Saturday, June 30, 2012

Looking Close

 [Huge Swamp Darner, hanging in a very typical pose along the East Creek Trail in Belleplain State Forest, NJ.]

There are degrees of looking close.

First, there's looking at all. With naturalists in the making, a lot of times the first thing you notice is birds. You may not know what they are, but you begin to see them. Then, looking closer, you identify them, and maybe learn something about them.

Next you might notice a bright butterfly, and might want to learn what kind it is. Then you might look more carefully, and realize holy smoke, there's a boatload of other creatures out there to learn about. For me, the next step beyond butterflies has become dragonflies. And looking closer still, to learn about their behavior and ecology.

 [Female Swamp Darner ovipositing (egg-laying) on a rotten log in a Belleplain Swamp, a swamp that will flood again for the next stage in this bug's life. Swamp Darner eggs will hatch into nymphs that grow up to be dominant predators in their aquatic system, until one day the nymph climbs above the water, skin splits open, and out comes the 3-inch plus adult.]

 [Eastern Pondhawk male, Belleplain again. I floated the photo to a few keen naturalist friends, asking what the tiny red balls on the animal's thorax could be - we're not yet sure, but they could be parasitic mites. Looking closer still.]

[Female Eastern Pondhawk. This is a fairly common species, a good one to learn. And a reminder: just like with birds, there are dragonflies where males and females look quite different!]

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"Do what we can, summer will have its flies; if we walk in the woods, we must feed mosquitoes; if we go a'fishing, we must expect a wet coat."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, June 25, 2012

Meanwhile, Back in the Swamp. . .

[Female Summer Tanager, Bear Swamp, Cumberland County NJ yesterday.]

Counter-intuitively, bird identification is usually easier in the field than in the hand. In the field, you have lots of extra clues, even if you don't get a perfect look. You can consider posture, shape, movements and mannerisms, feeding behavior, and more. In the hand, it's just you and the bird. And field marks look different when they are 12 inches away.

Like with the tanager above, when I saw it in our MAPS station net I thought immediately it was a female Summer Tanager, but somehow in the hand the bill seemed too small. Bill size and shape is a great way to tell female tanagers apart, with Summer's being longer - but I learned to judge that in the field, not at a foot. Indeed, even as I look at this picture I think the bird has a big bill, but in the hand I questioned. If you're interested, an eastern race Summer Tanager's bill measures 12.0-14.7 mm from nares (nostrils) to tip, while Scarlet's is 10.5-12.1 mm. Hardly any overlap, and our tanager above measured out at about 14mm.

Another mark that often jumps out with female Summer Tanager is color. It often doesn't look yellow, or greenish (like a Scarlet), but rather orangy yellow, and the wings don't contrast with the rest of the bird the way a Scarlet female's wings look darker (and a non-breeding male Scarlet's, black.)

Oh, and the tanager bit quite well, a good indicator that when the AOU declared that temperate tanagers are actually cardinals, they were right. Cardinals hurt more, however.

[A new male Kentucky Warbler, Bear Swamp yesterday.]

Very excitingly, not only did we recapture the male Kentucky Warbler we banded two weeks ago in Bear Swamp, meaning that one is on territory, but quite nearby that bird's territory we caught a different male Kentucky. I had been hearing one male singng away and a second Kentucky chipping, and assumed it was a female, but now suspect it was this "floater" male, looking to get lucky with the resident bird's mate.

 [This Blue Grosbeak was chipping continuously, and nervously, near the South Cape May Meadows, NJ parking area last evening, toting a dragonfly from perch to perch to feed its obviously nearby young, perhaps still in a nest. It would have been neat to find a Blue Grosbeak nest, but I decided to  move off and leave it to its business. I think the bug is a Spangled Skimmer, but can't be sure - and friend and "ode" enthusiast Tony Leukering concurs, we can't see it well enough. Pretty neat that a grosbeak caught a dragonfly, you wouldn't think this big-billed, sturdy bird would be catching aerialist insects. Probably grabbed it from a perch?]

[Two Roseate Terns (left and top, with Forster's Terns) have been hanging around Cape May, and yesterday were first reported by Kathy and Roger Horn at Bunker Pond in Cape May Point State Park at 6:39 p.m. They lingered there on the wooden walkway extending into the pond until 8:04 p.m - I watched, studied, listened and learned for an hour or so, especially enjoying their unique "cheevik" calls, a good sound to dial in on. I was all set to pontificate on tern molt patterns, but it's getting late and you've heard enough about bird i.d. with the tanagers anyway. Check Pyle or Kaufman's Advanced Birding guide if you are interested. . . .]

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Ode to the Fiddler

 [Male Mud Fiddler Crab (Uca pugnax) - one claw for being sexy and doing battle, one claw for eating. All photos and text are from the marsh north of the Stone Harbor Causeway, NJ.]

Ecologists think a lot about how energy moves through ecosystems, and when it comes to salt marsh, Fiddler Crabs are key players. Sun shines, marsh grass grows, dies, decays to detritus - and then the fiddlers start eating. Watch them sometime, the male's small claw is constantly moving from mud to mouth (the female has two feeding claws, lucky her). From detritus to crab to a host of creatures - night-herons, Clapper Rails, Whimbrel, ibis, gulls.

[Female Fiddler Crabs aren't burdened with the big, handsome claw, and so can eat with both "hands."]

On the incoming tide this morning, we became completely absorbed watching Fiddler Crabs from our kayaks. We - being me, daughter Becky, and fiance Beth - found a quiet side channel and watched for almost an hour as the tide rose, gradually forcing the Fiddlers into their burrows. Fiddler Crabs have gills, but don't fare well completely submersed. As the tide rises, they retreat into their burrows and plug the hole behind them, relying on a pocket of air to sustain them until the tide subsides and they can emerge to feed again.

I couldn't resist reaching down from the kayak to poke a finger into the Fiddler Crab burrows - figuring I've been bit before, what's one more bite from an annoyed invertebrate. But the reaching finger never touched a crab, they are much deeper than a finger's reach, which explains the bills of ibis and Whimbrel, and the stealth of night-herons.

Truly, I can't recall a more enjoyable hour watching nature work her wonders.
[Two male Fiddler Crabs do battle over, apparently, a choice burrow location. We didn't detect a female to fight over.]

[Over ONE MILLION Fiddler Crabs can occupy a single acre of salt marsh. Their work consuming detritus and converting it into crab is critical to the salt marsh food chain.]

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Familiar Bluet, a damselfly, Cape May Point State Park, NJ. 17 June 2012.]

"All objects lose by too familiar a view."
-John Dryden

Do they?
- DF

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

[Almost] Wordless Wednesday Part 2: Lightning Beetles

The "pup," Daniel Boone, gets an assist on this post, since he diligently sat at my feet and snapped at the greenhead flies that, despite approaching night, persisted with the evening mosquitoes in gnawing on our legs as we watched the firefly drama emerge in the backyard. Fireflies are really beetles, there are many species, and the bioluminescence is sexy - if you are another firefly of the same species. (Boonie is 3 years old this week, 85 lbs. and counting. I added a few images to his slide show in the right column of this blog from a foray on the bay yesterday.)

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, June 18, 2012

At Least the Crow Didn't Get In. . .

Chris Davis, of the NJ Endangered and Nongame Species Program (an excellent biologist and a good friend), pointed out that if you look closely at the plover predation photos below, you can see the Fish Crow is actually behind the nest exclosure, not in it. As Chris told me, "We bury quite a bit of the wire under the ground so that when mammalian predators try to dig under they hit the wire and hopefully back off. We electrify the nests where that does not do the trick." So the crow grabbed the chick when it tried to exit the exclosure.

It should be known that were it not for the the diligent work of folks like Chris and her colleagues, Piping Plovers would have little chance of persisting in the mid-Atlantic - kudos to these people!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On Parents, Especially Fathers

 [Above and below, Fish Crow finds its way under a Piping Plover nest exclosure, grabs a chick that hatched only this morning, and makes off with it. Cape May Point, NJ today.]

I wonder how much of our desire to protect birds comes from the parenting instinct. Certainly, the small group of us who happened to be present to witness the death of a Piping Plover chick in South Cape May today felt an urgent desire to protect it, though we lacked the means. I, for one, eyed the distance to the Fish Crows and thought of my RWS Diana precision air rifle. If I'd had it with me, the crow would have been gull bait. The plover parents, meanwhile, alternately flew at the crows and performed piteous distraction displays. Which worked not at all. And I doubt whether a stouter exclosure would have made a difference in the end, because the crows seemed to have learned to wait until the the plover chicks leave and often grab them then.

[Least Terns drive off a potentially marauding immature Herring Gull this afternoon in South Cape May, NJ.]

Like parents, we want to protect and care for the birds we love. June is the month to watch birds doing just this - from a bird or birder perspective, Father's Day is better timed than Mother's Day, because by late June, almost all birds are fathers or mothers of the young of this year, and now is when we can watch their efforts to raise them.

I wonder how the Piping Plover today would have faired if its nest had been closer to the Least Tern colony. The terns don't take anything from bigger birds when it comes to defending their airspace, and how I wished one or many would sail over like drone aircraft and take out the enemy Fish Crows. Which, in their defense, have to eat too, and may have young of their own to feed now. But I'd sacrifice a few Fish Crows for a Piping Plover any day. I'm concerned that this is a cultural thing with the Fish Crows of Cape May Point, and now that they even have figured out how to get under the exclosures, it will be very difficult for the puffball plover chicks to escape.

 [American Oystercatcher feeds its chick a tiny mole crab, grabbed from the surf line at South Cape May today.]

There's something to be said for having powerful, aggressive parents. Last summer, while up in Alaska, we ran into Denver Holt while we were watching Snowy Owls at their nests. Denver told us that the most successful Snowy Owl fathers, when it comes to raising young, were the most aggressive ones. If, when he approached a nest to band the young, the male attacked ferociously, that was an excellent predictor of a successful brood.

The upshot is you want a big, badass dad, and mom. 

I suspect the American Oystercatchers do better with the crows than the plovers simply because the pound and a half oystercatcher weighs as much as two Fish Crows, and comes with a sword of a bill.

 [American Robin feeds its recently fledged young, Forsythe NWR late last week.]

Then there's all the teaching that goes into parenting. Plovers hatch knowing how to find their own food, but they still need Mom and Dad to learn about predators. Songbird babies, like robins or grackles, demand much more, being fed in the nest and after they're out of it, as well as learning by following their parents how to find food. And in the case of males, learning their song from their Dad and other adult males nearby.

 [Fledgling Common Grackle follows a parent and demands food, Cape May Point State Park today.]

 [I've been seeing Black-crowned Night-herons out and about in full daylight of late, suggesting that they have young in the nest to feed and so cannot get away with foraging just at dusk, dawn and at night. Like parents in hard times, they effectively take a second shift, working overtime. This one was at Tuckerton on Saturday.]

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Tony Leukering chases down one of 29 moths identified to species at the first (to my knowledge) "Moth Party" of 2012, in a Cape May County backyard on Monday night. Note the black light (to attract the critters), sheet (for them to linger where we can see them), and the new Peterson moth book. Perhaps it is the Hollow-spotted Blaspharomastix, or maybe "just" a Common Lystrosis. . . .]

"Each planet, each plant, each butterfly, each moth, each beetle, becomes doubly real when you know its name."
- John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Looking Close

 [Robber Fly, Forsythe NWR at lunchtime Tuesday. These inch-long predators are awesome to watch - especially when another insect flies past and they launch a strike perfectly timed to catch and consume.]

A recent "moth party" (more on that to follow) inspired me afterwards to fool with my macro lens, or as Nikon calls it, micro lens. We birders tend to look far, far off for migrating raptors or specks that become shorebirds in a scope - but I remind myself periodically to look for wonders close by, too.

 [Eastern Tailed Blue, Forsythe on Tuesday.]

[Fowler's Toad. Look every amphibian in the eye - there's the wisdom of ages, seas ebbing and flooding again.]

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bear Swamp Part II - Pretty Yellow Ones

 [First year male Kentucky Warbler, Bear Swamp, Cumberland County, NJ, Sunday, June 10 2012. That's the hand of Mike Crewe, of CMBO, holding the bird.]

You stare long at the camera and flash, in the dull light of 5:00 a.m. and a long hike with a lot of gear ahead, and they seem heavy and you decide, "No."

That's the best recipe I know to create great photo opportunities, which explains why the shots here are iPhone-camera specials. But how fine it is to sit in a swamp and hear the birds sing, especially when they are Kentucky Warblers and Prothonotary Warblers?

Migration may be over, songbird wise, but birds are still moving around. The Protho, for example, disappeared from Bear Swamp last week, yet it (or another) returned to be banded yesterday. The Kentucky (I assume both birds are the same ones we've heard before) had been in the area, and I suspect, since both wound up within a meter of each other in the same net, one of them was chasing the other. Both were first year males, aged by the pointed shape of their tail feathers, left over from juvenile plumage, and molt limits in the wing showing both juvenile and "formative" plumage, telltale signs of a bird hatched last summer. Those are both things you would not notice in the field, but one might detect the gray-and-brown spotted crown of the Kentucky in a perfect view, different from an older male's solid or just gray-flecked crown.

Hah! Perfect view at a Kentucky Warbler. That's a Holy Grail for birders, unless you are willing to enter the Kentucky's swamp habitat with a great deal of patience, or get very, very lucky. I don't count banding views in this equation.

 [First year male Prothonotary Warbler, Bear Swamp, Cumberland County, NJ June 10, 2012.]

[Besides the brighter head and body plumage, male Prothonotaries can be told from females by the tail pattern, with males showing white on five tail feathers to the female's three. The book is Peter Pyle's Identification Guide to North American Birds.]

I've recently noticed a couple other "new" land birds since migration "ended." A Scarlet Tanager singing in the woods at the entrance to Forsythe NWR this morning has not been there recently - a floating male, perhaps, searching for a mate? Tonight there was a White-eyed Vireo at Cox Hall Creek WMA, along the east side, where I haven't had one all spring - same thing?

 [Mike Crewe gave me a thumbnail sketch of south Jersey ferns between net runs Sunday. Left, we have Virginia Chain Fern, with a reddish, stiff, plasticky stem. Right is the most common fern of Bear Swamp, Cinnamon Fern, which always has cinnamon colored fuzz along the base of the stem.]

[More pretty yellow, proof that I planted Prickly Pear Cactus in our Del Haven yard for more than its resistance to browsing by Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. . . ]

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

“Don't get involved in partial problems, but always take flight to where there is a free view over the whole single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear one.”
- Ludwig Wittgenstein

Monday, June 4, 2012

It's Best in Morning (Right?); and the Tropics North

[Worm-eating Warblers often probe hanging dead leaves for caterpillars and arthropods, but apparently broken off limbs work, too. Belleplain State Forest, NJ, June 2 2012].

Last Saturday I found myself exploring by bicycle at the "crack" of 1:00 p.m., with my daughter and my fiance, peddling the shady, lightly-traveled roads of Belleplain State Forest. Maybe hard rain the night before had something to do with it, but despite the afternoon hour, every bird you want to find in Belleplain was findable and singing, albeit not with the song frequency you get at dawn, but often enough. So, instead of singing every 10 seconds, maybe the Worm-eating Warbler sings every 30 seconds, or even only once a minute. If you go slow enough, like on a bike or on foot, you're still going to hear it, it and the Hooded, Yellow-throated, Blue-winged, Black-and-White and Prothonotary Warblers, Acadian and Great-crested Flycatchers, Summer Tanagers and all the rest. If you're not in a hurry, you can stop, scan, listen, reposition, scan some more, and see them. Especially because later in the day birds get off their high horse of territory maintenance and set about the work of everyday living - collecting nest material, perhaps, or, by early June, feeding young or bathing in a stream. Good chances for observing behavior. Try the afternoon in your local patch, and see what you find.

[Yellow-billed Cuckoo, one of 5 we found in Belleplain Saturday. Note the boldly patterned tail, which is more muted in Black-billed. And, of course, the yellow lower mandible.]

And another thing about later in the day - things that are "cold-blooded" move more, so you have the bonus of interesting "herps" (short for herptiles, which means reptiles and amphibians) and insects in the afternoon that hide from the dawn chill. Cold-blooded should be put in quotes because what these things really are is ectothermic - they get their heat from outside their bodies, but do quite the good job of it by basking, and can warm up and be as active as a mammal or bird.

[Five-lined Skink gleaming like a tropical creature, Belleplain on Saturday.]

[Male Ebony Jewelwing, right, a damselfly, and its mate, on Poison Ivy near the Sunset Bridge in Belleplain on Saturday.]

All this - the active neotropical migrant birds, colorful herps and insects, warm and humid air, reminds me that the mid-Atlantic in summer is not so different from the famously diverse and wonderful tropics. Hek, Worm-eating Warblers winter mainly on both slopes of Central America, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos substantially farther south than that. Might as well call the eastern forest the tropics north, and so let it be said that the mid-Atlantic forest should be known famously as diverse and wonderful.

And just after I go and think that, literally the very evening after our Belleplain outing I open Mark Garland's Watching Nature and read, "I don't recall when the connection first became clear to me, but slowly the parallels developed in my mind: In summer, our eastern deciduous forest has a distinctly tropical flavor. Many elements of the tropical rainforest's incredible complexity could be seen right in my backyard."

You pegged it, buddy. I suppose this is as good a place as any to mention that Mark and I will be leading a tour next year, not to the tropics but to very special Big Bend National Park and environs in West Texas next April. More info on that tour will appear hear soon.

[Eastern Painted Turtle egg-laying along a sand road in Belleplain. June is egg-laying month for all sorts of turtles - e.g. also Diamond-backed Terrapins along salt marsh causeways - so please drive with great caution, and help your neighborhood turtles across the street, always in the direction they were traveling when you spotted them.]

Another thing about afternoon is that the light can develop these fabulous warm tones, and creatures at the edge of the sea remain as active, or more so, as they were in early morning. So Sunday afternoon we wandered down to Cape May Point State Park for the first time in a good long while, to check on the terns and beach-nesters.

[The sound of a ripping sheet, "aaaarcchh" or something like that, alerted us to this Caspian Tern over Bunker Pond in Cape May Point State Park on Sunday. Just a couple have been around Cape May Point recently. The heavy body, thick, mostly red bill and dark underside to the primaries eliminates Royal Tern, which was also present.]

[You've just got to walk the beach at Cape May Point State Park and the South Cape Meadows to enjoy the Least Tern show.]

["Take it, honey, please. . ." "No, I want ice cream!"]

[Fledgling Piping Plover forages between waves along the South Cape May Meadows Beach Sunday evening. How can't you love this bird, which struggles mightily to survive against overwhelming human impacts and disturbance on the coast?]

[Makes you glad you're not the size of a Piping Plover chick - we watched this huge (4") Ghost Crab scuttle across the beach and dune, searching for whatever prey it could find - which would include Piping Plover, if it could catch one. And they sometimes do.]

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tales from Bear Swamp, Part 1

 [Acadian Flycatcher, Bear Swamp, Cumberland County, NJ, May 28 2012. Caught at our MAPS station. Look how green this bird is compared to the brownish Willow Flycatcher pictured in the May 27 post. Check out also the bolder eyering - though note that the Willow pictured in the post below does show a faint eyering. The Acadian's long wings sticking out well past the tertial feathers  rule out Least and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers as i.d. contenders. This bird's wing chord measured 72 mm, average for Acadian, at the max for Yellow-bellied, and too long for Least. This bird's bill was also too long for YBFL and LEFL, and too wide for "Traill's," the name used for Willow/Alder Flycatchers. Beyond the arcane Empidonax flycatcher i.d. details, this is simply a cool bird - when you're with Acadian Flycatchers, you are in a good place, a rich woods with abundant insects and many birds of interest.]

Quality. That describes Bear Swamp, Cumberland County, NJ, where we've run a MAPS banding station the past few years. Birders know Bear Swamp best from birding the area along Route 555 out of Dividing Creek, where Prothonotary, Yellow-throated, and Kentucky Warblers, Acadian Flycatcher, and Summer Tanager are sought after targets. We burrow deep into the swamp for banding, amongst the ticks and flies and quality forest-interior birds.

As part of the MAPS data collection process, we keep a record of all birds we detect at the station, whether we band them or not, and last weekend had two Barred Owls and a persistently calling, probably breeding Broad-winged Hawk. More quality.

Recaptures of banded birds are an important piece of the MAPS equation. Perhaps the most important reason to operate a fixed-effort banding station during breeding season is to evaluate survival and reproduction, and about 1/3 of our birds are recaptures, including for example the Red-eyed Vireo pictured at the bottom of this post. An amazing thought in and of itself - here's this bird, that we banded one summer, that migrated to somewhere in the Western Amazon, spent the winter, and returned here to breed again. Successfully, from the looks of things.

[Quality - What birder hasn't thrilled to the lovely and unique head pattern of a Worm-eating Warbler? As a birder, I love them not in the hand but perched on a branch, singing their steady trill. As a researcher, I want to know how Worm-eating Warblers are doing, how long they're living, how many young they are producing.]

 [Above and below, female Red-eyed Vireo, Bear Swamp, NJ, May 28, 2012. Male and female red-eyeds are the same, plumage-wise, but the fully developed brood patch gives this female's sex away. The pinkish-yellowish triangle at the top of her breast is her furcular hollow full of fat - she's in good condition to incubate and raise a family. The brood patch is shrouded with feathers when you see birds in the field; here we're blowing the feathers out of the way for a look.]