Saturday, August 31, 2013

On Avoiding Self-fulfilling Prophecies - And a Prophecy

 [Ovenbird, Higbee Beach WMA, NJ August 31 2013. So there ARE migrants around. . . ]

"There's not going to be anything today." That's how I went into it this morning at Higbee Beach WMA, NJ, which is not a good way to go into anything, thinking you're going to fail, in this case fail to find any migrants and that it was wasted time and energy to get up at 6:00 a.m. to be at the WMA while it was still cool.  I'm not saying that thinking wasn't logical, because it was - south winds overnight are not conducive to fall migration - but sometimes if you think you're going to get nothing, that's exactly what you get.

Luckily, a Veery popped up first thing, an Ovenbird after that, and I was suddenly more attentive and found a few more things. A cooperative Prairie Warbler, a gnatcatcher, a few Yellow Warblers, a redstart, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos, and three Empids that all looked the same, and since one of them called with a Least Flycatcher's whit, that's what I called them all.

But it certainly wasn't the long species list you can sometimes pull off on a hot migration morning at Higbee Beach. That's coming next week, and here's the prophecy part of this blog: it surely sucks we have southwest winds forecast for all three days of Labor Day weekend, but next Wednesday is going to be a hot one, bird wise. Trouble is, I'm not off from work next Wednesday. . . yet.

The prophecy comes from the frontal forecast, which shows a cold front clearing Cape May on Tuesday, and the wind forecast, which shows northwest overnight Tuesday into Wednesday. There's the recipe you want.

In the meantime, I'll gladly take what I bumped into during my turn around Higbee this morning.

 [This Prairie Warbler was very cooperative at Higbee today.]

[Least Flycatcher. How do I know? The best way - I heard its whit call note! This was one of three Least's along the center path at Higbee, which is often good for Empids.]

Fri-D: Another View of a Juvenile

So here's a looking-down-at-it view of a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, illustrating exactly what we mean when we say "Aged as a juvenile by the neat, crisp pale-edged upperparts feathers creating a scaled appearance." This was taken from the Leed's Eco-trail boardwalk at Forsythe NWR on August 30, 2013.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday

"I will not be concerned at other men's not knowing me;I will be concerned at my own want of ability."
- Confucius

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Peregrine Aerobatics

[Peregrine Falcon turning on a Semipalmated Sandpiper that shortly was reduced to possession, and lunch. South Cape May Meadows, NJ on Sunday, click to enlarge.]

Saturday, August 24, 2013

On the Dike Again

 [Female Cape May Warbler at the Higbee Beach Dike, Cape May, NJ today.]

The little cold front that passed brought more than a few migrants to Higbee Beach this morning. . . how many times have I written about cold fronts and migrants, I suddenly wonder. A bunch.

Anyway, the redstarts et. al. were flying at the dike and we were trying to identify the et. al.'s and it reminded me what a good way to be humbled it is to climb up to the top of that dike and try to put names to warblers, vireos, and even Empidonax flycatchers as they fly past. It's task enough just to get a clean look. What I mean is, here are these warblers jinking and weaving and going pretty fast, and you've got to get your eyes to focus faster and then your binoculars aimed and focused and well it's very hard. . .and fun as hell. Of course you're listening all the while, too, to tiny little seeps and zeeps and buzzes which are soft suggestions of identity.

Read official counter Sam Galick's accounts of Morning Flight at the Higbee Dike here:

[It's nice when an easy one passes - Belted Kingfisher at the Higbee dike today.]

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Broken Wing

[Juvenile Laughing Gull born of the Taylor Sound, Cape May, NJ colony. One of the last left in the colony, this one isn't going to make it. Most birds die in their first year of life, a hard truth indeed, but a truth nonetheless.]

"Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly."
- Langston Hughes

Saturday, August 17, 2013


 [Short-billed Dowitcher shows why mudflats are so valuable, Taylor's Sound, Cape May, NJ, August 17, 2013. Click to enlarge photos.]

Mud makes the world go 'round for a lot of shorebirds. There are "grasspipers" like Upland Sandpiper, "rockpipers" like Purple Sandpipers, and even "beachpipers" like Sanderlings, but the blue collar members of the shorebird clan dwell on mud. So in August, I spend a lot of time around mud,  the mud of tidal flats that is so replete with invertebrates a human could probably eat it by the mouthful and live a good long time. . .well, maybe I'm carried away, but the dowitchers and Semipalmated Sandpipers and the other mudpipers do just fine.

You can look at the mud from the landward side, but I prefer the view from the water via kayak, which is how these photos came to be.

[Semipalmated Sandpiper, Taylor Sound, Cape May, NJ today]

[A very muddy juvenile Clapper Rail, Taylor Sound, Cape May, NJ today.]

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fri-D: Adult vs. Juvenile Shorebirds

 [Above, juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher. Below, adult breeding, or alternate plumage, Short-billed Dowitcher. Forsythe NWR, August 13 2013. Click to enlarge.]

One of these days I'm going to write a post called "The Rules of Shorebirds," and list them all, but for now, here are two of the rules. First, shorebirds come in three plumages, plus transitions between them.  The top dowitcher is a juvenile, and I'm technically required to point out that correctly we would say, and spell, the plumage it's in as juvenal. The bird is juvenile, the plumage is juvenal. The bottom dowitcher is an adult in "breeding" or alternate plumage, worn breeding to be more precise since it's been wearing this coat of feathers since northbound migration last spring and they're looking a little tired, not as bright and neat as they were last spring.

So there's two of the three shorebird plumages. The third plumage is winter, or basic, typically characterized by very plain gray or gray-brown coloration. Juvenal, alternate (breeding), and basic (winter). Remember, there are transitions, too, so we sometimes say things like "an adult in worn alternate plumage molting in a few basic feathers."

So how are the two pictured Short-billed's different? The juv is brighter, with bright orangy feather edgings above, and neat pale edging to the wing "panel," i.e. the wing coverts.

What really needs to be said here is that if you are going to identify shorebirds on plumage, as opposed to structure, you need to be able to tell what plumage the bird is in! And if you are describing a shorebird, as in for details on an eBird report or report to a bird records committee, proper form dictates that early on you say what plumage you think the bird is in, and why.

Not that Short-billed Dowitchers are rare and you have to write them up. In fact, because they're not rare, they're a great bird to practice adult vs. juvenile, and now is the time to do it, since now that we're into August, juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers are beginning to show up.

That reminds me of another "rule" of shorebirds: on southbound migration, the adults migrate first, and appear as much as a month before the juveniles. In the mid-Atlantic, broadly speaking, this means there are only adults in July, and both adults and juveniles from August onward.

[Bonus juvenile: the right bird is a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, the left bird is an adult. The differences are similar to what they were between the juv and adult dowitchers, no? Juv's generally have brighter, more broadly edged feathers, and neater plumage. Note in particular how the neat feather edgings on the juvenile make it look scaly; this effect is more pronounced on some species than others, e.g. juvenile Baird's Sandpipers are famously scaly looking above. But caution is advised; as we can see here, other shorebirds can look that way. This bird has another potential confusion factor with Baird's: the buffy wash on the breast and upperparts, which is characteristic of semis in very fresh juvenal plumage. The buff fades away after a couple weeks. Forsythe NWR, August 13 2013. Click to enlarge.]

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Windows

[Blue Grosbeak and office window, Forsythe NWR this week.]

“Through the window, I saw the beautiful world outside: the sky, the sun, the cacti, the rocks, and the dirt. How I longed to return to it! I licked at the air, trying to smell the desert's delicious dusty scent, but could not. How was I able to see it without smelling it? Did humans control scents as well as the temperature and the waters? Is that what windows were for, to keep out scents? Why did they wish to put invisible barriers between themselves and the world?”
― Patrick Jennings, We Can't All Be Rattlesnakes

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Couple Terns, A Couple Warblers

 [Roseate Tern on the Cape May Point State Park, NJ beach today. Click to enlarge all photos. Things to note include the slim dark bill (this one has a little red at the base, not always the case), very pale upperparts, including flight feathers (compare with the Common Tern in the background), and the long tail projection past the primaries.)]

It's getting to be that time of year when things like cleaning out the storage shed and other projects, even mowing the lawn, get put off. A bit of a cold front brought a few land birds to Cape May, NJ today (Sunday), and the tern flock at Cape May Point is massive and growing, making for a fun project: filtering Common and Forster's Terns for rarer things.

I spent an hour first thing in the first field at Higbee Beach WMA, where I was in birds constantly even if they were the same three: Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, pretty much in that order of abundance. A Worm-eating Warbler was the treat of the morning, that and a Yellow-breasted Chat that peaked out of a thicket for a look at me. Then it was off to the beach and the terns.

The best tern thing for me was what the Gull-billed Terns were doing. We (the usual suspects were patrolling the beach, including Tom Reed, Glen Davis, and Richard Crossley, plus "migrant" David LaPuma) were surprised to see Gull-billeds at all, since they don't forage in the rips offshore like the other terns, but they had another trick in mind. The adult Gull-billeds would "wait on" over the beach flock like Peregrines circling their prey, then swoop (not quite stoop) down on Common Terns bringing fish in to feed their young. Fish stolen, the Gull-billeds then fed their own young the prize - there seemed to be two adult Gull-billeds tending three young.

Neat stuff. It was also great to catch up with Dave LaPuma, now working for Leica. Dave's here to help with the ABA's Camp Avocet over in Delaware, though they're planning to venture up to Cape May for one of the camp days.

 [Roseate Tern in flight over a Common Tern, Cape May Point today.]

[Adult Gull-billed Tern waiting for its next victim, likely to be a Common Tern with a fish to be stolen.]

[The beauty on the bottom right is a juvenile Gull-billed Tern, the upper right bird is a juv. Common Tern.]

[This juv. Black Tern was in Cape May on Saturday. Today I saw an adult out in the rips.]

[Yellow Warbler, the predominant migrant warbler of early August.]

[American Redstart at Higbee Beach today. The orange - as opposed to yellow - chest patch indicates that this is a hatch year male, not female.]

[Lovely Comet Darner at Higbee today. "Possibly the most visually striking dragonfly in New Jersey," according to Barlow, Golden and Bangma's NJ dragonfly guide, which you really should own if you pursue nature in NJ.]

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Once I Was a Fish

[Royal Tern with prey, Stone Harbor Point, NJ, August 5 2013.]

“Once we were blobs in the sea, and then fishes, and then lizards and rats and then monkeys, and hundreds of things in between. This hand was once a fin, this hand once had claws! In my human mouth I have the pointy teeth of a wolf and the chisel teeth of a rabbit and the grinding teeth of a cow! Our blood is as salty as the sea we used to live in! When we're frightened, the hair on our skin stands up, just like it did when we had fur. We are history! Everything we've ever been on the way to becoming us, we still are."
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cape May Meadows Fly-bys

 [This Prothonotary Warbler's flight note, a loud, clear, rising seep, drew my camera skyward just in time. It wasn't a bird I was particularly thinking about this morning at the South Cape May Meadows, NJ, but I'll take it! Click to enlarge all photos.]

Better to be lucky than good - how many times have I said that? Often, so while I may not be lucky with rare terns in Cape May this year (missed the Roseate by minutes yet again), I could hardly be disappointed with a morning at the South Cape May Meadows that included flyover Prothonotary Warbler in the starring role, plus Northern Waterthrushes, Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts. . . August is fall migration in a big way, and it was good just to be out looking. One thing to always remember in Cape May, and elsewhere, is that all the little birds flying overhead are something. They may not be the standard small bird flying overhead, like a goldfinch or House Finch, either, especially early in the morning when birds may still be ending their overnight migration and looking for a place to settle down. The upshot is, try to get on any little bird flying over, it may be a good warbler!

Other than the shorebirds feeding in the east "pool" at the meadows, most of the action was in the air today. Of the shorebirds, a single Stilt Sandpiper was the best = rarest thing I could muster, but watching Semipalmated Sandpipers quibble with each other, or Lesser Yellowlegs delicately forage, is fine shorebirding.

Other highlights included:

 [Continuing a theme of juveniles: this is a juvenile Green Heron, showing the nice, new feathers, all in the same good condition, and buffy feather edgings, marks of other juveniles featured in posts below.]

 [Juvenile Little Blue Heron, a fly-in at the meadows this morning. The dark tips to the flight feathers are a good way to separate this bird from a Snowy Egret, but be sure to notice how narrow they are - they tend to disappear on the folded wing, especially against a dark background. The bicolored bill and green legs are additional clues. A group of migrating herons I saw later at the meadows included about a dozen Snowy Egrets and a single Tricolored Heron.]

[The primaries of Forster's Terns get worn by late summer, and turn dark, causing potential confusion with Common Tern. On this Forster's, notice how dark the outer two primaries are against the newly growing inner primaries.]

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Thoughtful Thursday: Rabbit Time

[Cottontail Rabbit, South Cape May Meadows, where there were many rabbits evident last night.]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
― Richard Adams, Watership Down