements are indicative of a crash in the lemming population. In actual fact, for some years now, researchers have been indicating that movements like this are more often a result of a really good breeding season for the owls (probably due to a good lemming year) and the movements almost entirely involve first-winter birds seeking good hunting grounds elsewhere. It may be some time before we find out why this is happening - and maybe we never will - but for now, let's just enjoy these spectacular birds and hope that we get 138 at Stone Harbor Point!!

Here's some pictures from Stone Harbor, taken this weekend and showing details of the three birds that were there - a female on Saturday and two males on Sunday. Neither of Sunday's males were the same bird as was present there earlier in the week.

I still haven't managed to clap my eyes on a female, but this bird was at Stone Harbor Point on Saturday and is clearly a female - and most likely a first-winter. Note the well-barred pattern of the tail and tertials and the heavy black marks on all the upperparts. The tail pattern is difficult to see here, but the central feathers appear to have at least four bars on them, with the marks almost continuous across both inner and outer webs of the feathers [photo by Tom Reed].
The same bird as above, Stone Harbor Point, November 30. Again, a typical female; note the heavy barring on all but the face and note how small the frontal bib is on the top of the chest. Many of these features in isolation are not necessarily conclusive, but all together we have a pretty certain female here [photo by Sam Galick].

A third picture of the same bird above, Stone Harbor Point, Nov 30. The tail pattern is easier to see here and shows two more or less solid bars and two broken ones on the central tail feathers - indicative of a female. Note also here that the barring on the inner primaries appears to be more or less evenly spaced along the length of the feather; though I have not read anything about primary markings in Snowy Owls, a heavy session on the internet last night, studying what appear to be reliably labelled photos of Snowy Owls, suggests to me that males typically have the dark marks on the primaries concentrated toward the distal part of the feather, leaving an obvious pale patch at the base of the primaries [photo by Sam Galick].

The first of two birds that I saw at Stone Harbor Point on December 1. Somewhat unexpectedly, this bird was in almost the exact spot as the bird I saw earlier in the week and it would be all too easy to assume it is the same bird. The relatively large, white, frontal bib, relatively narrow dark barring and smudgy marks on the greater coverts all suggest a first-winter male, like last week's bird [photo by Mike Crewe].

But here's the same male as above, in a different position. Last week's bird had two and a half dark bars, broken into isolated spots on its central tail feathers. On the one central feather that can be seen here, there is clearly just one dark bar, formed by two, well isolated, dark spots [photo by Mike Crewe].

The second of two birds at Stone Harbor Point, December 1. This bird is one of those inbetweenies that can be hard to call, but I'm sticking my neck out on it being a young male. The smudgy marks on the greater coverts certainly suggest this is a first-winter bird, while the tail pattern suggests a male. This bird was roosting on a log on the tidal mudflats, so was guaranteed to have to move at some point [photo by Mike Crewe].

With the tide getting higher, the bird lifts its tail and makes it a little easier to see - now we can see three, rather small bars, made up of isolated dark spots - a typical male tail pattern [photo by Mike Crewe].

Having moved from the incoming tide, I got a chance to photograph the front of this second bird, and it certainly shows a typical male pattern - fine dark barring and a relatively large, white bib. Note the heavy, dark crown spotting on this bird which is very different to the other two males [photo by Mike Crewe].

The second of two Stone Harbor Point birds, December 1. Of course, having to move from the rising tide meant that this Snowy had to fly past us to get back to the beach. Features mentioned in the two photo captions above indicate why this appears to be a male. With this in mind, note the unspotted section of the primary bases that I detected on many birds on the internet. Could this be a useful feature for telling male Snowys from females? [Photo by Mike Crewe] 

Friday, November 29, 2013

The birds just keep coming...

Well, November 2013 may not be remembered for producing any really big rarities, but it certainly dealt Cape May an exciting batch of other goodies. Most memorable among these at the end of the month will be the record-breaking count of Golden Eagles, as well as those infuriating Sandhill Cranes! I say infuriating because they really have been giving us the run-around this past few days. It's only when you jump into a car and try to get from one side of Cape Island to the other in time to track down some wandering cranes that you realize that four miles is a long way! Back and forth they had people going, up and down Sunset Boulevard, but eventually, today, three of the birds settled for a while in an old Sweet Corn field between Shunpike and Seashore Roads and allowed a number of people to get good views of this stylish bird.

With two more sightings of Rough-legged Hawks today (perhaps involving the same individual) it does seem as though there could yet be more opportunities to catch up with this species in Cape May this year. Northern Goshawks are putting in an appearance now too and reports today included the remarkable sight of a Northern Goshawk chasing an American Woodcock over the meadows!
A female Snowy Owl popped up at Stone Harbor Point today and I at first assumed that it would be the Brigantine bird from a couple of days ago, but it seems that that bird is still present, so numbers of this fabulous Arctic wanderer continue to grow down here and - with much luck - we could see the odd bird staying for a while and giving us plenty of opportunity to enjoy them.

Keep an eye out for River Otters at this time of year, this one was in Lake Lily right in front of the Northwood Center a couple of days ago [photo by Mike Crewe].

Despite recent cold snaps, a few new Rufous Hummingbirds are still popping up at feeders in the area. This male Rufous (confirmed by call) was at Cambridge and Coral Avenues at Cape May Point on 26th [photo by Mike Crewe].

Up to six Sandhill Cranes have been wandering around Cape May Point over the last three days and have largely proved elusive. I managed to get myself perfectly positioned for some great flight shots - only to find I had blown it by having the camera on the wrong settings! O well, this one's not too bad... [photo by Mike Crewe].

Eventually today, three of the Sandhills descended to ground level and gave good views off Seashore Road. You can just make out the duller head pattern of the younger bird in the middle, showing this to be a family party [photo by Mike Crewe].

Same day, similar camera failure as the cranes! A chunky, adult female Northern Goshawk is a scarce sight at Cape May Point - most birds that pass through here are youngsters - so this bird was a real treat. When seen close enough like this, it's easy to tell the broad-beamed, short-tailed, heavy-chested shape of a Northern Goshawk from the more streamlined look of a Cooper's Hawk [photo by Mike Crewe]

The same Northern Goshawk as above; you can just make out the well-defined dark ear coverts and white supercilium on this bird [photo by Mike Crewe].

I hope you enjoyed a beach stroll yesterday or today and took the opportunity to go and look for Snowy Owls. At least three and perhaps four birds have been reported in South Jersey over the last couple of days so photos will be of great benefit in helping to decide how many individuals are involved. This one looks as though he's already bored with the whole process though! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Don't forget, Saturday is the last day of the 2013 Hawkwatch at the state park, so do come and join in for the final tally.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Snowy Owls for Thanksgiving?

Sometimes it's necessary to keep an eye on more than just local conditions to keep up with what's happening in the birding world and certainly keeping an eye on reports in eBird can be a useful way to plan ahead for your days in the field. A quick trawl through more recent sightings in New Jersey will quickly reveal one thing that is bound to get you ready to head out into the cold - it looks mighty suspiciously as though we might just be able to conjure up a Snowy Owl for Thanksgiving!

A quick look at eBird data shows that there has been a number of Snowy Owls reported from the North-east over the past week and it can surely only be a matter of time before one puts in an appearance at a beach near you. With two at Sandy Hook and singles reported from Barnegat and Stone Harbor, most birds have predictably been along the shore, but one was well inland (though close to the river) at National Park in Gloucester County too. At least two birds have also already made it to the south of us, with singles at Dover Air Force base and Assateague Island, while the coastline in New York and New England is lighting up with reports. The weather looks pretty hideous for tomorrow, but after that, it would be great to get every one out and checking for these fabulous creatures.

Where to look? Well, Snowy Owls are creatures of the high Arctic, well north of the treeline and even in winter they prefer to hang out in areas of flat, open expanse. Undisturbed coastal habitats (as rare as hen's teeth in NJ I know!!) are certainly favored, but further inland, open grasslands and even flat, agricultural lands may attract birds. With no snow around to disguise them, a large white lump in a field or on a dune is pretty easy to pick out so wrap up warm, pick up your binoculars and go for a walk - and don't forget to report your sightings!

Note: Do bear in mind that Snowy Owls are very vulnerable to disturbance and birds that wander well south of their normal range may well be underfed and desperately in search of a meal. Please keep a respectful distance from the birds and allow them to go about their lives. At present, birds seem to be moving through quite quickly, with most birds moving on after just a day or two - perhaps because they haven't found ideal conditions yet. With this in mind, the presence of some birds may best be kept quiet until they look more settled. Once settled, Snowies can become relatively habituated to people and even move into towns to feed. Once this happens, it can be much easier for news to be spread and birds to be enjoyed by all. It does look as though more birds will come, so just be patient, keep an eye out and you might just find yourself turning that tatty, white, plastic bag into something far more interesting...

A look at eBird data maps can be a great way to get a feel for what is happening, especially regarding irruptive, Arctic and Boreal species. This map shows reported sightings of Snowy Owls for August to November in 2012 (blue pins) and 2013 (red pins). What is immediately apparent here is that the Northwest had the lion's share of birds in 2012 while in 2013 it is the turn of the Northeast. It is likely that the 2012 and 2013 movements involve birds from different parts of the range and movements may well be due to localized food shortages. Conversely, movements such as this can also occur after a very good breeding season, causing a temporary 'overstocking' of birds and a need for at least some to move elsewhere to find food. Data from eBird; map copyright of Google.

Homing in a little closer on the Northeast, it is clear to see that the vast majority of Snowy Owl sightings have come from the coastal strip. While there might be at least some observer bias in this, it seems likely that birds are genuinely hugging the coast and the Jersey shore offers plenty of opportunity to find more. Data from eBird; map copyright of Google.

Snowy Owls are pretty easy to identify, though briefly seen Barn Owls can occasionally get the heart racing. Barn Owls, however, are clearly buffish in color above, while Snowies are almost all white with varying amounts of dark barring according to age and sex [photo by Mike Crewe].

Adult male Snowy Owls are almost all white with very few marks, while first-winter females can be very heavily marked with dark, almost black bands. The rest, though, can be problematic and, though ageing and sexing Snowy Owls is often possible, many intermediate birds just don't give good enough view to be certain. A key place to start looking is the central tail feathers; check for complete versus broken bars, and count the number. The bird above had two broken bars and an incomplete third bar (hidden in the picture). This is consistent with a non-adult male [photo by Mike Crewe],

This bird is further confirmed as a male by the pure white outer two pairs of tail feathers. The narrowness of the bars (especially on the back and belly) and lack of markings on the primaries are all good for a young male but in the end I sort of got stuck at first-winter or second winter male for a variety of reasons. Knowing the age and sex of birds that make erratic southward movements such as these can be important in helping us to understand what is happening within the population; but if you can't get that critical wing or tail shot, don't worry, just enjoy the bird [photo by Mike Crewe].

Monday, November 25, 2013

Black-headed Gull

Sometimes a good bird falls through the gaps, what with all the other things going on around Cape May at the moment. On November 16th, Sam Galick found a smart, adult Black-headed Gull at Miami Beach and, though several people managed to shoot straight over and get a look at the bird, it somehow never made it onto our blog.

Miami Beach has proved to be a regular location for this species in recent years, though Black-headed Gulls seem to more typically turn up there in late winter rather than in late fall. If you are not sure where Miami Beach is and want to go and check the place out, it's a section of beach on the Delaware Bay side of the Cape May peninsula, right at the northern end of Villas in Lower Township. It is best accessed by heading west off Bayshore Road along Miami Avenue. Park tidily near to where Miami dead ends with the beach and walk out onto the beach to view the shore line. Viewing here is usually best at high tide as the birds will be closer to you and will most likely be roosting in a tight group rather than scattered across miles of sand flats. Check local tide tables for tide times, or click on the Highlands Beach link on our News from the Cape page.

If you look north from Miami Avenue, you will see a sand bar, pushed up by water pumped out from nearby Fulling Mill/Fishing Creek. This bar usually remains uncovered by all but the highest tides and is the first place that gulls gather as the tide starts to fall. This is what makes this particular spot so good as a birding hot spot.

With the recent pulse of Arctic winds bearing down on us, gulls have been moving in impressive numbers - most notably Ring-billed Gulls over the past 48 hours - so Miami Beach may very well be worth keeping an eye on over the next few days.

Black-headed Gull at Miami Beach. This species looks superficially like an oversized Bonaparte's Gull, but notice the dark red bill and legs and the mostly gray underwing [all photos by Sam Galick].