Sunday, December 7, 2014

A change in the weather

The weather has been something of a roller coaster ride over the past six weeks or so. After an all-too-early chilly snap made us think that winter was arriving very early, things warmed up a little and we were relieved to have avoided the snow at Cape May. The following milder spell has, however, now skipped off south and we are seeing a return to chillier conditions. After a rain-drenched day yesterday, a blustery day of cold, north-west winds brought clear blue skies today and Vince Elia was the first to scan the skies over the Rea Farm and pick out a Golden Eagle. Indeed, this morning, the skies over Cape May Point were worthy of October, as packs of Turkey and Black Vultures streamed high overhead and, at one point, I counted 15 Red-shouldered Hawks, spread out from Cape May Lighthouse to somewhere over the Rea Farm. Among them came a few Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper's Hawks and even a late Sharp-shin.

As temperatures drop further north, perhaps most noticeable around Cape May Point is the increase in the number of waterbirds, especially at TNC's South Cape May Meadows. The rather sorry gathering of poorly, resident Canada Geese, has now been joined by hyperactive, chatty, migratory Canada Geese. These latter birds will probably mostly continue south to winter in the more open landscapes of the Delmarva Peninsula, and southward even to Florida. But their passing through Cape May is a time of interest for local birdwatchers, as these busy flocks often bring other things - not least of which is controversy. Many species of ducks, geese and swans are popular in both public and private collections and - unfortunately - such birds are prone to escaping. Despite much discussion over perhaps too many pints of beer, there really seems to be no clear way to tell if an odd waterbird is genuinely a rare migrant, or if it is a wire-hopper - an escape from captivity. At the Meadows, three Greater White-fronted Geese are surely wild - though this species largely flies south down the Central Flyway to winter along the Gulf Coast, a few birds stray into larger flocks of Canada Geese and head southeast to hit the Atlantic Coast and make for a nice addition to a winter's day birding.

In contrast to the Whitefronts, there is usually far more controversy whenever a Ross's Goose turns up. This diminutive relative of the Snow Goose turns up regularly on the east coast, though its main migration routes from High Arctic breeding grounds largely mirror those of the Greater White-fronted Geese. Though Ross's Geese are not uncommon in captivity, there is reason to believe that at least some birds are genuine vagrants; the problem really comes when two adults turn up together, on their own rather than in a large flock of Canada or Snow Geese; then proceed to feed unconcernedly on a median divide right outside the Cape May ferry terminal - as happened yesterday. Not only that, but one of the birds has lost an eye.

Such peculiar behavior often initiates a lot of finger pointing and accusations of fowl (pun intended!). But is this the case? It seems that there really is no way of knowing the origins of birds such as these unless they are banded. I have driven the Belt Parkway to JFK Airport and seen flocks of Brant grazing on the median strip as three lanes of traffic gas-guzzles its way by in both directions. Tame birds indeed, but no question that they are wild. As for the lost eye? Well, that could happen to a tame or a wild bird, though a wild bird is likely to meet its maker sooner than a captive bird with this kind of handicap. So how do we decide on whether such birds are truly wild or not? I have to say it beats me... Maybe we should take it on a balance of probability. Perhaps being tame is OK, perhaps arriving without the companionship of other geese is OK, perhaps the injury is OK - but all three together? Who can say...

Another area of controversy among goose aficionados came to a head when the familiar Canada Goose was 'split' by taxonomists into two species - now known as Canada Goose and Cackling Goose. In short, the small, High Arctic breeding populations became Cackling Geese, but it's not that easy. The two 'species' overlap greatly in a number of ways - including size - and there remains much controversy as to the true identity of a number of 'small Canada Geese' that pass our way at this time of year. Currently, a party of seven of these small geese are hanging out at the Meadows; not for us a bunch of classic, dinky winky birds but some annoyingly intermediate 'Lesser Canada Goose' type things. If head shape, bill size and shape, breast color and scapular patterning can all be assessed accurately, you might be in with a fighting chance of identifying them, but the amount of variation does suggest that there could well be interbreeding between the various forms going on. If only life were perfect!

Personally, I found it just as interesting that there was clearly a large increase in the number of Mallards on the ponds around the point today. The Mallard is an ever-present, semi-domesticated species that we readily take for granted and it is all too easy to forget that there are genuine wild Mallards out there, heading south from boreal breeding grounds. Finally, it was wonderful to see a family group of three Tundra Swans at the Meadows today - two silver-gray youngsters and an adult. This species gets a tough time in our area due to bullying by the all-too-common, introduced Mute Swan. Luckily, the Meadows still offers a brief respite from this and the three Tundras were resting up, no doubt before continuing southward a little further for the winter.

Winter is creeping up on us - the species range is dropping, but the number of birds can be dramatic at times - wrap up warm and come and enjoy the birds!

The two Ross's Geese on Sandman Boulevard today - whether you decide to count them on your list or not, they do at least offer great photo opportunities! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Though resting safely away from human disturbance, these Tundra Swans can easily be picked out from the local Mute Swans. At all ages, they have a longer head profile and show a shorter tail. Adult (left bird) have an all black bill with often just a small yellow flash at the base, while juveniles are a soft, dove gray color [photo by Mike Crewe].

Our recent Black Friday walk provided us with this American Pipit as one of our highlights on South Cape May Beach. Though this is a common migrant here, getting good, close views is not always easy and brief fly-overs are more often the norm [photo by Mary Watkins].

Despite the threat of bad weather, our annual pilgrimage to see the Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Light went without a hitch... [photo by Megan Crewe]

First highlight at Barnegat - stellar views of Purple Sandpipers... [photo by Megan Crewe]

...followed by surf-dodging Harlequin Ducks - a life bird for several members of the group [photo by Mike Crewe].

Surprises at any season, that's the Cape May way! Though typically a retiring woodland species, Northern Goshawks on migration can occasionally pop up in surprising places. This juvenile gave amazing views as it perched atop bushes at TNC's South Cape May Meadows on 5th [photo by Warren Cairo]

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