Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tern Time + Worrying About Herons

 [This lovely creature is a juvenile Common Tern, near the mixed tern/skimmer colony at Malibu Beach, near Longport. The beautiful browns of juv terns are soon lost to wear. This bird has barely 10 miles on it, I'd guess, as of Thursday night when I photographed it following its parents begging for a meal. Wintering as far south as Argentina, it'll log enough miles to need an oil change soon ;>).]

Terns by the hundreds are piling into Cape May, or so I hear - Tony Leukering tells me over 700, with birds going in and out so who knows how many are really there. Check the beach and Bunker Pond. Multiple Sandwich Terns were among them today. Most of the tern colonies are finishing up, so watch for juveniles following adults begging for food. Forster's Terns mostly nest on wrack in salt marsh, Commons also nest on the marsh but prefer undisturbed sandy beach if they can find it, no mean feat in NJ.

 [This Common Loon has summered near Longport. Described as unable to walk. . .which is normal, because loons can't walk, their legs set so far back that they must scoot and slide onto their nests, and seldom come onto land otherwise. For swimming, such leg position is ideal. But coming onto land when not nesting is unusual. Whether this bird is sick, oiled, or just a juvenile acting its age, we know not. Note the Semipalmated Plovers in the background.]

[A couple Tri-colored Herons (leftmost, on the marsh, and left-center, perched in the phragmites) with a bunch of egrets near the rookery at Cowpens Island on Thursday. I'm quietly worried about herons - this photo was taken on a boat trip that in years past yielded as many as 40 Yellow-crowned Night-herons, but this time we saw only about 5. The traditional heron rookery west of Sunset Lake in Wildwood held essentially no birds this year. Herons are high on the food chain, and should be watched - if their numbers fall, something bigger could be at play. We did record at leat 200 Great Egrets and 50 Snowies on Thursday, as well as 15 Tri-colored Herons, for a spectacular trip in the rich Great Egg Harbor Bay.]

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sounds of Summer, Part Two

[Home sweet home.]

A sound of summer (the audible kind) I forgot to mention, how I know not, is the piping whistle of Osprey. Taylor Sound, between the parkway and Wildwood, should be renamed "The Place of Ospreys," since it is ringed with Osprey nests: nests on duck blinds, on derelict cabins, and on more conventional Osprey towers. And the birds pipe constantly, or whenever one of their number flies over with a fish, which is nearly the same thing as the young near flying stage and insistently beg for food from busily hunting adults.

 [Shorebirds will often stretch their wings when nervous, a sign they are about to fly. These Semipalmated Sandpipers foraged along a muddy edge in Taylor Sound this morning.]

We saw many shorebirds while kayaking today: Whimbrels feasting on fiddler crabs; peep probing worms from the muckiest mud you can imagine; Spotted Sandpipers teetering on sod banks; Greater Yellowlegs chasing fish. All the shorebirds were adults; the first juvenile shorebirds (not counting the local Willets) will probably be Least Sandpipers appearing around August 1.

 [Semipalmated Sandpiper above, Least below. Compared to Semi, Least is browner above, small-headed and hunched (I swear they even look hunched when flying), finer and more drooped bill, and yes, there are those yellow legs. These two birds were making their way across the same flat, feeding within feet of each other, and here then is another clue: which one kept its toes dry?]

 [Spotted Sandpiper. The relatively sparse spotting, and small size of the spots, suggests a male; females have larger, rounder spots, and more of them - of course that's breeding plumage, call it unspotted sandpiper in non-breeding plumage. Witmer Stone found nests of this species in Cape May, but breeding in south coastal NJ was not proven during the NJ breeding bird atlas. They nest elsewhere in NJ, and begin appearing as migrants in late June, confounding assessment of breeding status.]

[Makes you glad they're only a couple inches across. . . and wish you were a Whimbrel. The decurve of a Whimbrel's bill matches the curve of Fiddler Crab burrows. Night-herons love these things, too, as do gulls.]

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Sounds of Summer

 [Herring Gull chick, west of Avalon today.]

I don't mean sounds you hear, though there are plenty of them: the laughing of gulls, keee-aaahrr's of Common Terns, drone of flies, music of the ice cream truck driving the streets of North Cape May, crash of waves and laughter of children at the beach. The sounds I mean have water in them, at least at high tide: sound, noun: an inlet, bay, or recessed portion of the ocean.

Of both sounds, Cape May has many. Of the aquatic kind, Great, Grassy, Jarvis, Jenkins, Richarson, Townsend (who were these people?) fill and empty with the twice daily tides. Today I paddled Stite's Sound and down to Townsend's Inlet; tomorrow it will be Taylor Sound, on a falling tide, passing the marsh shack  hosting an Osprey nest on the roof, the one, I fancy, that Witmer Stone stayed in 100 years ago or so. He wrote of visiting such a place, and the location matches, roughly, though without maintenance a shack in the marsh falls down several times over in the span of a century. According to the plan, I'll pass "Stone's" shack again on the way back in as the tide rises and gives me a lift to the landing. That's the theory. We'll see what the wind says, but one thing I can tell you is you don't want to wind up in a kayak fighting both an outgoing tide and the wind at the same time. At least not in the narrow channels, where the tidal flow can outstrip a small outboard or weak kayaker. In bigger channels, the water spreads a bit and you can go against the flow, but it's not much fun.

The sounds are shallow, so shallow that at low tide they won't float a kayak in places - which means they won't float a boat, or, hallelujah, a jet ski. But on the mud left behind at low tide there are shorebirds, foraging gulls, terns, egrets, and night-herons, and the myriad creatures that are the supermarket for these birds.

More on the shorebirds later. Today I checked in on another gull colony I know, a large gull colony, by which, as Tony Leukering made me clarify, I mean a colony of large gulls: mostly Herring, a few Great Black-backeds.

Herring Gulls on an isolated sandy spit, higher than the surrounding marsh and safe from flooding, with high-tide bush for the chicks to hide under, and shelter from the swelter of late.]

[Herring Gull egg. 2 to go; the norm is 3 per clutch. ]

[Mobile Herring Gull fledgling.]

[Still older juvenile Herring Gull, with parent.]

Mike Crewe told us over crab cakes and beer tonight that in the U.K., gull chicks are banded by teams of people,because the chicks so effectively disappear when approached. And it's true: there had to be dozens of chicks in the gull colony I visited this morning, yet a quick but careful walk-through yielded none apparent to the eye. Mike said the teams use radios, with observers guiding the banders: "Okay, put your hand down next to that shrub, the chick is right there." I stepped away from the colony to watch, and sure enough, chicks started reappearing from their hiding places, including the one pictured above.

[This group of Black-crowned Night-herons accreted around a salt marsh pool as the tide fell, concentrating prey.]

 [Clappers, Clappers everywhere. I could have reached out and picked this Clapper Rail up.]

[Rigged for battle. The black bag is a waterproof bicycle pannier adapted for kayaking, and holds the camera. I would prefer a camo kayak, but anyone who's been out in south Jersey coastal waters knows you want to be visible, lest a jet ski or inattentive boater run you down. . .]

It was 94 degrees next to the water near Avalon when I came off about 10:00 a.m. The outside thermometer reading, according to my truck, peaked at 99 in the center of the Cape May Peninsula a little later, dropping again as I got close to the bay. Who knows what the high was; mowing the lawn at midday left me soaking, and the birds visited the water drip constantly, lawnmower running nearby or not. I got on the water before sunup this morning and swam several times to cool off, watching schools of silversides flee in front of me.

These sounds teem with life. When people ask me why Cape May is so good for birds, that's part of the answer.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

More Marsh Time

 [Short-billed Dowitcher flexing its prehensile bill, on the sod banks of Jenkins Sound Sunday]

It is SO worth getting up at 4:00 a.m., even if you pay for it by dark. On the water by 5, sun not even up, not a soul in sight - or, on the contrary, many souls, those of birds. Dowitchers down from Labrador, Whimbrels from farther (Alaska, even, maybe), Yellow-crowned Night-herons crouching in shady salt creeks stalking fiddler crabs. That was my Sunday morning, foraying into Jenkins Sound and then circumnavigating Nummy Island by kayak.

[Thanks to that flexible bill, dowitchers swallow most of their food without lifting their bills from the mud, so we never get to see what they're eating (a variety of invertebrates), but marine worms like this small bloodworm are pulled to the surface.]

This was my first visit of the year to the massive Laughing Gull colony, or colonies, on the marshes west of Stone Harbor and Wildwood. The gulls nest on piles of wrack, or build their own piles. Something like 10,000 birds are in this colony, the world's largest, and it is a cacaphony indeed.

[Laughing Gulls reserve a special call for mates bringing nesting material: ooo - ooo -ooo ooOOoo. Oh honey, you're going to get lucky tonight ;>).]

[I was surprised to find incomplete clutches of one and two eggs at this late date. The normal is three eggs for Laughing Gulls.]

[Besides the eggs, there were, however, Laughing Gull chicks in various stages of development. These chicks still wore a lot of down.]

[An older Laughing Gull chick flattened itself motionless in the Spartina as I paddled past on the high tide, able to peer over the channel banks to see the nesters.]

[Older still, this Laughing Gull fledgling could fly a short ways, though it made no attempt to flee the kayak.]

[Paddling around in the marsh at dawn is the best way I know to get good views of Clapper Rails.]

[Raucous Boat-tailed Grackles foraged out on the marsh, amid the Spartina patens and glasswort.]

[Hmm, these Willets are in wing molt - which means they must be Western Willets, which breed in the upper midwest, moving south by first heading east to the coast. Eastern Willets don't commence molting until they leave North America, or so says The Shorebird Guide.]

[A juvenile Eastern Willet, with a trace of down on the head and very neat, uniform - and new - feathers. The bill is not full-length yet.]

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saltmarsh Weekend

I've spent most of the last two days in salt marsh, yesterday posting refuge boundaries at Forsythe via airboat (and seeing more salt sparrows in one day than I have in a lifetime of looking); today, completing my third SHARP secretive marshbird survey at Tuckerton, where the Saltmarsh Sparrows are feeding young, some of them, anyway. Tuckerton was even more riddled with herons than usual, including 2 Tricolored, one Little Blue, a half-dozen Great Blues (post breeding dispersers, I guess), and many Black-crowned Night-herons.

If all goes well, tomorrow will be saltmarsh day 3 - the kayak's loaded in the truck, as is the waterproof (I hope) camera bag. Hope to get there at dawn, well before the crazies and their jet skis. . .

 [Glossy Ibis hunting Tuckerton high marsh. I love the color of Spartina patens in mid-summer - make that colorS. Ibis colors ain't bad, either.]

[The saltmarsh is riddled with Seaside Dragonlets now, by far the most common dragonfly of saltmarsh and the only one that breeds in saltwater.] 

[One of those little changes you notice only by repeat visits to a place. There haven't been Tree Swallows to speak of at Tuckerton (Great Bay Boulevard) on my previous visits - no nest boxes there, or none that I've seen. But the two top left and third from top right are juv Tree's, accompanied by parents that have moved them to good feeding grounds. Barn Swallows have been there all along - down here, they ought to be called dock swallows, since they're nesting under docks. The bottom left is a juv Barn, the second from top right is an adult female Barn.]

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Almost Wordless Wednesday

After 25 years of working in nature centers, answering calls from people complaining about some woodpecker banging on their house. . .

[. . . I finally got one of my own. Several actually, apparently a brood of Hairy Woodpeckers. At least it's a quality species! Note the red's in the "wrong" place - in many woodpeckers, juveniles of both sexes get some red on the crown.]

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tern Tips + The Word from the Forest

Before my mind was clouded on Saturday with, um, pork, yeah, that's it, pork (beer had nothing to do with it, it was all the pig roast. . . ), I took some time at Cape May Point State Park to recalibrate on terns. If you don't get to look at them every day, and even if you do, Common (top) and Forster's Terns can be annoyingly similar. When you do see them regularly, you can get fancy and special and talk about the Common's more narrow-based wings, buoyant flight, smaller bill, rounder bottom. . . all true, but all relative. Less relative is grayness of adults in summer - Common's are, Forster's aren't, they're white. For perfect views, close photos, or in the hand, check out the pattern of the outer tail feathers of these two - Peter Pyle's I.D. Guide, Part II, has a great set of illustrations on page 717. Dark outer web on Common, dark innner web on Forster's. This Forster's, by the way, is a bit nasty in that the primaries are very worn, with little pale "bloom," and thus are showing about as dark as you see on the wingtip of this species. Compare the Forster's Terns in the "Worldless Wednesday" post below.

Both photos above were taken Saturday afternoon. Did you notice the color band on the Common's leg?

At the pig roast, Vince Elia commented to me that he drove through Belleplain the other day and heard not an Ovenbird - remember, I was clicking 80+ there in May (check the archive). Those OVEN's are still there, in fact more of them, since not only the adults are present but their young of the year, too. They're just quiet, and busy - molting. We banded 2 young-of-the-year Ovenbirds in Bear Swamp, Cumberland County today - not to mention a young Kentucky Warbler. We also caught an adult female Worm-eating Warbler with a brood patch showing no sign of receding - perhaps a bird involved with or recently finished with a second nesting. The adult Black-and-white Warbler pictured below was in heavy molt, a major reason why the forests are so quiet in late summer. Molting takes energy, lots of it.

This is not to say nothing's singing - we heard pretty much every expected species in full song from 5:30 a.m. to 5:45 a.m., including both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers. Then most everybody shut down, with only intermittent vocalizations thereafter.

[Sorry for the dark blurry phone-pic, but note the molt going on in this adult male Black-and-white Warbler's wing. The outer 3 primaries are worn and dull after a year's worth of use; the inner ones are new or still growing in. He's missing most of his wing coverts, too. Virtually all adult songbirds undergo a complete molt after breeding.]

[Feed me! Feed Me! Feed ME! Eastern Kingbird fledglings beg from their parent (second from left) along Bayshore Road Saturday.]

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Things

[I paused before work last week to watch the Purple Martin colony at Forsythe - one of the best, if not the best, in the state. I'm not sure this Eastern Comma butterfly would agree . . .though martin watchers create traffic jams at Forsythe's entrance.]

There are pros and cons to this summer thing in south Jersey.  The crowds and traffic . . . ugh. At least we have Greenheads to keep the tourists at bay. Not many migrants to be had, though yesterday we paddled around the Green Creek marsh on the bay side and not only got away from the crowds, but flushed a couple Spotted Sandpipers (presumed migrants). A more interesting flush was the immature male Northern Harrier, which rocketed from a dense patch of phragmites at close range and was immediately set upon by Red-winged Blackbirds, which relentlessly pursued this bird until it was out of sight, escaping at high speed by beating its wings as rapidly as a Sharp-shinned Hawk, in fact, I might well have called it one at distance. The marsh is riddled with Clapper Rails, and we glimpsed a dingy youngster with traces of black down sticking through the feathers.

Then, the fireworks. They float this barge every year off the west end of the Cape May Canal, near the ferry terminal, and spend what must be a bargeload of money on the pyrotechnics. Call me a guilty envionmentalist - all that smoke and fire can't be good for the atmosphere, and I'm not sure the local avifauna, bats, etc. are so thrilled by the explosions, either. But I go watch them anyway.

"I'm glad you have a plan for this," she said. yeah, I had a plan. It went like this: Stop at WaWa for iced coffee in our travel mugs (no paper - the guilt thing), then the liquor store for Frangelica, and drive as close as we could get, not very, to the festivities. Drop a pin on the iPhone's map and label it TRUCK so we can find it again, pour Frangelica into cups, and start walking and sipping. Buy a hot dog along the way. . .

 [North Cape May Fireworks Sunday night.]

[Fireworks in my own backyard. . .who needs explosions and smoke?]