Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Where the Herons Are

 [Little Blue Heron, foreground, and Tricolored Heron, back, north of Stone Harbor Causeway, NJ last Saturday.]

It seems to me there are fewer herons and egrets hunting the marshes south of Stone Harbor than there used to be, perhaps because there is no significant rookery in the immediate area of these marshes.  There is one north of the Stone Harbor causeway on Gull Island, however, and Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and a few of the scarcer Little Blue and Tricolored Herons and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were busy flying too and fro and quarreling and cackling amongst the shrubs and Phragmites there when we kayaked around the island on Saturday.

As I alluded to below, another place where there are many herons is Tuckerton. Where these birds derive from, in terms of nesting, I don't know, but the numbers foraging there were noteworthy: 3 Great Blue Heron, 247 Great Egret (actual count),50 Snowy Egret, 4 Little Blue Heron, 8 Tricolored Heron,20 Black-crowned Night-Heron, and 30 Glossy Ibis.

 [Immature Yellow-crowned Night-heron near Gull Island. The fine speckling on the back has worn away, but the bird's heavy all black bill is a good field mark, as are the longer legs and neck compared to Black-crowned.]

 [Gull Island is well named, with nesting Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls (here on a nest) on the island itself and of course zillions of Laughing Gulls nearby. We saw a couple downy Great Black-backed chicks, already out on the beach with their parents.]

[This Great Egret at Cook's Beach took more than casual interest in the location of a Red-winged Blackbird nest. The male redwing tried to do his job and drive the egret away, but was pretty much ignored. The egret did not succeed in finding the nestlings while we watched.]

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Very Birdy Road

 [Black-necked Stilt, Tuckerton, NJ today.]

Sometimes you look up at just the right time - which makes one wonder how often you don't. In any case, I glanced up from the SHARP marsh bird survey data sheet this morning in time to naked-eye a Black-necked Stilt passing over Great Bay Boulevard in Tuckerton, NJ. With SHARP, you're recording  a lot of data, and Tuckerton is so marsh bird rich (e.g. 50ish Clapper Rails, 70ish Seaside Sparrows this morning), there's no time for recreational birding. Unless a stilt flies over, in which case you run to the car for the camera to at least get a record shot. Stilts were once common breeders in coastal NJ - in the 1800's. Now they're just stragglers (there have been birds seen this spring at Forsythe NWR and Heislerville WMA), though attempted breeding was proven in 1993 during the NJ Breeding Bird Atlas.

Great Bay Boulevard, by the way, is just riddled with birds, and yet it seems to me hardly anyone birds there anymore. Pity - the birds are often close to the road, too. Birds like Gull-billed Terns, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, and migrant shorebirds.

We're banding at our MAPS station in Bear Swamp, Cumberland County NJ tomorrow, which will conclude what feels like a year's worth of birding in just one week for me, a week that also included the Bashakill Wetlands, Doodletown, Shawagunk NWR, and Slide Mountain, NY; Stone Harbor/Gull Island, NJ; and Tuckerton, NJ today. More to follow on all these places, and their birds, and plants, and beauty.

 [Eastern Willets run rampant in NJ salt marshes in May and June, courting and calling and doing marvelous high aerial displays. This one descends to nesting habitat after such a flight, Tuckerton this morning.]

[Willow Flycatchers aren't exactly salt marsh birds, but they like the shrub islands fringing marshes, like the one at the end of Great Bay Boulevard in Tuckerton.]

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Female Canada Warbler, Bashakill Wetlands, NY, May 23, 2012.]

"Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution."
- Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

[Female Yellow Warbler, Shawagunk Grasslands, NY May 22, 2012. Nest building with rabbit fur.]

Monday, May 21, 2012

Field Time

 [Singing male American Redstart at Peaslee WMA, Cumberland County NJ on Sunday, May 20. Of the half-dozen or so singing redstarts I've laid eyes on in Belleplain/Peaslee this spring, this has been the only adult male so far. The rest have been first year birds, or "Yellowstarts," a fact suggestive that maybe their choice of breeding site was marginal for the species and thus left to these less experienced birds? More study is needed.]

Bert Filmeyr caught me over the weekend after I gave a program for the CMBO Spring "Maygration"gathering called "How to Identify Birds Like an Expert," and reminded me that of all the steps along the path to being an expert birder, I left one of the most crucial out.   That would be time in the field, something so obvious and implicit I never really thought of it for the talk. Duh, you want to get good at identifying birds? How about you get out and look at them?

And ideally in a place where you see a lot of birds. I moved to Cape May in 2007 thinking I was a pretty good birder. Illusion. Five years and tens of thousands of birds changed my skill level dramatically, though, like I always say, expert is a dangerous word.

Field time dropped off substantially in 2011-12 for me, down to a half-day day a weekend most of the time. And I feel the change, the regression if you will. But the less you do it, at least the more you love it. . .

[Prothonotary Warbler in Peaslee WMA Sunday. Proof I used no recording to lure this bird in: I couldn't get it facing the right way.  Peterson's "golden bird of wooded swamps."]

Some folks were playing recordings last weekend to suck birds into view, or so it's been reported. Let's be clear: there is no place in Cape May County where using recordings on potentially breeding birds  is appropriate, except for scientific and sanctioned surveys. I've written about this stuff before. The main thing is that it's bad for the birds. Too many birders potentially doing it to the same individual birds. But IMHO it's also using a cheap gimmick instead of patience and skill. Please don't do it.

[Male Prairie Warbler, showing the signature hook under the eye and chestnut streaks on the back. And a lot of yellow, and long tail with a lot of white, and it's in a black cherry which suggests the early successional scrub-shrub habitat they like. Peaslee again.]

I do pish, though. I was thinking about this the other day. Pishing is like the bird is hearing the neighbors fighting again and listens in and maybe peaks over the fence to see what's going on. Playing a tape is like barging into a bird's house and saying the house is yours and you're going to take his wife, too - creating a whole different level of response. Even at that, I don't pish much in the really heavily birded spots - in part, frankly, because it doesn't work well. Stuff has been pished out.

 [This female Black-and-white Warbler surprised me by appearing when I was pishing for the Prairie Warbler. The surprise was the habitat -  a field of successional shrubs is not breeding habitat for Black-and-whites, suggesting that this bird was not a local breeder but a migrant. Females migrate later than males, generally speaking, and since Black-and-white Warblers breed from the southeastern U.S. nearly all the way up to Hudson Bay, a late May migrant seems reasonable. We know this bird is a female because of its pale cheek and duller markings. Males have black cheeks and look more like zebras.]

 [The quintessential forest bird - but ever consider how many people live utterly unaware of Red-eyed Vireos? How many kids grow up in houses set back in woods in places like Belleplain and never see one or notice its song? And I'm not in a position to criticize - I grew up in woods that surely held red-eyeds, and even though I paid attention to birds I never saw one until I was 19. To live in the treetops in spring. . . ]

 [Above and below: Will Kerling sent me a note about this Appalachian Brown, found in Peaslee WMA, "The last three days we (you, Karen Johnson and Dave Lord and myself) have found three butterfly species which are about three weeks early! Karen and Dave - Common Wood-Nymph May 18; Yours - Appalachian Brown May 19; Mine - Little Glassywing May 20 in Lizard Tail Swamp."]

 [Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Heislerville, NJ on Sunday.]

A trip to Heislerville in the afternoon on Sunday yielded, after much searching, the female Curlew Sandpiper that has been reported there for at least a week. That bird, and the Yellow-crowned Heron above, was in the second impoundment. The main impoundment has been slow to come down in water level - I understand the water control structure has been damaged - but is now loaded with Semipalmated Sandpipers, dowitchers, dunlin, and a few others. Shorebird numbers will peak this week.

[Whimbrel flies in a 30 mph wind, Grassy Sound Sunday evening.]

With Bob Lubberman and Dave Lord of the tour boat the Osprey, and my neighbors Bob and Stephanie Brown, I led the Sunday afternoon boat tour out of the Miss Chris marina in an east gale.  You can't explore the sounds of southern Cape May without seeing great stuff, but conditions were tough on us and tougher for the birds, especially because the combination of new moon tide and east wind was looking like it would flood many salt marsh nests later that night. Bob Lubberman also told me the heron rookery near Wildwood's Sunset Lake is inactive this year, a shame indeed. Colonial waterbirds on the Atlantic side of NJ seem not to be doing particularly well the past few years.

 [Laughing Gull stands on its nest west of Wildwood, seemingly waiting to see if the flood tide would reach it.]

 [Speaking of American Oystercatcher chicks (see post below), this one near Cape May Harbor shows the bill of a youngster that explains why oystercatcher parents must open the shells for their young for quite a while.]

Field time - got a lot of it last weekend, something like 24 hours over 3 days. Maybe we'll make it to expert status yet. Like I said, time in the field didn't make it into my talk Friday night, but will next time. Here's a summary slide from that talk someone asked for (click to enlarge):

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Nummy and Cook's

 [American Oystercatcher nest, Nummy Island, NJ on Saturday, May 19.]

Saturday was a bright blue day, a bit windy perhaps but otherwise a fine day for picture taking, if not fishing, which had been my first intent over at Stone Harbor. Between the stiff NE wind and apparent absence of fish - I saw not one tern plunge - photography took over.

Quite accidentally, I found an American Oystercatcher nest on Nummy Island by bumping the incubating bird off the nest. I felt bad, but backed off and she, or he (both sexes incubate) quickly returned and settled on the two splotchy eggs. Presuming the clutch is complete at two, this is likely a renest, since on first nestings oystercatchers ordinarily lay 3 eggs. Which is still less than the 4 that is the norm for shorebirds. Unlike most shorebirds, oystercatcher chicks get fed for a long time by their parents, which likely explains why the species lays a smaller clutch. The chicks must learn how to crack a shellfish, or slice the adductor muscle, not a simple matter and one that requires a fully developed bill.

[This American Oystercatcher quickly returned to its nest once I backed away. The nest is little more than two eggs layed on a pile of wrack, mainly broken phragmites stalks deposited by the high tide.]

American Oystercatchers have made a shift in their preferred nesting habitat. They still nest on beaches where they can, which isn't many places. Most now nest on the salt marsh, often on piles of wrack deposited by flood tides.

While watching for fish activity, I cruised the Nummy Island causeway looking for birds. This is a fine thing to do, since the causeway crossing this "Island"  of salt marsh between North Wildwood and Stone Harbor has a wide shoulder. Just make sure you are all the way off the roadway when you stop.

I've been coming to Nummy and vicinity for a long, long time, since the 1980's, and although the nearby Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary heron rookery has been abandoned since the mid-90's, the island is an excellent place to find wading birds. The herons apparently abandoned the rookery thanks to predators, especially a pair of Great-horned Owls, but still nest on clumps of trees and shrubs on islands nearby.

[Much scarcer than Great and Snowy Egrets, this Tricolored Heron at Nummy Island on Saturday. What an amazing bill on this small heron, which looks bigger when seen alone than the 26" long it actually measures (and a lot of that is bill). Snowy Egret is about the same size, while the Great Egret at 39" towers over both.]

Spring shorebirds often accumulate on Nummy Island at high tide, and there were a fair number of Black-bellied Plovers, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Whimbrel, and plenty of the breeding Willets.

 [Black-bellied Plover on Nummy Island - en route to Nunavut for nesting.]

[Ospreys are pretty much all incubating eggs right now.]

After Nummy it was a short hop across the Peninsula to Cook's Beach and its shorebirds. Cook's is one of the better viewing sites for the shorebird/horseshoe crab phenomenon, and an excellent place to see Seaside Sparrow and Clapper Rail, too. The beach itself is closed, but it is possible to walk down to water's edge right at the end of the road and look north or south along the bay. A falling tide seems best there.

 [Red Knots trade back and forth past the end of the road at Cook's Beach.]

 [Three of the other main horseshoe crab egg-eaters: Ruddy Turnstone, top left, Sanderling center, and Semipalmated Sandpiper, right.]

[Seaside Sparrows are singing vigorously now (unlike Saltmarsh Sparrows which, truth be told, never sing vigorously but are at least more active from June on.]

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Fledgling Northern Cardinal, fresh from the nest in our wildlife-friendly Del Haven, NJ yard, Sunday, May 13, 2012.]

"If the odds are in your favor, you can't defy them."

-Tiffany Dufu, vice-president of the The White House Project, in her keynote speech at the Douglass College, Rutgers University graduation May 12, 2012.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

[North Wildwood, NJ bridge, looking west.]

Monday, May 14, 2012


 [Anywhere can be a sugar maple-mixed hardwoods forest (arguably the richest forest type there is), like the one at Point Mountain, NJ where this Veery serenaded on Saturday afternoon. . .]

. . . or anywhere can be the Cook-Douglass college campus of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, from which my daughter Becky graduated Saturday. And from which, speaking mainly of the former Cook College (now Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences), a startlingly high proportion of NJ wildlife professionals derive, including me.

Anywhere. Anywhere is where birds are, and in mid-May, birds are everywhere.

I'm not sure how many daughters get a graduation gift of an eBird checklist of avian attendees at the ceremony, but Becky did. . . 24 species, including a convocation of 35 Chimney Swifts towards the end that most people didn't notice, but the folks sitting behind us did. "Look at all the bats out there!" I thought to correct them, but was glad enough that some folks noticed what was going on around them, whether correctly or just close enough. . . The New Brunswick graduation list is below, sans bats.

I'm not kidding, though, birds are everywhere and therefore anywhere in mid-May. Five neotropical migrant warblers were on the New Brunswick, NJ list last weekend, including Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers. 

Of course the number swelled when we did our post-grad hike at Point Mountain, with added travelers and nesters there like Yellow-throated Vireos, Worm-eating Warblers, and Scarlet Tanagers. And the Baltimore Oriole, below. It's hard to believe there seems to be no hotspot designation for Point Mountain in the eBird database - so I suggest you go there, and make it one. I covered the area, overlooking the Musconetcong Valley straddling Hunterdon and Warren Counties, during the NJ Breeding Bird Atlas, and found close to 90 nesting species. Ahhh, memories of the 1990's. . . Ruffed Grouse distraction display right in the trail, Kentucky and Hooded Warblers, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo nest. . ..

The anywhere theme. In 1986 I was 21 years old, in the middle of a paved parking lot in Warren Township, NJ - and found a singing Cape May Warbler in the only spruce (a Norway) within miles, and a Northern Waterthrush happily settled for the day in a nearby detention basin. I've been looking in unlikely locations in May ever since. We birders like to say "we're never not birding." Don't ever be not birding in May.

[Tulip poplar tree flower settled to earth at Point Mountain on Saturday.]

Sunday first thing we went down to the Bay just to see if it was still there. It was - and populated with a few thousand shorebirds, mainly Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, but including 60 Red Knots. All these were at Norbury's Landing 3 hours after high tide. But I can tell you - the height of the tide along the bay there, and the birds that attend, are difficult to predict. Some days, 3 hours after high the tide is all the way out. Others, like Sunday, it's halfway and the birds are closer.

Afterwards we went to Cape May, where there were birds, yes, (Magnolia Warblers in particular seemed common) but the best part was buying bread from the stand along Sunset Avenue (some of the best bread ever). A young Broad-winged Hawk in heavy molt flew over the bread stand, but a Mississippi Kite did not, not for us (one has for others).

Following is the list of birds seen at the Douglass College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ graduation ceremony:

Canada Goose  2
Mallard  2
Double-crested Cormorant  1
Herring Gull  3
Rock Pigeon  1
Mourning Dove  2
Chimney Swift  35
Downy Woodpecker  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Eastern Kingbird  1
Blue Jay  1
American Crow  1
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  1
Barn Swallow  3
American Robin  2
Gray Catbird  1
European Starling  1
Common Yellowthroat  1
American Redstart  1
Northern Parula  1
Blackpoll Warbler  3
Black-throated Blue Warbler  1
House Finch  2
House Sparrow  4

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mid May...

["No way. . . " That's what I said even as this Baltimore Oriole danced from its perch along the Musconetcong River to flutter into the water and bathe, where an oriole should, not in a bird bath but in a trout stream. And not 10 feet in front of us. The benefits of being still, without and within. Saturday, May 12, 2012, near Point Mountain, in my beloved Hunterdon County, NJ.]

Right, a hek of a weekend, how can the middle weekend of May be anything other? A weekend of Veeries and Magnolia Warblers and flowers and Red Knots. . . and no time to write or process anything more than memories. More to come. Hope your weekend was like that, and if it wasn't, do yourself this favor - take your 2013 calendar, find the middle weekend of May, and put two big X's there - and make sure your steps take you to treasured haunts next year.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Widely Scattered

[I spent way too much time on this gull while it slept on the island in the main Heislerville, NJ impoundment. Perched, it looked too pale to be anything but good. . . .in flight, it looks like the worn, bedraggled, molting Herring Gull it is.]

Cape May sucks in spring.

Okay, totally not true, but if one loves warblers (and I do) and spring fallouts (who doesn't), Cape May is not where to go. Unless. . . you score that once a decade magical combination of date and weather that precipitates a Cape May fall. . . .in spring.

Which ain't happened so far this year. By bits and pieces and widely scattered places, a 20ish warbler species weekend came together, but that took a lot of miles by bicycle through the Villas (where oaks lured Chestnut-sided Warbler, American Redstart, Scarlet Tanager, Black-and-white Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Ovenbird, and others), the Cox Hall Creelk WMA (Hooded and Magnolia Warbler in the wet woods), and misc. other places like Burleigh Road, where a Canada Warbler sang this morning.

[Never would have thought I'd feature a Canada Goose here, but this female and her mate escorted a brood of 21 goslings - clearly not all their own, although whether a result of a dump nest or adoption, no one can say. Cape May County Park South tonight. Nuisance or not, one must admire these birds.]

[Many Delaware Bay Beaches are now closed to entry, to protect Red Knots and other migrant shorebirds.]

Shorebirds have begun to pile in to the region - Tom Reed and Sam Galick had a wonderful 1,000+ Whimbrel experience at Stone Harbor a couple nights ago on a super-high tide. Heislerville still barely scratches a thousand birds, but that will change this week, I suspect.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Million Butterflies Per Hour

[Red Admiral on my truck hood, Del Haven, NJ yesterday.]

Bear with me while we do some math.

I handed Tiffany Kersten a clicker on the way home from work today, to click butterflies along the Garden State Parkway from the exit for Forsythe NWR where we work (mile 40) to mile 6, our exit. There's been an amazing movement of butterflies, primarily Red Admirals, and it should be quantified. The butterflies have been apparently flying up from the south, coming in off the ocean, and flying in a generally west-northwest direction.

Tiff clicked 652 butterflies in the 34 miles, or 19 per mile. Let's say 20 to keep the math simple.

We figure we had a 3 second window to count individual butterflies from a vehicle moving at 70 mph. In other words, a car 3 seconds behind us would be counting new butterflies. In other words, 400 butterflies per minute per mile were crossing the parkway.

Let's say this movement extended from Forsythe to Cape May, about 40 miles. That's 16,000 butterflies per minute, 960,000 per hour.

Okay, it's not quite a million. But if the movement lasted three hours (or more, as it apparently did) several million butterflies passed through southern NJ today!

Next math question: how much butterfly mass (weight) did that involve?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"Trees are happy for no reason; they are not going to become prime ministers or presidents and they are not going to become rich and they will never have any bank balance.  Look at the flowers - for no reason.  It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are."
- Osho