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!

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