Friday, January 31, 2014

Week in review: 25 – 31 January, 2014

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 can be emailed to compiler Tom Reed (coturnicops at gmail dot com).


Weather: The period opened with seasonably cool and tranquil conditions 25-26 Jan. Daytime highs fell just short of 50ºF on 27 Jan, but another blast of cold air arrived 28 Jan, accompanied by snow during the 28-29 Jan overnight hours. Snowfall totals in Cape May County generally ranged from 4-7". Bitter cold followed on 29 Jan, with high temps struggling to surpass 20ºF. By sunrise on 30 Jan, temperatures fell to 0ºF or lower in many locations. A gradual warming trend followed, with seasonable and tranquil conditions returning to close out the week.
Birding Summary/Outlook: Observers submitted sightings of 145 species to eBird during the period 25-31 Jan. The best diversity day occurred on 25 Jan, when 107 species were reported. "Bird Of The Week" honors undoubtedly go to the Smith's Longspur discovered at SHPt on 26 Jan-- the second county record, and third state record. Other notable birds included Greater White-fronted Goose, King Eider, Northern Goshawk, Black-headed Gull, Snowy Owl, and Black-capped Chickadee. Given the current snow cover, observers should be on the lookout for sparrows, American Woodcock, and other species that might concentrate in snow-free patches. It's also (believe it or not) not too early to start thinking about spring migration-- the first northbound Northern Pintails are possible anytime now.

Location Abbreviations: CMP (Cape May Point), CMPSP (Cape May Pt. State Park), SHPt (Stone Harbor Point), WCM (West Cape May)

A Greater White-fronted Goose continued on Cape Island through at least 28 Jan (m. ob.). Sightings this week occurred at Lily Lake and at the pond along Shunpike Road, WCM. Two Tundra Swans stopped off at CMPSP 26-27 Jan (m. ob.). There were no reports of Eurasian Wigeon or Blue-winged Teal for the first time this winter. A flock of 8 Canvasbacks flew past CMP 28 Jan (MBr). Several Redheads held on at CMPSP through the week (m. ob.). Nummy Island's two hen King Eiders continued through 30 Jan, usually under or very near the bridge into Stone Harbor, but also near the south bridge on at least one occasion (m. ob.). As might be expected given the cold weather, Red-necked Grebes were noted this week at St. Pete's, CMP 27 Jan (SGl) and Nummy Island 27-28 Jan (SGl, m. ob.). Three American Bitterns were dug up at SHPt 26 Jan (VE, m. ob.). A Northern Goshawk made another appearance at CMPSP 25 Jan, while a Rough-legged Hawk remained at Tuckahoe WMA 27 Jan (SGa). 

[Snowy Owl at CMPSP, 31 Jan. Photo by Mike Pasquarello.]

Western Sandpipers continued to be rather scarce, with this week's only report consisting of a single at SHPt 26 Jan (HT). A Black-legged Kittiwake at Sunset Beach 25 Jan was one of very few seen from shore this winter (GD, SGa). A Lesser Black-backed Gull appeared at CMP 30 Jan (VE), while a Black-headed Gull flew south past Higbee Beach 31 Jan (SGa). Two long-staying Eurasian Collared-Doves remained at CMP, most often in the area of Harvard/Coral/Lincoln Avenues (m. ob.). SHPt continued to host one or two Snowy Owls as of 28 Jan (m. ob.). Additional Snowy Owls were found near Poverty Beach 25-26 Jan (m. ob.), and near the second dune crossover at CMPSP 31 Jan (WC et al.). Short-eared Owls continued to show at Jake's Landing on nicer evenings. Three Short-eareds were a neat find at Nummy Island 28 Jan (JAC), and one was seen at SHPt 30 Jan (BR). 

[Smith's Longspur at SHPt, 30 Jan. Photo by Tom Reed.]
Songbird numbers and diversity took yet another hit this week, though there were some surprises. The Black-capped Chickadee remained at CMP through at least 26 Jan (m. ob.). Cape May County's second Smith's Longspur was a startling find at SHPt 26 Jan (HT). It was re-found 29 Jan (MBi, WK), and continued through 31 Jan (m. ob.). As many as four Lapland Longspurs and multiple Snow Buntings were also encountered at SHPt this week (m. ob.). Orange-crowned Warbler went unreported; a Palm Warbler lingered at Jake's Landing 26 Jan (SGa). A Vesper Sparrow and an American Tree Sparrow were noted on private property at WCM 25 Jan (MP). An impressive 50 "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrows covered the dunes at SHPt 30 Jan (RC, TR). Fox Sparrows also piled up during the cold weather. At least 29 foraged on the CMPSP lawn 25 Jan (TJ), while 54 were tallied throughout CMP the same day (SGa). Purple Finch remained largely absent, with most reports entailing single birds at backyard feeders, such as one at WCM 26 Jan (MG). 


Jim Austin-Cole (JAC), Mike Bisignano (MBi), Michael Britt (MBr), Warren Cairo (WC), Richard Crossley (RC), Glen Davis (GD), Vince Elia (VE), Sam Galick (SGa), Steven Glynn (SGl), Mark Garland (MG), Tom Johnson (TJ), Will Kerling (WK), Mike Pasquarello (MP), Tom Reed (TR), Brandon Reo (BR), Harvey Tomlinson (HT)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Smith's Longspur re-materializes!

After a fraught few days in which Stone Harbor Point was scoured with a fine tooth comb, Harvey Tomlinson's awesome discovery of a Smith's Longspur on Sunday morning has been shared with a few more lucky observers. Mike Bisignano was (for some reason best-known to himself given the hideous cold out there!) padding the dunes of Stone Harbor again today and came across the longspur, right in the area that had received so much attention over the past few days. Will Kerling also independently relocated the bird and did sterling work in quickly getting the message out.

What the movements of this bird have been over the past few days will remain a mystery, but today it performed superbly, feeding with a small group of Savannah Sparrows just a little south of the dredge lagoon, in the first section of sand dune. This constitutes only the third record of this species in New Jersey, previous birds having been at the South Cape May Meadows on 19-23 April 1991 and at Island Beach State Park, Ocean County on 18-24 October 1995. Typically, Smith's Longspurs winter in the Mississippi Basin, from eastern Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to western Louisiana and Arkansas. The population moves north in spring through the central flyway to breed in the high Arctic, from Hudson Bay to eastern Alaska. While identification of adult males in breeding plumage is pretty straightforward, a non-breeding, non-descript bird such as ours falls well into the category of a 'Birder's Bird'. What do I mean by that? Well, simply, that you have to be pretty deeply into birds to get any sort of a buzz out of such an unassuming-looking 'little brown job'! But for many people, that's where the challenge lies and is often what really captivates people - the personal challenge of sorting out just what it is. So let's work through the Stone Harbor Point bird and see what we can come up with.

Smith's Longspur at Stone Harbor Point today. Note the short-legged, rather heavy and barrel-shaped look of the bird. Smith's Longspur is narrower-billed and longer-tailed than the other longspurs and a much chunkier looking species [photo by Mike Crewe].

When confronted with a small songbird that is overall brown and streaky, a few groups quickly come to mind - pipits, larks, sparrows and perhaps some of the grosbeaks and finches. To help reduce the choices, behavior is a useful starting point; obviously this is not readily apparent in a photograph, so it's best to take notes at the time - or perhaps use video. This bird had distinctly short legs and used a shuffling, walking gait with its body close to the ground. It also spent the entire time that it was under observation feeding on the ground - it never even climbed a grass stem. The short legs rule out pipits and all of the North American sparrows, while the walking gait rules out the finches - which hop (as do House Sparrows). Spending all of its time on the ground would likely rule out the grosbeaks too, which can further be eliminated by our bird's relatively thin bill. I was certainly struck by the overall lark-like appearance of this bird, but some very subtle differences can be used to eliminate them too - coupled with the fact that all but one species of lark are Old World species (but you shouldn't limit the possibilities too much!). Most species of lark (like pipits) have very long tertials which almost completely cover the primary flight feathers when the bird is at rest and our bird's primaries are readily visible here. Larks also have heavier bills than our bird's, while the only likely species - Horned Lark - has a very different head pattern.

So what are we left with? A quick flick through the field guide should leave you staring thoughtfully at the longspurs and we can confirm this deduction by the behavior and by noting the long hindclaw (the 'longspur'), the pale ear coverts with dark surround and the appearance of two pale 'braces' or 'tramlines' down the back. Without too much effort, we have narrowed a seemingly impossible bird down to a choice of just four species. In reality, we can now name this bird to species based purely on the tail pattern (see below) but let's just complete the process a little more as we are feeling proud of ourselves and want to take it a step further. We can identify this bird as a Smith's Longspur by the amount of white in the tail, which is extensive on the outer two pairs of feathers but absent from the other tail feathers. Lapland Longspur would have less white than this, while McCown's and Chestnut-collared would show a lot more. The even-toned, buffy wash to the entire underparts also supports our identification, as does the realtively fine bill and the fine streaks on the flanks.

Note the pattern of white with narrow dark streaks in the outer two tail feathers. In this close-up, note also the irregular spacing of the primary tips - a feature shown well in the Sibley Guide and worth comparing with the photo here [photo by Mike Crewe].

So it is a Smith's, what next? Well let's look at telling the age and sex of the bird. This is where we get into difficult territory as such things are so much easier if we are banders and have the bird in the hand, but with the power of modern digital photography, we can do it. In January we know we are not looking at a breeding-plumaged male, so we have to work through the process methodically. With most birds, it is best to age the bird first and we can do this in two ways with the pictures we have here. The shape of the tips of the outer three pairs of tail feathers, and the shape of the tips of the outer greater primary coverts lead us to identify this as an adult bird (i.e. hatched before last summer). If it were a younger bird, these feathers would be subtly narrower and have even more pointed tips. There's no substitute for experience here, but delving into the murky depths of the pages of Peter Pyle's wonderfully complicated Identification Guide to North American Birds (available now from the Northwood Center folks!) will show you some nice illustrations of the differences. With longspurs, it's a little tougher than many other groups of songbirds as the tail feathers are rather narrow at all ages.

When a bird flies off just as you press the shutter, it leaves you with a blurry image, but there is still often something to be gleaned. Here, it is possible to see the relatively rounded tips to the primary coverts (the feathers that cover the bases of the primary flight feathers) [photo by Mike Crewe].

Now that we know that we have an adult bird we can look at some other subtle features to determine the sex of the bird. Time to look at the Median Coverts - the row of small, pale-tipped feathers that form the upper (= nearest the head when at rest) wing bar. Clearly these are buffy-tipped and contrast with the much whiter tips to the greater coverts. Pyle tells us that this makes it a female, since even first-winter males have whitish tips and edges to these feathers. Though not visible in the photos that I managed to get here, photos by other birders showed quite extensive amounts of white on the lesser wing coverts, further confirming the bird as an adult female.

Time for a pat on the back, a smug look and a trip to the Cape May Brewery!

Smith's Longspur at Stone Harbor today - let's hope it hangs on into the weekend [photo by Mike Crewe].

A relationship that could never last...

The long-standing relationship between birds and humans has always been a difficult one but where we can, we do our best for the little guys. Sadly, industrial strength, metropolitan areas are not for the faint-hearted and perhaps never more so than at airports.

Many of you will no doubt be following the great work of those involved in Project Snowstorm, a group dedicated to researching the current remarkable phenomenon of Snowy Owls in the eastern USA. One of the most important parts of the project has been the tracking of birds carrying satellite-tracked GPS tags, the data from which is giving us a great insight into the movements of some of these birds. One such bird, named "Philly" by the researchers has been doggedly sticking it out at Philadelphia Airport and the sad - but seemingly almost inevitable - news of Philly's demise at the hands of a cargo plane was posted this morning. The full story, posted by Scott Weidensaul, can be read here.

Of course, such accidents are an inevitable part of life and all we can do is try to look out for those around us - and that means the wildlife we share the planet with as well as fellow humans. My drive to work this morning involved something of an obstacle course as I did my best to avoid the flocks of sparrows feeding on the roads. Why do they perform such a dangerous act? Well, most likely, the cleared surface of a road on such a snowy, wintry day as we have today is one of the few places that they can find food, and perhaps water if there is a thaw on a salted section of road.

Life is tough enough out there right now, let's not make it any worse.

Philly in his favorite place at the end of runway 27R. His GPS pack can just be seen on his back in the lower picture [photos by Shari Rosenbloom ]

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Alan Brady - Birder, supporter and all round good guy

It is very sad to report that Alan Brady, staunch Cape May and CMBO supporter, fellow birder and friend passed away peacefully this month. The following obituary has been sent to me:

Alan Brady at his Cape May Point home in 2007 [photo courtesy of Rick Radis].

Long-time Newtown business owner and Wycombe resident Alan Brady passed away peacefully at his home on Jan. 21. He was 93. A former owner of the Newtown business stalwart, The Cameracraft Shop, Brady was also well-known for his prodigious knowledge of birds and his worldwide forays in service of his hobby. Brady authored a book on birding, "Atlantic Seabird Photo Journal," in 2009. He was the husband of Elizabeth Hill Brady, who predeceased him.

Born in Philadelphia, Brady was the son of Edna and Charlie Brady. He was an Order of the Arrow Eagle Scout. His interest in birding first took hold at Treasure Island, the scouting island in the Delaware River at Lumberville, PA. For three quarters of a century, Brady was a member of many birding organizations, including Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Bucks County Birders, and the Cape May Bird Observatory. He was president of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club from 1964-1965, where he earned the Club's highest honors. Brady won the World Series of Birding twice, once in 1984, and again in 1985 with a group of great friends and fellow birders. He also organized pelagic trips to the Hudson Canyon in the Atlantic Ocean.

Brady traveled the world in pursuit of his hobby, at times under challenging conditions. He worked as a flight engineer in World War II on PBM seaplanes, recruited because of abilities he mastered working for Pan Am on the China Clipper. He also worked as a master mechanic servicing Army airplanes as a civilian.

Brady opened The Cameracraft Shop in Newtown in 1949. The photography and art supplies shop grew into a thriving family business, and often served as the hub of commercial activity in the Borough. Brady also served at one time as president of the Newtown Business Association.

He married Elizabeth Hill in 1946, and was her husband for 60 years until her death in 2006.

Brady is survived by his two daughters, Susan Hunter, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Sally Brady of Rollinsville, Colorado; a son, David Brady, of Holland, PA; as well as a granddaughter, Aimée Brady; a grandson, James Brady; and great-grandson Connor Brady, all of Wycombe. He was also grandfather to the late Andrew Alan Brady of Richboro, PA.

Services will be held on Saturday, Feb. 1, at Honey Hollow Nature Center at 2877 Creamery rd. in New Hope, PA, at 12 noon. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to the Peace Valley Nature Center.
Peace Valley Nature Center
170 Chapman Rd.
Doylestown, Pa. 18901
phone 215-345-7860

Alan's great birding passion was for seabirds, so I offer up this photo of a wonderful Shy Albatross, in the hope that Alan's spirit continues to follow these spectacular birds around the World's southern oceans. Long may they be free [photo by Mike Crewe]

Monday, January 27, 2014

Of longspurs, ducks and other wintery things

The icey spell that grips us here in Cape May looks set to last a couple more days yet, but the temperature did actually poke its nose above the freezing mark over the last 24 hours so hope springs eternal. I have to admit to being someone who loves the heat, but one who fades readily in the cold - heat can be hard to take, but cold hurts!! Despite my unwillingness to head out into the cold, other crazy folk seem to lap it up, which means I have to go out, if only to keep on top of what is happening in the natural world.

So what is the buzz around Cape May right now? Well the big news is the discovery of a Smith's Longspur at Stone Harbor Point on Sunday morning. Kudos to Harvey Tomlinson for spotting the little brown streaky thing that looked decidedly odd and worthy of further attention. Despite much searching by a veritable army of New Jersey birders, this third state occurence has not been refound - but we all remain optimistic that we may yet refind it. Not so very long ago, a single-observer report of a bird such as this would have been a tricky thing to deal with. Did the observer make a mistake? Was it really a Smith's Longspur - a bird that should, by rights, be wintering in the lower Mississippi area? Being skeptical is understandable but - thankfully for the lone birdwatcher - modern technology springs to our aid. Harvey got some great photos of the bird (we hope to have some soon) and texted images to a number of other birders to get their opinions. This was done by using a phone to take a photo of the image on the screen of the camera - clever stuff!

While a Smith's Longspur would have been a great reward for padding up and down Stone Harbor Point many times on Sunday, there was some recompense for other birders as up to four Lapland Longspurs (a much prettier species, honest!), two or three American Bitterns and a whole flock of Ipswich Sparrows were there to be enjoyed.

The cold weather has had a major effect on waterbird movements - and a quick look at the Delaware Bay will soon reveal why! The bay looks like the Arctic at the moment, with piles of ice building up along the pressure ridges and creating landscapes suitable for Polar Bears... The barrier islands look pretty bleak at the moment too, but careful checking around the inlets and backwaters should reveal a few open patches water and here, the duck gatherings can be truly spectacular. For a real feast, take a drive over to Townsend's Inlet at the north end of Avalon and enjoy the wonderful sight of hundreds, if not thousands, of ducks gathered below the rocky jetties. For me, it is the sound more than the sight that is so captivating, as the haunting whistles of courting male Black Scoters drift across the water.

The cold spell looks set to break in another 48 hours, so it's well worth getting ready to head out again and see what is happening out there. With a couple of Red-necked Grebes reported today - at Nummy's Island (Grassy Sound Toll Bridge) and Cape May Point - and with unusually high numbers of Fox Sparrows in the area at the moment (Tom Johnson counted at least 29 at the state park entrance area on 25th for example) there's sure to be something interesting going on...

The high Arctic? No, the concrete ship! At the lower end of the Delaware Bay, tidal movements keep ice from building up, but spray from the waves on windy days coats everything in a layer of solid ice [photo by Mike Crewe]. 

Further up the bay, the main ebb and flow of tidal movements can be interrupted by quiet backwaters that calm the water action. Here at Reeds Beach, pack ice builds up along pressure ridges, creating a startling landscape, several miles out into the bay [photo by Mike Crewe]

Where waters stay open - as here at Townsend's Inlet, Avalon - ducks build up in great numbers. A single shot simply can't capture the amazing numbers of ducks sheltering in Cape May's inlets right now; here, Black and Surf Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks and Greater and Lesser Scaups huddle together, along with attendant American Herring Gulls [photo by Mike Crewe].

Life is on a knife edge right now for diving ducks such as these Hooded Mergansers, as their food supply is hidden under the ice and they concentrate together on the few remaining bodies of water. Fortunately, enlightened communities halt hunting during such difficult times, to allow waterfowl numbers to survive sustainably [photo by Mike Crewe].

And difficult times for wildfowl they are indeed; our local pair of Bald Eagles down at the point never miss a trick and soon made a meal of a Canada Goose that succumbed on Lake Lily during the night [photo by Mike Crewe].

Though the Smith's Longspur escaped the admiration of most of us in Cape May, there was much to enjoy at Stone Harbor on Sunday. This suitably frosty-looking little bird is an Ipswich Sparrow, a scarce race of Savannah Sparrow whose entire world breeding range consists of sandy, coastal habitats on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Despite its scarcity, it is usually possible to find two or three of these birds at Stone Harbor Point during the winter - but the 20 or so birds present there right now represent an impressively high total [photo by Mike Crewe].

When the ground is this cold it's probably best to touch it as little as possible! A female Lapland Longspur tip-toes across the Stone Harbor sands [photo by Mike Crewe].

Streaky little brown jobs may not be everyone's idea of the perfect bird, but for me they truly are the epitome of the wonders of evolution. This male Lapland Longspur mirrors perfectly the subtle colors of a winter beach in Cape May [photo by Mike Crewe].

Staring out over a frozen Lake Lily, under a numbingly cold winter sunset, I simply can't imagine what it must be like to curl up and go to sleep on solid ice. Canada Geese, Mallards and the prospect of another 24 hours of sub-freezing temperatures [photo by Mike Crewe].

Staring out over the Delaware Bay pack ice, for once I took the locals' advice!!! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cold Waterbird Magic!!

Waking up in my warm bed the first thing I do is look at the current weather conditions. Oh great, 12 degrees, winds out of the NW 20-30 MPH, and snow still on the roads... Why the heck would anyone want to get out of bed and go birding in that?! That's the constant battle in my mind this time of the year; every single morning. But thoughts of warm Wawa coffee and chicken noodle soup (for breakfast?!) come seeping into my mind.

In Rio Grande, jumping out of the car at Wawa in the early morning usually means Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, Fish Crows, European Starlings, Boat-tailed Grackles, and House Sparrows. Alright, it's a start, but let's get out of the center of town. It's awful windy out so passerines are out of the question....

So what is this long-winded daily life coming to? Waterbirds of course! This kind of weather bring dreams of duck flocks forced out from freezing water to points further south, usually to Cape May but even here many of the marsh creeks are locked up solid. That leaves sounds in the The Great Marsh that are a bit deeper and with enough wind action to keep them open. Stone Harbor and Avalon are the classic go-tos to get your fill of what winter waterbirds in Cape May have to offer. If you couple it with a bright clear sunny day, you can't go wrong! Let's start at the Avalon Seawatch- largest body of open water!

Black Scoter

Black Scoters can be heard whistling their downward courtship calls 
far from the ocean on the right day in Cape May; the flock of 800+ Black Scoters 
at the Avalon Seawatch was an endless chorus of them! Many scoters were seemingly paired up.
[photo by Sam Galick]

Long-tailed Ducks

Long-tailed Ducks were in great attendance, and aside from the whistling 
Black Scoters, the Long-tailed Ducks were the only other thing to be heard wailing their heads off.
[photo by Sam Galick]


The afternoon light is a pure delight... an immature Herring Gull 
decided to have a go at one of the Black Scoters, sending the whole flock into panic!
[photo by Sam Galick]

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loons can also be heard late in the winter here; another wailing creature of the ocean!
[photo by Sam Galick]

Greater & a Lesser Scaup
Greater Scaups have infiltrated our area lately from the cold temperatures and 
being locked out of previously open water. In this group though, something looks a bit different...
Can you pick out the Lesser?
[photo by Sam Galick]

Red-breasted Merganser
Around the corner, Avalon Manor was another hotspot of bird activity 
this afternoon, although this Red-breasted Merganser probably wasn't feeling so hot. 
Birds rely on their feathery down to stay warm, especially waterbirds. Matted feathers from 
oil, 12 degree nights, and winds gusting to 25-30 MPH for a duck is not a good combination.
[photo by Sam Galick]

Harbor Seal 
Waterbirds aren't the only thing to look out for from the Avalon Seawatch- this Harbor Seal was trying it's best to get some morning low-angle vitamin D from the sun.
[photo by Sam Galick]

Harsh temperatures and frigid winds are a hardship for some and an opportunity 
for others. This was one of several Dunlin that met their fate at Stone Harbor this morning.
[photo by Sam Galick]

Week in review: 18 – 24 January, 2014

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: CMP (town of Cape May Point), CMPSP (Cape May Point State Park).

Weather: The period started with the passage of a cold front that brought temperatures down throughout the day 18 Jan. Temps rebounded into the 40s on 19-20 Jan, courtesy of a moderating SW flow. The arrival of arctic air 21 Jan was accompanied by a coastal storm that dumped upwards of a foot of snow just north of Cape May. However, snowfall amounts in the county generally ranged from 0.5-2.0". Bitter cold followed this storm, and temperatures failed to surpass 25ºF through the rest of the period.

Birding Summary/Outlook: Observers submitted sightings of 159 species to eBird during the period 18-24 Jan. The highest diversity day occurred on 19 Jan, when 136 species were reported. Notable birds seen during the past week included Greater White-fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, King Eider, Northern Goshawk, Spotted Sandpiper, Little Gull, White-winged Dove, and Black-capped Chickadee. Long-term forecasts suggest that very cold weather will continue into next week. Observers should again be on the lookout for species that might arrive from points north-- including Common Merganser and other generally scarce waterfowl, Red-necked Grebe, Rough-legged Hawk, white-winged gulls, American Tree Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and others.

A Greater White-fronted Goose continued on Cape Island through at least 22 Jan (m. ob.). Sightings this week occurred at Lily Lake and at the pond along Shunpike Road in West Cape May. A Cackling Goose was discovered at Lily Lake 22 Jan (CV) and was seen at the pond along Shunpike Rd 23 Jan. At least two drake Eurasian Wigeons continued at CMPSP through at least 19 Jan (m. ob.), and a drake Blue-winged Teal was last seen at Lily Lake 23 Jan (MP). As many as 20 Redheads persisted at Cox Hall Creek WMA until at least 20 Jan (m. ob.). Nummy Island's two hen King Eiders continued through 24 Jan (m. ob.), almost always under or very near the bridge into Stone Harbor. The aforementioned immature Northern Goshawk made another appearance at CMPSP 21 Jan (TJ). A Rough-legged Hawk was noted during CMBO's winter raptor survey at Tuckahoe WMA 18 Jan (BR, CM). 

[King Eiders at Nummy Island, 20 Jan. Photo by Jacob Cuomo.]

Single Semipalmated Plovers were noted at Miami Ave, Villas 18 Jan (VK, TMi) and at Avalon Manor 24 Jan (SG). A Spotted Sandpiper surprised observers at the Route 47 bridge over Bidwell Creek 20 Jan (MW, DW). A Razorbill, possibly injured, was near Avalon's 8th Street jetty 19 Jan (BA et al.). An adult Little Gull was noted flying south past Sunset Beach 19 Jan (SKa, BH). A nice sum of 85 Forster's Terns were feeding offshore CMP 19 Jan (MO'B). A White-winged Dove continued at CMP near 113 Harvard Avenue until 18 Jan (m. ob.); later sightings are requested. Two long-staying Eurasian Collared-Doves also remained in the same area (m. ob.). Stone Harbor Point continued to host one or two Snowy Owls, with the latest report 23 Jan (m. ob.). Another Snowy Owl was found on a rooftop along Beach Avenue, Cape May 20 Jan (RC). Short-eared Owls continue to be seen at Jake's Landing on calmer evenings.

[Snowy Owl at Cape May City, 20 Jan. Photo by Mike Pasquarello.]

As winter wears on, reports of songbirds continue to decrease. Cape May County's fourth Black-capped Chickadee continued at CMP through 22 Jan (m. ob.). Approximately 40-50 Snow Buntings continued to take up residence at Stone Harbor Point all week (m. ob.). At least one Orange-crowned Warbler lingered at CMPSP through 22 Jan (m. ob.); a Palm Warbler was last reported there 20 Jan (DW, MS). American Tree Sparrows were noted at several locations this week.

Bob Allen, Richard Crossley, Jacob Cuomo, Sam Galick, Mark Garland, Brian Henderson, Tom Johnson, Steve Kacir, Vincent Koczurik, Christina Marks, Thomas Mistele, Michael O'Brien, Mike Pasquarello, Bill Roache, Maria Smith, Christopher Vogel, David Weber, Debbi Webster, Matt Webster.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


OK, I feel like I've been made to eat my words, since suggesting a list of places to go birding in the cold is surely not the best idea when it's this cold! This morning my trusty farmer's thermometer told me that it was a startling 6F outside. Really? Just how cold is that? Well for those of you using new money, that's -14C - it never got that cold anywhere I ever lived before! And according to the weather websites, the wind chill factor was making it feel like -9F (-23C). OK, I know folks in Canada and Alaska would be just about thinking of putting a jacket on in that temperature but it's all relative and Cape May is not that used to temperatures like this.

So my adjusted advice to you - give the great outdoors a miss for now, catch up on your field notes, update your life list, surf the web for some great summer holiday ideas (dare I mention the choice of NJA Eco-tours here?!) or just dream of great days in the field to come. Above all though, don't forget the little guys outside. If you regularly feed your yard birds, now is not a good time to forget about them, so be sure to keep a supply of food going out there. Just as importantly, remember that there will be no natural water for birds to drink while this cold spell lasts, so if you can supply some water, even just for short spells, it can be a life saver. If I am at Northwood and can do it, I'll pour a fresh kettle full of warm water into a bird bath several times a day to keep the birds going. Remember not to use hot water though!

Of course, if it's not so cold where you are, you are probably wondering what all the fuss about!

The Northwood Center is closed on Wednesdays during the winter, but we shall be open all other days, weather permitting. If you make it down to the point, do come in and see us, tell us what you've seen, find out what's about - or come and treat yourself to something in the store. Now, about that new scope I've been promising myself...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Cold, cold, cold - and more to come...

It's been pretty chilly here lately and the forecast is promising more to come but, so long as the roads remain clear, there's no reason not to be out birding. Just remember to keep wrapped up in a lot of layers and always know just how many minutes away the next supply of hot tea or coffee is (maybe we should mark that on our bird maps!!).

So what to do, where to go when the weather is like this. Well, winter is mostly about raptors and ducks, two groups of birds that spend the colder months in good numbers with us here at Cape May. As we head toward February, seaducks are really starting to get into their courtship behavior now, so the inlets between the barrier islands are great places to spend some time. Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks are really getting into full swing now and the latter should be magnificent around the time of our Longtails in Love program, which we always set around the nearest weekend to Valentine's Day (see, we're all heart!). Many species of ducks pair up during the winter and, because of this, the drakes look at their best at this time of year. For me, two of the very best sounds of the entire year are the caterwauling of male Long-tailed Ducks and the long, drawn out and slightly forlorn whistles of Black Scoter, noises that really make a winter's day on the coast.

As long as the local lakes stay ice free, ducks that favor freshwater areas can be fun to watch in winter too. Many of these ducks are also in their very best finery now and there will be much whistling as well as pushing and shoving among the American Wigeon hordes. If you are watching groups of ducks at this time of year, look for the different feeding strategies that they employ. Diving ducks such as Ring-necked Ducks and Redheads dive below the surface to bring up weed to eat, while habitual 'thieves' such as American Wigeon and Gadwall will steal morsels away from the diving ducks once they bring food to the surface. In contrast, Northern Shovelers perform an amazing ballet as pairs, or sometimes small groups, circle around each other, each bird filtering through the food-rich water that is kicked up by the feet of the other bird.

So now you are out of the house, wrapped up warm and you've had a great time watching ducks. As the sun sinks lower in the sky, it's time to head to the backbay saltmarshes, for it is now that wintering raptors will be starting to gather before going to roost. Many species of raptor have the habit of roosting communally; this may partly be because good, safe roost sites are at a premium and it may partly be because there is safety in numbers. If you are birding the Cape May area, use our online bird map to identify locations around the saltmarsh where there are good watchpoints - or head for similar places closer to home if you are not in our area. Be there an hour before the posted sunset time and just scan carefully and see what happens. Sometimes it can be quiet, but other times, the birds will amaze you. This past weekend saw the first count of our annual wintering raptor survey and early results suggest that it is a good year locally for Northern Harriers, and the best year for some time for Short-eared Owls. On Sunday evening, one of my sweeps of the backbay marshes produced 15 Northern Harriers, five Bald Eagles and three Short-eared Owls all in flight, with two Red-tailed Hawks perched neraby too. All of this is an encouraging sign since so many raptors suggests a healthy environment rich in prey and perhaps indicates that small mammal populations have recovered well after the crash in their numbers caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Seaducks are gathering around the inlets now and there's much activity as courting comes into full swing [photo by Mike Crewe].

Shining like dayglow beacons, the orange snout of a male Black Scoter can't be missed and makes this a really eye-catching duck - despite the very plain plumage [photo by Mike Crewe].

In contrast to Black Scoter, sadly I have to say that White-winged Scoter comes across to me as the most tedious duck in the world - and that's from someone who likes ducks! If you can get one to fly in and land next to you though, you do at least get to see that nice white wing patch! Note that White-winged Scoter has the white at the back of the wing, not as a bar in the middle of the wing like many other ducks [photo by Mike Crewe].

Though Redhead is a common wintering species in North America, it is regular but scarce in Cape May, with a sighting of three together being noteworthy. This year, however, we have been graced with a nice gathering of these smart birds and the picture shows part of a flock of 18 (12 males) on the main lake at Cox Hall Creek WMA in Villas. Note the female American Wigeon, bottom right, pinching weed from the male Redhead! [Photo by Mike Crewe] 

Of course, if you are out and about in the area this winter, you have the added bonus of the chance of a Snowy Owl when you least expect it. It seems that the Snowy invasion has settled down a little now and those with wanderlust have moved on, while those that are left are settling into regular routines and maintaining winter feeding territories. Some of these birds are resorting to roof sitting - the bird above has become a regular in the streets at the south end of Stone Harbor for some weeks now, while a rather elusive bird pops up periodically around the streets of Cape May City. Next time you see one of those plastic owls atop a building on the barrier islands - give it a second look.....

.....because it might be looking back at you!! Do please remember to give these birds a bit of space though. A quick photo taken from your car, and the bird still sat there after you drive away is a good sign. We're still getting all too many reports of birds on the beaches being pushed from pillar to post. Just remember, you might be the 20th person that has enjoyed that bird today. At least in the picture here, you can see that this guy has had a good meal lately! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

The very best way to round off a day in the field in winter - the pastel pink and purple shades of a watery winter sunset, set off by the sinister silhouettes of a pair of Great Horned Owls. Don't forget that the Cumberland Eagle Festival comes around again on February 8th and we shall be out there lining up the birds in the scopes for you - and traditionally, we often finish with Great Horned Owls at Turkey Point... [photo by Mike Crewe]

Friday, January 17, 2014

Week in review: 11 – 17 January, 2014

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: CMP (town of Cape May Point), CMPSP (Cape May Point State Park).

Weather: The week began with strong southerly winds that resulted in very mild and foggy conditions (60ºF on 11 Jan). These conditions were quickly ushered away by a cold front that produced sunny skies and a brisk westerly breeze 12 Jan. Winds shifted to the south again 13 Jan with continued sunny skies, though overcast conditions eventually took over by early morning 14 Jan. A light onshore flow developed by 15 Jan, coupled with very foggy conditions that continued for the better part of 24 hours. Another weak frontal passage resulted in light NW winds during 16 Jan, with stubborn overcast hanging on for most of the day. Southerly winds closed out the period, as temperatures reached nearly 50ºF on 17 Jan with ample sunshine.

Birding Summary/Outlook: Observers submitted sightings of 157 species to eBird during the period 11-17 Jan. The highest diversity day occurred on 15 Jan, when 127 species were reported. Notable birds during the past week included Greater White-fronted Goose, King Eider, Northern Goshawk, Yellow Rail, Long-billed Dowitcher, Black-headed Gull, White-winged Dove, Snowy Owl, Black-capped Chickadee, and Painted Bunting. Long-term forecasts suggest that another episode of very cold weather will arrive next week. Observers should again be on the lookout for species that might arrive from points north-- including Common Merganser and other generally scarce waterfowl, Red-necked Grebe, Rough-legged Hawk, white-winged gulls, American Tree Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and others.

A Greater White-fronted Goose was discovered in the Beanery fields along Bayshore Road 11 Jan, and was seen again 17 Jan (TB, VE, m. ob.). At least one drake Eurasian Wigeon continued at CMPSP through 17 Jan (MG, m. ob.), and a drake Blue-winged Teal also continued there through 17 Jan (KL, m. ob.). A nice tally of 16 Redheads was obtained at Cox Hall Creek WMA 12 Jan (KH, RH et al.), and 17 were reported there 14 Jan (WC). Nummy Island's two hen King Eiders continued through 17 Jan (m. ob.), almost always under or very near the bridge into Stone Harbor. Single Common Mergansers were noted at High's Beach 13 Jan (WK) and at Champlain Drive, Villas 14 Jan (WC). A stealthy immature Northern Goshawk made another appearance at CMPSP 17 Jan (MP). 

[Greater White-fronted Goose at the Beanery, 11 Jan. Photo by Michael O'Brien.]
A Yellow Rail was a wonderful find in the marsh along Bay Avenue near Corson's Inlet State Park 17 Jan (MW et al.). Four Semipalmated Plovers were roosting atop Avalon's 8th Street jetty 14-15 Jan (MP). A Long-billed Dowitcher continued along Cox Hall Creek where it meets Clubhouse Drive in Townbank, with sightings through 15 Jan (JD, m. ob.). A Razorbill was seen on Delaware Bay during a ferry crossing 11 Jan (CH, TR). Another Razorbill flew north past Sunset Beach 12 Jan (CH). An adult Black-headed Gull was seen on the flats near Miami Avenue, Villas 13 Jan and continued through 17 Jan (CV, m. ob.). This is potentially the same individual seen in this area during mid-Nov. A small flock of Forster's Terns persisted along the lower Delaware Bayshore, most often seen in the area of Miami Avenue and Norbury's Landing (m. ob.). 

A White-winged Dove continued at CMP near 113 Harvard Avenue through 17 Jan (m. ob.). Two long-staying Eurasian Collared-Doves also remained in the same area (m. ob.). Stone Harbor Point continued to host one or two Snowy Owls, with the latest report 17 Jan (m. ob.). Snowy Owls were also noted at the north end of Ocean City 14 Jan (NL) and at 2nd Avenue, Cape May 16 Jan (m. ob.). A Barn Owl made its presence known over Reed's Beach 14 Jan (TR). Short-eared Owls have become a regular sight at Jake's Landing during recent evenings, with a maximum of 4 on 15 Jan (MO'B). Another Short-eared Owl was seen at the Magnesite Plant 12 Jan (MP). Single American Kestrels were noted along Route 47 in Goshen 17 Jan (TR), Route 9 in Ocean View 17 Jan (MW et al.), North Wildwood Boulevard 16 Jan (TR), and Stevens Street/Bayshore Road in West Cape May on several dates (m. ob.). As many as 8 Merlins continued to be found most evenings in the area of the Magnesite Plant along Sunset Boulevard (m. ob.). Eastern Phoebes survived at Cresse Lane, Erma through 12 Jan (WC, CB), High's Beach through 15 Jan (WK), and CMPSP through 17 Jan (MP).

[Snowy Owl at Cape May, 16 Jan. Photo by Michael O'Brien.

[Short-eared Owl at the Magnesite Plant, 12 Jan. Photo by Mike Pasquarello.]

Tree Swallow was last reported at West Cape May 12 Jan (MO'B et al.). Cape May County's fourth Black-capped Chickadee continued to visit a feeder at 102 Lincoln Avenue, CMP through 17 Jan (m. ob.). Approximately 50 Snow Buntings continued to take up residence at Stone Harbor Point all week (m. ob.). At least one Orange-crowned Warbler lingered at CMPSP through 17 Jan (m. ob.), while two Palm Warblers continued at the end of Jake's Landing Road through 17 Jan (m. ob.). An American Tree Sparrow was seen along Bunker Pond at CMPSP 15 and 17 Jan (MP et al.). Another Tree Sparrow was photographed at Del Haven 17 Jan (HT).  A Vesper Sparrow was a nice surprise at CMPSP 13 Jan (KL).  CMP's Painted Bunting was last reported in the dunes at Coral Avenue 15 Jan (m. ob.).

Tom Baxter, Claudia Burns, Warren Cairo, Jim Dowdell, Vince Elia, Mark Garland, Chris Hajduk, Kathy Horn, Roger Horn, Will Kerling, Nancy Larrabee, Karl Lukens, Christina Marks, Michael O'Brien, Mike Pasquarello, Tom Reed, Harvey Tomlinson, Christopher Vogel, Matt Webster. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Keeping Snowies in our sights

It's been a very odd winter for weather so far, as we roller-coaster from almost balmy temperatures in the mid-fifties to the dark depths of the so-called 'polar vortex' that has periodically been calving pulses of Arctic weather in our direction. Despite this variation, one constant that continues in the birding news is the presence of Snowy Owls in large numbers in northern and eastern USA. A quick look at reports for January in eBird reveals that the vast majority of birds are focused in a curve along the southern side of the Great Lakes and along the St Lawrence corridor through Montreal and Quebec. A second band of birds shows up in the coastal plain from Maine to Virginia. Outliers still hang on in Newfoundland (though most seem to have moved on from there after the heady days of counts of over 300) while a record-breaking female has become the first ever to be recorded in Florida.

You can keep abreast of some of the exciting stories that are being generated by this phenomenon by checking the Project Snowstorm website at For those readers living more or less locally to Cape May, you might like to check stories on birds that have been satellite tracked in our area - especially 'Assateague' who I mentioned in an earlier post, and now Philly, who seems set on returning to Philadelphia Airport, having been hauled 40 miles away for his own good!

Around Cape May, Snowy Owls have been a little less obvious of late and at least some of our birds seem to have moved on elsewhere. However, I was pleased to have an opportunity to enjoy one of two seen at Stone Harbor last weekend and, interestingly, to finally get some firsthand proof of what the birds have been eating. We discovered a bird in the seafront dunes and soon realized that it had prey. This was the first time I had seen a Snowy with a meal and close inspection of a few hastily-taken photos revealed that the bird was eating a Black Duck. Studying movements of satellite tracked Snowies on Project Snowstorm reveals that birds have been making regular sorties offshore during the night and it was suggested that such birds may well be hunting ducks that were sleeping on the coastal waters of the bay. The sight of a bird with a Black Duck at Stone Harbor clearly supports this idea.

Snowy Owls are pretty sizable birds but, like most owls, they consist mostly of a thick layer of feathers and these birds are surprisingly small and light when you get them in the hand. Though they are fierce hunters, it is clearly a very risky business for any owl to lift a bird as chunky as a duck clear of the water without putting itself at risk of drowning. These truly are amazing creatures.

Male Snowy Owl on the seafront near 117th Street in Stone Harbor - note the blackish blob by its feet... [photo by Mike Crewe]

Some heavy cropping in photoshop and zooming in on a distant flight shot reveals that this Snowy Owl has a Black Duck. Note the chocolate brown body feathers, orange feet and the pale underside to the wing, sticking out to the right. Notice that the wing base has already been stripped to the bone; this area of the prey item holds the flight muscles which offers the most food for the owl and is probably most often the part of the bird that is eaten first [photo by Mike Crewe].

Friday, January 10, 2014

Week in review: 4 – 10 January, 2014

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: CMP (town of Cape May Point), Tuckahoe (Cape May Co. portion of Tuckahoe/MacNamara WMA). 

Weather: The week began with seasonably cool conditions on 4 Jan. A developing southerly flow allowed for high temperatures to rise into the mid 50s on 5 Jan. Temperatures remained in the 50s through the overnight of 5-6 Jan, accompanied by gusty S/SE winds. An arctic cold front, preceded by a quarter-inch of rain, passed through Cape May during the mid-morning 6 Jan. Its accompanying cold air reduced temperatures approximately 20 degrees by sunset. By sunrise on 7 Jan temps ranged from 5-10ºF, nearly breaking records at local weather stations. Bitter cold remained in place over the next two days, with temperatures finally rising above freezing again on 9 Jan. Temperatures moderated into the 40s by midday 10 Jan, on the leading edge of an approaching warm front that provided steady light rain through much of the day.

Birding Summary/Outlook: Observers submitted sightings of 167 species to eBird during the period 4-10 Jan. The highest diversity day occurred on 5 Jan, when 138 species were reported. Notable birds during the past week included Greater White-fronted Goose, Ross's Goose, Golden Eagle, Purple Gallinule, Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Dovekie, White-winged Dove, Black-capped Chickadee, and Painted Bunting. Given the recent cold snap, observers should be on the lookout this upcoming week for species that might arrive from points north-- including Common Merganser, Red-necked Grebe, Rough-legged Hawk, white-winged gulls, American Tree Sparrow, and others.

It was another excellent week for waterfowl. Highlights included 5 Greater White-fronted Geese that continued at Lily Lake and the Beanery through at least 5 Jan (m. ob.).  A Ross's Goose was hiding in a flock of 2,500 Snow Geese at Reed's Beach 7 Jan (TR). Redheads were reported from Lily Lake (m. ob.)., Cox Hall Creek WMA (DF), and at 104th Street in Stone Harbor (JA). Nummy Island's two hen King Eiders also continued through 10 Jan (m. ob.). Common Mergansers appeared at a few locations after the arrival of arctic air 6-8 Jan. Also likely related to the cold snap, single Red-necked Grebes were noted at Nummy Island 8 Jan (DF) and at the Avalon Seawatch 10 Jan (TB). Two Tricolored Herons were seen in the Ocean Drive marshes between Cape May and Wildwood Crest 5 Jan (MW et al.). A Golden Eagle was again noted in the marshes east of Tuckahoe 9 Jan (VE, CM). A light-morph Rough-legged Hawk was seen from Reed's Beach 9 Jan (TR).

Clapper Rails are still holding strong in the bayshore marshes. An immature Purple Gallinule was discovered dead on Route 9 in Clermont 9 Jan (HT, fide MC). A Spotted Sandpiper continued at Townbank through at least 6 Jan, along Cox Hall Creek where it crosses Clubhouse Drive (m. ob.). A Long-billed Dowitcher was also noted at this location 5 Jan (JD, VR, m. ob.). Strong southerly winds during the overnight hours 5-6 Jan likely produced a small influx of alcids into Delaware Bay. A Dovekie and 26 Razorbills were tallied from Sunset Beach during the morning of 6 Jan (TR, m. ob.). An Iceland Gull flew past observers at Nummy Island 5 Jan (TM, KA). Forster's Terns were last noted 6 Jan (m. ob.), likely pushed out by the cold weather.

[Spotted Sandpiper at Townbank, 5 Jan. Photo by Tom Reed.]

The White-winged Dove continued at CMP near 113 Harvard Avenue through at least 9 Jan (m. ob.). At least two Eurasian Collared-Doves also remain in the same area. Snowy Owl reports were reduced this week, but included at least one individual at Stone Harbor Point through 8 Jan (m. ob.). A Northern Saw-whet Owl was heard at Reed's Beach 8 Jan (TR). It appears that both of the locally wintering hummingbirds didn't make it through the cold snap. The Rufous Hummingbird was last reported 6 Jan, while the Ruby-throated Hummingbird was last reported 4 Jan  (m. ob.). Multiple Merlins can be found most evenings in the area of the Magnesite Plant along Sunset Boulevard (m. ob.). The two Western Kingbirds at the Cresse Lane field/vineyard in Erma were last reported 4 Jan (AC).

[Rufous Hummingbird at CMP, 4 Jan. Photo by Michael O'Brien.]

A few Tree Swallows remained at Cape May Point until 5 Jan (m. ob.). Cape May County's fourth Black-capped Chickadee was discovered coming to a feeder at 102 Lincoln Avenue, CMP 5 Jan (MO'B, LZ, m. ob.). It continued at the same location through 10 Jan (m. ob.). A flock of 26 American Pipits flew over Reed's Beach 6 Jan (TR), and slightly higher numbers were noted throughout after the passage of the arctic front. CMP's Painted Bunting was last reported in the dunes at Whilldin Avenue 7 Jan (m. ob.). A strong total of 80 Eastern Meadowlarks was noted at Cresse Lane 6 Jan (MO'B), and a flock of 300 Boat-tailed Grackles took up residence in the Reed's Beach marshes the same day (TR).

[Black-capped Chickadee at CMP, 5 Jan. Photo by Michael O'Brien.]

Jesse Amesbury, Kate Atkins, Tom Baxter, Alan Crawford, Jim Dowdell, Vince Elia, Don Freiday, Tom Magarian, Christina Marks, Michael O'Brien, Tom Reed, Virginia Rettig, Hans Toft, Matt Webster, Louise Zemaitis. 

Purple Gallinule....

A very common game amongst the keener birders - OK, let's say the high-end competitive element (!) - is having a little competition, a guessing game as to what the next good bird will be that shows up in the area. Often this comes in the form of a good bird for the year, a completely new bird for the area or even, something that forthcoming weather conditions might bring. Under the latter heading, Tom Reed started a guessing game going with my wife and me in the run up to the severe winter conditions that hit us on January 7th. Tom set the bar high with a suggestion of Purple Gallinule.... Hmmmm, what was he talking about? Surely with an onslaught of sub-freezing temperatures coming, a snazzy bird from the near-tropics was not the way to go - I want for Thick-billed Murre and my wife went for Ivory Gull.

So, roll forward to January 9th and I am sitting in a meeting at our Center for Research and Education with the invasive plants group. Midway through the proceedings there is suddenly a face at the window - a man in camouflaged clothing is peering in the window at us! Luckily, some of the group instantly recognized him as Hans Toft, a local environmental educator; Hans had brought us a dead bird - yes, I work in the sort of job where people do that! Hans produced from his pocket what I thought was going to be a Clapper Rail; overall brownish, paler below, and with long, dangly legs and big feet. But then I saw the short beak... Hans knows his stuff, he knew what it was - and so did I as soon as I saw the wonderful aquamarine colors on the wings. It was a Purple Gallinule! Hmmm, that Tom Reed!!

The wanderings of certain species of rails and crakes is something of a mystery. This is a group of birds with relatively short, rounded wings, not designed for long distance flying. Most species have short, soft tail feathers which have little effect as directional rudders, while the long legs and cumbersome large feet must create a lot of drag in flight. In addition, most species live in dense stands of marginal aquatic vegetation and generally seem reluctant to leave it. And yet a number of species regularly turn up way outside of their normal breeding range. In the Old World, the sub-Saharan, African Striped Crake has been found in Europe and the Canary Islands, while in the New World, the Purple Gallinule has an established track record of seemingly heading north for no obvious reason that we can see - indeed, the species has even reached Europe in the past.

In this instance, Tom's look at past records in northern North America, coupled with the impending weather pattern looked good for Purple Gallinule to show up in Cape May. There are a number of previous records of this species for north-eastern North America in mid-winter so there is an established pattern of vagrancy at this time of year. Quite why individuals move north during a seemingly unsuitable time of year is still something of a mystery, but it may be more likely that they head north - perhaps up the Mississippi flyway - earlier, maybe in the fall, and remain undiscovered in well-vegetated wetlands somewhere around the great lakes area. Once there, a big drop in temperature would get them moving again and a severe westerly air flow like the one we just had would bring them across to the east coast.

Sadly for both us and the bird, it was picked up already dead, beside Route 9 in Clermont. Such birds that are brought to us in good condition are forwarded to the Acadamy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia where they may become part of the permanent collection of scientific study skins, or may be used for training new scientific staff.

Juvenile Purple Gallinule, picked up dead in Clermont, Cape May County on January 9th. Adults are outlandishly glossy purple with brilliant yellow legs and red and yellow bill but youngsters are more subtly colored [photo by Mike Crewe].

Close-up of the wing, showing the green and blue tones to the flight feathers [photo by Mike Crewe].

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My little chickadee!

One of the hardest - perhaps the hardest - identification problems that east coast birders find themselves faced with from time to time is that of sorting out Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. Here at Cape May, we can often afford to be a little glib by saying "That's a Carolina Chickadee, you don't get Black-caps here". Well all that is changing it seems; as recently as December 2010, Mike Fritz got kudos for the first fully accepted record of Black-capped Chickadee for Cape May County. This bird had been at Mike's back yard feeder in Seaville and had obligingly stayed for good photographs to be obtained. It also stayed long enough for a number of other birders to get to see the bird and stayed into early January 2011. Tom Reed found a Black-capped Chickadee at Palermo on March 4th 2011 which, being but a stone's throw from Seaville, may perhaps have been the Seaville bird, but it stands as the second county record.

For the rest of us, we had to wait until January 2014 and a fortunate turn of events. Michael O'Brien and Louise Zemaitis were waiting for a plumber to show up to a leak on Lincoln Avenue at Cape May Point and decided to casually watch the birds visiting a neighboring feeder. Low and behold, one of the chickadees looked decidedly different and before you know it, Cape May's third Black-capped Chickadee is safely in the record books! Such chance encounters as this of course help us to realize that many unseen birds no doubt go unrecorded and the official record is merely a list of those birds that have been duly found, correctly identified and finally accepted by the relevant records committees.

So what chance is there for the rest of us in either finding and identifying the current Black-capped Chickadee at the point, or of finding one of our own? Well first off is location of course. The two eastern species of chickadee (Black-capped and Carolina) are classic 'replacement' species, ie one replaces the other as you head north/south or up/down the hill. Black-capped is the northern form, only occurring southward if you head up into the Appalachians. A quick look at the range maps in any North American field guide should help you to work out which species occurs where you live - or where you are visiting. Thankfully, the two species are pretty much sedentary and vagrants outside of the normal breeding range are uncommon; however, there is a catch (of course!). Where the two forms meet, there is a small overlap zone where you could find either species; if you live there, you will have to be really careful. To make matters even worse, the two species interbreed with each other along this overlap zone and there is now a substantial area within which confusing hybrids abound. This hybrid zone is being closely studied - mostly in north-eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey - and the zone appears to be moving very slowly northward, suggesting that Carolina Chickadees are pushing their range further north.

Putting the complexities of hybrids aside for a moment, it's time to consider the important identification points of the two species. The differences between the two are all rather subtle, but when you take all of the differences together, they add up to make two reasonably different species which can be identified fairly readily if you get a good view - or better still, good photos. Here's some photos of the Cape May Point bird to get you headed in the right direction.

Black-capped Chickadee at Cape May Point on January 5th 2014. The bird has been visiting a feeder in the front yard of 102 Lincoln Avenue, easily found by the blue-painted tree in the front yard. If you go looking for this bird, do remember that this is a residential area and behave appropriately [photo by Mike Crewe].

Photo composite of Black-capped (left) and Carolina (right) Chickadees, visiting the same feeder at Cape May Point. Seeing the two side by side like this should hopefully help you to pick out the key differences - a bit like those puzzles where you have two versions of a single picture, one slightly altered, and you have to spot the ten differences. In these unedited pictures, note that the Black-cap has a dark patch over the right leg, caused by a bunch of missing feathers [photos by Mike Crewe].

Here's the same photo composite as above, but edited. I have removed the dark patch on the flank of the Black-capped Chickadee to stop it hindering direct comparison with the Carolina Chickadee on the right. The text below works through the four useful identification pointers marked in the photo [photos by Mike Crewe].

1. Structurally, Black-capped looks subtly a little larger headed than Carolina and it is slightly larger overall (averages 5.25" long versus 4.75" for Carolina according to the Sibley Guide). You should view any possible rare bird for as long as possible, to assess differences in a variety of poses and under different lighting conditions as this will help to eliminate false effects that may be caused by shadow, strong light, or simply viewing two birds in very different postures. In ideal conditions, the white on the face of a Black-cap extends further back onto the side of the neck. In Carolina, this white area shades slightly to grayish behind the ear coverts, onto the side of the neck.

2. Perhaps the most obvious feature if seen well in a good side view is the color of the greater coverts. In Black-capped Chickadee, at least the inner four or five greater coverts are noticeably white and, together with the clean white edges to the secondaries form a bold splash of pale on the wing. Some caution is needed here as this feature is a little variable, depending on the time of year and the stage of molt, but generally it's a good identification feature. Notice on the Carolina Chickadee on the right that the white is limited to the secondary edges, while the greater coverts are similar in color to the rest of the wing and the back.

3. The white edges to the secondaries are more extensive and more obvious on Black-capped than on Carolina. Again, this can be variable according to the time of molt and should always be used in association with the color of the greater coverts (see 2 above).

4. Though subtle, Black-capped Chickadee is relatively longer tailed than Carolina. This can be a difficult feature to use if you only have the one species present but in direct comparison - as here - it is certainly noticeable. Studying your local chickadees a lot will get a 'feel' fixed in your head of what your local birds look like, so that if the other species should show up, you may instantly get a feeling of something a little odd about the bird.

Something I haven't mentioned is call and song. While there are a number of subtle differences in calls between the two species, and the songs are very different, these can be tricky to use because of the hybrid problem and because vocalizations are learned locally. Thus, it does happen that birds imitate each other and, while calls or song can help to back up an identification if plumage details are also recorded, they probably won't help too much with a bird that you hear but don't see too well.

So, are you feeling confident now? No, of course not, nor am I! There's always going to be 'the one that got away' the bird you didn't quite get a good enough look at and that, of course, is life. It will also be the case that a good photo or two will be the best way to convince the records committee that you have a rarity, no matter where you live. Identifying a stray chickadee with confidence is a process that requires careful observation and should never be rushed - but it is doable... So remember to keep the point-and-shoot or the cellphone handy each time you check the feeders!