Friday, May 31, 2013

Fri-D: Semipalmated Sandpiper

 [Semipalmated Sandpiper, near Stone Harbor, NJ May 27, 2013. Click to enlarge. Notice the semi-palmations between the toes of the raised foot - and be aware that Western Sandpipers also has these, an adaptation for walking on mud. Not that one can see the feet well enough to use this as a field mark very often anyway. So instead pay attention to the small size, short straight somewhat tubular bill, light breast streaking, scattered rufous feather edgings above, and the fact that its on mud, where semi's prefer to be.]

Evidence of the fact that we pay far too little attention to common species, I realized last week when I wrote the blog post about Western Sandpiper that I have few good photos of the most common sandpiper on the eastern flyway, that being Semipalmated Sandpiper. Last weekend I set out to correct that. And by the way, paid a price, since the kayak route I picked had been altered by Hurricane Sandy, and I wound up paddling until past suppertime around a much enlarged island and over new shallows of unconsolidated sediment, which, as I learned, did not support the weight of a human trying to drag his kayak!

Semipalmated Sandpiper. Know this bird well, as it is a reference point for the other peep.

[A cluster of Semipalmated Sandpipers with a few Semipalmated Plovers thrown in. Compare the back colors of the semis in this flock, huddled on a windy day. Some show more rufous than others, but that's okay, they're all still semis. Heislerville, NJ last week.]

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Fierce

"The mountains, the forest, and the sea, render men savage; they develop the fierce, but yet do not destroy the human."
- Victor Hugo

Monday, May 27, 2013

See You On the Flip Side

 [The next White-throated Sparrow I see in Cape May will be southbound, probably next late September or early October. This one, at Higbee Beach today (May 27) is behind virtually all its brethren, and as such is the rarest bird I saw today. Click to enlarge photos.]

Well, that's it, spring migration's done. It went out with more than a whimper at Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ today, with obvious migrants like 2 Black-throated Green Warblers, 2 Magnolia Warblers, a Canada Warbler, and more than a couple American Redstarts. Plus Yellow-billed Cuckoos and more Red-eyed Vireos than can breed south of the Cape May Canal. Birds moving north, the last of them.

The last of them for me, I mean, and the last of spring migration for me in Cape May, though northbound birds will trickle through into June for others to enjoy. Next weekend I'll be happily ensconced in a campsite at High Point State Park, Sussex County, NJ, where there could very well be a few migrants still, and plenty of breeders, some of which I've missed northbound so far. By the time I next lift binoculars in Cape May, it will be deep into June, and there'll be no more hoping for the couple of migrants I'd really like to have grabbed northbound, like Tennessee Warbler or the rare Mourning Warbler. Hopefully I'll see these on the flip side, southbound.

 [Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Higbee Beach, Cape May NJ today, a migrant. A good view to study the tail pattern that helps separate it from Black-billed.]

[Finally! My son Tim found a Glaucous Gull at the mouth of the Maurice River in Bivalve months ago. I wonder if this one, a first cycle at Heislerville yesterday, is the same individual.]

Saturday, May 25, 2013


 [Above and below, two of the 7? 8? 12? Mississippi Kites gracing Cape May, NJ this morning. May plus strong northwest winds made a MIKI or two inevitable, but 7 were seen together and there were sightings of 2 to 5 separated in space and time that made it difficult to know how many were truly present. The bird above is in a steep glide into the wind, the one below is in a more normal posture. Note the short outer primary on both and overall "slim peregrine" shape.]

[Entertainment while you wait: this Indigo Bunting was in the Beanery parking lot in Cape May this morning while we waited for more kites to appear.]

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fri-D Peep Bonus: Western Sandpiper

[Western Sandpiper, Stone Harbor Point, NJ, April 14 of last year. This bird almost certainly overwintered at or near Stone Harbor, and should be considered a lingerer more than a migrant.]

On Western Sandpiper (WESA), quoting David Sibley's Birds of Cape May (1997), "Despite published reports, there are no documented records of spring migrants." We maybe know a little bit more about Western Sandpiper status than we did 16 years ago, but we can pull a similar trick with this id. to what we do with dowitchers: "In May, in NJ, they're all Semipalmated Sandpipers (SESA)." Or almost all.

By the way, what we say about NJ and spring shorebird status generally applies to all the northeastern states.

Westerns do occasionally overwinter in NJ (SESA's do not), and if one sticks around long enough in spring you can see it in breeding plumage. Compared to SESA, WESA has more rufous above, distributed in a localized way on the scapulars, ear coverts and eyebrow/crown. Below, WESA's "streaking" is more spotting, with at least some of those spots taking the form of  chevrons, and with many distributed down the belly and flanks, farther than on SESA.

If you've looked at a lot of peep, you can use WESA's front-heavy structure, in particular the thick neck and large head, and the longer, drooped bill to tell it from SESA.

Western, like Long-billed Dowitcher, is another species I've never seen in NJ in May, but I believe they do occur, and when they do, I believe they are birds that wintered locally or nearby, and I am sure they need to be documented thoroughly with good field notes and/or photos.

I don't want to discourage people from looking for spring WESA's (or LBDO's or anything else), just know that a measure of caution is advised.

[Here's a typical May Semipalmated Sandpiper for comparison, May 26 of last year in Great Sound, Cape May County, NJ. Note the less extensive rufous, less extensive spotting below, lack of chevrons, shorter bill, smaller head, thinner neck. . .you should string about half a dozen field marks together and consider relative status for the season and location before you identify members of this species pair. There's a range of variation on these things, so study a bunch of them to learn just how bright a SESA can be above, how much streaking they can have below, how long their bills can be. . .]

Fri-D: White-rumped Sandpiper

 [Front to back: Dunlin, White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper. Forsythe NWR, NJ, May 15, 2013. Click to enlarge photos.]

I think you know you've arrived as a shorebirder when you can scan a flock of peep naked-eye and pick out a White-rumped Sandpiper from the predominant (in the east) Semipalmated Sandpipers. When you can do that, you've clearly paid your dues, looking at thousands of peep over a period of years, and understanding that size and shape really are the keys to shorebirding. It's not an easy thing to do.

Luckily, White-rumped Sandpipers have a couple "silver bullet" field marks, as I call them, the kind of field marks that if seen are pretty unequivocal. There's the white rump, for one, which you can see in the photo below, but the obvious problem is that if the bird has its wings folded, you can't see the rump. But, it doesn't take much patience to ride a suspect peep with your scope or bins until it stretches or lowers its wings briefly to show the rump.

Another White-rumped silver bullet is the streaking extending along the flanks, another is the wing tips extending beyond the tail, and another, if you're close, is the reddish base to the lower mandible. All those things are missing on Semipalmated Sandpiper.

So, what to do with this information? Use it to find a White-rumped Sandpiper the standard way, and then study your white-rumped until you get comfortable with the slightly larger size, more attenuated rear end, fuller chest - I dunno, they look like the athletes in the flock.

[A White-rumped Sandpiper stretches as a Semipalmated Sandpiper looks on, Forsythe NWR, NJ, May 15 2013.]

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Fitting In

[Spotted Sandpiper, foreground, with Dunlin, Forsythe NWR, NJ May 21, 2013. Click to enlarge.]

“Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?”
― Ian Wallace

Monday, May 20, 2013

Curlew Sandpiper

With a shout-out to John Stippick, who had the bird as I pulled up, tonight (after missing it yesterday)I finally saw the male Curlew Sandpiper at Heislerville, NJ. The bird was in the back or second impoundment, and as I watched it from 6 until 7 p.m., it didn't do a lot other than sleep. At first it roosted on the mud with the legions of Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin, then it walked a bit and hopped up on a clump for 10 or fifteen minutes, then took a longer flight and landed on yet another clump to roost and sleep some more. It was always in the left third of the impoundment, pretty far back. These digiscoped images might help your search image, should you try for it:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Lister's Dream, Leader's Nightmare or, the Dog Ate My Curlew Sandpiper

 [Dowitchers at Heislerville, NJ today. Which kind? See post below. Click to enlarge photos.]

I herewith apologize for the fact that I don't got no fancy pictures of rare shorebirds for ya, and furthermore only went two for three at Heislerville, NJ on the trifecta of Curlew Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope and Red-necked Phalarope that dwell there currently. It was a lister's dream, these rarities awaiting, but as a leader I hate, hate, HATE  the pressure of rare birds and participants maybe expecting me to find them. Isn't it enought that we've got maybe 20,000 or more shorebirds swirling and calling in front of us, a blizzard of avian delights? Who cares if one of them is brick red with a droopy bill?

Happily, our field trip participants today didn't seem to mind that while we "got" the phalaropes we "didn't get" the Curlew Sandpiper. I use but hate that word, "get," or "got," in reference to birds, though it's not as dirty as the other word we have corrupted  when referring to birds, "had." As in: "I had the Red-necked Phalarope." Really? How was it. . . ?

I digress.

Yeah, so Heislerville was pretty great tonight, waves of birds splitting around us to the sound of rushing wings, and yeah, despite the grumbling and excuses above I'll be back there the next couple nights looking for the Curlew Sandpiper I just now got the text message about, which means I left too early and I'm blaming the dog, he needs his walk, a convenient excuse for what really happened: I plumb got tired of sifting shorebirds for the odd one out after a mere three hours.

We saw multiple White-rumped Sandpipers today, a species that increases in numbers as May progresses, and I'll have a post about discerning White-rumpeds from the crowds of other shorebirds ready for next Friday's "Fri-D."

 [Shorebirds fly in rivers during May, here Dunlin and who knows what else at Forsythe NWR, NJ mid-week.]

[A peacefull moment with Whimbrel on the salt marshes of Forsythe NWR this week. I love this species, and the salt marsh it inhabits when migrating to and from the Arctic.]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fri-D: Dowitchers

In New Jersey, in May, they're ALL Short-billed Dowitchers.

Now I know that's an exageration, but only by a whisker, and yet there have been a high number of reports of Long-billed Dowitcher this spring. Having NEVER seen a Long-billed Dowitcher (LBDO) in May in NJ, I have to ask myself, is there something wrong with me? Do I have a disease preventing me from seeing LBDO, or worse, do I not know what a LBDO looks like or sounds like? One must consider one's failings, so I thought, who can I ask for help? How about Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson, authors of The Shorebird Guide, NJ residents, and friends of mine? If anyone knows what's up with LBDO in spring, it's them. So I asked them to answer the following question:

In May in New Jersey, are Long-billed Dowitchers:

a) Annual in small numbers, such that an experienced birder can expect to find one or two each year with a strong effort?
b)Annual in very small numbers, such that an experienced birder might miss them in some years despite a strong effort?
c) Very rare and probably not annual, often missed by experienced birders?
d) Your answer. . . .

Michael answered, "I would say B is probably closest to accurate, which would give them about the same status as Curlew Sandpiper. They may seem a bit rarer than that, but are certainly less likely to be detected than Curlew Sand."

Richard answered, "As far as the coastal marshes go, I would say c. I have not birded Forsythe enough in Spring to really know what the status is there but I don't recollect teams getting it in the bird race. I did see a report from last week of a few (4?) at your place and wondered about the record - did you see them?"

And Kevin answered, "(B) is the answer here. LBDO is often hard to find in spring, with hendersoni SBDO often mistaken for LBDO, even by "experienced" birders."

So there you go. My own answer hovers between super rare in May and something rarer than that, so between B and C. I have seen LBDO in March and April, after milder winters when a few wintering LBDO's might survive and still be around. But not yet in May. However, I concede that better birders than I have found LBDO in May in NJ, but not bloody often, as Richard would say.

Kevin kindly provided the below image, of a Long-billed Dowitcher on the left and a hendersoni race Short-billed (the latter taken at Heislerville, NJ this week) on the right, so ask yourself, can I really tell these two apart?

Much is made of the structural differences between the two species, and they are real. Long-billed has been characterized as looking like it swallowed a grapefruit, i.e. rounded with a higher back and deeper belly compared to Short-billed's slimmer look. Here's the thing, though: Most Short-billed Dowitchers fly up to NJ from points far south, and arrive skinny. They then feed like crazy and before departure can look so fat you'd think they'd have to walk to Canada to nest, there is no way they could fly as fat as they are. So it is completely possible to be at, say, Heislerville, and see a skinny dowitcher next to a fat dowitcher, and both of them will be Short-billed, as will the thousands around them.

Kevin was kind enough to provide the following details on the two: "I have attached a shot of a LBDO look-alike (breeding hendersoni SBDO) that Jonathan Meyrav and I saw at Heislerville on May 10 [this is the bird in the right photo, above]. It is very similar to LBDO, but differs by its short bill with blunt tip and slight kink near the tip; by the very broad orange and white feather edges on the back feathers; and by the spots rather than strong bars on the upper flanks, lower flanks and vent. The body shape is rounded on this bird because it has been feeding heavily and is fully nourished, but the weight balance is more evenly balanced in front of and behind the legs, and it does not show a chest-heavy weight distribution with broad shoulders and thick neck that is typical of LBDO. The bill of this SBDO has a comparatively deep base compared to LBDO's shallower based bill with a more slender overall shape and flatter tip. This bird would probably be called a LBDO by a good number of birders, even experienced ones. Thanks for bringing this topic up, Don."

So there you have it from the experts. Be careful, stay within your abilities. And you can always use voice: "keek" for LBDO and a rippling "tu-tu-tu-tu" for Short-billed.

Or you can simply go with the notion that in May, in NJ, they're all Short-billed Dowitchers.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday

“Sticking your head in the sand does not prevent the tide from coming in.”
- Anonymous

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Birdiest Weekend?

[Adult Broad-winged Hawk over the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher along Seagrove Avenue in Cape May, NJ this morning. The broad tail bands and barred breast make it an adult. Click to enlarge photo.]

It was a weekend full of highlights, with the World Series of Birding being run and some fancy birds found the day after in Cape May. I happen to have a special fondness for Broad-winged Hawks because of so many positive experiences with them, like big flights at Chimney Rock in the fall years ago and watching them build nests in High Point State Park in the spring, so I'll call the two that became my year Broad-wingeds my personal avian highlight.

What, not the Swallow-tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite, or Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, you ask? Okay, it's a tie - everything was a highlight. Thanks to west Texas a few weeks ago, the flycatcher was not a year bird, but the kites, appearing at the "Stevens Street Hawkwatch," were. The Stevens Street hawkwatch is simply the highest point on Stevens Street, near the Beanery on Cape Island, and when kites are reported anywhere in Cape May, this is where locals go to look for them. As Vince Elia put it, never chase a kite where it was last seen, because it's not there anymore.

It was Vince who found the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and texted it to Keekeekerr while many of the rest of us were sharing highlights from the 30th running of the WSB. Many, many people got to see that bird, a lovely long-tailed male, rushing over there once the WSB program was over. It was like looking for cheetahs on a modern African safari  - you don't look for cheetahs, you look for Land Rovers, or in this case, Prius's and other cars parked on Seagrove and birders gathered around scopes.

My WSB team, consisting of me, Pete Dunne, Will Russell of Wings, and Luke Seitz, a birding phenom and Cornell freshman, scored 143 species on a "route" that began with a big stay on the hawkwatch at Cape May Point State Park (from which we garnered 67 species), and then evolved into a routeless survey of Cape May and Cumberland counties. We crept through Belleplain, ears to the windows for Summer Tanagers and Hooded Warblers, worked Heislerville where Luke picked a handsome Stilt Sandpiper from the second pool, and finished with 143 species in the marshes and woods of Cumberland County in the Dividing Creek area, which were riddled with noseeums, a.k.a. gnats, and also birds. Perhaps I need to revise the weekend highlight, to a Chuck-wills-widow on Hansey Creek Road  that called point blank next to us, then, when I imitated its call, flew over our heads and down the road out of sight.

Friday, May 10, 2013

"Fri-d:" Extremes

 Telling the yellowlegs apart is difficult, but this one at Heislerville last Saturday stopped me right away as a Lesser. Here are two views of the same bird, which has a short  bill even for this species, about equal to the width of the head. So this one is a "gimmee:" Lesser Yellowlegs, almost certainly a male because of the short bill (female shorebird bills are longer on average than males.) I generally say that if the bill is 1.2X the width of the head or less, it points to Lesser, 1.3X or greater points to Greater. With practice, this is the most helpful way, next to voice, to tell the yellowlegs apart.

The illustrates an important point: Within species, there is variation. There are short- and longer-billed Lesser Yellowlegs (and Greater), and short- and longer-billed Semipalmated Sandpipers and most other shorebirds, too. Birds of the same species of course can vary in plumage, too. That's why it's always useful to ask questions like, "What's THIS Lesser Yellowlegs look like?"

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Timing

 [Above and below: images of the female Red Phalarope at Forsythe NWR today. She is transitioning into breeding plumage. Notice the big wing stripe - one nickname for Red Phalarope is "Sea Sanderling," thanks to this stripe. Click to enlarge photos.]

“Sometimes I arrive just when God's ready to have somone click the shutter.”
― Ansel Adams [I love Ansel Adams' humility with this quote. And wisdom, too.]

I wanted something about timing this thoughtful Thursday because this Red Phalarope was gracious enough to hang around, and be reported at a time when I could drop my responsibilities right on the floor and dash out to see it - right place, right time, right move.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Protho Luck

[Prothonotary Warbler, Sunset Bridge in Belleplain State Forest, NJ today. Click to enlarge.]

Any weekend when you see Prothonotary Warbler both days, that's a good weekend. Especially when you see it well. And boy, have I - see below for yesterday, and above for today, when, as we approached the bridge on our bikes the three folks standing there beckoned, and here was the male Protho, practically arm's length away. I asked point blank, "Did you tape this bird in?" Happily, their outraged reaction seemed to prove they had not. They said the bird had just flown in on his own. Good, and sorry, says I, for suggesting otherwise.

Belleplain was not dead, but consider this comparison between the forest on May 7, 2011 and today, May 5, only two days earlier. I know 2 days can make a big difference the first week of May, but not with this weather pattern. Anyhow, consider the following numbers from essentially the same birding routes taken:

                                     Today                  May 7, 2011
Total species                     36                            56
Red-eyed Vireo                   3                            25
Wood Thrush                      2                            25
Black-and-white Warbler     5                            15
Kentucky Warbler               0                             2
Scarlet Tanager                   1                            10

Clearly, this is a late spring. We need this high pressure system to move out of here, take its northeast winds with it, and, if it happens in time, we still have a shot at some good migrant days.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Coming Back

 [Prothonotary Warbler at the Beanery, Cape May, NJ today. Click to enlarge photos.]

Despite the persistent east northeast winds, they're coming back. Came back while I was in Texas, and hopefully more tomorrow. Dribs and drabs and probably not liking the weather any more than we do. It's funny, for a normal person it is an ideal spring day, clear, temp in the 60's, azaleas and dogwoods blooming. But we birders can't be satisfied with that. We need southwest winds to carry migrants to our patch.

Chuck-wills-widows greeted me when I opened the truck door at 5:00 a.m. at the Hidden Valley parking lot of Higbee Beach. They were calling off in back of the Cold Spring Campground where I heard my lifer Chuck, 28 years ago. The other Higbee highlight was a Barred Owl being hassled by crows in the first field.

A Solitary Sandpiper fed in the roadside pond, or wet meadow, at the Beanery, two Blue Grosbeaks sang, and a Prothonotary Warbler (one of 3) practically sat in my lap when I pished at it near the old RR tracks. Nice - and it made up for otherwise a pronounced lack of color on May 4. Hello, it's May. . . like I said, northeast winds, not good for Cape May unless you're a jaeger. Four plus Parasitic Jaegers made life miserable for the Forster's Terns in the rips this morning.

All not bad, but I'm still waiting for a real May day. Maybe tomorrow, Cinco de Mayo in Belleplain. . .
[Solitary Sandpiper reflects on the weather at the Beanery, Cape May, NJ this morning.]

In other news, I fired up a new pair of Zeiss HT (as in High Transmission) 8X42's today. More on them later - for now, let's just say I always thought my old Zeiss FL's were the best glass out there, and the new pair is noticeably brighter, sharper, and seems to transmit colors better.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Pigs

[Javelina, Davis Mountains, TX.]

I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
― Winston Churchill