Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cape May Meadows: On Shorebirds, Molt, and the Lack of a Scope

 [Lesser Yellowlegs, South Cape May Meadows, NJ today. Notice the molt - this adult bird wears new, basic (winter) back feathers and scapulars - the extensive plain gray ones are the new ones. Soon it will be time to watch for newly arrived juvenile yellowlegs, which will be neatly patterned with white spots on a brown background above. Click to enlarge photos.]

I set out around the South Cape May Meadows, NJ this morning without my scope, because I'm lazy, mainly. And I later wished I had brought the scope, because the Nature Conservancy, which owns and operates the meadows, has the easternmost pool drawn down nicely and it was kind of full of shorebirds, mainly ones beyond reasonable identification distance with binoculars alone. I muddled through, detecting for example White-rumped Sandpiper by call from a group of peep flying by. That very high-pitched call of the White-rumped is a very good one to learn, sounds like mice. Or two pebbles being scraped together. Or like a White-rumped Sandpiper. I nearly pushed a dowitcher into the Long-billed hole, but it was a bit too far to be sure. Eventually I settled in to watch the birds closer to the east path, just letting things happen rather than hunting them out. Which is one way to bird, as opposed to target birding or rarity hunting. I don't do much of the latter anymore, hoping that after all these years of looking at birds, at least if a rare bird is close, I will find it without looking for that particular bird.

Carrying a scope always annoys me, because it slows down both binocular use and camera use. You have to put the scope down first, or used the other optics awkwardly while trying to keep the scope from falling from your shoulder. Since I like to try to photograph things in flight, I need all the quickness I can muster.

Now, if someone else carries the scope, that's something different ;>).

[The two semipalmateds, Semipalmated Sandpiper above and Semipalmated Plover below, flybys at the meadows this morning.]

Some of the shorebirds were close, however, including a number of both Yellowlegs, peep, Semipalmated Plovers, dowitchers. It was good shorebirding. And there were a lot of swallows around, too. And a good-sized flock of mainly Forster's Terns roosted on the mud, with some Commons and a few Leasts. And the first juvenile Laughing Gull I've seen away from their nesting colonies in the back bays farther north, a signal of the progressing season. Juvenile shorebirds will begin appearing any day. There was a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper at the meadows, with an adult, but I don't really count that one since Spotteds nest not so far to the north.

 [Tree Swallows come to the coast after nesting and molt there, in the land of abundance (for them) - lots of bugs to fuel the new feather growth. Note the 3 new inner primaries on each wing on this one, and look how worn the other soon-to-be-replaced flight feathers, now almost a year old, have gotten.]

[Compare this juvenile Rough-winged Swallow's general appearance with that of the juvenile Common Tern a few posts down, and for that matter to the ragged, molty adult Tree Swallow above. All feathers in uniformly good condition = juvenile. The buffy edges to the coverts and tertials are good age clues on this bird, too.]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Least

[Least Tern, Cape May, NJ July 21, 2013.]

"He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature."
- Socrates

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking for One Thing and Finding Something(s) Else

 [Common Tern adult bringing an Atlantic Silverside to its juvenile offspring, Cape May Point State Park, NJ this morning.]

You check the tern flock and either the Roseate Tern is there or it's not, right? Not much you can do about it if it's not, except wait around, which is what I did this morning, but still to no avail. There's a lot of luck involved in this birding game. But you always get a bird when you go birding, maybe not the one you were looking for but that's still okay. If you let it be, which I gladly did this morning.

There were actually two tern flocks to check at Cape May Point State Park, NJ this morning, one consisting of entirely Forster's Terns on the railing near the outflow pipe of Bunker Pond, and one of almost all Common Terns with one Forster's and a few Leasts thrown in down on the beach. I've seen Forster's and Common segregate this way before, so if you think you're seeing all of only one species, maybe you are. Or maybe you're not, it reminds me of the one about if you can't spot the fool in the room, it's you. It's easy to doubt yourself with this pair. If you can't spot the Common among the Forster's, you're a fool?  Or maybe you're simply right.

Anyhow, I didn't spot a Roseate among the Common and the Forster's Terns at Cape May, but I did enjoy watching the juvenile Common Terns begging and occasionally being fed by their parents. These juv.'s could have come from some distance away, since the m.o. for terns is to lead their young away from the colony to good feeding grounds as soon as the young can fly well.

Interesting but not surprising after the little cold front that passed last night, there was some movement evident, in the form of about 4 Yellow Warblers and a single American Redstart that flew overhead in obvious "morning flight," and in a decent shorebird movement that included four Pectoral Sandpipers in a flock with yellowlegs, and some Short-billed Dowitchers. Oh yeah, and a flock of about 20 Glossy Ibis, glossies move early so that was fairly typical for late July.

[Feathers in uniform good condition and a scaly appearance are indicators of a juvenile bird in many species, including, in this case, Common Tern.]

 [This Common Tern had almost an entirely red bill, just a little dark on the culmen, but it's clearly not an Arctic Tern. Some might be tempted. . . which is why you use multiple field marks, like the thicker dark trailing edge to the primaries, more balanced (not front-heavy) look in flight, bill too long, primaries not translucent. . . ]

[Common Wood-nymphs are common, but I don't recall seeing one along the dunes at Cape May Point State Park before, which is where this one was.]

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Talking

[Green Frog, High Point State Park, NJ, July 13 2013.]

“I didn't ask what you'd said about it," the frog snapped. "I asked what you're going to do. Nine times out of ten, talking is a way of avoiding doing things.”
― Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Molty and Nesty: High Point in mid-July

 [Its extensive white "pocket handkerchief" labels this male Black-throated Blue Warbler as an adult, but its dull appearance might lead one to think it was a young bird. It's more bedraggled than dull, with loose body feathers indicating molt underway. Kuser Bog in High Point State Park on Saturday. Click to enlarge photos.]

A forest in mid-July is different than a forest in June, and High Point State Park, NJ was no exception this past weekend. Oh, the birds were all still there, and busy. . . but quiet, with much less song than June, making it necessary to really pay attention to flight and call notes, and the begging calls of young wanting to be fed, and any slight movements in the trees. Any less of an effort and you would never have known how rich these woods are for birds.

Many of the birds we encountered were in obvious molt, with loose or missing feathers, and sometimes new feathers growing in were apparent, though these things are not easy to see except with birds in the hand. Many birds fed young, too - around our campsite the yellowthroats and redstarts were particularly busy carrying food, while the local Veeries were happily the most vocal birds in the area, suggesting perhaps these were involved in second nestings.  It's worth a trip to High Point (a solid 4.5 hours north of Cape May) just to hear Veeries sing.

At Kuser Bog in High Point, it seemed overall very quiet, until we suddenly bumped into a mixed-species flock containing Black-throated Blue Warbler, American Redstarts, Northern Waterthrush, Northern Orioles, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and several others. All of these were local breeders, but clearly were done with nesting for the year and had flocked up in a mixed-species foraging flock, which is exactly what birds do between the end of nesting and the start of migration.

 [This Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is in molt, and you can see in particular that it has a new tertial feather, the obviously pale-edged feather on the lower "back" (It's actually the top feather in the stacked folded wing feathers). If you look really closely at the base of this feather, you can see it is still growing in out of the white sheath. Such feathers are termed pin feathers. High Point State Park, NJ yesterday.]

[This Blue-winged Warbler is obviously worn with loose feathers indicating molt, but it was territorial in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, singing the Blue-winged's alternate song. We encountered a hybrid "Brewster's" Warbler nearby, in an area that had Golden-winged Warblers last spring.]

[Another molty bird, male American Redstart along Sawmill Road in High Point, where they are absolutely abundant. Though you wouldn't have known it this weekend, because most have stopped singing as they molt and tend young. Chip and flight notes are much more commonly heard than songs now.]

[Veery singing in High Point.]

[This male Canada Warbler in Kuser Bog chipped continuously and at one point was carrying food. The agitation and food-carrying are obvious signs of nearby young.]
[Eye of a nesting female American Redstart in High Point, obviously a second nesting given the late date.]

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: the Blues

[Blue Grosbeak, Forsythe NWR, July 9, 2013.]

“The blues ain't nothing but a good man feelin' bad.”
 Leon Redbone

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Checking On the Colony

 [A brood of Laughing Gulls and one of their parents, on Ring Island, west of Stone Harbor, NJ today, July 7, 2013. Three eggs and hence three youngsters are the norm for Laughing Gulls. These birds, though out of their nest, still have a week or more, I'd guess, before they will make their first flights, though some were stretching and flapping their new wings. Click to enlarge.]

When you say "Checking On the Colony" in these parts, and you mean birds, you could mean any of several species of colonial birds: herons, terns, gulls, skimmers, or swallows, for example. The basic biology of colonial nesting is this: birds tend to nest in colonies (as opposed to as scattered individual pairs) where there is abundant food but limited nesting sites, forcing them to squeeze in together where they can. Colonies are especially prevalent in coastal habitats, where the sea and back bays provide plenty of foraging habitat but little in the way of high, dry nesting sites.

The most spatially expansive and bird-abundant colony or colonies in Cape May County belong to the Laughing Gulls. Most people never even see these colonies that form each summer in the high marshes west of or "behind" the barrier islands, because you need a boat or kayak to really see them. If you're boatless, try scanning the marshes around Nummy Island, south of Stone Harbor - you'll at least see plenty of gulls in the air.

Yeah, I know, they're just Laughing Gulls, common, ubiquitous, French-fry grabbing denizens of the summer beach and bay. But I suggest getting to know them. They certainly are successful. We're talking about thousands or tens of thousands of birds here in our own colonies. It's been this way for a long time - Witmer Stone wrote about the colonies in Bird Studies at Old Cape May (1937).

[What's not to like about Laughing Gulls? They're beautiful, for one thing. Stone Harbor, NJ today. Click to enlarge photos.]

I traditionally paddle my kayak out to the Cape May colonies for a visit shortly after July 4 to see how the young are coming along. Normally at this time the young have vacated their nests, or most of them have, but are still flightless and well-attended by adults.

Cape May's new Laughing Gulls, class of 2013, are coming along fine It looks like even though we're sitting on a new moon and accompanying higher-than-normal tides right now, most of this year's young Laughing Gulls appear old enough to survive some inundation of the marshy islands their parents raise them on. These are islands in the loosest sense, really giant patches of salt marsh that are prone to tidal flooding, especially if an east wind coincides with a new or full moon high tide. Some years these circumstances can combine to limit nesting success, leaving drowned eggs and dead young behind. This year the circumstances seem to favor the birds. One good sign of success will be the appearance of newly-fledged juvenile Laughing Gulls in Cape May proper, like at the meadows or the point, where they don't nest. Look for these first fledges in mid to late July.

Amongst the abundant Laughing Gulls behind Stone Harbor were a couple small colonies of Forster's Terns, whose members are quite aggressive defenders and will swoop on, poop on, and call angrily at any intruder that comes close. We skirted these. One higher island had some nesting Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls, whose young were a week or two from fledging.

[A Forster's Tern makes sure I know I am not welcome near its nest site in the marshes west of Stone Harbor this morning.]

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fri-D: The Willets

We're entering a time period when both our local breeding Eastern Willets and migrant Western Willets can be seen side-by-side, which makes for a great opportunity for study. These are not yet considered full species, but they are distinct in shape, plumage, and distribution, so don't be surprised if one day soon we have two Willet check boxes on our lists.

The photo above shows two birds (July 9, 2012, Stone Harbor, NJ) that are quite similar but subtly different. Notice how the left hand bird, a Western Willet, is:
1. Taller
2. Paler
3. Proportionately longer legged.
4. Longer billed and thinner billed, with a thinner tip.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On Being Nearly Deaf for a While

I'm just back from a week of classroom and field-based training related to the powerful 1964 Wilderness Act, and it happens that towards the end of that week I went partially deaf. I mean it, literally if partially deaf, couldn't hear for example the car radio or the tick-ticking of the turn signal in the dashboard, watched people not that far away in conversation without hearing a sound, heard my own voice echo dully when I spoke. It scared the crap out of me.

The cause was a severe sinus infection later pressurized by air travel back from Montana into a thrumming hollowness between my ears that lasted about 24 hours, until I finally got my hands on some serious congestion relief medicine.

Thankfully, the infection didn't really hit until we had hiked out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area in western Montana, so there I enjoyed the wilderness unfettered and unfiltered, which is a fine thing because that's one of the main values of wilderness areas to me - you don't have to put the filters on in the first place. You know the filters - the ones that let you function without insanity in a bustling city, or airport, or office, the filters that let you listen past many things so you can focus on what's most important then and there.

In wilderness there's no static coming from overhead speakers or workers in the next cube or phones ringing down the hall. Each sound can be received, absorbed, measured - rushing stream, trilling junco, pipe-blowing Varied Thrushes, crunching gravel underfoot. It makes you want to reach for more sounds, not filter them out. The trouble is, most people spend much too little time in the wild world, and have their filters locked on all the time, even when they should not be.

We birders like to say we're never not birding, and for me a big piece of that is I'm never not listening, not just for birds but for any sound that will tell me something about the world around me. I've been told I have good hearing, and I'm glad I do, but I think a lot of hearing is training. Between birding and hunting, probably more the hunting, listening has been wired tightly around all the rest of the neural circuitry with which I view the world, to the point where I have limited capacity to endure bustling human environments like cities, offices, or movies with over-the-top audio.

Until I went deaf. Then it didn't matter. I found, for example, that driving home from the airport I was pushing 80 mph without really knowing it, because I was accustomed to telling speed by sound. When I got home, the dog's greeting had lost something - the clicking of nails on the floor, the thumping of tail against the couch, even his contented breathing. Couldn't hear any of that.

I thought wryly, it's a damn good thing tomorrow's not the World Series of Birding, because I wouldn't be able to hear a goose honk, let alone a wispy nocturnal flight note. It scared me.

And I couldn't help but wonder, is this how the world is for many people all the time? I think it is. Hiking up into the Selway-Bitterroot's Big Creek Canyon, I detected 37 species of western birds, but saw only a few of those thanks to the thick coniferous habitat. Only a couple of my colleagues knew any bird sounds, the rest essentially none, and I suspect that most of these new friends not only didn't know what they were hearing, they didn't hear what they were hearing. Tuned out. Or not tuned in. Several were impressed I noticed and knew the bird sounds, while I was somewhat surprised that they didn't. I tried to teach them some of the sounds, like the upward spiraling fluting of the Swainson's Thrushes or the sing-song of the Pacific Wren. They seemed delighted, and I think it changed their experience there.

If a bird sings in a forest, and someone is there to hear it, but doesn't hear it, did it make a sound?

I don't ever again want to know what it's like being partially deaf. I can hear again now, while driving back from the drug store I just heard a Mama Osprey piping to Dad that the kids need feeding again.

Sweet sounds. All of them.

[Mother Osprey and her brood, Grassy Sound, NJ July 1, 2013. Click to enlarge.]