Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Do These Three Images Spell Fallout Tomorrow, Despite the East Winds, Or Am I Seeing This Wrong?

Large nocturnal take-off, front made it off the coast, showers in the early morning hours. . .if the wind had a west component, I'd feel more sure, but I think Thursday could be a very interesting day.

Wordless Wednesday: A Ballet of Angels

[Tree Swallows staging at Cape May Point State Park, Saturday, September 26, 2015. Click to play video.]

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Packing Lunch

[Adult Peregrine Falcon over the Cape May, NJ hawk watch today, lovingly carrying a. . . ]

[juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, I think. Note the orientation, like the way Ospreys carry fish.]

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fri-D: the Teal

Nobody I know really likes female-plumaged ducks. They're just a pain to identify. How many times have I been leading a summer birding tour in the western U.S. and been pressured to find a definite Cinnamon Teal when Blue-winged Teal are also present? Too many.

And by the way, I use "female-plumaged" rather than just "female" for a good reason, since male North American ducks molt into what is known as an "eclipse" plumage in summer, which by modern molt terminology is their "alternate" plumage. Most "alternate" plumages are also "breeding plumages," i.e. the fancier, more colorful plumage, but ducks screw all that up. Someday maybe I'll write a post about telling eclipse plumage male ducks from females, which is not often easy. Witness the regular appearance of female-plumaged Eurasian Wigeons in Cape May that then call like males, and eventually molt into obvious males. In early fall, many male ducks come south looking like females.

Right, so, teal. I'm leaving Cinnamon Teal out of this, since you have to be smarter than me to i.d. a female-plumaged Cinnamon in the east.

Let's pretend you saw the two ducks in the photo next to a Mallard (and they were next to a Mallard when I took this picture, but you can't see it in the photo), and you realized they were little. Green-winged Teal is our smallest duck, averaging a mere 14" in total length. For comparison, an American Robin is 10". Little ducks. Blue-winged Teal are slightly bigger, averaging 15.5". Mallards loom over all three, at 23".

So are these two ducks the same species? Well, no, but if you dialed in on the green patch on the wing of the front duck, beware. Both Green-winged Teal and Blue-winged Teal have green secondaries (much more prominent on the male BWTE than the female, which shows hardly any green.) Also, it is important to remember that, unless a duck is flying or preening or otherwise opening its wing a little, you can't see its flight feathers at all, because the whole wing is buried in the body plumage and under the scapulars and tertials. Are we having fun yet?

An excellent place to start with any bird identification is the bill. As an aside, in female ducks, bill color and pattern is often very useful.  These two both have dark bills, but flick your eyes back and forth between the two. That back bird has a big, thick bill compared to the one in front, doesn't it?

Another excellent place to start with any bird identification is the exact face pattern (the warbler face plate in the old Golden Guide remains one of my favorite pieces of bird art). The front bird has a dark line through the eye. The back bird does too, though arguably a little less distinct, but it also has white eye-arcs and a white smudge at the base of the bill. What are male Blue-winged Teal known for? Oh, yeah, that white half moon in front of the eye. . .

Duck butts are also often useful for i.d. The front bird has a buffy horizontal stripe directly beneath the tail, the back bird does not.

So, the front bird is a female-plumaged Green-winged Teal, the back bird is a female-plumaged Blue-winged Teal. Both species are pouring south right now, with many of the Blue-wingeds on their way to South America (most "only" to Central America, some only to the southern U.S.), while the Green-wingeds don't go quite as far, wintering south to Mexico with many wintering in the U.S.

By the way, did you know any duck can be identified, sexed, and aged just by its wing? Also check here . Ducks are perhaps the best known and most studied wild birds. Why? They taste good. . . and are deeply loved by duck hunters, birders, and the public in general.

This photo was taken at Forsythe NWR during my lunch break one day this week.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday: The Internet

[Pronghorns north of Belle Fourche, SD, July 2015.]

"I've come to love the internet because it helps me plan when, where and how to get the hell away from the internet, and to share what I found when I come back."

- Don Freiday

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

This Thing Happened, Part Two

Last week I blogged about an unusual bird that appeared at the Higbee Beach WMA, NJ, dike during the morning flight of September 15, 2015. I've been reflecting about whether to go public with it or not, and have decided, well, what the hek. You can read about Glen Davis's thoughts about this same bird here; Glen also decided to go public with this observation.

This stuff is sometimes pretty boring, but still essential to the maintenance of a state's checklist, and useful as we monitor the expansions and contractions of our birds' ranges and populations.

The following is constructed from the NJBRC's excellent sighting report form.

New Jersey Bird Records Committee
Species: Kirtland’s Warbler
Scientific name: Setophaga kirtlandii
Number of birds: 1
Sex (if known): Unknown
Age/plumage (if known): The density of the streaking below was less than on the breeding birds I saw in Michigan in May, 2014, suggesting female or first fall. I am working off illustrations and photos, not experience, on aging.
Place, including nearest town, and county: Higbee Beach Dike, Cape May, NJ
Date(s) & time(s) of your observations: September 15, 2015 at about 8:00 a.m.
First and last dates bird was present, if known: only September 15, 2015
Date of completing this form: September 15, 2015, about 2 hours after the sighting.
Observer making this report: Donald P. Freiday
Address: [redacted]
Telephone: [redacted]
E-Mail: [redacted]
Other observers (if possible, each should submit this form): Glen Davis, Mike Lanzone

Who found the bird? Independently by Don Freiday, Glen Davis, and (not sure if i.d’d) Mike Lanzone
Who first identified it? Freiday and Davis

Optical equipment used: Freiday used Zeiss 8X42 FL’s
Distance from bird: estimate 40 meters straight overhead when first glassed, then headed away to the south-southeast.

Weather and light conditions: Great. Sunny, blue sky, wind northwest 5-10, bird was lit from sun behind us and later, as it passed over headed south, to the left (east) of us.
Was the bird photographed? Yes, by Mike Lanzone, but photos are apparently unidentifiable.

Was the bird videotaped or recorded? No.
If so, are photographs and/or recordings included with this report? No

If not, are they accessible to the Committee? How (for example, URL?) Maybe, check with Mike Lanzone, but when he looked at the back of his camera a few minutes after the sighting he said they were not helpful.
Indicate your prior experience with this and similar species:  I saw Kirtland’s singing and chipping (not flight note and not flying) several times for extended periods of observation on its breeding grounds in Michigan in late May 2014. My only experience is with singing or calling males. As to the similar species, i.e. those considered below, I’ve seen 100’s to 1000’s of all in all conditions, including overhead in flight.

What books, illustrations, and advice did you consult? When? Sibley app on my iPhone five minutes after the sighting (mainly to silently query Glen Davis about what he was thinking); Sibley FG and The Warbler Guide app 2 hours later.
Was this report written from notes made during, or after, the observation? This is being written up on my computer now that I am home, about two hours after the sighting. I made no notes at the time of sighting, but carefully reflected on what I had seen before looking at any guides. The only conversation about the bird’s field marks I had prior to writing it up was with Glen Davis, and the extent of that was exchanging the notion that the streaking pattern on the underparts was “weird,” and that I thought it was a KIWA, and Glen had reached the same conclusion. I believe I have been careful not to corrupt what I saw with what one finds in the field guides.

Description: Include information on the bird's plumage, shape and size, vocalizations, habitat, behavior, etc. Describe what you actually saw. Sketches are helpful. (THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE REPORT; RECORDS WITHOUT DETAILS WILL NOT BE VOTED.)

This was a day of a big, diverse flight (27+ warbler species), following an immense flight the day before of ca. 56,000 birds, mainly warbler sp.'s (I was not present for the massive previous day flight). A cold front passed 2 days prior to this sighting, winds remained more or less NW since, skies clear the night before and the morning of the sighting. September 12&13 had lowish volume but diverse migrations; September 14 had a one hour 56,000 bird flight first thing in the morning; and the date of the observation,  September 15th, 2015,  was the classic big, diverse flight that happens many years in mid-September in Cape May. The September 15, 2015 flight was the best morning flight I’ve observed in the 8 years I’ve lived in Cape May. My full list for the morning, sans this bird, is at .

I blogged about the weather conditions the day before this sighting. That blog can be found at
About 8:00 a.m., the bird in question came over medium-high. When I detected it was almost straight overhead, headed south. When I first saw it, I got that electric feeling you get when you see a different, rare bird.

It was the kind of bird that you say to yourself, "I'm not calling this one until I am sure." About the time I was saying this to myself, Glen Davis, the official morning flight counter at Higbee, said, "No way! I'm not even going there." I knew right away he was on the same bird.
I had about four seconds of reasonably good, basically straight-up binocular views of this bird, in good light and good focus, then watched it fly away until it disappeared over the trees to the south-southeast. I opted to watch it and try to identify it, rather than snap off some photos. Then I stood silently for maybe five minutes, processing, ignoring the ongoing flight. I carefully considered what I had just seen, the field marks I felt I could reliably say I saw well, evaluating what, if anything, was missing to confirm this identification (other than a photo, or independent corroboration.)

What I saw: a warbler in flight. I did not develop a good read on the size of the bird, except that I could tell it was not small, so definitely bigger than a Northern Parula or Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. It was alone in my field of view during the observation, a fairly rare incident on this big flight morning, so I had nothing to directly compare it to. It was southbound, against the grain of the main flow of the morning flight. It was stocky, with a broad chest, and its wingbeats seemed slower than any of the 1000’s of warblers I’d seen that day so far, suggesting a larger warbler. Its underparts were entirely yellow except for white undertail coverts, and it had dark streaking below that I initially described later to others on the dike as “weird.” Glen Davis agreed on the weird part when we discussed the sighting a few minutes later, though we did not discuss the specifics. As I saw it, the streaking was in 2 or maybe three fine dark rows along each side of the bird’s underparts, right under the wings, with a few flecks in the center of the breast. Its tail had a dark base, with white at the distal ~ half, with black corners at the tip. The underwings seemed dark. The face was plain; if there was an eyebrow or eyeline they were not obvious. I did not notice anything particular about the wing shape. It seemed fairly long tailed. With the view I had, I can’t say anything about the bird from above.  I did not notice anything else particular about the bird’s flight style, e.g. whether it was steady or buffeted, or whether in undulated or jinked side-side. One might think that four seconds with a bird in flight, plus a few more watching it disappear, is not enough time to absorb these details, but I feel pretty confident about them.
From my first look, after the initial jolt, I thought this bird was a Kirtland’s Warbler, even though I’ve never seen one in flight overhead.

After about five minutes of cataloging all this in my mind, I dialed up the bird on the Sibley app on my iPhone, to the view of the first winter in flight. Nobody had said anything out loud about what the bird might have been, and I think it was only the three of us that actually got on it.  I walked over to Glen Davis, held up the phone, and said, "That bird we just had going south?" Nobody had said anything out loud about the bird’s potential i.d. up until then.
Glen said, "That is EXACTLY what I was thinking." Then later, Glen said, "Thank-you." Thus, Glen and I arrived at the same conclusion independently.

I believe Glen, Mike Lanzone, and I were the only 3 who got on this bird. Mike took some photos which turned out not to be identifiable, at least not by looking at the back of his camera. Mike said he thought he heard the bird, and wasn't sure if the flight note matched Kirtland’s. I did not hear the bird call, and am unfamiliar with its flight note because I've only encountered this species on its breeding grounds in Michigan, in May, 2014, and never in a view like this.
Later, coincidentally, I was chatting with Richard Crossley on the Cape May Point State Park hawk watch platform about where he had been this morning, since he was not on the dike. Without any information about this sighting, he said, "Oh, I was out looking for a Kirtland’s Warbler along Sunset. It's the perfect time of year and perfect conditions for one.”

Name the species you consider ID contenders; explain how you eliminated each. If there is not complete agreement on this ID, state who disagrees and why.
Magnolia Warbler does not fit because of shape and tail pattern, and the nature of the streaking below, and because I should have perceived it as small. Prairie Warbler does not fit because of the tail pattern, because I perceive PRWA UT coverts as looking yellowish, though maybe not as bright as the rest of the underparts, plus I should have perceived a Prairie as thin and small, not stocky, plus the streaking pattern below is subtly different, usually thicker than what I saw, except first winter PRWA, which is variable and sometimes lacks defined streaking, but never has a tail pattern like the bird in question. Prairie's show a ton of white on the tail. Cape May Warbler does not fit because this bird was definitely not short-tailed, I did not perceive it as small, the face/nape pattern was wrong, and the streaking pattern does not fit.

As to who disagrees, Mike Lanzone seemed unsure, particularly about the call he thought he heard. I haven’t talked with Mike in detail about what he saw, nor have I talked with Glen in detail about what he saw. I know Glen and I and Mike are all three reluctant because identifying flyover warblers is a risky business.

This comes down to whether an observer or observers can reliably i.d. a rare warbler in flight. And, whether a sight record without photographs, even when corroborated by two experienced independent observers,  can be accepted, especially for an exceedingly rare (in this case, first state record) observation.

I am confident that we saw a Kirtland’s Warbler. Despite that, I am concerned that the conditions of this sighting may not be adequate for a first state record, and thus this may need to fall into the “tantalizing” realm. If the records committee believes Glen's and my observations match, this sighting becomes more valid. I have not shared this write-up with Glen or Mike [until now].

Date: 9/15/2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Mountain, Its Birds, and Its People

[The scene today at the Scott's Mountain Hawk Watch at Merrill Creek Reservoir.  This could just be the friendliest hawk watch on Planet Earth. Included in the scene or nearby: today's official counter, Paul Murray; Henry Kielblock, proprietor of this watch; Rich Kane, dean emeritus of NJ birding; Dave Dean, Kurt Zimmerman, Paul Shanahan, Norann Hein, Tom Koellhoffer, Don and Rebecca Freiday, and 40+ others.]

Last summer when I encountered my friend Henry Kielblock at Forsythe NWR, NJ, I told him I would visit him, other old friends, and the Broad-winged Hawk migration at the Scott's Mountain Hawk Watch at Merrill Creek Reservoir, NJ this fall. Today I made good on that promise, and it was a fine day to do so. A cold front had passed, and winds for the mountain were forecast to be NW going to N going to NE, perfect for this site. My daughter Rebecca joined me and the cast of characters that make this watch one of the friendliest birding sites anywhere.

[Here's the weather map as it stood tonight, after today's flight. You can see the blue arc at right with the arrows pointing right; that's the cold front that passed, with high pressure behind it. That's what you want to see for fall bird migration, generally speaking.]

My promise was not only to Henry. It was to myself.  I love the hills of rural northwest NJ. People unfamiliar with this state need a reality check, because it is truly a natural gem despite its ill-gotten reputation. I grew up in and spent the first part of my adult life in these hills, and going back still feels like going home to me.

[Adult Bald Eagle today, flying beyond the American flag that waves prominently at the Scott's Mountain, NJ Hawk Watch. Click to enlarge. ]

Early on, meaning beginning at 9:00 a.m. or so, birds were flying, including plenty of Bald Eagles. These included the local breeding pair and their offspring, and a number of migrants.  As Bald Eagles have increased and spread throughout the U.S., counting them at hawk watches has become increasingly difficult.  The official counter must watch each bird that passes and make a decision as to its provenance - a migrant, or one of the locals? A great problem to have.

[Eagle flock: 4 Bald Eagles in one frame at Scott's Mountain today. I well remember the days when if you were lucky enough to find a single eagle, you would watch it until it disappeared, because you never knew when you would see another one. A success story of grand proportions. Click to enlarge.]

One of the more amazing sights of the day was when the local adult Bald Eagles took a break from chasing off any migrants to renew their pair bond:

[The Merrill Creek Bald Eagle pair in classic talon-clasping courtship. They hooked up perhaps 400 meters up, and tumbled almost to the water before breaking away from each other. Aerial foreplay. Click to enlarge. ]

[Wait, what? This is part of a flock of 30+ Lesser Black-backed Gulls, the first of many more migrants to come, and probably headed eventually to the landfill opposite Florence, NJ. It is amazing that we still don't know the derivation of the now hundreds of LBBG's that appear in the region each year.  Where are they breeding? Rich Kane told me this southbound migration of LBBG was a regular sight at Merrill Creek.]

Despite the many other great birds present or passing, we were all up at Merrill Creek to see Broad-winged Hawks.  The spectacle of the mass departure of this raptor from the forests of North America to wintering grounds in Central America and South America is without question one of the greatest natural phenomena a naturalist can encounter, and is one I've been addicted to since I began birding over 35 years ago. We loved the Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, American Kestrels, Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, vultures, and everything else today - but the Broad-winged Hawks made the day what it was: spectacular. And it wasn't even a big flight by Broad-winged Hawk standards, "only" 2,457 for the day. By comparison, Cape May had. . . 5 today.  That would be 0.2% of Scott's Mountain's total for Broad-winged Hawk today. Regular readers of this blog know I am the last person who would malign Cape May's birding, but. .  .

In my home grounds of Cape May, NJ, we don't often get truly large Broad-winged Hawk flights, since these birds seem to prefer to follow the inland ridges southward. Only if strong and persistent west or northwest winds coincide with mid-September does Cape May get big Broad-winged Hawk numbers.

[There are hawk watches north of the Cape May canal . . .]

[Part of a "kettle" of 160+ Broad-winged Hawks at Scott's Mountain today.  Broad-wingeds don't so much flock together on purpose as need to move all at about the same time, headed to the same places, and so accumulate where migration conditions are favorable, such as ridges like Scott's Mountain where updrafts and thermals help them along. Click to enlarge.]

[Angels: Broad-winged Hawks against the halo of the sun. Broad-wingeds, and other raptors, often ascend so high during migration that scanning the perimeter of the sun for silhouettes is one of the best ways to find them. Click to enlarge.]

I made some feeble attempts to video the Broad-winged Hawk kettles over Scott's Mountain today, using my DSLR on a tripod.  Here's the best I could do; the conversations in the background are almost as fun as the birds!

[How many hawk watches have a bin of communal munchies (the owl is not edible, however)? How many have the official counter walk from one end of the site to other proffering fresh baked cookies? At Scott's Mountain, this is the norm.]

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday: Photos? We ain't got no photos.

[The bandit leader called Gold Hat, played by actor Alfonso Bedoya, in the classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre.]

The birders' version:

"We saw a rare bird. You know, a rare bird."

"If you saw a rare bird, where are your photos?"

“Photos? We ain’t got no photos! We don’t need no photos! I don’t have to show you any stinking photos!”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

This Thing Happened

[The scene at morning flight, Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ today. Listen to all the flight notes, and cameras clicking.]

As expected, migration was epic in Cape May, NJ this morning. Below I've posted my list from the Higbee Beach WMA dike today. The flight was spiced by a couple rarities and 27-ish warbler species.

This thing happened at the dike this morning, and I'm not sure what to do with it. What would you do?

Late in the flight, a bird came over medium-high, headed south. When I first saw it, I got that thing you get when you see a different, rare bird. You know that thing? Kind of like you stuck your finger in an electrical outlet?

It was the kind of bird that you say to yourself (if you are wise), "I'm not calling this one until I am sure." About the time I was saying this to myself, Glen Davis, the official morning flight counter at Higbee, said, "No way! I'm not even going there." I knew right away he was on the same bird. I suspect he was thinking, I know it's good today, but this good? That's what I was thinking, anyway.

I had about four seconds of reasonably good binocular views of this bird, then watched it until it disappeared over the trees to the south-southeast. Then I stood silently for maybe five minutes, processing, ignoring the ongoing flight. Carefully considering what I had just seen, the field marks I felt I could reliably say I saw well, evaluating what, if anything, was missing to confirm this identification (other than a photo, or independent corroboration.)

Then I dialed up the bird I thought I had seen on the Sibley app on my iPhone, the view of the first winter in flight. I walked over to Glen, held up the phone, and said, "That bird we just had going south?"

Glen said, "That is EXACTLY what I was thinking." Then later, "Thank-you."

I believe Glen, Mike Lanzone, and I were the only 3 who got on this bird. Mike took some shots which, as is the norm for this kind of photography, turned out not to be identifiable. Mike said he thought he heard the bird, and wasn't sure if the flight note matched the species Glen and I suspected it was. I did not hear the bird call, and frankly am unfamiliar with its flight note because I've only encountered it a few times before, and never like this.

What would you do?

Then, to make matters, um, worse, or at least different, later I was chatting with Richard Crossley on the hawk watch platform about where he had been this morning, since he was conspicuously absent from the dike. Without any provocation, he said, "Oh, I was out looking for a [insert Don and Glen's bird here] along Sunset. It's the perfect time of year and perfect conditions for one."

I stared at Richard a moment and said, "Are you telepathic?"

Here's the promised list from this morning at the Higbee Dike.  You might also want to check the official count list.

Cape Island--Higbee Beach WMA--Dike, Cape May, New Jersey, US
Sep 15, 2015 7:00 AM - 9:00 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments: Remarkable diverse flight today, following an immense flight yesterday morning of ca. 56,000 birds, mainly warbler sp.'s. Classic: Cold front passed 2 days ago, winds remained more or less NW, skies clear last night and this morning. And it is September 15. September 12&13 had lowish volume but diverse migrations; September 14 had the one hour freak of nature flight; this was the classic, one, big, diverse flight that happens most years in mid-September.

94 species (+4 other taxa)

Canada Goose 10
Common Loon 1
Double-crested Cormorant 4
Great Blue Heron 1
Snowy Egret 4
Black Vulture 2
Turkey Vulture 4
Osprey 10
Sharp-shinned Hawk 8
Cooper's Hawk 1
Bald Eagle 2
Killdeer 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 3
Sanderling 15
Semipalmated Sandpiper 6
Laughing Gull X
Herring Gull X
Great Black-backed Gull X
Forster's Tern 50
Royal Tern 20
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 6
White-winged Dove 1 m'ob, photographed, called out first by Scott Whittle.
Mourning Dove X
Yellow-billed Cuckoo 1
Chimney Swift 6
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 7
Belted Kingfisher 1
Red-headed Woodpecker 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 10
American Kestrel 1
Merlin 3
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher 1
Alder/Willow Flycatcher (Traill's Flycatcher) 1
Least Flycatcher 1
Empidonax sp. 5
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Eastern Kingbird 10
White-eyed Vireo 1
Blue-headed Vireo 1
Red-eyed Vireo X
Fish Crow X
Northern Rough-winged Swallow X
Tree Swallow X
Barn Swallow X
Carolina Chickadee X
House Wren 1
Carolina Wren X
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher X
Veery 5 1 actually flew out, through the group
Swainson's Thrush 1
American Robin 1
Gray Catbird 4
Northern Mockingbird 1
European Starling 1
Cedar Waxwing X
Ovenbird 3
Northern Waterthrush X
Louisiana Waterthrush 1 think TR et al got photos.
Golden-winged Warbler 1
Black-and-white Warbler X MANY
Tennessee Warbler X
Nashville Warbler X
Connecticut Warbler 2
Common Yellowthroat X
Hooded Warbler 1
American Redstart X MANY
Cape May Warbler X
Northern Parula X MANY
Magnolia Warbler X
Bay-breasted Warbler X
Blackburnian Warbler X
Yellow Warbler X
Chestnut-sided Warbler X
Blackpoll Warbler X
Bay-breasted/Blackpoll Warbler X
Black-throated Blue Warbler X
Palm Warbler X
Pine Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1
Prairie Warbler 2
Black-throated Green Warbler X
Canada Warbler 1
Wilson's Warbler 1
warbler sp. (Parulidae sp.) 4500 It was a great flight.
Scarlet Tanager X many
Northern Cardinal X
Rose-breasted Grosbeak X
Blue Grosbeak X
Indigo Bunting X
Painted Bunting 1 female type. Sam Galick called it by asking, is this one green? flying north with ~3 INBU.
Dickcissel 1
Bobolink X
Red-winged Blackbird X
Common Grackle X
Baltimore Oriole X many
House Finch X
American Goldfinch X
View this checklist online at

Monday, September 14, 2015

That's No Moon, It's a Space Station

[Radar image from the most useful radar site for birders at 0045 UTC (8:45 p.m. EDT) today. Not a space station, and not rain. It's birds. And this is barely into full dark of night, so one should watch this flight unfold.]

One more:

[This, the front forecast frozen at 6:00 a.m. Zulu, which means 2:00 a.m. EDT 9/15/2015, shows a  cold front that passed yesterday, a high pressure system over our region, with pretty much nothing to stop migration from our Cape May "sending zones" of northern NJ, Pennsylvania, New York, and New England." And weather and winds to encourage it.]

And, apart from today, which was insane at least at Higbee Beach WMA in NJ, with over 56,000 birds this morning, over 46,000 of which were warblers (and we're not talking yellow-rumpeds here), and almost all of that in the first hour (!), it's been two weeks since we've had a really serious southbound flight of landbird migrants. They've been trickling, but the pipe has been clogged. There are many birds "in the pipe," and the weather, wind and time of year combine to act like the product known as Drano.

One more thing: tomorrow is September 15. Peak, or maybe past peak by a few days, for neotropical migrants in Cape May.
I really recommend birding tomorrow. What's the worst that could happen? You skip work and go birding?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Phases of a Cape May Songbird Flight, and How to Handle Them

[Black-and-white Warbler posing at  Higbee Beach WMA, NJ today, September 13, 2015. Click to enlarge photos. Today's excellent flight was unexpected based on the wind, but it is mid-September after all. My group, a flash mob of keen young birders plus me, recorded 70 species including 20 warbler species. This BAWW helped me recover from finding one dead at the Villas, NJ WaWa convenience store on my predawn coffee stop, an obvious window strike (see Twitter post at right) and was at the same time a sign that more birds were moving last night than I expected.]

First it is chaos. Birds flying everywhere, sometimes in all directions but generally trending into the wind and/or northward. Birds re-positioning after being wind-drifted off course overnight, birds searching for the appropriate habitat to forage and rest. This begins at sunrise and can last 1-4 hours after. In this phase, you want to be in a place you can see sky.  If songbirds in flight are your thing, you want to be at the Higbee Dike (if it is August or September) or maybe one of the Cape May Point dune crossovers (especially if it is October or November). If you prefer to try these rapidly moving birds perched, position yourself at a sunlit edge. Most people opt to hang out on the western edges of fields 1-3 or the Tower field at Higbee Beach WMA, letting the flight drift by in front of them.

Later (8:00 a.m.? 9:00 a.m.? depends on the day), the morning flight settles down and landbirds have found both each other and their appropriate habitats. Now's the time to walk the fields and woods at Higbee, the Beanery, or Hidden Valley, searching for pockets holding mixed-species flocks. Choose the habitat you work and the height of your scan for the birds you seek. Trees and looking up for many warblers, orioles, tanagers. Edges and trees looking mid-level for Empids. Rank fields, especially those with ragweed and foxtail, and looking low for sparrows, Connecticut Warblers, and others. Dark, wet woods and looking low for thrushes and other secretive species like Ovenbirds and waterthrushes.

By late morning, songbirds have found a home for the day, and many rest quietly. Now's the time to hit the hawkwatch at Cape May Point State Park, or maybe the South Cape May Meadows for shorebirds. You might find songbirds still active at either place. A Cape May Warbler dropped into the shrubs abutting the hawkwatch platform at about noon today.

By early afternoon, things tend to slow down unless it is a major flight and the winds remain northwest. If that's the case, stay in the field. More than one person has said, "Don't turn your back on Cape May in a northwest wind." If the winds are not stellar, or if you need some hard-earned rest, take a nap, or chill on the hawkwatch platform for a while.

Later on some afternoons, songbirds become active again. This is a great time to work the streets surrounding Lily Lake in Cape May Point, watching for foraging warblers, including some beginning to display Zugenruhe (migration restlessness) as they ready for the next leg of their journey. If the Point is slow, or if you can tear yourself away, the South Cape May Meadows is a fine place to end the day as the sun sets, watching shorebirds, looking for late-flying falcons, nighthawks, or herons. The old magnesite plant area, opposite the fire control tower on Sunset Boulevard, is another excellent late-day option.

This is how I generally do it anyway, all the while plugged into Keekeekerr, and listening to my friends and my sense of wonder.

[My best attempt to get the three Philadelphia Vireos in the northwest corner of field 2 at Higbee today in a single shot. Only managed 2. Higbee was smoking today. We even found an apparently record-early Orange-crowned Warbler, a bird we don't usually think about until October. None of my many attempted photos of that bird worked out, it was being elusive in the ragweed of the "tower field," the field to the left/east as you leave the main Higbee parking area headed south. Glen Davis, counting at Morning Flight, had a prospect OCWA at about the same time we were observing ours.]

Friday, September 11, 2015

A Long, Long Time Ago. . .

[Snowy Owl and the late, great twin towers, as seen from Global Terminal, NJ, ca. 1985, by the late, great birder and photographer, Frank Schleicher.]

Something touched me deep inside. The day the music died. Change the lyric "February" to "September." And try not to cry.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday: email

"Email is a system designed to allow other people to attempt to control your priorities."
- Don Freiday

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Meeting Them Where They Are

[Clapper Rail, Taylor Sound, Cape May, NJ, sunrise, September 7, 2015. Click to enlarge.]

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Ode to the Buff-Breasted Sandpiper

[Juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper, photographed from the observation platform at the South Cape May Meadows, a.k.a. the Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, NJ, today, Saturday September 5, 2015. Click to enlarge. Look at those long wings - and see the range map below to learn why the wings are long. Onlookers included David LaPuma, Director of CMBO; Richard Crossley;Vince Elia; Sam Wilson; Catherine Bush; Mike Lanzone;  Bob and Stephanie Brown; Tim Freiday; Allison Anholt; Glen Davis, CMBO morning flight counter; Margeaux Maerz, George Myers Naturalist; and many others - the Cape May birding community coming together with many welcome out-of-town visitors to experience a phenomenal bird.]

A juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper settled into the South Cape May Meadows today, joined by an Upland Sandpiper and the continuing Baird's Sandpiper (three of the "grasspipers.") As Vince Elia commented, you knew a buffie would show up here. Right time of year, perfect habitat.

It's not like Buff-breasted Sandpiper was unexpected - but they are rare.

This "buffie," as birders like to call them, triggered a memory of an Ed Brinkley column in the "Changing Seasons" feature of North American Birds, volume 65, number 1, autumn 2010:

"The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan rated this handsome species “Highly Imperiled” in its most recent update. Once a bird that existed in the millions, hunting [that would be commercial and subsistence hunting in the late 1800's and early 1900's, as well as continued commercial and subsistence hunting through today on its wintering grounds, not sport hunting - DPF] and habitat loss have reduced its  populations to about 15,000 individuals in 2010. So every report of every migrant Buff-breasted Sandpiper counts. We birders know how to find them, we know when they pass through our areas  between late August and early October, and we should spread the word to our fellow birders: report every single Buff-breasted Sandpiper that you see. And enjoy each one. Arguably, every bird species that nests in the taiga and tundra habitats of Alaska and Canada deserves this level of attention and appreciation."

Thanks, Ed Brinkley. It was great sharing this rare bird with my friends, but the prize of the morning came when a family of four, non-birders, climbed the observation platform and asked what we were seeing. We welcomed them, told them about the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and I lowered my scope to the height of the smallest boy and aimed it at the bird. The older of the kids, a boy of maybe 13 years, came forward to look, and I explained how to get his eye lined up with the eyepiece for a good view.  He got it right away.

Knowing that, beautiful as they are, and even with a strong scope view, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper was unlikely to knock the socks off an early-teenage boy, as soon as I knew he had it lined up in the scope I said, "The really mind-blowing thing is where this bird came from and where it is going."

Someone, I think it was Richard Crossley, asked (rhetorically, obviously, if it was Richard), "And where is that?"

I said, "They nest in the highest part of the Arctic."

And Richard said, "The top of the world."

I said, "Yes. And they will spend the winter in southern South America."

Richard said, "The bottom of the world."

I said, "Unbelievable. What's that, 9,000 miles?"

The boy was looking at the bird now, really looking - and his brother and parents seemed ready to push him out of the way for a look themselves.

We can get there, one child, one adult, one family, one human at a time..

[Buff-breasted Sandpiper range and migration, from BNA online.]

Shorebird conditions are pretty great in the meadows right now, although we may need some rain soon or it will get too dry. Here's my shorebird list from today:

American Oystercatcher 1
Semipalmated Plover 4
Killdeer 3
Spotted Sandpiper 1
Greater Yellowlegs 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 10
Upland Sandpiper 1
Stilt Sandpiper 1
Baird's Sandpiper 1 cont
Least Sandpiper 30
White-rumped Sandpiper 2
Buff-breasted Sandpiper 1
Pectoral Sandpiper 1
Semipalmated Sandpiper 30
Western Sandpiper 3

Friday, September 4, 2015

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday: Courage

[Barely out of the nest: fledgling Blue Grosbeak, Cape May Point State Park, NJ, August 30, 2015.]

"My message, especially to young people, is to have courage to think differently, courage to invent, to travel the unexplored path, courage to discover the impossible and to conquer the problems and succeed. These are great qualities that they must work towards. This is my message to the young people."
- A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Feather Care

[Juvenile Great Blue Heron, Cape May Point State Park, NJ, August 30, 2010. Click to enlarge.]

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

So It Begins

[Left to right:  Tom Reed, Swing Counter; Cameron Cox, Official Hawk Counter; Karl Lukens. Vince Elia, Scott Whittle, Marc Breslow, and Morning Flight Counter Glen Davis also stopped by this morning, the first day of the Cape May hawk count. The first official bird? Osprey. Cape May Point State Park Hawkwatch Platform, NJ, September 1, 2015.]