Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hawks (and eagles) a-plenty

Today was a real break from the routine for me as I spent all day well north of my usual haunts. Our Belleplain Wildlife walks started today and, having done some groundwork the day before, I knew we would be in for a great morning of wildlife viewing. The continuing warm weather was good to us and brought out a great showing of Blueberry Azures and Henry's Elfins. Brilliant emerald-green Six-spotted Tiger Beetles were scurrying along the dirt tracks and Bee-flies were hovering close to the ground. Pine, Yellow-throated and Black-and-white Warblers were all in song and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers seemed to be building nests at every turn of the track. A singing White-eyed Vireo was a first-of-year bird for most of us. A real walk highlight this morning occurred beside Lake Nummy, as a Bald Eagle cruised over and got three Broad-winged Hawks up, soaring and whistling loudly.

In the afternoon, it was up to Millville for the Maurice River eagle cruise - and we certainly found plenty of eagles! These eagle cruises are run for us annually by The Osprey and provide us with a great opportunity to enjoy habitats that are rare or absent in Cape May County, including sandy river bluffs and wild rice marshes. Forster's Terns, Green-winged Teal, Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson's Snipe may well be birds we can see on migration in Cape May, but it is also nice to see them out in the vast landscapes of the Maurice River. And was this an eagle trip? Oh yes! With chicks now growing strongly in the nests, this is a great time to cruise the river and we enjoyed watching adults and youngsters at three different nests. To add to the excitement, we picked out a distant group of Glossy Ibises on one of the marshes and were entertained by some amazing aerial interactions between the Bald Eagles and the many Ospreys that nest here, thanks to great work by local conservation groups.

Deciding this really wasn't enough for one day, some of us continued on to Heislerville after the boat trip and managed to find the Black-necked Stilt and Little Gull that had been reported from there. The lagoons there look quite different after the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and later storms this past winter, but repair work has been finished in good time for the start of the main shorebird migration so I'm sure the many thousands of northbound birds will be grateful. Already, small numbers of Short-billed Dowitchers and Semipalmated Sandpipers are joining the flocks of Dunlin, while a good range of other birds was present today, including a very obliging Clapper Rail, good numbers of lingering Bonaparte's Gulls and an American Golden Plover.

Broad-winged Hawks are quietly sneaking back into breeding territories around Belleplain now, so keep an eye on the sky any time you have a gap in the tree canopy. Adults with broadly-banded tails are pretty easy to identify at this time of year [photo by Mike Crewe].

Not midges, mosquitoes, greenheads or gnats, those insects you see dancing in great clouds at Belleplain at the moment are mayflies. Individual insects only survive a day so have no mouth parts as they don't need to feed - of course this also means that they can't bite you, even if they wanted to! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Sandy river bluffs are not something that you see in Cape May County and offer different photo opportunities along the Maurice River [photo by Mike Crewe].

Vast acreages of Wild Rice marsh are almost completely submerged at high tide. These marshes attract large flocks of ducks in the winter and it is the presence of these flocks that draws in so many eagles to winter in the area [photo by Mike Crewe].

The second of the three Bald Eagle nests we saw today is wedged rather precariously between two upright pine trunks. I took a long shot of this one to show the adult up in the pine, as well as two well-feathered youngsters in the nest [photo by Mike Crewe].

Nest number three and a much smaller chick, still in its gray down phase [photo by Mike Crewe].

Of course, great opportunities to photograph Ospreys should not be missed...

...especially when they start dog-fighting with the local eagles [photos by Mike Crewe].

And finally, as if you needed another excuse to cruise the Maurice River, there's the awesome vistas and great skyscapes that are crying out to be photographed [photo by Lisa Ryan].