Friday, May 31, 2013

Be A Good Egg

The past few evenings have seen me taking quiet walks along the beaches of Cape May and, when you do this, it's not long before you realize two things: 1. there's a lot of great beach bird breeding habitat here and 2. there's not a lot of it protected. Of course we Humans want our places to hang out, but we have to remember the smaller guys around us too, who might not be too keen on sharing too close a space with something big enough to eat them! Though very little of Cape May's total beach area is actually protected, it pains me to see that some folks can't even cope with that and, on most walks, it really isn't long before you see someone 'exercising their rights' as I am sure they would like to call it. This can often be a relatively innocuous 'I'll walk where ever I please' mind set, right up to 'I'm going to ride my motorcycle where ever I like'. It's a shame that some people want the full nine yards all the time and really don't want to compromise.

Even so, our beach birds do have their fans and I am sure they are grateful for it. The work of a multitude of conservation organizations comes together during the summer months and staff do what they can to protect the birds and educate us all on what is going on and how best we can learn to live along side our fellow sentient beings.

A great step forward was made this year in bringing the beach bird message to the general public and we do hope that you are all signing up to it - and encouraging others to do the same. It's free (yes, really, no catches!!) and it just asks you to take a pledge, which means that you have read the rules and understand what New Jersey and New York are trying to do in a joint venture to help their beach birds. Just one click will take you to the Be A Good Egg campaign page and you can do your bit for our beach birds. Here's a few photos to get you in the mood...

Least Terns go through a very noisy and elaborate courtship when they first arrive back on our beaches in May. This female is already sitting on eggs and her mate kept bringing in a fish but would not let her take it. In the end it seemed to me that the rather inept father had not worked out that the eggs haven't hatched yet!! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Most beach nesting birds have evolved eggs that blend so well with their sandy surroundings. Look carefully and you might spot a single egg, just showing from within the nest depression beneath this bird. Beach nesters use little or no nest material as it would simply help to give away the location of the egg [photo by Mike Crewe].

American Oystercatchers are widespread breeders but nevertheless can suffer locally from disturbance. Unlike most shorebird chicks, young oystercatchers receive a lot of close care and attention from their parents when they are small [photo by Beth Polvino].

Black Skimmers usually seem rather oddball, ungainly birds, but they can look much more graceful when performing their protracted courtship rituals [photo by Mike Crewe].

Black Skimmers rarely nest south of the Cape May Canal but, with much nest-scraping and bowing going on, maybe we'll get a few pairs breeding with us this year [photo by Mike Crewe].

Go enjoy the beach, but please remember that it's just a place for us to play - but a life or death place for wildlife. Be a good egg and share the beach (have you done that pledge yet?!).

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cicadas - and other insects

Well, we told you they were coming and now they are here - tens of thousands of Periodical Cicadas are creating one heck of a din in Belleplain State Forest! This is an event that only takes place once every 17 years so I recommend making the best of it while you can. These really are fascinating creatures and so different to the regular, annual cicada species that we get here. Periodical Cicadas are much slower in flight and in there actions than other cicadas. You can pick them up quite easily (they won't harm you at all, they prefer plant sap!) and study them at close quarters. Look around on the ground and low vegetation and you will find the old skin cases that they have emerged from after spending 17 years below ground, sucking sap from tree roots. Already the birds are having a great time, feeding on any that they can catch.

If you are looking for Periodical Cicadas at Belleplain, all you need to do is get out of the car and listen for the din - a constant, droning hum. Look for them in areas of drier soil where oaks predominate. So far, I have found them most abundant around the town of Belleplain, along the western end of Sunset Road and along Rt 605 to the North of Belleplain town. While you are there, keep an eye out for dragonflies and butterflies too as many species are now on the wing and easy to view. If you walk the dirt roads, check out damp patches of mud for butterflies taking salts, or look for dragonflies hunting from the ground and catching mosquitoes...

The empty shell of a Periodical Cicada (technically called an exuvia) remains where it was abandoned, on a low bush or in the leaf litter on the forest floor [photo by Mike Crewe].

They don't get much more 'bug-eyed' than the Periodical Cicada - a truly awesome beast and surely straight out of Star Wars!! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Another cicada stretches its wings and gets ready to head for the treetops [photo by Mike Crewe].

There's some great dragonflies on the wing around Cape May right now, with migrants arriving from the south at the Point, and local breeders appearing all over Belleplain. This tandem pair of Lancet Clubtails was at Weatherby Road last weekend [photo by Mike Crewe].

Another tandem pair at Belleplain - this time a pair of Mantled Baskettails [photo by Mike Crewe]

Some of the more colorful damsels are just starting to emerge now, though female Aurora Damsels like this one are not a patch on the brilliant blue males that escort them! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Here's an insect you all will know, even if you don't know that you know it! This is Polistes annularis, one of those paper wasps that make those little dangly nests that you see hanging inside roof spaces and under eaves. I post this so that you can compare it with the next picture, since all is not what it might at first seem in the insect world [photo by Mike Crewe].

Here's another Polistes wasp that you might choose to stay well clear of - or is it? This is a remarkable piece of mimicry since this is actually a creature called a Brown Mantidfly (Climaciella brunnea). The give away is the mantis-like legs at the front end; but look at the detail - the yellow-tipped antennae, the dark mid-section to the legs and the dark leading edge to the wings... this creature is actually closely related to the lacewings and won't harm you at all [photo by Mike Crewe]

And while we are on insects - here's one you really don't want to see. This is the larva of the Gypsy Moth, a European species that is now at large in North America and capable of causing great devastation to oak trees, This little guy came crawling across a table in Woodbine last Sunday and shows that this insect is still present in our area - so keep an eye out and, well, you know, quietly remove them from the gene pool. The key character to look for is the row of red spots along the back, turning to blue toward the front end [photo by Mike Crewe].

Have you got the bug bug yet? If not, why not come and join one of our Sunday morning Belleplain Wildlife walks during the summer months when the birding is a little quieter... if nothing else, it gets you out into the great outdoors and away from the crowds just for a couple of hours. Check our online Calendar of Events for details.

Belleplain always has some nice floral offerings too - this pair of Moccasin-flowers (or Pink Lady's-slipper) were a highlight of last Sunday's Belleplain Wildlife walk [photo by Mike Crewe].

And while we are on native flora, don't miss the opportunity to visit Cape May Point State Park and witness a riot of color on the back trail. This sea of pink Philadelphia Fleabane and Purple Lyre-leaved Sage is worth several megabites of digital camera card at least!! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Recent Sightings
Shorebirds continue to delight at Heislerville right now with Curlew Sandpiper and Glaucous Gull being recent highlights. Down at the point, the Black-necked Stilt was present at The Meadows early on 27th but has not been reported since, but Mississippi Kites continued to delight the crowds over the holiday weekend and the second Scissor-tailed Flycatcher of the year was at Higbee Beach on the evening of 25th, remaining into the next day.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Higbee Beach WMA on May 26th [photos by Karl Lukens].

Monday, May 27, 2013

Kites a-plenty

Mississippi Kites have been headlining the birding world at Cape May this weekend, as an almost unprecedented movement of birds took place through the area. The fun really started on Saturday morning when Vince Elia texted that a flock - yes a flock! - of seven Mississippi Kites was heading south from the Rea Farm toward Cape May Point. Participants of our regular Saturday morning walk at the site were right on hand to witness this wonderful movement of these graceful birds, before the birds reappeared right outside the CMBO Northwood Center. The party of seven birds all headed quickly back north and I managed to get a good look at them as they passed the Northwood Center. Following them back toward the Rea Farm, they soon turned on the speed and I just managed to catch up with a group of five birds as they passed right over my house and headed north over the canal. Five were seen a little while later back in the Bayshore Road, but after lunch numbers began to pick up more and at one time I heard rumors of perhaps 13 different birds in the area.

After lunch I ran across Pat & Clay Sutton and Ward Dasey, all enjoying great kite viewing right from The Beanery parking lot. I spent a short time there with them and before long we had an impromptu hawkwatch set up, with a number of birdwatchers - as well as interested members of the public - stopping to see what was going on. We had two kites set up nicely in a dead tree in the scopes and at one point at least nine and perhaps 10 birds cruised along the treeline. This was all fabulous stuff, but - for me at least - just a little tarnished by the fact that I inadvertently deleted all the frame-filling shots I had when I reformatted my camera card too quickly!! Thanks to Clay for showing a touch of sympathy and emailing me one of his fine shots...

Mississippi Kite over the Beanery on Saturday - typical of the great views we had of these birds as they played the gusty winds that we experienced that day [photo by Clay Sutton].

Another Mississippi Kite cruises over in pursuit of dragonflies for lunch [photo by Mike Crewe].
Raptors can look pretty big when they are aloft with little to measure them against; however, Mississippi Kites are surprisingly small, and this became really aparent to me when one of my local Common Grackles escorted this bird off his patch [photo by Mike Crewe].

Recent Sightings
Late May is shaping up to produce some interesting bird sightings, besides the Mississippi Kites (which are likely to show again tomorrow (fingers crossed!). A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was found in the third field at Higbee Beach WMA late on Saturday and remained into Sunday and a Glaucous Gull was at Heislerville today. Heislerville still holds excellent numbers of shorebirds and it is certainly worth a visit to check for Curlew Sandpiper, one of which has been present for the past few days. Yellow-breasted Chats seemed to be late arriving this spring but are now on territory at regular locations around Cape May Point, while Summer Tanagers seem to be present in good numbers around Belleplain State Forest. Belated news came in this evening of a Gray Kingbird, photographed at Brigantine on May 25th. There have been no reports of the bird so far since that date, but it may well be worth keeping an eye out for if you are headed that way.

Kentucky Warbler is never an easy bird to get on your Cape May list, but small numbers do still turn up in wet woods here with this one currently holding territory in Belleplain State Forest. Keep an ear out for their rather slow, simple but clear song [photo by Mike Crewe].

There has been a spate of Black-necked Stilt sightings this spring, from Heislerville, Brigantine, Corson's Inlet and the South Cape May Meadows - where this bird was photographed today [photo by Mike Crewe].

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cape Maygration part 2 - the birds came to the party!

The dates for our annual Cape Maygration spring weekend event obviously have to be planned well in advance, so that venues can be booked, diary dates can be set and everything can be put in place to ensure that our eager visitors are all assured of a good time. But the weather? And the birds? Well, that's out of our hands and, believe me, this year was somewhat fraught to say the least! Weather trends this spring have not been bringing high numbers of migrants to anywhere on the east coast and we've seen 35-40 degree swings in temperatures in 24 hour periods on a regular basis. In the event, things worked out pretty well. Though we had some soggy spells at times (thankfully nothing like the downpours we had on World Series this year!) we mostly enjoyed pretty good weather. But what of the birds? Blocking wet weather systems continued to track east across the Mid Atlantic states to the south of us, pretty much cutting off any chance of a big fall out, but birds did get through and I know for sure that there was a whole bunch of smiling faces heading out of Cape May after the weekend - actually, many of those same faces are still here and still enjoying the magic of May in Cape May (did they really name the month after the place?!!).

From warblers at Higbee Beach and The Beanery to outstanding shorebird gatherings at Heislerville and Brigantine, via horseshoecrabs, backbay boat trips and breeding birds at Belleplain, here's some of what people came, saw and enjoyed...

The weather may have been moody at times, but dull, damp spells bring the insects down lower and with them come the birds that feed on them. It's a great birding day when you see Chimney Swifts so close that you can count the spines on the tail feathers! [photo by Mike Crewe]

Winds that were unfavorable for northbound songbird migrants brought us some pleasant surprises, including some days when raptor movements on NW winds made us wonder whether we had skipped summer and gone straight into fall! As well as a sprinkling of Broad-winged, Red-shouldered and young Red-tailed Hawks, at least three Swallow-tailed Kites have passed this way of late, including this one, circling high with Turkey Vultures over The Beanery [photo by Mike Crewe].

Walks at The Meadows and the state park were frequently brightened by passing parties of Brown Pelicans - such as this group that circled over the beach ahead of us on Saturday afternoon [photo by Mike Crewe]

As well as migrants, breeding birds were here to be enjoyed and many of them performed perfectly for us. At Jake's Landing, Marsh Wrens were determined not to be ignored...

...this Wood Thrush gathered up spent oak catkins for nest material on the side of the road in Belleplain State Forest...

...Least Terns performed death-defying power dives at The Meadows...

...and the poor old Ospreys continued to run the gauntlet of our local Bald Eagles [photos by Mike Crewe].

Other local breeding birds ensured that backbay boat trips were always accompanied by much activity. Eastern Willets are very much the sight and sound of Cape May saltmarshes throughout the summer...

...Ospreys work diligently to ensure that not a single available nest space is left unoccupied...

...and Clapper Rails - with a little patience - do eventually come out for a wash and preen after caking themselves in black mud while pursuing fiddler crabs [photos by Mike Crewe].

Just up the road at Heislerville, our walks provided excellent opportunities to savor the hustle and bustle of a breeding colony of herons, egrets and cormorants...

...with much activity from Black-crowned Night Herons as they collected twigs for their nests.

And of course Heislerville has built up a great reputation for attracting masses of shorebirds in spring, giving plenty of opportunity to scan through for itinerant phalaropes, Black-necked Stilts, Curlew Sandpipers and other goodies.

But it is as a resting location for thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers that Heislerville really excels, and allows researchers from NJ Audubon and other organizations to study the worrying downward population trend of this species [photos by Mike Crewe].

While we won't have this year's data for a while yet, early signs of horseshoecrab activity instill mixed feelings. Numbers are still a lot lower than they should be to ensure a healthy population but, on the other hand, they seem to have taken readily to beaches that were artificially replenished after Hurricane Sandy stripped all the sand away last year...

...and for birdwatchers, this has meant plenty of great viewing opportunities as Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Sandpipers take on vital fuel to get them to their breeding grounds. [Photos by Mike Crewe]

And as if all that was not enough - the warblers came, right on time! Numbers may well have been lower than we would have liked, but a great mix of species was here to be enjoyed, and fewer birds meant more time to relax and enjoy those that were here! Walks at Cape May Point, The Beanery and Higbee Beach gave us nice encounters with Black-throated Green Warbler...

...Magnolia Warbler...

...the flame-throated Blackburnian Warbler...

...breeding-plumaged Blackpoll Warblers...

...and - one of my favorites as it is scarce down here in spring - Bay-breasted Warbler (a little grainy here as it lurked in deep shadow in The Beanery's wet woods) [photos by Mike Crewe]

Well, if that lot doesn't get you fired up to come down to Cape May right now, I don't know what will - perhaps if I tell you that a flock (yes a flock!) of seven Mississippi Kites is lurking right outside the observatory window right now...

See you in the field!!!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cape Maygration... part 1

Our spring weekend, affectionately known as Cape Maygration, has come and gone. It may only be one weekend of the year, but it is amazing how much planning goes into making sure that everyone has a good time - and how long it takes to get back to normal again afterward! If you were here for the weekend, we were pleased to see you and so grateful for your support of our work - and you will know what a great time we had. If you couldn't make it this year, well I'll give you a sample of what we saw and maybe you will be able to join us another time.

In this first review, I'm posting a simple photo gallery of some of the great birds seen during the event - a long weekend in which nearly 190 species of birds were recorded during our Cape Maygration events (and there were a number of other bird species that we know were in the area too!). It really is great to see so many people getting into wildlife photography these days, something that the relative cheapness of digital compared with film has no doubt played a part. This boom in wildlife photography is certainly something that we have responded to and if you check out our online events calendar or the Kestrel Express, you will see that we have photographic walks, workshops and tutorials more or less throughout the year, under the expert guidance of both Scott Whittle and Mike Hannisian. So here's some highlights from the past week, all taken by friends and weekend participants in and around wonderful Cape May - or should that be Cape A-Mayzing!!

One of spring's great highlights in the Cape May backbays is the gatherings of shorebirds that take place in mid-May. Our regular boat trips out into the marshes around Jarvis Sound regularly offer fabulous opportunities to photograph flocks of Whimbrel, pausing to feed up before continuing north to breed [photo by Beth Polvino].

Just when you have decided that you are destined never to see a Clapper Rail, one pops up right in front of you! This bird was washing yukky saltmarsh mud from its plumage and made a great subject for photography at Heislerville [photo by Peter Langman].

The great diversity of shape and size in birds is always something to marvel at. This Least Sandpiper at Cape May Point State Park is not much bigger than a single swan feather, drifting along on the water beside it [photo by Karl Lukens].

This slightly unusual male Orchard Oriole has been holding territory at the South Cape May Meadows recently. This appears to be a first-year male, but it is unusual - though not unheard of - for such males to have such an extensively black hood [photo by Karl Lukens].

Just when you thought it was too late to see one... I haven't seen a White-crowned Sparrow around Cape May for a long time now, but May can throw up odd birds such as this individual which showed up in the state park for just one day last week [photo by Karl Lukens].

Not to be sniffed at, even the common birds can provide temporary eye-candy to Spring Weekend participants. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are always a delight to see, as well as to study more closely [photo by E J Nistico].

White-eyed Vireos pulled out all the stops this past week and set aside their usual skulking behavior to disport themselves before an appreciative audience [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Despite a dearth of good westerly or south-westerly winds so far this spring, a good handful of warblers made it through in time for spring weekend. Blackburnian Warblers were present in good numbers some days and included this very obliging bird in the pond-side willows at The Beanery [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Some real stars flaunted themselves before the cameras and really made the weekend for many folks. This first-summer male Summer Tanager posed beautifully at the Higbee Beach parking lot for all to enjoy [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Not photographed on our spring weekend - but worthy of note certainly - were the Cliff (below) and Cave (above) Swallows that hung out at Bunker Pond recently. Cave Swallows seem to be increasing on the east coast of the US so it is worth having an eye in for their appearance. Compared with the Cliff Swallow below, note Cave's orangey (not white) forehead and much paler throat [photos by Sam Galick].

While we are on swallows, take a trip to CMBO's Goshen Center to get excellent close views of the Barn Swallows nesting above the front door [photo by Beth Polvino].

Even the local Great Horned Owls got themselves on the weekend tally sheet; this young Great Horned Owl was a nice find at Hidden Valley and still has large amounts of down to get rid of before he's really ready to fly any distance [photo by Peter Bosak]

Eye-candy indeed! The outrageously gaudy male Painted Bunting manages to get itself to the Cape May area most springs and often shows up at a back yard feeder. This was the case when this individual showed up at a feeder in East Vineland on May 12th - just too late for World Series and too early for Spring Weekend!!! [Photo by Robert McKenzie]

Mid-May is certainly a great time to be at Cape May!!!