Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Spiders and Men

"It appears to me that almost any man may like the spider spin from his own innards his own airy citadel."
- John Keats

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

One Number Says It All

[Red-breasted Nuthatch over the Higbee Beach, WMA dike this morning. One of. . . .]

374. Red-breasted Nuthatches, that is, this morning from the Higbee Beach WMA, NJ, dike, counted by Cameron Rutt this (Wednesday, August 29) morning. This was a record for the count by about 100 birds, and since it's only August, one wonders how many more nuthatches are in the pipline.

We were totally stoked by the nuthatch flight - and the redstarts, and others. . . Cameron, the official counter, wrote a nice summation of the morning.

 [Olive-sided Flycatcher, a rarity but late August is a good time to catch up with them.]

 [Cape May Warbler on its way to the Antilles this morning.]

 [A member of a flock of 76 (!!!) Baltimore Orioles at Morning Flight.]

 [Northern Waterthrush.]

[100's of Cedar Waxwings joined the season's first Purple Finches, the RBNU's. . . shaping up to be an interesting fall!]

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

High Point Summer

[Female Blackburnian Warbler with a prize, High Point State Park, NJ, Saturday August 25. Warblers love geometrid moth caterpillars, a.k.a. inchworms.]

I wonder if the Blackburnian Warbler, Prairie Warbler, or Wood Thrush in this post will be in Cape May Wednesday morning. There's a fine looking cold front coming, arcing from Lake Ontario across western PA as I write this, and slated to cross our "bird sending districts," as I like to think of them, in PA, NY and southern New England by 8:00 p.m. tonight, and clearing Cape May by 2:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. North winds all night. I'm taking Wednesday off to look at birds!

Be that as it may,  we were in High Point State Park for another weekend. The birds were quiet and you might have gotten the impression there wasn't much around. . . until you hit one of the mixed species feeding flocks that coalesce around chickadees, titmice and nuthatches (we had several Red-breasteds] at this time of year. Then the birding was hot! In one flock we had several Yellow-throated Vireos, a half dozen or more Red-eyed Vireos including youngsters still being fed by parents, Magnolia Warblers, Nashville Warbler. . . good stuff. But all most likely local nesters, rather than migrants. Except maybe the Red-breasted Nuthatches, which could represent the beginnings of a flight year.

[Wood Thrushes calling as they descended from nocturnal migration over our campsite on the Kittatinny Ridge actually woke me from a sound sleep around 5:15 a.m. Saturday morning. A few were findable on the ground the next day, although thrushes have this habit of disappearing when they come in. This one was at Kuser Bog.]

The naturalizing in High Point, i.e. looking at everything natural, is especially good, since the park has widely varying habitats and all of them are pristine. Among my favorite discoveries was the biggest living American chestnut I've ever seen - and the single chestnut fruit underneath it, the first I've ever seen! Chestnut stump sprouts are common in the mountains, but chestnut blight kills them before they reach flowering and fruiting size, so this was a big deal. I've been walking by this tree for over 20 years, since it's on the path to Kuser Bog, a must stop on the High Point circuit.

 [Closest thing to an old growth American Chestnut we'll see in our lifetimes, High Point State Park.]

 [Lonely American chestnut fruit.]

Mushrooms were everywhere in High Point thanks to recent rains, and it was tough to resist picking the chantarelles we found, but resist we did.

 [A mushroom NOT to be eaten - Yellow Agaric, High Point State Park. This one's supposed to send you on a crazy trip. . . before you die.]

 [Prairie Warblers breed in the high elevation, Pine Barrens-like habitats of High Point, and presumably this male was a local. Look at all the white in the undertail. The outer tail feathers on Prairies are almost all white, except for small dark corners and a thin outer edge.]

[A Dark-eyed Junco in NJ in August is a big deal, since migrants don't appear until late December. This one, a molty adult male, certainly bred locally, but was in a surprisingly accessible location along the road to Kuser Bog in High Point. As anyone who's tried to find breeding juncoes for the World Series of Birding knows, they don't really occur where you can get at them close to road. I've only found them at high elevations (for NJ) e.g. along the Appalachian Trail.]

Friday, August 24, 2012

Fri-D: Semipalmated Sandpiper vs. Sanderling

This ought to be easy, telling "peep" from the larger Sanderlings. And it is pretty easy if the two are side by side. But what if there's a single small sandpiper on the beach - how do you know if it's a Sanderling or a Semipalmated Sandpiper (or other "peep")?

Habitat and behavior are great clues, but before we get into them, try this exercise:

1. Flick your eyes back and forth between the bills of these two birds a few times, taking in your impression of any differences.
2. Do the same thing with the legs.
3. Do the same thing with their midsections.

This trick of looking rapidly back and forth between two birds in a picture, or separate pictures, or even in the field when possible, while focusing on a single character can really help you see differences. Here, what you should see that the bird in the foreground has a shorter, finer, and finer- tipped bill; thinner, more delicate legs (and it has a hind toe); and a slimmer midsection. That's the Semipalmated Sandpiper. The Sanderling, in back, is chunkier, thicker-legged, and sports a thicker, straighter bill.

Habitat can often separate these two, at least in one direction: if it's on mud, it's not a Sanderling. If it's on sand, it could be either. If it's on sand but really actively chasing the waves back and forth, up and down the beach slope with each wave, with legs moving so rapidly they're blurs, it's a Sanderling.  If it's feeding more slowly, walking or running but stopping to probe, and often away from the waves, it's probably a Semipalmated Sandpiper (unless it's a Western Sandpiper, another story.)

There are plumage differences too, but in this photo the Sanderling in rear is in transition from breeding to nonbreeding plumage, and so is not the sandy-white bird we're familar with later in fall and in winter. In other words, though with scrutiny its pattern is clearly different than a Semi's, the difference is not as clear cut. But the shape is.

This Semipalmated Sandpiper, front, and Sanderling, rear, were photographed at Stone Harbor Point, NJ on August 4, 2012.

Pledge to Fledge and Gull-billed Tern

 Thursday evening I had the "job" - using the word very loosely - of overseeing a 3 hour Big Sit from the Cape May Hawkwatch platform in Cape May Point State Park, NJ. This was part of the Pledge to Fledge birding event, which attracted new birders, including some very cute kids, to the park and hopefully to the sport. Kudos to Richard Crossley and Dave Magpiong for getting this event off the ground.
We rounded up 62 species, 6 of which were terns: Forster's, Common, Black, Royal, a couple Sandwich Terns nicely picked by Tony Leukering, and the juvenile Gull-billed pictured here.
The Gull-billed, which has been at the state park for over a month now hunted almost continuously over Bunker Pond, giving us something fun to watch whenever we looked. These birds are graceful, smoother fliers than Forster's or Commons, and only pick from the surface (below) or capture airborne insects rater than plunging for fish.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: The Sense of Wonder

[American Redstarts dancing with each other during morning flight.]

“It is not half so important to know as to feel.”
― Rachel Carson

[This is one of those quotes that I tend to assume everyone has seen before - but has everyone? Has everyone read Rachel Carson's work? I chose this photo and quote because this is how one feels, or should, watching the spectacle of Morning Flight, like redstarts dancing with each other. Even if you can't put names to the actors, who cares, because the show is awesome. True also of migrating dragonflies, sunsets, and children playing. Which reminds me of Carson's complete quote. . .]

"I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate."
- Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder (1965)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wrenstart Morning

[American Redstart over the Higbee Beach, NJ dike this morning showing the golden bar in the backlit wings from the yellow bases to the primaries and secondaries (orange on adult males).]

The funniest thing happened when I stepped out on the porch, predawn, to listen for flight calls. The radar was saying I should hear some, and a few redstart tsweets rewarded me. When I turned to go inside, I reached up to grab my ball cap, which dangled from a hook on the porch overhang where I'd hung it to dry. In a swift, smooth motion I lifted it off the hook - and a bird fell out of it and pretty much fell, with just a little fluttering, to the deck! Sorry to disturb your night-time roost, little Carolina Wren! The wren flew off into the darkness, clearly surprised but uninjured.

Taking this as a good omen, I joined the usual cast of friends up on the Higbee Beach dike. Late August is American Redstart time, and they were flying, not tons but enough to make it interesting, and spiced, in order of abundance, with Northern Waterthrushes, Yellow Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, and at least one each Blackburnian and Wilson's Warblers, among others.

Later in the morning, Higbee's fields were full of. . . mosquitoes. And small numbers of this and that, with Canada and Blue-winged Warblers discovered by Virginia Rettig, Worm-eating Warbler found by Beth Ciuzio, and a supporting cast of kingbirds, redstarts, and Bobolinks both overhead and feeding in the fields.

But redstarts ruled the morning for me. I love this bird - what's not to love about it? How great is it that such a pretty species can be so abundant, and widespread. It's range is impressive, well up into Canada and west to British Columbia and the Yukon. I wonder how many of the ones we saw this morning derive from the densely populated (by redstarts) Kittatinny Ridge and valley of north Jersey, and how many were from further afield.

[This Northern Waterthrush's yellow wash below is accentuated by the morning sun. Morning flight, Higbee Beach this morning. The mid-belly bulge is a good shape clue for this species, although as we were talking about this morning, flying landbird shapes are tricky and should be supported with plumage and other characters.]

[Black-and-white Warblers often point their bill down in flight.]

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Yellow Things, and It's On

[I bumped into migrant Prairie Warblers both Friday and today. This one was at Forsythe NWR, and is a good reminder to point binoculars first at the head of any unfamiliar warbler, spring or fall - in this case to see the diagnostic dark hooks under a Prairie's eyes. Notice also the long tail with a lot of white.]

Well, it's mid-August, a cold front's passed, the radar's lit up - honey, could we ask for more? No, not really. I only wish the winds would hold more out of the west than it looks like they're going to. Nonetheless, I'll go ahead and predict 1,000+ birds in morning flight at Higbee Beach WMA, NJ tomorrow, a lot of them American Redstarts.
[This tiny Little Yellow butterfly competed for a pea plant's nectar with an even tinier fly at Cape May Point State Park, NJ today.]
[The other end of the yellow size spectrum, butterfly wise, Cloudless Sulphurs have been increasing in recent days. This butterfly is a southern wanderer that often comes north in August in significant numbers, as was the case at Cape May Point State Park today.]

Friday, August 17, 2012

"FrI-D" and "Street Cred"

[This Spicebush Swallowtail was "puddling" in the mud underneath my water spigot on Wednesday evening, seeking nutrients and salts rather than nectar.]

Barring rare strays, we've got three dark-colored swallow-tailed butterflies to identify in NJ. I usually slide through identifying them by habitat and flight style, without really looking close:

  • If it's small and out in the open, and flying fast, it's a Black Swallowtail.
  • If it's medium sized and in the woods, or in a meadow near the woods, and flying moderately fast, it's a Spicebush Swallowtail.
  • If it's large, in a meadow or woods, and flying slow and languidly, often sailing, it's the dark form of a Tiger Swallowtail (all dark Tigers are females).

One of these days someone will refine this stuff into a "Butterflies in Flight" field guide, kind of like how we tell Sharp-shinned Hawks from Cooper's Hawks. In the meantime, the dark swallowtails also have easy and obvious "plumage" differences - I mean color differences. Someday we'll look at differences in the upperwings of the three species, but since all we have here is the underwing, let's look at that.

I.D. of the pictured Spicebush Swallowtail is somewhat confounded by the fact that something has bitten the back of its hindwing off, but we can note that while the rear underwing band of orange spots has been eaten, the remaining forward orange underwing band of spots is obvious but missing one orange dot, replaced by a greenish blue one. On a Black Swallowtail the two orange bands on the underside of the hindwing are complete, and there's an extra spot in front of the forward orange band. Dark female Tiger Swallowtails have only a single orange spot-band (and lack the yellow-spotted body).

On a completely different i.d. subject, it was Janet Crawford (formerly with the FBI) who I first heard use the term "street cred" in a birding context. That was after I reported some rare bird or other that no one else saw and I did not photograph, and she allowed I had enough streed cred (i.e. credibility) that it would be believed.

So I leaned on the street cred pretty hard on last Monday when I found and reported a Townsend's Warbler at Forsythe NWR, a bird I identified instantly and then studied for a few seconds to confirm, as it turns out using all the seconds I would get to look at it. Thus I never managed a picture.  Given that this is the 11th state record and out of pattern for the species (most have been late fall/winter), I almost said nothing about it to anyone. But it was not a difficult i.d. My notes accompanying the report to eBird were: "Ad female or first fall male, strong dark cheek, yellow comma under eye, heavily streaked throat and flanks but not solid black to chin, yellow breast extending to rear flanks. Obvious wing bars. Fed with mixed sp flock, mid to upper canopy mostly in interior of trees. No photo could be obtained. Wow."

[Not a Townsend's Warbler, but a fine, green, Chestnut-sided Warbler that was with the mixed-species flock the Townsend's associated with. Bonus i.d. tip: there are a few birds with colors so unique you can almost i.d. them on those colors alone. The hue of green on the back of fall Chestnut-sideds is one such color.]

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"I'm just a penny on the train track
Waitin' for my judgement day."
- Ben Kweller

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Gulls Growing Up, Why Kayaking is Cool, and a Brief Polemic On Motorized Watercraft

 [As we saw two weeks ago, the Laughing Gulls are a month behind thanks to a spring tide that washed out most of their nests. A very few juvenile Laughers have been seen flying around, following parents away from the salt marsh colonies east of Wildwood and Stone Harbor, but most, like these youngsters, have not finished growing in their flight feathers and are capable of only short flights. These were among the many, many young gulls that have moved to the edge of salt marsh island nesting colonies, preparing for even bigger moves in the coming weeks. Photo taken near Taylor's Sound, Cape May County, NJ, Sunday, August 12 2012. All the photos in this post are from the same place and day.]

Periodically someone will ask me how I got a particularly nice photo, often with the implication of or at least query about the camera gear involved. And yeah, I've got a decent camera, but it's not pro level. And I've invested a ton of time (see Malcom Gladwell's Outliers about the "10,000 hours" principle) learning how to use it. But ultimately, when it comes to any photography, particularly nature photography, it's about "access," as my friend and real pro photographer Scott Whittle puts it. If you want good photos, or better, simply good looks at cool birds, you've got to put yourself where they are. And here in south Jersey, Cape May County in summer in particular, there is no better way to do that than by kayak.

 [Kayak + early morning + stealth = close view of Yellow-crowned Night-heron for our friend, Mackenzie. The heavy, all dark bill and long legs rule out Black-crowned.]

 [Beth watches point-blank shorebirds, including an adult Black-bellied Plover.]

[Flock of mainly Short-billed Dowitchers and some Semipalmated Sandpipers settles onto a Taylor's Sound mudflat, ignoring us kayakers nearby.]

[Being a dowitcher is muddy business.]

[Short-billed Dowitcher in fading breeding plumage. I don't see any signs of molt to winter plumage on this bird.  Head and body molt is expected on short-billeds  at stopover sites in late sumer and fall, so soon some gray winter feather will appear on this bird.]

 [A Black-bellied Plover eyes circling Ospreys with interest. As a rule of thumb, bigger birds are warier than smaller ones; in this case, the larger Black-bellied is at least more observant than the accompanying dowitchers, thought maybe the dows have learned that Ospreys don't eat birds. . . I have found that dows are much more approachable than black-bellieds.]

[Classic, tubular-looking bill of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.]

 [This Greater Yellowlegs is in wing molt, and has started replacing all but the three outer primary feathers. So what? So, Lesser Yellowlegs don't molt flight feathers in fall migration but Greaters do, so if you have a hard time telling these two apart (and only liers don't), here's an extra clue.]

 [This  bird could stump you, if you didn't know that in late summer some birds appear as a mix of youngster and adult - witness the short bill and remaining black plumage of this juvenile Clapper Rail.]

Okay, here's the polemic, a word and approach derived from the late, great Edward Abbey. Motorized watercraft have a place - in big water, bays, offshore, for fishing, for birding pelagics, all fine. For roaring around the sounds, channels and guts of the back bay? NO! Stay the f--k out, please. Go ride the rides at Wildwood if you must have something other than your own muscles give you a thrill.

There, I told you it would be brief.

[Oh sweet justice. I said to my companions, "There's not a lot of water there," just about the time these wave-runners learned how shallow the sounds of the back bay are before the tide is full-in, stuck in this case on a shallow flat in Taylor's Sound. Note the Wildwood Ferris Wheel in the background, left,where these thrill seekers belong.]

[We'll make an exception for motorized watercraft if it's an expertly  guided nature tour, as in the case of the Osprey under the care and direction of Captain Bob Lubberman and guide/mate Dave Lord. The guys and their passengers passed us today on their morning sail, a birding cruise worth taking.]

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Walk Around Ponderlodge

[Young male Pine Warbler, Cox Hall Creek WMA, NJ, August 11, 2012. The great condition of the feathers, brownish (not green) back, and softness and "washiness" of the yellow help us know this is a bird hatched this year. You can click to enlarge all these photos, by the way, I'm experimenting with the best photo size for the blog.]

I no longer am reminded of the movie Caddy Shack when I walk the former golf cart paths of Ponderlodge, or, as it is now known, Cox Hall Creek WMA, just south of the Villas, NJ. The place is just rife with nature. I literally had never set foot on a real golf course until I walked this one for the first time, well after it had been taken over by the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife. I've heard it said that golf courses can never recover from the manicuring and pesticiding they have suffered; Cox Hall is proof that they can, in spades.

 [Black Saddlebags dragonflies have been more common at Cox Hall Creek WMA in recent days. This looks like a fresh one, i.e. one recently emerged from its aquatic nymphal state.]

Even just walking with the dog around Cox Hall, I see plenty of birds and bugs. Today, besides the Pine Warbler pictured, we encountered multiple Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Eastern Kingbirds, and a flock of adult and streaky juvenile Chipping Sparrows lured to a recently cultivated field in the southern part of the WMA. I haven't sorted out what the division has planted in these tilled sections, but am planning to find out.

 [A magnificent critter, Great Blue Skimmer at Cox Hall Creek today. I had a pair in a mating wheel at my house in Del Haven this week.]

With all the ponds, Cox Hall is decent for dragonflies, at least the common species, and the meadows are good for butterflies, too.

[Common Buckeye pauses at Cox Hall Creek, note the big eye spots and the red sripes on the forewing.]

Friday, August 10, 2012

Fri-D: Stilt Sandpiper

Recalling from last the last "Fri-D" blog, you have to age shorebirds if you are going to use plumage to identify them. And further, that if you are looking at a juvenile, all the feathers will be the same condition (new) and often are uniformly edged in buff (or orange, or white), creating a neat scalloped or scaly look.

So here, we're not looking at a juvenile. This Stilt Sandpiper wears a mix of worn, patterned breeding feathers and some new winter plumage gray feathers, with the new ones mainly on the scapulars (just above the folded wing). So this is an adult molting to winter plumage. But you can still see some of the Stilt Sandpiper plumage features - a trace of an orange cheek, the prominent eyebrow, the barring on the flanks.

Plumage aside, Stilt Sandpipers have a distinctive shape and distinctive mannerisms. A lot of people have trouble picking Stilts out of dowitcher flocks (which is a very typical scenario). Look for the slightly smaller, slightly slimmer bird that is foraging by walking with its neck outstretched, probing often but seldom in one place the way dowitchers do. This photo shows the posture I'm talking about. I'm not saying dowitchers don't move around, but Stilts move around much more.

As the name suggests, Stilt Sandpipers are longer legged than dowitchers, and so sometimes look like their tail is sticking up in the air when they probe.

Migrants Coming

It should be noted that the first real "cold" front of fall migration is forecast to pass late Saturday night, and therefore there should be migrants at places like Higbee Beach on Sunday. Not tons, too early for that (not by much), and the front is too weak, and it looks like there won't even be a north component to the wind, but I'm guessing a few warblers at least.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country . . .

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

- Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to his daughter

"Driving down the highway at night
when you feel that Wild Turkey's bite,
don't give Johnny Walker a ride."
- ZZ Top, in "Arrested While Driving Blind"

[Instead of naming the Wild Turkey our national bird, we've named America's best-selling premium bourbon after it. These hens and their poults were at Cape May NWR property along Burleigh Road on Sunday, August 5, 2012. - DF]