Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Storm Birds, Storm Birding

 ["Holy Smoke!" That was my reaction when my friend Erin Kiefer asked, via facebook, for help identifying this juvenile Red-billed Tropicbird - a howling rarity, apparent second state record - which was brought into the Woodford-Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge today. It was apparently found near Carney's Point, way up the Delaware Bay. Photo by Erin Kiefer.]

That Sandy made landfall north of Cape May spared us a great deal of flood damage (you DON'T want to be northeast of the eye, just ask NYC), but so far it seems it spared us spectacular birds.. . .

Well, except for the tropicbird, above, and a number of Band-rumped Storm-petrels reported around the state, and nice numbers of Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers.

Living as I do north of Cape Island, I was one of a number of birders who tried to get onto the island and failed. I'm a lousy liar - nope, no home or business in Cape May, just trying to go birdwatching. Got some nice police-officer smirks for that one. Oh well, there were birds along the bay, too, including both jaegers, plenty of gannets, all three scoters, and others at Miami Beach in the Villas.

With the intense rainfall, 10 or more inches on the bayshore, Fishing Creek is dumping water into the bay like crazy - and fish, baitfish that is, and the terns were concentrated at the outflow.

 [Forster's tern at Miami Beach, NJ in front of storm clouds.]

 [Northern Gannets were constant on the bay, many flying south toward the ocean close to shore.]

[Two geese, Brant over Canadas. Click to enlarge photos.]

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Day in Rocky

 [Sunrise, Upper Beaver Meadows, Rocky Mountain National Park, Oct 26, 2012. Beating the crowds, greeting the elk. Click to enlarge all photos.]

God, I love this place. Rocky Mountain National Park, that is. Which is why the stupid Hurricane Sandy just frosts me, forcing an early return to the east when I was supposed to have a couple days recharging and photographing in mountain paradise. Much as I miss my dear ones, a snowy Rocky is hard to leave.

But I had today. The dozen photos in this post were taken today, after about 3 inches of snow fell in the park last night and the temps dipped into the teens. That's the same weather now sweeping eastward that the over-dramatic forecasters fantasize about colliding with the hurricane and dumping 5 feet of snow on. . . someplace. Looks like Cape May will get wind, rain, and especially coastal flooding. My house is 9 feet above sea level and a half mile inland. And I've got two kayaks and a canoe and a dog that swims real well. . .

Right. Rocky. Today. Wonderful.

[A bull elk bugles at his harem, keeping them in line.]

[Winter wonderland, looking across Beaver Meadows towards Bear Lake country]

 [Clark's Nutcrackers buzz loudly like my grandmother's doorbell from a long time ago. This one does what they do, pry pine nuts from cones. Just outside the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.]

[Little troops of Pygmy Nuthatches were everywhere today, very much reminding me of the troops of Brown-headed Nuthaches that wander the pines of the Delmarva. Wonder how they'll fare with the hurricane, which is supposed to make landfall right there on the Delmarva Penninsula?]

[Female Red Crossbill, Type X. . . it sounded like, pfewp, pfewp, and seemed to enjoy the windblown snow whirling around it.]

 [Agile Mountain Chickadee. I love these guys, I think of them as the mounties of the mountains.]

[This Red-breasted Nuthatch provided the third checkmark for the Rocky Mountain Nuthatch sweep.]

[Female Mountain Bluebird.]

[This nice mule deer buck made me. . . hungry for venison, I must confess.]

[Bugling elk, swirls in rock.]

[Swift as a magpie the day departed. ]

"Fri-D" - of Races and Falling Down Mountains

 [Male American Three-toed Woodpecker, Rocky Mountain National Park, October 25, 2012. Note the essentially unstriped back, characteristic of the Rocky Mountain race of this species. Click to enlarge photos.]

At least I got a new pair of boots out of it.

Who would have thought an American Three-toed Woodpecker, a male for heaven's sake, would alight on a pine downhill of me, so as to be almost eye level. Let me explain: this bird is a pearl of great price almost anywhere it is found, often shifting old reliable locations to find new, freshly dead trees each year. I'd taken pains to pump the park naturalists for info on current locations for the bird, and here one dropped in front of me utterly unexpected while I hiked on a snowy afternoon above Little Horseshoe Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. All I needed to do was creep upslope of the trail a step or two to find an opening between branches, and a full-frame photo was mine. A snowy, slippery slope. I creeped, got the shot off, and promptly fell on my back, centering a rock with my spine in the process. Was it worth it? Hek, yeah, and on the way back to the hotel I picked up a primo pair of Lowa hiking boots (at a premium price, of course), dropping the sole-worn Timberlands in a dumpster on the way out.

Right. Fri-D. So one of the cool things about the Sibley guide, if you read the front matter, is the way he separates races geographically, and by extension, the way that explains variation because of isolation by geography. Thus, American Three-toed Woodpeckers (and Hairy Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches and others) of the mountain west look slightly different than races found elsewhere. See the pics and captions for details.

[White-breasted Nuthatch, Rocky Mountain National Park. If you are from the east it should look funny to you. In comparison with the eastern race, the back is too dark, flanks too dark and too rich with rust, and the black crown so narrow that it is better called a stripe than a cap.]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday - Black-billed Magpie

[Black-billed Magpie, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, October 22 2012.]

"If you miss this bird, you may want to take up another avocation."

-Harold R. Holt in A Birder's Guide to Colorado

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Why Never to Say, "Just a Yellow-rump"

 [Yellow-rumped Warbler, part of the masses sweeping through Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ in waves this morning. Click to enlarge photos.]

When confronted with a Yellow-rumped Warbler, my first response has long become, "I've never seen THIS Yellow-rumped Wabler before." An entire book could be written about the Yellow-rumped Warbler, not the species, but the one right there dashing past in morning flight with its thousands of brethren. Where did it hatch - Quebec? Maine? Alaska, even? Where will it winter, here in NJ or coastal North Carolina or. . . ? How many swipes from Sharp-shinned Hawks will it need to evade to get there?

No, don't take Yellow-rumpeds for granted. This is a special bird.

My daughter asked me how many were in the flight in Cape May this morning. I pondered a moment and said, 50,000. Shortly after the text message came through that Cameron had counted 20,000 in the first hour alone. Fantastic! Palm Warblers and a few Blackpolls and other species spiced the flight, but it was overwhelmingly dominated by this ubiquitous bird.

 [Two Yellow-rumpeds glean insects from an aster along the center trail at Higbee. I counted 100/minute passing through just this 20 foot wide space shortly after sunup.]

Hundreds of Pine Siskins and dozens of Purple Finches called overhead in Cape May ths morning, and a decent raptor flight was buildling.

 [Adult female Northern Harrier in front of the Cape May lighthouse this morning. Streaked below, without the tawny cast of a juvenile harrier.]

[This Eastern Meadowlark flew along the dunes at Capa May Point State Park this morning.]

In case anyone's wondering why I tweeted that today would be a big flight: Northwest winds hadn't started Friday night, which precluded a decent flight then. But the air cooled and northwest winds from the high pressure system building over the region blew all day Saturday and all night Saturday night. This is the weather pattern that most reliably puts birds in Cape May in the fall: an overnight of west-northwest winds after a period without them. Now, to get out there and find that Evening Grosbeak!

Friday, October 19, 2012

"Fri-D" - Cormorants

 [Immature Great Cormorant, left, and adult Double-crested Cormorant, right, from the Cape May Point hawkwatch, October 13 2012. Compare proportions, especially wing thickness and length, neck and head thickness. Click to enlarge photos.]

Plumage and bill/chin color differences are distinctive between the two eastern cormorants if you can see them well enough, which is often a big if. Cormorants tend to appear as distant lines of birds, or perched way out on buoys or jetties.

On plumage, young Greats have white bellies and brown necks, while that pattern tends to be reversed on Double-crested, with the belly being dark and the upper breast and neck pale - but see the juvenile Double-crested pictured below for a measurre of "caution advised." Greats always show a white chin, which of course stands out on the breeding adult, and the yellow/orange on the bare parts is confined to the chin and does not extend out to the bill as it does on Double-crested.

When they're together, Great is obviously bigger. It weighs almost twice as much, and while it averages only 3 inches longer in total length, it is proportionately longer winged (63 inches to 52 inches), and the wings on Great are broader, too. They both fly with a crook in the neck, but Great has a thicker neck and heavier head.

[Juvenile Double-crested Cormorant, one of the whiter ones with a white belly like Great - but the neck and breast are white, too. October 13, 2012 at Cape May Point, NJ.]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Shadow and Light

[Shadow and light.]

"What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is
your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.

I could explain this, but it will break the
glass cover on your heart, and there's no
fixing that.

You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.

When from that tree feathers and wings sprout on you,
be quieter than a dove. Don't even open your mouth for
even a coo."

- Rumi (1207 - 1273)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stalking the Wild Kinglet

[Six grams of bird (half the weight of a Yellow-rumped Warbler): Golden-crowned Kinglet, Stone Harbor, NJ today, with "prey." Click to enlarge.]

These fine-billed birds feed on the tiniest of insects, whether miniscule flies drawn to the "magic" Siberian Elms in Cape May  Point, or equally small insects in the grass next to Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary, where this kinglet charged me. Or, even better, simply ignored me lying prone in the grass watching its foraging progress.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Big Sit Dawn

 [Big Sitters 2012 face the rise of sun and  crescent moon. All photos Cape May Point, NJ this morning. Click to enlarge.]

When in the blue dawn of October friends gather, a crescent moon rises above the sun, sparrows murmur their good mornings, and trees swallows send their smoke signals, it is good to be alive. And a birder.

By 10:00 a.m., 120 species were recorded, along with many jokes and many cups of coffee. By day's end, 133 species. A fine day indeed.

 [Tree Swallow tornado rises and sends a smoke signal to the dawn.]

["There are 5 Bald Eagles in the air right now," said Vince. "Well, probably a lot more than that are in the air right now, but those are the ones we can see." This one, with dark belly and pefect new feathers, is a hatch year on its first journey south.]

Friday, October 12, 2012

"Fri-D" - Fall Female Warblers

[Cape May Warblers, first-year female (brighter than some first years) in the foreground and adult male in the background, September 29, 2012 in Cape May Point, NJ. Note the fish hook around the cheek on both. Click to enlarge.]

The confusing fall warblers are often females, especially first fall females. Female warblers in general usually look like muted versions of spring males, and in fall, they look especially muted, and if they're first years, even more so. For example, first fall Cape May Warbler females often show no yellow at all, so the one above is a nice one!

A helpful fact is that if you know the male patterns, you can look for the same patterns on females, only expect them to be subtle. The drabbest female Cape Mays may not have yellow, but they at least have the pale "fish hook" that goes under the cheek and around the back of the neck, a muted version of the strong yellow seen on adult males.

The neckband on Magnolia Warbler, the gray head and eyering on Nashville, the dark irregularly-shaped cheek on Blackburnian, the yellow face on Black-throated Green. . . all examples of features present on adult males that show, however subtly, on fall females.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Cyrano de Bergerac

[Wild Turkey, Forsythe NWR, September 26, 2012. Click to enlarge.]

"Does it seem strange: a hundred cutthroats against one poor poet? It is not strange. It is a minimal defense, mademoiselle--(Drawing his sword; quietly.)--when that poet is a friend of Cyrano de Bergerac."
- Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 1

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Kingfisher

[Nummy Island, Cape May, NJ October 3, 2012. Click to enlarge.]

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Feeling of November, and Finding Birds that Cooperate

 [My first Winter Wren of autumn chimp-chimped in the swamp along the railroad tracks in the back of the Beanery, Cape May, NJ before clambering up a leaning tree next to me. These guys can be like mice, not shy but creeping about in the brush and forest debris where you can't see them. Dark brown, shorter tailed and with a more obvious eyebrow than House Wrens, which have been common lately. Click to enlarge photos. ]

With temperatures staying in the 50's, and flocks of Pine Siskins and occasional Purple Finches in the air, it felt later in fall than it is today. A couple other late season migrants added to that feeling, those being my first Winter Wren and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers of the Cape May fall, both at the Beanery.

After joining a gathering of friends at Coral Avenue to watch Tree Swallows swirling over the dunes and Parasitic Jaegers harass the Forster's Terns and Laughing Gulls in the rips, a passing Eastern Meadowlark reminded me for some reason that I hadn't been to the Beanery in a while - probably because the Beanery is a good place to see meadowlarks.

It's also a good place to just creep about slowly, getting close to birds and watching them do what they do with generally less interference from other birders, a consideration on a holiday weekend in Cape May. I love birding with other people, but it has it limits, especially when you're trying to get pictures. Birders often complain about photographers scaring birds, and with good reason sometimes, but birders can be good at scaring birds, too.

A few warblers lingered at the Beanery, and I was in the right place at the right time for a distant look at the Swainson's Hawk that started at the hawkwatch and in a few minutes found its way up past Cameron at the Higbee dike and apparently "left the building," or at least the island, Cape Island that is. A persistently calling Gray-cheeked Thrush even let me have a brief look at it, though not a photo. Without trying particularly to run up a list I found 68 species in an hour and a half, pretty fun and a sign of a good day of migration. Even if it felt like November.

 [I saw both species of nuthatch catch and eat Red Admiral butterflies this morning. This White-breasted Nuthatch, much the scarcer species on Cape Island, especially this year, was at the Beanery. Click to enlarge photos.]

[A cooperative Tennessee Warbler in habitat you don't find them in in spring - a rank, weedy field of goldenrod and aster at the Beanery. This habitat is rich in insects, and can be better than the cedars or even "magic" Siberian elms of Cape May for some species, like Tennesees, Nashvilles, and the ever elusive Orange-crowned and Connecticut Warblers.]

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Siskin Morning and Fields Solid with Sparrows

 [Part of a group of Pine Siskins that dropped briefly in front of the hawkwatch, Cape May Point, NJ this morning, Sunday October 7, 2012. Click to enlarge photos.]

The main story of the day: Cameron Rutt counted 1129 Siskins at Morning Flight in Cape May, NJ today!

 [A piece of a siskin flock, this photo alone contains about 80 birds!]

 [And now we rewind to my feeders in Del Haven NJ and ask, did the juvenile Pine Siskin that appeared last summer, July 2-3, portend anything bigger? Answer is apparently yes!]

[Cedar Waxwing dines on my favorite invasive plant, multiflora rose, near the Cape May hawkwatch. Understand, I don't really like the stuff, but it provides valuable food and cover for wildlife, and doesn't invade wetlands or forests, just fields and edges.]

I really didn't know what to do this morning in the drizzle after an obvious overnight flight as shown on the radar. So, start with Higbee and go to Cape May Point after about an hour. That's always a solid plan.

Besides frequent flyover siskins and an occasional Purple Finch, the fields were solid with sparrows, solid enough that it took the whole hour to make my way up the east side of the first field and back down the west side of the tower field. Swamp and Song Sparrows were the most common, with plenty of White-throateds, a few Savannahs, and, interestingly, a significant smattering of House Wrens. Obviously a slug of this species joined the night flight last night.

At the state park in the drizzle a few falcons of all three species were in the air, some picking on Red Bats that were coming in off the water. And a few warblers gleaned insects near the hawkwatch pavilion, where a number of us gathered to stay out of the rain. But the siskins were the real story of the morning, enough so that I stopped at the hardware store on the way home for more thistle seed.

I really think tomorrow will be a fine day, though whether my tweeted Peregrine forecast comes true remains to be seen. A lot of birds will be around, we can be sure of that.

Friday, October 5, 2012

"Fri-D" - Caspian and Royal Terns

 [Caspian Tern, Nummy Island, Stone Harbor NJ, October 3 2012. Click to enlarge photos.]

If you wander about Stone Harbor Point, NJ, or other coastal points, this time of year, you'll find both of our large terns, Caspian and Royal. I happened to be standing on the free bridge north of Nummy Island, south of Stone Harbor, NJ last night (where I stand more than a habitat use analysis would statisically predict) and had mainly Caspians flying around, but some Royals, too. The bird above, a Caspian, identified itself with its sheet-ripping, scraping call, but its forehead seemed very white. Caspians are supposed to show at least dark stippling on the forehead year round, while Royals go most of the year with clean white foreheads, save when they are high-breeding plumage in early summer and have dark caps.

This is a good time to point out that just because you don't see a bird's field mark, it doesn't mean it isn't there. Like, this Caspian had dark stippling on the forehead (photo zoomed below) but you couldn't see it at a distance.

 [Same Caspian Tern showing dark stippling on the forehead, not evident at a distance.]

Compare the Royal Tern close-up below for the forehead pattern difference, and while you're at it, compare the bill color and size. The bill is slimmer than Caspian's - maybe hard to see with a fish in the way.

[Royal Tern showing white forehead, and thinner, oranger bill than Caspian.]

There are plenty of differences between Caspian and Royal Terns, from the calls (Caspians rasping and ripping to Royal's liquid ripppling) to the overall jizz of the birds, which is dramatically different. In a nutshell, Royal's are slim, thin and long-winged, Caspians are bulky broader-winged. Royals tend to inhabit beach and offshore, while Caspians are more likely to be seen over beach or inland, though there is plenty of overlap.

[Royal Tern. Note how the underwing tip is mostly white, with a dark trailing edge. Caspians have dark "mittens."]

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday


“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own