Thursday, November 17, 2016

Reflecting on the 'Elusive' Dickcissel

© Brett M. Ewald

Many Eastern birders think of Dickcissel as a bird of the Midwest, and for good reason; their breeding range encompasses much of the United States west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies. For that reason, recording one along the Atlantic Coast is always exciting. The problem is getting a decent look at one!

In New Jersey, Dickcissels are most likely to be encountered in the fall, when they are considered a scarce migrant. As with many species, however, Cape May exceeds the norm. With an average count of about 50/fall, you would think your chances of getting a good look at one, with an acceptable amount of effort, would be high. You would most likely be wrong. Most of these records are flyovers, detected because of their distinctive ‘raspberry’ call, with a fleeting glance the only visual reward.

A perusal of reports from Cape May during fall 2016 turns up the expected pattern of sightings. The earliest was in late August, the peak was in the first part of October, and the latest was in early November. Although a total count is hard to determine, due to the possibility of repeat encounters, it is over 50, with at least 6 recorded on 4 October. The majority of these sightings were flyovers, with only a couple seen perched or allowing for a photo. I personally heard at least 8, but only caught a glimpse of 3, as they winged their way past.

So where or how do you get a good look?  That will require some effort and luck. While the rate of detection is highest at well-known birding sites, such as the hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point State Park, the Morning Flight count at the Higbee dike, or the Coral Ave. dune crossover, they may not be your best bet. Dickcissels are a bird of the grasses and weeds, such as those in the front portion of the Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows, the fields of the Higbee Beach WMA (including Hidden Valley), or at almost any point along the dunes west of Cape May and surrounding Cape May Point. Patience and a lot of scanning will go a long way to achieving your goal; if not, you can always enjoy the myriad of other birds around you, after all, it is Cape May!

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