Monday, February 27, 2012

People Who Know Stuff, Arrivals I Guess, and Finding Rare Birds

 [This Red-throated Loon, part of a group of a dozen or more that congregated near the Nummy Island toll bridge a week ago, had a tough time swallowing this fish, partly swallowing and then disgorging it many times before finally choking it down. None of its other dives, nor those of its "friends," resulted in such angst. A friend who knows stuff helped figure out why - see photo and caption at the end of this post.]

Wandering around the Beanery with my good friend Mark Garland Saturday morning got me thinking how great it is to be around people who know a lot. Such people are easy to find in Cape May, and not just when it comes to birds. So when Mark taught me a new plant, purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), whose purple blooms begin to carpet the ground in some areas this early spring, that became just one more thing I learned from Mark.

Who you gonna call for a fish I.d.? Sue Slotterback at the Nature Center of Cape May, of course (see caption to photo, below). Butterflies? Louise Zemaitis or Will Kerling. Moths or really anything that needs identification? Mike Crewe. Aging birds and molt? Tony Leukering. Taking photos? Scott Whittle. Birds? A whole long string of folks - Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and about 20 other folks in Cape May. I'm thankful such folks are friends.

Mark and I had an Eastern Phoebe at the Beanery on Saturday, and by Sunday there was that plus Barn Swallow found by the CMBO walk, plus Purple Martin at the Point and the Pine Warbler pictured in my last post, below. I had been thinking arrivals, "I guess," about the phoebe on Saturday and PIWA on Sunday, but the spate of other new birds that came in seems to remove the "I guess" part. Phoebe and Pine Warbler are both capable of wintering at least occasionally in Cape May, if the weather is really mild. As arrivers, they are really early, as are the Barn Swallow and Purple Martin.

Rare birds. Sibley says it right in his book: "Most birders who find rare birds are looking for rare birds."  There are, of course, other factors at play. One is skill, though I think that's important but the least important. But it helps - the early Pine Warbler at Cox Hall Creek Saturday chipped, and I knew the chip, and tracked the bird down. Of course, I heard a Pine Warbler chip at Cape May Point State Park last week, could not track the bird down, and opted not to "take" the bird . . .

Another factor is luck. This one seems really important, but there's no truer phrase than "You make your own luck," unless it's "Luck favors the prepared." The translation is, if you know what to look for, and you look really, really hard for it, you are way more likely to find it than someone out for a walk with their dog. Which is what I was doing when the Pine Warbler chipped.

I almost never look specifically for rare birds anymore. I'd much rather hang out with a group of Red-throated Loons to find out what exactly they're eating. This doesn't make me a better birder; in fact, maybe it makes me a worse birder, but perhaps a better bird watcher. But on Sunday I actually said to myself as I scoured Delaware Bay, "I want to find something really rare." Not the first time I've said that. But I made a point of identifying every bird - every shorebird, every gull, every distant duck. It felt like work. It was work. And fun, too. It's how to find something like a Western Grebe, but I can't do it long, a couple hours at most,

or until a loon distracts me.

["Hey Sue, Hope all is well by you! This was at Hereford inlet today, and the loon had a real difficult time swallowing it. Do you know what it is, or know someone who might? Some kind of stickleback (thought they were freshwater species)?

"Hey, Don! Yes! It is a stickleback, either a three-spine or two spine. I want to say it's a two-spine stickleback which is a little deeper in the body than a three-spine. Very cool! No wonder the loon had a difficult time with the dorsal spines as well as ventral spines - ouch!
These fish are common in the estuaries and can go into fresh water/brackish (esp. for spawning) as well as out to sea. Really cool little guys. They build nests for their eggs and the males protect them. During mating season the males have brillant blue eyes and striking red bellies. If you go near them wearing anything red or orange, they come right up to you, look you in the eye and throw up those spines. Fierce little guys! :)"
 -Sue Slotterback]

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