Friday, December 18, 2015

Location, location, location

As the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Seawatch Migration Count season comes to a close, it’s only natural that we take a moment to reflect on the highlights of past 3 months. Overall this season has been fantastic, if not a little weird. With 70-degree weather in December, late-season big Scoter and Red-throated Loon flights, and rarities like Sooty Terns and a Masked Booby, it’s been anything but boring.

As most of you are probably aware, Cape May Bird Observatory’s Avalon Seawatch moved to a new and improved location, complete with a beautiful little hide to keep counters and visitors sheltered from the elements. Now located directly on the beach between 8th and 9th street in Avalon, counters and visitors alike have an over 200°, unobstructed view from which to enjoy the spectacle of seabird migration.

An aerial map of the Avalon coast is a perfect way to see some of the benefits of the new Avalon Seawatch location--a wider field of view that is closer to the main flight line!

When asked about the new location, local birders have some pretty positive things to say. Michael O’Brien thinks it’s fantastic that you can now get prolonged looks at birds as they make their way past the end of the jetty and around the corner, which is when they are closest to shore. Mark Garland feels the new location, complete with the shack that allows visitors to get out of the elements, gives the count a new sense of professionalism and makes it a better destination for birders to visit while in Cape May. The benefit of being directly on the beach and behind the jetty are instantly obvious to most birders, with shorebirds, gulls, and terns feeding and resting just a stone’s throw from you. In fact, the counters and a few well-timed visitors have been treated to Red Phalaropes and Black-legged Kittiwakes who decided to take a break on the beach in front of the shack.

Visitors and Migration Count Coordinator, Tom Reed, enjoying the shelter at the new Avalon Seawatch location. Just being able to sit and get out of the wind make a huge difference to the counters who are up there from dawn to dusk! [Photo by Mark Garland.]

A Red Phalarope and Sanderlings decided to take a rest on the beach directly in front of the Avalon Seawatch shack between 8th and 9th streets. Having the shelter on the beach allows the counter and visitors to stay in the middle of the action despite lousy weather conditions. [Photo by Tom Reed.]

For the counters, the new location has so many benefits. For the first time in the 5 years he’s been involved with the Avalon Seawatch, Migration Count Coordinator Tom Reed finally feels like he is a part of the count, with birds flying directly in front of him, over him, or even sometimes behind him. At 7th street, the counter had a restricted field of view that was pretty far from the flight line and therefore removed from the action. Primary Seawatch counter, Skye Haas feels the new location results in greater accuracy. He has double the time to precisely count flocks of Scoters or pick out each species in a large mixed duck flock. Skye also noted that thanks to the new shack, on days with less than desirable weather he doesn’t have to battle with the wind shaking his scope tripod or the raindrops blurring his binocular view. Instead, he can devote all of his energy and focus to the count.

A Northern Gannet gives a great example of how close the flight can be at the new Seawatch location. Birds will fly directly over the end of the jetty, allowing visitors photographic opportunities like this one! [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

The new Seawatch location gives observers more time to study the birds heading south. That extra time can be the difference between catching or missing a Great Cormorant in a flock of Double-crested Cormorants, like the one pictured here. [Photo by Tom Reed.]

With any kind of change there inevitably comes doubts and unknowns, but there also comes new opportunities. There is a beautiful relationship blooming between CMBO and the city of Avalon, who has been hugely supportive and excited about the new location. Overall, this experiment has been a very successful one and goes to prove that sometimes you don’t realize something is broke until you fix it! If you haven’t made it to Avalon this season, the count goes til December 22nd so you still have a couple days. I encourage you to visit and experience it for yourself.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

No birds at my feeders...

Generally we get a very wide range of inquiries through Cape May Bird Observatory, either from visitors or via phone calls and emails; but now and again a trend in the questions starts to show through, and it can set one thinking... Of late, we have had a rather large number of inquiries regarding bird feeders, and the general question has been "Why are there no birds at my feeders". As it turns out, this is not an uncommon question at this time of year, since the clocks have gone back, the evenings are getting darker - surely winter is on its way and I should be putting food out for the birds...

So what is going on and, in particular, what is going on this year? Well we often do have a relatively mild spell in the run up to the holiday season, but this year it is even more mild than usual. Why should this affect the birds? Well, strange as this might sound, feeding birds is not as straightforward as you might think and often the birds 'know' better than we do. Rest assured, I am not going to tell you not to feed your backyard birds, but I would certainly encourage you to think about what food you put out, how, and when.

Exactly why there are no birds at your feeder right now will depend on where you are and what species of birds you typically get. For many of us in the Mid-Atlantic States, a large number of the birds at our feeders will be winter visitors from the north. These birds are escaping the worst of the weather and will remain until well into spring before heading back north. Species such as Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows are typical of this group, but may also include birds such as Northern Cardinals and American Robins, which are both resident and migratory. Put simply, these birds appear not to be at our feeders yet simply because it's still so mild so they really don't seem to have headed our way in any great number yet.

Other feeder birds include our local residents, such as Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Downy Woodpeckers and the like. These birds will still be in your area, but they will be feeding elsewhere. What does this mean? Well, the answer is twofold; firstly, feeders are not exactly the most comfortable of places to hang out for many birds. There is much jostling for position and any number of potentially stressful situations. It's a bit like comparing a dinner for two at a quiet, back street restaurant with the hustle and bustle of a food stand at a carnival parade! Secondly, there's plenty of natural food still out there, since there's been very little frost to shrivel the berries, and no snow to cover the ground.

So, there's plenty of natural food out in the wider countryside, where birds can feed comfortably, at a natural pace, without all the hurly burly of the backyard feeder and all the undue attention and rivalry from other birds. But there are other issues with feeders too. The unnaturally high density of birds can be a magnet for local predators, whether it be Cooper's Hawks or the neighbor's cat - again putting undue stress on the birds, since they need to be constantly on the lookout for such threats. Then there's the problem of infectious diseases; such diseases may be more readily spread around bird populations if they are not only in close proximity with each other, but also stressed. Finally, research in the UK and New Zealand has revealed that the type of feeding opportunities that backyard feeders provide tend to encourage the 'bullies', the species which dominate at such locations, which in North America includes non-native species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows.

It may be starting to sound as though we shouldn't be feeding birds, but that isn't entirely the case. You should consider very carefully how and when to feed; don't put your feeders close to places where predators might easily lurk within catching range, such as close to shrubby borders or edges; don't put out large amounts of food - it's better to put little and often, and let the food run out for a short while between feeds. It's also good to put out as wide a range of foods as possible to provide a balanced diet. But do remember, if you do put out food, it is vital to keep it going during hard weather, since that artificially high population of birds that you have created may become dependent on the food during such periods.

For the very best advice on feeding birds, we have a great range of publications available at our stores, and our staff will be happy to advice you on best practice, based on sound research.

If you have few birds at your feeders right now, rest assured that it is not because their populations have suddenly and dramatically crashed; the birds are out there somewhere, rummaging in the undergrowth and enjoying a balanced diet from nature's food closet, and they will be heading your way eventually...

Birds arriving at backyard feeding or drinking opportunities find themselves in unusually close proximity to each other. This is OK while numbers are small... more birds are attracted to the treats, pressure increase - here a White-throated Sparrow literally gets trampled underfoot by a boisterous House Sparrow...

...and once the 'pack' really arrives, there's little room for anyone else and less aggressive species will choose to move away from your yard, as has been shown from recent studies. Here, a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird is the only one brave enough to stick it out at the lido!

If you put up artificial feeders, those with individual feed ports have been shown to be less stressful for the birds than hopper types - Tufted Titmouse, American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin all manage to find a space here at the Northwood Center feeder.

The high number of birds visiting some feeders creates ideal conditions for infectious diseases to spread. In Eastern North America, a form of conjunctivitis is virulent in House Finch populations and it is imperative that high standards of hygiene are maintained at backyard feeders to prevent this, and other diseases, from becoming a major concern.

Through research studies, aggressive species have been shown to become even more prevalent in areas where there are significant backyard feeder opportunities. Although Common Grackles are native to our region, they naturally form roving flocks in the winter that move constantly through an extended home range. Keeping backyard feeders well stocked could be encouraging them to target specific locations more often than they would naturally; this not only enables an even larger population of these aggressive birds to develop, but can have negative impacts on other species, causing them to move away from the area.

Though we might think we know best, nature usually does offer the best solution to natural problems. Feeders are fine in moderation, but do consider also providing natural foods so that a wide range of birds can enjoy your natural space - and you'll enjoy them too! Eastern Bluebirds are regular visitors to our pokeweed patch, which is growing well away from the feeders on the other side of the house and away from any 'bullies' that might drop by.

And finally, don't forget that water is vital to birds, especially during prolonged cold spells. Cedar Waxwings are exciting birds that can be attracted to the garden by keeping one or two native red cedars in the corners of the yard, but they need plenty of water to help them cope with the astringent berries.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

To Be Thankful

If you put the word ‘thankful’ into an internet search engine you get any number of results. But this morning, my favorite was from the Merriam-Webster dictionary website: glad that something has happened or not happened, that something or someone exists, etc. Thankful that someone exists…what an incredible sentiment.

This year we have much to be thankful for. Here in Cape May, we are thankful that we get to live in one of the most beautiful places in the country. We are thankful for our birding community, the birders who travel to visit us each year, and of course, the birds! We are thankful we have the time and energy to be outside and exploring. We are thankful that we live in an age where we can communicate and support one another from the other side of the world. We are thankful for the moments we get to spend with our friends and families, and the memories we share with those who left us too soon.

Personally, I am thankful for the guidance from mentors who have helped me become a better naturalist, a better teacher, and a better person. I am thankful for a supportive collection of friends who have welcomed me into their hearts and homes. I am thankful that I get to do what I love and share it with like-minded people. But most of all, I am thankful for the beauty and goodness I find in the world everyday.  

From all of us here at Cape May Bird Observatory, we thank you for your support and friendship, and we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday's sunset over Lake Lily in front of Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center. It's picturesque moments like this that make us slow down and be thankful that we are able to do what we love. [Photo by Mike Crewe.] 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Freaky Friday the 13th

Franklin’s Gulls are in town! Thanks to strong storm systems working their way east across the country, Cape May (and the East Coast in general) has experienced the greatest influx of Franklin’s Gulls it’s ever known. These birds aren’t exactly annual visitors, though we do get a couple every 2 to 3 years, typically as rare vagrants. The previous NJ record of Franklin's Gulls was another storm-driven invasion from November 14-15, 1998 of 50+ birds between Avalon and Cape May. A group of 3 individuals were reported in 2005, but all other records are of single birds. However, after reviewing information complied from eBird reports, photos, and personal accounts, it’s estimated that Cape May County saw roughly 350 Franklin’s Gulls yesterday.

eBird reports of Franklin's Gulls from November 2014. A single individual was spotted at the Avalon Seawatch and another individual hung out for about 10 days at a Waste Water Treatment reservoir in Maryland, but the rest of the east coast is barren.

eBird reports of Franklin Gulls from November 2015. As you can see the entire Northeast and East Coast has been invaded by vagrants pushed east by recent storms.

Birders here in Cape May had been watching the weather and the numerous reports of Franklin’s Gulls west of us all week, salivating at the idea of a good invasion. It started Friday morning with flocks of anywhere from 4 to 15 just off shore at Coral Avenue. Then reports started coming in from the Hawkwatch, Sunset Beach, and the Avalon Seawatch: we were indeed being invaded! Later in the afternoon, Megan Crewe found a flock of 62 sitting on the ocean off of Cape May City. That flock lifted up and was spotted by observers kettling over the Grand Hotel, over The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows, and eventually out towards the Delaware Bay. A couple Franklin’s Gulls have even been cooperative enough to hang out at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal, close enough for great photographs. It was a race all over town for birders to get Franklin’s Gull on their yard lists, office lists, county lists, and even life lists.
A group of Franklin's Gulls taking off from the water where they were resting just off-shore in Cape May City. [Photo by Tom Johnson.]

The same flock of Franklin's Gulls visible from the beach access in Cape May City. It was counted to be about 62 individuals--more than has ever been documented in New Jersey at one time! [Photo by Tom Johnson.] 

Franklin's Gull flying past the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal in Cape May. This individual hung out all afternoon which allowed for fantastic opportunities to observe and photograph this rare vagrant. [Photo by Tom Johnson.]

A Laughing Gull (left) sits on the water alongside a Franklin's Gull (right). Note the smaller size, smaller bill, and dark helmeted look with pale nape on the Franklin's Gull. [Photo by Mike Crewe.]

Today, the Franklin Gull show has died down considerably, with a few still being spotted here and there (including the Ferry terminal). Saturday’s excitement belongs to Cave Swallows, with over 400 counted from Coral Avenue as of 1:00pm today. We have two sub-species of these beautiful little birds in North America: populations throughout Texas and one down at the very southern tip of Florida. Nowadays, we regularly get an influx of Cave Swallows along the East Coast and the southern Great Lakes that expand their ranges northward at the end of the breeding season to exploit food resources. This year however, like the Franklin’s Gulls, we have experienced unprecedented numbers. Yes, November is the time for rarities and invasions. Come on down and see for yourself!

A Cave Swallow feeds on insects over Bunker Pond in front of the Hawkwatch platform at the Cape May Point State Park. [Photo by Mike Crewe.]

Another shot of a Cave Swallow from Bunker Pond at the Cape May Point State Park. Note the pale rump and collar, dark throat, and short, blunt tail. [Photo by Mike Crewe.]

Friday, November 6, 2015

Not all is quiet on the Eastern front

It’s November: the time of year when the trees become bare, sweaters and hats become necessities (usually), and the locals reclaim their town. Yes, all of our seasonal naturalists and visiting fall birders have packed up and moved home, leaving nothing but the counters, the staff, and a barren Hawkwatch platform behind. The weather isn’t the only one to blame for the mass exodus of friendly faces though; November has always been known as the beginning of the end for Fall migration here in Cape May…but is it?

It is true that it has been miserably slow at the Hawkwatch on the Point, with just over 500 birds tallied since the start of the month. However, the Avalon Seawatch is cruising steadily with very close flocks of Scoters, Gannets, and Red-throated Loons. As someone who doesn’t have an immense amount of experience seawatching, I find it almost magical to watch a flock of 250 Surf Scoters flyby in their stacked formation, so close that you can see their skunk-heads without bins. I still gasp every time I watch a handsome Northern Gannet dramatically plunge-dive into the water. And I can’t help but smile as I count a loose squadron of delicate looking Red-throated Loons that somehow manage to be awkward and graceful at the same time.

A mixed flock of Scoters heading past the Avalon Seawatch. These fast-moving, stacked flocks, with constantly shifting lines, are a great ID characteristic for Scoters. Now, can you pick out the Black Scoters from the Surf Scoters? [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

These Red-breasted Mergansers, another migrant that can be seen from the Avalon Seawatch, were making a pass around the jetty. Many of the migrants can fly very close to shore, affording visitors fantastic looks! [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

Common Loons, though not as numerous as Red-throated Loons, can also be observed in Avalon. These birds have an overall chunkier look to them, with big, obvious feet and a large bill. This individual came directly over the jetty in front of the CMBO Seawatch shack. [Photo by Sam Wilson].

Since November 1st, those of us who have visited Avalon have been treated to flyby Harlequin Ducks, the first real movement of Long-tailed Ducks, over 22,500 Northern Gannets, and over 30,500 Scoters, not to mention the numerous Hump-backed Whales putting on a show just off-shore! In fact, Thursday’s Northern Gannet flight set a new single-day record for the 2015 season with a total of 11,705 tallied all day. Even more impressive is that over 8,500 of those birds came by between 7:00 and 9:00am--that comes to nearly 72 birds per minute (I did the math)! If you find yourself with some time this weekend, take a visit up to Avalon between the 8th and 9th street beach accesses and see the spectacle for yourself.
A Northern Gannet gives a close fly-by during the big flight on Thursday. These beautiful birds are pointy in all directions and take dramatic plunges into the water as they hunt for fish. Cape May is a fantastic place to see Gannets, as they overwinter with us, but witnessing the spectacle of their Southern migration is something else all together. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

When migrating, Northern Gannets will frequently take these loose flock formations or even fly in long lines. Thursday's big migration push saw flocks both near and far from the Avalon Seawatching shack. It's the perfect place to learn the various plumages as well as the flight style of these magnificent seabirds. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

As exciting and busy as the Avalon Seawatch shack-mahal currently is, the Hawkwatch platform has become a lonely place, especially without the infectious enthusiasm of our interpretive naturalists. Tara, Erin, and Jacob have all moved on to their next adventures: from cross-country road trips to birding excursions, they have scattered back from whence they came. On behalf of all of us here at CMBO and the visitors they helped orient and teach, I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for the hard work and dedication they put in to sharing their knowledge of birds, migration, and conservation. I hope the three of them learned as much as they taught and they will look back on this season at CMBO with great fondness. Just remember, once you’re here, you will always be a part of the Cape May birding community, whether you like it or not! So Tara, Erin, and Jacob: we wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors and please remember to come back to visit us! 

The 2015 seasonal Naturalists smile for a final picture atop the Hawkwatch Platform at the Cape May Point State Park. It's hard to believe how quickly the season passes. Good luck to our Interpretive Naturalist! Pictured left to right: Tara Camp (Interpretive Naturalist), Jacob Drucker (Interpretive Naturalist), Margeaux Maerz (George Myers Naturalist), and Erin Rawls (Interpretive Naturalist). [Photo by Megan Crewe.]

Friday, October 30, 2015

Cape May Fall Festival 2015

Well another CMBO Fall Festival is in the books and now that we have had time to breathe, sleep, and fully recover from all the excitement, I suppose it’s time to reflect. Overall it was a fun weekend, jam packed with friendly faces and birds. So. Many. Birds. A lot of those birds may have been Yellow-rumped Warblers but what a perfect opportunity it was to learn their soft check call notes as they flit from tree to tree.

The weekend started with an amazing kickoff party thanks to our friends at the Rusty Nail and Opticron. Bluegrass band, The Woedoggies, really got the party going, with guest appearance from Migration Count Coordinator Tom Reed and Interpretive Naturalist Jacob Drucker. There was food, drink, laughs, and dancing, lots of dancing. I can’t think of a better way to welcome the participants to Cape May, it was just the event to start the weekend off on the right foot!

The Woedoggies performing at the Rusty Nail for CMBO's Cape May Fall Festival Kickoff Party. From left to right: guest vocalist Tom Reed, Rudy Dauth, Wylie Shipman, Peter Riley, and guest flutist Jacob Drucker. Not pictured, the 12+ dancers that were killing it on the dance floor! [Photo by Lee Hajduk.]

The awesome crowd at the Rusty Nail enjoying the live music. What a great way to start the festival weekend! [Photo by Lee Hajduk.]

The birding festivities started bright and early Friday morning, with walks at Higbee Beach, Rea Farm, The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows, Cox Hall Creek, and Cape May Point State Park. The rest of the weekend continued in similar fashion, with an incredible variety of walks, boat trips, mini-bus tours, workshops, and lectures—there was no shortage of activities to keep volunteers and participants busy! In the evenings, we were treated to keynote speakers Kevin Karlson, NJ Auduon’s own Dale Rosselet, and the Urban Birder, David Lindo.

A total of 188 species were seen or heard between Friday and Sunday, with highlights smattered throughout. Overall, 17 species of warblers were found, including Prairie, Black-throated Green, and Canada (see, it wasn’t just Butter-butts). The Avalon Seawatch had an amazing flight of Northern Gannets Sunday, with over 4,000 tallied all day and awesome fly-bys throughout the weekend including Pacific Loon, Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, and Horned Grebes. Dozens of Parasitic Jaegers continued their show of chasing gulls and terns in the rips just offshore. American Bitterns, Virginia Rails, and a Sora were spotted at the Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows and a late Gull-billed Tern was loafing on the beach down near Cape May Point State Park.

An early morning Hairy Woodpecker flies over at the Rea Farm, one of a number of woodpecker species that was seen throughout the weekend. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

A Golden-crowned Kinglet landed to rest on the camera strap of a walk participant after it flew off the ocean in Stone Harbor. The exhausted little bird hung out for nearly a minute before flying to land on another woman's shoulder. It was a memorable moment and a great opportunity to get photos of a usually hyperactive bird! [Photo by Sam WIlson.]

A Parasitic Jaeger chases a Forster's Tern off shore in Cape May. There was a strong showing of Parasitic Jaegers as they harassed gulls and terns feeding in the rips. [Photo by Michael Lanzone.]

A late Gull-billed Tern was spotted on the beach between the South Cape May Meadows and Cape May Point State Park during a mini-bus trip with Megan Crewe. As you can see from the photo, the bird had a droopy right wing though it seemed to fly just fine. [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.]

Festival participants weren’t the only ones with binoculars in hand last weekend. The New Jersey Young Birder’s Club held their Cape May Fall Festival Youth Birding Day on Saturday. They spotted a total of 78 species, including Orange-crowned Warbler, Eastern Meadowlarks, and a female Redhead. More information about New Jersey Young Birder’s Club and their Saturday outing can be found here:

New Jersey Youth Birder's Club with leaders Sam Wilson (on left) and Brian Quindlen (on right). It's always great to get binoculars into the hands of young people. They are a fantastic group of birders!  

Orange-crowned Warbler spotted by the NJ Young Birder's Club on the boardwalk at Cape May Point State Park. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

The group of young birders didn't even get to leave the parking lot at the Cape May Point State Park before two Eastern Meadowlarks flew in and landed on the grassy area. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

The festivities at Convention Hall provided a perfect break from the elements (even though they were fantastic overall). Vendors provided a variety of information on optics and wildlife tours, while artists showed off their beautiful paintings, photographs, and crafts. NJ Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May provided games and activities for children that included, among other things, a build-your-own-binoculars craft. There really was something for everyone!

The birds and vendors were great, but the best part of the weekend for me was getting to meet such a wonderful array of people. From near and far, visitors traveled to share in the excitement and love of birding that can be found in the Cape May community. Whether it was studying the various ducks on Bunker Pond or watching the numerous, juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks zip around Higbee Beach, people were eager to learn and experience the spectacle of fall migration in Cape May. Getting people excited about birds and their conservation is why we at CMBO get out of bed every morning. So on behalf of all of us at CMBO and NJ Audubon, thank you to our participants and volunteers, you are what made the weekend a success! We hope to see you all again next year, but until then, keep birding and help us spread the love we all have for our feathered friends!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Tis the season for Little Brown Jobs

We are well into October and there’s no doubt that fall is in full swing in Cape May. The leaves are turning colors, the Yellow-rumped Warblers are plentiful, and the sparrows have moved in. Just in the last couple weeks we have witnessed as influx of our favorite, LBJ’s.  A few Clay-colored Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows have been spotted around Cape Island, as well as a fly-by Lark Sparrow further up the Bayshore. In my own backyard, there is a plethora of White-throated Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows enjoying our new brush pile and recently filled feeders. The soft and sweet chip notes of Savannah Sparrows can be heard around The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows as the beautifully streaky birds cross back and forth over the paths. Vesper Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Field Sparrows have also been seen about town recently. And of course we cannot forget about the understated Song Sparrow, a personal favorite of mine. Even the local flocks of House Sparrows deserve a second look right now for imposters (i.e. Dickcissels) love hiding in plain sight amongst them.

Savannah Sparrow poses for a shot at Cape May Point State Park. The overall streaky appearance and soft yellow around the face make this a beautiful little bird to enjoy. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]
Swamp Sparrows have been abundant around Cape May recently, this one was working his way through Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. Their rusty plumage and grey faces make these guys pretty distinctive. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

This young Field Sparrow at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area is a great example of a plain look being an ID characteristic (also note the long tail). [Photo by Sam Wilson.] 

If you’re anything like me, just the word ‘sparrow’ starts an increase in blood pressure and a creeping feeling of dread. I begrudgingly began learning my sparrows last fall and I am actually excited to keep up my studies this year. Thanks to a handful of great (and very patient) teachers, I am able to pick out the key characteristics and subtle differences that make sparrow species a unique and fun challenge. These frequently underappreciated birds, with their charming behaviors and intricate plumages, are a welcome part of fall in Cape May.

Still not convinced? Well this weekend, the ever-patient Michael O’Brien will be leading a Sparrows workshop for CMBO’s Cape May School of Birding. Details can be found below.  It’s a great workshop that will help you break down sparrows into categories and then further to species by observing behavior as well as size, shape, and plumage details. In no time you’ll find yourself going from “Ugh, more LBJ’s” to “Ooo a Savannah Sparrow!” Just in case you need another reason to make the trip to Cape May this weekend, the weather forecast looks extremely promising, with Northwest winds tomorrow through Monday. Fall is here. Come birding.

Michael O'Brien's Sparrow Sampler Workshop is this weekend. Contact Chris Tonkinson at (609)861-0700 or by email at to register.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Cape May birding heats up!

This morning a big wave of new birds joined many bird already here from before the Nor'easter that battered southern New Jersey into the weekend. The result was a heavy morning flight of birds, both reorienting, and seeking refuge for the day. Don Freiday reported a significant flight of songbirds heading up the Delaware Bay shore from Norbury's Landing, including 18 species of warbler and over 1,800 individuals in a single hour! Our Morning Flight counter Glen Davis tallied just over 2,000 individuals today from the Higbee Dike; not a spectacular flight, but a good one especially following two weeks of northeast winds and little songbird migration (you can check out this season's morning flight data on our real-time site here). Birds are plentiful on the ground today as well, with a noticeable influx of Swamp Sparrows, Blackpoll and Black-and-white Warblers, many Common Yellowthroats, and an overall high diversity of short and long-distance migrants. Oh, and CATBIRDS! Many many Gray Catbirds throughout the forested parts of the island, many feeding on American Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana; good!) and Porcelain Berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata; bad! - as it's a noxious invasive species).

One of many Black-and-white Warblers this morning

Many raptors are present overhead today as well, with Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks joined by all three expected falcons: Merlin, American Kestrel and Peregrines. American Kestrel were particularly viewable from Steven's Street, overlooking the Rea Farm fields where they're munching on katydids (to see how the Cape May Hawkwatch is going, visit our real-time site here).

Female American Kestrel snacking 'on the wing'

But this is just the beginning! If the weather forecast is even half as good as it looks now, we can expect Cape May to be Fall Birding Central all the way into the middle of next week and beyond, right up to our Fall Birding Festival on October 23 - 25 (kickoff party on October 22nd - more info here).

Male American Kestrel putting fear in the hearts of katydids below

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sooty Terns lead us into a week of anticipation...

Oh the trials and tribulations of a weather forecaster! The past few days have seen us here at Cape May scurrying around to batten down the hatches in preparation for a full-on hurricane assault as Joquin stepped up to a Category 4 off the Bahamas. Birding became increasingly difficult as winds battered the area and had the audacity to remove 20 feet from the top of our big elm tree – the end of a piece of history as the famous branch that held a Crested Caracara two years ago is no more! Extensive flooding of the barrier islands due to ultra-high tides saw our shiny new Avalon Seawatch blind needing to make a tactical withdrawal, but this was allowed for in the clever design which makes the whole unit readily portable.

Having prepared for Joaquin’s arrival, he promptly decided to head out to sea and the threat quickly dissipated. However, it has been a very breezy weekend here at the point and has meant that birders were faced with the usual conundrum – birding in bad weather is decidedly unpleasant, but it produces some extremely interesting birding...

The storm conditions that we have just endured create pluses and minuses for the birdwatcher. Firstly on the downside, small songbirds such as warblers become extremely difficult to find and the exciting spectacle of a fall of colorful birds at Higbee Beach just isn’t going to happen while we have raging onshore winds. On the upside, shorebirds and waterbirds take on a snow globe effect as all the predictable behavior gets shaken up by the weather. The past few days, Don Freiday has done us a great service in travelling around to a number of likely hotspots for ‘shaken up’ birds and texted some interesting counts. As high tides flood traditional roost sites, birds have to move elsewhere and local birders know that, on very high tides, Cape May Airport is the place to go. The wet grass during a storm serves shorebirds well as a temporary roost site and the usual selection of backbay species have recently been joined by Long-billed Dowitchers, White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden Plovers at this site.

Small parties of White-rumped Sandpipers were also passing Sunset Beach on Saturday morning, a site where it is always a special experience to witness Peregrine Falcons harrying storm-blown songbirds and enjoying the stormy winds like it was a walk in the park. But the real downside of Joquin heading so far out to sea is that the hoped-for tropical seabirds remained where they should be and we didn’t get the splendor of enjoying pelagic rarities without leaving the comfort of terra firma. The only exception to this came from the Avalon Seawatch where two Sooty Terns breezed down the shoreline on the late afternoon of October 2nd, to be followed by two more the following morning. Birds like that are always frustrating as you have to be there or you miss them, there’s very little point in hoping to chase them down. Today has started well, with straggling parties of Great Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons descending on the point throughout the morning and ‘classic’ October birds like Golden-crowned Kinglet and Brown Creeper calling from the cedars. Cape May Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and the continuing river of Tree Swallows all added to the experience this morning, as well as reports of Hudsoniam Godwit, Seaside and Clay-colored Sparrows, Western Kingbird and Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Well, that’s what has been, what about what will be? Predictions are, inevitably it seems, doomed to failure but it doesn’t stop us trying – because we mean well and we want everyone to enjoy the pulse-racing experience that is Cape May at its best. Forecasts show a continued lessening of the winds and a gradual turn to northwesterlies as the influence of Hurricane Joaquin fades. This can surely only mean one thing – birds! There looks like a slight interruption on Friday might interfere with things temporarily but, that apart, the coming week looks like a scarily good conveyor belt of north-westerlies orginiating high up in the Canadian Arctic and, while it is unlikely that we will have wall to wall birding all week, it must surely bring us a wealth of goodies at some point. So our advice to you – come and be here, just in case because, you know, even if it’s not ‘the big one’ there will be birds in Cape May this coming week and the spectacle of migration promises to throw up some memorable moments!

Fall is here – come birding!!!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Natives are Restless

There are those of us who get the pleasure of calling Cape May home year-round. We are within range when the rarities show up, we have first person stories from mega-flight days, and we all have a favorite schedule of spots to visit when the town is dripping with migrants. Right now however, the native are restless. We are nearly four weeks into September, and we have yet to have a classic cold front. The last decent cold front that brought with it a couple days of awesome birding was around August 26th. The mega Morning Flight day on September 14th was thanks to a somewhat bizarre cold front that stalled out for a couple days. It’s believed the birds bottled up behind the front and the dam broke loose once it finally cleared. Since then, we have been left with strong Northeast winds, the exact opposite of what we need for epic fall migration at the point. The forecast doesn’t look promising and the utter lack of birds around town has left me wondering, do we take Cape May for granted?

All week I have been interacting with people from all over the country, all over the world for that matter, who are visiting Cape May in hopes to experience the incredible fall migration spectacle we are known for. There is nothing more frustrating or disheartening than telling people who have traveled hours, sometimes days, that we don’t have has many migrants in town as they were hoping for. Being the eternal optimist I am though, I never leave them without a plan for seeing some good birds. Cause let’s be honest, even a bad day of birding in Cape May is still great! It’s ‘dry’ spells such as these that allow us to slow down and take time to truly appreciate some of the frequently overlooked aspects of Cape May birding.

Thank god for Falcons. No matter the weather, wind direction, or time of day, you can almost always count on some falcons putting on a show for the Hawkwatch at Cape May Point State Park. Whether it’s an American Kestrel getting picked on by a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a long-winged Peregrine with its eyes on Delaware, or an ornery Merlin chasing after a couple Tree Swallows, seeing a falcon or two is a safe bet. Speaking of Tree Swallows, there are tens of thousands of Swallows in town right now. From the salt marshes to the beachfronts, swarms of them can be seen, like a cloud of smoke, lifting from the vegetation. A massive staging occurs every fall in Cape May, where they rest and feed on the plethora of Bayberries, before making their way to the wintering grounds in the extreme southeastern US and south of the boarder into Central America.

An adult Peregrine Falcon zipping past the CMBO Hawkwatch platform. Our coastal migration sites affords visitors fantastic looks at low-flying birds. Naturalists love falcons since they can be seen in almost any weather conditions. In fact, eastern winds can be great for pushing off-shore falcon migrants inward where we can enjoy (and count) them. [Photo by Tom Reed.] 

Seabirds aren't the only birds that can be enjoyed from our new Seawatching shack in Avalon. These Tree Swallows rested in the sand and dunes as the sun rose over the ocean. Tens of thousands swallows can be seen around Cape May right now. Make sure to visit the new Avalon Seawatching shack located on the beachfront between 8th and 9th streets. [Video by Skye Haas.]

A juvenile Tree Swallow decided to take a rest from the strong winds right on the platform. Visitors were delighted to get such an up-close and personal look at this little guy. He happily posed for a couple minutes before taking off and joining the rest of the flock. For those of you having trouble spotting him, he is on the railing to the left of the gentleman in the yellow shirt. [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.]

A few rarities have been hanging around as well. A couple of Western Kingbirds have taken a liking to a roadside off of Reed’s beach on the bayshore. They have proved to be pretty reliable and easy to spot, and thus a good bird to go look for when the island is quiet. And then there’s Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, previously known as Brigantine. Brig is always good and only about a 45-minute commute from Cape May. A variety of shorebirds, including a vagrant Curlew Sandpiper, have been spotted there. Just bundle up and bring a scope if you’re planning to visit.

A Western Kingbird takes a moment to rest atop a snag off of Reed's Beach Road on the Bayshore. It's a treat when we get scarce migrants like this, and an even greater treat when they hang out for lots of people to enjoy. [Photo by Sam Galick.]

Indeed, the birds are around, you just have to work a little harder for them. As we obsessively watch the weather and long for a change in the winds, we take advantage of the time we have to study what is in town. We can’t wait for the next big push of migrants and I, for one, will appreciate every bird I see. It’s been a humbling couple weeks and a stark reminder that we shouldn’t take our beloved Cape May for granted.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Zone-tailed Hawk - AGAIN!!!

As if proof were needed that lightning really can strike the same place twice, the hallowed grounds of Cape May were blessed again with a repeat of last year's extraordinarily unlikely event, when a Zone-tailed Hawk graced us with its presence. Last year, the visitation was all too brief, when the bird breezed past Cape May Point, took a quick spin around the lighthouse, then headed straight out across the bay.

This year, we clearly had been very good and deserved a better look. This year's Zone-tail - like last year's and, let's be honest, almost certainly the same bird - had been reported previously up in New England. Just three days ago, it was photographed at Lighthouse Point, Connecticut and the communication lines were buzzing with excitement. Tom Reed, still smarting from having missed last year's visitation, was the first to pronounce that current weather trends would bring it our way this very day - Wednesday, September 23rd...

At 09:53 this morning, the text message went out - Zone-tailed Hawk over the Hawkwatch Platform. Time for the full gamut of reactions, ranging from "I can't get there in time, oh well I saw it last year", through "I CAN'T XXXXXXX GET THERE IN TIME!!" to "Waaaahhhhh". Pandemonium ensues; it's fine for those on the platform, but for the rest of us, it's a crazy chase around the streets trying to get a look at a bird that's happily spinning around Cape May Point, the Rea Farm and all points here, there and everywhere. And on trash collection day, landscape gardening day and everything else that 'ordinary' folks were doing while we needed empty roads and a generous attitude toward those random numbers on speed limit signs...

In the event, it turned out pretty good for a larger number of folks than last year. The bird was first picked up by CMBO Interpretive Naturalist Jacob Drucker, as it approached the Hawkwatch Platform from the east, way out toward Second Avenue in Cape May. As a murmur became a more excited level of interest, Tom Reed - who just happened to be working as swing counter at the Hawkwatch today - locked onto the bird and the rest, as they say, is history. The Zone-tailed Hawk sailed over the platform and headed north over Cape May Point. It then proceeded to spend a whole hour during which it was almost always in view for someone, somewhere. It wandered with Turkey Vultures as far north as the Hidden Valley Horse Ranch, before heading back to the point. Eventually it broke away from its travelling companions, gained height a little south of Sunset Beach and headed out over the bay.

For those not well versed in Zone-tailed Hawks, it's useful to know that this is a bird that one would not typically expect to see in the US north of Arizona, New Mexico and south-west Texas. To see one in Cape May is to be very lucky, to enjoy a repeat performance is nothing short of blessed. And for me, an added bonus was the fun of hearing people finally opening up and regaling us with how they missed the bird last year - now there's a bunch of stories we didn't expect to be shared!!

Zone-tailed Hawk on Bayshore Road, West Cape May, September 23rd 2015. Note the damage to the ninth primary (P9) on the left wing (the second longest 'finger'). There was also slight damage to the very tip of P6 on the right wing, which is clearly visible on the originals of these photos. These features appear also to be visible on photos of the Zone-tail taken by Nick Bonomo at Lighthouse Point, CT on September 20th and would therefore appear to confirm the two sightings as being of the same bird [photos by Mike Crewe].