Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday

[Gadwall, Cape May Point State Park, NJ, June 15 2013.]

"When life bites you in the ass, bite back."
- anonymous

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Clapper Rail Takes a Swim + Belleplain Hike + How Most of the Photos in This Blog Happen

[This Clapper Rail was trading squawks with another, then emerged from the Spartina to swim down a channel at Forsythe NWR, NJ yesterday. Notice how plain the back looks, unstreaked compared with the obviously streaked back of King Rail, which has been reported in the west pool at Forsythe this week. Click to enlarge photo.]

This morning I mustered the ambition for a 5 a.m. departure and an 8-mile trail hike at Belleplain State Forest, NJ. Why? Well, for one thing I'm off to Montana next week for some wilderness training, and the hike was a too-little-too-late effort to remind my legs what covering ground at a faster than birding-crawl pace feels like. Also, I wanted to find out the state of the 17-year cicadas, and see and hear some breeding birds and their babies.

The cicadas have really wound down, with just a few individuals calling, but as to the bird babies, I was not disappointed. I think my favorite was the dark-eyed White-eyed Vireo fledgling  following Dad from branch to branch at close range, scolding at me while Dad occasionally sang. I had the camera, but it was in the daypack and stayed there for this "serious" hike, which means I got no pictures of the vireos, nor of the cuckoos, or the young Ovenbird, or the Summer Tanagers . . .

Which was dumb, carrying a camera where you can't get at it, and leads me to a rumination. People occasionally ask me how I get the photos I get, but most of the time when they're asking that they really want to know what kind of camera and lens I have. I'll tell you what kind of camera I have in a minute, but the most important answer to "How do you get your photos?" is, "I carry my camera ready all the time, and usually remember to have it set correctly for the conditions." Well, that and I get out in the field as much as I can, and get close to cool birds!

Take the Clapper Rail photo in this blog. I'd heard the bird, and knew it was close, but wasn't exactly expecting it to slip into the channel and start swimming in front of me. When it did, there were about 10 seconds of time when it was in a good spot for a pictures, and in those seconds I managed to draw my camera and shoot a dozen or so frames. The reason that worked out is because the camera hangs at my side on a Black Rapid strap pretty much whenever I'm in the field, and because my basic favorite bird settings for my set-up are programmed into the "U1" user-defined presets bank, which is how I leave the camera set when I'm not expecting a flight shot (for which I have programmed the "U2" presets bank, which I can switch to with a twist of a dial).

About the camera (even though it's NOT about the camera), for birds I use a Nikon D7000 body,  most often with a Nikon 300mm F4 ED lens, and most often with the Nikon 1.4X teleconverter. This is not the set-up I would use if I were rich, but I'm not rich and if I were rich I'd probably cripple myself trying to carry around more lens, length and weight-wise, than I really need. A wise person once said that before you buy the $10,000 lens, buy $200 worth of camouflage clothes and some waders. . .

Let's go back to Belleplain, it's much more interesting there than in the camera store. My e-bird list is below. I tried to be careful estimating numbers during the hike, but over the 3 hours or so it was admittedly difficult to remember. I also don't think the numbers necessarily reflect how many of each species were present as much as they reflect how often birds of different species were singing. It seemed to me, for example, that Worm-eating Warblers were singing with a high frequency, which led to a high count. I certainly don't really think there were more cuckoos than Red-eyed Vireos, yet unless I "listened past" a bunch of singing vireos, they just weren't very evident this morning, unusual for this very vocal species.

I hiked basically from Belleplain Headquarters to Route 347 and back again, mainly on the north and south branches of the East Creek trail. 90% of the birds detected were heard-onlies. Here's the list:

Wild Turkey  1
Turkey Vulture  1
Yellow-billed Cuckoo  7     Actual count
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1
Downy Woodpecker  6
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Eastern Wood-Pewee  5
Acadian Flycatcher  3
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  5
Eastern Kingbird  1
White-eyed Vireo  7
Red-eyed Vireo  5
Carolina Chickadee  3
Tufted Titmouse  7
Carolina Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  6
Wood Thrush  9
American Robin  2
Gray Catbird  1
Brown Thrasher  1
Cedar Waxwing  6
Ovenbird  15
Worm-eating Warbler  11     Careful estimate
Blue-winged Warbler  1
Black-and-white Warbler  3
Prothonotary Warbler  1
Hooded Warbler  1
Pine Warbler  18
Yellow-throated Warbler  6
Eastern Towhee  5
Summer Tanager  2
Scarlet Tanager  4
Blue Grosbeak  1
Indigo Bunting  1
Common Grackle  15
Orchard Oriole  2

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Remembering Jim in Belleplain

The passing of Jim Armstrong (1931-2013) should not go unnoticed or unreflected on, especially not by birders fond of Cape May. Jim died on June 16 after a long illness.

I will forever remember Jim in the context of Belleplain State Forest, one place where he volunteered as a popular leader for New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory before, during, and after the time I worked for that organization. Jim also loved spending time on the Cape May hawk watch platform, where he was ever ready with a handshake, smile, and good conversation. He will be missed. His full obituary may be found here.

Fittingly, after the funeral service yesterday Beth and I made our way to Belleplain, where the 17-year cicadas were oddly silent after their din of recent weeks, and we found no Mississippi Kites. But other birds made up for that, singing in the cool of the evening, the sweet descending notes of the Yellow-throated Warblers from the treetops and the ethereal Wood Thrush fluting from the deep woods. The rattling trill of Worm-eating Warblers in several places, and the simple explosive notes of Acadian Flycatchers in a few. Yellow-billed Cuckoos cuck-cucking off in the distance. All music befitting a celebration or a funeral. A few of us Cape May birders spent time thinking and talking about our own mortality today, and about what we'd like done at our own funeral services. Remembrances shared by family and friends, as happened at Jim's service, certainly. Favored music and written passages, certainly. I just realized that a peaceful woods with birdsong for music would be a fine backdrop to a funeral, perhaps a gathering of friends in a favored forest of the lost companion, thinking and looking back and talking about times that were had. Add the breeze, trees swaying, the wisdom of a forest to ease the loss. It was a good place to remember Jim today.

Rest well, Jim, and peace to family and friends.

[Wild Turkey hen and poults, Belleplain State Forest yesterday. Click to enlarge.]

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day Vigil

 [Dad Eastern Kingbird escorts crow out of his territory near St. Peter's, Cape May Point, NJ, June 16, 2011. Click to enlarge.]

Either not much or a lot was happening in Cape May Point today, birdwise, depending on your point of view. June separates the birders from the "ornitho-golfers" - the latter being those souls whose enjoyment depends on the score, i.e. new birds for the list. Not much migration is happening in June, and I'll confess my vigil of choice, the rips off St. Peter's Church in Cape May Point, NJ, was all about the best potential for new year birds, such as Wilson's Storm-petrels or shearwaters. Neither of which materialized, so from the ornithogolf score standpoint, not so good. No "birdies," so to speak. Later in the day, when I returned to Cape May Point State Park, two Royal Terns coursing down the breakers became my firsts of the year, helping my golf score or batting average or whatever you want to call it.

But plenty was happening without new bird species, all of it to do with raising young, apt enough for Father's Day. A pair of Eastern Kingbirds defended the local airspace while I scanned the offshore waters, and a pair of Gray Catbirds took turns feeding their hidden offspring, collecting food from the scrubby dune habitat and carrying it to a hidden nest. Over at the state park, where I staged another offshore-looking vigil, a Northern Mockingbird fledgling skulked in the poison ivy, while mom and dad took turns feeding it. Plenty was going on, all right. Sadly, two American Oystercatchers (later joined by 4 others) appear to be without chick. I haven't heard any reports, but it looks like that particular chick met its demise.

[Gray Catbird collects food for young in the nest at Cape May Point, NJ this morning.]

Friday, June 14, 2013

End of the Storms Sunset

[Norbury's Landing, NJ Friday, June 14 2013. Click to enlarge.]

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Fish

[Least Tern, Cape May Point State Park this week.]

"Fish, to taste right, must swim three times -in water, in butter, and in wine."
- Polish proverb

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Good Birding at Belleplain

 [Hey, that's not a cardinal! Male Summer Tanager on the Belleplain State Forest, NJ headquarters lawn this morning. Click to enlarge photos.]

Belleplain State Forest, NJ was unexpectedly birdy for us this morning. I say unexpectedly in part because it's June, migration's over, and in part because we didn't get there until 9:00 a.m., thanks to our late night out last night counting horseshoe crabs. Despite that inauspiciously late beginning, the HQ area had many birds - Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, Great-crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, Ovenbird, Eastern Bluebird, all before we got on our bikes and started riding through the cicada-riddled forest, where many species were in song, hard though they were to hear above the cicadas.

The 17-year cicadas certainly stole the show from the birds, too, or at least were a nice compliment to it, humming like a martian landing, flying from treetop to treetop, landing on the road, on bushes, on us. The din was especially loud on Frank's, New Bridge and Sunset Roads, if you're looking for a place to experience this once in 17 years phenomenon.

 [Ovenbird peers out at us from the shadows.]

 [This Great-crested Flycatcher responded to pishing, which is noteworthy because I find flycatchers generally among the least responsive birds when it comes to pishing.]

 [This Eastern Bluebird pair was nest building at a new box near the Belleplain HQ, but unfortunately we saw House Sparrows going to the same box, which doesn't bode well.]

 [One of a number of Worm-eating Warblers we encountered on an 8 mile ride through Belleplain on our bikes. This one was feeding several very recently fledged young, which seemed a bit early.]

[Cicadas aren't the only bug emerging in Belleplain. Spicebush Swallowtails were everywhere, including a group of 10 very fresh individuals gathered at the junction of Tom Field Road and Sunset Road.]

Horseshoe Crab Spawn and Jake's Landing Report

[Tagged male Horseshoe Crab at Reed's Beach, NJ last night. Click to enlarge.]

We did our second Horseshoe Crab survey of the season last night at Reed's Beach, and a pretty good spawn was underway. The survey involves taking random 1 meter square counts of crabs along the beach, and almost every count had a few crabs, often 5-10 males attached to or around 1-2 of the bigger females.

Crab eggs, tiny greenish-gray beads, were thick in places along the Delaware Bay, accumulated in mats in some areas. The shorebirds that feed on them are mostly gone, and we encountered just a single Sanderling along the bay as we made our way in the dark. Laughing Gulls will consume many of the eggs - they were thick at Norbury's Landing at sunset last night.

Shorebirds gone or not, the crabs will continue to spawn on high tides well into summer, and I sometimes see southbound shorebirds feeding on the eggs in July.

Survey protocol has us starting at high tide, which wasn't until 10:00 p.m., so we drove up to Jake's Landing Road beforehand to hear what we could hear. Both Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-wills-widows were sounding off in the first half-mile of the road, the whips quite close by and the chucks requiring careful listening to pick up farther off. Out at the end of the road, Clapper Rails, Marsh Wrens, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Ospreys, Willets, and Black Skimmers made for some fun listening. A missing voice, despite good conditions (full dark, dark moon, light wind) was Black Rail. Jake's is a traditional place for this species, but Black Rails seem on their way to being extirpated in the state. Sea level rise, and related tidal flooding of high marsh areas, could be implicated as the reason.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Walk on the Beach

 [A Least Tern's way of saying go away, Cape May Point State Park, NJ today. Click to enlarge photos.]

It's about a mile from Cape May Point State Park, NJ eastward to Cape May City, and makes for a nice beach walk if you're in the mood for one. And I was, especially since a Roseate Tern was seen on this beach yesterday. That bird was probably storm-related, and unsurprisingly I didn't find it. But it was nice to check in on the beach nesters: many Least Terns, a few Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers, including one oystercatcher chick, and a couple Piping Plovers. Three Common Terns were the only non-Leasts on the beach.

It was quite overcast with the dregs of the recent tropical low, and threatening rain materialized a bit in the form of scattered raindrops that had me worrying about my camera, but only a little - mainly because I'm about due for a camera body upgrade, so hey, if the rain wrecks my current one, that will just hurry things along.

 [Least Tern escorts a Laughing Gull, persistently diving on it to drive it from the colony. Piping Plovers nesting among Least Terns benefit from this protection.]

 [Two adult and one first year Common Terns resting on the Cape May Point State Park beach. Commons in breeding plumage are quite gray below, as these birds demonstrate, unlike Forster's Terns, which are white. One of these days I'll write a Fri-D blog on telling those two apart, but today there were no Forster's Terns around to take pictures of, an unusual state of affairs for Cape May in summer. Probably they were all busy at their nesting colonies on the Atlantic side marshes.]

[Here's a Common Tern in flight.]

[I had business near Cape May Court House, and decided to check on the Cattle Egrets at the Eastern Shore Nursing Home - they like to forage on the lawn there. I'm glad I did, because they were looking especially fine in high breeding plumage. Check out the bill and facial skin colors on this one! Click to enlarge. Bright bare part color is a feature common to all the egrets in high breeding condition.]

Friday, June 7, 2013

Fri-D: the First Two Questions, and Learning from a Child

"What kind of bird's eggs are camouflaged?" That isn't one of the "first two questions" from the title of this post, but it is the one that eventually led to this post. 
The person asking was a nice woman along on a Cape May Young Birders' field trip organized by Deb and Richard Crossley and being led by Glen Davis and me. The woman had brought her young daughter, Marisa, who I immediately liked because she was keen to study birds, and even sketched them in the field as we birded. Several of the kids on this field trip, at Cape May Point State Park, were pretty darn sharp, and getting sharper and more interested in birds thanks to what Richard and Deb are accomplishing by organizing these trips.
Anyhow, about the two questions. Whenever any new birder or non-birder asks about a bird, you want to ask two questions right away. First, "Where was it?"
"On the ground, not on the lawn but. . ." At this point I interupted the woman and suggested, "Killdeer?" before she finished. It had to be - a bird with camouflaged eggs, findable by a new birder, that was on the ground near a lawn.
But when I asked the second important question, "What did it look like?" the answer wasn't clear enough to confirm the i.d. But then I had a thought.
"Hey, Marisa, you didn't happen to draw the bird, did you?"
"I think so." How much better would we all be as birders if we only took the time to sketch birds or at least make some notes about them, the way young Marisa did? She leafed through her sketchpad, a collection of bright fanciful birds and some more down-to-earth sketches, all better than what I could manage (which is why I take photos instead of drawing).
Marisa held up the page with the bird with the camouflaged eggs, and I felt absolutely proud of her, though I'd met her only an hour before. Her drawing perfectly clinched the the identification. Here's Marisa's Killdeer:

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Tide

"Time and tide wait for no man."
- Geoffrey Chaucer, ca. 1360

And for no Ruddy Turnstone, either, so it must wait for the tide to fall to feed, as this one was doing at Forsythe NWR. I really felt this quote a week ago, when I went paddling in my kayak in an area affected by Hurricane Sandy, and wound up fighting the tide unexpectedly, and for a long time.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Wordy Wordless Wednesday - Dung Beetle

[One of the species of genus Canthon dung beetles, rolling its prize along the path at Kuser Bog, High Point State Park, NJ on June 1. Another, presumed female, beetle was in close attendance. These were lifers for me. According to Eaton and Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America, "Males roll balls of dung, while females ride atop or assist alongside. The pair eventually bury each sphere a few inches underground. The female lays an egg on the 'brood ball,' and a humpbacked larvae develops inside."]

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Highlights from the North, and Thoughts About Detection Probability

 [A glimpse of the delightfully common (in High Point, NJ) Chestnut-sided Warbler. Click to enlarge all photos.]

When you fall asleep to Whip-poor-wills, Barred Owls, and a frog symphony, and wake to Cerulean Warblers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Yellow Warblers, and a persistently gobbling Wild Turkey, you know you're living right. That's what it was like camping at the Sawmill Lake Campground in High Point State Park, NJ this weekend - the vocalists even drowned out the human neighbors in the campground.

Camping means you're living among the birds, and your detection probability for any birds around your campsite is understandably quite high. What I mean by detection probability is, what are the odds of you actually locating a bird by sound or sight that is there for the locating?

If a given bird is within sight or earshot of a place you are spending a lot of time (like a campsite, with dinner in the evening, morning coffee, afternoon snooze. . .), your chances of detecting it are much higher than if you pay a short visit. Thus, I feel confident that while we may have missed the Ruffed Grouse and Black-throated Blue Warblers at Kuser Bog during our hikes there, we didn't miss anything near our campsite, because we probably spent 10 daylight hours and two whole nights there over the course of the weekend.

Except, riddle me this, Batman - how come it took until the third day at the campsite before we recorded the White-breasted Nuthatch and Warbling Vireo there? Where were those birds? Maybe the vireo was a "floater" male, that truly wasn't around until day three, but the permanent resident nuthatch? He or she was just living a quiet life, or maybe feeding young and keeping a low profile.

Some birds are more vocal, or active, and hence more detectable than others. Persistent singers like Red-eyed Vireos and even Cerulean Warblers come to mind. Then there are the grouse or Winter Wrens of the world - in my experience, these guys wait silently in the shadows, when in all fairness they ought to open up a little more.

This kind of stuff always gives me angst when I compete in the World Series of Birding - yes, I've scouted the bird, yes I know it is there, but will it make its presence known during that oh-so-brief interval when my team is nearby? This is why I like camping, slow hikes, and slow mountain bike rides much better than fast-paced competitive birding.

Even at that slow pace during the weekend, we missed the grouse, the only species on the sort of year "hit list" I had for this trip that we failed to detect. The other hit-list birds were pretty much gimmee's in High Point: Common Raven, Least Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, Cerulean Warbler. Nashville Warbler, which we found, is no longer a bird easy to find breeding in NJ, if they ever were, so I was pleased to hear one.

Ruffed Grouse is a bird with a rather low detection probability in late May to begin with, since by now they are pretty much done drumming for the year, which means you might get a drum every half hour - if you're lucky. Although friends of mine reported grouse at Kuser Bog just the day before we were there. Aaargh. My next move on grouse is to hike the heck out of their habitat over the summer, which gives me a chance of either flushing one or encountering a hen with a brood, which has happened to me more often than that particular probability should allow. More trips to north Jersey!

 [Yellow-throated Vireo, a regular breeder in rich woods and nicely responsive to pishing.]

 [A female Yellow Warber had a gorgeous nest of cattail fluff and other plant material within sight of our campfire, but since she she was very secretive and flushed as soon as anyone approached the nest, I settled for a shot of the male Yellow Warbler instead.]

 [This Scarlet Tanager is wondering what that was all about, "that" being a remarkably territorial Rose-breasted Grosbeak that chased it all around the margin of the Deckertown Marsh in High Point.]

[We heard a muffled knocking on the path to Kuser Bog, and soon located a likely nest hole. When I hooted like a Barred Owl, a female Hairy Woodpecker appeared at the hole's entrance - she apparently had been doing some housework inside. Here, the male Hairy brings food to youngsters, which could be heard begging inside. ]

[Joy to the naturalist, a Pink Lady's Slipper blooming near Kuser Bog in High Point. The place is more than just birds.]

Saturday, June 1, 2013

I've Been Missing You

[A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers in High Point State Park, NJ, a few years ago.]

Here's to you, my sweet northern New Jersey woods. I've been missing you, your Black Bears and birches and oaks and hemlocks.

If plans go accordingly, when this post appears I will be camping, mountain biking, and birding in High Point State Park, Sussex County, NJ, where Pileated Woodpeckers will wake me, I hope, and Black-capped Chickadees will greet me when I pish. That would be my year Black-capped Chickadees, if you can believe it - I've not been north of NJ's chickadee Mason-Dixon line yet this year.

If there's another county I'd live in than Cape May, it would be Sussex, NJ, which has a remarkable expanse of protected public land (something like 70% of the county) and birds to make a respectable birder drool - like, in the right habitat, fairly common breeding Cerulean Warblers, for example. Abundant Veeries, Least Flycatchers che-beking next to beaver ponds, ravens croaking overhead - whooo boy, I can't wait. In Don's dream world, we'd find a way to hook Sussex and Cape May together, and the only problem we'd have is every birder in the world would want to live here, and they wouldn't all fit.

More to come about our Sussex adventures!