Sunday, November 27, 2011

Widely Known, but Not Intimately Known

"This mysterious hermit of the alders, this recluse of the boggy thickets, this wood nymph of crepuscular habits is a common bird and well distributed in our Eastern States, widely known, but not intimately known. Its quiet retiring habits do not lead to human intimacy." - Arthur Cleveland Bent on the American Woodcock, 1927. See Wordless Wednesday, below. And be it noted: photographing a woodcock in flight is about as easy as catching one with a baseball glove. . .

One must love both Bent and his classical natural history prose, and the woodcock and his "quiet retiring habits."

Some fine rare birds were discovered this Thanksgiving weekend, like Ash-throated Flycatchers, Western Kingbirds, and Western Tanagers, plus kittewakes et. al. offshore. But determined both to walk off Thanksgiving calories and to try to meet widely known birds more intimately, I resisted the very strong temptation to chase the rare in favor of creeping through "boggy thickets." 

 [Woodcock cousin: Wilson's Snipe spotted at Cox Hall Creek WMA, I know not how, by my keen-eyed son Tim, pre-Thanksgiving feast. A persistent circling Sharp-shinned Hawk held this bird pinned , I suspect, as we passed closer than it would have otherwise tolerated. Lengthwise stripes on both head and body help separate the bird from woodcock.]

How much do you walk off trail? I confess to doing it all the time, a habit acquired during a farm-boy-hunter-trapper youth, and prefer it. Never where regulated against, of course - but recluse paths lead to reclusive birds.

[I'd like to tell you this Hermit Thrush was stalked off-trail in some secret Cape May thicket - but this was in my side yard on Saturday, and this bird seems set to spend the winter with me. The old log it's on, etched by engraver beetles, was placed as an edge to hold the native leaf mulch I "use," which is to say, never rake. For a reason - the Hermit Thrush was here to forage on invertebrates beneath the leaf litter. Note the buff-marked upperpart feathers and buff-tipped wing coverts, both retained from juvenile plumage. This is a bird hatched last summer - but where? Check the Hermit Thrush range map in a field guide, and make your best guess. ]

 [Snow Buntings dancing with goldenrod dunes, Stone Harbor Point on Black Friday.]

It was a warm Thanksgiving weekend, one where Snow Buntings, dragonflies, and Buckeye and the last lingering Monarch Butterflies shared the same space. I'm pretty sure I saw my last Osprey of 2011 last weekend, too - pretty sure only because these things are changing. Consider this: I remember blithely telling NJ birding dean Rich Kane about an Osprey I saw at "Brig," (Forsythe NWR) one early December day about 25 years ago. Rich said, "Really?" Enthusiastically - and, I now know, with much doubt. Ospreys don't happen in December, or didn't used to. How long will it be until a few Ospreys winter in Cape May every year?

 [One of dozens of Green Darners we saw this weekend, this one paused at the South Cape May Meadows on Friday.]

 [Last Osprey of 2011 for me? Unless I head south before New Year's, probably - this one checked the big lake at Cox Hall Creek WMA for its Thanksgiving feast before continuing south.]

[I love it when you can identify an individual bird repeatedly over many days, either because of scarcity (it's the only one around) or unique markings. We can be pretty sure that this Great Cormorant is the same one found on "Lake Champlain" in the Villas November 19. Here it is four days later, irritated by a flyby Great Blue Heron.]

 [Know the widely known more intimately by knowing what they are eating. In the past week I have seen Rusty Blackbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds (here an immature male), Common Grackles, House Finches, Purple Finches, and American Goldfinches pecking at Sweet Gum fruits for what is apparently an excellent seed crop this year.]

 [Off trail walking through fields and thickets this weekend yielded many Field Sparrows, more than I've seen all year. That orangy color on the crown, cheek and scaps is unique to this species, though it's interesting to note how variable this "widely known" bird is. Some are quite plain gray - check out Sibley's illustrations.]

 [Know the widely known more intimately by considering what influences their movements. Over 50 Eastern Meadowlarks moved into a single Cape May National Wildlife Refuge field on Saturday during an extremely high tide, which flooded the salt marsh at least some of them would have been foraging in. I listened to a lot of meadowlarks this weekend for the churk, like a blackbird, of a Western Meadowlark. . .in vain.]

[A Sunday evening vigil for Short-eared Owls at Jake's Landing yielded no owls - but flyby flocks of Hooded Mergansers are a fine consolation. Check out the posture of the upper center male - that humpback look seals the identification on diving ducks zipping by.]

[Sunset Beach was crowded with Thanksgiving weekend tourists on Black Friday. 30 seconds after the sun set, the gull flew off the Concrete Ship - and so too did most of the humans leave the painted sky.]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rarity Month - and Abundance Month

 [Ash-throated Flycatcher first found by Jim Dowdell at Cape Island Preserve. Friday November 18, photographed here in late afternoon - and apparently not seen since.]

November is called rarity month by many Cape May birders, but spectacle in numbers beats rarities any day, so with some "good" birds this weekend, how cool were the swarms of Northern Gannets, scoters, teal and Red-throated Loons passing the Avalon Seawatch on Saturday? Very cool, thought I, and Tom Reed, Clay Sutton, Sam Galick, and others at the seawatch. And just as cool was the continued abundance of short-distance migrants like bluebirds, waxwings, robins, yellow-rumps, sparrows and towhees at Cox Hall Creek WMA, and elsewhere around Cape May.

Friday afternoon found me in pursuit of cheese to melt over some pheasant breasts obtained with the assitance of my pup Daniel Boone (today I added more "hero" pics to his slide show in the right hand column of this page). Since Roger Horn's text about the re-located Ash-throated Flycatcher reached me just as I was leaving the wonderful Seaside Cheese Shop in Cape May (with a delectable pepper-laced pecorino), how could I not go for it? Results above, and below.

[This Fox Sparrow, one of a flock of 4, intercepted me as I went for the Ash-throated Flycatcher. Fox Sparrows came in hard and heavy this weekend. Many could be seen, and their long high seeees flight note heard, from thickets in Cape May County.]

Lucky for me, Roger escorted me to the Ash-throated Flycatcher, lucky because it had moved and Roger made a nice pick on it along the north hedgerow of the first field at TNC's Cape Island Preserve, which is accessed from the end of Wilson Avenue off Broadway, by the way. The flycatcher was incredibly active until dark, moving all around that first field, and I'm not surprised it disappeared, since "moving all around" is a symptom of zugenruhe, or migration restlessness. That bird probably migrated somewhere else Friday night.

Saturday morning was to be all birds, and I started by trolling the backstreets of the Villas, looking for fruit-laden cedars and general patches of activity. At "Lake Champlain," the detention pond named for the street it's on, a cormorant perched in sillhouette stopped me.

 [Thick neck, with narrow "trout" head shape (as opposed to broader smallmouth bass head shape on Double-crested), and thick bill identified this Great Cormorant on Lake Champlain in silhouette, before plumage marks were apparent. Weird location for a normally saltwater, or at least big water, bird.]

Next stop on the way to Cape May on Saturday was the ferry terminal and environs. There's a pretty good thicket to the right as you drive into the terminal, and it was loaded with Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, sparrows including several Fox Sparrows, and of course, Yellow-rumped Warblers.

[Speaking of orange tail tips on Cedar Waxwings. . . these birds were at the Cape May Ferry Terminal Saturday. Note the upper right bird, and see post below.]

I decided to put a stop to the Eurasian Collared Dove-less NJ list (mine), finally, and checked in on the three still hanging out at the corner of Lincoln and Whildin in Cape May Point. How long have these things been there? I can't even remember, but you see them so commonly to the south now that somehow I haven't mustered the will to notch one for NJ. Until Saturday.

 [Eurasian Collared Dove, Cape May Point on Saturday.]

If you can find fruiting eastern redcedars, work them  - and you can find lots of them, since everywhere in southern NJ some members of this species have superabundant fruit. I've been hearing numbers like 10,000 for Cedar Waxwings on last week's Cape May big flight, and many of these seem to have stuck around. Cape May Point has plenty of cedars, and birds are there, e.g. around Lily Lake.

[As rare as a collared dove in Cape May Point, this White-breasted Nuthatch was on West Lake Drive. I also had a singleton Red-breasted Nuthatch on Saturday, a scarce bird this fall.]

[Warblers on the weekend before Thanksgiving are hard to come by, so I was pleased to find 6 species: Yellow-rumped, Nashville, Common Yellowthroat, Palm, Orange-crowned, and this Pine Warbler. The Pine was on West Lake Drive in Cape May Point.]

Cox Hall Creek WMA in the Villas is practically in my backyard, and it has been utterly loaded with birds. Today (Sunday) I clicked 87 Eastern Bluebirds, and carefully counted  25 Eastern Towhees amongst a riddlement of sparrows. At least 6 Red-headed Woodpeckers are wintering there, seeming to most often give their trilled krrrrrr contact call.

 [Eastern Towhees surged across the paths in the southeast portion of Cox Hall Creek WMA today, white tail-corners flashing.]

[Three Field Sparrows play hide and seek, Cox Hall Creek again.]

[Chipping Sparrows remain common at Cox Hall Creek, and some winter there, while elsewhere in the state this is a rare winter bird. Note the dark lore, which separates this bird from the rare Clay-colored.]

Today's (Sunday's) Cox Hall Creek highlight for me started with a rising seep while I stalked about trying to photograph some of the wary towhees - a whole lot of birds were making a whole lot of notes in the southeast part of the WMA, but this one stood out. In addition to the flight calls CD-ROM by Bill Evans and Michael O'Brien, another useful resource for the criminally insane - oops, I mean those trying to learn warbler flight notes, which are often given by birds perched as well as in flight - is the Rosetta Stone for warblers. And this sound was one of the Vermivora, and I was pretty sure which one. . . .

 [Orange-crowned Warbler, a bright one, at Cox Hall Creek WMA today. Yellow undertail coverts, white eye arcs, dark eyeline, pale eyebrow, longish tail, active head (looks around a lot), stays low, forages in goldenrod and thickets.]

[My fifth weekend warbler, a Palm at Cox Hall Creek today.]

[How about a quiz silhouette? Cox Hall Creek WMA today. The day's eBird list is below - it's one of the species listed.]

I spend this afternoon trying to photograph American Woodcock in flight - you'd be surprised how many of them are present, once you start walking off trail. Which, by the way, where allowed, has much to recommend it. Perhaps the results will wind up on Wordless Wednesday.

Villas--Cox Hall Creek WMA (Villas WMA), Cape May, US-NJ
Nov 20, 2011 8:00 AM - 11:00 AM
Protocol: Traveling
1.5 mile(s)
52 species

Canada Goose 10
Mute Swan 2
Wood Duck 22
Gadwall 2
Pied-billed Grebe 1
Black Vulture 1
Turkey Vulture 2
Sharp-shinned Hawk 3
Cooper's Hawk 2
Red-tailed Hawk 3
American Woodcock 7
Mourning Dove 8
Red-headed Woodpecker 6 careful count
Red-bellied Woodpecker 10
Downy Woodpecker 3
Northern Flicker 4
Eastern Phoebe 1
Blue Jay 5
American Crow 20
Carolina Chickadee 3
Tufted Titmouse 8
White-breasted Nuthatch 2
Carolina Wren 4
Winter Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 5
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 5
Eastern Bluebird 87 actual count by clicker
Hermit Thrush 1
American Robin 100
Northern Mockingbird 3
Brown Thrasher 1
European Starling 200
Cedar Waxwing 25
Orange-crowned Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 10
Eastern Towhee 25 careful count, all in same area, essentially a flock
Chipping Sparrow 35
Field Sparrow 15
Fox Sparrow 8
Song Sparrow 10
Swamp Sparrow 10
White-throated Sparrow 20
Dark-eyed Junco 2
Northern Cardinal 8
Red-winged Blackbird 50
Rusty Blackbird 10
Common Grackle 100
Brown-headed Cowbird 40
Purple Finch 4
House Finch 20
American Goldfinch 5

Monday, November 14, 2011

Birds and Habitat: Cox Hall Creek WMA

 [The bird with the earth on its breast and sky on its back (John Burroughs' words, not mine) shows why Multiflora Rose is my "favorite" exotic invasive plant. Eastern Bluebird, Cox Hall Creek WMA Sunday.]

Many, many birds adorned Cox Hall Creek WMA on Sunday, and as we wandered and wondered enjoying them, I got to thinking about birds in context of habitat. They're pretty much always where they're supposed to be - imagine that!

Like, why is the WMA so good for Eastern Bluebirds? With at least 100 (!!) there today? Because it's a mixture of open woods and meadows, with abundant fruiting trees and shrubs like eastern redcedar and multiflora rose, and has water to produce insects the year round, and plenty of snags with cavities to roost in at night or in inclement weather. The definition of bluebird habitat. I sincerely doubt all those bluebirds will winter at Cox Hall Creek, but a sizeable chunk of them will.

[Cedar Waxwings love ripe multiflora berries, too. This one is at least a year and a half old, since it has wide waxy tips on the secondaries, thought to be a signal of maturity and/or fitness. Compare this bird's waxy tips and tail with the one below. . .]

 [So this waxing is a hatch-year, aged by the retained juvenal wing feathers lacking waxy tips. And, what's with the orange-tipped tail? Pigments in the bird's diet while those feathers were growing made them orange rather than the normal bright yellow - pigments probably derived from non-native honeysuckle berries, which have been coloring some waxwing tails since becoming well established in the 1950's.]

[There's a secret, secluded pond at the WMA fringed with oaks, and acorns rain down into the pond. Habitat again - the definition this time for Wood Duck habitat.]

[And again habitat. Wet leaves near a pond bank, perfect for Rusty Blackbirds to flip over and look for invertebrates underneath.]

[The Red-headed Woodpeckers hanging out at Cox Hall Creek all fall intend to stay. How do I know? Because they are caching acorns like crazy, preparing for winter.]

[Flashes of white - Red-headed Woodpecker going back to an oak for another acorn.]

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tactics and Unexpected Results

 [First year Baltimore Oriole near Lily Lake, Cape May Point on Saturday. Orioles are not among the birds normally associated with Eastern Redcedar, but this one gets around the berry's waxy coating by crushing it open. Yellow-rumped Warblers and Tree Swallows famously can digest the wax coating on redcedars (technically junipers) and bayberries.]

On Saturday morning, after quickly concluding there was no big flight underway (due to the absence of robins and other flocks overhead), and after not finding the Western Kingbird lingering along Sunset Boulevard near the bread stand, I decided instead to find me a redcedar in heavy fruit and with bird activity on it.

(By the way, I'm waiting for kingbird searchers to find another rare bird there, and thus create Cape May's answer to the Patagonia Picinc Table Effect - the Cape May Bread Stand Effect).

Driving around Lily Lake I found just the cedar, laden with berries and with ponderous low boughs riddled with yellow-rumpeds, House Finches, Robins, a Blackpoll Warbler. I was thinking about Townsend's Solitaire. There's one in the state right now, apparently, and there've been enough cold fronts and west wind days to push such a western stray here. TOSO's descend from high elevation breeding areas to winter on junipers in the west, and the two I've seen in NJ both were doing something similar, maintaining territories for several weeks in eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) thickets. No TOSO materialized, but the oriole above was a nice consolation.

I drove by the Western Kingbird spot again, and missed it again, and headed on to the South Cape May Meadows to look for more juniper birds. First a hatch year Bald Eagle flushing the many ducks and coots in the meadows distracted me, then some sparrows (I think half the birds on the radar Friday night were migrating Song Sparrows, based on the number of seeps in the meadows on Sunday), and then I chanced to look up and see a high-flying Short-eared Owl. Unexpected. It disappeared heading south over the dune before I could get a good photo, and I resumed sparrowing until it occurred to me that the owl was unlikely to keep going across the bay on such a strong NE wind, so I hustled to the top of the dune and found the owl dog-fighting with gulls, low over the breakers.

[Short-eared Owl coming back to land, South Cape May Meadows on Saturday.]

Eventually the Short-eared made its way back to land, flying pretty much right past me, and went back over the dune to roost somewhere between the meadows and Cape May City.

My theory on the Western Kingbird, supported by Tom Johnson and Sam Galick who had seen the bird before, was that eventually it would return to its favored haunts along Sunset, once it warmed up a bit. So for a third try, I drove by the spot again, and missed it again, but did secure a nice loaf of rosemary-thyme bread, and said hello to other folks who were also waiting around buying bread and missing the bird. I hear its being seen again this morning as I write. . . grrr.

[I love the pattern on Short-eared Owl. The bold solid bars on the wing tip help separate the bird from a flyby Long-eared Owl, as does the pale lower belly - not to mention it's out and about in broad daylight, something I have not been lucky enough to encounter with a LEOW!]

I'm up in my old north Jersey haunts this weekend, doing some hiking and leaf-peeping. Speaking of cedars, we've encountered more Cedar Waxwings so far than I've been seeing in Cape May, perhaps more will move south later in the fall.