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]