Monday, February 27, 2012

People Who Know Stuff, Arrivals I Guess, and Finding Rare Birds

 [This Red-throated Loon, part of a group of a dozen or more that congregated near the Nummy Island toll bridge a week ago, had a tough time swallowing this fish, partly swallowing and then disgorging it many times before finally choking it down. None of its other dives, nor those of its "friends," resulted in such angst. A friend who knows stuff helped figure out why - see photo and caption at the end of this post.]

Wandering around the Beanery with my good friend Mark Garland Saturday morning got me thinking how great it is to be around people who know a lot. Such people are easy to find in Cape May, and not just when it comes to birds. So when Mark taught me a new plant, purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), whose purple blooms begin to carpet the ground in some areas this early spring, that became just one more thing I learned from Mark.

Who you gonna call for a fish I.d.? Sue Slotterback at the Nature Center of Cape May, of course (see caption to photo, below). Butterflies? Louise Zemaitis or Will Kerling. Moths or really anything that needs identification? Mike Crewe. Aging birds and molt? Tony Leukering. Taking photos? Scott Whittle. Birds? A whole long string of folks - Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and about 20 other folks in Cape May. I'm thankful such folks are friends.

Mark and I had an Eastern Phoebe at the Beanery on Saturday, and by Sunday there was that plus Barn Swallow found by the CMBO walk, plus Purple Martin at the Point and the Pine Warbler pictured in my last post, below. I had been thinking arrivals, "I guess," about the phoebe on Saturday and PIWA on Sunday, but the spate of other new birds that came in seems to remove the "I guess" part. Phoebe and Pine Warbler are both capable of wintering at least occasionally in Cape May, if the weather is really mild. As arrivers, they are really early, as are the Barn Swallow and Purple Martin.

Rare birds. Sibley says it right in his book: "Most birders who find rare birds are looking for rare birds."  There are, of course, other factors at play. One is skill, though I think that's important but the least important. But it helps - the early Pine Warbler at Cox Hall Creek Saturday chipped, and I knew the chip, and tracked the bird down. Of course, I heard a Pine Warbler chip at Cape May Point State Park last week, could not track the bird down, and opted not to "take" the bird . . .

Another factor is luck. This one seems really important, but there's no truer phrase than "You make your own luck," unless it's "Luck favors the prepared." The translation is, if you know what to look for, and you look really, really hard for it, you are way more likely to find it than someone out for a walk with their dog. Which is what I was doing when the Pine Warbler chipped.

I almost never look specifically for rare birds anymore. I'd much rather hang out with a group of Red-throated Loons to find out what exactly they're eating. This doesn't make me a better birder; in fact, maybe it makes me a worse birder, but perhaps a better bird watcher. But on Sunday I actually said to myself as I scoured Delaware Bay, "I want to find something really rare." Not the first time I've said that. But I made a point of identifying every bird - every shorebird, every gull, every distant duck. It felt like work. It was work. And fun, too. It's how to find something like a Western Grebe, but I can't do it long, a couple hours at most,

or until a loon distracts me.

["Hey Sue, Hope all is well by you! This was at Hereford inlet today, and the loon had a real difficult time swallowing it. Do you know what it is, or know someone who might? Some kind of stickleback (thought they were freshwater species)?

"Hey, Don! Yes! It is a stickleback, either a three-spine or two spine. I want to say it's a two-spine stickleback which is a little deeper in the body than a three-spine. Very cool! No wonder the loon had a difficult time with the dorsal spines as well as ventral spines - ouch!
These fish are common in the estuaries and can go into fresh water/brackish (esp. for spawning) as well as out to sea. Really cool little guys. They build nests for their eggs and the males protect them. During mating season the males have brillant blue eyes and striking red bellies. If you go near them wearing anything red or orange, they come right up to you, look you in the eye and throw up those spines. Fierce little guys! :)"
 -Sue Slotterback]

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pine Warbler and Western Grebe

[This Pine Warbler at Cox Hall Creek WMA today did not sing, but called attention to itself with its rich chip. An arriver, one presumes, and early, but with the strong southerly flow of late, it makes sense.]

[A zillion miles away, but a distinctive sillouette - Western Grebe in Delaware Bay seen this afternoon from the Cape May ferry terminal, later seen better by others as it drifted with the outgoing tide past Sunset Beach and Cape May Point to the Atlantic.]

More to follow. . .

Sunset Sunday

[Norbury's Landing, February 26 2012.]

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"The unexamined life is not worth living."
- Socrates (470-399 BCE)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Happy Birthday!

To The Freiday Bird Blog, that is. One year ago today we set out together to look at birds and life - it's been fun, thanks for sharing the ride!

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Walk In the Park

 [Orange-crowned Warbler, Cape May Point State Park, NJ on Saturday. One of at least 2.]

It was "a call of a different color," sharp, high, different - very different from Yellow-rumped Warbler, Song Sparrow, cardinal, or any of the front-line winter chip possibilities. And thus began a most unique problem on Saturday morning -  I couldn't get away from Orange-crowned Warblers! The first one was along the boardwalk at Cape May Point State Park near the junction of the red and blue trails, and it followed me to where the boardwalk ends , chipping all the way, where a second Orange-crowned appeared and fed off ahead of me while the first headed back the direction I came from. I saw what presumably was the second OCWA multiple times as I sifted the cedars for what I swore was a Pine Warbler chip, in vain. Towards the morning's end, when I wandered back to Lighthouse Pond to look for the Glossy Ibis Michael O'Brien had found (also in vain), I found another, or one of the same, Orange-crowned, chipping again near the boardwalk to the bird blind.

I actually remember the very first Orange-crowned Warbler I ever heard chip. It was in Texas, about 1991, winter, along some no-name back road, and on hearing the chip and finding the bird, I remember thinking, "I could do that again," meaning recognize OCWA's chip. You could, too, especially now that you can pop out your phone and play it as a refresher.

 [Another bird with a unique chip - female Common Yellowthroat where the boardwalk ends at Cape May Point State Park on Saturday. "Chejk," or something like that, a little variable, always "thick."]

It could hardly have been a better morning for birding. Clear, bright, and so still you could hear forever. I was really dialed in listening for the "priderit" of Western Tanager, in fact that's why I chose the state park, since a WETA has been reported there a couple times this winter. No luck, but it was fun even to listen to the Carolina Wrens run through their repertoire of songs, trills, gurgles, and sounds that have no name.

Here's another thing I noticed on Saturday. Part of me wants to say "duh" about this, but even in winter, birds are markedly more active in the first two hours after sunrise than they are later. It was really worth getting up before dawn to be in the field at sunup. 

[Precious fruit - Northern Mockingbird feeding on Winged Sumac berries. Sumac gets important late in the season, when most other fruit has been consumed. This mocker defended its bush from Hermit Thrush and Song Sparrows, among others.]

[I'm glad one of the brown-backed thrushes stays with us in winter - Hermit Thrush, Cape May Point State Park Saturday.  Why do I like them? What's not to like - sweet song, sweet call, sweet manners, just a genteel bird.]

[Another favorite, though not genteel - Brown Thrasher digging for its breakfast.]

[With the clear and calm, thermals formed early on Saturday and kettles of Black and Turkey Vultures were joined by Red-shouldered Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagle, and Cooper's Hawk. This 'shoulder shot through the woods first thing in the morning.]

[Killdeer in the grassy field at the state park entrance. ]

[In the "I'd rather be lucky than good" department, I opted not to join Vince Elia for the walk all the way up to the meadows, where Michael had the Snow Bunting flock earlier in the morning. But I did wander as far as the dunes, and while I stood there the buntings chose that particular moment to fly right over my head. . . ]

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Native American breed (albeit of imported ancestry)- and a good runner.]

Benjamin Franklin on Native Americans:

"Having few Artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless. . . the commissioners from Virginia acquainted the Indians by a Speech, that there was at Williamsburg a College, with a Fund for Educating Indian Youth; and that, if the Six Nations would send down half a dozen of their sons to that College, the government would take Care that they should be well provided for, and instructed in all the Learning of the white People. They . . . deferred their Answer till the day following;

"We are convinced . . .that you mean to do us good by your Proposal, and we thank you heartily. But who are wise, must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our Ideas of this Kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some Experience of it: Several of our Young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counselors; they were totally good for nothing. We are however not the less obliged by your kind Offer, though we decline accepting it; and to show our grateful Sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them."

- Benjamin Franklin, "REMARKS CONCERNING THE SAVAGES OF NORTH-AMERICA " In Franklin, Benjamin. The Bagatelles from Passy. Ed. Lopez, Claude A. New York: Eakins Press. 1967

Monday, February 13, 2012

Putting Birds to Bed. . .And What They Think When They Wake Up

 [This Ring-necked Duck slept on a tiny pond at Cox Hall Creek WMA Saturday night. I know, because I left him there at dark, and went back at dawn on Sunday to photograph him. If you squint you can see the brown ring around the base of his neck, whence cometh the oft-criticized name.]

Have you ever lingered with a bird as the evening light fades to darkness, just to see what it does? I did over the weekend, putting the Ring-necked Duck pictured above to bed, and was delighted to find him still there at dawn the next morning, for a while anyhow.

We tend to be too busy to stay with a bird for more than a minute or two, yet many of my most deeply intimate moments with birds come from sharing nightfall with them, watching them go wherever they decide to consign their fates for the night.

Several times I've been lucky enough to be in a deer stand near the chosen roosting cavities of titmice or chickadees. A little flock will come, scolding softly in the near dark, inspecting and discussing each tree hole, entering and leaving and entering again, and before you know it the woods are silent and you can imagine a titmouse wedged tightly against wood, eyes closed, waiting between sleep for dawn again.

Wild Turkeys roost in trees, and for years I lived near a white pine grove they favored, and hid nearby to watch the pageant. It began with the rustling footsteps of the flock, punctuated by occasional nervous putts and yelps. Then they would stand, for a long time, watching and listening, for predators one presumes. Who will go first? Then the woop-woop-wooping of wide wings lifts the first bird into the trees of an otherwise quiet wood, often accompanied by the sound of small branches struck or broken as the big bird settles in. Another follows, and another - there are always more birds than you would have guessed from the sound of the flock on the ground. A Great-horned Owl calls across the valley, and you wonder what it's like to be a turkey on a roost knowing the cat-owl is hunting.

Saturday morning I happened to look over from the drive-up window at the bank in Rio Grande and see what I first took to be a windblown piece of white paper moving erratically through the woods. Binoculars revealed an adult Cooper's Hawk bound to a white Rock Pigeon, struggling to carry it somewhere to dine. The pigeon itself struggled no more, and I thought, I bet that pigeon didn't wake up this morning thinking its day would end that way.

I saw several more Cooper's Hawks this weekend. One perched viglantly on a wire overlooking the vast phragmites stand at Fishing Creek marsh, north of the Villas. Waiting, I'm sure, as dawn broke, for the blackbirds and robins that roost in the phragmites to move. Another swept through the yard at mid-morning carrying a grackle, and I thought the same thing I thought about the pigeon.

A few of us gathered for, of all things, dancing at a Cape May bar late Saturday night, well, late for me (9 to midnight), and I mentioned the pigeon. We talked about it, wondering whether birds thought like that, if they thought about what would happen that day, thought of or even knew about death. I think we decided they didn't, and I know I decided they couldn't, because if birds thought like people, and knew that at any moment a Cooper's Hawk or Great-horned Owl could abruptly and permanently end their day or night, they would quickly go insane.

Something to consider the next time you're pissed because the coffee's not done brewing, or waiting nervously before a meeting with your boss.

[Springing straight up from the water, as dabbling ducks do, these American Wigeon are part of a flock that has shrunk to 6 birds at Cox Hall Creek WMA, on the big lake. Divers, like the Ring-necked, have to patter along the water to get airborne, a result of heavier bodies and smaller wings. Though as divers go, Ring-necks get airborne quickly. I look at the ring-necked in the photo above and note its feet seem oversize, wonder if that helps? Whatever it is, Ring-neckeds are often found on small ponds both breeding and wintering, where the runway for take-off might not be long enough for other diving ducks.]

 [Chipping Sparrow, Cox Hall Creek WMA this morning, showing trademark gray rump (Clay-colored's rump is brown).]

I spent a fair bit of time over the last 3 days coursing over Cox Hall Creek WMA, both on and off trail. I go there a lot, because it's close, and yet until today hadn't bumped into a Chipping Sparrow. Apparently that was because they are all in the extreme SW corner of the WMA, where I never go. Until today, when I found a flock of 15+ Chipping Sparrows there, along with 2 Savannah Sparrows, another bird I hadn't had at the Villas this winter. Other notables there, despite the wind (and brother has there been wind) include at least 2 continuing Red-headed Woodpeckers, more or less in the middle of the WMA, both kinglets and Winter Wren in the woods on the east side, and an American Woodcock flushed near where the Red-headed Woodpeckers hang out.

[10 of the at least 15 Chipping Sparrows at Cox Hall Creek today.]

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Norbury's Landing, NJ, February 6 2012.]

"The day, sun, water, moon, night - I do not have to purchase these things with money." - Plautus

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Actual Count + Looking Close

 [This Hermit Thrush popped up, as they do so reliably when pished at, in the woods at Tuckahoe this afternoon. Actual count: 1.]

From an ornithological persepctive, I guess the best thing I did this weekend was count: count the 218 Bonaparte's Gulls (actual count) on the bay just south of Miami Ave. in the Villas this morning, and count the 823 Northern Pintails (actual count) at Tuckahoe in the afternoon. eBird didn't like either of those numbers, which is to say the filters they (which also means me, since I help set them) flagged those numbers. But so it is, and so it was - I counted those birds one by one.

Of course, one reason I was doing all that counting was because I wanted to go through identifying each gull at Miami, and each duck at Tuckahoe (Duckahoe?), looking for Black-headed or Little Gulls and Eurasian Wigeon, respectively. No luck. The Black-headed Gull was found farther south on the Bay on Sunday, which was unsurprising - it's there for the winter, somewhere there, and doesn't necessarily hang out with the bonies. I wonder if it is lonely, and wonder where it will go to breed. Last year, or maybe it was two years ago, I saw up to three Black-headed Gulls together on the Bay, but this year so far there seems to be just one. Imagine being the only one of your kind for an entire winter.

A Razorbill out the truck window was especially nice at Townsend's Inlet this afternoon, since the northeast wind made standing outside and looking a bit daunting. That's my rare bird of the weekend.

Cox Hall Creek WMA/Villas WMA/Ponderlodge (synonyms for the same place) was really a good choice this morning. It always is. I don't bird there with full focus most of the time, including today, because I'm usually working the dog, but nonetheless the place produces interesting birds. Which today included a Hairy Woodpecker at the parking lot, a Winter Wren in the the wet woods, both kinglets, the usual set of Ring-necked Ducks and wigeon on the big lake, and a not so usual flock of 10 Field Sparrows.

 God, I hate it when the light sucks all weekend. Saturday and Sunday are the days I make I hay now, whether the sun shines or not. And it didn't. The best I could do was wander around Cox Hall Creek WMA in the gray, looking at things close up and fooling with the little lens. A different perspective, looking close when you're used to looking far. It even started annoying the dog, who thought I was going entirely too slow as I moseyed along eying lichens and moss and tree bark. And it annoyed me, too, but for a different reason: what kind of moss is this? What kind of lichens? What species of beetle? No idea. At least I knew the trees and shrubs.

[Artwork courtesy of the engraver beetles, Cox Hall Creek WMA today.]