Sunday, June 28, 2015

Halfway Through

Well, as Michael O'Brien joked with me this morning, we're past the solstice, so it's fall. He has a point, though the Laughing Gulls with their downy chicks out on the marshes would disagree, as would the Pine Warblers feeding recently fledged young at Cox Hall Creek WMA in Villas, NJ. That's the mark of summer in the North American bird world for me - birds making and caring for babies.  Most Pine Warblers will remain on their breeding grounds though August at least, and yet we saw one flying west along the dunes at Cape May Point this morning.  What was that bird doing? And certainly there are plenty of other species for which the "normal" southbound migration period includes the tail end of June, especially certain shorebirds. So it's fall and summer both.

If you haven't already heard, there was an epic movement of shearwaters out of Delaware Bay this morning, which is why a bunch of us were crowded onto one of the dune crossovers in Cape May Point, watching.  Tom Reed came up with the following extraordinary numbers: 182 Great Shearwaters, 19 Cory's Shearwaters, 2 Manx Shearwaters, 1 Sooty Shearwater. Steady east winds and a rising tide overnight contributed to putting these birds into the bay, or that's what we think.  Speaking of seasons, for these shearwaters (except Manx) it is their winter, since they breed in the southern hemisphere during our winter. Manx is the exception, breeding as it does on islands with rocky cliffs in the northern hemisphere during our summer.  I believe the only breeding site for Manx in North America is in Newfoundland.

I missed the first part of the shearwater thing because I was birding Cox Hall Creek WMA as I have most early mornings, with my dog, since January.  I've come to think of this as my Cox Hall Creek "project" - a semi-serious effort to learn exactly what birds use the area when, and how. It's also been a bit of a birding game.  Some readers will remember that last winter I threatened to do a big year just on Cox Hall Creek.  Well, I'm sort of doing it. In the course of the "project," I've submitted 92 complete checklists to eBird for Cox Hall Creek since January 1, 2015, and recorded 155 bird species there so far this year. Normally on each visit I take about an hour to walk the approximately 2 mile outer loop of trails, and I'll confess to mainly birding by ear since a) that's what I do in landbird habitat and b) I'm also keeping an eye on the dog, and sorting through life's mysteries in my mind.

June is a time of year in Cape May County when you might think you could do your bird checklist before you go out the door, if you know the area well.  Breeders are there, migrants are not, so it's breeders plus a few stray overhead wanderers like egrets and gulls, or so you would think.  Yesterday I had a Great Blue Heron at Cox Hall Creek. It was an adult (told by the well-marked head pattern) on the big pond.  Great Blues don't breed anywhere particularly nearby, so what was that bird doing?

Here's another mystery.  Since May, there has been one Eastern Wood-pewee at Cox Hall Creek, almost always singing near the parking lot at the end of Shawmount Road, although it sometimes ranges a bit farther.  I'm guessing by its persistent singing and ranging that it is an unpaired male.  But this morning there were three Eastern Wood-pewee's singing at the WMA.  What's up with that?  Unpaired floater males from farther afield?  Migrants? - and if so, which way are they going?

And another mystery:  Last fall three Northern Bobwhite appeared at Cox Hall Creek, origin uncertain.  After November, they went missing.  Yet on May 20 a bobwhite called there, and after missing the species on something like the next 15 visits, on June 25 I saw what was either a female or juvenile - it didn't fly well - and heard a male give the full bob-white call.  What's up with these birds, and did they in fact breed there?

Looking further back, in early winter I was detecting Hairy Woodpecker regularly at Cox Hall Creek.  Then the species went missing from early February until mid April.  Hairy is generally considered to be non-migratory, and February would be an unusual time to head south, but I wonder, did the Hairy Woodpeckers facultatively migrate somewhere more hospitable during the harsh winter and return?  Did the wintering birds die and new ones replace them, "migrating" in in April?

It's been fun, birding one place so regularly. A great way to explore bird occurrence at Cox Hall Creek is to check its  hotspot report on eBird. This, by the way, is a great way to explore any birding hotspot, anywhere.

For the record, here's my year list for Cox Hall Creek WMA to date:
Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Northern Bobwhite
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
Semipalmated Plover
Spotted Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Least Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Wilson's Snipe
American Woodcock
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Forster's Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Great Horned Owl
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
crow sp.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Winter Wren
Carolina Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Waterthrush
Blue-winged Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
American Redstart
Cape May Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Palm Warbler
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Canada Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Summer Tanager
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
Purple Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Friday, May 29, 2015

Watching a Worm-eating Warbler

 [Worm-eating Warblers are known for their somewhat unique foraging habit: hanging upside down on (often dead) clumps of leaves to extract tasty bits like caterpillars.  Here, one does just that. Note the rolled-up leaf  the warbler has its feet around - many butterfly and moth larvae will curl themselves inside leaves for protection during the day, emerging to feed on the leaves at night.  Belleplain State Forest, NJ, May 27, 2015.  Click to enlarge photos.]

My son Tim called it epic.  We chanced upon a foraging Worm-eating Warbler at very close range in Belleplain State Forest, NJ early Wednesday morning, and spent several minutes watching it as it foraged in classic wormie fashion, hanging upside down at leaf clusters. Using different foraging styles is one way birds in a forest, or anywhere, can partition resources - not that they choose to do that, it's just what has evolved and allowed different species to coexist in the same place at the same time. Thus Worm-eating Warblers avoid competition with, say, neighboring Red-eyed Vireos, which tend to spot-and-stalk openly visible caterpillars higher in the canopy.

 [Now we can see the Worm-eating Warbler's target - a caterpillar wrapped in silk, rolled up in the leaf, hoping to stay safe for the day.  Not so for this one - the worm-eating shortly extracted it, flew off to the ground with it, pummeled it with its bill, and ate it.]

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Alabama Part 3: Rarities

 [Gray Kingbird, near the "Goat Trees," Dauphin Island, Alabama, April 20, 2015.]

Rarities add a little spice to birding, not that the gulf coast needs much spice (the crawdads were almost as spicy as the birding!]  We tracked a couple goodies on our trip, including the Gray Kingbird above, and below, a Black-whiskered Vireo, the first North American lifer I've had in a long, long time.

[Black-whiskered Vireo, Shell Mounds, Dauphin Island, AL, April 19, 2015.]

Alabama Part 2: Diversity - Warblers

[Kentucky Warbler, Shell Mounds, Dauphin Island, Alabama, April 21, 2015.  A male, as told by the bold black on the face. Getting this photo took all the stalking skills I could muster, since Kentucky is a notoriously elusive critter.  It was also dark; this was shot at ISO 6400, 1/200th of a second. Click to enlarge all photos.]

As explained in the previous post, I'm just back from a week in coastal Alabama, where we had, among ~160 bird species, 29 (!) species of warblers! And many, even the skulkers, were readily observable as they fed hard after their 600 mile journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

We couldn't quite manage to find that 30th species, though we tried hard.  Swainson's Warbler and Mourning Warbler were among the missing prospects, but still, it's hard to complain about this kind of diversity. Here's a sampling:

[Male Bay-breasted Warbler, Audubon Sanctuary, Dauphin Island, AL, April 21, 2015.]

[Male Cape May Warbler at Bottlebrush on Dauphin Island, AL, April 20, 2015.]

[Worm-eating Warbler, Dauphin Island, AL. We saw Worm-eatings almost every day.]

 [Above, Louisiana Waterthrush, and below, Northern Waterthrush, Shell Mounds, Dauphin Island, AL April 20, 2015. How to tell them apart?  Note the Lousiana's whiter eyebrow, that extends well past the eye and even broadens slightly rearward, as well as it's bigger bill and buffy wash on the flanks.  It was a little late to be getting Louisiana on the coast, they are early migrants.]

Up next:  a couple Alabama rarities.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sweet Home Alabama, Part 1: Abundance

 [Part of a flock of 40 Indigo Buntings at the Shell Mounds, Dauphin Island, Alabama, April 19, 2015. Click to enlarge all photos]

Some dear friends and I spent the past week on the Gulf Coast, which is where birders often go in April to witness the spectacular trans-gulf migration of neotropical migrant birds, like warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  Both diversity and numbers of birds can be high when conditions are right, which means right for the birders, not the birds. Basically what you want is either north winds or, even better, rain, on the coast or out in the Gulf of Mexico to make migrating difficult, and force tired birds down in the first available patch of cover.

We were in a new spot to witness this amazing annual phenomenon, new for us anyway.  Most birders think Texas when they think of fallouts along the gulf, and rightly, but the other gulf states have legendary birding as well, and we chose Dauphin Island, Alabama for our stay.

[Dozens of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds thronged to the feeder at our rental house on Dauphin Island during a rain squall, April 20, 2015.]

Some of our high counts of birds were impressive - 75 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, 25 Red-eyed Vireos, 25 Scarlet Tanagers, 40 Indigo Buntings - even though we didn't hit true fallout weather conditions.  And I'm glad - seeing stressed, tired birds can be, well, stressful and tiring. . .

[One that didn't make it - a Wood Thrush washed up on the sand at Dauphin Island, April 22, 2015. In severe weather conditions, thankfully rare, thousands of birds can perish before they reach shore while migrating across the Gulf of Mexico.]

[It's not just land birds - shorebirding can be excellent on the gulf, as these hendersoni Short-billed Dowitchers, western Willet, and Sanderling attest.]

[Alabama abundance of a different kind - blooming White-topped Pitcher Plants at Splinter Hill Preserve, north of Mobile, Alabama.  Bachman's Sparrow was singing in the background.]

Up next: diversity (29 warblers!)