Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cicadas - the final chapter

Well, if you didn't get to see the 17-year cicadas in Cape May, it looks like you will have to wait until 2030, because they are pretty much done here now. Last week looked like the fall out from a battle scene, with dead and dying adult cicadas littering the ground, their genes passed on through their offspring and their time on the planet over. It really is remarkable just how quickly their time is over, but the signs of their presence will remain for a little while yet. Having laid their eggs in the branches of Belleplain's oak trees - and the occasional birch here and there too - the tips of the trees are looking a little sorry for themselves now and, in just a few weeks, the tiny cicada nymphs will be hatching out and dropping to the ground, from where they will tunnel down to the roots and suck sap for the next 17 years.

Female cicadas can cause quite a lot of localized damage to trees during the process of egglaying (see earlier post), restricting the flow of sap to the new growths and causing young twigs to die back [photo by Mike Crewe].

Though damage to trees can look extensive, in larger specimens the trees will simply break from buds lower down the stem next year and not cause any longterm problems for them [photo by Mike Crewe].

A peek inside the stem of an oak reveals a short string of tiny cicada eggs which will hatch in a few weeks time [photo by Mike Crewe].

Nature can seem pretty harsh sometimes as piles of dead cicadas litter the forest floor, in turn to be eaten up by ants, millipedes and other woodland minibeasts [photo by Mike Crewe].

Recent Reports
Summer always sees a dearth of bird reports, but Brigantine has been kept busy with American Avocet and two Marbled Godwits of late. In Cape May County, Willow Flycatchers have been decidedly scarce this year, but one still appears to be hanging on at the South Cape May Meadows. My own wanderings around the county suggest that Prothonotary Warblers are having a good season in what has so far been a very wet year with a lot of water laying around in swamps and marshes. The latest one I picked up on during my travels was singing right beside Rt 83 about 400 yards from its intersection with Rt 47. At least four Cattle Egrets are being reported intermittently from the care home lawn across from the entrance to Avalon Golf Club on Rt 9, north of Cape May Court House and it seems very likely that this species is breeding somewhere in the county now.

Starting the next million!!

I just took a week off work and everything all started happening at once - don't you just hate it when that happens?!!! The first and most important thing that happened is that, at some point during the last seven days, we passed the one million page views on our Cape May Bird Observatory Blog! Many, many thanks to all who have visited our blog and special thanks to those regular readers who have taken the time to email me to let us know how much you enjoy it. Our blog serves as a wonderful way for us to communicate to the world just how great the wildlife can be in Cape May County and for our past and present visitors to continue to feel connected with this great place - we hope you continue to enjoy it. While our View from the Cape blog tells you about the wonderful wildlife here, we hope you also find time to navigate to our other blog pages, where you will find details of our walks, workshops and other programs, news from our stores and a whole lot more. You can navigate directly to our main website too, from where you can find out so much more about both Cape May Bird Observatory and New Jersey Audubon..

From our first posts in July 2007, we've seen the blog slowly morph and change and I am sure that it will continue to do so; with staffing levels down, we are not able to bring you posts quite as often as we once did, but we shall continue to report the highlights - and remember that our eBird link and our twitter feeds will get you news of rarities much quicker than we can through our blog posts. We look forward to the coming fall migration with great excitement - indeed, Karl Lukens and I witnessed perhaps the first fall shorebirds passing through this very morning on our walk at the state park. Two Eastern Willets and a lone Least Sandpiper shot past us and headed out across the Delaware Bay. Another fall starts and the hawkwatch platform is being polished and prepared for your arrival!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Breeding birds and kites

As we get well and truly into June, breeding birds become our focus of attention - until returning shorebirds start to arrive in another week or so's time! It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of summer in Cape May as rather humdrum compared with the manic activity of spring and fall migration but, with fewer birds around, I find it is actually easier to spend more time with individual birds which allows more time for study and learning. A visit to Higbee Beach proved very productive yesterday when the fields and tree lines - devoid of visitors - bustled with bird activity. Field Sparrows and Indigo Buntings were feeding fledglings, Yellow-breasted Chats were singing brazenly in full view and family parties of Wild Turkeys scuttled into cover.

If you're looking for other ideas of things to do in high summer, give Heislerville a visit. The cormorant and heron colony is bustling with activity there right now as ugly, reptilian youngsters gradually evolve into graceful flying machines.

 As well as our expected list of breeding birds, this year we have had an unexpected bonus in the shape of record numbers of Mississippi Kites. For some years now, the numbers of Mississippi Kites pushing ever further northward up the east coast has been slowly increasing, but we are still at the stage where three together is noteworthy. Imagine the surprise in store then for Michael O'Brien when he discovered 15 of these wonderful birds at Belleplain State Forest last week, all perched in a single tree! As is to be expected of such movements, the vast majority were second calendar year birds which have not yet reached breeding age and are simply wandering further on to explore new territories and seek good food sources. What must surely be holding them at Belleplain is the wonderful crop of cicadas this year and at least 12 kites were still present there yesterday.

If you are looking for good views of these birds, I suggest the small footbridge that spans the narrow neck between the two halves of Nummy Lake. This can be reached either by a short hike off Goosekill Road, or from the main parking lot in the Nummy Lake campground area. Look northward from the bridge and check the dead pines around the edge of the lake. Failing that, walk through to the campground on the west side of the lake and north of the bridge. The birds are sometimes on the east side of the lake and slightly hidden from the bridge by other trees.

Yellow-breasted Chats can often be devilishly difficult to get a good look at when they first come back to their breeding territories, but they seem to mellow with time and, with care good field craft, good photos can be obtained quite easily - and without needing to resort to a recording of course. This bird is holding territory in the state park [photo by Mike Crewe].
This Yellow-breasted Chat was equally obliging at Higbee Beach yesterday. Of course, if you are after perfect shots, it's always annoying that smart birds sing from the shade not in full sun! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Scuttling for cover, two pint-sized Wild Turkeys run across a track in Belleplain State Forest. By Thanksgiving these little guys will be big enough for, well, you know... [photo by Mike Crewe].

Eight Mississippi Kites adorn a dead Pitch Pine at Belleplain State Forest and were the highlight of another great Belleplain Wildlife walk on Sunday [photo by Mike Crewe].

A close up of one of the kites reveals a mix of gray adult and barred immature feathers, typical of a second calendar year bird. Such birds molt progressively into adult plumage during their first full year and do not breed at this time - though some of the Belleplain birds have been seen twig carrying [photo by Mike Crewe].

In flight, this bird shows its age very clearly. Note the mix of banded juvenile and solidly dark adult tail feathers. Note also that the two innermost primary flight feathers are missing (in molt), giving a peculiar step in the outline of the trailing edge of the wing [photo by Mike Crewe].

Our Sunday Belleplain Wildlife walks always seem to suffer from an embarassment of things to look at. One of this week's highlights was this mint-fresh Striped Hairstreak with not a scale missing from its wings [photo by Mike Crewe].
Now that high summer is here, it's time to face the daunting subject of all those skippers - the butterfly equivalent of 'little brown jobs'. Here, two Swarthy Skippers and a Crossline Skipper feed from a Northern Colicroot. If you're looking to hone your butterfly identification skills, why not join our butterfly workshop which takes place on July 18th? Give us a call for more details [photo by Mike Crewe].

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cicadas continue in Belleplain

Question: What do the Cape May County Library and Bellepain State Forest currently both have in common? Answer: In both places you can browse through the periodicals!!! Our brood II 17-year Periodical Cicadas are pretty impossible to miss around Belleplain right now and participants on our Belleplain Wildlife walk last weekend were certainly entertained by these crazy red-eyed beasties.

In one particular spot off Franks Road, we found large numbers of the cicadas courting and egg-laying in small sapling oaks and this gave us some great photo opportunities. We were even able to watch males making their courtship call - that's the call that is so distinctive and sounds like a drawn out waaaaaaaaaoo, dropping down at the end. The cicadas continue to be focused around the drier, oak-dominated sections of woodland and are well worth taking a look at. Remember, these insects may be abundant, which perhaps makes them seem a little intimidating at times, but they won't physically hurt you (unless you have tree sap running through your veins!) and they certainly should not be considered pests so it is a little sad to see a number of organizations jumping on the money wagon and offering their services to rid you of your 'pests'. If you have them around your home and are concerned about a favorite yard tree, the tree should be fine unless it is still small and recently planted. If this is the case, there is any number of ways that you can sheet or net the tree just for a few weeks - then that's it for the next 17 years, by which time your tree will be big enough to cope.

If you enjoy long term studies of wildlife in your area, see if your records indicate changes in wildlife behavior because of the cicadas. Are you seeing an increase in potential cicada predators (flycatchers, mockingbirds or small raptors such as kestrels and kites); in a few weeks the eggs will be hatching and small nymphs will be dropping to the ground - keep an eye out for this and see what other species may come in to feed on the cicadas during this vulnerable stage in their development. You only get opportunities like this once every 17 years so it's fun to get involved - oh, and don't forget to get the kids involved too!!

Underside of male periodical cicada showing abdomen shape [photo by Mike Crewe].

Underside of female periodical cicada showing abdomen shape - notice the long ovipositor that is used for cutting into tree stems to lay eggs in a location safe from predators [photo by Mike Crewe].

Female periodical cicada laying eggs in a Southern Red Oak [photo by Mike Crewe].

Egg-laying slits in Southern Red Oak made by female periodical cicada [photo by Mike Crewe].

Egg slits in stem made by female periodical cicada. Damage like this can potentially be a problem for young trees but can be controlled with just a little effort [photo by Mike Crewe].

Michael O'Brien reported a party of 15 Mississippi Kites resting in trees at the Nummy Lake campground in Belleplain State Forest on 12th and the birds were still present today. It is quite likely that these birds are being drawn in to feed on the cicadas in the area [photo by Warren Cairo].

June is peak month for the wonderful saturniid moths. This Polyphemus Moth is one of the larger species and can be found on the wing now. As we move into a more modern world, it is nice that more and more people are 'collecting' moths on camera now, rather than collecting the insect itself and denying others of the enjoyment of these amazing creatures [photo by Mike Crewe].

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Oddities linger on...

As witnessed by the scattering of reports of Willow Flycatchers from the area, it really is early June - and yet reports of decidedly more northerly birds that generally only spend the winter with us continue to crop up. Last Saturday (8th) a Red Crossbill was heard by Sam Galick and I (we felt it sounded like a type 10) at Belleplain State Forest, while Pine Siskins continue to be reported, with Karen and Brian Johnson still getting a couple at their feeder in Eldora and one reported flying over Stone Harbor on June 9th. Also on 9th, a White-winged Scoter and a Brant were in Jarvis Sound and a Red-throated Loon was off Avalon, while Karl Lukens still has a White-throated Sparrow visiting his feeder on Seagrove Avenue

On the flip side of these 'winter' birds, a Black-throated Green Warbler has been singing and seemingly holding territory just in the county at Head of the River and Mississippi Kites made the news again today (12th) when Michael O'Brien reported the extraordinary sight of 14 of them perched at the Lake Nummy campground at Belleplain. The last report I heard of for Roseate Tern was at the state park on 7th, but the species is always worth looking out for at this time of year.

Late news also came in of a Curlew Sandpiper photographed with a group of Red Knot at Corson's Inlet by Deborah Rivel - a great bird for your Cape May list!

As well as birds at odd times of the year, I've been seeing birds in odd places - how about this Willet in a vineyard!! From the behavior, it seems as though a pair of Willets are nesting in a grassy field beside this vineyard in Erma and the birds are not averse to using the vineyard posts as lookouts. Shorebirds act very differently during the breeding season compared with their mud paddling behavior in the winter and many species use posts, trees and other tall objects as look outs. Some species even nest in trees in old thrushes nests! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Watching you, watching me

Whenever you walk through the woods of Cape May, you can rest assured that there are many pairs of eyes keeping an eye on you - many pairs that in the normal course of events you just will not be aware of. Over the past few weeks I've been keeping an eye on hollow trees and any other little nooks and crannies I might come across, in the hope of finding something a little different looking back at me. Of course we are all used to seeing birds use holes in trees as nest sites and many of these holes are made by woodpeckers in the first instance. But larger holes are common too, most often the result of a storm, or some other dramatic event in the life of the tree which caused a limb to fall off, or the top of the tree to blow out. Such holes often make homes for some of our woodland mammals, many of which are nocturnal and thus not seen too often, even though they may actually be quite common. Here's some eyes that were watching me while I was watching them - a surprise in store in every hole!

Eastern Chipmunks can be very common and even become tame in many parts of New Jersey but in Cape May they are decidedly uncommon. It is not really clear why this is, though it is known that feral and domestic cats take a fair number of them in many areas and the large population of cats at large in Cape May County in general may well be part of the issue. If you want to find chipmunks in Cape May County, your best chance is in remoter parts of Belleplain State Forest [photo by Mike Crewe].

A larger hole was needed to provide a home for this guy! This raccoon has been a regular feature in our front yard of late and can be viewed quite easily straight out of the kitchen window! Living with raccoons is not too difficult provided you keep a clean and tidy property and don't leave food scraps or other trash lying around [photo by Mike Crewe].

This one has kept me waiting for fours years, but recently I came across this Southern Flying Squirrel in one of the quieter corners of Belleplain State Forest. Flying squirrels are strictly nocturnal which makes them tricky to study but they will visit garden bird feeders in some areas. They are only about two thirds of the size of a Gray Squirrel so you should have no trouble telling the two species apart [photo by Mike Crewe].

Check out a few tree holes in your area and see what you can find - but don't forget to approach with caution until you know what's in there!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Summer in the back bays

As far as the birds of Cape May are concerned, summer is now officially here. Migration is drawing to something of a lull (though never a complete stop it seems) and local birds are frantically trying to find enough food to satisfy this year's growing youngsters. Finding breeding birds in dense woodland is always something of a chore so it is often to the backbays and saltmarshes that we turn to get the best birding opportunities during the summer months. As an opener to some wonderful Cape May summer birding, here's some fabulous shots from Jane Ellison, someone who always seems to have the knack of getting herself in the right spot for that extra-special photo!

Warm late afternoon light always gives the colors of Glossy Ibis an extra glow [photo by Jane Ellison].

Tricolored Heron at Nummy's Island, striding out in the fresh green of new cord-grass growth [photo by Jane Ellison].

That brilliant bill of American Oystercatcher just can't be resisted when you have a camera in your hands! [Photo by Jane Ellison]

Breeding Ospreys seem almost to be at saturation levels in Cape May waters and the proof of a good breeding season will be the number of chicks that fledge. Many of our Ospreys lay three eggs and you can just see three tiny heads in the nest here [photo by Jane Ellison].

Even birds as big as an Osprey get little peace from their neighbors. Red-winged Blackbirds are amazingly ferocious birds when it comes to seeing off potential predators and they don't discriminate between fish-eating Ospreys and bird-eating Cooper's Hawks! [Photo by Jane Ellison]

Recent Sightings
Brigantine continues a nice run of birds with a recent Marbled Godwit to add to the interesting shorebirds there this past week. Mississippi Kites continued into the weekend but seem now to have moved on; a report of three at Belleplain on 1st around Nummy's Lake shows that they have certainly dispersed well beyond Cape May Point and it is always worth keeping an eye on the sky during sunny spells. The Brown-headed Nuthatch saga which started a while ago continued with a report of one calling as it flew all too quickly past the Pavilion Circle at Cape May Point on 4th. Sam Galick and Josh Nemeth were on hand to witness the event but the bird didn't hang around it seems. There's plenty of opportunity for someone to find out where this bird is spending its time - maybe somewhere in the Japanese Black Pines around Cape May Point's dunes...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Dragonflies highlight Belleplain walk...

Today's Belleplain Wildlife was once again headlined by a great variety of insects as summer begins to take a hold and birds settle into breeding routines. The 17-year Periodical Cicadas are continuing to emerge in tens, if not hundreds, of thousands and we found several locations where low vegetation was littered with the empty cases of recently-emerged cicadas. As well as all the sites in the vicinity of the town of Belleplain where we found them last week, this week we found that there was a particularly noisy bunch around the intersection right outside the entrance to the Nummy Lake Campground. Later in the day, we also heard them calling loudly along Rt550 between Mount Pleasant and Seaville - let us know if you are hearing them anywhere else in the county.

The bulk of this week's walk, however, was taken up in enjoying some fabulous dragonfly experiences. We found a good-sized Common Sanddragon population which was very obliging and allowed our cameras to come in nice and close for some great photo opportunities, while other highlights included a dazzling display by a group of Ebony Jewelwings that flashed brilliant emerald green as they darted through shafts of sunlight on an overgrown stream and a fabulous close encounter with a Banded Pennant - a scarce species in Cape May but, like so many dragonfly species this year, one that is looking set to show well this year.

Now that we are into flaming June, our summer program of events is under way; we swing away from walks that target migrants to walks and other field events that seek out interesting breeding birds as well as a wide range of other wildlife. Don't forget to check out our online events calendar or downloadable Kestrel Express - or stick to the good old fashioned way and pick up a printed Kestrel Express from the Northwood Center. Do stop by if you are in the area and add your finds to our sightings sheet so others can share in the great bounty of Cape May wildlife!

Recent Sightings
Scarce migrants are getting thinner on the ground now, but early June has a habit of producing surprises and evidence of at least some continuing movement came in the appearance of a flurry of Willow Flycatchers around our region on Saturday. Brigantine has been stealing the show from Heislerville lately with American Avocet (2), Black-necked Stilt and Red-necked Phalarope all reported from there this weekend.

This Spiny Oak Slug was one of the highlights of a quick look at moths in Belleplain State Forest this morning. This species is one of a group whose larvae are armed with stinging spines and are thus best not tampered with [photo by Mike Crewe].

We weren't the only one looking for moths at the lights today! This first-summer male Summer Tanager was very interested in our behavior and has clearly become used to checking the same areas as us for moths attracted to lights [Photo by Mike Crewe].

More close encounters with the extraordinary Periodical Cicadas were had today. Look closely at this head shot and you should see the three simple eyes in the top of the head, which many insects have in addition to their large compound eyes [photo by Mike Crewe].

A new species for me today, good numbers of Skimming Bluets are now emerging in suitable weedy ponds in Cape May County. Keep an eye out for their distinctive greenish-blue color and that diagnostic wiggly blue area at the base of the abdomen [photo by Mike Crewe].

Common Sanddragon at Belleplain State Forest today. This has been a very scarce insect here in the past three or four years so seeing good numbers today hopefully indicates a good year for the species in 2013 [photo by Mike Crewe].

Pennants get their name from their habit of sitting atop a prominent perch and allowing their wings to blow in the breeze like little flags. Banded Pennants like this one often separate out the four wings and create fascinating visual images [photo by Mike Crewe].

One of these guys is not like the other ones! A quick visit to a favorite pond by some of us after the Belleplain walk today revealed a large emergence of bluets. Snapping away happily at clusters of bright blue males, it was only after I had downloaded and reviewed my pictures that I realized that the vast majority of them were Atlantic Bluets and not Familiars as I had presumed. In the picture above, see if you can pick out the single Familiar! (Hint: look for the presence or absence of a light blue bar on the back of the head and a subtle difference in the very far tip of the abdomen [photo by Mike Crewe].

If you are heading to Higbee Beach over the next couple of weeks, take a camera and enjoy snapping the riot of color produced by a mass sowing of Lance-leaved Tickseed by NJ Fish & Wildlife. This field cover should produce a rich supply of seed for birds in the fall but for now, enjoy the pure effrontery of this sea of brilliant gold [photos by Mike Crewe].