Monday, October 31, 2011


 [Raccoon tracks in frost, Cape May Point State Park, fittingly (for a critter that wears a mask) on Halloween.]

Dave La Puma and I spent a couple pre-dawn to dawn hours this Halloween morning figuring out where not to stand looking for owls at Cape May Point State Park. Well, not entirely correct, since we did hear a couple Great-horned Owls, and had that night-birding experience - listening to flight calls of sparrows, the whir of duck wings, the funny quacks of Gadwall, the tin-horn quacks of teal. A Sora did obligingly fly across the boardwalk in front of us as we walked out, eye-level, even if an owl did not. The Norbury's Landing Barn Owl pre-pre-dawn was pretty cool, too.

After poking around the trails at Cape May Point State Park for a while, detecting a few Purple Finches in a very thin year for them, and a few Rusty Blackbirds, and a few thousand robins and other stuff, I wandered up onto the hawkwatch platform. Vince Elia was there, scanning what proved to be a pretty thin hawk flight on winds light east to zero. Being the official counter for the day, he had to do it - and there was no need for sympathy. It was such a lovely morning, still and complete with fancy sunrise, that I remarked it was a good day to be on the platform alone (and he was, for the first part of the morning), a good morning to figure out the meaning of life.

"Oh, I already have."

"Well, would you please tell me?"

We got into a conversation about as deep as the lighthouse is high, which led me to recall a quote from Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie, as a young girl, would leave pennies on the sidewalk and watch  from a distance as passerbys picked up the pennies, or didn't. For some, finding a penny made their day. Others would not even stoop to pick one up, and Annie wrote,

There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But- and this is the point- who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

 I said the sunrise was a penny - if you picked it up. Vince replied, "That sunrise is worth a buck fifty."

Indeed. Plenty of pennies found this weekend, I mean buck-fifties. . . here are a few.

[I am told (by Chris Hajduk) that I was "rather loud" when I called out this Golden Eagle over the South Cape May Meadows on Sunday's CMBO autumn weekend field trip. Lasting views for all, and lasting smiles. You could hear the pennies clinking. This is an especially well marked and spectacular juvenile, which got height and sailed first towards the Beanery, where Louise Zemaitis's group got it, and eventually made it to the hawk watch and then took a high bee-line across Delaware Bay.]

 [Wilson's Snipe are plentiful right now, especially if you dial in on their scratchy call. This was one of a number that flew past us in the meadows. Snipe have pointy wings (woodcock wings are rounded) and fly with bill angled down (dowitchers fly with bills out front.)]

 [The coveted American Bittern-Cape May Ligthouse shot, meadows on Sunday.]

[Ruby-crowned Kinglet foraging in clematis, near the hawk watch this morning.]

Wishing you pennies every day. . . Might have a few more from the weekend to share in the next couple days, I'm down in West Virginia once again (near Antietem) where there's a bit of snow, and have not downloaded all the pics.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


"They're going to leave even if they shouldn't."

"It's snowing where they are!"

"thousands of robins were over the parkway at dark."

Talking about birds to the north, and wondering about Sunday, me and dear friends around an autumn weekend dinner table. I'll give it a 20% chance for a really remarkable day in Cape May tomorrow, and it's all about when the snow stops north of us. It's snowing up there now, in our sending zone, Sussex NJ and north. Will migrants lift into snow? And in 20ish mph NW winds? Yes to the latter, even though it will get them in trouble, which means blown offshore or at least to the coast, and hence to Cape May.

And La Puma and I are already salivating about owls on Monday, it could not be more perfect - snow on the ground to the north, and light north winds all night Sunday-Monday.

A Snow Bunting huddled along the Wildlife Drive at Forsythe NWR at noon, where the high tide covered the ENTIRE marsh in this northeaster.

Nothing to do but sleep and hope ....

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sparrows in Flight

 [Birders familiar with Cape May, NJ know we're at the Beanery  here, with the winery building in the background. Vince Elia and I had been hunting sparrows, including Vesper Sparrow, all morning, independently, and finally scored when we we worked the pumpkin fields together. Here's how to break this i.d. down: it's flying above the vegetation, which rules out Song, Swamp, all Ammodramus. . . really, if a bird known to be a sparrow flies this high, it's a Savannah, a Chipping, or, a Vesper. . .almost always works. Okay, we could see the white outer tail feathers with bins, but the eyering is courtesy of a frozen camera image, and when you're sifting a lot of sparrows, it helps to start with habitat and what they're doing.]

I've been going through some serious bird withdrawal lately, e.g. only got a half-day hit this entire week and thus even while sitting cozy in the afternoon with a beer and barbecued pig and beef brisket on my plate, it was the flickers flying over Cape May Point that generated the saliva during the first (hopefully annual) "Pig Sit" . . .

But at least my weekly hit was at the Beanery, and it being the second day of a very birdy weekend, pre-pig-sit birding was extraordinary. At one point I turned and said to my companions, Vince, Louise, and Beth, "This is a damn fine day of birding."

And it was. We were in birds constantly. What do you want to look at? Hawks overhead - like that late Broad-winged? or low Red-shouldered? or young Bald Eagle pestering its parent for food? Or how about late warblers - like a dozen or more Blackpolls on porcelain berry, which is invasive and hated 11 months a year, but come October hold birds better than native fruit? The Beanery yielded 72 bird species - Eastern Meadowlarks, Black-throated Blue Warbler, both cuckoos, first of season Fox Sparrow, Eastern Bluebirds, American Pipit. . . like I said, constant action. For four hours.

But I was there for sparrows. Right at the gate, waves moved past at sun-up, with a Lincoln's among them. We fished out a bunch more, and also netted all the expected woodpeckers (including Red-headed and Sapsucker).

Sparrows are a pain: a pain to see, a pain to i.d., and especially a pain to photograph. This is a good time for Grasshopper Sparrow, and a number were detected today around Cape May: Bob Fogg had one in Del Haven, several people reported them at Higbee, and I had one at the Beanery, but damned if I could get a shot of it.

At some point I decided, perhaps masochistically, to shoot some of the many sparrows in flight. Ridiculous. I.d. 'em with their flight call when you can, and sling pixels.

 [Flying below height of cover, long tail (and pumping it): Song Sparrow. 150 + seen at the Beanery today.]

[Flying below height of cover, shorter tail pumped less often, lots of rufous: Swamp Sparrow. 100 + seen at the Beanery today. Often in the company of Song Sparrows. Waves of dark sparrows getting up in front of you in rank fields are these species; add White-throated Sparrow to the candidates if you are in or near woods, since whitethroat is the woodland sparrow.] 

[Vince pointed out how the buff tips on the outer greater coverts of this Eastern Phoebe were brighter than on the inner ones. This is because, though those tips start the same color on juvenile Phoebes, the inner coverts are more exposed to sunlight than the outers much of the time, so the inner coverts fade from sun and weather.  Remember "outer - under" on a bird's wing, meaning the outer feathers lie beneath the inner ones on a folded wing. Same is true on the tail - "outer - under." That's a Field Sparrow in the rear. Field's, like all genus Spizella, are small, and you really notice that when they flush, as they stand out from the larger Songs, White-throats, etc. This was a Field Sparrow day, too, we saw maybe a couple dozen.]

[Agonize though we will about invasive Porcelain Berry, it's probably why Blackpoll Warblers and other warblers are lingering later in fall.]

Saturday, October 22, 2011

More on Birding Diversity conference

The panel discussion on "barriers to birding" was particularly compelling. As panelist Doug Gray put it, "I want my white birding friends to know that these barriers real."

Doug talked about how the best birding area in Indiana, Goose Pond, is also an historic stronghold of the KKK, and for a long time he didn't bird there. When he finally went to see his state-first Black-necked Stilt and later wrote about it, a friend asked, "Hey, did you feel safe there?"

Doug also talked about meeting a white female birder, seeing a Ruby-crowned Kinglet with her, helping her find a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and having a good time birding for about an hour. Then two white men were walking towards them on the trail, and Doug could sense the woman's discomfort, and she actually moved away from him until the men passed. She said something about some white men having a problem with a white woman being with a back man. Even when birding, and that happened right here at John Heinz NWR where this conference is happening!

Doug's attitude really impressed me - he said, simply, "You know, that messed with me a little bit."

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What is the Relevance of Birds to Black People

- Drew Lanham of Clemson, who noted communities of color ARE often near refuges.

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Changing the face of Birding Conference Kicks Off

Over 100 diverse birders are gathered at John Heinz NWR - Gordon, Crossley, Garland, Kaufman, Rosselet, Baicich, Guris and more are here. Let's make change! That's Dave Magpiong on the stage.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Yellow-rumpeds and Hungry Hawks

 [Yellow-rumped Warbler in a closed-winged glide, over the Red Trail at Cape May Point State Park today.]

Up on the hawkwatch platform, Dave Hedeen asked me if I'd been out birding today and if I'd found anything of interest. When I said I just get a kick out of having lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers around, everyone laughed knowingly - we're sure in the right place and time for that! The small raptors appreciate the Yellow-rumps even more than us, and in a pretty good hawk flight today I saw Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins take passes at the yellow-rumps. The American Kestrels did not, but it was heartening to see them coming past so regularly, sometimes even in small groups. The Bald Eagles we take for granted anymore, but there were a few of those, and three young Ospreys fished Bunker Pond without much success.

Not much "rare" was found today, perhaps due to the hungover condition of about 3/4's of Cape May's most serious birders, and the confinement of a few more in an NJBRC meeting. Which reminds me, although the world of bird reporting is changing, please take the time to submit details on rare species to whatever records committee presides over your region (I just checked, and folks from 38 states and 22 countries have visited this blog - thanks!) Records committees perform many services on things ornithological, almost always for free - check out for example NJ's state list, review species list, and especially the list of accepted records of rare birds compile by Jennifer Hanson, which is a great sources for analyzing patterns of occurrence.

On the hawk watch platform we got into a conversation about the Ospreys, about how tough it must be to be a predator and young and need to catch food without being good at it yet. "Damn, I missed another one." "Damn, I'm hungry." "Damn, I'm gonna die if I don't get something to eat." Literally.

Yellow-rumped Warblers are pretty much what you see in the woods and hedges now, landbird wise, unless you look and listen more closely. A few other warblers are still relatively easy to find - I encountered Northern Parula, Palm and Blackpoll today at the state park on only a half-hour afternoon walk. Plus, the short-distance migrants, like Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. And there are sparrows in the fields, thought I didn't do fields today so can't speak to any other than the whitethroats and Song Sparrows along the Red Trail, and a White-crowned I heard from the hawk watch platform.

If a small bird flies over or flies past, odds are very great right now it's a Yellow-rumped Warbler, but how do you know? How do you even know if it's a warbler?

If you're sure it was really small (i.e., significantly smaller than a blackbird, so it wasn't an oriole or a tanager or something like that), and it was flying overhead, it was either a warbler or a finch. If it undulated up and down regularly and flight, and was roundish and thickish of body, it was a finch. If it dodged or undulated irregularly, and was slim or streamlined, it was a warbler. If you can see the bill, so much the better - blunt on the finch, thin on the warbler. It wasn't a sparrow, because sparrows don't fly high overhead during the day.

Simple, eh? Well, the above is obviously an oversimplification, fraught with more than one exception (like what about vireos?), but it gives one a starting point. Back when I was leading workshops for CMBO, I would exhort people not to give up on flying landbirds, because we see so many that way. A real trick to flying landbirds is no trick at all - know what they look like perched inside out, backward and forward, because one of the biggest challenges with flybys is time - you've got to know what to look for, and look for it in an instant.

[As warblers fly across the sky, they dip when they close their wings for very brief periods, and rise and accelerate when they flap. This is the same Yellow-rumped Warbler, one frame (about 1/6th of a second) later.]

Will Kerling showed me a lovely Red Admiral butterfly, "nectaring" on the sap of a groundsel bush, and shortly later I had a close look at a Ruby-crowned Kinglet displaying its red crown, so I considered a red-marked theme for the blog. Maybe Wordless Wednesday. . .

Monday, October 10, 2011

And Now, for Something Completely Different. . . or, the Columbus Approach

[View of Atlantic City from the top of Apple Pie Hill, the highest point in the NJ Pine Barrens. All of 184 feet above sea level, more or less, with a whole lot of undeveloped land around it.]

Why go to Cape May, a mere 15 minute drive away, where the season's first Golden Eagle soared and a big Yellow-rumped Warbler flight happened today, when you can set sail for points north, in Pines not quite Barren?

Yeah, well, Columbus went off to the unknown and, in honor of his day, so did we, first for a hike in Bass River State Forest, then a drive to see the world from the top of the Pine Barrens. Two places we've never been before, but likely will return to.

 [Take a compass if you hike the Pine Barrens.]

The Pines were surprisingly birdy, including Hermit Thrush, Swainson's Thrush, many kinglets of both kinds. . .yeah, okay, it wasn't Cape May, but it was kind of pretty.

[A Yellow-billed Cuckoo played hide and seek.]

[What would life be without seasonal change? The black gums are turning on schedule, earlier than most and the leading contributors of red to the early October landscape in south Jersey.]

[Okay, here's a fun one to play with, on the very top of the Pine Barrens at Apple Pie Hill, taking advantage of a flying ant emergence. What is it, and what's up with those tail feathers??!!]

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mind on Ducks

[19 American Wigeon, 6 Northern Pintails, 4 Northern Shovelers. Forget wing patches and such; each of these species has a very distinctive silhouette. Photo taken from the hawk watch platform today. Click to enlarge.]

It had been a week since I last visited Cape May, and ducks have really started filling in the ponds down there. This is one of my favorite parts of fall in Cape May, and winter, too. Hordes of dabblers, a few divers, flushing now and then in response to a Bald Eagle flying over, which is what happened when I took this photo on Sunday. If you want to work the silhouettes in the photo, maybe for starters pick the center left duck with the skinny neck, long back half (not just the tail), and pointed tail. Compare this Northern Pintail hen with the American Wigeon above it or Northern Shovelers below. Also check out the very long, pointed wings on the bottom right bird, another pintail. It's true that every duck can not only be identified, but sexed and aged by the markings on the spread wing alone - check out the USGS pages on the subject. But I've encountered too many weathered duck hunters who, without optics, called out distant birds correctly to think examining plumage fine points is the way to approach ducks. Size, shape, behavior, location.  I've almost quit carrying binoculars locally, and this is why - you don't really need 'em most of the time.

Ducks on the brain. . . blame my Chessie, Boonie. Who, when wet, still smells like that skunk, by the way, but who also has been making some remarkable retrieves, with the south zone opener only a week away. Someday I'm going to write a ballad about that dog:

The legend lives on, from Cape May on down,
Of the big dog they call Daniel Boonie.
Boone, it is said, never gives up on a duck dead,
When the skies of November turn gloomy.
[acknowledgments to Gordon Lightfoot and his Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, an all time favorite song.]

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Waking with Whitethroats in West Virginia

Monday through Wednesday the sounds were absent here. But Thursday morning, the seeps and pinks of newly- arrived White-throated Sparrows rose from the break-of-day woods here at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in West Virginia. How I love that sound, and that time of day.

Or times of day, I should say, because again as dusk settled after dinner the whitethroats let each other know they were all right, that they were back for the winter. And that I was all right, too.

The seed will go out the day I return to Cape May.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Cold Front Weekend In Cape May

[The signature bird of the weekend: Northern Flicker. I tried like hek to get a picture of the signature sound of the weekend, that being a flicker squealing as a Sharp-shinned Hawk tries to rip its tailfeathers out, but this was the best I could do. . .]

On Saturday I joked to Michael as I reached the end of the line of people at the top of the Higbee Beach dike, "Standing room only,eh?" Which is a a bit of a joke anyway, since you don't sit at the dike. Michael looked down the line of people drawn to this famous place (and often disappointed, I hasten to add - we had a bunch of warblers including a "great" look at a flyby Connecticut, but it ain't a simple thing up there and most people are happier in the fields). Then he said, "Well, it is a cold front Saturday in October."

And it was, and Sunday morning Tony Leukering aptly texted, "If you're not out, get out, as there are birds everywhere: NOFL, warblers, sparrows, raptors" . . .two good days to be alive and be a birder.

eBird tells me I saw 131 species this weekend, pretty great stuff. But what was really special was the way, with patience and stealth, it was possible to get close to some of these migrants. . . which leads me to propose, tongue in cheek and based on some of the "violations" seen this weekend, "The Rules of Higbee Beach," where I spent Saturday and Sunday mornings. Take this tongue in cheek, and put the word "please" in front of each:

1. Slow the hek down. Ooze along the trail, please.
2. Shut the hek up.
3. Lose the bright or white clothing, especially hats.
4. You will never catch up with a bird by running after it.
5. You will never get closer to a bird by moving towards it.
6. If 20 people stand there waiting for the Connecticut to pop up, it won't. And it was probably a Common Yellowthroat anyway.
7. If you swing your camera or bins, the bird will flush. Slowly, please.
8. If someone is standing dead still aiming their camera or binoculars at the bushes, there's probably a reason. Ask them, with a whisper - and go around them, if you must.

Okay, enough of the semi-diatribe. Here's why my pal Vince Elia takes the last week of September and the first week of October off every year. The cuckoo, vireo, Parula, and yellowthroat were at Higbee; the rest are from a Chinese elm near Lily Lake.

[Learn from the Yellow-billed Cuckoo - be still, cock your head slowly, look around for your quarry. Be still some more. And some more.]

[Northern Parulas were everywhere, overhead, in the trees, at the elm sap wells in Cape May Point gleaning minute insects. Tsiping in the night. . .it's been a great year for them.]

[Red-eyed Vireos congregated at ripe Porcelain Berry clusters, though this one was in a cherry.]

[Not everything skulking in the ragweed with some yellow, some green, and an eyering is a Connecticut. Witness this Common Yellowthroat. . .]

[Dueling warblers - Blackpoll left, Black-throated Blue right. Search the Chinese Elms of Cape May Point for the next 2-3 weeks. . .]

[And, finally, Cape May's namesake warbler, left, with an acrobatic Blackpoll. Megan Crewe told me her Field Guide's group's first bird was a Cape May Warbler, way to go!]