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...

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