Monday, June 30, 2014

Just One Hour Away...

No matter how wonderful Cape May is, even those of us who live here venture a little further afield from time to time. In addition to having so much to offer within the boundaries of Cape May County, South Jersey also offers other great wildlife opportunities just an hour away - so which direction to head - and when? Well, in winter, or during late summer shorebird migration, heading up the coast to Atlantic County will get you to the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge - perhaps better known simply as Brigantine. By heading north-west in spring, the spectacle of shorebird migration reaches a peak in the impoundments at Heislerville in Cumberland County, while hopping on the ferry for a slightly longer journey timewise, you can watch for a few inshore seabirds during the crossing to Delaware then head to Bombay Hook for breeding shorebirds, or explore the Cape Henlopen area for Brown-headed Nuthatches.

But during the hot days of high summer, there's another direction you can head which may not seem so obvious - East... A quick look at a map will reveal that you will need a boat to achieve this, and there's certainly plenty of those in Cape May. A variety of charters will take you out for several hours of cetacean watching or fishing and get you into a little-known zone as far as birds are concerned. Today, Megan, Tom Reed and I headed out with Mike Fritz for a little mix of birding and shark fishing, just to see what was going on out there - and the rewards were there for the taking...

Heading out in the early morning light, we pushed out to sea for a little over an hour and set ourselves up in a likely looking spot a little over 30 miles from shore. The waters off New Jersey don't team with seabirds like you might find off California or the Maritimes, but we do get some interesting birds passing by - all you need to do is to attract them in. Armed with all the kit necessary for some small-time shark fishing, we began the ritual of 'chuming'; this involves spreading a slick of a rather evil-smelling cocktail of various mashed fish and fish oils. Though pretty smelly to us, it's heaven on earth for sharks and for seabirds, and it took no more than three minutes for the first Wilson's Storm-petrel to join us. For much of the day, we had up to a dozen of these delightful little birds skipping around the boat and, before long, they were joined by the first of six or so Great Shearwaters that also came to check out what was on offer.

Many seabirds are strictly pelagic, coming to land only to breed - and then more often than not on some remote island in the middle of a distant ocean - so they can be notoriously difficult to see well unless you go out into their world. A trip offshore to look for seabirds can be very hit and miss and repeated visits are often essential if you want to get a good set of birds, but today we got lucky with all sorts of great wildlife. We started with a Loggerhead Turtle drifting at the surface which seemed to be fast asleep and totally oblivious to us until we were virtually along side. A couple of whale sightings followed - though too distant to be sure of the species - and this was followed by a rapid-moving school of highly-energetic, Spotted Dolphins. A couple of Manx Shearwaters and a couple of Cory's Shearwaters also passed our way but showed no interest in our activities. The movements of such birds are poorly-known in our area and the paucity of records of such birds for Cape May probably owes as much to a lack of people looking as it may do to the actual occurrence of the birds.

So, the birds were certainly exciting, but what of the sharks? Well it proved to be a rather quiet day, but we did get a very feisty young Mako Shark on the line for a while - a truly insane little beast, just three feet long but biting all the way!! And we also caught a Scalloped Hammerhead Shark; though small numbers of some shark species can be taken sustainably as food, we were here to tag the animals for research purposes and both were released to live another day.

Next time you are in Cape May and you want to try something different to get away from the summer heat, give a thought to joining an offshore boat trip - and let us know what you find!

The first of two Loggerhead Turtles that we saw today, this one was loafing at the surface and enjoying a nap. Sadly, all too many sea turtles are killed when they try to eat balloons that they mistake for jellyfish - a common prey item of several species of sea turtle. It is saddening to report a remarkable number of casually lost, released or abandoned balloons floating out in the open waters - all just waiting for a turtle. We hauled in several and brought them ashore for proper disposal [photo by Mike Crewe].

The all important chum bag goes over the side. A Great White Shark demolished one of these close to where we were a few days ago and certainly drew much media attention - you never know what is out there! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Then it's time to wait - and keep a very sharp eye on those fishing rods.... [photo by Mike Crewe]

First to arrive - Wilson's Storm-petrels.  Storm-petrels are amazing little birds that spend the vast majority of their lives on the wing. Many species - and Wilson's in particular have the habit of pattering their feet over the water and this is said to be the origin of the word 'petrel' which refers to Saint Peter walking on the water. [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Wilson's Storm-petrel is one of the commonest seabirds in the world, breeding in the southern oceans before heading north to spend their 'winter' (our 'summer') in the Northern Hemisphere. We noticed a good number of juvenile birds, such as this one, identifiable by its almost immaculate plumage [photo by Mike Crewe].

In contrast to the dapper youngsters, adult Wilson's Storm-petrels are currently in molt, causing a strong contrast between the faded brown old feathers and the blackish-brown new ones. Notice the difference in color between the inner and outer primaries in the wings [photo by Mike Crewe].

The twisting and turning antics of these birds as they patter over the surface and pick up bits of our chum gave plenty of opportunity for us to burn up an amazing number of megapixels today!! I particularly liked this one, which nicely shows off the yellow webs between the toes of a Wilson's Storm-petrel [photo by Mike Crewe].

Great Shearwaters were the next to appear and this species readily comes in to fishing parties off Cape May - unlike other shearwater species, which always seem to be on their way to somewhere else. Great Shearwaters can often test the patience of keener shark fishermen and Mike's method seemed to be the best solution - bring extra bait and make sure that the Greats are well-fed - that way they will leave your tackle alone! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Great Shearwaters are more boldly marked than many other shearwater species and, if seen well enough, can be readily identified by their dark brown caps, white rump patch and scalloped appearance to the upperparts [photo by Mike Crewe].

They might make nuisances of themselves in the eyes of some fishermen, but Great Shearwaters are far to cute to be blamed for their annoying behavior! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Sometimes you make your own luck... having stuffed the Great Shearwaters with mackerel, the birds wandered off to digest their food a couple of hundred yards away. But these bloated individuals soon drew the attention of a chunky, sinister-looking chap, first spotted by Tom Reed as it powered in from the east. This chunky interloper soon set about the Great Shearwaters and, before long, we were soon enjoying outrageous views of a South Polar Skua - now we have to work out if we were still in Cape May waters! [Photo by Mike Crewe]
South Polar Skuas breed in Antarctica, before spending the off-season roaming northward. Note the pale and relatively small head which separates this bird from Great Skua; the large and robust size and shape rule out the possibility of it being a jaeger. Finding this bird was the highlight of the trip for me and presents a wonderful example of 'you never know what you might find if you don't look' [photo by Mike Crewe]

Meanwhile, their were sharks to be tagged - at this point in time, Megan had no idea what was on the end of her line....

....but we all eventually found out as a Scalloped Hammerhead Shark hauled into view [photos by Mike Crewe]

Note the yellow stick in the top left corner - this is the tag applicator. This hammerhead was tagged and will hopefully one day provide valuable data on shark movements, longevity and perhaps more [photo by Mike Crewe]

Summer is here, it's time to go birding!!!