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].