Monday, May 21, 2012

Field Time

 [Singing male American Redstart at Peaslee WMA, Cumberland County NJ on Sunday, May 20. Of the half-dozen or so singing redstarts I've laid eyes on in Belleplain/Peaslee this spring, this has been the only adult male so far. The rest have been first year birds, or "Yellowstarts," a fact suggestive that maybe their choice of breeding site was marginal for the species and thus left to these less experienced birds? More study is needed.]

Bert Filmeyr caught me over the weekend after I gave a program for the CMBO Spring "Maygration"gathering called "How to Identify Birds Like an Expert," and reminded me that of all the steps along the path to being an expert birder, I left one of the most crucial out.   That would be time in the field, something so obvious and implicit I never really thought of it for the talk. Duh, you want to get good at identifying birds? How about you get out and look at them?

And ideally in a place where you see a lot of birds. I moved to Cape May in 2007 thinking I was a pretty good birder. Illusion. Five years and tens of thousands of birds changed my skill level dramatically, though, like I always say, expert is a dangerous word.

Field time dropped off substantially in 2011-12 for me, down to a half-day day a weekend most of the time. And I feel the change, the regression if you will. But the less you do it, at least the more you love it. . .

[Prothonotary Warbler in Peaslee WMA Sunday. Proof I used no recording to lure this bird in: I couldn't get it facing the right way.  Peterson's "golden bird of wooded swamps."]

Some folks were playing recordings last weekend to suck birds into view, or so it's been reported. Let's be clear: there is no place in Cape May County where using recordings on potentially breeding birds  is appropriate, except for scientific and sanctioned surveys. I've written about this stuff before. The main thing is that it's bad for the birds. Too many birders potentially doing it to the same individual birds. But IMHO it's also using a cheap gimmick instead of patience and skill. Please don't do it.

[Male Prairie Warbler, showing the signature hook under the eye and chestnut streaks on the back. And a lot of yellow, and long tail with a lot of white, and it's in a black cherry which suggests the early successional scrub-shrub habitat they like. Peaslee again.]

I do pish, though. I was thinking about this the other day. Pishing is like the bird is hearing the neighbors fighting again and listens in and maybe peaks over the fence to see what's going on. Playing a tape is like barging into a bird's house and saying the house is yours and you're going to take his wife, too - creating a whole different level of response. Even at that, I don't pish much in the really heavily birded spots - in part, frankly, because it doesn't work well. Stuff has been pished out.

 [This female Black-and-white Warbler surprised me by appearing when I was pishing for the Prairie Warbler. The surprise was the habitat -  a field of successional shrubs is not breeding habitat for Black-and-whites, suggesting that this bird was not a local breeder but a migrant. Females migrate later than males, generally speaking, and since Black-and-white Warblers breed from the southeastern U.S. nearly all the way up to Hudson Bay, a late May migrant seems reasonable. We know this bird is a female because of its pale cheek and duller markings. Males have black cheeks and look more like zebras.]

 [The quintessential forest bird - but ever consider how many people live utterly unaware of Red-eyed Vireos? How many kids grow up in houses set back in woods in places like Belleplain and never see one or notice its song? And I'm not in a position to criticize - I grew up in woods that surely held red-eyeds, and even though I paid attention to birds I never saw one until I was 19. To live in the treetops in spring. . . ]

 [Above and below: Will Kerling sent me a note about this Appalachian Brown, found in Peaslee WMA, "The last three days we (you, Karen Johnson and Dave Lord and myself) have found three butterfly species which are about three weeks early! Karen and Dave - Common Wood-Nymph May 18; Yours - Appalachian Brown May 19; Mine - Little Glassywing May 20 in Lizard Tail Swamp."]

 [Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Heislerville, NJ on Sunday.]

A trip to Heislerville in the afternoon on Sunday yielded, after much searching, the female Curlew Sandpiper that has been reported there for at least a week. That bird, and the Yellow-crowned Heron above, was in the second impoundment. The main impoundment has been slow to come down in water level - I understand the water control structure has been damaged - but is now loaded with Semipalmated Sandpipers, dowitchers, dunlin, and a few others. Shorebird numbers will peak this week.

[Whimbrel flies in a 30 mph wind, Grassy Sound Sunday evening.]

With Bob Lubberman and Dave Lord of the tour boat the Osprey, and my neighbors Bob and Stephanie Brown, I led the Sunday afternoon boat tour out of the Miss Chris marina in an east gale.  You can't explore the sounds of southern Cape May without seeing great stuff, but conditions were tough on us and tougher for the birds, especially because the combination of new moon tide and east wind was looking like it would flood many salt marsh nests later that night. Bob Lubberman also told me the heron rookery near Wildwood's Sunset Lake is inactive this year, a shame indeed. Colonial waterbirds on the Atlantic side of NJ seem not to be doing particularly well the past few years.

 [Laughing Gull stands on its nest west of Wildwood, seemingly waiting to see if the flood tide would reach it.]

 [Speaking of American Oystercatcher chicks (see post below), this one near Cape May Harbor shows the bill of a youngster that explains why oystercatcher parents must open the shells for their young for quite a while.]

Field time - got a lot of it last weekend, something like 24 hours over 3 days. Maybe we'll make it to expert status yet. Like I said, time in the field didn't make it into my talk Friday night, but will next time. Here's a summary slide from that talk someone asked for (click to enlarge):

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