Saturday, June 27, 2015

Expect the Unexpected

High summer can feel like a 'dead' time for birdwatchers; spring migration is over and serious fall movements seem like an eternity away. But it's not a signal to lay down binoculars and cameras, it's a chance to look at what else is out there - and to expect the unexpected. Summer is an interesting time in the natural world and broadening your horizons and studying other natural groups can certainly be a great way to occupy yourself. Over the past couple of weeks, I have had a couple of opportunities to get involved in some non-birding events, in association with other natural history groups in the area. As a birder, I might have decided to spend the time around the house, sorting out domestic chores and dealing with a whole bunch of other affairs that might keep me indoors. Instead, as an all-round naturalist, I was out in the field at a time when little was being reported, and discovered that there is so much that we can all add to our knowledge of the natural world. By being outside, and by keeping careful and accurate records of what we see, we can all contribute to the bigger picture and fill in the gaps in our collective knowledge.

When it comes to protecting rare or threatened species, we have a good system in place for ensuring that these species are looked after through a structured legal system. But knowing which species we should label as rare or threatened depends wholly on field work, and that is where local naturalists can help. If we rely simply on state officials to do the legwork, it would take an awful lot longer to get an accurate idea of the distribution and population estimates of species. Getting out in the field and expecting the unexpected is not only important, it's great fun. But then we all need to follow up with our finds and get them reported so that we can ensure that we can continue to enjoy the natural world around us. In South Jersey, we have some very active botanical, entomological and ornithological groups, all of which can be reached online and all of which would love to hear about your interesting finds. If you think you have something interesting, takes notes, take photos (always important if you can manage it!) and send in the information. If you don't know who to contact, you can always contact us at Cape May Bird Observatory, we'd love to hear from you.

As for my own 'unexpecteds' of late, here's a few photos of some Cape May finds to get you fired up to go out and see what you can find. I might also add to this the wonderful Great Spangled Fritillary that twice flew around me for prolonged views at Hidden Valley last Sunday but never once settled for a photograph... Most days, you won't find anything startling but, the day that you go out and don't see something of interest, is the day to think about hanging up your optics - and that would be a sad day indeed!

The unexpected may not always be a rare species, but rather a rare opportunity. Recently I was driving along a dirt road when a Seaside Sparrow decided to land right on the road and hang out for a while. This is a very common saltmarsh species, but typically these birds will keep themselves well-hidden. Always having the camera to hand is the best way to make the best of these rare opportunities. [Photo by Mike Crewe] 

Recently my wife and I were on the trail of Dwarf Azalea, a species that is listed as State Endangered in New Jersey and which has a world distribution that extends only along the coastal plain from New Jersey to Georgia. Having found some at a known site, we then chanced across an extensive population of this species elsewhere in the county, adding to our knowledge of the range and distribution of this attractive plant. Although collected as early as 1743, this plant was overlooked and not formally described for science until 1913. As such, it does not appear in many of the earlier plant books and may well be overlooked. Careful recording and study will help us to better understand the range of this species and thus be better placed to ensure its survival. [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Another species listed as State Endangered is the Pine Barrens Treefrog. Although it can be locally quite common, this species is protected as its habitat is very vulnerable to being permanently damaged, so we need to be aware of its distribution so that we can best ensure that suitable habitat is protected in appropriate areas. The official page for this species on the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife website does not indicate this species as occurring in Cape May. Despite this, a number of diligent naturalists have noted this species here, and those of us on a joint botanical and entomological field trip were delighted when Jamie Cromartie (associate professor of environmental studies at Stockton College and now awesome frog catcher) spotted this little beastie just hanging out on a dirt track in Belleplain State Forest. Pine Barrens Treefrogs are clearly in our area! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

And, of course, it is not just me that gets a chance to enjoy the unexpected. We all know that Prothonotary Warbler is a top prize for those who wait patiently in mosquito-ridden maple swamps. So imagine the delight of Pat & Clay Sutton when they were treated to a pair of Prothonotaries nesting in a wren basket that swings from a hook on the front porch of their house! If you got this phone call and it wasn't Pat and Clay, you would definitely get the feeling that the observer had been hitting the bottle! But again, the power of a camera helps to establish your claim. [Photo by Mike Crewe] 

NJDEP's Natural Heritage Program ranks species rarity according to our knowledge of distribution and population density (among other things). All of this information is based upon sound, demonstrable observation in the field and ensures that the rarer species are monitored and protected. Currently, Mocha Emerald is listed as an S2 species (state imperiled) because of apparent rarity - S2 indicates 6 to 20 occurrences in the state in recent years. However, this is an elusive species; it is dull brown and habitually flies low in wet woodland, well away from the eyes of the average passer-by. Over the past four years, we have located this species at five different locations (the one above being photographed just a few days ago) in Cape May County - a county which officially has no records for this species. So having keen eyes out there can actually help us to locate species that may in fact be more common than we might think. [Photo by Mike Crewe]

I deliberately finished on a rare dragonfly since it leads me nicely into a little plug for our regular dragonfly workshop which takes place on Saturday, July 11th this year. We'll have a short tutorial on dragonfly ecology, then spend the rest of the day in the field, learning how to identify dragonflies and studying their behavior. Past workshops have given us a wide range of species, from tiny Citrine Forktails to brutal Dragonhunters. For more details, contact our program registrar on 609-861-0700. I look forward to spending time with you in the field - let's see if we can find the unexpected!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Celebrating Turtles!

In honor of last week being Sea Turtle Week, I thought I would write about our resident marine reptiles and their relatives. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “We don’t get Sea Turtles in Cape May.” True, they don’t nest here, but you can surely see them by boat once you get offshore. Also, I completely missed World Turtle Day, which was May 23rd, so here is my belated turtle-related post.

A Loggerhead Sea Turtle seen about 50 miles offshore during a recent pelagic birding trip. Though these turtles don't come onto our beaches to nest, a solid number can be spotted by boat. One even hung out in one of the salt marshes around Cape May last summer. [Photo by Jesse Amesbury.]

Most people know the basic life cycle of the world’s seven species of sea turtles and you may even be familiar with the biological mystery of where juvenile sea turtles went from the time they hatched to sub-adulthood known as “the lost years”. Now, thanks to research from the mid 1980’s, we know these little cuties hatch from our beaches and head out to the Sargasso Sea where they ride around on mats of sargassum algae, eating small fish and invertebrates they find within their floating microcosm.  Unfortunately, these sargassum mats attract pollution in addition to young animals. Pieces of plastic and Styrofoam, monofilament fishing line, and oil can all be readily found amongst the algae.

Plastic pollution is currently one of the greatest hazards to our oceans, especially plastic bags and Mylar balloons. All seven species of sea turtles regularly eat jellyfish, with one species in particular, the Leatherback Sea Turtle, who specializes predominately on jellyfish. To a turtle, a floating plastic bag or balloon looks a lot like a jelly. If they don’t choke, or the toxins within the material don’t kill them, then many turtles starve to death with a belly full of plastic. It’s not a pleasant death, and it’s not isolated to turtles. Countless species of dolphins, whales, sharks, tuna, and birds like Albatross are impacted by this plastic pollution. You may be surprised by how many balloons make it into our oceans. A couple weeks ago I was on a pelagic birding trip where we fished out half a dozen Mylar balloons nearly 80 miles offshore. Just last week, staff at the Holgate Wilderness Area of the Edwin B. Forsyth National Wildlife Refuge picked up over 100 balloons on their beaches! Whether you live on the coast or 1,000 miles inland, balloons find their way to our oceans and have catastrophic impacts on our marine wildlife. So please do not release balloons, they are one of the most destructive forms of pollution to wildlife.

Birders on a pelagic birding trip practicing what they preach and retrieving a Mylar balloon out of the ocean nearly 80 miles offshore. We pulled about 6 balloons out of the water that day, most of which had the message "Happy Mother's Day". [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.] 

Our resident, semi-aquatic turtles found closer to land have their own set of challenges. Diamondback Terrapins are unique in that they are the only turtle species in the western hemisphere that spends its entire life in the brackish water of back bays and estuaries. These beautiful, speckled-blue turtles used to be the main ingredient in Turtle soup but the popularity of the dish has waned, in large part due to Prohibition and the inaccessibility of a key ingredient, sherry. Nowadays, these turtles face threats caused by crab traps and roads.

Though they specialize on eating shelled animals like snails and mussels, Terrapins will indulge in a variety of foods, including dead fish and chicken livers (aka crab trap bait). Just like the crabs, the turtles enter the trap and cannot get out, but unlike crabs, all turtles have lungs and eventually they drown. In the mid 1990’s, biologists at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor developed special plastic squares called Terrapin Excluder Devices (TEDs) that are just the right size and shape to keep medium to large turtles from entering the traps. Since the implementation of TEDs the amount of terrapin by-catch in crab traps has been reduced dramatically and has even been shown to help keep crabs from escaping the traps, so it’s a win-win. In New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland it is required by law that all crab traps used in tidal creeks less than 150 feet wide must be fitted with TEDs. Unfortunately, this is not the case throughout the entirety of the Terrapin’s range, so crab trap mortality still poses a large threat in some parts of the country. In fact, one abandoned trap recovered in a tidal creek on Jekyll Island, Georgia contained 94 dead Diamondback Terrapins.
A Terrapin Excluder Device (TED) developed by the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, NJ. These required additions dramatically reduce the number of Diamondback Terrapins accidentally caught in crab traps. [Photo courtesy of the Wetlands Institute.]

94 dead Diamondback Terrapins, the contents of one abandoned crab trap found in a tidal marsh on Jekyll Island, Georgia. This was one of about a dozen abandoned traps in that same tidal creek. For a turtle that takes 5-7 years to reach sexual maturity, a loss of this many individuals at once can have catastrophic effects on their population. [Photo by Andrew Grosse.]

Like all turtles, Diamondback Terrapins must lay their eggs up above the high tide line, if their eggs get inundated, they’ll die. Unfortunately, the highest part of our salt marshes around here tends to be roads. Each year, despite signs warning motorist, hundreds of female terrapins are hit and killed on causeways around Cape May. The fact that road mortality is skewed to females is a doubly whammy to their population. When it comes to population ecology, scientists don’t really fret about how many males there are (sorry guys); they typically only take the female population into account since they are the ones who determine how many offspring can be produced each year.

A female Diamondback Terrapin getting ready to cross a busy road in order to find suitable nesting habitat. Much of the desirable habitat along salt marshes has been developed for businesses or houses, forcing these turtles to look for places to nest that are extremely dangerous. [Photo by Brian Crawford.]

Roads pose an equally large threat to our native terrestrial Box Turtles as they do to Terrapins. These turtles can frequently be seen crossing roads in the springtime or after heavy rains.  Box Turtles are small and well camouflaged so they can be hard to see along roadsides, especially at night. Sadly, a recent study out of Clemson University showed that a number of drivers would swerve to intentionally hit rubber dummy-turtles placed in the road. If you do find a turtle attempting to cross a road you can help them by placing them safely off to the side of the road they were heading (if you put them back in the direction they’re coming from they will just try to cross again) but always be conscious of the safety of you and others on the road. Road mortality, coupled with taking turtles from the wild for the pet trade, has caused a dramatic decrease (over 30%) in Box Turtle populations.

An Eastern Box Turtle edges up to the road in an attempt to cross. Roadways frequently cut through these terrestrial turtles home ranges and therefore put these slow-movers into harms way. Please keep an eye out for turtles and help them across by moving them onto to the side of the road in the direction they were heading. [Photo by Todd Pierson.]

Whether it’s Sea Turtles 50 miles offshore, Diamondback Terrapins along salt marshes, or Box Turtles in your own backyard, these long-lived and dare I say, adorable, reptiles can be observed all over the place. Our actions can have unintended consequences that ripple throughout an ecosystem. So do our shelled-friends a favor and slow down on roads, don’t release balloons, and help them out of a dangerous situation from time to time. The turtles and your fellow turtle-lovers thank you!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Right in your own backyard

This past weekend, naturalists from Cape May Bird Observatory and the Nature Center of Cape May hosted an event named Birds and Beers on the Bay by Bike. Starting in Cape May, we biked and birded our way through Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area. We were serenaded by Orchard Orioles, Wood Pewees, and lots of Catbirds as we took a leisurely ride around the WMA before making our way to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. A handful of Wilson’s Storm-petrels accompanied us along our route to our sister cape and Delaware greeted us with an unexpected White-winged Scoter. We took a beautiful ride around Cape Henlopen State Park and over to Gordon’s Pond where Black Skimmers and Common Yellowthroats were putting on a show.

CMBO Director, David LaPuma, showing off his biking-with-a-spotting-scope skills while biking along Gordon's Pond in Cape Henlopen State Park for the Birds and Beers on the Bay by Bike tour. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]
No birding trip to Delaware would be complete without some adorably-squeaky Brown-headed Nuthatches, and though the looks were fleeting, we got them nevertheless. We had to peddle hard up to Rehoboth Beach to stay ahead of a looming thunderstorm and made it to Dogfish Head Brewery just before the skies opened up. After some good food and even better beer, we made our way back to Lewes via the Junction & Breakwater Trail. This spectacular path winds through old growth forest and wetlands, giving you a sense of being miles away from civilization. Yet, this trail opens into a new, extremely manicured housing development, where native plants have been replaced with non-natives and retention ponds are zig-zagged with wire to keep waterfowl out. It was a stark contrast to the natural places we had been exploring but presented a great opportunity to discuss the landscaping choices we make in our own properties. We would never end on a bad note though, so a relaxing ferry ride brought us back to Cape May where we capped off the event with a much-deserved Cape May Brewing Company beer.

Ominous skies looming overhead at Gordon's Pond in Cape Henlopen State Park caused us to peddle faster towards Rehoboth Beach to the promise of shelter (and beer) at the Dogfish Head Brewery. We made it in the nick of time and were inside while Mother Nature gave the rest of the area a drink too. [Photo by Phil LaTourette.]

I discovered that it is not easy (and sometimes dangerous) getting a clear picture while biking, especially after visiting Dogfish Head Brewery! Here are some of our Birds and Beers on the Bay by Bike tour participants taking in the beautiful scenery of the Junction & Breakwater Trail between Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, Deleware. [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.]

Our group of fifteen consisted of a wide range of ages and experience, from skilled birders to one woman who was afraid of birds. By the end though, I think we converted most of our new friends to bird lovers! One reoccurring comment throughout the trip (other than how much they were learning) was how they never knew these beautiful wildlife places even existed. As one of our participants Greg noted, “I’ve been living around the corner from here for years and I never knew Cox Hall Creek was there!” Which got me thinking, how many people pass by these natural places everyday, complete unaware of their existence?

Newly-converted bird enthusiast, Solomon, takes a closer look at a perched Blue Grosbeak during one of the stops along a marshy section of Cape Henlopen State Park on the Birds and Beers on the Bay by Bike tour. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]
As an avid birder and all-around nature lover, I am constantly outside, exploring the natural areas we have throughout the county. Though to be honest, I learned of these places by word-of-mouth or attending one of our CMBO walks. A visit to one of our NJ Audubon Centers can provide a wealth of information and maps to natural areas to go hiking and birding, but what about areas that occur outside the county or even outside the state? That led me on what I am lovingly referring to my Search for Natural Areas Around Me Search Engines! Type in “natural areas around me” into your favorite online search engine and you will be bombarded by some helpful, but many not-so-helpful, websites. So, I went through them for you and at the bottom of this post you will find a compiled list of helpful websites (with links!) to aid you in your search for places to explore.

There is no shortage of scientific research that suggests communing with nature can result in a wide range of health benefits from reducing anxiety and depression symptoms, to increasing Vitamin D and focus. Just being outside and active, whether it’s biking up the bayshore or walking the trails of your local park, can release feel-good neurotransmitters like endorphins and serotonin. Spending time in natural light can also help normalize your internal clock (circadian rhythm), renewing your eating and sleeping cycles, and who doesn't need more sleep nowadays? Simply put, being outside is good for you!

So I encourage you to search around the areas you live, or the areas you like to vacation, and find somewhere to get away from it all. Go outside, listen to the birds, watch the tides move in and out, and unplug from the constant bombardment of stress technology grants us. Your mind and body will thank you. You may even come out of the experience with a whole new appreciation for the beauty and serenity you can find around your area, even in your own backyard.

Some helpful links to find natural places and events around your area.

NJ Audubon Calendar of Events:

New Jersey State Parks: (two search options on the left side of the page)

National Parks:

National Wildlife Refuges:

National Wildlife Federation:

Unfortunately, NJ Fish & Wildlife does not have search capabilities on their website, but you can use these next two links together to first find a WMA in your county of choice, then locate a road map:

New Jersey Wildlife Management Areas:

New Jersey WMA Road Maps:

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Hey June, where'd you go?

I never seem to get used to how quickly time can pass. To think that May, with all the migration and excitement it brings, is over and we are already a couple days into June is nuts. When you think of June you think summer and it brings with it the promise of freedom and vacation. The Greenhead flies are still small, the mid-day heat is still bearable, and the infamous shore traffic is still minimal. Yes, June is indeed a glorious time here in Cape May.

I spent the first day of June working on my deck, soaking in the perfect morning. My yard was teaming with life and in the span of a few hours I had over 10 species of bird make their way through my yard, including a very vocal Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a brilliant male Scarlet Tanager. I quickly became enamored by a pair of Chipping Sparrows nesting in a close Pitch Pine and watched as they diligently brought back caterpillars, flies, and other various insects. They would cautiously making their way up the branches and out to their nest, perfectly camouflaged among a cluster of pinecones. Though I never saw them, I could here the faint peeps of their chicks as they begged for the morsel of food. Yes, it was an incredible way to start the month!

Chipping Sparrow bouncing around the yard. [Photo by Sam Galick.]

So, you can imagine my shock when I walked out onto my porch Tuesday to give June 2nd a proper welcome and was greeted by a cold, wet blast. As someone who spent the past 8 years in Georgia, I don’t take kindly to the cold, especially when it’s supposed to be summer. This week has seen nearly record lows for the first week of June and I can’t help but worry for my Chipping Sparrow chicks.

Birds have various methods at their disposal when it comes to dealing with the cold. Overwintering birds, like American Goldfinches and Tufted Titmice, can acclimatize to the cold. However, acclimatization requires a gradual decrease in temperature to allow the bird’s metabolism to actually slow down, reducing their normally high caloric needs. In other words, it’s not a useful trick for sudden cold snaps. Like mammals, birds can produce frictional heat within their muscles by shivering. Also, as you may have observed, birds will fluff up their feathers when cold. This allows air to be trapped within the soft down feathers close to the skin of the bird. The air quickly warms up and acts like a blanket for the bird.

Eastern Kingbird slightly fluffed up in the rain. Depending on how long the rain may last, birds maybe be forced to forage and continue nesting despite the unfavorable conditions. [Photo by Jesse Amesbury.]

 All these adaptations work great for adult birds that are cold, but what about chicks who have no feathers and already have extremely high energy demands? Shivering, as minimal movement as it is, still requires energy and nestlings have to put everything they have towards growth and development. What makes this cold snap even scarier for our young chicks about the area is that it’s a very wet cold. Anyone who has been caught in a sudden rainstorm can attest to the fact that being wet and cold is much worse than just being cold. The risk of hypothermia increases dramatically when you’re wet, which is why wilderness survival 101 is to stay dry.

For our baby birds, huddling together is a great way to stay warm, but parents also do a lot to keep them dry and warm. Adults will sit on their nest even after the eggs have incubated and hatched in an attempt to shelter their young ones from the harsher elements. Most adult birds will also develop a brood patch during the nesting season, a feather-less area on their stomachs to allow direct skin-to-egg or skin-to-chick contact. This area of skin is chocked full of blood vessels and increases heat transfer from parent to offspring. Many perching birds only develop one large patch on their stomach, whereas shorebirds will have two patches, one on either side of their legs. Shorebird chicks are very precocial, meaning they hatch out of the egg with down feathers, open eyes, and the ability to run around on comically-large legs and feet. These chicks will snuggle up underneath Mom and Dad, against those brood patches, to stay warm and dry. Since some of our chicks are beginning to hatch on our beaches, you might start noticing fluffy Piping Plovers with extra legs!

Ospreys nesting in Stone Harbor. The female stays on the nest to not only incubate the eggs but help shield them from the rain and wind. [Photo by Travis Davis.]

Digiscoped photo of Piping Plover adult with chick hiding underneath it. Plovers are in the category of shorebirds with two brood patches, one on either side of their legs. [Photo by Lindsey Brendel.]

As I sit here looking out the window at the windy, rainy, cool weather, I am hoping for sunnier days ahead. Call me a softie if you must, but I cannot help worrying for the young and vulnerable chicks around our area. If the forecast holds though, it looks like we are on the tail end of this less-than-desirable weather and we can get back to summer and the June we all know and love.