Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wherein a Wilson's Plover Was Only One Highlight

 [Wilson's Plover (left) with Semipalmated Plover at Stone Harbor Point yesterday morning. If you click the pic, it will open in a separate window enlarged quite a bit. The type specimen for Wilson's was collected by, who else, Alexander Wilson, on Cape Island May 13, 1813. There are less than 20 modern records. This is one of those, "you'll know it when you see it" identifications, once you're familiar with the regularly occurring collared plovers.]

I think the "Greater Stone Harbor" area is my favorite leisure birding place. Let me explain. Thanks to the stalled high and multiple lows, Cape May birding hasn't been rocking by fall Cape May standards, so a fall flight spectacle and 90-100 species morning was unlikely yesterday. I just wanted to go out and look at birds. I was talking to Richard Crossley about birding the other night, and he commented he doesn't find rare birds much anymore because he doesn't look for them (believe me, he finds them when he looks). I'm right there with him - we agreed we don't like using scopes, we want the birds to be close to us, and if we can't reach them with a camera we're probably not paying much attention.

In other words, most of the time anymore I'm birding for fun, nothing else, and this is where the Greater Stone Harbor area shines, because there are always birds around, flight conditions or not, and they're often sitting out where you can look at them and even get pretty close, and frankly, there's less birding pressure up there than at Higbee or the state park, and sometimes it's good to be able to fully concentrate on the birds without the social distractions, however wonderful those are, too.

All the above makes for a fine Sunday mornng of birding, and did. The area around the free bridge between Stone Harbor and Nummy Island had its usual rich assortment of shorebirds, among them about 100 Red Knots and half a dozen Marbled Godwits. On a mid-falling tide, my favorite spot is to stand on the bridge looking north (watch for traffic) and that's what we did. Before the tide gets too far out, you can usually do everything from there without a scope.

We ran into a birder from the Netherlands and he joined us checking the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary, which was expectedly quiet. I wish he had stayed with us longer, though, because we did wind up seeing Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-breasted Chat, and a few warblers.

A particularly fun moment was when the Dutch birder pointed out a Gray Catbird, and when my son Tim and I didn't respond he jokingly commented, "You don't look at catbirds," (i.e. because they are so common to us). Then he looked over at us and said "Oh," because Tim was watching one and I was busy clicking away at another feeding on winged sumac berries. That's kind of how I feel about birding anymore, just watching birds do what they do, and I like catbirds.

Of course, I like Wilson's Plovers too, and Tim and I were lucky enough to find one at Stone Harbor Point amongst a selection of a dozen Piping Plovers, and a bunch of other birds. When I sent out the text alert on the Wilson's, Tom Reed texted me to "tie it down" - he needed it for his record-breaking NJ big year - and about that time vehicles and beachcombers descended and the bird flushed. Aaargh! Luckily, birds filtered back in, and Tim made a nice flyby pick on the Wilson's when it returned. Soon others showed up, and we were able to more or less cordon off the area with birders for a little while anyway. There was a Wilson's here a couple weeks ago - this could be the same one, perhaps spending time somewhere else where there is less human pressure.

[One of the dozen Piping Plovers lingering  at Stone Harbor Point, Wilson's Plover behind.]

[This juvenile Black-bellied Plover rounded out the Stone Harbor plover scene.]

Several of us heard an American Golden-plover fly over during a memorial service for the late Tom Parsons yesterday afternoon - expect a few photos from that on Wednesday - and it occurred to me I should go chase down a Killdeer somewhere for a 6-plover day, something you don't get to do much (ever?) in NJ. The hek with it, the young Turks can cover that one if they want.

[Several Western Sandpipers foraged on the beach at Stone Harbor Point. Things to note to tell it from a Semipalmated Sandpiper: 1. It's on the beach, not a mudflat, so it's probably a Western (not completely reliable!). 2. it's well along to winter plumage. 3. The new winter plumage feathers are gray, not brown-gray. 4. There are those wonderful retained rufous-marked Western sandpiper scapulars. 5. A little too much bill for a Semi.]

[An arriving Dunlin at Stone Harbor Point. Dunlin do most of their molting to basic/winter plumage on the breeding grounds (this one is almost finished), which in part explains why they arrive so late here. Hey, try this: look at the back inside cover of O'Brien, Crossley and Karlson's The Shorebird Guide, and try to find the Dunlin - use this photo to compare with the shapes. I was too lazy to use the index or flip through pages, and found I could find the bird just as quickly with the silhouettes. Speaks volumes about how to i.d. shorebirds!]

[A bright juvenile Least Sandpiper checks out a juv Semipalmated Sandpiper on the Stone Harbor jetty.]

[Some of the Marbled Godwits at Stone Harbor, from the free bridge. How many other species? At least three. If you click this photo, it will open in a separate window enlarged quite a bit.]

[Gray Catbird eating native food - winged sumac berries. Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary.]

[Finally, there's more to life than just birds. A few Pipefish were swimming under the free bridge. I believe this is one of the flagtail pipefish species, which are strong swimmers among this group of relatively weak swimming, sea horse relatives.]

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Skunk Dog

I endorse this product.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Walk Around Lily Lake + BEBOP the Brown Booby

 [Fall adult male Bay-breasted Warbler, Lily Lake, Cape May this morning. Note the white sheath of a pin feather immediately behind the eye of this bird, indicating that body molt is still underway. Most fall Bay-breasts are not this easy (i.e., most don't show all that bay on the flank), but even if the bay is not there, the color below and aft on a Bay-breasted Warbler will not be as white as it is on Blackpoll, which shows a good demarcation between yellowish up front and white to the rear, one of the best marks to use in a quick view like at the Higbee Dike. ]

7:06 a.m. text message: "TJohnson: Good warbler flight at higbee dike."
7:07 a.m. exclamation from bed, DFreiday: "Sonofabitch!"

We had a late night with the Bay Atlantic Symphony (Mendelssohn, wonderful!), then dinner, then thinking most all the birds had come through in the past two days we slept in.  Until TJ's text that is.

After getting to the dike in time to miss the compressed but good flight, save a few Northern Parulas (which made up something like half the birds Tom had this morning) and a few others, Lily Lake seemed like a logical place to go. I hear a whole lot of memory card got ripped in the past couple days on the cameras of warbler-fanatic friends. Today didn't match what was had the past two, but the male Bay-breasted Warbler pictured was just lovely, and we also detected Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, and roughly 10 warbler species. And a bunch of raptors and a little group of American Wigeon flying overhead.

Before I forget, I need to insert a heartfelt endorsement of the Bay Atlantic Symphony, missed birds or no. Last night featured Spain-based violin virtuoso Kai Gleusteen in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, and it about killed me - brilliant, and so many wonderful high notes ringing like bird voices in the crowded hall. The symphony plays local venues, e.g. track them down at Stockton College this season. We are very lucky indeed to have this caliber of music so accessible down here in south-podunk-Jersey.

At least five Belted Kingfishers ringed Lily Lake, but do you think I could get a good photo of one? Nope, and I still don't have a truly stellar shot of this species. Time for a blind and some pondside patience, I guess.

The wind was pretty much due east at the hawkwatch, but plenty of stuff was flying around, Coop's and Merlins and such. At least two Lark Sparrows were found in Cape May today, and Vince Elia kept talking about Lark Bunting - good date, etc. etc. Someone should go find one. A couple White-rumped Sandpipers were among various shorebirds flying overhead.

And finally, thanks to the spell checker on Bill Boyle's phone and the ensuing text message, the Jarvis Sound BRBO (Brown Booby) has been forever named BEBOP. . . and was still there today.

[Young Cooper's Hawk hunting near Lily Lake today. One of these days I'll dig out my "16 ways to tell a Sharpie from a Coop" and re-post it. This photo shows a few, like: the bird's perched in the open, it has giant feet and thick legs, blond head, and thin, well defined streaking below.]

[The Bay-breasted Warbler again - this time with a dragonfly! I'm not sure if his eyes were too big for his stomach or not, since he disappeared carrying his feast, and I don't know if he was able to down any of it or not.]

Friday, September 16, 2011

Little Lost Parula

My sole exposure to this apparently great birding day (confined as I am to work) was this Northern Parula, found by someone in Margate early this morning clinging to their window screen. The folks texted me the photo, and thought it might be an escaped pet store finch, they had never seen such a lovely bird. As I explained, it was a nocturnal migrant that was blown offshore by the northwest wind, and had struggled back to land.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Deepwater Sunday

 [Wilson's Storm-petrels were on our chum slick before daylight, and were in almost constant view out at the Canyon.]

"How long has it been since you've done a pelagic?" Michael O'Brien asked me as we headed back to port.

"East coast pelagic, and like 10 years."

"You're kidding!"

I'm not, and the "east coast" distinction is important, since something like 10 west coast pelagics have come and gone since my last east coast foray. That is, before I got on the boat Saturday at midnight to join many good friends for a Tom Reed - orchestrated trip to Wilmington Canyon.  West coast pelagics spoil you, like, for example, you don't have to get on the boat at midnight so you can get to deep water  in daylight! A 5000+ foot deep submarine canyon comes right into Monterey Bay, to name one favorite pelagic place.

Truly, it was the friends that lured me as much as the birds - hanging out with the likes of TR, Tony Leukering, Dave La Puma, Scott Whittle, Michael O'Brien, Bob Fogg, Sam Galick, Glen Davis, Tom Magarian, Tom Johnson, et. al., people who I spend entirely too little time with anymore, and people who I want on my team for any birding anywhere - because I knew if anything, ANYTHING flew near that boat, someone of us was going to get on it, name it, photograph it, sign, seal and deliver it. Friends like this are good to have, and that's only one reason. And seeing old friends from north Jersey like Pete Kwiatek, compiler of the Hunterdon CBC, or Jim Zamos, or the Senchers, Frank Jr. and Sr., was a bonus.

 [Great Shearwaters were not far behind the Wilson's Storm-petrels, and up to six were in view in the wake at one time.]

As noted above and in my posts from the boat below, we set engine at midnight, and started with the Brown Booby on its channel marker as we passed. Most of us slept on the deck, a feeling I love though a fog bank dampened the experience, literally, because I was sound asleep on my thermarest and was too lazy to pull on raingear before I was pretty damp. Once through the fog, it was a beautiful night, and by dawn we were chumming with oil, fish bits, and Scott's special suet.

Truly, I wasn't expecting the day we had. East coast pelagics for me have been a whole lot of time in a boat, and not lots of birds to show. Luckily, and I'm knocking on wood as I write, I've never once been seasick, and never have had to worry about a patch or a pill to prevent it, either, so at least I knew I'd be comfortable staring at waves under a birdless horizon. But the horizon was anything but birdless, and the waves held bounty too. I'll let the pictures do the talking from here. . .

[Big, floppy Cory's Shearwaters were less common than the Greats, but we still saw a bunch. These are our largest shearwater, and give a prehistoric feel. La Puma and I were talking about how this whole pelagic bird thing evolved, and Cory's reminds me how old the earth is, how much of it is covered with water, and how life originated there.]

[Audubon's Shearwater was a target bird. Most look obviously brown, though some fresh ones can be black. Manx has faster wingbeats, looks black, and with a view like this you can look at the face pattern differences (more white on cheek, and usually in front of eye, for Audubon's.) Note the Sargassum, a free-floating seaweed (algae, technically) of the South Atlantic. When you see it off the mid-Atlantic, you're in warm water and should start looking hard for Gulf Stream specialties.]

[One of several flotillas of Red-necked Phalaropes we saw. Although we did see several Red Phalaropes earlier, and although a few of these look much paler than the others, all these are Red-necked's, something some folks on the boat struggled with. Just because two birds look different doesn't mean they aren't the same species - in this case, the pale ones are all the way to winter plumage.]

 [Another target bird - only two white primary shafts, heavily barred rump, stubby bill, and tern-like flight identified this juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger, which took a swipe at a storm-petrel before catching a little fish on its own.]

 [My second "tropical" tern of the year: we saw a number of Bridled Terns, like this first year individual.]

[Gotta tell you, the non-birds beat the birds on this trip. This Common Dolphin was one of a pod (herd?) of at least 500 individuals, which were surging on the surface, and rode the wake waves of our 110' boat, calling in seeming protest when we slowed down!]

[Life whales: we saw several small groups of Pilot Whales loafing on the surface. Males have crazy broad dorsal fins.]

 [And who knows how many Loggerhead Sea Turtles we encountered? Conditions were idyllic and calm offshore, and while at first I pessimistically figured all these surface-basking animals had something wrong with them (like a balloon stuck in their guts), we encountered a pair mating late in the trip - nothing wrong with those two! Perhaps that's what had all the turtles up and about. Note the barnacles.]

[Fins on the surface often meant a Hammerhead Shark underneath, though we did see an Ocean Sunfish as well, not to mention all the cetaceans.]

[Okay, two birds that trumped non-birds. This male Yellow-breasted Chat gamely followed us part way in, starting about 50 miles offshore. It later flew off, but was still headed generally inland and we are hopeful. . .]

[And this young male Common Yellowthroat was a real inspiration, dodging gulls and terns the last few miles towards shore, then, as we approached Cold Spring Inlet, it surged over the boat and sprinted towards shore. Errant migrants often find themselves over ocean, and needing to redirect - this is part of what spawns Morning Flight in Cape May and elsewhere.]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Preview: Deepwater Sunday

[Short-beaked Common Dolphins, Wilmington Canyon today. More to come on the birds, mammals, reptiles, and other life of the deepwater during today's pelagic trip.]

Brown Booby at Midnight

Just got my closest look yet at the Jarvis sound Brown Booby - by spotlight at quarter past midnight, on it's usual channel marker 475! We all cheered. That bird would have been a real star on this trip if found offshore, but now it's old news I guess.

This will be the last post for a day or so, about to run out of cell coverage.

Oh, had 86 bird species at Higbee today, including 19 warblers and missed a couple others had. Also Yellow-headed Blackbird flyby at the hawkwatch.

Cheerio for now.

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Storm-petrels at Midnight

On the Atlantic Star with an eclectic who's who of NJ birding (and beyond), playing storm-petrel calls on the iPhone as we wait to depart. White-faced et. al. Here we come!

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Friday, September 9, 2011

They're Away!

[Radar 9:16 p.m. tonight. Look at all the marks over New York, New England and northern NJ. That's our "sending" area for birds tomorrow. Birds are coming.]

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Very Birdy Weekend in Pictures

 [The coveted Sandwich Tern Lighthouse shot -  today at Cape May Point State Park. Tom Reed (who rumor has it just broke the NJ big year record, way to go Tom!) counted the following: 1755 Common Terns, 1310 Laughing Gulls, 305 Royal Terns, 7 Sandwich Terns, 8 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and 4 Black Terns. And, it should be noted, that any such counting leaves of all the birds that are out in the rips feeding, and there are many, or were today.]

 [One of the Black Terns settles in over the flock, top bird. Note all the brown birds - hatch year Laughing Gulls, the LAGU's did amazingly well this year, as was evident when I visited the giant colony back of Stone Harbor in July.]

 [Black-bellied Plover in wing molt, over Great Channel near Stone Harbor yesterday. The active molt suggests this bird will winter locally - birds don't molt when they are migrating. My question, though, is how do we know this bird isn't engaged in molt migration - i.e. it's migrated to Stone Harbor, is going to hang out and molt for a while there, and then continue to migrate farther south. This bird, by the way, was fleeing. . . ]

[. . .this. I asked Melissa if she counted any Peregrines at the Cape May Hawk Watch yesterday, and she said one. Michael piped up that he had seen one at Higbee while doing a Monarch census. Wonder if it was this one, it was going south in the very early morning, though it clearly had breakfast on its mind.]

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dicky Birds

 [The bird of the day at Higbee Beach, for me, was Black-and-white Warbler.]

After an hour on the dike, I was pretty sure Higbee was going to s-u-u-uck, pardon the vulgarity. But Tom, Sam and I detected like 2 Yellow Warblers, a few Bobolinks, and not much else. I did have a probably Connecticut Warbler first thing, but don't ask me to explain why I think that's what it was. . . .

Anyhow, I left the dike and began probing the first field while mosquitoes were probing me, in a t-shirt and no bug spray, it's not like I haven't been to Higbee about a zillion times in September and should know better about the mosquitoes. The first field was pretty much dead, with one friendly Ovenbird and a Black-and-white Warbler and not much else.

I almost walked straight back to my truck to head somewhere there might be birds, but opted to check New England Road. Simply walking east from the main Higbee lot is sometimes a good idea. And it sure was today, I hit a little flock of family-grouped chickadees and titmice, and a bunch of birds had coalesced around them, including 4 --winged things, i.e. a good looking female Golden-winged Warbler, a good-looking male Blue-winged, and two hyrbrids, a basic Blue-winged with yellow in the wing bars and a more conventional "Brewster's." These were with a handful of American Redstarts, Black-and-whites, gnatcatchers, Red-eyed Vireos and such. The flock moved back towards the tower field (to the left as you look south from the parking lot), and of the Vermivoras only the Blue-winged with yellow in the wing bars was relocated. The center path, the one between the tower field and the first field, was really pretty birdy, with most of the above species plus local breeders and a single empid that I'm calling a Least Flycatcher. I gather the Golden-winged at least has been around since Wednesday.

I got talking with Leslie, who comes to Cape May from the U.K. every autumn, and while we were enjoying the Black-and-white Warblers, she remarked that Black-and-white was the first wood-warbler she'd ever seen - and she saw it in the U.K.! Funnily, Black-and-white was an almost-first warbler for me (first was, what else, Yellow-rumped). I was a kid fly-fishing in northern NJ, oh my goodness like 35 years ago,  and this funny little black and white striped thing creeping around a streamside tree trunk so intrigued me I went home, found a bird book, looked it up, and never looked back - a birder was born.

Tomorrow I'll be in the kayak, where I know not at the moment, but it's a falling tide, good chance for a free ride out and back on the incoming from somewhere. I'm tempted to make my way to the Brown Booby near Jarvis Sound, but the intracoastal waterway on Labor Day weekend in a kayak? With camera? It's gonna look like the boating scene from Caddy Shack out there by noon, but in theory I'll be off the water and driving home to hole up by then.

[A dicky-bird's dicky bird - hatch year Indigo Bunting at Higbee.]

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hurry Up, Front

Holiday weekend ahead, and of course it looks like the next major migration event will not be until Tuesday, when us working stiffs are back at it. . . aaargh. An approaching high and its leading cold front will be near, but not past, Cape May on Monday. Time to think of a way to scam Tuesday off, or move that front along just a shade, 12 hours earlier will be about right, that would have it crossing Cape May by midnight Sunday night. I do find that NOAA's frontal forecasts tend to predict fronts moving slower than they wind up doing in the end, here's hoping. Regardless, three days of naturalizing, birding, photographing, and dog training ahead. And maybe fishing, I was reminded by a friend that Summer Flounder season extends into September this year.

Turns out the Sooty Terns from PA last weekend would be the first documented for Buck's County, PA, a small consolation for missing the great stuff in Cape May during the hurricane. Gossip has it the large swift seen here was probably a Black Swift, and tonight Kevin Karlson radiated like a revival preacher as he described the two White-tailed Tropicbirds to me as "pure white, like angels." Let's give that another aargh.

It should be mentioned that the bird pictured in the previous post, below, was "designed" by my good friend Roger Horn on an interpretive device at Merrill Creek Reservoir. A woodpecker sparrowduck, I believe.