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.]

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