Friday, December 28, 2012

"Fri-D:" Duck Wings Disappear

 The little sliver of white across the side of this male American Wigeon, at Cape May Point State Park last week, is all you can see of the big white patch covering the bird's upperwing coverts. Notice how the scapulars drape over the wing from above, and the wing folds into the flank feathers below it. Beware field guides that show wing markings on sitting ducks, because often the entire wing is hidden by the body plumage. This is something that anyone who has tried to identify female wigeon, female Gadwall, or White-winged Scoters are well aware of. It's a wonderful adaptation to keep a swimming bird warm.

Below, the bold upperwing pattern of a male American Wigeon taking off from Cox Hall Creek WMA, last winter. Click to enlarge the photos.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Stochasticity

[American Black Ducks in a freezing downpour.]

"At times, the public has gotten the impression from the media that nature is free of risk or danger, when it may actually contain furtive or cantankerous animals, thick dust, freezing downpours, ravenous insects, disorienting topography, and overall stochasticity."
-Kristina Boyd, The Ethics of Wildlife Photography

[Definition of stochasticiy, by the way, is this: s--t happens.  This quote came across the Wildlife Society News at an interesting time for me, since my Christmas gift this week was -gasp- cable TV. I've lived without TV for many, many years, and yet am aware from many hotel room nights of just how ridiculous the TV portrayal of nature can be. I lucked into an episode of Bigfoot Hunters on Animal Planet at a hotel in Illinois a few weeks ago, and laughed my a-- off for 45 minutes. Oh the wonders of modern entertainment. But watch out for that overall stochasticity.]

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

 [American Oystercatcher at dinner on Nummy Island, click to enlarge all photos.]

Monday, December 24, 2012

Birds That Are Not Townsend's Warblers

Two mornings looking for - make that chasing - the Cape May, NJ Townsend's Warbler remind me why I don't chase birds, but there are consolations. The consolations I didn't get pictures of were many, most unusual of which was the Blackpoll Warbler along Harvard in Cape May Point. Blackpolls are unheard of in NJ in December, since they belong in the Amazon basin by now. Nor did the Orange-crowned Warblers cooperate, and the White-fronted Goose was too far away. But the King Eider was shootable, and so were a few common species that make fine Christmas eve presents.

 [Immature male King Eider off St. Mary's this morning. Click to enlarge all photos.]

 [Cape May point is riddled with Red-breasted Nuthatches.]

 [A skulky Hermit Thrush in Cape May Point State Park.]

[The Hermit Thrush's relative, so common but I really love them: American Robin.]

[I couldn't extract a Rough-legged Hawk from the vultures over Cape May, and it looks like the season will go roughleg-less there. Turkey Vultures with one Black Vulture, upper left.]

[The Christmas bird, Northern Cardinal. Merry Christmas all!]

Friday, December 21, 2012

"Fri-D:" Taking Juncoes to the Next Level

David Sibley just wrote a blog about how to tell the sexes of juncoes - by their shape and posture! Check it out!

And while you're at it, consider this: what is David Sibley doing studying juncoes? Because he loves birds, for one thing, but also, what's more fun (and better for your birding skills) than to know the common birds intimately?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday - with Memories of Meteors and Newtown

May they all rest in peace.

". . .She lighted another match, and then she found herself sitting under a beautiful Christmas tree. It was larger and more beautifully decorated than the one she had seen thru the rich merchant's glass door. Thousands of tapers were burning upon the green branches, and colored pictures, like those she had seen in the show-windows, looked down upon it all. The little one stretched out her hand towards them, and the match went out.

"The Christmas lights rose higher and higher till they looked to her like the stars in the sky. Then she saw a star fall, leaving behind it it a bright streak of fire. "Some one is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only one who had ever loved her, and who was now in Heaven had told her that when a star falls, a soul was going up to God."

- Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Match Girl

Monday, December 17, 2012

Indiana has Lots of Squirrels, and other Naturalist Reflections

[Gray Squirrel, Turkey Run State Park, IN last week. Despite the foxy color of the ears and back, the gray tips to the tail hairs rule out Fox Squirrel, also common in Indiana.]

An expert geologist friend of mine said he always felt anchored in new places by the rocks - which he knew, knew where they came from. Knowing gave him a footing in any region.

Me? My anchor is birds, of course. And squirrels, apparently, because the first natural thing I noticed driving west from Indianapolis along unfamiliar I-74 last week was an abundance of squirrel nests in the bare woodlot trees of Indiana's flat, corn-picked landscape. So, there are a lot of squirrels in Indiana. Those must be oaks and walnuts. Probably Red-tailed Hawks and Great-horned Owls around eating the squirrels. You can't feel at home until you're at home with the landscape. I've often thought that what I'd really like to do is live a while, like a year, in each of the North American biomes, to really get to know them. I've been in all of them, but you need to live in a place a while, experience the seasons, to understand it. From desert to temperate rainforest. . . someday, maybe. You'd think Indiana was in the prairie biome, but it's mainly cut over deciduous forest. The trees were familiar, where I could find them.

Soon a few birds trickled onto my Indiana list, though I think the list remains solidly under 20 species. It was a "life" state, but there on business as I was, and binocularless (gasp), I didn't do too much looking for birds. Redtail, Harrier, White-breasted Nuthatch, chickadee sp., Downy Woodpecker. . . you get the picture. I did visit the very wonderful Turkey Run State Park for too short a visit, highly recommended. Great feeders at the nature center there.

Back at home, this morning the Cape May Christmas Bird Count re-anchored me, starting with the Snow Geese calling overhead as I left the house at 5:00 a.m. Two Sedge Wrens at the end of Pierce's Point Road tschupped with Clapper Rails as the chorus, and a Virginia Rail grunted in response to my screech owl calls at the first marsh you hit on Pierce's Point Road. We hit a field full of sparrows on Cape May NWR in a section seldom birded, along 47 north of Green Creek, which included a Vesper and multiple White-crowneds.

I haven't had much opportunity for photography in recent weeks, but here's a loon that fed close to the 8th street Jetty in Avalon, often coming up with a crab. Crabs seem to be the favorite Common Loon food in winter, at least close to shore.

[Common Loon at Avalon, NJ, December 15 2012. Click to enlarge. I wish my raingear was as water repellent as this guy's.]

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday - Gratitude as We Give, Get and Feast

[White-throated Sparrow and its feast, Cape May Point, NJ.]

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
- Melody Beattie

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Love and Death

[Note: there's a somewhat gory photo at the bottom of this post; some readers might want to skip it. Not the Cooper's Hawk, however. . . ]
 [The Western Grebe in Cape May Harbor seems to have "decoyed to," or perhaps even fallen in love with, this sort-of, kind-of Western-Grebe-looking buoy. Cape May, NJ this morning, click to enlarge photos.]

Fog lay heavy over the land and water alike this morning, so attending household tasks and then walking the dog took precedence over trying to bird. But you're never not birding, and Cox Hall Creek was even birdy in the fog, with a flock of 25+ juncoes sharing a morning feast of Sweet Gum seeds fallen to earth with a Fox Sparrow along the easternmost path, and the usual bluebirds and other sparrows fed and flushed in front of us (me and the dog).

An unexpected flush was the Cooper's Hawk which leapt from the ground along one of the paths and perched nearby, looking decidedly annoyed. Soon I could see why - a spot of white on the ground became the throat of a partially consumed Wood Duck, which answered a question I was asked of Cooper's Hawks on Friday during a walk I was leading at Forsythe NWR: "Cooper's don't ever take ducks, though, do they?"

They do indeed, this became duck species number three I've seen them grab, the others being Green-winged Teal, which you might expect because they're small, and Ring-necked Duck, which you might not expect because although they're small they're awfully fast in flight, and yet in Hunterdon County, NJ I onced watched a Coop neatly extract a Ring-necked from a racing flock and bring it to earth.

The remains of the woodie are pictured below, with the Coop having plucked and eaten most of the breast before I and dog interrupted it.

After the dog walk I finally made it down to Cape May Harbor to see the continuing Western Grebe, which has seemed to attach itself to a decoy of sorts: a buoy looking only slightly like another Western Grebe, perhaps one sleeping. You be the judge. From duck hunting I know certain birds are very confiding and non-discriminating when it comes to decoys - like Buffleheads, for example, which will come right in and plop right down in your decoy spread. Looks like Western Grebe falls into that category. Birds don't see the world the way we do. Foolish though it is or not, I was delighted to see it, a rare bird indeed on the east coast.

[Drake Wood Duck partially consumed by a Cooper's Hawk, Cox Hall Creek WMA, NJ this morning. The Coop ate most of the breast, but apparently wasn't strong enough to pick its prey up and carry it off when I approached. Sorry for the quality - phone photo.]

Friday, December 7, 2012

"Fri-D" - Red CrossbillS (sic)

[Male type 3 Red Crossbill, Cape May Point State Park, NJ, November 25, 2012. A little flock descended into the pines along the exit road to the park and fed for a bit. Click to enlarge.]

Here it is, December. Already by the end of November you reach a point where it feels over, not just the temperature, but the birds, too. Hardly a migrant to be found, though I guess Red Crossbills can count as migrants or wanderers at least, and a very few Red-winged Blackbirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers moved across the sky like they were going someplace the last time I was in Cape May Point. Birds, it is said, are migrating every day of the year. But the days of going out and expecting to find a lot of new birds are clearly done until spring.

So now what? I don't have cable, and though I love to read, not when the sun's shining. Go see the same ducks on the duck ponds and same sparrows in the thickets? Dig hard for a rarity, like the Western Grebe recently found on Cape May Harbor? If it's rare birds you need, you have a problem, because rare birds are rare.

There's always stuff to work on. Like, the calls of the various types of Red Crossbills - there's a winter project for you. Types 2, 3 and 10 have been heard in Cape May, with most by far having been the irrupting western Type 3. If you haven't polished your flight call ear for the subtleties found in a single note, here's your chance. Which was it, pip-pip, tik-tik or whit-whit? Good luck with that. The truth is, there is only a small handful of people who, when they report a particular type of Red Crossbill, I believe them, though if you listen to one type and then the other, you can hear the differences. Read the linked article, and like I said, good luck!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: The Fox

[Fox Sparrow at the Beanery, Cape May, NJ, November 22 2012.]

"I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion. The whole secret of government lies in knowing when to be the one or the other."
- Napoleon Bonaparte

[Seems relevant at the edge of the fiscal cliff. . . ]

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday - Grain from Chaff

[Field Sparrow sifts grain from chaff, Higbee Beach WMA NJ last weekend.]

This quote reminds me of friends around the holidays: friends I listen to, and especially friends who listen to me:

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.”
 - Mary Anne Evans (her pen name was George Eliot), 1819-1880


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Winding Down Fall with a Couple Rarities. . . and Some Beer

 [Ash-throated Flycatcher at Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ this morning. Click to enlarge photos.]

"I had just a remarkable morning today, Don," said Michael O'Brien when we met looking for the Greater White-fronted Goose that Tom Reed had seen drop into Lily Lake in Cape May (which we found, in the company of 4 Cackling-ish Geese, though those kept morphing into small but regular Canadas, which then made the white-fronted look too big - a story for another blog, maybe.)

"Yes? How so?" I asked.

"I saw almost no birds. I walked around the point looking for finches and there was nothing flying, no blackbirds, no robins, no finches. Maybe just a couple things, like one Yellow-rump, but essentially nothing."

This was almost identical to my experience at Higbee, where I went at a whim in the post-frontal strong west northwest wind of the morning, brought by the front that passed maybe a bit too late last night, but one that a month ago surely would have meant birds, birds birds. Higbee is where you go after a front first thing in the morning August-October, but in November I'm more prone to work the point or the Beanery.

The well is almost empty, the well from which pour birds from the north. So dry, in fact, that yesterday, instead of normal birding, we took a foggy ferry ride to Lewes, Delaware and from there drove on to Rehoboth and the wonderful Dogfish Head Brewpub and some wonderful eats and take-home Dogfish Head microbrews, one of which (the rare Burton Baton) graces the table next to me as I write (so don't blame me if I start slurring my words). Michael, Louise Zemaitis, Beth and I did bird about Cape Henlopen on the way back, encountering a fun little troop of maybe 8 Brown-headed Nuthatches, and Red-breasted, and other this and thats. . .not much, but enough. And gannets behind the ferry on the way home, at almost arm's length.

But this morning, with the front and a precious day off, I had to drag my lazy self out of bed and at least try the day, even thought the radar said little had flown. November, rarity month, come on Don, move it. Literally the first bird I set binoculars on was a Purple Finch, and the third was a Yellow-breasted Chat, both in the tower field at Higbee Beach WMA. But after that. . . .cardinals, Field Sparrows, white-throats, and eventually a text message from Tom that led us to the white-fronted goose.

I'd run into Nick Kontonicolas at Higbee, and we parted wishing each other an Ash-throated Flycatcher. Nick got the wish, with a great find on a bird that proved elusive, though we refound it briefly for a photo and a quick look before it disappeared, as far as I know, for good for the day. Michael and I had a flock of Red Crossbills at the entrance to the Higbee Field as we walked in, flyovers only.

 [Greater White-fronted Goose tells the Canadas what it thinks, Lily Lake, Cape May, NJ this morning.]

[The star bird of Cape Henlopen State Park, DE, a Brown-headed Nuthatch entertains us there yesterday. Combines well with Dogfish Head beer, brewed right there in Delaware. . .]

Friday, November 23, 2012

"Fri-D" - Cackling Goose

Check out the top center goose for two things: overall size and proportionate neck length. Go from it to other members of the flock and back again. Smaller, shorter necked - and part of the flock headed towards Lily Lake, Cape May, where this Cackling Goose has been spending time.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Lindbergh and Birds

"I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes."
 - Charles Lindbergh

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Adding it Up

 [Why I didn't linger on the Avalon jetty this morning. Click to enlarge all photos.]

Waves lashed against the jetty up at 8th Street in Avalon, NJ this morning, driven by a north wind that also chopped up the sea. Not the ideal birding conditions, though I did watch a Great Black-backed Gull ripping at a skate carcass and thought, big gull, big prey.

 [Common Loons in Great Channel, Stone Harbor NJ this morning. The bird in the foreground is in nearly full breeding plumage, while the back bird looks like they're supposed to now.]

Leaving Avalon, the gull, the skate, and a few waves of migrating scoters, the natural thing was to work south through Stone Harbor and Nummy Island. Common Loons foraged in the channels, suggesting that was where the prey was, though I saw none come up with food, so I can't say if it was fish or crabs they sought. A 4th year Bald Eagle tested the Atlantic Brant a few times before settling on a post, and I wondered how often eagles really kill brant. I don't know the answer.

 [4th year Bald Eagle, Nummy Island this morning.]

It was adding up to a not especially birdy morning, which is to say the species list wasn't long, the rarity list shorter, the light bleak and gray.

[Great Egret coming in for a landing.]

But birds were around, being birds, eating what they eat, fleeing what eats them, and I thought, as I often think and say, that the fun in birding starts when you've identified the bird, rather than ending there. There was plenty going on, plenty to think about and learn, and it added up to a fine morning of birds.

A couple American Oystercatchers waved white-striped wings as I crossed the toll bridge and headed home to ponder the yard White-throated  Sparrows. White-throats are common, and one reason is likely their versatility, feeding on a wide variety of fruits and seeds, both on the ground (which they prefer) and gleaning from shrubs.

 [Above and below, White-throated Sparrows. Above, eating Winged Sumac berries, below, kicking for seeds under my feeder. Versatile feeding habits = common. Think whitethroats, yellow-rumps, Herring Gulls, chickadees. . . .]

[This juvenile Cooper's Hawk did the classic thing, sweeping the feeders clean of activity and keeping it that way by perching on the neighbor's fence. Del Haven today. Look at those big feet.]

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Fri-d" - Scaup

[Lesser Scaup, South Cape May Meadows, NJ, November 10, 2012. Click to enlarge.]

You should use every field mark at your disposal when you identify a bird. When identifying scaup, you must use every field mark, and use them carefully. Here's how to identify these Lesser Scaup.

Head shape: The word rounded is too imprecise when dealing with scaup head shape. The question is, where is the peak of the head, and what happens behind that? On Lesser Scaup, the peak is rear of the eye, and often the head looks flat-topped, and often there is a pointy peak at the rear of the crown. The left bird, sleeping, looks perfect for Lesser Scaup. The right bird's head shape is different - and you have to learn to be okay with that, the scaup change their head shape depending on what they're doing - but ask yourself, where is the peak of the head? Answer is a little behind the eye, and the top of the head is flat. Greater Scaup often gives a look where there is a peak in the height of the head over or even in front of the eye, and then the top of the head slopes downward towards the rear from there.

Size: If you were tempted to call these two different species because of the different head shapes (and the species do mix freely), consider this: they're the same size. Side by side, Greater looks 10-20% bigger than Lesser, because it is.

Bill: the bill of the right bird looks small enough for a Lesser.

Back: the barring on the back of Lesser is coarser, and they're also more prone to having dark vermiculations on the flanks, looking less clean white than Greater.

Where: These two were in the center pool of the South Cape May Meadows, which is relatively shallow and a relatively small body of water. This leads one to think Lesser Scaup, which on average like smaller water. This is an imperfect field "mark" to be sure, since both can be on big or small water, but I watched these birds dive here. They were happy on the small water, comfortable. Greaters might wind up on small water, but like it less.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Dive

He who would search for pearls must dive below.
- John Dryden

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Creeper, Kinglet, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush. . .or, November

 [This Winter Wren hopped its way under the boardwalk at Cape May Point State Park, NJ, and hopped up on the other side. All photos November 10, 2012 in Cape May; click to enlarge.]

Today, Saturday November 10, was a quintessential November morning with some added spice at Cape May Point State Park - the title species, which just say late fall, plus flyovers of all the finches except, funny enough, Purple, meaning both Crossbills, Siskins, and Evening Grosbeak. A singing Fox Sparrow. A single Snow Bunting pfewing its way down the dunes. As I said to Mike Crewe as he leaned over the hawkwatch platform to greet me, for a non-spectacular day it's pretty spectacular. I wound up with 70 species in an hour and a half at the park, without particularly trying.

 [I never stop marvelling at Yellow-rumped Warblers and how they can find food anywhere, in this case between the slats of the Cape May Point State Park boardwalk, a tiny spider.]

 [Close-up of the Yellow-rump above and its spider.]

 [The rising, loud seep of this White-crowned Sparrow's flight call made me stop, thought the bird was perched in a bush, not flying. Click to enlarge and note how its got a seed in its bill, with just the downy parachute hanging out.]

[Another bit of spice, and a year bird. White-winged Doves have been reported on and off all fall, as far north as Tom Reed's feeder on Reed's Beach Road, with this one visiting a feeder on Yale Avenue in Cape May Point this morning.]

Friday, November 9, 2012

"Fri-D" - Cooper's Hawk vs. Northern Goshawk

 [Top, juvenile Cooper's Hawk, Cape May Point, NJ, October. Bottom, juvenile Northern Goshawk, Cape May Point, November. Both in more or less shallow glides. Goshawk looks the part. Click to enlarge photos.]

If you weren't sure if it was a Cooper's Hawk or a Northern Goshawk, it was a Cooper's Hawk. There, that's simple, isn't it?

But seriously, Coop's are much more common and Gos' really looks the part. I think many reported Goshawks are Cooper's injected with observer hope, so in part this post is a public service. Believe me, I'm tempted too - who doesn't want to report that big, charismatic northern raptor?

Goshawks are big, buteo size, and Cooper's are not. But let's leave size out of the equation since that admittedly is hard to judge, and female Coop's are pretty big, bigger at least than male Coop's. But compare some other field marks (and I suggest, as usual, moving your eyes back and forth between the photos as you compare each mark):

Streaking: dense, heavy, and throughout the underparts on Gos; finer, lighter, and concentrated on the chest on Cooper's.

Tail: Broad (!), variable shape on Gos; narrow and longer looking on Cooper's.

Body: Heavy and tubular on Gos; slimmer and more tapered on Cooper's.

Head: Perhaps surprisingly, appearing proportionately smaller and sticking out less on Goshawk, mainly because the Goshawk body is so big.

Wing shape: more pointed on Goshawk, which has a tapered "hand." Use a little caution comparing wing shape in these photos, since their not in exactly the same posture.

Seems like it's a good year for Goshawks, with 23 counted through November 6 at the Cape May Hawkwatch. Hope you get one or two or more!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Hunger

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday, November 7, 2012