Thursday, October 31, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Look Closely

[Sanderling, Avalon, NJ Oct 30 2013.]

“Look closely at the present you are constructing:
it should look like the future you are dreaming.”

― Alice Walker

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Swainson's Hawk and Other Cape May Happenings

 [Dark juvenile Swainson's Hawk at the Cape May Hawkwatch today. Full disclosure: the bird had just been banded and released.]

I'm still more than a bit dubious about counting the Swainson's Hawk that was captured, banded and then brought for release to Cape May Point State Park today. I suppose you could argue, and people did argue, that if it hadn't been trapped and banded I might have seen it in a more free-flying way. I don't know, because I didn't have a choice or a chance to find out. It was a neat bird to see, anyway, with or without bling on its leg.

I am counting the two Lapland Longspurs that flew by the walk I was co-leading at the Meadows this morning, getting by before I could even open my mouth and heading towards Cape May City. Somewhere out there someone may be wondering why I didn't send out a text message to Keekeekerr about these, and the answer is I was busy leading a walk, and also that they weren't exactly chaseable, headed to parts unknown as they were.

Yet another rare bird seen today was the Eurasian Wigeon, or I should say Wigeons, since there was a male on the plover pond in the Meadows this morning and a female, nicely brown-headed, in Bunker Pond by the hawkwatch this afternoon.

Counting, schmounting. By far the best show of the day was provided by magically swirling and landing Tree Swallows, descending to feed on bayberries and then rising en masse, only to do it again and again, holding me and the whole group spellbound.

[Tree Swallows on Bayberry, this morning at the South Cape May Meadows.]

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Finally, a Lincoln's

[Lincoln's Sparrow, Higbee Beach WMA, NJ on Saturday, October 19, 2013. As I wrote in a previous blog, "a bird of the Song Sparrow ilk but more delicate, with fine crisp streaks, especially on the breast, with a softly buffy breast and malar and a peaked crown and an eyering."]

Patience trumps stringing (see post below about stringing) and the proof is in the Lincoln's Sparrow that finally appeared and even posed for the camera at Higbee Beach WMA, NJ this morning. Actually, it didn't just appear, it was a gift from Virginia Rettig, who knew Beth and I needed Lincoln's for the year and texted us about the one she found in a corner of the "tower" field at Higbee. Virginia even hung onto the bird until we got there, not simple with the slightly skulky Lincoln's. We in turn handed the bird off to a couple other folks. Nice when things work out, finally.

10 species of sparrows eventually populated our Higbee list in only an hour of birding, not bad at all. That's 10 counting towhee and junco as sparrows, which they are, so it's still fair. It really was a fine morning of birding, with activity seemingly everywhere, stuff like Black-throated Green and Nashville Warblers still around, many Eastern Meadowlarks as flyovers at Cape May Point.  I'm taking a risk not being in Cape May right now, since a Swainson's Hawk was discovered on Nummy Island this morning and that bird and who knows what else are both likely to show in Cape May while I'm home doing yard work 10 miles north of the Point. Oh well, I'm enjoying all the Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows in the yard.

[This hatch-year White-crowned Sparrow was one of the 10 sparrow species at Higbee this morning.]

[Nashville Warbler gets a good scratch in, also at Higbee Beach WMA.]

Friday, October 18, 2013

Fri-D: The Stringer Within

[Juvenile Peregrine Falcon at Cape May Point, October 14 2013. If Peregrines were the enforcers, stringers would be few indeed.]

It happens that a good friend hit 300 year birds for NJ the same day I did this week, and he suggested we meet for celebratory sushi and drinks. Why not, says I, so we did.

After the congratulations and the clinking of wine glasses came a hard question: now that 300 had come and gone, did I have any reflections on the accomplishment? On a year, or most of one, of serious birding, birding with the intent of seeing a lot of birds and a lot of species?

I do, I said. For one thing, I have met the stringer within.

First, let's clear up what a stringer is. If you google "stringer definition bird" you'll get some hits, none of which I found I completely agree with. Some of the definitions you'll find have to do with what other birders think of the apparent "stringer," mainly that a stringer's sightings are viewed with suspicion by other birders because of the real or perceived tendency of the stringer to identify birds incorrectly, and then report them as fact. But you can be a stringer without reporting birds to anyone but yourself. It's just that no one will know you're a stringer until you go public, which is when you are really in trouble.

To me, a stringer is someone who identifies birds incompletely, and then is satisfied with their identification, whether they report the bird or not. The act of stringing is not necessarily intentional; many birders, especially new birders, might not really know how easy it is to be wrong about an identification, and there are certain cases I'm aware of where new birders were informed of the errors in their ways, took heed, and became highly reliable as a result.

I think we've all got a little stringer in us. It's just a question of what you do with it.

The example I used during our celebratory dinner was Lincoln's Sparrow. I've looked at a lot of sparrows in the past two weeks, looking specifically for Lincoln's Sparrow, because I need Lincoln's Sparrow for a year bird.  I've glimpsed sparrows with marks not inconsistent with Lincoln's, but have not yet had a clean view of a bird with the full suite of characters I want to see before I call a Lincoln's Sparrow: a bird of the Song Sparrow ilk but more delicate, with fine crisp streaks, especially on the breast, with a softly buffy breast and malar and a peaked crown and an eyering. I not only want to see all that to call Lincoln's, but I need to - because if I don't, I'm a stringer. And, I should add, I need to see this bird at a season when Lincoln's are expected, which is now.

Believe me, the devil has sat on my binoculars and whispered in my ear, "Who would know the difference?" as I peered at one of the scores of murkily marked Swamp Sparrows around this time of year and thought, I could call that a Lincoln's right now and be done with it. But I didn't, don't, won't.

Truth is, I've known the stringer within for a long time. I just won't let him report birds.

There's an analogy here with one's credit rating. Establish a good credit rating by paying your bills on time, and banks will lend you money readily. Establish a good birding rating by birding carefully and only reporting birds you're sure of, and people will believe your sightings as valid.

The birding devil is especially good at spotting weaknesses, and I'll confess one line of reasoning my personal devil likes to pull out is, "Hey, you've got a good reputation, you can get away with a string now and then." This would be kind of like getting that good credit rating, then taking out a bunch of big loans and living high off the hog for a while until the money ran out and the bank comes looking for you and you have to move to Bolivia or something. I've actually heard of birders who, once their "credit rating" on stringing went bust, moved to another state or country and started over.

Some strung birds are correct calls. For example, during the Cape May Big Sit last Sunday, Tom Reed called out a Pectoral Sandpiper and by the time I got on it, it was a bird a quarter mile away I barely could distinguish from the milling throngs of Tree Swallows, but I could see it was a shorebird and I threw the name Pectoral Sandpiper at it and it stuck for me, too. Fine. Others were there to corroborate the sighting, something that almost always helps.

There are levels of stringing. If it's a bird expected for the time and place, and you glimpse it and call it, and it's not a year bird or heavens not a life bird, well okay, that's not too bad. I did that with a Blackpoll Warbler flyby this very day, and I'm really pretty sure I'm right about the call.

But. If it's a year bird, or a life bird, you are one lame individual if you claim an incomplete sighting for your list. Or, and especially, if it's a bird other people want to see, and you call it and make it publicly known that you saw it (like, if you eBird it), you better have identified it completely and you better be right about it, or you're going to wind up with a label you don't want and will probably never get rid of. Stringer.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Solitary

[Solitary Sandpiper, at the Beanery in Cape May, NJ October 15, 2013.]

"You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet."
- Franz Kafka

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Watching a Rare Bird Disappear

[Calliope Hummingbird at the Triangle Garden, Cape May Point, NJ today. Note the short fine bill, how the wingtips project just beyond the tail tip and the uniform buff appearance below. A Ruby-throated's tail projects past the wingtips, and it lacks the extensive buff below.]

It was one of the coolest flights made by a bird I've ever seen, but it was definitely an "uh-oh" moment. The Calliope Hummingbird found at the Triangle Garden on Lighthouse Avenue in Cape May Point, NJ yesterday by Michael O'Brien had made three visits to the garden's flowers as dawn unfolded, returning to trees nearby to perch and rest. Then, abruptly, at 8:20 a.m. it shot upward, towering for a count of maybe 10 seconds, ascending that whole time. Richard Crossley and I said "uh-oh" at about the same time as it ascended. Then it shot eastward, eastward until it faded to nothing in my binoculars. It was a good day for this bird to leave, with fair skies and northeast winds, but a shame for the folks who came later than first light searching for this bird. I'll be very surprised if it turns up again,  although if it kept going east, it obviously was going to be over the Atlantic and that spells trouble for a potentially misdirected bird.

Sadly, that doesn't mean it will stop. One theory about vagrants like this Calliope is that their compass is awry, in this case, the theory would go, by 90 degrees eastward. Thus instead of southward, the bird heads east. . .and east, and east, and, carrying the fouled-up compass to its conclusion, eventually perishes over the Atlantic, searching for winter grounds it can never find in that direction.

I'm going to hope differently, that instead of flying ever eastward this Calliope turns around, and either winters on the east coast somewhere or continues southward instead.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Coop takes Merlin (!) And Other Big Sit News

None of us had ever seen anything ever take a Merlin before, but if you wait long enough at Cape May, you see things you don't expect. So it was that this Merlin, seemingly invincible as it wove a crazy path across the sky in the high winds above the state park, was snatched from mid-air by a Cooper's Hawk. From the height of aerobatic skill to a meal for one bad-ass Coop. Wow, and then some. No human reflexes could catch a Merlin from mid-air, and mine weren't good enough to even catch the event on film. 
A bunch of us were gathered on the hawk watch platform for the annual Big Sit, which was going well from the standpoint that at least it wasn't raining and we were solidly over 100 species by mid-morning, but the wind was whistling out of the east to the point where there were whitecaps on Bunker Pond, and no record number would be posted today. Good birds were around, though, including two sneaky Common Gallinules picked by Michael O'Brien as they skulked in the Bunker Pond reeds. Gallinule thus became year bird # 300 for NJ for me. Finally got that milestone behind me.
Tonight's going to be the first night in several days without rain, and the wind is supposed to stay out of the northeast but at least moderate to the mid-teens. I'm more than a little curious about what might migrate tonight, and what will wind up in Cape May in the morning. 
 [Dickcissel feeding near the hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point State Park during the Big Sit today. Click to enlarge photos.]

 [Peregrines found the east wind to their liking.]

[This Eastern Meadowlark was bird number 99 of the Cape May Big Sit.]

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Jays and Congressmen

"You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure - because he's got feathers on him, and don't belong to no church, perhaps; but otherwise he is just as much a human as you be. And I'll tell you for why. A jay's gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests, cover the whole ground. A jay hasn't got any more principle than a congressman [emphasis added - DPF].  A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. The sacredness of an obligation is a thing which you can't cram into no bluejay's head. Now, on top of all this, there's another thing; a jay can outswear any gentleman in the mines. You think a cat can swear. Well, a cat can; but you give a bluejay a subject that calls for his reserve powers, and where is your cat! Don't talk to me - I know too much about this thing. And there's yet another thing; in the one little particular of scolding - just good, clean, out-and-out scolding - a bluejay can lay over anything, human or divine. Yes, sir, a jay is everything that a man is. A jay can cry, a jay can laugh, a jay can feel shame, a jay can reason and plan and discuss, a jay likes gossip and scandal, a jay has got a sense of humor, a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do - maybe better. If a jay ain't human, he better take in his sign, that's all."
- Mark Twain, in What Stumped the Blue Jays

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Few Things. . .

 [Hermit Thrush, my first of fall, along the Cape May dunes this morning. Click to enlarge photos.]

Today frankly wasn't as good a birding day in Cape May, NJ as I hoped or predicted, but there were a few things around - more kinglets, a few warblers, jaegers still out in the rips, and a few hawks, especially earlier in the day. I bounced from Higbee to Cape May Point to the state park, where my favorite bird of the day appeared. While I was walking along the dune trail at the state park, this medium sized bird flushed from the dunes but proved to be a decidedly non-dune species, a Hermit Thrush that perhaps had come in off the water and taken shelter in the first available vegetation. The state park also had a couple of Swainson's thrushes and 10-ish species of warblers, and the male Eurasian Wigeon was showing nicely in Bunker Pond, as did an American Bittern for a little while. I wound up with 81 species in about 2.5 hours at the state park, not too shabby.

If you're wondering, by the way, why this blog is all of sudden getting more posts than usual, it's the government shutdown - it's furlough day 8 for me, and with nothing to do but bird, take pictures, and blog about it, well, that's what I've been doing. I'm sure this is not what the republicans have in mind. . .of course, I'm not getting paid, either, so all is not sunshine and roses. Especially given the forecast, which has rain and east winds ahead, not exactly an idyllic forced vacation.
[This female Black-throated Blue Warbler's face is stained with pokeweed berries - the purple stems are pokeweed - though she found a caterpillar as well as berries in this patch.]

[Blue-faced Meadowhawk along the Cape May Point State Park trails this afternoon, a very cool bug.]

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pre-front Jaeger Movement

[Juvenile Parasitic Jaeger passes Cape May Point this morning.]

Something in the neighborhood of 50 to 100, or maybe more, Parasitic Jaegers passed Cape May Point, NJ this morning, many pausing to make life miserable for the accumulated gulls and terns in The Rips. Michael O'Brien calculated 80-something, I believe, in his watch time at the point. Unprecedented. All were moving right to left, around Cape May Point, which is why we think we were constantly seeing new birds, not repeats. Where'd they come from, meaning what migration path brought them there? Overland from the Great Lakes region, perhaps? We just don't know, but it was a sight to see.

As I write (4:50 p.m.), the strong cold front that has been sweeping across the country has arrived in Cape May, with attending showers. Tomorrow will be a good day for songbirds, but how good remains to be seen, since we've had some good migration weather in recent days, which means there is not that much of a backlog of migrants waiting to move. Or maybe there is, tomorrow will tell. Meanwhile, over 400 Peregrines have been counted in Cape May in the last 4 days, how many more are in the pipe for tomorrow? It should be a fine hawk day, too.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pictures on Furlough: Higbee and Stone Harbor

[Western Willet bathing hard, Stone Harbor, NJ October 4. Click to enlarge photos.]
I guess there are worst things than to be out of work during early October. Since I work for a federal agency, I am stuck at home watching the antics of congress. . . well, not exactly.  If they don't want me to work, well then I'll go play, with mornings at Higbee Beach WMA and afternoons kayaking the back bays, making pretty pictures and with time for naps, too!
My only complaint is the weather, with unseasonably mild temps and winds from the wrong direction to make for flights of passerines or hawks. Happily, the National Weather Service is considered an essential government service, so at least I can look at the forecast and see that relief and birds will be coming the middle of next week. Wednesday is my current pick for the next special day, and it looks like Thursday will be good, too. We'll see if the shutdown drags out just a bit longer, just through next week, please. . .then let us go back to doing the good work of and for the people.
[This 3rd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull, right, was on the Stone Harbor Point Beach today.]
 [A few Semipalmated Plovers can still be found on beaches and mudflats, like these two at Stone Harbor Point today.]

 [Ruby-crowned Kinglets have "begun," signaling the advancing of the season and the diminishment of the longer-distance migrant passerines of August and September. Higbee Beach yesterday]

 [Another mainly October migrant: Blue-headed Vireo.]

 [Red-eyed Vireos are tapering off, but there were still quite a few at Higbee yesterday, and several have been visiting my bird bath this afternoon.]

 [Black-throated Green Warbler, Higbee Beach WMA yesterday.]

Friday, October 4, 2013

Fri-D: Molting Shorebirds

[Short-billed Dowitcher molting to winter plumage, Stone Harbor, NJ today. Click to enlarge photos.]

As autumn gets later, the shorebirds we see will trend more and more to winter plumage - which means they will look more and more like each other, with uniform gray upperparts and paler underparts. Many shorebirds begin fall molt at migration stopover sites and complete it on or near the wintering grounds, though there are exceptions. Late fall and winter is the time to hone your identification skills using structure, but also don't forget that bare part colors also still work.

Here we have two species in molt to winter plumage. Above, a Short-billed Dowitcher has replaced most of its back and scapular feathers with uniform gray winter plumage ones.

Below, a Dunlin has molted most of its feathers, but you can see a couple of retained breeding plumage feathers - the orangy ones that, when the bird is in full breeding plumage gave it its old name, "Red-backed Sandpiper." Dunlin, by the way, is an exception in that in "our" subspecies, adults molt to winter plumage on the breeding grounds, then come south, and most juveniles also molt extensively before they come south. That's why we don't see breeding-plumaged Dunlin on southbound migration, and rarely see fully juvenal-plumaged birds. It also explains why Dunlin is a late migrant compared to other shorebirds, with the bulk of them arriving in September or later, compared to the July-August migration of many other shorebird species.

Both birds were photographed from a kayak at Stone Harbor/Nummy Island today.
[Dunlin nearly all the way into winter plumage, Stone Harbor today.]

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday

“All of us have schnozzles . . . if not in our faces, then in our character, minds or habits. When we admit our schnozzles, instead of defending them, we begin to laugh, and the world laughs with us.”
- Jimmy Durante