Saturday, September 28, 2013


[And number 300 is. . . not this Eurasian Wigeon at Cape May Point State Park, even if I thought it was. . . all photos in this post are from Saturday, September 28 in the Cape May, area, click to enlarge.]

The number 300 has a certain significance to NJ birders who play the listing game, or even who just try to bird a lot and keep track of what they see.  I'm in the latter camp, with eBird doing the job of keeping track of annual list totals for me and everyone else who eBirds. 300 is the unofficial NJ par for a year of birding, a milestone to try for. Although the NJ state list stands at 468, and something like 350-375 or more species occur in any given year, 300 for a birder who isn't going nuts is a fine total.

After a couple years of less birding than I'd like, and less birds, this year I set out with the vague objective of doing what I've been calling a not-big-year big year. I wasn't going to go crazy and chase down every rarity, but I was going to bird as much as reasonably possible, mainly with the idea of "keeping the knife sharp." If you don't bird a lot, your skills start slipping, and I knew mine were, and I decided to do something about it. A big list and big skill are not the same thing, so mainly I've been trying to find birds on my own, and study them like I'm seeing them for the first time. And hearing them, too - I've particularly felt that cutting-edge of birding, flight calls, slipping from memory banks occupied by things non-bird.

If I had a number goal, it was/is 300 species in NJ, and it happens I'm sitting at 299. And I'll be damned if I remember it, shamefully, but apparently I saw a Eurasian Wigeon back in April and eBirded it, so the drake EUWI that appeared in Cape May Point this week was not, in fact, number 300. This morning I probed Higbee Beach for a Lincoln's Sparrow, listening hard for a Swamp Sparrow-like buzz of a flight call when there aren't many Swamp Sparrows around yet, listening hard for the sharp chip. Nope. So I'm still at 299. . . 300 will come, I presume, eventually. In the meantime, keep on birding, and photographing, going for the "lighthouse shot" on raptors and others at Cape May Point, taking time with a confiding Carolina Wren, and otherwise sharpening the knife. The number 300 will not make the knife sharper, but the birds will.

 [Lighthouse shot: Cooper's Hawk. Rounded.]

[Lighthouse shot: Merlin. Sharp.]

 [Closer view of a Merlin.]

 [Thrashers were among the more evident birds at Higbee Beach WMA this morning.]

[Point blank Carolina Wren. Try getting a view like this on purpose, and you'll likely be frustrated, but this one came as a gift.]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
― Søren Kierkegaard

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sights and Sayings from the Hawkwatch

[Bald Eagles chasing Ospreys are regular sightings at the Cape May, NJ hawkwatch, but this one has a twist - the Osprey has not a fish, but a clam stuck to a talon. Maybe that's why the eagle eventually broke off chase. We can age this eagle, by the way, as a second year by the ragged trailing edge of the wing, which has a mix of longer juvenile feathers from last year and newer, shorter feathers which have replaced juvenile ones. Click to enlarge photos.]
Well, with north winds overnight it looks like tomorrow should be a good day for passerine migrants at your favorite patch, which for me would be, but won't be, Higbee Beach WMA, since I'll be travelling to West Virginia for some training. Bummer. But spending the late afternoon on the hawkwatch at Cape May Point, NJ was a fine consolation, with a good falcon flight. Official counter Tom Reed said today would be his first four-figure flight of the fall.
The best line of the afternoon comes courtesy of Tom Johnson, who spoke tongue-in-cheek as he joked and coaxed Richard Crossley to come out to morning flight tomorrow. Tom deadpanned,
"But we need the elders to tell us what the birds are, so we can add them to our lists."
Anyone who knows Tom knows he doesn't need help i.d.'ing birds - he among other things writes the ABA's photo quiz column in Birding - so this line really had me chuckling. Not to mention the "elder" part directed at Richard, who still strikes one as young even though he's been on the birding forefront for a long time. Richard, in turn, made a remark about all the young guns. . .
Many a truth is said in jest, and the "tell us what the birds are so we can add them to our lists" thing happens way too often in the birding world, in my humble opinion. Better to learn from the experts, but then identify the birds on your own.
 [American Kestrel was the most common migrant at the hawkwatch this afternoon, or I think it was, but somehow I didn't manage a good photo of one. Here are the other two falcons, Peregrine Falcon above and Merlin below, in classic postures as they wing past the hawkwatch.]



[Tagged Monarch at Cape May Point State Park, NJ this morning. This year's monarch migration has been lackluster so far, but we did see a few nectaring on sunflowers and blue mistflower along the trails. Visit the Cape May Monarch Monitoring project for more info and a blog on this season's monarch migration.]
A nice hawk flight was getting underway this morning, but the bugs stole the show during a walk on the Cape May Point State Park trails. We'll see about getting some hawk pics later in the afternoon, but for now here are the bugs.
 [Green Darner dragonflies in a mating wheel.]

[This black-and-yellow garden spider, Argiope aurantia, had plenty of prey in its web. ]

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Memories

“Some of my old memories feel trapped in amber in my brain, lucid and burning, while others are like the wing beat of a hummingbird, an intangible, ephemeral blur.”
― Mira Bartok, The Memory Palace

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


[Four of five Hudsonian Godwits with Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and dowitchers at Forsythe NWR, NJ this afternoon. Bad light and distant, sorry - if you have a hard time finding them, concentrate on the ones with the pale-based, upturned bills. Hudwits are not much bigger than a Greater Yellowlegs - they're the smallest godwit - and can blend with flocks of other species. These are molting adults, showing a lot of gray winter plumage feathers but note the retained orangy feathers on the breast and belly of the center-left bird, in particular. Click to enlarge photo.]

HUGO is the banding code for Hudsonian Godwit, and I guess I can stop my grumbling about them. Hudsonian Godwits have been reported with some regularity at Forsythe NWR, NJ this summer/fall, including a remarkable 50 (!!) seen by my friend Scott Barnes and part of a NJ Audubon field trip in August. Understand, I work at Forsythe, and drive the tour road looking for birds after work at least once a week, plus occasional quick swings around the 8 mile loop during lunchtime, so you'd figure I'd eventually see one. It paid off tonight. Most Hudsonian Godwits migrate offshore, but I had a hunch that the northeasterlies of yesterday and this morning might put some on land.

Wordless Wednesday: Cape May Monarch

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Raptor Clinic

Back when I was a bird-crazy teenager, I would go through birding magazines (there were no blogs then, no web sites either) trying to identify the photos of each species without looking at the caption. So here's a suggestion - try that first, don't look at the caption, just look at the birds and see how you do.
Other than a VERY nice first hour or so of morning flight, a big push of landbirds didn't really materialize on the ground in Cape May today, despite the apparent aligning of the stars for one (cold front after days of poor migration.) Hawks were aloft however, and I spent most of the day getting my eye back in for the hawkwatching season.
 [Side-by side comparisons are always great for learning shape differences. Above, compare the rounded, short wings of the Cooper's Hawk on the left with the classic long, pointed wings of the Peregrine Falcon on the right. Cape May Point today, click to enlarge all photos.]

 [Above, Broad-winged Hawk and below Red-tailed Hawk, both juveniles, in Cape May today. Broad-winged is unfortunately named, since as buteos go its wings are actually fairly slim and nicely tapered. Compare the Red-tailed's broader, blunter tipped wings.]

 [Above, Cooper's Hawk, below Sharp-shinned Hawk. More shape comparison: greater head projection and straighter leading edge of the wing on the Coop. These two also show classic tail shapes, nicely rounded on the Coop and squared with a notch on Sharp-shinned.]

Friday, September 13, 2013

Merlin Duel

[Two Merlins duke it out in front of the Cape May Hawkwatch this afternoon.]

Fri-D: Adult Western v. Semipalmated Sandpipers in September

 [Top, adult worn breeding plumage Semipalmated Sandpiper, bottom adult mostly winter plumage Western Sandpiper, both at Stone Harbor Point, NJ on September 10, 2013. Click to enlarge photos.]

First try flicking your eyes back and forth between these two, noticing the Western's bigger head, thicker neck (or neckless look), and subtly more attenuated rear end. That last point was mentioned to me by Kevin Karlson the other night, and I haven't tested it much, but it seems Westerns have a bit of a dip or narrowing at the top rear of the body that Semis don't. This particular Western doesn't have a particularly long, drooping bill, but it is subtly more "Western" than the Semi's.

We can also skip the structure and just note the plumage. Westerns molt earlier than Semis, and by September most are nearly all the way into winter plumage (plain gray upperparts feathers), compared to the Semi which still wears breeding plumage with a few winter feathers coming in. Looking closer for any remaining breeding plumage clues, we see a few of the Western's retained spots on the side/belly, and looking really hard it seems there is a rufous feather still hanging on in the ear covert.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Luck

[My first NJ drive-by Clay-colored Sparrow. . . Forsythe NWR, NJ, Tuesday, September 10 2013, found while heading out for a cup of coffee. I saw it fly up off the refuge driveway, and thought, well, hell, it's probably a chipping, but I better take a look, there's been a Clay-colored reported. . . Note the wel-defined "moustache" mark, pale lore, and contrast between gray nape and "clay-colored" buffy breast band, which separate this species from Chipping Sparrow. Click to enlarge photo.]

"Diligence is the mother of good luck."
- Benjamin Franklin

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Cape May Warbler on the Way to a Long-tailed Jaeger

 [This male Cape May Warbler in Cape May Point, NJ interrupted my race to a Long-tailed Jaeger.]

"Maybe we should just get breakfast somewhere and wait for the text message."

That was my lame suggestion to Beth for finding the juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger that spent its third day around Cape May today, but I'd missed it on a couple of non-chasing just-scanning attempts yesterday and figured the odds were someone else's eyes would find it this morning. And they did - after Richard Crossley put it to bed off St. Mary's last night, Vince Elia texted it out first thing this morning.

Me? I was home drinking coffee at the time, but in my defense it was barely 7:00 a.m and it didn't take long to pull it together and get to Cape May (I live a long 20 minutes away from the point). And eventually, see the jaeger with the cast of characters that had assembled on the platform next to St. Mary's. I was interrupted by a fine male Cape May Warbler on the streets of Cape May Point as I hustled to St. Mary's.

To really understand all this you need to know that we have a wonderful text message bird alert system set up by Bob Fogg called Keekeekerr (as in the Black Rail vocalization), and all the locals and some out-of-towners are on it, and so most rare birds are texted almost as soon as they are seen.  If you're coming to Cape May, I strongly recommend you plug in to Keekeekerr. I hope I never resort to sitting by the phone rather than birding for the joy of it, but it is, how shall I say, reassuring to know that as good birds are found, word of them is spread like wildfire.

[A vanguard Palm Warbler at Cape May Point State Park Saturday evening, this is my first of the fall. First of many, wait until later in the month. . .]

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Fox and the Cold Front

 [Northern Waterthrush at Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ this morning. Notice how the throat shows fine streaking up to the chin, one good mark to separate this bird from Louisiana Waterthrush. The small bill, eyestripe narrowing behind the eye, and yellowish wash below are all good for that, too. Click to enlarge photos.]

With almost no wind to speak of overnight, I figured Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ would have a few birds, but not many. That it was cool overnight, down to 50-something, inspired me to get up and give it a go. Northwest wind or not, cool nighttime temperatures inspire migration, and I strategized that a cool dawn would bring birds to the sunlit edges. Sometimes the slower days at Higbee are perversely better, in one sense, for birding - instead of the frantic movement and brief glimpses that characterize a super-busy morning, on days like today the birds seem to linger a bit, allowing better views.

Sure. As a law professor advised me once long ago, all reasoning is rationalization. If I want it to be a good day at Higbee, or anywhere, I'll find myself the reasons to make it so. It'll be like Aesop's the fox and the grapes next. The fox and the cold front, I didn't want one anyway. . .

Visions of Golden-winged Warbler danced in my head this morning, to no avail, but the first bird I got glass on in the pre-sunrise light was a bright Blue-winged Warbler. Then came a real highlight, a Mourning Warbler in the shrubby patch in the middle of the first field. A few this's and that's followed, but truly not much. My eBird list from the morning has 41 species on it, including 10 species of warblers, as follows:

Northern Waterthrush  4
Blue-winged Warbler  1
Black-and-white Warbler  2
Nashville Warbler  1
Mourning Warbler  1
Common Yellowthroat  8
American Redstart  4
Northern Parula  4
Magnolia Warbler  1
Yellow Warbler  1

27 individual warblers is not spectacular for 2.5 hours of looking, but not terrible. You get jaded by the big days, for example last Wednesday there were 800 American Redstarts in the first hour at Morning Flight at Higbee. 27 individual warblers was still worth getting up for. Here I go rationalizing again. The average warbler is what, a third of an ounce? So 9 ounces of warblers is what I saw this morning.

When is anything worth it? Was it worth an early wake-up on a blissful cool clear morning, and 2.5 hours of slow stalking for the birds I got? Worth missing a sleep-in? Hell, it's Roar to the Shore weekend, I could have been borrowing someone's Harley and rumbling into Wildwood instead of patrolling a quiet Higbee Beach WMA. I'm confident my rationalizing wouldn't convince the Roar crowd that the way I spend my Saturday morning was worth the time.

But you, dear reader, are not part of the Roar to the Shore crowd, I'm guessing. Or maybe you are, I have known a motorcyclist/birder or three.

Right. Higbee had some birds, and it was worth it.

Here's another thing I've been ruminating on: pictures. Or the lack thereof. This morning among these 41 species, 10 warblers, I managed photos of 3, count 'em, 3 species. They're the photos in this blog. Now maybe I'm not going to grab the camera for every bird I see, I've got a lot of catbird and redstart pictures for example, but how come I didn't photograph the Mourning Warbler or the Nashville or the Blue-winged? It's because I couldn't, that's why. Birds pop up, drop down, camera refuses to focus on them, it's too dark, operator error. . .and I'm still a birder who carries a camera, not a photographer who watches birds, which means when a bird pops up, it's the binoculars that come up first, not the camera. That's not good or bad, it's just how it is.

The fox and the photograph. . .

 [A Veery drawn to a native Arrowwood Viburnum's fruits, Higbee Beach today.]

[Look at that eyering, and yellow below, it's got to be a Nashville or even a Connecticut. . . except if it's a Magnolia Warbler instead.]

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wordless Wednesday's Morning Flight

 [Male American Redstart, Higbee Beach, NJ September 4, 2013. Click to enlarge photos.]

 [Blackburnian Warbler, same place and time.]

[Adult male Baltimore Oriole.]