Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Out for the Count

Cape May's birdwatchers have been out counting birds this week, all in the name of research. Last Sunday saw many of the nation's birdwatchers taking part in the 115th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), organized by the National Audubon Society and, as ever, there were surprises in store on the Cape May count. These counts don't set out to produce a precise count of every last bird in the area - that would be nigh on impossible. Rather, the figures collected over time provide us with an idea of long term trends; an indication as to whether species are increasing or decreasing. In addition, because winter bird populations can move around from year to year, and because the counts take place across the whole continent, any local changes that might be detected can be put into context. In other words, a localized drop in numbers for one species may not mean that it is declining; the species may simply be wintering somewhere else.

Such long-term trends are helping to produce valuable data - data that is based on sound information, rather than guess work. One bird that has been intriguing in its behavior so far this winter is Bonaparte's Gull. Despite being a regular, even common, wintering bird around the coastline of Cape May County, not a single Bonaparte's Gull was logged on the Cape May CBC - a surprise to everyone. Is this a local trend or a wider phenomenon? It will be interesting to review the results of all the 2014 Christmas counts once they are in and compare them with those of previous years. It seems very unlikely that the species has suddenly drastically declined, so what is going on?

But CBCs can produce surprising guest appearances as well as noticeable absences and this year's Cape May count was no exception. Not all results are in yet, but by the last count, some 160 species had been reported within the 15-mile diameter circle that makes up the Cape May count. Among these were certainly a few surprises; Ross's Goose, Cackling Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Osprey, Northern Goshawk, Northern Bobwhite, Western Kingbird, Blue-headed Vireo, Pine Warbler, Vesper Sparrow and American Tree Sparrow were all nice bonus birds, while the Black-capped Chickadee that turned up last winter made it onto this year's count, constituting the first modern count record of the species. Top prize went to Michael O'Brien, who found a Magnolia Warbler lurking in the back streets of West Cape May - the first time the species has been recorded on a Cape May CBC.

While the Cape May CBC is, of course, dear to our hearts, there was another reason to be out counting with great anticipation this week - this year's Avalon Seawatch was fast approaching the magical one million birds mark for the season. That wonderful milestone was reached on Monday, when Skye Haas and Tom Reed watched a female Black Scoter break the tape and become the millionth bird counted so far. There has been much celebration and Skye has posted a great report on the moment on our Seasonal Research blog. But the season is not over yet and you still have a few more days to enjoy the often impressive spectacle of birds heading south along the barrier islands.

Bonaparte's Gulls have shown some interesting behavioral swings in 2014; while wintering birds have yet to appear at the back end of this year, birds in the early half of the year seemed reluctant to leave and first-year, non-breeding birds could still be found in South Jersey well into May. The above birds were photographed at East Point, Cumberland County and were part of a gathering of some 50 birds there on May 13th. Though no adults were present, even first-summer birds such as these would be expected to be north of our area well before this date [photo by Mike Crewe].

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Avalon Awash

Tom Reed cut a lonely figure at the Avalon Seawatch today, as gusty Northerlies and a stormy sea added an extra dimension to the task of counting birds. Though such conditions sometimes create interesting birding opportunities, seabirds were pretty noticeable by their absence this morning and much of the offshore movements involved a variety of scoters, Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks and Common Loons scuttling for cover in Townsend's Inlet. Nearby sports fields held parties of Brant and roosting Herring Gulls, while Boat-tailed Grackles search the wrack lines for food - but the wrack lines were in the middle of the road!

A trip around the barrier islands around high tide on a Nor'easter certainly helps to demonstrate just how fragile our coastlines are and just how important it is to understand how these dynamic, natural systems work, such that we can protect both ourselves and the natural world to the best of our abilities. Certainly, the value of the wave-absorbing sand dunes along the coast was clear to see as rising waters washed right across Stone Harbor Point, leaving a scattering of beachgrass-topped, dune islands. Nummy's Island had an unfamiliar look too, as waves lapped at both sides of the road running across its middle. Many years ago, before we knew any better, the natural dunes at Cape May Point were deliberately removed, to allow the nouveau riche of the time to enjoy splendid views of the bay from their homes. After a number of disastrous floods - at least in part as a result of this beach removal - the dunes were replaced and the lesson learned.

The weather is likely to stay blustery for the next couple of days at least so it will be interesting to see what comes our way; with the Avalon Seawatch count hovering around 960,000 for the year, it would be nice if we can have a good run of birds over the coming week and see the magical one million figure reached - we'll keep you posted!

The 8th Avenue jetty was completely submerged at high tide today, with just the post at the far end sticking out of the turbulent waters [photo by Mike Crewe].

The road to the bridge across Townsend's Inlet is closed at present, which was a good thing as the storm surge pushed waves high over the breakwater and onto the road [photo by Mike Crewe].

Avalon can be a very different place in the winter to the tourist-filled resort it becomes in summer. Streets on the backbay side of the barrier islands - such as here at 23rd and Dune - can become inundated with saltwater during high storm surges [photo by Mike Crewe].

Sand dunes absorb a lot of the storm force that pushes onto land during a Nor'easter, but the beaches can be a dangerous place at this time [photo by Mike Crewe].

If you fancy birding in less exposed locations, the two Ross's Geese were still feeding contentedly beside the entrance to the Cape May Ferry Terminal [photo by Mike Crewe].

Wet woods at this time of year can be worth checking for Rusty Blackbirds - these four were part of a flock of 15 or so in the Red Maple swamp at the Rea Farm on Sunday. Rusty Blackbird populations are showing a worrying long-term downward trend and keeping accurate notes of observations of this species will add to our knowledge and perhaps help us to understand what is going on [photo by Mike Crewe].

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A change in the weather

The weather has been something of a roller coaster ride over the past six weeks or so. After an all-too-early chilly snap made us think that winter was arriving very early, things warmed up a little and we were relieved to have avoided the snow at Cape May. The following milder spell has, however, now skipped off south and we are seeing a return to chillier conditions. After a rain-drenched day yesterday, a blustery day of cold, north-west winds brought clear blue skies today and Vince Elia was the first to scan the skies over the Rea Farm and pick out a Golden Eagle. Indeed, this morning, the skies over Cape May Point were worthy of October, as packs of Turkey and Black Vultures streamed high overhead and, at one point, I counted 15 Red-shouldered Hawks, spread out from Cape May Lighthouse to somewhere over the Rea Farm. Among them came a few Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper's Hawks and even a late Sharp-shin.

As temperatures drop further north, perhaps most noticeable around Cape May Point is the increase in the number of waterbirds, especially at TNC's South Cape May Meadows. The rather sorry gathering of poorly, resident Canada Geese, has now been joined by hyperactive, chatty, migratory Canada Geese. These latter birds will probably mostly continue south to winter in the more open landscapes of the Delmarva Peninsula, and southward even to Florida. But their passing through Cape May is a time of interest for local birdwatchers, as these busy flocks often bring other things - not least of which is controversy. Many species of ducks, geese and swans are popular in both public and private collections and - unfortunately - such birds are prone to escaping. Despite much discussion over perhaps too many pints of beer, there really seems to be no clear way to tell if an odd waterbird is genuinely a rare migrant, or if it is a wire-hopper - an escape from captivity. At the Meadows, three Greater White-fronted Geese are surely wild - though this species largely flies south down the Central Flyway to winter along the Gulf Coast, a few birds stray into larger flocks of Canada Geese and head southeast to hit the Atlantic Coast and make for a nice addition to a winter's day birding.

In contrast to the Whitefronts, there is usually far more controversy whenever a Ross's Goose turns up. This diminutive relative of the Snow Goose turns up regularly on the east coast, though its main migration routes from High Arctic breeding grounds largely mirror those of the Greater White-fronted Geese. Though Ross's Geese are not uncommon in captivity, there is reason to believe that at least some birds are genuine vagrants; the problem really comes when two adults turn up together, on their own rather than in a large flock of Canada or Snow Geese; then proceed to feed unconcernedly on a median divide right outside the Cape May ferry terminal - as happened yesterday. Not only that, but one of the birds has lost an eye.

Such peculiar behavior often initiates a lot of finger pointing and accusations of fowl (pun intended!). But is this the case? It seems that there really is no way of knowing the origins of birds such as these unless they are banded. I have driven the Belt Parkway to JFK Airport and seen flocks of Brant grazing on the median strip as three lanes of traffic gas-guzzles its way by in both directions. Tame birds indeed, but no question that they are wild. As for the lost eye? Well, that could happen to a tame or a wild bird, though a wild bird is likely to meet its maker sooner than a captive bird with this kind of handicap. So how do we decide on whether such birds are truly wild or not? I have to say it beats me... Maybe we should take it on a balance of probability. Perhaps being tame is OK, perhaps arriving without the companionship of other geese is OK, perhaps the injury is OK - but all three together? Who can say...

Another area of controversy among goose aficionados came to a head when the familiar Canada Goose was 'split' by taxonomists into two species - now known as Canada Goose and Cackling Goose. In short, the small, High Arctic breeding populations became Cackling Geese, but it's not that easy. The two 'species' overlap greatly in a number of ways - including size - and there remains much controversy as to the true identity of a number of 'small Canada Geese' that pass our way at this time of year. Currently, a party of seven of these small geese are hanging out at the Meadows; not for us a bunch of classic, dinky winky birds but some annoyingly intermediate 'Lesser Canada Goose' type things. If head shape, bill size and shape, breast color and scapular patterning can all be assessed accurately, you might be in with a fighting chance of identifying them, but the amount of variation does suggest that there could well be interbreeding between the various forms going on. If only life were perfect!

Personally, I found it just as interesting that there was clearly a large increase in the number of Mallards on the ponds around the point today. The Mallard is an ever-present, semi-domesticated species that we readily take for granted and it is all too easy to forget that there are genuine wild Mallards out there, heading south from boreal breeding grounds. Finally, it was wonderful to see a family group of three Tundra Swans at the Meadows today - two silver-gray youngsters and an adult. This species gets a tough time in our area due to bullying by the all-too-common, introduced Mute Swan. Luckily, the Meadows still offers a brief respite from this and the three Tundras were resting up, no doubt before continuing southward a little further for the winter.

Winter is creeping up on us - the species range is dropping, but the number of birds can be dramatic at times - wrap up warm and come and enjoy the birds!

The two Ross's Geese on Sandman Boulevard today - whether you decide to count them on your list or not, they do at least offer great photo opportunities! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Though resting safely away from human disturbance, these Tundra Swans can easily be picked out from the local Mute Swans. At all ages, they have a longer head profile and show a shorter tail. Adult (left bird) have an all black bill with often just a small yellow flash at the base, while juveniles are a soft, dove gray color [photo by Mike Crewe].

Our recent Black Friday walk provided us with this American Pipit as one of our highlights on South Cape May Beach. Though this is a common migrant here, getting good, close views is not always easy and brief fly-overs are more often the norm [photo by Mary Watkins].

Despite the threat of bad weather, our annual pilgrimage to see the Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Light went without a hitch... [photo by Megan Crewe]

First highlight at Barnegat - stellar views of Purple Sandpipers... [photo by Megan Crewe]

...followed by surf-dodging Harlequin Ducks - a life bird for several members of the group [photo by Mike Crewe].

Surprises at any season, that's the Cape May way! Though typically a retiring woodland species, Northern Goshawks on migration can occasionally pop up in surprising places. This juvenile gave amazing views as it perched atop bushes at TNC's South Cape May Meadows on 5th [photo by Warren Cairo]

Friday, December 5, 2014

Walking the streets, watching the yard

As December kicks in, we find that the focus of attention at Cape May can shift away from the better known locations in the less-populated parts of the county, and into our very own streets and backyards. Going for a walk around the block during the winter can net you almost as many bird sightings as you might get if you headed out to the backbays - and you may well chance upon some nice finds.

Last winter was a good case in point, when Rufous Hummingbird, White-winged Dove and Painted Bunting could all be seen at yard feeders around Cape May Point within a short distance of each other. Aiming for even greater heights, it was back in 2010 when New Jersey's first Broad-tailed Hummingbird was located in a Cape May back yard. In the short time that my wife and I have lived in Cape May, we have enjoyed such crazy birds as American Woodcocks, Bald Eagles, Eastern Meadowlark, Dickcissel, and even Crested Caracara in our yard!

Back yards and urban areas in general can be popular with birds during the winter for a variety of reasons. In largely agricultural regions, they can offer oases of cover and feeding opportunities among the berrying trees and bushes that we plant; our feeders offer sustenance during times of difficulty, while densely populated areas can even be several degrees warmer in winter than the surrounding countryside.

Through December, we continue our Saturday walks at Cape May Point, but you may find attention on these walks shifting from the open habitats of the state park, to the secluded corners of Cape May Point back yards. In January, we start a new walk for you - Warren Cairo leads a trip that takes you out from CMBO's Northwood Center (where you are invited to come and start the event with a hot cup of coffee!) and takes you to an assortment of locations according to local conditions. But, at this time of year, you can bet that many of these walks will find us looking at birds in and around Cape May's streets and back yards!

A quick drive to town to get something for lunch was interrupted when Mark Garland reported this White-winged Dove from his West Cape May back yard. Keep an eye on Mourning Dove flocks at this time of year and see what you might find lurking there [photo by Mike Crewe].

Don't forget to make your birding count - if you don't already do so, think about taking part in Cornell Lab of Ornithology's FeederWatch citizen science program...

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Another Hawkwatch ends...

November 30th can mean only one thing in Cape May, the end of another Hawkwatch season. As is traditional in the community of birdwatchers that make Cape May their home, some fun gatherings took place at the platform in the state park today; nothing formal, people just made their own decisions to come down and be a part of the day. With a return to milder weather, it was certainly a pleasant place to be, as a few ducks returned to the thawed out Bunker Pond, an American Bittern scarfed down a poor little short-tailed Shrew, and - of course - there were raptors to be counted. Actually, not an awful lot seemed to be on the move today, but Red-shouldered Hawks put on a fine display as they hunted the marsh edge and the seemingly ever-present Turkey and Black Vultures cruised overhead.

Cape May would be nothing without its birding community. With apologies to those who were present on the day but weren't there when the camera came out, but it was good to be present on such a fine, sunny day. Things can get pretty hectic during the height of migration, but it is during the winter that Cape May birders really come together as a community and have a big old group hug. Massive thanks to Mary Raikes (front row in tan pants) for doing a stellar job this year (and to Swing Counter Tom Reed too [photo by Deb Payson].

The Hawkwatch Platform has an amazing capacity to attract an interesting suite of birds throughout the fall period. This American Tree Sparrow spent Saturday hanging out with the local House Sparrow flock right in front of the platform, though it appeared to prefer native goldenrod seed to anything artificial put down for the birds [photo by Mike Crewe].
American Bitterns have been a regular feature of the Hawkwatch Platform this season, with up to three birds present at any one time. This individual hunted the open, recently cut areas of reedbed in front of the platform at lunchtime today [photo by Mike Crewe].
Researchers around Lake Huron are studying populations of breeding Great Egrets in newly occupied areas. This bird with wing tags marked '98W' has been hanging out at the state park for some time now and can currently be easily seen on Bunker Pond. Reporting such birds helps us to understand more about bird populations and movements and reported sightings from members of the public are an integral part of the research. You can read some of the early results from this project at
[Photo by Mike Crewe] 

The Hawkwatch may, sadly, be over for 2014, but the birding year is far from done. Winter may bring cold weather, but, with a good dose of hot coffee and layers of clothing, there's plenty of good birding just around the corner. Why not kick off the winter by joining the CMBO Harlequin Romance trip to Barnegat Light. This annual venture along the New Jersey coast has regularly provided us with exceptional views of Harlequin Ducks, as well as an array of other winter birds, including Snow Bunting, Iceland Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, King Eider and more. Call our program registrar and we'll see you next Saturday! [Photo of Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat by Mike Crewe]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

That whole Thanksgiving-Magpie connection...

Birds are truly exceptional, perhaps close to unique - though dog and cat owners might disagree - in the way that they work their way into the hearts and minds of people. Throughout the history of our species, birds seem to have held a variety of roles, ranging simply from food, to essential companionship. Birds, it seems, are important to us and I was fascinated to discover recently another link between birds and people that I was unaware of, but that is very apposite given the pie-filled festival that looms on the horizon - Thanksgiving!

The humble Magpie has a checkered history with mankind; most often seen as a symbol of theft and implicated by many (mostly those who don't apply science to their thought process!) as instrumental in recent downward trends of songbird populations, conversely, they also attract a special reverence, often coming to light in the nursery rhymes of children, and regularly featuring in the writings of great authors such as Shakespeare and Chaucer. Magpies are found throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere in both the Old World and the New World (modern taxonomy not withstanding) and are obvious to us due to their noisy chattering calls and their striking black and white plumage. We have no magpies in the Eastern USA - for which we should feel hard done by - but they still remain familiar to all, and tales abound that include magpies.

So what is this new connection? Well, etymology is a subject that has long fascinated me; that is, the origin of words and how they come about and evolve. It is well-known that the word 'pied' refers to anything that is black and white - thus,  the word magpie is said to be a contraction of 'maggot-pie', the pied bird that eats maggots. All well and good, but where does the word 'pie' come from originally - and why is it used for a black and white bird as well as for something that we eat. Well, I was recently reading that the word 'pie' for the thing that we eat actually comes from the pied appearance of the contents of a pie. Not so much black and white, but certainly an assortment of textures and/or colors. Similarly, the often widely varied list of ingredients that go into a pie is said to bear a resemblance to the Magpie's liking for collecting a miscellany of objects to adorn the nest.

There is much written about this in such learned tomes as the Oxford English Dictionary and no need for me to repeat it all at length here. Suffice to say that, as well as celebrating the humble Turkey on Thanksgiving, I think we should also raise a glass to the wily Magpie as we tuck into pumpkin pie - and I'm prepared to bet there will be other birds around the table tomorrow too. So here's a challenge: how many different birds can you find associated with your Thanksgiving celebration? For a few clues, don't forget to check out the wine or beer labels, the brand names of the various food items used in preparing the meal and pretty much anything else going on around you - what about the names of the sports teams you may very well be enjoying (or suffering, depending on performance!) on the day...

Happy Thanksgiving...

We may not have Black-billed Magpies in Cape May, but we do have American Oystercatchers. An old name for the oystercatcher was Sea-pie, a name which continues the affinity between a melding together of contrasting colors in birds, and the richness of ingredients in a tasty pie [photo by Mike Crewe].
Don't forget - we'll be out in the field on Friday with our 'Walking off the Turkey' stroll at the wonderful South Cape May Meadows. Come and join us at TNC's parking lot on Sunset Boulevard at 9:00AM for a light-hearted, end of season bird walk - surprises are guaranteed at this time of year!! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Global Warming? Don't make me laugh!!

As an unseasonably early cold snap sweeps across Cape May and brings a host of avian goodies our way, the nay-sayers are having a field day. Five feet of snow recently dumped itself on the unfortunate residents of Buffalo, NY and the term "Global Warming" comes under attack yet again. Unfortunately this term, which served a purpose when first coined, has given the nay-sayers much opportunity to deny the facts - and that's just what happens if you hang desperately onto a single piece of the jigsaw and ignore all the other pieces. And that's especially a problem when that single piece is, even as I write, tumbling inexorably off the dining room table and heading for the dusty spider web under the book case.

Science and understanding is about research, and research is best understood when each project is part of a much broader picture. Global warming over time is happening and is demonstrable; and yes, it has happened before, but right now, it appears to be happening faster than ever before - so we need to understand why that might be. The best way to do that is not to go join the spiders under the book case, but to hang on to pieces of the jigsaw that are firmly on the table. Long-term projects such as the British Trust for Ornithology's Integrated Population Monitoring program don't just look at a single facet of bird life, they take all the pieces and put them together. Though long term, scientific projects such as Constant Effort Sites, Wetland Bird Survey and the Nest Record Scheme are used, much of the work they use comes from citizen science data. The basic bird records and sightings that come from people's daily observations, their notebooks and local survey projects. These can then be tied in and compared with data from other projects; from longer-term, focused surveys with more rigid methodologies to help provide us with the facts - and to help to question all of it, such that we can be as certain as is possible that we have the right answers. And if we don't like the answers, well, ignoring them or denying them does not alter facts.

As an interesting example of how an integrated program means that we can gain the facts more effectively, we can scour academia for projects that might not be immediately apparent. A recent paper with the title of Temporal patterns of avian body size reflect linear size responses to broadscale environmental change over the last 50 years was probably discussed at far fewer family breakfast tables than the news story of the Buffalo snowfall, yet it gives us a much better insight into what is really going on. Who would have thought that measurable reductions in bird size were taking place over time on at least three continents around the world? Such reductions in size are consistent with local climate change over time. How do we know? Well, all such academic studies start with data gathering and that can come come from a variety of sources and a significant source of such data is the daily recording and logging of your local birds.

Let's all be a part of this - it is truly fabulous that we can go out and enjoy our birds, record what we see and leave academia to do the boring backroom stuff. Enjoy your birds, but record and report what you see - be a part of making a difference!

High on the list of indications that cold weather was heading our way was the recent run of Tundra Swan sightings. These impressive Arctic visitors seldom spend the winter with us, but pass through on migration and can be a highlight of any cold day in late fall or early winter here. An exceptional (in recent years at least) count of over 70 birds was on Bunker Pond on November 20th, while the birds in this picture were passing over the Avalon Seawatch. Where are they going and where did they come from? Answering such questions will give us an insight into the lives of these birds, while recording over time will show if population numbers change, or choose different migration routes and wintering grounds [photo by Sam Galick].

In the summer, American Kestrels feed largely on sizable insects such as crickets and grasshoppers, so how do small numbers of kestrels manage to survive the winter here, when such prey items are not available? Studies have shown that they switch to feeding more on small birds and rodents - but will this change if the climate changes? Can careful monitoring of winter distributions of kestrels and recording of prey items offer inferences about climate change? If we don't do the work, we won't know [photo by Sam Galick].

Baltimore Orioles are common migrants at Cape May, but there seems to be a peculiar trend in sightings; birds pass through in good numbers during September and October, but then there is something of a hiatus before another run of birds takes place in late November and December. Where have these birds come from and where are they going? Perhaps long-term banding projects at a large enough number of locations can answer this. These two birds are currently chomping on Porcelainberry at The Beanery [photo by Sam Galick]

Western breeding species regularly show up on the east coast in late fall - this Western Tanager turned up at The Beanery yesterday and continues there today, feeding on Porcelainberries with a group of Baltimore Orioles. Such spacial patterns of dispersal were once thought to involve 'lost' birds that were not worthy of study, but such limited views deny us the opportunity to discover whether this is indeed the case. Careful recording and tracking of vagrants can be one piece of the jigsaw in monitoring changes in bird distributions - some of which might easily be due to climate change [photo by Sam Galick]

Although this Loggerhead Shrike has been present at Corbin City Impoundments since at least October 8th, it's taken time for it to come close enough to the trail such that good photos can be achieved. At a distance, Loggerhead and Northern Shrike can be hard to differentiate and this bird bounced back and forth for a while. At close quarters, the lack of visible scaling on the underparts, lack of white supercilium and relatively short primary projection all support the identification as Loggerhead Shrike. Much of our knowledge of the separation of these two species visually has come from scientific collections held in a number of museums and scientific faculties around the world (not to mention the science required to build the camera that took the picture!) [photo by Sam Galick].

It's time to go out and just enjoy the birds....

Bald Eagle at Cape May Point State Park [photo by Mike Crewe].

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Season's Passage

As I sit in my office, with the hammer, hammer, hammer sound of another batch of new houses being squeezed into Cape May Point, it seems like a really good time to reflect on where we are and what we are doing. During the wonderful migration that takes places through Cape May in fall (and still continues offshore at the Avalon Seawatch), there is little time to look at our surroundings; we are awash with birds, everyone is having a fabulous time and all is great with the world. But as the door of the Northwood Center starts to stay closed just a little longer, the sun sinks below the horizon beyond Lake Lily and the Spring Peepers realize it really is time to go to sleep now,  it leaves at least a little time to actually think ahead and ponder the plight of our migratory birds.

A common misconception for many people is that birds flock to Cape May because it has fabulous habitat for them - and that's why they come. Cape May does indeed have some important pieces of habitat, but is there enough? And are these patches in the right place? Migratory birds come to Cape May largely as a chance result of geography and weather patterns. Prevailing north-west winds in the fall, coupled with the funnelling effect of the Atlantic Coast and Delaware Bay, concentrate unnaturally large numbers of birds at Cape May. Unnaturally large? Well, yes, because, given the choice, these birds would not choose to all end up in a big heap on when small spit of land. So, it does seem as though we therefore need to provide an unnaturally large amount of space for them - if we consider it our place to care about them that is... This means that these migrants need to find food and shelter when they arrive at Cape May. They need woodlots, field edges and a good supply of insects and berries. Every day throughout the entire year, one can drive around the area and see habitat disappearing; the parkway is being 'improved' to allow even more traffic to have ready and easy access to the area; arguments rage in every coastal community about just how much land do these birds really need to nest on - and what harm does all that beach raking do anyway?

It seems that the challenge of stopping the advancing wave of 'progress' is too great. So perhaps our best hope is to gather information on these birds; perhaps we can find ways to learn how these birds migrate, where they come from, where they go, how long they stay at each stop-off point on the way. For one thing is for sure; we can spend all the time and money we like on saving breeding and wintering grounds, but if we don't give them somewhere to rest up on their migrations, well, we could just be wasting our time...

Now that the crowds have gone, these Black Skimmers can rest on the beach at Ocean City. Along with a number of other species, long-term observations are showing that Black Skimmers are staying ever later into the end of the year in New Jersey - but what does this mean? Is it a response to climate change? Are they changing their behavior because their food items are changing theirs? Long-term data collection using robust protocols is surely the best way to find out [photo by Viv Buckley].

Occurrences of rarities are always fun, and the best way to guarantee getting a birder out of a stuffy office!! Recording the occurrence of a rare or uncommon bird - such as this American White Pelican over Cape May Point last Sunday - may seem frivolous, but accurate identification, recording and monitoring of such birds can give us a valuable early insight into potential changes in bird behavior. Since birds move more readily and generally over far greater distances than most other forms of life, they are great indicators in not only the health of our planet, but also in possible changes that might be occurring in either weather trends or macro-ecosystems [photo by Karl Lukens].

Long-term, continual monitoring offers the greatest opportunity to understand birds. People often question why - for example - banding projects continue. Don't we know where the birds go by now? Well yes, perhaps we do. At least for now. But if we stop monitoring, how do we know if those destinations change? How do we know if the timing of the migration, or the route changes? If we know such things, we are better placed to help wildlife. Red Knot populations on the western Atlantic Flyway have been monitored for many years, initially using metal, and colored plastic leg bands - and then small leg flags...

...In recent years, technology has allowed geolocators to be miniaturized and fitted to the legs of Red Knot (note the yellow leg band and lump of data collector on the bent leg). These pieces of kit record data based on day length and timing of sunrise and sunset, allowing us to calculate where the bird is.

Geolocators are slightly limiting in that they have to be retrieved for the data to be collected - ie, the bird has to be caught again. With ever-more inventive technology, some Red Knots are now fitted with transmitters (note the thin wire sticking out of the back end of this bird); using receiver equipment, researchers can now track these birds without having to recapture them, and the transmitter can be designed to fall off after a period of time and - hopefully - retrieved. These photos of Red Knot were taken this week at Avalon and will be invaluable to researchers in plotting the routes of these birds. [Photos by Sam Galick]

The vast majority of bird banding, and other schemes, rely heavily on other people to be observant, notice the birds, and send in their findings. If see a marked bird, record as much as you can about location, habitat, time, date and other associated birds, and send your findings to the Bird Banding Lab. The best way to do this is through their website which you can reach by clicking here. For any banded shorebird here in New Jersey, you may also visit the DuPont sponsored, Delaware Estuary Initiative site.

Remember, the more that we know, the better we are able to help...

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cumberland County beckons

As news reaches me of a Black-headed Gull in Cumberland County, I am reminded that this coming Sunday we will be running our 'Bayshore Birding at its Best' visit to the very best birding locations in that very same county. Though it is tough for pretty much anywhere on the east coast to compete with Cape May when it comes to migration, the upper reaches of the Delaware Bay really start to come into their own once November arrives and the winter birds start to flood in. Weather patterns over the past few weeks have produced relatively mild weather for the time of year, but the first early morning frosts are starting to provide Cumberland County with a great range of early winter birds.

Cumberland County offers some spectacular wide landscapes, with vast, sweeping views across the expansive saltmarshes of the Delaware Bay. Snow Geese will soon be flocking there in great number and, already, numbers of wintering Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers are building up. Nearby, a rolling landscape made up of a patchwork of farm fields and wood lots ensures there is always plenty of birds to be found; a wide diversity of sparrows, juncos, towhees and other seedeaters feed quietly in the leaf litter along the woodland edges, Wild Turkeys gather in droves to feed on spilt corn, and great black clouds of blackbirds and grackles flow across the landscape.

Cumberland also has a great number of working and abandoned sand pits, offering a good number of places to seek out a wide range of ducks and other waterfowl. A number of the pits are relatively deep and well stocked with fish, which makes it a great place to look for a number of diving duck species, as well as the usual dabblers. This is a fabulous time of year to be out and about in Cumberland County, and there is no better way to explore this area than with CMBO volunteer naturalists and keen Cumberland fans, Karen Johnson and Janet Crawford - a good time will be had by all!!

To book one of the last places or find out more about this pre-registered walk, contact our program registrar on 609-861-0700. See you there!

Great flocks of dabbling ducks - such as these American Wigeon - add a kaleidoscope of color to Cumberland's ponds and creeks [photo by Mike Crewe].

Busy parties of Buffleheads are now arriving at coastal waterways and Cumberland County offers some great opportunities to enjoy these smart ducks [photo by Mike Crewe].

Our November trips are always full of a great diversity of sparrows and we offer plenty of opportunity to get to grips with these birds. High on the list of priorities will be seeking out the wonderfully skunk-headed White-crowned Sparrow [photo by Mike Crewe].
In scenes sometimes more reminiscent of parts of Alaska, Bald Eagles can put on spectacular views in Cumberland County, as birds come from far and wide to winter along the Delaware Bayshore [photo by Mike Crewe]

Northern Harriers find plenty of good hunting in the open fields and marshes of Cumberland County and the sight of a 'Gray Ghost' slipping silently down the edge of a meadow as a watery sun gives the tawny grasses a golden glow is truly the essence of a November day's birding along the Delaware Bay [photo by Mike Crewe].

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Farewell, Friends!

Northern Harrier and Red-tailed Hawk circle over the Hawkwatch platform.
 [Photo by Emily Wilmoth.]

I am writing my final blog post with a bittersweet feeling. Working in Cape May this fall was an absolutely amazing experience that went by way too quickly.  All the birds that were seen and the conversations that were had made this season unforgetable.  On behalf of Margeaux, Jordan, and myself, I would like to thank everyone for being so kind and encouraging.  Thanks for sharing your knowledge, experiences, and food with us. :)

Throughout September and October, a whopping 231 species of birds were spotted from the Hawkwatch platform.  This list includes Whiskered Tern, Common Raven, and Zone-tailed Hawk as some highlights.  It is incredible how much diversity can be seen from a single location in as little time as just two months.  Mary will continue counting hawks through November, so there is still time to add even more species to the season Hawkwatch list.

This past week in Cape May was just as exciting as any.  A variety of ducks continued to show up on Bunker pond, including the first Redhead and Bufflehead of the season.  Thursday was the highest hawk count of the fall so far, with 2,003 hawks (including a Rough-legged Hawk).  A Great Horned Owl perched in a tree at the State Park that evening added a special ending to an outstanding day.

A female Redhead on Bunker Pond. She is not always the easiest bird to spot as she spends a lot of time diving under the surface. [Photo by Emily Wilmoth.]
One of the 68 Red-shouldered Hawks counted on Thursday, October 30.
 [Photo by Emily Wilmoth.]

With so much excitement going on, it is really difficult to say goodbye.  However, I am certain that this is not the last you will see of your 2014 seasonal naturalists.  We all love Cape May and will definitely be back to visit in the future.  So, we will just say see you later!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Rough-legged Hawk - the heady Hawkwatch continues

After the stunned appreciation of the Zone-tailed Hawk that passed over the Cape May Hawkwatch Platform on September 27th (where is it now, I wonder...), plus an awesome season for many other raptors here, thanks to persistent north-west winds, one might be forgiven for thinking that we have had the cherry on the cake for this year. But not so it seems - and anyway, who says cakes have to have just a single cherry?!

Though Rough-legged Hawk is by no means a rare visitor to Cape May County, in a typical year one might expect to see just one or two, generally spending the winter in the extensive, open marshes at the northern end of the county - Jake's Landing and Tuckahoe WMA are the 'classic' locations. Further south they are far less likely, while a bird south of the canal is always something to cherish. Those lucky enough to be at the Hawkwatch Platform around 2:30pm yesterday were therefore in for a treat, as Steve Bauer called out a Rough-legged Hawk, way, way out there, somewhere over West Cape May. As we struggled to find detail on the bird, but consoled ourselves that we really could see the suggestion of a dark belly patch and a pale leading edge to the wing, the bird set a course that was going to bring right past the platform.

And so it came, in a dead straight line, heading out of a bunch of Turkey Vultures and passing right over the bunker. Then it did what Rough-legs do - it headed right out over the bay; no pausing, no chickening out like the vultures do; no aimless circling and wondering what to do. Because Rough-legs, like Northern Harriers and Bald Eagles, are flapping birds and don't think twice about crossing water. A single sighting of a Rough-legged Hawk is not something to draw too many conclusions from, but this is a relatively early bird and, if it is a precursor of a 'rough-leg winter', I, for one, will be very happy...

Rough-legged Hawk at Cape May Point yesterday. Rough-legs are rather variable in plumage, but light morph birds such as this are a fabulous sight and readily identified by the solid black belly patch and large, black carpal patches on the wings [photo by Kevin Karlson].

While you are there... don't forget to scan around you at ground level while at the Hawkwatch Platform. Bunker Pond, the nearby cedars, and even the grass in front of the platform are all great places to find birds - this American Bittern has spent a couple of days now, feeding in the open along the edges of Bunker Pond and giving excellent photo opportunities [photo by Kevin Karlson].

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Autumn Weekend - the Afterglow

One of these days, I just know we are going to fall flat on our smug faces, but not this year. For once again, the weather did its bit, geography played its part, Pete Dunne said there would be birds - there were birds...

Cape May in fall really is a phenomenal place; I know we've said it before but, so long as the birds keep coming, you can't blame us for crowing a little (pun intended!). The 2014 Cape May Autumn Weekend is over, the dust is just about settling (once the emails have been dealt with!) and we can reflect on what has been an amazing event. First and foremost, we at Cape May Bird Observatory should like to thank those of you who came, for without you, there would be no event. We should also like to thank the donors, vendors and other supporters, without whom their also would be no event. And we should also like to thank the incredible army of volunteers that help CMBO and New Jersey Audubon for, without them, there might be an event, but it wouldn't be a success.

All of the above can be arranged, and was, mostly by the amazing organizational skills of Rene Buccinna - for much of the time, the rest of us just did as we were told. But what could not be arranged was the birds, so here I want to celebrate at least some of them - for 205 species of them not only showed up, but disported themselves before our delighted audiences and I don't have space to celebrate them all here. I should also like to thank the generosity of those who came to the event, then took time to forward photos for inclusion on this blog - thank you one and all.

Any great day in the field at Cape May begins at dawn [photo by Lambert Orkis]
Early morning brings great birds, and high on everybody's list of things to do was a walk at The Meadows, where up to three Short-eared Owls could be found over the weekend. These two put on a great display for one of our walk groups [photo by John Patterson].
Early morning light plus close fly-by equals great Short-eared Owl shots! [Photo by Karl Lukens]

And it's worth another shot - for the identification officianados, note the way the dark on the primaries bunches towards the wing tips - Long-eared Owls have more regularly-spaced dark bands [photo by John Patterson].
Of the three seasonal watches that CMBO co-ordinates, the Morning Flight is perhaps the hardest to appreciate, since identifying tiny blips by call as they fly overhead is not everybody's thing. But just enjoying the spectacle can often be exciting in its own right. Watching tiny waifs such as this Ruby-crowned Kinglet tumble by in a blustery head wind is a very special way to converse with nature [photo by Doug Gochfeld]
Sharp-shinned Hawks were a major feature of the Autumn Weekend, with sometimes up to 20 in the air at once, all giving some serious grief to the Northern Flickers, Blue Jays and assorted smaller fayre that make up a smorgasbord for these feisty hunters (or should that be smorgasbird? - You had to be there on Friday night) [photo by Doug Gochfeld].
Every bird had a story to tell this weekend - Thursday the 23rd saw a spectacular movement of over 600 Killdeer pass the Hawkwatch Platform and smaller numbers continued over the weekend, bringing with them an assortment of other shorebirds [photo by Lambert Orkis].
Iceland Gulls pass Cape May from time to time, but never seem to hang around. Though they may be regular in small numbers, most occur in late winter or spring, so a late October bird is something to cherish on your list [photo by Alex Lamoreaux]

Another view of the Iceland Gull as it drifted past the Hawkwatch Platform on Saturday. Note the all dark bill and subtle dark markings on the flight feathers and tail [photo by Doug Gochfeld].

Some birds are prone to soaring, others are not. But sometimes, some birds just don't read the books! A Yellow-billed Cuckoo, gaining height over the state park parking lot in late October and heading out over the lighthouse is something that will almost certainly be a once in a lifetime thing, for those of us who were there to witness it [photo by Doug Gochfeld].
And talking of the lighthouse; Cape May birders get great pleasure in photographing their birds with the Cape May lighthouse in shot - so it is only fitting to offer up a Bald Eagle being very obliging over the weekend [photo by Doug Gochfeld].

Here's looking at you kid! Merlins certainly have attitude, and if you can get away with one simply looking at you and not swooping down to part your hair as it races over the Hawkwatch Platform, then you are doing well! [Photo by Doug Gochfeld]
Ducks were high on everyone's list of things to be appreciative of this weekend, as an amazing array of species was waiting to be studied over the weekend. This great flight shot shows what great opportunities came the way of photographers this weekend, as a party of American Wigeon passes the Hawkwatch [photo by Doug Gochfeld].

With so many walks going on at once, there will always be the one that got away - but sometimes, lady luck can be on your side. This American White Pelican made a grand pass over Cape May Point on Saturday and was well received by those who were in the right place at the right time [photo by Doug Gochfeld].

And then there are the falcons... American Kestrels - like this female at the state park - have put on a spectacular show this autumn. Passage often peaks in late September, but there were plenty still passing through over Autumn Weekend [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Cape May's dizzy mix of fall warblers peaks in late September, but even late October offers birds to enjoy and 17 species of warbler were reported over the weekend period. Yellow-rumped Warblers dominated of course, but good numbers of Palm Warbler also passed through - such as this bright yellow, eastern bird [photo by Lambert Orkis].
Late October is the time to start thinking about what the winter might bring, and first indications usually come with the unpredictable arrival of boreal finches. This autumn we are already seeing the start of another big Pine Siskin movement, as increasing numbers head over Higbee Beach or around Cape May Point [photo by Lambert Orkis]. 

Along with the Pine Siskins, we are seeing notably large numbers of Purple Finches passing through. Pretty much anywhere around Cape May in the early morning, you can hear the hollow knocks of these birds as they head south. Alternatively, you can take a walk and look for them along field edges, like this raspberry-colored male at Higbee Beach this weekend [photo by Lambert Orkis].
Whatever the year, kinglets seem always to pass our way, and a run of north-westerlies like we savored this weekend can bring high numbers of them. Golden-crowned Kinglets seem prone to over-shooting and finding these tiny bundles of feathers struggling toward land or hopping along the rock jetties on the barrier islands is not uncommon. That such areas have been stripped bare of habitat is certainly something we should be concerned about as life can be on a knife edge when you weigh just 5 grammes [photo by Doug Gochfeld].
The pace of life in the back bays steps up a notch during October too and a boat trip over Autumn Weekend is a great way to see more than just the familiar land birds. This American Bittern put in a show during one of our weekend trips, giving those on board some great photo opportunities [photo by Lambert Orkis].

As winter lurks around the corner, waterbirds return to Cape May in good number. Brant are flocking to the sounds now and this group of six Horned Grebes was a great bonus for those on weekend boat trips aboard The Osprey [photo by Lambert Orkis].

Everybody will have their stories to tell, their highlights, the 'big one' that got on their list, or maybe the 'one that got away'. Under both headings, I suspect that this Fork-tailed Flycatcher will find itself highly placed. The first in Cape May since a brief fly-by in 2010, this enigmatic bird was around for at least two days, yet was only glimpsed four times - this photo was taken on Sunday morning, when the bird obligingly cruised over the heads of an Autumn Weekend group at The Meadows [photo by Alex Lamoreaux].

A fine memento for the photographer - since this shot was taken as he calmly took tea on the patio at his home in West Cape May on Saturday afternoon - but a slap in the face for those that missed it (sorry folks!), this fine shot of our elusive Fork-tailed Flycatcher will at least ensure that it makes the record books [photo by Jake Cuomo].

And so to bed. As the sun sets on another spectacular Cape May Autumn Weekend, it's time to start looking forward to the next one, and time to ponder on how best to protect a place that can produce 205 species of birds over a single weekend in late October. Weather and geography will conspire to bring birds to Cape May, they don't come by choice. It must therefore be beholden upon us to ensure that sufficient good habitat is available to support these birds as they seek food and shelter, until conditions determine that is is time to carry on their way... [photo by Lambert Orkis].