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.]

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