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].

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Seawatch starts today at a new location!

New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory began counting waterbirds at the Avalon Seawatch today at sunrise. This is the 22nd year of the count and the first with a proper seawatching structure! Thanks to Avalon mayor Martin Pagliughi and his team for building and installing a beautiful seawatching "hide" for our use in both counting the count, and bringing programming to the public. For those of you who have visited in the past, the new location is actually one block south of the old site, on the beach between 8th and 9th streets. You can park at the end of 8th (jetty entrance) or 9th and walk around the dune to the structure. Of course if you're not able to be here, you can watch migration in real-time via our Specteo page.  Fall is HERE! Come Birding!!

Click picture to enlarge

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Monday for the History Books

Monday morning turned into the proverbial bull in a china shop, not just breaking expectations but smashing them! A staggering 56,636 warblers were counted as they flew past the Higbee Dike and the smoke coming from Morning Flight counter, Glen Davis’s head could be seen for miles. As many of you already know, Cape May experiences an influx of birds follow a cold front from the northwest. Migrants get pushed to the coast during their southern migration and find themselves funneled to the Cape May peninsula as they follow the diversion line that is the ocean. The passing of a slow front and strong, northwest winds Sunday night and into Monday morning obviously moved more birds than any of us were expecting. As Glen himself declared, he’s done trying to predict the intensity of morning flight.

On the morning in question, the flight started of slowly. Then the skies opened up, or rather, the birds lifted up. Starting around 6:50am, over 40,000 birds passed by in an incredible 40 minutes! A team of counters had to be quickly assembled since it was entirely too much for one person to even comprehend, let alone count. Mike Lanzone, Tom Reed, and Glen Davis divided up the sky while CMBO Director, David La Puma took over data entry into the Specteo tablet. It is estimated that roughly 30 birds per second were passing by the dike during a period of time that morning. 30 birds per second…just let that image sink in, if it’s a spectacle you can even imagine.

The counting team, Glen Davis, Mike Lanzone, and Tom Reed hard at work trying to catch the intense Morning Flight that started Monday and continued into Tuesday, the 15th. David La Puma was tasked with inputting the constant flow of data in the Specteo tablet. [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.]

Worth noting is the incredible number of American Redstarts that were tallied Monday morning. 8,724 Redstarts were clicked, but to be clear, this is the number that could be positively identified within the mayhem of the morning. It is thought that Redstarts made up about 71% of the flight as a whole, bringing the estimated total to 40,729. To put that into perspective, the previous season record under the Morning Flight Project for Redstarts was 6,506 in 2010. It’s also fun to look at the Morning Flight count numbers for September 14, 2014, with 2,631 American Redstarts and 4,745 warblers overall. So again, Monday was a bull, a giant bull, in the china shop know as the history of morning flight in Cape May. Here at CMBO, we are both honored and humbled to have been witness to it and able to document such a historic moment.

For more information on Monday’s historic flight, visit Glen’s blog post at

Since the word of Monday got out, the top of the dike was crowded come Tuesday morning, the 15th. At one point I counted 47 birders up there! If it hadn't been for Monday, Tuesday's flight would have been historic on its own, with 10,039 warblers tallied, including 7,251 American Redstarts. [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.]

A flyby Connecticut Warbler from Tuesday, September 15th. The day was not only filled with an incredible number of birds, but also a handful of uncommon birds. For moments like this we are thankful for spectators equipped with cameras to help ID some of the more interesting ones. [Photo by Sam WIlson.]

Another treat Tuesday came in the form of a flyby Red-headed Woodpecker, one of two that morning. Other unusual birds seen as flybys included White-winged Dove,Canada Warbler, and Golden-winged Warbler. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

Sunday, September 13, 2015

There's a whole lot of learning going on

I got to spend this morning on the Hawkwatch platform, enjoying a decent flight of accipiters and falcons. It has been a bit of a rough start to the counting season, having had only one decent cold front come through (until last night/tonight that is). As I sat there witnessing the seasonal interpretive naturalist pick out distant raptors and correctly identify them, a huge grin crossed my face, and at the risk of sounding patronizing, I was so proud. Coming into this job, their knowledge of birds and identification spanned from one extreme to the other. Yet, here they are, less than two weeks into the job, calling out birds like seasoned hawk watchers! It reminded me of my first couple weeks on the platform last year. To think of everything I have learned and experienced in my year in Cape May is staggering. There is an overwhelming amount of knowledge in this town, held in the minds and spirits of those who call this place home, as well as those who can’t help but visit year after year.

CMBO Program Director, Mike Crewe, and our 2015 Seasonal Interpretive Naturalists, Tara, Jacob, & Erin, receiving an in-depth lesson on raptor identification from Migration Count Coordinator, Tom Reed. Training sessions such as these allow interns to make the most of their time here in Cape May. Though Erin seems to already be feeling the effects of information overload after only one day! [Photo by Margeaux Maerz.]

When many of us think of fall, we think of cooler days, fresh apples, and back-to-school, but Cape May is an incredible place to come and learn no matter the season. Throughout the year, Cape May Bird Observatory offers guided walks and workshops on topics including trees, dragonflies and butterflies, and of course, birds. We have interpretive naturalists stationed at our three seasonal migration counts (Morning Flight, Hawkwatch, and Seawatch) to help orient you to the area and the wildlife that can be found here. There are also a whole host of locals and annual visitors who not only have a lot worth sharing, but love talking to others about the things they know. Some of them really love it, like good luck getting them to stop talking! All kidding aside though, we are incredibly fortunate to have a community full of people who are just as passionate about teaching as they are about the birds and plants they study.

A CMBO field trip to Barnegat Light to view winter specialties like Harlequin Ducks and Common Eiders. CMBO has trips and walks throughout the year that highlight the diversity of birds this state has to offer. [Photo by Megan Crewe.]

CMBO Program Director, Mike Crewe, explains the differences in plumage between adult and juvenile shorebirds. Details like that are only some of the things participants in Mike's half-day Shorebirds workshop learned. A variety of half-day, full-day, and even multi-day workshops are offered year-round through CMBO's School of Birding. [Photo by Hugh Simmons.} 

NJ Audubon and Cape May Bird Observatory have a long history of environmental education in this state, from the schools that visit our centers to the outreach and festivals we organize. Established two years ago and supported by NJ Audubon, New Jersey Young Birders Club works to bring kids and teens interested in birds and the environment together. They organize birding field trips around the state and even have their own World Series of Birding Team. Other centers, including NJ Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May offer camps and specialty trips focused on birding in and around Cape May. Sometimes getting people involved in conservation is as easy as showing them what’s worth saving. Bringing kids into the fold at an early age has the potential to create lifelong environmental stewards and enthusiasts.
New Jersey Youth Birding Club members out on a walk at Cape May Point State Park with Tom Reed as part of a specialty workshop on Terns. Kids 17 and under are able to join and participate in birding field trips, workshops, and even competitions, all funded by NJ Audubon and their partners. [Photo by Sam Wilson.]

Campers from NJ Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May are joined by NJ Fish and Wildlife's Lindsey Brendel and NJ Audubon's Margeaux Maerz as they get a closer look at nesting Least Terns. Getting up-close and personal with one of NJ's endangered, beach-nesting birds gets kids excited about this species and its conservation. [Photo by Amanda Doyle.]

So make your way down the coast to see what all the fuss is about. From the ocean to the Delaware Bay, Cape May has it and everything in between. Take a stroll on one of our daily walks, participate in a workshop led by an expert, or even go for the full experience during our Fall Migration Festival October 23-25. You never know what you might learn!

For more information, check out the links below.

New Jersey Young Birders Club:

CMBO Fall Migration Festival:

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Change in the weather, change in the birds

If you haven't made plans for the weekend yet, you might want to give serious thought to that first pilgrimage of the fall down (or up!) to Cape May. After what seems like an eternity of sweltering beach weather, St Swithin - who must surely be the patron saint of migration students - has visited us and provided us with a day of rain today. Strangely, if you were here, you would see smiles on the faces of the birders in town right now, for there is a fair chance that tomorrow is going to be a day to be at Higbee Beach. Of course, it is all too easy to cry wolf; to give a shout out for Cape May and a fall of migrants every time there is a whiff of Nor-westerly in the air. But the weather chart is looking pretty good. A good-sized cold front (one of those blue, spikey lines on the weather map) headed our way and immediately bumped into a warm front (the red, non-spikey line); the expected result was what is known as an occluded front, where pockets of warm air become separated out from the main air mass, rise aloft and can produce significant rain and thunderstorms.

Generally after such events, a cooler, drier air mass moves in behind - and behind that, the weather chart is showing a second cold front on its way and a significant drop in temperature. So why the smiley birders? Well, these are the events that really kick idle migrant birds up the undertail coverts and get them heading south - and the predominantly north-west movement of air has a habit of sending those birds our way.

So, enough of all the fancy stuff, let's cross fingers and be out at first light tomorrow to see what nature has provided - it's time to head to Higbee's and we will be there for you - join us for a 7AM walk at the Higbee fields. Let's see what we can find!

Bobolinks are common fall migrants through Cape May, but they are typically notorious for being invisible, 'binking' sounds, passing high overhead. But a front can drop them down and the fields at Higbee's are as good a place as any to see these birds before they head for Brazil for the winter [photo by Mike Crewe].

Friday, September 4, 2015

My How the Times Have Changed

Tuesday, September 1st, was the start of Cape May Bird Observatory’s 2015 Hawkwatch at Cape May Point State Park. The excitement of another season at the point was palpable on this beautiful, sunny day with light northwest winds. The platform was full of friendly and familiar faces, none more so than Pete Dunne. Tuesday was especially memorable for Pete as it marked the 39th anniversary of his first official day of counting migratory raptors for CMBO.  It doesn’t take long into a conversation about that September day in 1976 to realize how far we’ve come.

To start with, we were speaking with each other atop a large, multi-tiered wooden structure that can comfortably accommodate 100+ people. It’s a far cry from the self-constructed table Pete had to turn over every night. Then there was Cameron Cox, this season’s Hawkwatch counter, busy tallying the numerous raptors making their way through Cape May Point on an electronic tablet. The tablet is equipped with new software from Specteo that allows the public to watch a live stream of the count data via website. Apart from engaging a larger audience, the hope is the data set coming from this new program can be a potential source for scientific studies regarding bird migration. I can’t imagine what 1976-Pete would think of such a set-up!

A little digging through the archives later that day revealed the physical data sheet from that pioneering September day and the differences between then and now continued to mount. The first day of the count in 1976 produced a total of 18 birds spread across 4 species: 1 Broad-winged Hawk, 4 Ospreys, 1 Peregrine Falcon, and 12 American Kestrels. Compare that to Tuesday’s total of 175 birds across 8 species, including 156 Ospreys and only 4 American Kestrels. My how the tables have turned. If you ask Pete, 4 Ospreys in one day back in 1976 was an exciting number. Now, thanks to conservation efforts and the banning of pesticides such as DDT, Ospreys have made a remarkable comeback from the dwindling population of the 60’s & 70’s. The reverse can be said for American Kestrels. These raptors have lost not only highly sought after cavities for nesting, but large expanses of foraging habitat due to urbanization and re-forestation.

Pete Dunne poses with his first ever CMBO Hawkwatch data sheet from September 1, 1976 next to a framed photo of a Peregrine Falcon. Pete reported a Peregrine that day and was met with some significant doubt from other birders in the area until his report was confirmed by a second sighting by Clay Sutton. [Photo by David La Puma.]

The original paper data sheet from the first day of the official CMBO Hawkwatch on September 1, 1976 by Pete Dunne. A total of 18 birds across 4 species including Broad-winged Hawk, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, and American Kestrel. Pete's notes on the Peregrine Falcon read as follows: "Peregrine (12:34 DST), unable to determine age due to distance of sighting. Moving NE ->SW on western side of Cape May Point (ie. towards bay) -bird flew direct with no apparent indecision." [Photo by David La Puma.]

As I watch Pete engage our three new Hawkwatch Interpretive Naturalists, recounting to them the stories of the past, I can’t help but be excited to be a part of the future. In less than 40 years we’ve gone from one counter standing on a rickety table to a team of young naturalists eager to share their enthusiasm for birding and conservation. So come visit us up on the platform this fall and have a conversation with the legends of old while absorbing the young energy of the future. I for one will be up there, eyes to sky, dreaming of what the next 40 years may bring, and honored to be a part of this long running tradition.

CMBO's 2015 Hawkwatch crew. From left to right: Margeaux Maerz (George Myers Naturalist), Cameron Cox (Hawkwatch Counter), Jacob Drucker (Interpretive Naturalist), Tara Camp (Interpretive Naturalist), Tom Reed (Count Coordinator), Erin Rawls (Interpretive Naturalist), and Clay Taylor (Swarovski representative & CMBO sponsor). [Photo by Mike Crewe.]