Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Watching the sea in spring

March 1st was the kickoff for the newest migration count in Cape May, dubbed "Springwatch". This all-volunteer count has been going on for a few years but over the last three has become more regularly carried out on a daily basis between March and June.

Last year New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory was able to house several volunteer counters for the Springwatch, and this year we've gone a step further and offered some administrative support in addition to housing, for facilitating those who are willing to come and put in a few days to a few weeks of counting. The count continues to be led by Tom Reed, Cape May Co. native and author of the birding year in review for our annual journal, the Peregrine Observer. Tom has been splitting his time between Cape May and Duluth, MN, and has recently returned to carry out the spring count. You can track the movement of birds each day on the site (today's count is here:, or just show up to the Coral Avenue dune crossover any day between now and the end of May. The count begins at sunrise and continues for a minimum of 3 hours. The count may continue longer if the flight warrants it, and on rainy days the count is moved to the sheltered side of the Sunset Grille at the west end of Sunset Boulevard.

I had the pleasure of being the counter last Saturday morning and really enjoyed the diversity of birds that graced my view over the three hours, despite the overall low volume (winds howling out of the NW are not conducive to large flights in spring!). I especially enjoy watching the Bonaparte's Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia ; Ord 1815) and their distinct flutter-flight, so buoyant in the air, and distinctly marked with a bright white wedge on the leading edge of their wing. I didn't have a chance to photograph birds while I was counting, so I headed out to Sunset Beach this morning to see if I could grab a few shots. The conditions were less than favorable (cloudy and rainy) but the birds were close to shore and putting on a show as they fed in the tumultuous whitewater.
Bonaparte's Gull with headlights on and coming in hot!
Three "Bonies" with a 1st-winter bird leading the two adults
Bonaparte's are a "two-year gull" meaning it takes two years for them to reach adult plumage. At this time of year all Bonaparte's are in winter plumage, sporting a white head with dark ear spot and black bill. Legs are bubblegum pink and obvious when the birds are standing on the beach. Birds born last summer have bold dark markings on the upper sides of their wings, as well as the tip of their tail, making them easily recognizable as "1st winter" birds (this is their first winter since they were born). Adult birds, in contrast, show clean gray backs and all-white tails.

Unique among gulls, Bonaparte's Gull nest almost exclusively in trees within the remote taiga and boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. Lucky for us, in winter they can be quite social and indifferent to humans, providing great opportunities to view them near shore especially along the Delaware Bay!

Another really cool sighting which occurred yesterday and continued again this morning, was of a Thick-billed Murre swimming close to shore both mornings. Dustin Welch captured a few shots of this uncommon-from-shore seabird yesterday when it was initially found by the Springwatch counters. Here's one of Dustin's great photos:

Thick-billed Murre © Dustin Welch
Of course as we progress into spring we will see diversity begin to ramp up quite quickly, so if you'd like to check out some of the great birds Cape May has to offer be sure to join us on one of our guided walks, attend one of our School of Birding workshops, or get a personal tour with our guide-for-hire service.

All the info you need is in our quarterly program guide, the Kestrel Express, downloadable here:
Or free to pick up at our Northwood Center, 701 E. Lake Drive.

We hope to see you soon here in Cape May!

A winter-plumaged Red-throated Loon from Sunset Beach
Red-breasted Merganser, the punk rock duck!

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