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].

Saturday, November 23, 2013

In search of rarities

It's become something of a low key event that Cape May's birders look forward to in late November each year - the rarity round-up. Over a chosen weekend, we try to rustle up as many enthusiastic folks as we can to have a good root around Cape May and see what's lurking out there. While the well-known locations around Cape May Point are, of course, given a good going over, the opportunity is also taken to check out other, likely-looking yet less-visited locations. While I haven't heard the full role-call of finds as yet, a small band of us certainly enjoyed a few hours checking the beaches around the point, then the back streets of West Cape May.

The Snow Bunting flock - still some 60 birds strong - on the South Cape May Beach continued to conceal the nicely-marked Lapland Longspur today and was a precursor to our enjoyment of a first-winter male King Eider, found with a young male Common Eider by Matt Jewell. It's also worth mentioning here that the bay was crammed full of Red-throated Loons almost riding the surf along the beach, as well as good numbers of Northern Gannets riding the air currents further out. Off Coral Avenue at Cape May Point, at least two Purple Sandpipers were on one of the rock jetties, but the highlight for us here was a gleaming white, first-winter Glaucous Gull found by Megan Crewe. The gull certainly added its place on the rarity list for the day and was followed later by an Iceland Gull, reported by Bob Fogg from The Meadows.

Our tour of the streets of West Cape May was a little quieter than we might have hoped, but sometimes it's all about the timing. There was certainly a nice gathering of blackbirds a couple of blocks away at one point that we looked forward to working through but, by the time we got there, a Cooper's Hawk had moved them all on and the trees were bare. Good numbers of House Finches moving through the streets gave us hope though and, half way along 6th Avenue on the edge of town, Megan again produced the goods with an immature Blue Grosbeak - a common breeding bird around Cape May but certainly an unexpected treat in late November.

Elsewhere, Kathy Horn found a late Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on the final CMBO Beanery walk of the season, but perhaps the real star of the day was the 39th Golden Eagle checked at the Hawkwatch for the season, setting a new record - with still one more week to go.

First-winter male King Eider, South Cape May Beach. King Eiders are regular but rare visitors to Cape May County and a bird feeding just beyond the surfline is always a treat. Compared with Common Eider, note the squarer, more compact head shape, the broadened base to the bill that creates a bump in the profile and the pale eye crescents. The largely unmarked, chocolate-brown appearance and pale chest identifies the bird as a male rather than a female [photo by Mike Crewe].

First-winter Glaucous Gulls, with their gleaming white wings, bicolored bills and subtle beige markings are always a fine sight but they never seem to stay for long at Cape May. Though this bird was sitting on the beach when we first noticed it, it wasn't long before it was off and drifting around the corner toward the bayshore [photo by Mike Crewe].

Young Blue Grosbeaks may not be blue, but they are nevertheless easy to identify based on their heavy bills, peaked crowns and warm buff wing bars. This bird was in a hedgeline along 6th Avenue in West Cape May today [photo by Mike Crewe].

And, as if to prove that Cape May really does have it all - here's an annoyingly spectacular Cape May sunset to round off the day [photo by Mike Crewe].

Coming up
Don't forget next weekend we have a Thanksgiving weekend special trip to Brigantine on Black Friday - the best of ways to finish off the week and to set you up with some great birding. Check out details on our Activities Calendar.

Friday, November 22, 2013

November continues with good cheer

November, as I am sure I have said before, is a great time to be out and about in Cape May. It's a great time of change and a time that brings unexpected bonuses for the birdwatcher. Nights continue to get colder, frosts gradually become more frequent and the flaming sunsets of sweltering summer are slowly replaced by the pastel, cool colors of winter evenings. If you are out and about just after sunset, look toward the east and watch for the whirring, plump forms of American Woodcock, hastening out of the woods to feed in wet meadows. Keep an ear out too for the distant calls of Snow Geese, for it won't be long before they are heading south overhead. Last night, my departure from the Northwood Center was accompanied by the calls of several Great Blue Herons as they spiralled upward from the shrubby edges of Lake Lily and set their sights on Delaware, and beyond.

Evenings in November are wonderful, but dawns are pretty good too, as great planes of American Robins stretch out across the sky and Hermit Thrushes bumble about in the leaf litter. In between those chilly dawns and pastel sunsets, there's the sheer enjoyment of just being out and about, and birding Cape May. Good birds continue to pass our way and high on the list of priorities here at the moment for most birders is the gathering flock of Snow Buntings at South Cape May Beach. Starting with just one or two birds, the flock has slowly but steadily built up to a peak so far of around 63 birds. Such flocks are always worth checking for other species and the last two days have seen at least one Lapland Longspur hanging out with the flock. If you visit the beach to the south of TNC's South Cape May Meadows, keep an eye out too for the Short-eared Owl that has been seen intermittently there.

This weekend could see a new record set at the Hawkwatch too - so if you are wondering what to do on Saturday or Sunday, you could be present when Tom Reed hits the jackpot. Currently, 38 Golden Eagles have been recorded at the Hawkwatch this season which equals the record set in 1996. There's still more time to get that elusive 39th bird and the weather this weekend looks as though it could provide Tom with that bird. This past week also saw the appearance of a Rough-legged Hawk on the Hawkwatch totals - given that this species winters in small numbers most years in the north of the county, it is perhaps surprising just how rare this species is at Cape May Point. Indeed, this is the first Rough-leg to be recorded at the Hawkwatch since 2008 and many of us 'locals' still need the bird for our 'south of the canal' lists. Here's hoping this bird is the first of several - you never know.

Other good birds this week have included a Nashville Warbler at Higbee Beach and Northern Parula at The Beanery on 19th, a day in which there was a pretty spectacular arrival of American Robins around the point. This arrival was also accompanied by a good number of Fox and Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and American Goldfinches. The duck show at the point continues to build nicely, with a number of Hooded Mergansers and Buffleheads now showing up. Michael O'Brien reported four Eurasian Wigeon in the state park today (two female, two male) which should stay around for a while, but an American Moorhen on Lake Lily on 15th hasn't been reported again. The Avalon Seawatch is starting to turn up a good number of Common Eiders and is well worth a visit this weekend - a Red-necked Grebe was noted on 21st too.

Robin-fest! American Robins swarmed across Cape May Point this week and provided some great photo opportunities. Great variety exists in the overall saturation of colors in American Robins with, generally, a cline from the richest, darkest birds in the north-east to the palest ones in the south-west and down into Mexico. Though several races have been described, it is not possible to say exactly where most of them end and another starts. However, many birds in the recent arrival had jet black heads, heavily-streaked throats and deeper rufous underparts, typical of birds found in north-eastern Canada [photo by Mike Crewe].
More American Robins, supping up before heading on south [photo by Mike Crewe].

Male Lapland Longspur in the Snow Bunting flock on South Cape May Beach. Females are less boldly marked, but share the bright rufous wing patch [photo by Karl Lukens].
This small goose put in a brief appearance at The Meadows on 15th and raised hopes of a Ross's Goose. However, a quick look at the bill reveals this to be a Lesser Snow Goose - note the black 'smile' on the cutting edge of the bill. There is only one species of Snow Goose but it comes in two sizes; the vast majority of birds that winter on the Atlantic seaboard of the USA are so-called Greater Snow Geese, which are bigger and relatively longer-billed than this bird. Lessers mostly winter in the south-western USA [photo by Mike Crewe].

Sometimes birding just makes you see red! The brilliant scarlet head patch that gives the Ruby-crowned Kinglet its name is often well hidden by overlapping green feathers and thus very hard to see. Just occasionally you will get a feisty bird flaring its crown feathers to good effect, but this bird showed its red patch the whole time I was watching it and I came to the conclusion that there were actually some green feathers missing [photo by Mike Crewe].

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The trouble with hummingbirds... revisited

The trouble with hummingbirds is, even when you think you have them right, it's not necessarily so! Having written the previous post somewhat prematurely when it came to our Black-chinned Hummingbird, it's time to confess to being too hasty. Seeing a hummingbird out in the field is often just the first step to identifying it and, perhaps more often than not at this time of year in Cape May, you find it is necessary to ponder over the photos and even to go back and check the bird again. Michael O'Brien did just that and quickly alerted us to a worrying problem with our bird.

In the first post, I made the point that structure is important when identifying hummingbirds and that is indeed the case. Although our bird looks to all intents and purposes like a Black-chinned based on plumage, it was only when we zoomed in close on some of the photos of perched birds that the horrible truth really came out - the wing structure was unarguably wrong for Black-chinned, but pretty much right for Ruby-throated. So what is going on? Well, Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are closely related and are both placed in the same genus - Archilochus - by taxonomists. As such, they will be genetically quite close and thus it is possible that they may occasionally crossbreed and produce hybrid young. Hybridization among hummingbirds is actually known to be relatively common in some areas, even between species that are not each other's closest relatives so a hybrid possibility should not unduly surprise us. What makes it surprising among Ruby-thoated and Black-chinned however, is that there are few documented cases (The Birds of North America cites just two references for example) and the overlap zone of the normal distribution of the two species is quite small. However, there is the possibility that a wandering Black-chin could have ended up anywhere within the breeding range of Ruby-throat and found itself with little option other than to get familiar with the locals!

When two different species successfully produce hybrid young, the outcome can be one or more of a variety of options. The individual can look more or less like one or other parent, with perhaps a few tell tale signs of something amiss; it can look like a 50:50 mix of the two parents, or it can even look completely different to both parents - and perhaps even resembling a third, unrelated, species. One thing that can be tell tale in hummingbirds comes as the result of a stuctural point. The glistening throat feathers of male hummingbirds are astonishingly eye-catching, but what you might be surprised to discover is that the feathers are actually black! The razzmatazz of a hummingbird is in fact caused, very cleverly, by the refraction of light. Things get rather technical now and I suggest if you want to read more on this, you could try the Structural Coloration page on Wikipedia. Different species of hummingbird have different colors to their throats and this is achieved by having different structural arrangements to the feathers. Since this structural arrangement has to be very precise to ensure that the correct color is produced, it should follow that the genes of a hybrid may very well end up producing something inbetween the two parents - the end result of which can be a muddy brown. Though at least one person detected flashes of purple (= Black-chinned) in the throat of our bird, others only came away with a dull, brownish, reddish, purplish mess.

Another hummingbird - probably a Rufous - was reported to CMBO today, this time at West Deptford, so still more birds are appearing in New Jersey. Looking ahead to the weekend though, things don't look too good for these birds and all we can do is wish them a speedy southward journey - and soon.

Structure, structure, structure is what you have to keep telling yourself with hummers. You might have to click on this picture to get a larger version up, but I have marked the primaries as in the last post. Take careful note of the shape of the outermost, tenth primary. In Black-chinned this primary should be roughly the same width as the ninth primary, in Ruby-throated it is much narrower - the evidence here is clear. There is, in fact, a slight chance that this bird may simply be an aberrant Ruby-throated rather than a hybrid so we may never get to the truth - and that is what birding is all about sometimes [photos by Mike Crewe].

Structural color in hummingbirds - in this side photo, notice how the throat of this adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird looks dull blackish-brown [photo by Mike Crewe].

Turn on the lights! When seen from directly in front, the throat of the same male Ruby-throated Hummingbird shimmers with ruby red color. What is important to realise here is that directly in front is the view point of a female hummer when the male goes a-courting in the spring [photo by Mike Crewe].

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The trouble with hummingbirds...

Hummingbirds are cute aren't they? It's tough to argue with that. Hummers are everyone's favorites; they're tiny and thus non-threatening, they are brightly colored and they have fascinating lifestyles. And perhaps above all, their unique hovering flight style as they work their way around the flowerbeds is certainly entertaining. Yep, everyone loves hummingbirds. Except perhaps for those unfortunate birdwatchers who find themselves serving a term on a bird records committee! And that's because hummingbirds can be just so darned hard to identify!

When I say hummers are hard to identify, I don't mean those stunning males with their scintillant throat patches, I'm talking about the youngsters that have a nasty habit of turning up late in the fall - and often way outside of the normal range for the species. In the east, we are pretty hard done by for hummingbirds; we have just one species - Ruby-throated - which breeds east of the Mississippi, while west of that mighty river a much more impressive 13 species breeds, with a further five species occasionally wandering across the border from Mexico (please don't take me too hard to task if I've miss-counted by one or two, it's just a guide!). Despite this dearth of breeding hummers in the East we do pretty well for personal appearances by individual birds and this is, at least in part, due to a tendency for these birds to wander great distances outside of the breeding season. The commonest wanderers to our region are those with the longest migration routes and, as is the case with most vagrant species, young birds, migrating for the first time, are likely to make up the bulk of the birds that turn up.

For the past 20 or 30 years, vagrant hummingbirds seem to have been steadily increasing in number in the Eastern USA, and November generally seems to be the peak month for them to appear. There are many opinions on why this should be, but a lot of concensus centers on the possibility that birds are increasingly coming east because they are supported by the hummingbird feeders that are left out later and later. And so it becomes self-sustaining - birders on the look out for rare hummers leave their feeders out so that the rare hummers that turn up find food.

So, to cut to the chase. Yes it's great to have rare hummers turning up, but we birders need closure; we need to be able to identify the hummingbirds to species so that we can count them on our lists. More importantly, identifying these late-season hummingbirds to species is important if we want to study bird movements - migration trends, shifts in distributional patterns and a whole lot more. And now we hit the wall, and it's been a big wall this November, because the phone at the office here at CMBO seems to be forever ringing off the hook with folks calling in to report a late hummingbird in their yard. Don't get me wrong, we want to hear from you if you have a hummingbird in your yard in November, but the real problem comes with identifying it. So please do let us know if you have a hummingbird in your area here in New Jersey right now, but do try and help us with photos if you can - and the photos wil ideally need to be pretty good close-ups. To give you an idea of the problem, here's some photos of recent hummingbirds around Cape May, with some comments on what to look for.

As with all identification issues, you should start by knowing your local birds as best you can. So start by understanding Ruby-throated Hummingbird and start by having a list of points that you know you need to look for. With hummingbirds, important areas are tail shape and tail pattern, wing shape, throat color and pattern and overall colors - especially the amount and distribution of greens and oranges. On top of all this, structure is important, especially of the primary flight feathers and of the bird overall. I know, it's a lot to remember!!

Step 1. Know your local birds. Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the 'default' hummer in the east, so it is a good idea to know it inside out, especially in late fall. At this time of year, most individuals are likely to be immatures. Familiarize yourself with the overall rich green appearance of the upper parts, the lack of rufous in the tail and the light speckling on the throat. This bird can be safely aged as an immature because it is in fresh plumage with neat, crisp pale fringes to the upperparts; at this time of year, an adult would be in worn plumage and look relatively scruffy. In this individual, the relatively long, well forked tail suggests that it is a male [photo by Mike Crewe].

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, immature in fall. The same individual as above. Here's a trap for the unwary - the pink coloration below is caused by reflected light from the bright red feeder beneath the bird. Such things are always worth bearing in mind, but can be allowed for by taking many photos under different light conditions and from different angles. That way you are not fooled by such artifacts [photo by Mike Crewe].

Adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird - sadly a window casualty. Adult males are easy to identify on plumage alone, but this individual gives us a chance to see the wing structure of this species. Here, each of the 10 primaries is numbered, with the number being placed close to the tip of each feather. Notice how primaries 1-6 are much narrower than 7-10 (though 10 narrows down to produce a tapered point to the feather). Seeing this in the field can be very difficult, but can be very useful in narrowing down the possibilities when faced with a fall hummingbird. Now that you know about this feature, look for it in the picture above this one. [photo by Mike Crewe].

So you look at your feeder and see a hummingbird feeding there. This photograph was taken just a couple of days ago in a private back yard in North Cape May. We can see a couple of things here that look wrong for a Ruby-throat. Firstly, there's quite a lot of rich rufous coloration on the flanks and secondly, a really careful look at the wing reveals a different structure - see next picture [photo by Mike Crewe].

Zooming in on the wing, we can see that there is no significant difference in width between the inner (3-6) and outer (7-10) primaries. I've marked around the tips of the primaries in red so that they stand out. Note that primary 10 is dislodged and would normally be tucked behind 9. Note also that 1 and 2 are missing as the bird is starting its primary molt. [photo by Mike Crewe].

Another phone call, another garden, also in North Cape May. This bird shows similar amounts of rufous on the sides as the bird above and now we can see the tail. Ruby-throats never have rufous in the tail so we know we are onto something good. In fact both these birds show all the signs of being either Rufous or Allen's Hummingbirds. Now we are in big trouble, for unless your bird is an adult male, telling these two apart can be almost impossible in the field without a lot of luck. There is the subtlest of differences in the width of the outer tail feathers between the two species (well shown here) and this bird does look consistent with Rufous. Thankfully, the two can be told apart by differences in their calls and both birds could be identified on call as Rufous Hummingbirds. Further to this, careful examination of many photos of the two birds revealed them to be almost certainly the same individual and it transpired that the two gardens were barely a third of a mile apart as the hummer flies [photo by Sam Galick].

Another shot of the Rufous Hummingbird in North Cape May yesterday. A Rufous/Allen's Hummingbird is the most likely hummingbird to be found in November in Cape May and the rufous coloration in the tail and flanks is pretty easy to see. If you can get good close photos from in front, the side and behind, plus good shots of the primaries - you could be in luck with an identification. Note on this shot another subtle feature of this pair - a thin, rufous brow line above the eye [photo by Mike Crewe].

Back to basics again. This is one of two rather drab hummingbirds that have been gracing a property in Del Haven recently. There's no rufous in the tail on this bird so it's not a Rufous/Allen's, but shows all the general features normally associated with Ruby-throated. With a bird like this, the confusion species is the closely-related Black-chinned, so that's what we need to check for. As with all hummers, we should first try to identify the age and sex of a bird before considering species. The narrow but clear pale tips to many of the upperpart feathers and overall neat appearance of the plumage indicates that this is an immature not an adult, while the rather clean, almost unspotted throat suggests that it is a female (this can also often be backed up with tail shape if a full set of photos is obtained). Telling immature female Ruby-throated from Black-chinned can be very difficult; there are some very subtle differences in the tail that can be hard to see except in the hand and the bill on Black-chinned averages slightly longer and slightly more down-curved, but there is some overlap. Both show the same structural pattern of narrower inner primaries as illustrated above. Perhaps the clearest distinction is the shape of the outer primary tips and this is where correct sexing of the bird is important as it only works in females. Female Black-chins have oddly squared off, almost club-shaped tips to the outer primaries which give the wing a peculiar, heavy-ended look. This does not appear to be the case here, if you look at the left wing tip - poking out above and behind the tail, so this appears to be a Ruby-throated which actually makes it an interesting bird this late in the year [photo by Sam Galick].

One final note of caution, lest we think we are beginning to make it look easy! Let's work through this bird, photographed recently in Cape May County. Neat plumage and narrow, pale fringes to the upperparts immediately tell us it is an immature. A lack of rufous on the flanks (but for a small buffy patch below the wing) and in the tail rule out the Rufous/Allen's pair, as well as the possibility of Broad-tailed, while other pictures revealed narrow inner primaries. This is a Ruby-throated/Black-chinned and, luckily for us, the heavy markings on the throat make it a male. The dull gray color of the crown and dull olive rather than emerald green back all point to Black-chinned. A find indeed, if that's where it ended; but persistence through repeated and prlonged viewing rather than a rapid assessment is what is always required and further studies of this bird left us all scratching our heads a little - more to come later, but think about hybrids...[photo by Mike Crewe].

We would love to hear from you if you have a hummingbird presently visiting your garden and we will see if we can get it identified for you. Keeping records of such occurrences is of value to us in learning more about bird migrations and populations. It may be possible to have someone check out your bird if there is a birder close by, otherwise, we may need you to get out the camera - time to go back over the pictures again!

Week in review: 9 – 15 November, 2013

CMBO is pleased to provide weekly summaries of the Cape's birding highlights. Coverage is limited to sightings in Cape May County. Readers should keep in mind that some reports may not be confirmed. Information and photos that may be of use for weekly summaries should be emailed to compiler Tom Reed (coturnicops at gmail dot com). 

Location Abbreviations: ASW (Avalon Seawatch), CMHW (Cape May Hawk Watch), CMPSP (Cape May Pt. State Park), SCMM (South Cape May Meadows)  

--The period began with seasonable and tranquil conditions. A cold front passed through the area 12 Nov, bringing with it several hours of rain and the season's first snowflakes. Strong NW winds followed behind the cold front 13 Nov. The period ended with calm and mild conditions, courtesy of a developing southerly flow. Notable birds during the past week included Brown Booby, American White Pelican, Pomarine Jaeger, and Rufous Hummingbird.--

Three Eurasian Wigeon continued at CMPSP/SCMM throughout (m. ob.). Increasing numbers of Gadwall and American Wigeon could be found at CMPSP later in the period. Six Common Eiders and a Red-necked Grebe were tallied at ASW 11 Nov (CB). A Brown Booby was reported from ASW 9 Nov (CB). Large numbers of Northern Gannets moved into nearshore coastal waters during recent days. A season-high 10,504 were counted at ASW 9 Nov (CB). Peak migration for Red-throated Loon is fast approaching; 2,504 passed ASW 15 Nov (CB). Three American White Pelicans flew past CMHW 15 Nov (TR et al.), while another White Pelican flew north over Goshen 12 Nov (fide MM). American Bitterns were found daily at CMPSP, most often flying over Bunker Pond and the adjacent marsh (TR, m. ob.). The period's largest hawk flight occurred 13 Nov, when 767 raptors were counted, including two Golden Eagles, a Northern Goshawk, and a late Broad-winged Hawk (TR).

[American White Pelicans over CMPSP, 15 Nov. Photo by Tom Reed.]

A Common Gallinule appeared on Lily Lake 15 Nov (fide MC). Late-moving shorebirds included multiple Pectoral Sandpipers at CMHW 13-14 Nov, and a White-rumped Sandpiper there 13 Nov (TR). Unprecedented numbers of Parasitic Jaegers continue to be recorded at ASW, headlined by an incredible 172 on 11 Nov (CB). Single Pomarine Jaegers were recorded at ASW 9 Nov and 15 Nov (CB). Two Eurasian Collared-Doves continued in residential Cape May Point (m. ob.). A Rufous Hummingbird continued in the Town Bank section of Lower Township throughout the period (BP, WK, SG), while two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds attended a feeder in Del Haven through 15 Nov (HT). Multiple Cave Swallows could be found at CMPSP on several days, with the last sighting 13 Nov (TR). Lingering Barn Swallows continued at CMPSP through 15 Nov (TR).

[Rufous Hummingbird in Lower Township. Photo by Beth Polvino.]

[Cave Swallow at CMHW, 13 Nov. Photo by Tom Reed.]

Flyover Lapland Longspurs were recorded from CMHW most days this week (TR et al.). A growing flock of Snow Buntings took up residence on the SCMM beach (m. ob.). At least three Orange-crowned Warblers could be found at CMPSP through 15 Nov (TR et al.). Another Orange-crowned Warbler was found at Hidden Valley 15 Nov (JD). Notably late was a Bobolink over CMHW 15 Nov (TR). A Dickcissel flew over CMHW 14 Nov (TR).

Calvin Brennan, Mike Crewe, Jim Dowdell, Sam Galick, Will Kerling, Marleen Murgitroyde, Beth Polvino, Tom Reed, Harvey Tomlinson.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Tribute to The Master

Cape May is all about the birds, as anyone who has been here will testify. And yet it's also all about the people. The people who visit from just down the road; the people who stop over for weekend visits from New York or Philadelphia, or Washington DC; the people who come a couple of times a season from every corner of North America - and the people who head to the point from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia...

We know why they come, they come for the awesome birdwatching. But how do they know to come to Cape May? Simple - because Pete Dunne told them to come. And if Pete Dunne tells you a place is good for birds, it's good for birds. I write this as an all too brief tribute to Pete, since he made the anouncement today that we all will make one day. Pete is stepping into new shoes next summer, not stepping down, or even aside, but fulfilling a different role that will allow him to continue to be the amazing ambassador that he has always been for Cape May Bird Observatory.

And one thing is for sure; the man who first snuck a picnic table into a corner of the state park and started counting raptors at Cape May Point way back in 1976 will be back at the platform, weaving his magic and reminding us all why we are here - and who got us here in the first place.

To read Pete's statement, released by New Jersey Audubon today, follow this link:

In the mean time, the hawks paid their own tribute to The Master today, for it was a truly spectacular Cape May morning that greeted the final Cape May Point walk of the season. Northwest winds rattled the window frames this morning and the temperature was set firmly on 32F as I left home, but the effort was worth it. American Goldfinches, American Robins, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and American Pipits all featured strongly in a great flight over the point, while Northern Gannets and Ring-billed Gulls flooded into the bay. Smaller numbers of Killdeer were on the move and the odd Bonaparte's Gull joined forces with lingering Forster's Terns. Purple Finches and Fox Sparrows filtered into the area quietly and flocks of mixed sparrows and juncos graced many a side yard in the streets of Cape May Point.

But the real spectacle today came from the Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks that swept effortlessly across the state park and tilted a wing toward The Master.

When Red-tailed Hawks are queueing up to be photographed it's only polite to oblige! Red-tails, like many Buteo species, are notoriously variable in plumage and not many have such a clear and obvious belly-band of streaks as this one [photo by Mike Crewe]

Who can resist a CMBO walk around Cape May Point when spectacularly-marked Red-shouldered Hawks are riding the wind right across Lighthouse Avenue... [photo by Mike Crewe].

Red-shouldered Hawks are pretty special above too, though you don't often get the chance to see the upper side [photo by Mike Crewe]

Huddling up against the cold, the now expected arrival of November Cave Swallows from the southwestern USA has seen a slow trickle of birds so far this year. But that's OK with us as these birds really seem to struggle here this late in the year and just what the species gets out of these late-season movements is hard to understand. Over the last few days, one or two birds have been resting under anything that might vaguely resemble a bridge it seems [photo by Mike Crewe].

And some Cave Swallows just seem to stop where ever they can. This tired individual literally curled up and went to sleep on the grass right in front of the Hawkwatch Platform today. Though it clearly was cold and very tired, ten minutes later it was hawking insects with Tree Swallows over Bunker Pond and the rest seemed to have done it some good. Though perhaps it's a good job there are no feral cats at the state park... [photo by Mike Crewe]

There's birds to be seen at Cape May, with a significant increase in duck numbers over the last 48 hours, like these really spiffy American Wigeon. What would Pete Dunne do tomorrow? He'd go birding... [photo by Mike Crewe]

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Evening-primrose brings life to the beach

Cape May's beautiful sandy beaches are much in demand by just about everyone, from sunworshippers to surfers to fishermen; we all want our time on the beach - and there's an awful lot of us, which puts a lot of pressure on the native wildlife which eeks out a living on the Atlantic shore.

One of the many plant species that is officially listed by NJDEP as imperiled in New Jersey because of its rarity, is Seaside Evening-primrose (Oenothera humifusa) but it's a plant that - thankfully - seems to be bucking the downward trend. Seaside Evening-primrose is actually quite widespread along the Cape May coastline, and this year seems to have been a particularly good year for this plant. So why am I mentioning it now? Well this unassuming little plant has really taken off on the South Cape May Beach this year and has provided some great wildlife viewing opportunities. This is a plant that is adapted to growing on coastal sands where, as well as providing us with attractive washes of pale yellow flowers through the late summer and fall months, it also provides food for a whole range of wildlife.

This last week, Seaside Evening-primrose has provided a link between the end of fall and the start of winter. Fall has not been in a hurry to depart Cape May this year, as brief waves of chilly weather have failed so far to get a real grip and sunny weather has prevailed. So much so that butterflies still feature on many of our late season walks and many plants have continued flowering well beyond the dates given for them in most flower books. A single, slender white spike of Nodding Ladies'-tresses, a late-flowering orchid, can still be seen at the Plover Ponds, while our friend the Seaside Evening-primrose continues to flower on the beach. Perhaps this extended season will also give a much needed boost to the worryingly low Monarch population this year and allow just a few more to make it through pupation and head south to Mexico.

The late flowering of the evening-primrose ties in with the late fall, as well as with the lateness of many insects this year, since quite a number of White-lined Sphinx caterpillars have been feeding on the succulent leaves and seed pods. And this brings us to the link with the start of winter, because my late lunchtime stroll on the beach found the evening-primrose center stage again as its pods were providing seeds for a party of Snow Buntings to eat. Connections like this are always interesting and help to show just how important the most insignificant species can turn out to be - lose the evening-primroses and the birds and insects might disappear too.

Though we still await November's traditional 'goody' in the bird line, there's still plenty of good birding to be had around Cape May. Another Golden Eagle showed up at The Beanery on Saturday, continuing an excellent fall for the species; small numbers of Snow Buntings are performing daily on the beaches at the point and the impressive scoter flight of the past couple of weeks still continues. Up at Avalon, the seawatch has been producing some excellent counts of Parasitic Jaegers and Northern Gannets, while a juvenile Brown Booby was reported from there on the morning of November 9th. Keep an eye out for Tundra Swans passing through now in small numbers and, with a northwesterly bringing a prediction of wintery rain on Tuesday, expect cold weather birding to be just around the corner.

Seaside Evening-primrose is marvelously adapted to a life on the beach; its low, spreading habit resists wind in open, exposed places, while the thick covering of silky hairs on its leaves and stems protects it from dessication in a hot, windy, salt-laden environment [photo by Mike Crewe].

My plant survey work over the past two years has shown Seaside Evening-primrose to be widespread along the beachfronts and dunes of Cape May County. However, it remains vulnerable and could all too easily be lost if we don't remember to share our beaches. Notice the gaps in distribution along the barrier islands in what should be suitable habitat for the species; these are all places where beach raking is carried out from the low tide mark all the way back to the dunes.

Caterpillars of most of the sphinx moths can be told by the prominent, hook-like spike on the rear end. White-lined Sphinxes are typical southern chancers, that head north in late summer and lay eggs on suitable larval host plants whenever and where ever the opportunity offers itself. The poor caterpillars on South Cape May Beach are eating plants so small that they can't even climb onto them and have to tolerate being sand-blasted while they munch. Some of these guys probably won't make it this late in the year, but a fresh influx of moths will arrive from the south next year [photo by Mike Crewe].

The first blizzard of winter - a party of Snow Buntings, hunkered down in footprints on the beach. Snow Buntings are highly active birds and flocks regularly erupt suddenly for no apparent reason. This is a defense strategy against predators, along the lines of 'a moving target is harder to hit'. In between feeding bouts, Snow Buntings often hunker down like this in open and exposed locations. They seem to do this during rest periods from eating, during which they spend time preening and probably digesting what they have just eaten. It is likely that resting in open areas like this gives them a good 360 degree view to keep an eye out for predators [photo by Mike Crewe].

Snow Buntings can be hard to approach during their 'sitting out in the open' spells and if you want good views, it is always better to wait until they go back into feeding mode. Snow Buntings have very complex and variable plumage patterns and telling the age and sex of individual birds in the field can often be tricky. However, a bird with this much white in the wing is likely to be a male [photo by Mike Crewe].

Snow Buntings have wonderful color tones in their faces, often carrying the burnished browns and buffs of fall well into the winter - and all topped off by that amazing orangey yellow bill [photo by Mike Crewe].

The crouching style and cryptic colors of Snow Buntings are typical of birds that spend time in open, exposed places and help to reduce the chance of detection by potential predators - and photographers too unfortunately! [Photo by Mike Crewe]