Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Bountiful Back Bay Birding!

As the cold snap (I guess we are well past 'snap' and into mini ice-age by now!) continues to grip our region, manufacturers of hand warmers and other cold weather gear are surely doing well on the stock market. But if you can bear it out there, the rewards for birders are bounteous...

Wrap up warm and head out to the barrier islands, where large numbers of ducks are responding to the icy conditions by heading into the marinas. So what is happening here? Well, initially these deeper water birds are responding to the freezing over of the main navigation channels and - especially - much of the Delaware Bay in recent weeks. They don't want to go right out into the main shipping channel as there will be little food for them out there, and what food there is will be harder to get to. The next best place for them will therefore be the marinas close to human habitation. These places often stay ice-free because of all the heat that leaks out from our houses, from engines on boats and cars and all that other human behavior going on. It might not be that much heat escaping, but it can certainly cause local temperature increases of two or three degrees, which can be enough to keep the ice away. Once the birds move into an ice-free area in large numbers, their very presence can be enough to keep small areas from freezing over.

For the birds, this is a life or death situation; they don't really want to be this close to us, but they have little choice. Interestingly, however, once they get into these little pockets of water, they find plenty of small fish to eat and will often hang on long after the rest of the bay has thawed, and that is pretty much what is happening now. This weekend, we spent some time checking out back bay marinas around Wildwood and found a great selection of birds to enjoy - as did folks on our Longtails in Love program on Saturday. Here's a few pictures to show you what is out there.

Back Bay Duckage - with a little guile and stealth, you can blend into the background and let the birds get on with their lives, allowing for some great birding. In this shot at Wildwood yesterday - Greater and Lesser Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser and Horned Grebe all mix in together [photo by Mike Crewe] 

Stalwarts of the back bays every winter are Red-breasted Merganser (here a male with that crazy shock-top haircut) and Buffleheads (two females in the background). These birds are common winterers with us, but getting close can usually be difficult, especially with Buffleheads that are shot in large numbers [photo by Mike Crewe].

Take the opportunity to enjoy the very best that these ducks have to offer. From a distance, a male Bufflehead looks black and white, but get one up close and you will see a rainbow! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Having the ducks rubbing up shoulder to shoulder to gives ample opportunity to practice your identification skills. Compare the male Lesser Scaup on the left here with the male Greater Scaup on the right; look at head shape, bill size and shape, the amount of black on the tip of the bill and overall length and shape of the body [photo by Mike Crewe].

Unusual conditions provide unusual opportunities; Common Goldeneye are not common in Cape May County but they are regular winterers with us. The trouble is they usually spend all of their time way out on the Delaware Bay and even scope views can be hampered by heat shimmer. This year, these birds are gracing us with their presence in the marinas - here's a couple of females that were in Bree-zee-lee Marina on the north side of Cape May Harbor a couple of days ago [photo by Mike Crewe].

I think that this picture perhaps sums up what an unusual winter we are having for birds here. A Common Murre floats between two Red-necked Grebes, both species being birds that you would be hard-pressed to get in Cape May County during a 'typical' winter. Red-necked Grebes continue to appear in good numbers all around our coast and are well worth looking for right now; look for a slightly 'grubby-looking' grebe with smoky browns masking the usual clean-cut black and white pattern, and a yellowish base to the bill [photo by Mike Crewe].

Common Murres are abundant seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere, but favor more northerly, rocky coastlines for breeding and usually spend the winter well out to sea. Though getting such great views as this of a Common Murre in Cape May County is exciting, it's tempered by the fact that this bird is almost certainly not 100% fit, or it wouldn't be here. In this shot, a pinkish, bare spot can be seen near the base of the bill, while it has been noted regularly drooping its left wing. Both are consistent with the bird having hit something - perhaps flying into a cable at night, or even swimming into a cable while fishing underwater. The bird seems to be alert however, and there's a chance that it might recover and make its way back to the open sea [photo by Mike Crewe].

Yes, there are birds elsewhere too! Warren Cairo re-found the first-winter male Painted Bunting at Cape May Point on Friday afternoon. This bird seems to be spending the winter with us - despite the tough conditions - and, though elusive, it seems to be faithful to a section of beach dunes between the ends of Lehigh and Whilldin Avenues. Best bet seems to be to keep an eye on the tall clumps of Bitter Panic-grass that grow at the back of the dune near the sand fence. Try watching from the dune crossovers at either end of this stretch [photo by Mike Crewe].

Remember, if you are poking around the marinas wrapped up in many layers of clothing and toting optics, you might draw the attention of the locals! Be sure to ask for permission and take the opportunity to share your finds with others. This weekend we found people happy to let us wander around so long as we asked first...

This coming Friday, our Winter Evenings at the Meadows walk starts up again, while next Sunday offers great birding at Turkey Point in Cumberland County and Corbin City in Atlantic County - bookmark our online Activities Calendar...