Friday, March 18, 2016

Fri-D: How to Find a March Black-headed Gull

[Black-headed Gull , center, on a sand spit north of Miami Avenue, Villas, NJ, on Delaware Bay, Friday, March 18, 2016. The other two birds are Bonaparte's Gulls. Click to enlarge all photos. Best tide here is falling, two hours after high.]

March is perhaps the best gull month (February is the only competition in the mid-Atlantic.) The locally wintering gulls are still here, and are joined by gulls rare (like Iceland) and common (like Laughing) that wintered farther south.

Yesterday morning I was lucky enough to detect a Black-headed Gull on the bayshore a couple miles south of my home. This is an event I kind of have taken for granted the past few years, but this is a rare bird; I think it is the only Black-headed Gull being reported in NJ right now.

Right, so how do you find a Black-headed Gull in March? The standard i.d. competitor is Bonaparte's, and there are solid field marks differentiating the two. Black-headed's bill is red, Bonaparte's is black. Black-headed's legs are coral red, Bonaparte's pinkish. Easy-peasy, or so you would think.

But what if you are sifting a flock of 450 Bonaparte's floating on the water 300 yards offshore. Can't see the legs on a floating gull. And that red bill of Black-headed can be tough to see, because it can be a dull red.  Now what?

Well, there's size. Size should be the first go-to for any bird i.d. . . . But. Black-headed is in theory clearly bigger that Bonaparte's, with Black-headed averaging 16" total length (measured as birds in specimen trays from tip of bill to tip of tail), while Bonaparte's are 2.5" smaller at 13.5".

But. They look surprisingly similar in size. So again, what about those 300 yard floating birds?

In March, two things. First, I look for white or near-white Bonaparte's, because a near-white bonie is a Black-headed.

Second, Black-headed Gulls molt earlier, and develop a spring hood earlier than Bonaparte's. Thus, if you get a bird in a flock of Bonies in March with a lot of hood, it is probably not a Bonie.

A sleeper field mark is this: a Bonaparte's Gull that is not next to another Bonaparte's Gull is probably not a Bonaparte's Gull. Black-headeds often associate with Ring-billed, Laughing, or even Herring Gull.

Finally, you can wait for your bird to lift a wing:

[This is a shot from Delaware Bay from March 26, 2010. Black-headed Gull left, Bonaparte's right. Note the difference in the outer underwing, and that the Black-headed has nearly a full hood.]

[Typical winter/early spring Delbay scene: Forster's Tern (center, short legs, ear patch and orange bill base); Ring-billed Gull, Dunlin, Black-bellied Plovers, and Bonaparte's Gull (far right).]

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Thoughtful Thursday: Memories of Pain and Hope

[Great Egret, South Cape May Meadows, NJ, March 16, 2016. Click to enlarge.]

"For A Dancer"

Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don't remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you'd always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you're nowhere to be found

I don't know what happens when people die
Can't seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It's like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can't sing
I can't help listening
And I can't help feeling stupid standing 'round
Crying as they ease you down
'Cause I know that you'd rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There's nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you've been shown
By everyone you've ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another's steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you'll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don't let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you'll never know

-Jackson Browne

Monday, March 7, 2016

Fancy Ducks

[Female Canvasback repositions on the third (east-most) plover pond at Cape May Point State Park/South Cape May Meadows, NJ on Sunday, March 6, 2016. Click to enlarge. Canvasback is a scarce bird in Cape May.]

We're nearing the peak of northbound duck migration, both in term of abundance and diversity. eBird reveals I've seen 22 duck species in the last three days, having birded Mannington Marsh in Salem County, (arguably the best spring dabbling duck site in the state) with the NJ Young Birders Club, Cape May Point State Park, and Reed's Beach, all in southern NJ.

Among the ducks at Mannington was a season-first-for-me Blue-winged Teal. Mention "neotropical migrant" and most birders immediately think of songbirds, but many Blue-winged Teal fly south to winter in the New World Tropics.

Quite a few ducks and other birds have a migration that is as much east-west as it is north-south. Consider the Canvasback, for example:

[Canvasback range map, from Birds of North America Online.]

A large percentage of North American ducks derive from the prairie pothole region, a complex of wetland and upland habitats that has been called the "duck factory," with good cause. Massive habitat protection efforts by groups like Ducks Unlimited and agencies like the USFWS have truly helped save these wetlands, and the waterfowl and many other species that need them.

[Now here's a riddle: where do the Eurasian Wigeon we see every year come from? Iceland? Or are they breeding somewhere in North America? This male (right, with American Wigeon) was on Lighthouse Pond at Cape May Point State Park on Sunday, March 6, 2016.]

[Worldwide range map of Eurasian Wigeon.]

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Thoughtful Thursday: I Fish Because . . .

[Spotted Sea Trout, Port Canaveral, Florida, leap day (well named!) 2016.]

“I fish because I love to. Because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly. Because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, and assorted social posturing I thus escape. Because in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing what they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion. Because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed, or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility, and endless patience. Because I suspect that men are going this way for the last time and I for one don't want to waste the trip. Because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters. Because in the woods I can find solitude without loneliness. ... And finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant and not nearly so much fun.”

― Robert Traver

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Wordless Wednesday: What are You Looking At?!

[Least Bittern, Green Cay, Florida, February 27, 2015. Click to enlarge.]

Great News from Florida!

[Roseate Spoonbill in high breeding plumage at the Stick Marsh rookery south of Palm Bay, Florida, February 28, 2015. Click to enlarge.]

Birders have an obligation to be active conservationists. There, I said it. Are you? It can be as simple as how you vote, or as complicated as being an advocate.

On the advocate front, today I received this message from David Cox of Florida Conservancy regarding the rookery I wrote about previously:

"I just spoke with the St. Johns River Water Management District land manager for the Stick Marsh, and he was aware of the problem. Indeed, he had previously posted that channel as a boat exclusion area, but the signs vanished. 

"He said he would go out there and re-post both ends of the center channel, and place buoys there as well. He seemed very open and amenable to our concerns, and I plan to stay in touch with him about management issues at the site."

How awesome is that!