Monday, July 30, 2012

Noticing and Remembering

 [Despite already having a zillion Clapper Rail photos thanks to hours in a kayak, I'd been needing a "bird porn" style photo for a couple projects at work. When this one stepped out and began preening at the edge of the marsh in Taylor Sound (west of Wildwood), I just couldn't believe it would stay as I drifted up to it. But it did, tame as a chicken. Kudos to Scott Whittle, by the way, for his excellent guest blog on Art Morris's site on one style of bird photography - I even forgive him for switching to using Canon for birds. . . July 28, 2012, Taylor Sound, Cape May County, NJ.]

In rare moments of weakness and hubris, I've been known to remark (mostly to girlfriends), after spotting something particularly obscure or difficult to see, that I'm a "trained field observer." That would be, self-trained, and yeah, well, if you've spent most of your lifetime showing people nature and all of it looking for nature, you better be able to spot stuff like Clapper Rails at the edge of marsh creeks. But it took my son Tim to notice the climbing Fiddler Crabs:

[It was dawn and high tide when we entered Taylor Sound, and apparently a few fiddler crabs did not have burrows to back into and seal off, so they climbed to the tops of the salt marsh cordgrass lining the creeks.July 28, 2012, Taylor Sound, Cape May County, NJ.]

[Noticing sometimes requires active watching with a question. What are the Semipalmated Plovers feeding on on the rich mudflats of the back bays? Answer: mainly marine worms.July 28, 2012, Taylor Sound, Cape May County, NJ.]

We were paying our first visit of the year to the Laughing Gull colonies, and I was surprised to find them with only small downy chicks still in the nest. I couldn't remember exactly when those chicks normally fledged, but it seemed much earlier. Feeble memory, but by checking photos from last year, I realized the gulls are a month late - because the colonies were flooded out by an exceptionally high spring tide and had to start over.

 [Laughing Gull with young chick in a nest along Taylor Sound. Note that the adult is molting to winter plumage. The gulls are a month behind schedule, and one presumes that the Clapper Rails and tern colonies are too, since they were impacted by the same high tide that flooded the gulls out on their first nesting attempt. July 28, 2012, Taylor Sound, Cape May County, NJ.]

 [By comparison, this photo was taken July 24, 2011 - and all the baby Laughing Gulls are fully feathered and out of the nest, lining the marsh channels and making an extraordinary racket.]

 [Noticing sizes: this photo, intentionally a silhouette, shows a dowitcher on the left and a yellowlegs on the right. Because the yellowlegs is the same body size as the dowitcher, it must be a Lesser - Greaters are much bigger. It seems so simple now, but I never thought about using direct size comparisons between species for this i.d. until I moved to Cape May and people like Michael O'Brien pointed the technique out.]

[Noticing carnage on the beach - many, many Mole Crab carcasses. The Sanderlings are back! And feeding on these filter-feeders of the swash line. And the Lesser Black-backed Gulls and other gulls have been feeding on these critters all summer.]

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Hudwit Weather

[Radar image 7:00 a.m. this morning, 20 minutes before a Hudsonian Godwit flew over my kayak in Taylor Sound, a couple miles north of Cape May. Note the storm activity offshore.]
You could argue every bird occurrence is weather related, because birds migrate, feed, incubate eggs, and rest in sync with the wind, rain, and temperature. I'd be willing to bet the  Hudsonian Godwit that flew over Taylor Sound headed southwest this morning was there because it encountered storms offshore and diverted west to avoid them. We got hammered by these same east-tracking storms before dawn in Del Haven and elsewhere in southern Cape May.
 "Hudwits" migrate mostly offshore in fall, many taking off from Canadian staging sites and flying over the Canadian Maritimes or New England and making a nonstop flight to South America. East winds and offshore weather increase sightings of this tall, elegant, rare and therefore desirable species.
This bird, which seemed to come from the northeast (i.e., in off the ocean) called repeatedly as it passed - I never would have noticed it except for the high pee-wids ("god-whit!"). One guesses it was seeking the company of other Hudwits that might have similarly been diverted.

Friday, July 27, 2012

High Point Summer III: Bugs, Flowers and Trees

 [Male Eastern Amberwing, our only entirely orange-winged dragonfly and at not even an inch long, one of the smallest we have. Only the 0.8" Elfin Skimmer is smaller. This one patrolled a pond in High Point State Park, NJ, July 22, 2012.]

A measure of High Point State Park's diversity might be the variety of interesting fauna and flora to take pictures of - in two days I accumulated enough photos to produce a month's worth of blogs (if I chose to torment you so). One wonders, however, one living in Cape May in particular, whether familiarity with the home turf has bred a bit of complacency if not contempt. It's true, I could easily stroll a beach and photograph Sanderlings, plovers, gulls, terns, shells, sand grains, waves, dolphins. And have, many many times. Yeah, there's plenty to see down here in southern NJ.

Nonetheless, High Point rocks the naturalist.

 [Widow Skimmer, High Point State Park, July 22, 2012.]

 [Slaty Skimmer, High Point State Park, NJ, July 22, 2012]

I find myself getting hooked on dragonflies more with each species I find. They're like the hawks of the insect world: hunters, aerialists - and in fabulous funky colors. And they behave - I mean, they do stuff, have fascinating behaviors, unique postures and flight styles. Like the Eastern Amberwing at the the top of this post. Male amberwings patrol an egg-laying site and lead females to it, hovering with abdomen raised while hoping the female accepts him, or the territory. If she likes them both, they mate.

 [Male (left) and female Swamp Spreadwings (damselflies) in tandem, High Point State Park, NJ, July 22, 2012.]

 [Summer Azure gives us a peak at its gorgeous upperwing, High Point, NJ July 21, 2012.]

 [We found this female Monarch actively ovipositing on clumps of milkweed near our Sawmill Lake campsite.]

 [Monarch egg, taken just a second after the egg-laying photo above.]

 [High Point's wet meadows, many of which are succeeding beaver ponds, are spangled with blooming Steeplebush, a good wetland indicator plant.]

[High Point woods along Park Ridge Road. What's around the bend? In this case, it was a ~ 3-year old Black Bear that didn't stick around for a picture. Just as well - he was 20 feet from the road, and we were on bicycles.]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"Here I go again on my own,
Goin' down the only road I've ever known,
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone,
And I've made up my mind,
I ain't wasting no more time,

Here I go again."- Whitesnake

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

[Dun Skipper on Buttonbush, High Point State Park, NJ, July 21, 2012.]

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

High Point Summer II: More Special Birds

[It's a baby! Recently fledged Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, High Point State Park, Sussex County, NJ last weekend. Sapsuckers only began breeding in NJ within our lifetimes - unless you are a very young birder. Now they are the most common woodpecker in High Point. The brown fades to buff and white by the time we see the youngsters in migration.]

It's hard to get past warblers, hence the previous essay. And I love the little bright sprites, but High Point is a woodpecker haven, too,with all of them except Red-headed breeding. And Red-headed used to, in the abundant beaver ponds up there, and perhaps does still and if not, hopefully will again.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a real story, going from never having bred in NJ (okay, there's a report from the 50's) to colonizing in the '90's to being now the most common woodpecker of this north Jersey boreal forest outpost. 

 [Eastern Wood-pewees are single brooded, and yet a number were still singing last weekend. Trying to re-nest after weather-ruined first attempts, perhaps, or just singing because they like to.]

 [Song Sparrows, in contrast to pewees, are at least double-brooded, sometimes having 3 or even 4 sets of offspring in a year. This one poked about our Sawmill Lake Campground site for food to bring its young, in this case a tiny grasshopper picked from near the grill. We could hear the babies beg when the adult disappeared into a nearby thicket.]

[This is a picture of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. It was aggressively hassling an adult Red-tailed Hawk along Ridge Road in High Point State Park, NJ.]

Monday, July 23, 2012

High Point of Summer

[Here's a tricky one to sort out, not one we get to see all that often. One might be tempted to call it an immature female Blackburnian Warbler, but the face pattern isn't there, the tail's too short, there's too much yellow wash below - this immature (hatch year, fledged this summer) female Cerulean Warbler in High Point State Park, Sussex County, NJ on Saturday 7/21/12 was with a mixed species foraging flock, but undoubtedly came from a local nest.]

Somehow I managed to let May and June slip away without a trip to High Point State Park, Sussex County, NJ,  an error no birder in the northeast should make. There is no better place at that season, IMHO (that is, In My Humble Opinion for those of you less text-message-savvy than my daughter, who periodically tutors me in such things.)

A free weekend in July, last weekend to be precise, prompted us to reserve a site at the Sawmill Lake Campground and patrol the lightly traveled park roads by bicycle, hike the trails, and just hang out in camp watching birds do what they do in late July.

Which is a combination of things. For many, it is more or less the same as June, breeding season - multi-brooded birds like Gray Catbirds, Song Sparrows and (delightfully!) Hermit Thrushes are in various stages depending on the pair, either feeding young, incubating eggs, or even singing and beginning another clutch. The lakeshore thickets were just riddled with catbirds, in particular - all those adults that returned here to nest in the spring, and all their offspring produced since, probably two clutches worth.

Even supposedly single-brooded species were singing at dawn - among them some of the specialties of the house in High Point, like Cerulean Warblers. The local Common Ravens croaked each morning from up on the Kittatinny Ridge. Virtually all the hoped-for species in High Point were detectable if you got up early enough. But many were in a different mode than we see them in May or June.

[This adult male Chestnut-sided Warbler looks disheveled for two reasons. One, he's been busting his butt since May trying to raise young. Two, those feathers are loose and some are missing - after nesting, warblers go through a complete molt, gradually losing and replacing all their feathers. Most do this prior to migration. High Point over the weekend.]

[Before migrating, the adult Chestnut-sided Warbler will have molted into looking something like the bird immediately above, a study in lime and white, with a bit of chestnut along the sides. But this bird is a young  of the year, a young male Chestnut-sided Warbler showing just a trace of the chestnut signature. High Point last weekend.]

In NY's Adirondacks in late summer, where and when I spend a bit of time almost every year, local birds form mixed species flocks very similar to migrant flocks. I wondered if we would run into any of that in High Point in July, and we did - e.g. in one small area 2-3 Chestnut-sided Warblers, 4-5 American Redstarts and Black-and-whites, 2-3 Yellow Warblers, a Cerulean Warbler, several Red-eyed Vireos, and the "locals" - Black-capped Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches. We spend the early mornings in mixed mode, listening for singers and investigating sunlit corners for groups like this.

Perhaps the standout bird encounter, among many, was watching a flock of 40+ Baltimore Orioles make its way through the trees overhead, crossing Sawmill Road south of the campground in small groups so we could make a reasonably accurate count. I presume this was an accretion of local nesters from the High Point area. Migrant Baltimore Orioles don't appear in Cape May before mid-August as a rule.

It was also great to find evidence of Dark-eyed Junco nesting in NJ, in the form of an apparent family group near the top of the Blue Dot Trail, which runs uphill from the Sawmill Campground to where it joins the Appachian Trail. This is similar to other places I've found summer juncoes in NJ, e.g. the Catfish Fire Tower area farther south along the AT in Warren County.

 [Female Black-and-white Warbler finds the tiniest insect egg (I think) while gleaning along an oak branch.)]

It wasn't just birds, either, in High Point - mammals (Black Bears, of course, and others), butterflies, dragonflies, and wildflowers collectively made me rethink the customary May-June schedule for the area. Just go there, anytime you can. We'll stick to the warblers in this blog, more to follow on other birds, bugs, etc.

[Ahh, feels like late August in Cape May -  when this hatch year male American Redstart will very likely pass through, or at least over, my home county. We know it's a male because of the orange chest patches, and it must be a hatch year because an older male redstart would show black patches on the face and chest. And. . . ]
[. . . A bander's trick sometimes useful in the field, note how pointed the hatch year male American Redstart's tail feathers are. Adult warblers have more "truncate" tips to the tail feathers, meaning there is the appearance of a straight-cut feather tip, with corners both on the outside and the inside, not a sharp point.]

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"Much of environmental education today has taken on a museum mentality, where nature is a composed exhibit on the other side of the glass. Children can look at it and study it, but they can’t do anything with it. The message is: Nature is fragile. Look, but don’t touch. Ironically, this “take only photographs, leave only footprints” mindset crops up in the policies and programs of many organizations trying to preserve the natural world and cultivate children’s relationships to it. . . 

"Between the ages of six and twelve, children have an innate desire to explore the woods, build forts, make potions from wild berries, dig to China, and each of these activities is an organic, natural way for them to develop environmental values and behaviors. Instead, the “look but don’t touch” approach cuts kids off from nature, teaching them that nature is boring and fraught with danger. Inadvertently, these messages send children back inside to the dynamic interactivity of computer games. Could it be that our fear of litigation and our puritanical concerns for protecting each and every blade of grass are hampering the development of the very stewardship values and behaviors that we environmental educators all say we’re trying to foster? I believe so."
- David Sobel, in Orion Magazine. [We all need to read, and re-read this article, and then let our kids play in the woods - and lead them there to play if necessary. And remember and share how we played, hunted, fished, caught crayfish, got wet and muddy, and learned to love this earth and its creatures.]

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Baby Birds: Worm-eating Warbler

[It doesn't look like a baby, but it is - or more correctly, a hatch year bird, in "formative" plumage. Or, in simpler terms, a bird hatched and fledged this summer. This Worm-eating Warbler proved at least one pair of the species nested successfully in or near Bear Swamp, Cumberland County, NJ this year, where we caught it while operating our MAPS station last Sunday. Essentially adult-like, we knew it as a hatch year because of it's skull, which was not ossified (you can part the head feathers for a look), plus a few retained juvenile feathers and other in-hand characters. Off to Mexico! or the Caribbean Islands, or the lowlands of Central America. It will winter in one of these places, and, if it lives, perhaps return to Bear Swamp to breed next May.]

They're still in there, whether you detect them or not.

By "they" I mean all the wonderful forest nesters of south Jersey woodlands, like Worm-eating Warblers, or Summer Tanagers. But, get there after dawn, and the woods are silent. Most nesting has finished, adult birds are molting, and not much is singing. We banded a hatch-year male Kentucky Warbler on Sunday, and a hatch-year Ovenbird, too, plus the pictured WEWA.Nesting, by this small sample size, went well. And these recently fledged birds were either still in their nests or just out of them to endure the severe "direcho" storm of last week! Imagine being a baby bird, in the woods, in 80 mph wind, lightning, and hard rain.

Red-eyed Vireos still sing heartily for the first half-hour of day, then even they pipe down. Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-wills-widows sing pre-dawn, and both tanagers and almost all the other species of Bear Swamp vocalized at least a few times before 6:00 a.m. A pair of Broad-winged Hawks nested successfully in Bear Swamp too, judging by the begging calls of their young and annoyed-sounding cries of the adults off in the swamp.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Young Birds: Saltmarsh Sparrow

[Saltmarsh Sparrows, adult above and juvenile below. These were at Tuckerton, NJ along Great Bay Boulevard, on Saturday. Note in particular the much denser and more extensive streaking on the young bird, and the plainer face. Presumably, the upper bird is a female - a presumption made only because she seemed to care about what the youngster was doing. Saltmarsh Sparrows form no pair bonds, and the males take no role in rearing the young.]

When I see a young bird, I marvel that it has lived as long as it has, and imagine its next moves. In the case of this young Saltmarsh Sparrow, the moves may not be distant - it likely will linger near its current home in Tuckerton until September, and then move somewhere to the south along the coast, but not too far. The truth is, we don't really know, other than knowing that Saltmarsh Sparrows winter along the mid- and southern-Atlantic coasts. They are detected on the Cape May Christmas Bird Count most years, though in reduced numbers from those recorded in the last century. Your pick of this youngster's wintering destination is as good as mine: coastal North Carolina, perhaps? The BNA online account of the species notes, "A hatch-year bird banded in Ocean Co., NJ, on 11 Aug 1933 was recovered Jan 1934 in Pamlico Sound, NC (U.S. Fish and Willdlife Service)."

Or it could wind up in Florida. . .or in the belly of a Northern Harrier or Cooper's Hawk.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Night-herons Do, In Fact, Move

I pulled up next to a couple of Black-crowned Night-Herons parked next to Great Bay Boulevard near Tuckerton, NJ this morning, and leaned out the window for a chat. One of them seemed perturbed at my apparent intrusion and took wing, but the other said, "Oh, don't worry about him. Thanks, in fact - cuts down on the competition."

Nothing much happened for long minutes as we remained fifteen feet apart watching the light drizzle make little ringlets in the salt marsh ponds. Finally I said, "Dude, you know, I really admire you night-herons, but worry about you starving to death sometimes. At least you conserve energy - mostly when I watch you, you stand. The more I watch, the more you stand. Sometimes you do look down, real exciting stuff!" I winked at him to show I was kidding. "But seriously, how do you ever catch anything standing around like that?"

"Watch," he said. "I'll show you."

And then he stood stock still for a few minutes more, as if to test my patience. But eventually he took a long, slooowwww step towards the water, placing his foot ever so gently. Then another step. "By golly, you can move!"  "Shhhhhh," he said, "There are killies under this algae."

 In just a couple minutes he made it across two feet of salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), short form, to the edge of the pond. And then stared, and stared, and stared. . .

 . . . and then proceeded to do something that seemed kind of unusual. He inserted his bill through the algae lining the pond, and opened and closed it again, repeatedly. "Attracting fish, or what?" I asked.  "Shhhhhh," he said, the words making the water bubble slightly.

Eventually he closed his bill with an emphatic snap. Smoothly he lifted his bill out of the water, and sure enough he had one of the biggest killifish (or mummichog, Fundulus heteroclitus) I've seen clasped between his mandibles. Mummichogs rival fiddler crabs as the most important link between salt marsh productivity and predatory birds.

 In a second or two he'd swallowed the killifish, and stepped to a different spot to try his luck.

 "Nicely done! That Killie is nearly as big as the Spot I saw an osprey catch at Stone Harbor last week."

"Hmmph. Ospreys. They think they're so sexy. . . "

[Osprey with about as small a fish as Ospreys catch. My friend Sue Slotterback of the Nature Center of Cape May examined the photo and wrote me, "Hey, Don! That's a type of croaker called a Spot. See that spot above the gill and in between the base of the pectoral fin and the base of the dorsal fin?? Here's more info: .Great shot! That spot is a little guy! like a little goldfish cracker - only he's a little croaker cracker! :)"]

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

“What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?”
- E. M. Forster

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Watch for Color Banded Piping Plovers!

[This adult Piping Plover is a female from Stone Harbor that fledged one chick. She was photographed at Stone Harbor Point Monday night; her chick, also color-banded, has been re-sighted to the north in Avalon. The juvenile in the photo in the July 9 post (below), nicknamed "Meb," is a fledged chick from a nest in Avalon that until Sunday had not been seen at Stone Harbor Point.]

Researchers in the Avalon/Stone Harbor area are examining the movements of individual Piping Plovers, and welcome re-sightings. If you see a color-banded Piping Plover, note the color of the bands on both legs and please email: .

This work helps us understand where and when the plovers travel and will lead to more effective conservation in the face of development and other pressures.

Wordless Wednesday

Monday, July 9, 2012


 [Sanderling probes for food, Stone Harbor Point, NJ. Still mostly in breeding plumage, this bird has traveled a minimum of 1700 miles from its breeding ground north of Hudson Bay to get here.]

Nothing like a beach walk when the crowds have disappeared and the sun settles behind you. I hadn't walked Stone Harbor Point since. . . too long.

 [Semipalmated Plover, one of 20 or so at Stone Harbor Point tonight.]

 [Above, adult and below, juvenile: color-banded Piping Plovers at Stone Harbor Point.]

 [Two Western Willets tower over an Eastern Willet at Stone Harbor Point. Western and Eastern Willets are separate populations and maybe separate species. Many Eastern Willet adults have already pulled out and headed for South America, where they winter. Western Willets winter farther north, and some migrate to the mid-Atlantic coast before heading south. A mix of both forms foraged in the surf for mole crabs and other goodies at Stone Harbor Point tonight.]

 [This first summer Western Willet is in wing molt - and good thing, with such worn feathers!]

[Crab dinner for a Herring Gull.]