Monday, April 30, 2012

A Long Way (but not a long time) to Tens of Thousands

 [Left to right on log: Dunlin, Eastern Willet, dowitcher, dowitcher, Dunlin, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Dunlin. Two dowitchers (spring dowitchers are Short-billed in the east) are in the water behind. Heislerville, NJ on Sunday.]

Habitat + high tide made for decent shorebirding at Heislerville Sunday afternoon, but the numbers were nothing like what's to come:

5 Semipalmated Plover
1 Killdeer
87 Greater Yellowlegs
3 Willet
111 Lesser Yellowlegs
2 Semipalmated Sandpiper
2 Least Sandpiper
66 Dunlin
139 Short-billed Dowitcher

The main impoundment at Heislerville is still 90% full of water, but the second (east) impoundment is mostly drawn down, and boy does it look like a place a Ruff ought to show up, but none was there. Despite plenty of habitat for shorebirds, numbers were low - because it's not mid-May yet.

 [World's rattiest Bald Eagle flew over Heislerville Sunday, flushing literally 100's of egrets.]

What there were a lot of at the second impoundment at Heislerville were egrets, ibis and herons, including a Little Blue Heron. Between the rookery and the second impoundment we counted over 200 Snowy Egrets. I should have taken a picture, but I got distracted by the fish attracting them.

[Spawning Killifish (not actually sure of the species, need to look it up) on the edge of the second impoundment at Heislerville. The iridescent blue on the back of the males sparkled like a tropical tetra.]

An Orchard Oriole sang in the bushes along the dike at Heislerville, my first of season, and the drake Red-breasted Merganser in the rookery pool would be a prize for World Series of Birding teams in a couple weeks - if it lingers.

Breeders continue to trickle into Belleplain State Forest, including Acadian Flycatcher at the campground entrance and Scarlet Tanager along Buckhill Road, but most migrants are still south of us. We did find a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, which does not breed in southern NJ. Other parties found Summer Tanagers, but we did not - mainly because we didn't really go to the right habitat for them, the drier oak-pine areas.

[This Rose-breasted Grosbeak quarreled with a Great-crested Flycatcher, alternating between chasing and being chased about the oak tops.]

[Red-banded Hairstreaks have been pretty common in Belleplain the past couple weekends. Tiny - nickel-size.]

[This Worm-eating Warbler near the Belleplain triangle was amazingly cooperative, here doing what they do: pick through dangling clusters of dead leaves for insects, a foraging method they are especially fond of. Worm-eaters don't eat worms.]

[A pattern so typical: once you see your first anything, you quickly see more. In this case, Rough Green Snake. Saw my first last week at Lizard Tail Swamp preserve, and yesterday this one climbed among the greenbriar in Belleplain, spotted by Mike Crewe.]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Belleplain State Forest.]

“You can't be suspicious of a tree, or accuse a bird or a squirrel of subversion, or challenge the ideology of a violet.” - Hal Borland

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Almost Wordless Wednesday

[Worm-eating Warbler on Gouty Oak Gall, Belleplain State Forest this week.]

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Flipping Crabs and Other Games Naturalists Play

 [Male Horseshoe Crab, tumbled by a strong wave, struggles to right itself. Male crabs wait for females at the surf line, a risky business. Norbury's Landing, NJ today.]

Now that the Delaware Bay water temperature is approaching 60 degrees F. (it is 56.8 degrees as of 11:00 a.m. today at the Brandywine Shoal Light), Horseshoe Crabs are beginning to move into the shallows, and some spawning has already occurred, evidenced by excavated "nests" and upended crabs left after high tide.

Yesterday at low tide we walked from Norbury's Landing about a mile north along the bay, finding many upside down but still alive crabs. Many of these had broken or injured tails, as you might expect, since the tail is key in helping them right themselves after being tumbled. Gulls preyed on some, and we found a few with their blue blood pooling in the shell, while others lay dead and surrounded by pieces of gills and other innards picked away by the scavengers.

We made a project of flipping every crab right-side up along the way, a task easily done without bending over by using bare feet. Once flipped, those still strong enough immediately dug down into the wet sand to moisten their gills. A few even began the trek down the slope of the beach to the water. After "rescuing" well over 100, at least until the next tide, it was gratifying to look back down the beach and see the world rightside up, for once. Will it make a difference? Well, it did to the ones we flipped.

This morning I went back to the bay to take pictures, and found more good Samaritans on duty with the crabs left by last night's high tide.

Without much in the way of serious birding, I added a bunch of year birds the past few days, from a pair of Green Herons flying across the Garden State Parkway on the way to work (me, not them) to Ovenbirds which now seem to be singing from every wood, to "Eastern" Willet and Caspian Tern at Forsythe NWR and Short-billed Dowitcher on the Bay and a solitary Black Skimmer loafing on Nummy Island. The six Whimbrel at Shellbay Landing would have been year birds had it not been for the outrageous wintering bird we saw during the Cumberland Christmas Count on January 1. Yesterday while cycling I heard a Northern Parula at Cox Hall Creek WMA, and a Prairie Warbler down along the Cape May Canal, two more FOY's (First of Year).

A bit of foreshadowing: listen to Carolina Chickadees much? Ever notice how their songs vary? Ever notice where in southern NJ their songs vary? It's something I've become curious about. . . .

I like birds well enough, but nature paints too broad a brush not to look elsewhere. Witness:

[This Rough Green Snake at The Nature Conservancy's Lizard Tail Swamp preserve was the first one I've ever seen alive - a few roadkills in Belleplain and elsewhere seem to suggest they are more common than one would think. But they are arboreal, and a small green snake in a green tree is mighty hard to spot. It took a sharp-eyed friend to pick this one out. There are two "green" snakes, the other being Smooth Green Snake, a more northern, hilly-area species not known from Cape May county. I always forget which is found where - thanks, Vince, for reminding me! It also helps to look closely. Although this Rough Green Snake does not have keeled facial scales, if you squint you can see a little line at the center of each scale farther down the body, hence "rough." Keeled scales can be a useful i.d. point for other reptiles, e.g. Black Racers have smooth scales while Black Rat Snake scales are keeled.]

 [Northern Fence Lizard, also at Lizard Tail. Besides on their namesake fences, look for them sunning at the base of trees.]

How great would it be if reptiles were as viewable as birds? We are lucky, in NJ, by the way, to have a great state guide to reptiles and amphibians: Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of New Jersey, by Vicki Schwartz and David M. Golden. Highly recommended, as is the companion CD to frog vocalizations.

[A look at this Question Mark's shadow tells you it was trying to maximize the solar energy it was absorbing, catching all the sun it could. Lizard Tail Swamp last Thursday.]

[Wild Lupine in bloom, typically, on dry sandy soils in Lizard Tail Swamp preserve last week.]

[Different individual birds of the same species can often operate on different schedules. This Killdeer at Forsythe NWR still has 3 weeks of incubation to go before her eggs hatch. Right along a path at the refuge, she has become tolerant of people but for some reason jumped off the nest and began the famous broken-wing distraction display when I walked past after work one day last week.]

[In comparison, a Killdeer pair at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor already has hatched young, including this little guy which called softly but not unlike mom and dad. The single breast band (adults of course have two) could lead the unwary to call this a Semipalmated Plover - one with wrong shape, too long legs, too long, wrong-colored bill, and of course, one in downy plumage. A mistake that should not be made - but it's been done.]

Thursday, April 19, 2012

[Wild Columbine, Del Haven, NJ.]

"Let us be grateful to people who make us happy,
they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom."
- Marcel Proust

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Forest Morning, Beach Afternoon

 [Louisiana Waterthrush in Belleplain State Forest, NJ on Saturday.]

It was a good weekend to be a naturalist. Mine began Saturday with an early morning bicycle tour of Belleplain State Forest, where it is definitely still April (not May), but that makes the April singers all the louder, and the more appreciated. I could listen to a Louisiana Waterthrush sing all day, and nearly did. Though I've yet to hear one at the famous Sunset Road Bridge spot (which, call me paranoid, makes me suspicious that folks have been playing recordings there), two others at different locations wielded songs for many minutes at a time. The pictured bird seemed particularly riled by a nearby Yellow-throated Warbler. Perhaps, like birders, it needed to listen for the song's ending to know it was not one of its own kind. . .

[Male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Saturday, in Belleplain.]

Most of the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers seem to be in the nest-building stage, and I watched one pair return repeatedly to a lichen-riddled branch fork. The male added lichens several times, but I never saw the female add to the nest.

 [Yellow-throated Warbler on Saturday in Belleplain.]

Yellow-throated Warblers seem to have firmly established their nesting territories, and the males are flying from tall pine (mostly white pine) to the next tall pine, slowly, obviously, and singing as soon as they land. I saw a couple Yellow-throated Warblers on the ground, perhaps gathering nesting material, though I never located a nest in progress.

[Adult female Pine Warbler busy gathering nesting material in Belleplain on Saturday.]

 Saturday afternoon I wandered over to Stone Harbor, where the highlight had to be multiple Western Sandpipers foraging on the beach with Dunlin and Sanderlings. Sibley writes in his The Birds of Cape May (1997), and I quote, "Despite published reports, there are no documented records of spring migrants." I'm not sure the Westerns at Stone Harbor this weekend prove Sibley wrong - because they could easily be birds that overwintered in the area (mild as this winter was), and that are now molting into breeding plumage before heading north.

 [Western Sandpiper, front, with Dunlin behind, Stone Harbor on Saturday. The Western is well on the way to breeding plumage, with speckling below and new rufous-marked feathers in the scapulars, cheek and eyebrow. The Dunlin has also begun developing breeding plumage, but is not as far along as the Dunlin pictured below.]

 [Roosting Dunlin, Stone Harbor Point on Saturday. The orange-marked scapular feathers begin to hint at the "Red-backed Sandpiper" to come (a former name for Dunlin), and more black belly feathers will soon be added to make the solid black belly of the breeding plumage.]

[Piping Plover was a year bird for me at Stone Harbor Saturday. Sanderling behind.]

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Just north of Green Creek, NJ. April 9 2012.]

"The soul would have no rainbow had the eyes no tears."
- John Vance Cheney

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Common is Cool

 [Snowy Egret in high, if not highest, breeding plumage, Heislerville, NJ on Sunday. It would look prettier with a background of lush green grass instead of dead Spartina - but wait a month or so, some of the high marsh is already beginning to green up.]

It wasn't just butterflies over the weekend (see below for them), but I didn't get any weekend photos of "rare" birds, most notably not of the Swallow-tailed Kite. That bird, by the way, was a total gift, sailing as it did across the Garden State Parkway as we headed to Cape May for a feast of very good lamb and too much very good wine Easter evening (thanks, Scott!)

No photo - but at least the camera survived tumbling to the front of the car when I slammed on the brakes and went from the left lane at 70(ish) to parked on the right shoulder, fumbling for camera and with seatbelt.

Common is cool with me when it comes to birds, and grows cooler all the time. And we still can learn from common birds. One trick I've adopted is that, when a new field guide comes out, I look up familiar birds to see what the latest guide author can teach. Richard Crossley's words about Snowy Egret, "Leg, bill, and lores change color, so know the size and shape well" are apt at this season, when high breeding condition flushes many birds with their best looks of the year (I do favor Richard's book more each time I look at it, though I won't comment on his"upside down" business... ). Soak up egrets this time of year, that's my advice.

 [Ospreys are back on most of their platforms now. This female waited for her mate to bring nesting material for her to add to the nest on Sunday. This is the nest we visited with last summer - in keeping with the theme of knowing and enjoying common birds, I suspect we'll be back here again, since the nest is located such that it can be observed from close by without disturbing the occupants.]

[Brant will be with us until May, and you've seen a zillion of them, though perhaps not this one. . . and check out the range map for Brant in your favorite field guide, and respect the common all the more.]

Monday, April 9, 2012

Small Packages

 [Azure, near Belleplain State Forest's famous "triangle" on Saturday. Dozens of azures fluttered about along the trails and roadsides, rarely resting long enough to give you time to get down on the ground with them and take a picture.]

Now that it's Monday morning and we're rushing off to work, or are supposed to be, it occurs to me that the smallest package of all is a weekend in spring. A weekend when you want a week, or a month, a year. A weekend, in this case, spent pursuing nickel-sized butterflies in sheltered nooks in an otherwise windy Belleplain State Forest.

 [Henry's Elfins, tiny but striking, were the most common of three elfin species. A tailed species, Henry's have a "frosted" hindwing with two white spots at each end of the post medial line (the line framing the dark inner half of the hindwing.]

Birds were fairly quiet in the wind and cool on Saturday, something confirmed by Jim Armstrong, Bert Hixon, Shaun Bamford et. al., who were finishing up a field trip when we met them at Belleplain's headquarters. Certainly a lot more Pine Warblers were present than we were hearing, ditto Yellow-throated Warblers. The Pines I suspect are busy nest-building, perhaps the Yellow-throateds as well. A Louisiana Waterthrush did sing near the little footbridge over Lake Nummy, an atypical location for this bird. But at least it was a very butterflyey day.

[The gaudiest elfin, Eastern Pine Elfin on Tom Field Road.]

[We saw only this one Brown Elfin .]

[Duskywings were abundant, but always landed spreadwinged to absorb the sun's heat, so it was difficult to confirm whether they were Horace's or Juvenal's (have to see the underside of the wing to reliably tell). These are slightly larger than the elfins, size of a quarter maybe.]

[Greater Yellowlegs foraging along the shore of Lake Nummy.]
A high tide visit to Heislerville on Sunday was a bit of a disappointment, because the impoundments are still very full and supported only a couple yellowlegs and a Killdeer. The rookery there was active, however, with Double-crested Cormorants joining the Black-crowned Night-herons and egrets in constructing nests.
And now the weekend has disappeared, like the Swallow-tailed Kite that flew over us at mile 3.1 on the Garden State Parkway shortly before sundown on Sunday, headed inland. I'd like both back, please. . .

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

 [Shadbush or Serviceberry, Heislerville, NJ]

"And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
rose from the dreams of its wintry rest."
-  Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Sensitive Plant 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rare Birds are Rare

 [Second cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull (left), Sunday at Sandy Hook, with Herring Gulls. Lessbacks carry a lot of their gear in the bed - what I mean is, a lot of the bird sticks out behind the legs, compared to other gulls. A second Lessback, an adult, was nearby.]

When things seem not quite right, simply driving a pick-up truck a few hundred miles in any particular direction helps. At least me. Preferably with a truck bed full of camping gear, fishing rods, and food - but even a couple bicycles in the bed plus a scope in the back seat lend the feel of an expedition, and an escape.

Thus, driving north to Sandy Hook for the New Jersey Bird Records Committee meeting on Sunday felt a lot better than it sounds, especially when I got onto the Hook and had gannets to the left of me, gannets to the right, and, even, gannets flying directly overhead, and over land, as they crossed from the bay to the ocean over Sandy Hook. Not a behavior seen every day.

Later, after the meeting, when I met up with my daughter Rebecca for some bicycling at the Hook, I tried to explain what bird records committees do: examine rare bird reports for accuracy, review photos and sightings reports. . . She said, "Well, that sounds theboringest. . ."

Thinking she used some new modern-speak word, I said, "Well, it's not really that bad. . . " and then she laughed and clarified,

"No, Dad, I said,  'laborious,' not 'the boringest.'"

And it was laborious, in part because there were a LOT of rare birds in NJ last year, making it even clearer why Tom Reed was able to set a new big year record in NJ in 2011.  Hurricane Irene (tropical terns and frigatebirds) + rare hummers + flycatchers + sparrows  + Wilson's Plover + many others - Tom picked a good year. And executed extremely well.

Becky and I had a great time cycling the hook end to end and back again, seeing Cedar Waxwing flocks and all those gannets plunge-diving, several Ospreys back on their nest platforms, White-winged Scoters and a couple Red-necked Grebes on the ocean,  hearing short-distance migrants like Golden-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers, and communing with chortling Atlantic Brant.

Becky was even tolerant of my gull-scanning. There were a LOT of gulls at North Beach, drawn there by a dredging operation depositing food (bivalves) on the beach. And I asked myself, "Why can't I find an Iceland Gull?" I know what they look like, have seen 100's or more, and yet, all these gulls and not one.

I'll tell you why. Because birding theorem #1 has been proven over and over again:  Rare birds are rare.

[Second cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull in flight, Sandy Hook Sunday. Mantle too dark for Herring Gull, bright white rump, all dark upperwing (unlike Herring).]