Saturday, September 29, 2012

Blackpoll Morning, Karl's Place, and Monarchs

 [The bird of the day: Blackpoll Warbler, one of thousands at Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ today, Saturday Sept. 29, 2012. Click to enlarge photos.]

If you see a flock of 40+ birds rising over the trees, and you at first think they are warblers, your mind recalibrates. They can't be warblers, right? Must be blackbirds or waxwings or something. Warblers don't fly in flocks of 40.

Yeah they do. Or did, today. Morning flight in Cape May was mind bending, and from our vantage did indeed feature multiple flocks containing dozens of Blackpolls plus many other species. Well, not exactly flocks, I don't think warblers really flock, they just find themselves in the same place at the same time going the same direction sometimes. It was a blackpoll morning - just ask Cameron Rutt, who had the challenging job of counting morning flight today, including the biggest movement of Blackpolls in Cape May ever, that I'm aware of.

I especially admire Blackpolls, long-distance migrant champions when it comes to warblers, breeding far north and wintering in the Amazon basin. It's a journey of 5,000 or more miles one way for some Blackpolls, including for many a flight over the western Atlantic on their way south that can exceed 1800 miles nonstop. No wonder their wings are so long!

Today was a flight day in Cape May. Northwest winds following a front that cleared yesterday evening made it happen. Someone asked me how many species of warblers I saw today. That's almost like asking about someone's life or year list - pretty personal question.  But like with any other list, I as usual had no idea what the number was (numbers are just numbers, but birds are birds), but couldn't think of any I was "supposed" to see in late September that I didn't. The actual number seems to be 24, accrued between Higbee Beach WMA, Sea Grove Ave., the state park, and around Lily Lake. Not bragging - the birds were putting themselves in front of anyone looking. Particularly along Sea Grove Avenue where something like 40 birders eventually accumulated in the vicinity of Karl Lukens' house, to greet him when he returned from leading a local walk. . . .Sea Grove Ave. happened to be hot today, not exactly a typical Cape May hotspot the way Lily Lake, Higbee or Cape May Point State Park can be, but the birds were finding food there and staying as a result.

 [Northern Waterthrush in Karl Lukens' driveway today.]

 [Karl, are you home? Black-throated Blue Warbler peers into Karl Luken's window.]

 [Veery in hedge between houses along Sea Grove Ave., Cape May this morning.]

Several thousand birds later, no lie, I followed Vince Elia's lead and went home for a lunch break and tried to nap, but when a Tennesee Warbler and 3 Red-eyed Vireos tussled for space at the bird bath, I knew there would be no resting until dark. Vince does a "stay-cation" in Cape May each fall, and just started this year's. Can you say jealous?

We'll spot a few more warblers from today on the blog later this week, probably including Pine and Cape May for the "Fri-D" blog.

 [Tennesee Warbler through my window screen, on the bird bath today.]

And, oh yes, the Monarchs moved too!

[Between 2,000 and 3,000 Monarchs roosted this evening at the south end of Cape Avenue, where it meets the dunes at Lincoln Ave. in Cape May Point.]

Friday, September 28, 2012

"Fri-D" - Bay-breasted V. Blackpoll Warblers

 [Above, first fall Bay-breasted Warbler, Cape May Point State Park, NJ, Monday, September 24, 2012. Below, first fall Blackpoll Warbler, Cape May Point, October 2011. Click to enlarge, and compare underparts color, upperparts color, wingbars, face.]

When you bump into one of these drab, wing-barred fall warblers, how (after making sure it's not a Pine Warbler) do you tell which of this famously challenging pair you have?

Leg color works when you can see it, which you can't well enough on the upper bird. By well enough we mean seeing the feet, and specifically the soles of the feet. Blackpoll often has yellow legs, almost always has yellow feet, and always has at least yellow soles of the feet, while Bay-breasted has dark legs and feet.

Underpart color is very usueful, with Blackpoll less richly colored and with clean white undertail coverts. This Bay-breasted, probably a female, isn't showing much of anything in the way of bay on the flanks, maybe just a tinge of pinkish, but has more extensive yellowish buff below. And above, too - upperpart color on Blackpoll is grayer, and they have a grayish neck compared to Bay-breasted's yellowish buff.

Compare the wingbars - Bay-breasted's are wider, a very good clue. Compare the face pattern - subtly different, with Blackpoll having a more defined eyeline and Bay-breasted a more obvious yellowish eyebrow.

You'll read how Bay-breasted either has no streaking above, or has fainter streaking, but clearly that isn't working here. Ditto streaking below, with both birds showing muted streaks. This is a mark I've cooled on over the years.

As with anything else, collect multiple field marks before making your call.

[Below is an easier fall Bay-breasted, a male, probably first year, photographed the same day and place as the Bay-breasted above.]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[A Palm Warbler that, as songbirds do,  flew through the night: Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ morning flight, Sept. 24, 2012.]

"Heights by great men reached and kept were not obtained by sudden flight but, while their companions slept, they were toiling upward in the night."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What a Day + Warbler Faces

[I wonder how many people saw this Black-throated Green Warbler next to the hawk watch pavilion in Cape May Point State Park, NJ Monday morning. It was one of at least two that spent the day there. Very yellow face, with muted dark cheek.]
"Don!" Richard Crossley's voice was quietly urgent, and when I looked up from chatting about what an incredible day it was, he nodded towards the pine bough behind me with a knowing photographer's smile. I turned, and there was the cooperative Black-throated Green Warbler at arm's length.
Cameron Rutt did a fine job summing up Monday, the recipe for which by the way, reads like this:
  • Late September
  • Cold front the day before
  • Continuing west northwest winds
  • Cape May, NJ
  • (optional) some kind of insect hatch near the Cape May ponds for warbler food.
  • Mix the above, and take the day off.
After morning flight, like Cameron I spent much of the day pursuing warblers around Cape May Point, especially in the cedars near the hawk watch platform and also around Lily Lake, two places that often shine throughout the day, not just in the morning (and often not even in the morning, as birds seem to find these spots later in the day and linger to feed.)
There's sometimes a bit of bird desperation in these venues, with people rushing here and there to see a bird heard about. My advice is to be patient, let the birds appear in front of you, and stay on the edges of the habitat, not in it - give the birds room to forage on the edge, and they'll come to the edge.
 [A number of people called this bird a female Blackburnian Warbler, but it's actually a fairly typical Pine Warbler. The yellow is too extensive and not the unique kind of peachy color of a Blackburnian, and the face pattern, with yellow eye arcs and supercilium forming a yellow spectacle, wrong for Blackburnian. But, I understand - everyone wants a Blackburnian, and one had been seen nearby (see below). Next to the Cape May Point State Park Hawk Watch pavilion on Monday.]

Nate Swick wrote a blog recently about how fall warblers aren't confusing. I tend to agree, with certain exceptions like "Baypolls" (Bay-breasted and Blackpoll, perhaps a candidate for this week's "Fri-D" blog.) Look carefully at warbler faces, and you'll see even in fall the pattern, however muted, of spring males. Most of the time.

 [In the evening this genuine female Blackburnian Warbler came to the edge of the Cape May Point State Park cedars to feed. Besides the yellow throat (just throat), look carefully at the face for the characteristic Blackburnian dark cheek-with-a-hook.]

[I had to go over to Lily Lake to find this Cape May Warbler. Streaked breast with yellow (but some females show no yellow), yellow or at least pale frame below and behind the dark cheek.]

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Zzeep + Tomorrow

 [Blackpolls, strong fliers that they are even at 5 1/2 inches long, highlighted this morning's flight at Higbee Beach in Cape May, NJ. A small number of them, with other species mixed in. Tomorrow? Best flight of year for warbler abundance and diversity? Date and weather are both right.]

Front passed too late last night, wait until tomorrow, blah blah. ..  but it's not blah blah when it comes to tomorrow, i.e. Monday September 24, late September and great weather conditions leave us pretty excited. The Zzeep is for the high buzz flight note of Blackpoll warbler, one bird that flew last night and was in evidence this morning, both at morning flight and in Cape May's copses.

 [Blackpoll Warbler, Cape May Point State Park this morning. Green back with streaks, yellow breast with faint streaks, bright white undertail coverts, with yellow feet clinching separating it from Bay-breasted.]

 [A flycatcher with especially long wings - Eastern Wood-pewee at the Higbee Beach, NJ dike this morning.]

 [Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk , upper bird, hassles a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk, this morning over the hawk watch platform in Cape May Point State Park. An ace-in-the-hole field mark on distant backlit raptors is this: buteos show hard dark tips to the flight feathers, accipiters do not. Proportions also differ, obviously.]

[Long-tailed Skipper, a pretty southern vagrant, one of over a dozen haunting Cape May Point gardens this morning.]

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Awareness on Southeast Winds

[Peregrine Falcon hunting the south Cape May, NJ beach. Beach goers: clueless. I think this youngster was catching locusts, and perhaps even pursuing some ghost crabs on the beach.]
Yeah, the weather kind of sucked from migration's standpoint today, but it was pleasant nonetheless to walk the four miles from the South Cape May Meadows parking lot to and along the beach to the State Park trails, and back past Lily Lake and along Sea Grove and Sunset Boulevard. About 60 bird species graced this path today, of which the dark Parasitic Jaeger far off the meadows beach and the calling Sora along the blue trail at Cape May Point State park were highlights. But everything's a highlight with the right attitude. Even clueless people.
I think normal people are just generally clueless when it comes to the natural world, and it's not their fault so I can only feel sympathy for beachgoers who miss the Peregrine at arm's length, let alone failing to notice that funny gull with the yellow legs. To the rest of us, let's just remember to treasure and hone all our senses always, to be soft spoken, soft-stepped, and vigilant with eyes and ears, lest you be like the couple walking just ahead of me in the state park who seemed not to notice the Merlin perched over their heads, or the juvenile mockingbird I was photographing when they walked past with their binoculars at the ready for something interesting.
[Continuing the shades of gray theme from "Fri-D," here we have three gray shades of gulls - pale Herring Gull gray on the left, Great Black-backed Gull almost black on the right, and in the middle, the mid-toned Lesser-black-backed Gull, this one an adult-like 4th cycle with yellow legs. All pics are from Cape May this morning, click to enlarge]
I dunno. . .I'm not the greatest birder but I am thankful for a youth spent honing awareness of the natural world, of small movements and critters out of place or of interest to the then-, and now-, hunter. Today, hunter of photos and birds of interest.
[The briefly held juvenile plumage of Northern Mockingbirds bears the breast spots of other thrushes. Along the Cape May Point State Park Blue trail today.]
Looks to me like tomorrow and Monday even the casual observer is going to notice some serious bird movement thanks to an approaching cold front. Monday off? Maybe. I've never regretted using benefit time when it looked like something was going to happen, even if it didn't, but oh how I've pained over missed flights. Depends, as it so often does, on the weather, one more thing to be carefully aware of.
[The Peregrine and Cape May Point Lighthouse shot.]

Friday, September 21, 2012

Chaos on BS Mountain

Friends, I'm but a simple naturalist, but I feel compelled to share this report. . .

"Fri-D" - Shades of Gray: Lesser Black-backed Gull

[Second year Lesser Black-backed Gull, Stone Harbor Point, NJ, September 19 2012. Click to enlarge.]

Reasons this bird is a Lesser Black-backed Gull:

1. The gray adult-like feathers on the upperparts are too dark for Herring, too light for Great Black-backed.
2. The heavy streaking on the head and neck rule out Great Black-backed, which is white-headed in all plumages.
3. The bill pattern, with extra black on the bill, is typical for LBBG.
4. It's foraging in the swash line, which LBBG's love to do, at least in southern NJ.
5. It's shaped right, with a lot of bird sticking out to the rear of the legs - long rear end, long wings.

There was a more adult like, third year LBBG at Stone Harbor the same day.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

"Wine is bottled poetry."  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

"We outgrew some countries and went to others, but beer was still a bloody marvel."
- Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Hawks in Flight Second Edition: What Jeff Said

I got my review copy of the new Hawks in Flight (2nd edition) a few days ago, and discovered, like Jeff Bouton, that the text is not changed very much, at least on first inspection, and the original art is also not altered, though it is displayed differently, bigger and better. But with the addition of excellent photos with the species accounts, and of species not covered in the original classic, you're probably going to want it. Except maybe if, like me, you pretty much memorized the first edition. There are nits to pick, like range maps would have been nice even though they're available elsewhere; or that some information could have use some form of summary treatment, like a table (accipiter differences, for example); or that it would have been a great opportunity to include more photos with multiple species shown in the same photo (there are just a handful), perhaps adopting the quiz approach used in The Shorebird Guide. Read Jeff's review for more, then go buy your copy. Disclaimer: a few of my photos are in the new edition.

About What You'd Expect

[Ovenbird, first thing in the morning at Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ. It's always fun to see these strange little warblers during migration - to me it's like seeing a different animal than the forest bird singing teacher teacher TEACHER TEACHER in springtime. Now they're quiet, mysterious. This is a cropped image at ISO 6400 for the photographers in the crowd, taken when it was almost dark. Click to enlarge all images.]

In a very typical Vince Elia understatement, today the birds were about what you'd expect for September 16 in Cape May. Really good, in other words, though the winds fizzled overnight, so while landbirds were pretty strong at Higbee and Cape May Point State Park, hawks did not materialize. That wind link is a cool little realtime map, by the way, fun!

My day began with nocturnal listening - observers hooked into the nocturnal flight calls listserve reported the heavy migration that was also obvious on radar, and indeed, along Delaware Bay I heard about 15 calls a minute, with many Swainson's Thrushes, a few Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Veeries, and miscellaneous warblers. I also heard two American Bitterns squawk their nocturnal flight note, which sounds like, well, squawk, or awwk.

The thrushes heard near dawn were food for thought, because you know they put down somewhere, and yet good luck finding them. We saw one Swainson's and heard a couple Veeries at Higbee, and that's it, thrush wise.

[Magnolia Warbler at Higbee this morning.]

At Higbee, there were many birds in the fields the first couple hours of daylight, and they were passing less frantically than usual thanks to the absence of wind. I had about 17 warbler species on the day, and most were at Higbee, though the state park added a few birds. I opted to skip morning flight, instead wandering the fields with my son Tim and many, many mosquitoes.

[My first southbound Ruby-crowned Kinglet of fall, at Cape May Point State Park today. Shades of October.]

[I think this female Blackburnian Warbler was my favorite bird of the day, in part because it spent so much time working a persimmon tree with fruits and turning leaves the color of its breast. Red Trail, Cape May Point State Park.]

 [The rare bird of the morning, a Clay-colored Sparrow that hung out at the brushpile along the dune trail at Cape May Point State Park. Tell from Chipping by the strong face pattern, especially the white malar and strong dark moustachial line, and the buffy breast. Something was going on at the brushpile, in the form of bugs coming out of it, because birds were on it all the time, including up to 5 Yellow Warblers at once and a similar number of Palm Warblers.]


Friday, September 14, 2012

"Fri-D" - Juvenile Shorebird Generalities


 [Juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher, Scarborough Marsh, ME las week. Click to enlarge all photos.]

If you've spent any time lately looking at shorebirds in the northeast, one thing you may have noticed is that they're mostly juveniles now that it's September.  If you feel a little sketchy about aging shorebirds, it's not all that hard. Start perhaps by checking out the big Sibley guide, page 181, for a typical progression of plumages as illustrated by Western Sandpiper. As Sibley notes, "Fresh juvenal plumage is characterized by uniform feathers, often with bright pale fringes, and scapulars and wing coverts that are shorter and more rounded than the same feathers in adults.

When looking at details like this, it is helpful to have a good grasp of feather tract names and locations. A particular use for this kind of information is found in the tertial feathers of the juvenile dowitcher above - if you can find them (laying over the wing tips at the rear of the bird), you will see they are heavly marked with bright cross-hatching and internal markings, which means this must be a Short-billed Dowitcher. Juvenile Long-billed tertials are marked only along the edges - but this only works on juveniles, so you still have to age them.

Anyhow, have a look at these three juvenile shorebirds for the commonalities of this age's plumage. All were photographed in Maine last week.

Why is it mostly juveniles now? Because the adults came through in July and August. In many shorebird species, adults depart the breeding grounds in advance of juveniles, and the bulk of adults stay ahead of the juvs on the southbound journey. When you see adult shorebirds in September or later, and you certainly will, you can guess that these individuals will be wintering more or less locally, at least not all the way down in South America. There are exceptions, of course - nature's like that.

 [Juvenile Black-bellied Plover. Caution - some juv black-bellies are spangled gold above (though not so much this one), suggesting golden-plover to the unwary.]

[Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper. Look how neat, even, rounded, and fringed the wing covert feathers are, creating a scaly effect typical of juvs.]

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday

[Black-throated Green Warbler, Portland ME last week.]

"The power to question is the basis of all human progress."
- Indira Gandhi

Monday, September 10, 2012

It Would Be Cool to Have a Scar from a Warbler

 [The bird of the morning: a tiny Northern Parula passes the Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ dike today, where we sometimes had small flocks of them, and several times had this species and other warblers weave in and out between us human observers.]

"Yeah, this one is from the redstart flight of August, 2009. They told us not to go up there, but someone had to count."

I'm not sure who started the warbler scar conversation this morning, but it was apt enough, as Northern Parulas, Black-and-whites, redstarts, Palms, at least one Connecticut, Blackpolls and many others jetted past into the steady north northwest wind, sometimes at arm's length. One could easily imagine a collision. . .

Let me explain something, though. You probably won't like watching morning flight from the Higbee dike. First of all, it's not normally as bird-full as it was today, which had the perfect weather and wind to bring a good flight, not to mention a perfect early September date. The only way you might like the dike is if you are extremely quick of eye and binocular, and at that, still okay with leaving most birds unidentified. And the regulars at the dike are certainly friendly, but don't say much - too busy concentrating on this most difficult birding of all. Better to watch for birds perching briefly from the morning flight platform at Higbee, or better still to walk the fields.

It was a fine morning for birds, wherever you were.

 [Black-and-white in a glide between wingbeats.]

[Male Black-throated Blue Warbler. Scott Whittle and I had one hover right in front of us, such a cool, unusual look we burst out laughing at the wonder of it.]

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Waterthrush Morning

[A Northern Waterthrush pauses in the Tower field at Higbee Beach WMA, NJ this morning. Click to enlarge photos.]

Northern Waterthrushes seemed to dominate the morning flight at Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ this morning, though I'll leave it to Vince Elia, who was counter of record this morning, to post the final numbers. Northern Parula was at least a close second, if it didn't "win" the count champ for the morning. It wasn't a massive movement, one would figure that's because the front didn't get ahead of the birds far enough and not many wound up out over the ocean, which is where Cape May morning flight birds seem to come from in large measure (see radar, below.)

It's a waterthrush evening, too, since one is calling in my postage stamp backyard habitat now, as light fades.

One could have called it Veery morning, because they were calling everywhere in the woods at Higbee Beach WMA, NJ this morning, not to mention over the house pre-dawn, and I find that my house is not even in a place where nocturnal migrants often give voice.

Or Blackpoll morning, because there were a lot of them at the Higbee dike and a few in the fields - and many more to come. Ditto, Northern Parula. Double ditto, Red-eyed Vireo, which probably was the bird we laid eyes on most often in the fields.

Or Yellow morning, because there were a lot of them, and their numbers are fading. Or Worm-eating morning, because one teed up in a cherry at Morning Flight to the delight of all.

Or, simply, a good morning. And tomorrow looks to be better, in case you can get the day off ;>).

 [Probably the last Orchard Oriole we'll see this year. This species, a fairly common local breeder, clears out early.]

 [Southern disperser: Cloudless Sulphur pauses at Higbee this morning. A good-sized butterfly, wonderful green-yellow above; about silver dollar sized.]

[Great Blue Skimmer at Higbee Beach WMA, NJ this morning. One of my favorite bugs - eat more mosquitoes, please!!!]

Birds Migrate Right Behind Front

This is awesome - the front passing is the junk on the radar to the right, over the water, and the birds are the blue (heading towards the station) and yellow-red (heading away, i.e. south) at left center. This is 5:00 a.m. this morning. Looks like there should be birds in Cape May this morning, off to find out!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Another Cool Scarborough Marsh Bird

[Juvenile American Golden-plover, flushed by a Merlin at Scarborough Marsh, Maine today. Look how long this bird's wings are, particularly in the hand - compare, for example, with the Semipalmated Plover in the foreground. The wing of a long-distance migrant. Click to enlarge.]

Whimbrel v. Peregrine

Like a boxer with longer reach (=long, sharp bill) than his opponent, this Whimbrel stood his ground and wielded his bill against a stooping Peregrine Falcon at Scarborough Marsh, ME today. The Peregrine made 5 passes at the Whimbrel, but eventually gave up. Here's one attempt:
 ["You want a piece of this?!"]

["Yeah, I'm bad!"]