Thursday, March 29, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[East Creek Trail, Belleplain State Forest on Sunday.]

"The light at the end of the tunnel is not an illusion. The tunnel is."
- unknown

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Walk in the Woods

 [Yellow-throated Warbler in Belleplain State Forest, Cape May County, NJ today.]

Last Sunday morning the sunshine felt like rain, 
Week before they all seemed the same.
With the help of God and true friends I come to realize,
I still had two strong legs and even wings to fly.
And I ain't wastin’ time no more . . .

- Greg Allman

There hasn't even been any sunshine to feel like rain the past two weekends. Annoying. But clouds, fog and rain don't stop the legs, right? Time for good long hike. Destination: Belleplain State Forest.

The East Creek Trail in Belleplain makes a fine walk, and the state forest has been working on some improvements to it so you don't need to slog through mud and water, mostly, which otherwise is what we ought to have to do in spring in a land laced with Atlantic whitecedar swamps and other lowlands. It's only March, but there were birds about, notably 12 Yellow-throated Warblers, 22 Pine Warblers, and 12 Hermit Thrushes (some singing!) along a five mile trek from Sunset Road southwest to Route 347 and back around the other side of East Creek Lake. Make sure you get the full Belleplain map at the forest office if you're not familiar with the route, not just the campground area map, which doesn't show this trail.

 [Atlantic whitecedar swamp (with some new boardwalk) along the East Creek trail in Belleplain. A rare and valuable habitat.]

One of the coolest finds this morning was a flock of 10+ Golden-crowned Kinglets that came in to pishing - too many to represent local winterers, these birds were migrants dallying in the Belleplain forest for a while. It was also good to reconfirm, through careful counting, my general sense that there are twice as many titmice as chickadees in Belleplain. Next question (if this is indeed accurate, as it may well be - Tom Reed came up with a similar ratio on a birding trip yesterday) - why?  Three Hairy Woodpeckers peeked, and 22 Pine Warblers trilled - other Belleplain staples.

A natural follow-up to a Belleplain morning is lunch with the shorebirds at Heislerville, especially when lunch corresponds to a high tide. The theory goes that high tide puts shorebirds in the pools at Heislerville, but the pools are still pretty full at the moment (hopefully to be drawn down soon) and shorebirds are not yet especially abundant, so only 26 Greater Yellowlegs foraged in the main pool there. A handful of Bonaparte's Gulls lingering on the island with other gulls. A few Dunlin flew past, a single Killdeer rested on a piece of driftwood, and a couple Bald Eagles stirred things up now and then. Over a hundred Tree Swallows and nearly that many Yellow-rumped Warblers feasted on a hatch of some kind near the second Heislerville Impoundment.

 [Wild Turkeys hurrying across the road at Heislerville this afternoon, hens all.]

[This male Yellow-rumped Warbler at Heislerville this afternoon is in pre-alternate molt - note the incoming blue feathers on the back, patches of black on the face and sides, and brighter yellow spots on the the chest sides. We sometimes forget how beautiful this common bird is in full breeding plumage - can't wait to see them looking that way in a month or so! ]

 The heron rookery at Heislerville is beginning to be active, with 21 Black-crowned Night-herons, nearly all adults, plus several Great and Snowy Egrets there today. A few Great Blue Herons were with them, and of significant interest, I saw one GBHE carrying sticks. It would be surprising indeed if Great Blues nested with the other herons, but it's something to watch for. A Great Egret also carried sticks to the island, which is on the right side of Matt's Landing Road as you drive in.

[Some of the 21 Black-crowned Night-herons at Heislerville today, with a Great Egret.]

Here's my full list from the hike at Belleplain, followed by the list from Heislerville (the latter of which was garnered almost entirely by looking out the truck window):

Belleplain State Forest, Cape May, US-NJ
Mar 25, 2012 9:06 AM - 11:39 AM
Protocol: Traveling
5.0 mile(s)
Comments:     Walked east creek trail loop from sunset to rte 347 and back . Cloudy, 60ish. Submitted from BirdLog NA for iOS, version 1.1

21 species

Turkey Vulture  1
Herring Gull  10
Mourning Dove  4
Red-bellied Woodpecker  7
Downy Woodpecker  3
Hairy Woodpecker  3
Northern Flicker  1
Fish Crow  2
Carolina Chickadee  7
Tufted Titmouse  16
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
Carolina Wren  1
Golden-crowned Kinglet  16     Most in a small flock or wave that came to pishing with other birds
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Hermit Thrush  12
American Robin  1
Pine Warbler  22
Yellow-throated Warbler  12
Eastern Towhee  7
White-throated Sparrow  36
Northern Cardinal  8

Heislerville WMA, Cumberland, US-NJ
Mar 25, 2012 12:08 PM - 1:27 PM
Protocol: Traveling
4.0 mile(s)

Comments:      Submitted from BirdLog NA for iOS, version 1.1

38 species

Canada Goose  4
Mute Swan  5
Gadwall  20
American Black Duck  20
Mallard  2
Bufflehead  5
Hooded Merganser  10
Red-breasted Merganser  20
Ruddy Duck  1
Wild Turkey  4
Great Blue Heron  5
Great Egret  6
Snowy Egret  2
Black-crowned Night-Heron  21
Black Vulture  4
Turkey Vulture  20
Bald Eagle  3
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Black-bellied Plover  1
Killdeer  1
Greater Yellowlegs  26
Dunlin  20
Bonaparte's Gull  6
Ring-billed Gull  6
Herring Gull  50
Great Black-backed Gull  5
Mourning Dove  5
Fish Crow  5
Tree Swallow  100
Carolina Wren  2
American Robin  10
Northern Mockingbird  2
Yellow-rumped Warbler  50
Song Sparrow  1
White-throated Sparrow  100
Northern Cardinal  2
Red-winged Blackbird  25
Common Grackle  100

Saturday, March 24, 2012

You're Going to Want This

[Sample screen shot of the new Birds Eye Bird Log

Although I've only done 2 eBird checklists on it so far, I am really impressed by the new Birds Eye Bird Log, an app for iPhones and Droids that allows you to enter eBird checklists in the field.

One of my lists was a walk around of Cox Hall Creek WMA, where I went so far as to enter 10 WTSP (White-throated Sparrows,) then enter 5 more and the app added my total up to 15, and so on. You can enter data by typing a number of birds and then a banding code or the species name, or you can enter from a more conventional checklist. You can upload your lists from the field, or save them and upload to eBird when you get home.

I supposed the idea is that as you walk around and see stuff, you immediately stop looking at it and instead haul out your phone and diligently type in every junco, cardinal and chickadee as you see them. I don't see that happening much with me - who wants to be pecking at a smartphone when there are birds to watch? I do see the App replacing the clickers I often use for just a select set of species, to give me a few benchmarks on numbers when I get back home to enter the checklist. Only, now I don't even have to go back home, I finished up my Cox Hall Creek checklist in the parking lot. And, when I got home and had started cooking tonight's Filipino-style chicken adobo when I noticed my male Dickcissel was back at my feeder, I didn't have to go to my office, start up the computer, and open eBird to record the sighting - I just did it from the phone as I cooked.

Like I said, you're going to want this.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Delaware Bay jetty on Sunday.]

"From wonder into wonder existence opens."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Far To the Curve of the Earth?

[Some of the 1000+ Northern Gannets visible (sort of) from shore along the Delaware Bay between North Cape May and Del Haven this morning. Most floated on the calm water, waiting for a breeze to aid flying. Who knows how many were on the whole bay in total? 10's of thousands seems reasonable, given that visibility until afternoon was under a mile. A reason to consider carefully before developing wind power facilities in the bay, however desirable those would be otherwise.]

A gannet thing did develop today, but it was a slow-burn sort of spectacle. Tom Reed texted me from St. Pete's, down in Cape May Point, at 9:04 a.m. saying he'd had 118 Northern Gannets in 5 minutes. When I checked Norbury's Landing a bit later, 10 or so miles north of Cape May on the bay, there were zero gannets in view, though visibility was barely a half mile. The sea and bay fog persisted all morning, but by about noon you could see a mile or a bit more - and what you'd have seen, were you scoping offshore in Delaware Bay, was a LOT of gannets, almost all sitting on the water. I suspect this was due to the wind, or lack thereof. Like a lot of seabirds, gannets utilize dynamic soaring to travel over the sea - and dynamic soaring requires wind. A scope scan of the bay just south of Cox Hall Creek yielded about 520 gannets, and another a few miles north at Miami Beach yielded another 530 or so.

Later in the afternoon, when the fog finally lifted and blue sky reigned, I returned to Miami Beach. A distant but huge flock of ~650 Northern Gannets was plunge-diving over an obviously big school of baitfish. They were so far offshore that the bottom of their dives disappeared below the horizon at the curve of the earth - which leads one to wonder, how far is that? Pretty damn far, 3 miles or more, depending on how tall you are, how high you're standing, how much refraction there is. . .let's just use 3 miles and let it go at that.

We could examine this horizon thing metaphorically. How far away the horizon is depends on where you are standing, and if you move, the horizon moves away, keeping pace with your advance. . . thus, we can never reach the horizon. But if you look straight up, there is no horizon.  There's none straight down, either . . .nor birds. Enough of that.

[Suddenly, there are Laughing Gulls in Cape May, a lot of them. Their cries fill the air, the sound of a seashore summer. But wait, it's only March. These were at Miami Beach in the Villas.]

 [Black-bellied Plover (left), Red Knots, and Dunlin (second from right) today at Miami Beach.]

Delaware Bay is famous for shorebirds in the spring, but go there at any season and you will realize how rich this system is. Amid the hundreds or thousands of Dunlin and many Black-bellied Plovers, I saw a color-flagged Red Knot on the Bay today (not one of those pictured above), with a green flag on the left leg and yellow on the right. Flocks of up to 80 or more knots have been on the bay this late winter/early spring, but one wonders where they are from - locals, Florida-wintering early movers, or . . .? Report any banded shorebirds to , which is where I reported the knot, though I could not read the alpha-numeric codes on its flags.

[6+ Pine Warblers were at Cox Hall Creek WMA tonight, including this male which foraged along the paved eastern-most path there.]

This evening while poking around Cox Hall Creek WMA with the dog, I couldn't help reflect how birdy that former golf course always is. Tonight it held Pine Warblers, a Red-headed Woodpecker, phoebes, yellow-rumpeds, Field and Chipping Sparrows, bluebirds. . .a good place.

 [The Cedar Waxwings at Cox Hall Creek WMA were flycatching over one of the ponds there, a feeding behavior they engage in routinely. Trout fishermen know this bird, or should - their activity over a stream signals a hatch of insects in progress. I'm not sure what's up with this bird's central tail feather, longer than the rest.]

[A bit of belly crawling resulted in a better shot of the male Dickcissel which continues at my feeders. I've been hearing this guy's distinctive brrrzt regularly since he first appeared last week, but seldom get a good look at him. I hope no truly rare bird ever shows up here - well, actually I hope one does, but the layout of my yard makes it unlikely that any birds would visit the feeders when more than a single cautious observer is watching, unless everyone is inside the house - which Daniel Boone, the Chessie, will not approve of.]

Saturday, March 17, 2012

From Gray, Black and White

[Northern Gannets in the fog, Delaware Bay at Norbury's Landing today.]

About 115 Northern Gannets flew south past Norbury's Landing in only 10 minutes this evening in dense fog, close to shore, occasionally diving for fish but mainly headed out of the bay. The conditions right now are very similar to the spectacle gannet flight of March 28-29, 2009, when east winds moved gannets well up into Delaware Bay and fog made it difficult for them to know the boundary between land and water. In 2009, counts of 100 or more gannets per minute were made as they exited the bay past Sunset Beach in Cape May. The forecast is for light east winds overnight and more fog. Will a spectacle flight happen again? Who knows, but I know where I'll be watching tomorrow.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"Science has never drummed up quite as effective a tranquilizing agent as a sunny spring day."
- W. Earl Hall

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Usual Weekend - with New Birds

 [My first Laughing Gull of 2012, Delaware Bay shore not far from the Cape May Ferry Terminal on Sunday.]

Laughing Gulls are headline birds but once a year - when they arrive and some someone receives the traditional LAGU award for being the first to spot one. Thing is, who spotted the first one this year? eBird's arrivals list says it was  Darlene Elmer, who I don't know, who saw one from the hawkwatch platform in Cape May on March 9. My first was March 11, Sunday, but since I don't patrol the bay every day (every night, yes, almost, but days one must work. . . ) I wouldn't expect it to be the first. And, I hear someone had one last weekend, i.e. March 4, but that one wasn't eBirded and so history will never know. . .

Let me revise my first statement. Laughing Gulls are a dominant force in the coastal ecosystem, with activities ranging from chomping tern eggs and chicks from nesting colonies to redistributing nutrients through their many thousands of bodies and who knows how many millions of droppings, to stealing potato chips from the carelessly unzipped daypacks of beach goers. I love visiting their nesting colonies, and do so every year by kayak, many times.

My friends at eBird didn't pay me to say this, but if anyone reading this blog isn't recording their sightings on eBird, well, you're missing out on a lot of fun AND your contributions to our understanding of bird distribution and migration patterns might as well be written in the sand below the high tide line. Particularly as climate change re-writes when birds go where. We would know, at least, when the first LAGU of 2012 really appeared.

End of sermon. This was a usual weekend for me, which is to say a fair bit of it was spent wandering the land looking for and watching birds. Saturday was damned windy, and I got all the way to Avalon before I took a picture, though the Red-throated Loons at the Nummy Island toll bridge continue to feast on whatever it is they're after and American Oystercatchers remained evident, wind or no.

[One of 7 Semipalmated Plovers on the jetty at 8th Street in Avalon on Saturday, eyeing the sky nervously for predators.]

Here's another question to ask of the Cape May coastal wetlands ecological system: were the 7 Semipalmated Plovers on the 8th Street jetty at Avalon on Saturday birds that have been around all winter, or were they new arrivals? I think they were new, because although SEPL's have been reported in onesies and twosies here and there (not by me), 7 together suggests something more.

 [Dunlin, Avalon jetty on Sunday.]

Dunlin, on the other hand, being the most common winter sandpiper, or at least mudpiper (Sanderling might give them a run on abundance in winter, but the SAND's are on the beaches), are still winterers until proven otherwise.

On Sunday, I walked Higbee Beach all the way to Daveys Lake and back, going out via the fields and ill-defined trails and back along the bay. Higbee was very active in the early morning, with Field Sparrows singing, all three mimic thrushes very much in evidence, flickers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and of course, zillions of American Robins. But it was peaceful to walk the trails there, reminisce about fall, and encounter not a single birder to share the delightful morning with.

Out next to Daveys Lake I bumped into an Orange-crowned Warbler, a bird normally difficult to find at any season but which, this past fall/winter, I've seen nearly a dozen of.

[Orange-crowned Warbler near Daveys Lake at Higbee Beach WMA on Sunday.]

Birders seldom walk the actual beach at Higbee Beach WMA, though folks new to the area sometimes expect the birding to be beach and ocean, thanks to the name,when in fact it is mainly field and forest. The last couple visits, I've taken the extra steps (a few hundred of them) to go to the Bay, and walk back along the beach. On Sunday I watched a returning ferry towing over 50 Northern Gannets - their annual concentration in Delaware Bay is beginning. Many scoters flew out beyond identifiable distance, though some of both Black and Surf were closer. You can count on Red-throated Loons pretty much everywhere there's saltwater in Cape May at this time of year, and they were in the bay as well.

[Northern Gannets following the Cape May - Lewes Ferry in to port at Cape May on Sunday .]

A warm (for March) Sunday afternoon was perfect for bicycling Belleplain State Forest, which expedition had me reminiscing about last spring's 9 consecutive weeks of visiting there. Will I do it again? Maybe. A wonderful place it is, even in March. I averaged about a Mourning Cloak butterfly per mile on this ride, plus Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebe, and all the winter birds.

[Mourning Cloak at Cox Hall Creek WMA on Sunday late afternoon. Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults, one of only a few butterflies to do so. This one looked like it had a rough winter - note all the wear on the trailing edge of the wing.]

[Surprise! I looked out at my feeders on Sunday and found this spot of yellow - a male Dickcissel not seen all winter. Dickcissels, curiously for a bird of meadows and prairies, love to hang out with House Sparrows when they appear as vagrants in the east. Another curiosity to ponder: why are Dickcissels and meadowlarks patterned similarly below? I'm hoping this guy - it is a male, with the black bib and all that yellow - will stick around for a while.]

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"Amidst the worldly comings and goings, observe how endings become beginnings."
- Tao Te Ching