Monday, May 9, 2011

IS April the New May?

[Yellow-throated Vireo, Belleplain State Forest May 7, 2011.]

Answer: No. Not yet, anyway. May is still the peak of spring migration for most landbird species (we're talking about the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states here). May is still when we get into the heart of the breeding season. May is still when full leaf-out occurs.

And yet. . . birders like to look at arrival dates, and I've been looking especially hard this year. Considering just April (May's hardly begun), 41 of 62 Cape May County arriving species appeared solidly within normal dates. But 6 were on the early side, and 15 (!) appeared earlier than the earliest arrival date listed in Sibley's 1997 Birds of Cape May. 

Ovenbird makes for a good example. Sibley's earliest reported arrival was April 14, so the handful that showed up in various Cape May locations on April 10 were EARLY. 

Now let's rewind to Witmer Stone's time, the 1930's and previous.  Stone's listed arrival dates for Ovenbird range from April 24 to May 2, a full two weeks later than this year.

Is there a pattern? Well, one year does not a pattern make, and we have sampling problems here, one of which is coverage. Nowadays I feel pretty sure that arriving birds in Cape May get seen, somewhere, by someone, within a day or two of their arrival. Coverage was fairly good during the time Sibley worked in Cape May, though not as dense as now. And how much did Witmer Stone and colleagues even bird in April? And how many active birders at all were there then? Could an Ovenbird could show up and go undetected for days in the 1930's?

Eventually I'm going to put all this arrival business in a table and analyze it, and while I'm on that subject I dearly wish every birder eBirded. Even in 2011, even in Cape May, birds are getting reported but when you look at arrival dates in eBird, some of these earliest arrivals are not showing up.

Enough. Let's talk about what Belleplain was like last Saturday, May 7 2011. Exactly what it should be - awesome.

[Two of the three Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that were in this one oak along Pine Swamp Road on Saturday, a nice sighting, especially because they don't breed in southern NJ and we have to catch them when they come through.]

Besides the pictured grosbeaks, we had several other definite migrants, including a Gray-cheeked Thrush walking in Tom Field Road, and two Blackburnian Warblers singing along Sunset Road. The Louisiana Waterthrushes at Sunset Bridge were feeding young, making frequent passes from downstream to upstream with food in their bills - thus the nest is somewhere upstream of the bridge. The Kentucky Warblers at the bridge should have stolen the show, and did for some patient birders, but my experience with them was soiled by another birder who began to play a recording at them. I wanted to throw his iPod into the creek, but merely told him in no uncertain terms that playing songs at that location was utterly unacceptable. He stopped. . .while I was there, anyway. More on that to follow - be prepared, I'm going to piss some people off.

FOY's for me this weekend were Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Wood-pewee, Yellow-throated Vireo, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blackburnian and Kentucky Warblers,  and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

More pics from last Saturday are below  - check out the progress of leaf-out - and here's the list, Belleplain weekend # 6, with birds of interest bolded:

Location: Belleplain State Forest
Observation date: 5/7/11
Notes: 6:45-10;15 am, 50's-60's, mostly clear, 12 miles.
Number of species: 58

Wild Turkey 1
Black Vulture 1
Turkey Vulture 2
Laughing Gull 50
Mourning Dove 5
Yellow-billed Cuckoo 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 5
Downy Woodpecker 1
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee 3
Acadian Flycatcher 5
Great Crested Flycatcher 10
Eastern Kingbird 2
White-eyed Vireo 6
Yellow-throated Vireo 2
Red-eyed Vireo 25
Blue Jay 3
Barn Swallow 1
Carolina Chickadee 7
Tufted Titmouse 20
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 25
Gray-cheeked Thrush 1
Wood Thrush 25
American Robin 10
Gray Catbird 8
European Starling 2
Blue-winged Warbler 1
Northern Parula 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler 2
Blackburnian Warbler 2
Yellow-throated Warbler 10
Pine Warbler 20
Prairie Warbler 1
Black-and-white Warbler 15
American Redstart 1
Prothonotary Warbler 1
Worm-eating Warbler 15
Ovenbird 80
Louisiana Waterthrush 3
Kentucky Warbler 2
Common Yellowthroat 1
Hooded Warbler 10
Yellow-breasted Chat 1
Eastern Towhee 5
Chipping Sparrow 10
White-throated Sparrow 1
Summer Tanager 3
Scarlet Tanager 10
Northern Cardinal 5
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 3
Blue Grosbeak 1

Brown-headed Cowbird 15
Baltimore Oriole 1
American Goldfinch 3
House Sparrow 2

[Think in turtle time when looking at changes in migration timing - Box Turtles can live 100 years. There will always be outliers when it comes to bird arrivals, but if they thrive and reproduce, a shift in species migration can occur. Wonder if this female Box Turtle ( a male would have red eyes) thought, "Gee, Ovenbirds were early this year."]

[Compare this Cinnamon Fern with the fiddleheads shown on "Wordless Wednesday" below.]

[A bit more green, a bit deeper, and a bit less red - same shot as shown below, one week later.]


  1. Hi Don, my name is Jesse Amesbury. I attend Stockton College and I just finished taking a great Ornithology class.I've been birding since I was 7 years old. I just want to say that I love your new blog. I went to Belleplain on Sunday too and saw the Kentucky warbler. I got some nice pictures and thought that you might like to see them. I posted them up on my flickr site (

  2. @ Jesse, thanks! And since you're close by, any interest in volunteering at Forsythe NWR (where I work)? Give me a call there 609.652.1665!

  3. @Jesse, p.s. nice shots of the KEWA!