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. . .

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