Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday - Grain from Chaff

[Field Sparrow sifts grain from chaff, Higbee Beach WMA NJ last weekend.]

This quote reminds me of friends around the holidays: friends I listen to, and especially friends who listen to me:

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.”
 - Mary Anne Evans (her pen name was George Eliot), 1819-1880


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Winding Down Fall with a Couple Rarities. . . and Some Beer

 [Ash-throated Flycatcher at Higbee Beach WMA, Cape May, NJ this morning. Click to enlarge photos.]

"I had just a remarkable morning today, Don," said Michael O'Brien when we met looking for the Greater White-fronted Goose that Tom Reed had seen drop into Lily Lake in Cape May (which we found, in the company of 4 Cackling-ish Geese, though those kept morphing into small but regular Canadas, which then made the white-fronted look too big - a story for another blog, maybe.)

"Yes? How so?" I asked.

"I saw almost no birds. I walked around the point looking for finches and there was nothing flying, no blackbirds, no robins, no finches. Maybe just a couple things, like one Yellow-rump, but essentially nothing."

This was almost identical to my experience at Higbee, where I went at a whim in the post-frontal strong west northwest wind of the morning, brought by the front that passed maybe a bit too late last night, but one that a month ago surely would have meant birds, birds birds. Higbee is where you go after a front first thing in the morning August-October, but in November I'm more prone to work the point or the Beanery.

The well is almost empty, the well from which pour birds from the north. So dry, in fact, that yesterday, instead of normal birding, we took a foggy ferry ride to Lewes, Delaware and from there drove on to Rehoboth and the wonderful Dogfish Head Brewpub and some wonderful eats and take-home Dogfish Head microbrews, one of which (the rare Burton Baton) graces the table next to me as I write (so don't blame me if I start slurring my words). Michael, Louise Zemaitis, Beth and I did bird about Cape Henlopen on the way back, encountering a fun little troop of maybe 8 Brown-headed Nuthatches, and Red-breasted, and other this and thats. . .not much, but enough. And gannets behind the ferry on the way home, at almost arm's length.

But this morning, with the front and a precious day off, I had to drag my lazy self out of bed and at least try the day, even thought the radar said little had flown. November, rarity month, come on Don, move it. Literally the first bird I set binoculars on was a Purple Finch, and the third was a Yellow-breasted Chat, both in the tower field at Higbee Beach WMA. But after that. . . .cardinals, Field Sparrows, white-throats, and eventually a text message from Tom that led us to the white-fronted goose.

I'd run into Nick Kontonicolas at Higbee, and we parted wishing each other an Ash-throated Flycatcher. Nick got the wish, with a great find on a bird that proved elusive, though we refound it briefly for a photo and a quick look before it disappeared, as far as I know, for good for the day. Michael and I had a flock of Red Crossbills at the entrance to the Higbee Field as we walked in, flyovers only.

 [Greater White-fronted Goose tells the Canadas what it thinks, Lily Lake, Cape May, NJ this morning.]

[The star bird of Cape Henlopen State Park, DE, a Brown-headed Nuthatch entertains us there yesterday. Combines well with Dogfish Head beer, brewed right there in Delaware. . .]

Friday, November 23, 2012

"Fri-D" - Cackling Goose

Check out the top center goose for two things: overall size and proportionate neck length. Go from it to other members of the flock and back again. Smaller, shorter necked - and part of the flock headed towards Lily Lake, Cape May, where this Cackling Goose has been spending time.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Lindbergh and Birds

"I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes."
 - Charles Lindbergh

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Adding it Up

 [Why I didn't linger on the Avalon jetty this morning. Click to enlarge all photos.]

Waves lashed against the jetty up at 8th Street in Avalon, NJ this morning, driven by a north wind that also chopped up the sea. Not the ideal birding conditions, though I did watch a Great Black-backed Gull ripping at a skate carcass and thought, big gull, big prey.

 [Common Loons in Great Channel, Stone Harbor NJ this morning. The bird in the foreground is in nearly full breeding plumage, while the back bird looks like they're supposed to now.]

Leaving Avalon, the gull, the skate, and a few waves of migrating scoters, the natural thing was to work south through Stone Harbor and Nummy Island. Common Loons foraged in the channels, suggesting that was where the prey was, though I saw none come up with food, so I can't say if it was fish or crabs they sought. A 4th year Bald Eagle tested the Atlantic Brant a few times before settling on a post, and I wondered how often eagles really kill brant. I don't know the answer.

 [4th year Bald Eagle, Nummy Island this morning.]

It was adding up to a not especially birdy morning, which is to say the species list wasn't long, the rarity list shorter, the light bleak and gray.

[Great Egret coming in for a landing.]

But birds were around, being birds, eating what they eat, fleeing what eats them, and I thought, as I often think and say, that the fun in birding starts when you've identified the bird, rather than ending there. There was plenty going on, plenty to think about and learn, and it added up to a fine morning of birds.

A couple American Oystercatchers waved white-striped wings as I crossed the toll bridge and headed home to ponder the yard White-throated  Sparrows. White-throats are common, and one reason is likely their versatility, feeding on a wide variety of fruits and seeds, both on the ground (which they prefer) and gleaning from shrubs.

 [Above and below, White-throated Sparrows. Above, eating Winged Sumac berries, below, kicking for seeds under my feeder. Versatile feeding habits = common. Think whitethroats, yellow-rumps, Herring Gulls, chickadees. . . .]

[This juvenile Cooper's Hawk did the classic thing, sweeping the feeders clean of activity and keeping it that way by perching on the neighbor's fence. Del Haven today. Look at those big feet.]

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Fri-d" - Scaup

[Lesser Scaup, South Cape May Meadows, NJ, November 10, 2012. Click to enlarge.]

You should use every field mark at your disposal when you identify a bird. When identifying scaup, you must use every field mark, and use them carefully. Here's how to identify these Lesser Scaup.

Head shape: The word rounded is too imprecise when dealing with scaup head shape. The question is, where is the peak of the head, and what happens behind that? On Lesser Scaup, the peak is rear of the eye, and often the head looks flat-topped, and often there is a pointy peak at the rear of the crown. The left bird, sleeping, looks perfect for Lesser Scaup. The right bird's head shape is different - and you have to learn to be okay with that, the scaup change their head shape depending on what they're doing - but ask yourself, where is the peak of the head? Answer is a little behind the eye, and the top of the head is flat. Greater Scaup often gives a look where there is a peak in the height of the head over or even in front of the eye, and then the top of the head slopes downward towards the rear from there.

Size: If you were tempted to call these two different species because of the different head shapes (and the species do mix freely), consider this: they're the same size. Side by side, Greater looks 10-20% bigger than Lesser, because it is.

Bill: the bill of the right bird looks small enough for a Lesser.

Back: the barring on the back of Lesser is coarser, and they're also more prone to having dark vermiculations on the flanks, looking less clean white than Greater.

Where: These two were in the center pool of the South Cape May Meadows, which is relatively shallow and a relatively small body of water. This leads one to think Lesser Scaup, which on average like smaller water. This is an imperfect field "mark" to be sure, since both can be on big or small water, but I watched these birds dive here. They were happy on the small water, comfortable. Greaters might wind up on small water, but like it less.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Dive

He who would search for pearls must dive below.
- John Dryden

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Creeper, Kinglet, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush. . .or, November

 [This Winter Wren hopped its way under the boardwalk at Cape May Point State Park, NJ, and hopped up on the other side. All photos November 10, 2012 in Cape May; click to enlarge.]

Today, Saturday November 10, was a quintessential November morning with some added spice at Cape May Point State Park - the title species, which just say late fall, plus flyovers of all the finches except, funny enough, Purple, meaning both Crossbills, Siskins, and Evening Grosbeak. A singing Fox Sparrow. A single Snow Bunting pfewing its way down the dunes. As I said to Mike Crewe as he leaned over the hawkwatch platform to greet me, for a non-spectacular day it's pretty spectacular. I wound up with 70 species in an hour and a half at the park, without particularly trying.

 [I never stop marvelling at Yellow-rumped Warblers and how they can find food anywhere, in this case between the slats of the Cape May Point State Park boardwalk, a tiny spider.]

 [Close-up of the Yellow-rump above and its spider.]

 [The rising, loud seep of this White-crowned Sparrow's flight call made me stop, thought the bird was perched in a bush, not flying. Click to enlarge and note how its got a seed in its bill, with just the downy parachute hanging out.]

[Another bit of spice, and a year bird. White-winged Doves have been reported on and off all fall, as far north as Tom Reed's feeder on Reed's Beach Road, with this one visiting a feeder on Yale Avenue in Cape May Point this morning.]

Friday, November 9, 2012

"Fri-D" - Cooper's Hawk vs. Northern Goshawk

 [Top, juvenile Cooper's Hawk, Cape May Point, NJ, October. Bottom, juvenile Northern Goshawk, Cape May Point, November. Both in more or less shallow glides. Goshawk looks the part. Click to enlarge photos.]

If you weren't sure if it was a Cooper's Hawk or a Northern Goshawk, it was a Cooper's Hawk. There, that's simple, isn't it?

But seriously, Coop's are much more common and Gos' really looks the part. I think many reported Goshawks are Cooper's injected with observer hope, so in part this post is a public service. Believe me, I'm tempted too - who doesn't want to report that big, charismatic northern raptor?

Goshawks are big, buteo size, and Cooper's are not. But let's leave size out of the equation since that admittedly is hard to judge, and female Coop's are pretty big, bigger at least than male Coop's. But compare some other field marks (and I suggest, as usual, moving your eyes back and forth between the photos as you compare each mark):

Streaking: dense, heavy, and throughout the underparts on Gos; finer, lighter, and concentrated on the chest on Cooper's.

Tail: Broad (!), variable shape on Gos; narrow and longer looking on Cooper's.

Body: Heavy and tubular on Gos; slimmer and more tapered on Cooper's.

Head: Perhaps surprisingly, appearing proportionately smaller and sticking out less on Goshawk, mainly because the Goshawk body is so big.

Wing shape: more pointed on Goshawk, which has a tapered "hand." Use a little caution comparing wing shape in these photos, since their not in exactly the same posture.

Seems like it's a good year for Goshawks, with 23 counted through November 6 at the Cape May Hawkwatch. Hope you get one or two or more!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday: Hunger

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012


The title is offical counter's Tom Reed's word, so I don't know if I spelled it right. But the hawkwatch in Cape May, NJ sure enough goodenified as the day unfolded. New Red-shouldered Hawk single day record, multiple Goldens and multiple Goshawks, finches flying over it all and ducks on the pond in front. All the photos below were taken from the hawkwatch platform.
 [Above and below, immature Northern Goshawk. I wouldn't want to be at the bottom of that stoop!]

 [Above and below: Golden Eagle (s).]
First thing this morning I snuck around the South Cape May Meadows, where the number of Song and Swamp Sparrows was almost funny. Among them was a Grasshopper Sparrow, which I did not text out for fear of it being trampled by searchers (you're not supposed to leave the paths at the meadows anyway, but you know how that goes). A Hooded Merganser rocketed overhead, and a Goshawk coursed down the duneline hunting.
[Adult Red-shouldered Hawk over the hawkwatch platform with vultures.]

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Hurricane of Birds

 [Pearls of great price, three Evening Grosbeaks over Cape May Point, NJ this morning. Click to enlarge all photos.]

What passed over Cape May Point this morning cannot be put into pictures, and probably not words, either. Waves of robins - I dunno, 80,000? Similar numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds, in tight flocks storming the dunes, parting around us. Waxwings, let's say 10,000? Pine Siskins - 3,000? More? Michael O'Brien clicked over 300 White-winged Crossbills, and there were way, way more Siskins. And Red Crossbills, and just a spicing of Evening Grosbeaks, the first I've seen in NJ in something like 15 years. We collected on the dunes of Cape May Point, and hardly used binoculars, gaping open-mouthed at the spectacle.

It should be noted that most of the fancy finches in this post were detected by ear first - learning those ringing, zinging calls is the way to detect these things. I can't wait for deer season, because with this many finches around, who knows what full days of listening from a tree stand in the woods of north Jersey will bring?

What brought it to Cape May was stiff west-northwest wind at the beginning of November. Other fancy stuff I saw included Golden Eagle from the hawkwatch and an Orange-crowned Warbler in the first hedge at the Beanery. I was not there for the Franklin's Gull seen from the hawkwatch first and dunes later, nor for the White-winged Dove or Scarlet Tanager in Cape May Point. We all wondered how many birds we were missing - can you imagine, given these?

Lest it be forgotten, Scott Whittle compared Purple Finch calls to Dolphins clicking, perhaps the first time such comparison has ever been drawn. . .

 [Male and female White-winged Crossbills over Cape May Point today. Your looking for a bird slightly bigger than a siskin with big old wing bars and the voice of stones skipped on ice - chew, chew, tschew, something like that.]

[This Purple Finch was so hungry it fed unabated at point blank range on multiflora rose hips at the Beanery, never even cleaning its bill between berry bites.]

 [Sam Galick pointed out this Blue-headed Vireo, getting late for this species, at the Cape May Point dunes.]

[Big flights are not without carnage. This Red-winged Blackbird was brought up by a local resident, apparently hit a wire and fell from the skies. Road-killed robins were all too evident along local roads and the Garden State Parkway today - insignificant compared to the volume of the flight, but I feel for each one.]

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thoughtful Thursday - Safety

"Safety is an illusion. Obsession with safety is a weakness."