Friday, December 25, 2015

Fri-D - Christmas Merlin

[Click to enlarge photos.]
Out doing some car birding this Christmas morning, I spotted this raptor perched near the junction of Bayshore Road and Stevens Street in Cape May. When you see a small raptor, there's a tendency to default to Sharp-shinned Hawk, but then I was like, but they don't do that. Do that meaning, perch in the open on an exposed perch. Plus the wings were too long in relation to the tail; remember that Sharp-shinned Hawks are accipiters, which have shortish wings and long tails. On a perched bird, that translates into wings who's tips don't come close to the tip of the tail. Merlins on the other hand are Falcons, and have long wings the tips of which come close to the tip of the tail.

Anyhow, this bird had to be one of the small Falcons, and the back color was wrong for kestrel, so Merlin it is. I got the distinct impression it had no intention of obeying the speed limit sign.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Tale of two Christmas Bird Counts

Being ill during a Christmas Bird Count is no fun, but good birds and great company make fine consolations. Christmas Bird Counts have always been magical, even spiritual to me, thanks to the fellowship with the folks I have been lucky enough to share them with and of course the birds. I recently realized that to friends and neighbors who helped me with the Cape May count this year had never done a Christmas Bird Count before. This is the birding equivalent of failing to invite someone to church.

[This eastern screech owl came in to my whistles at 6:50 AM, when it was nearly daylight. That's one aggressive owl. By the way, these photos are essentially straight from my camera, having only been cropped and resized using the free program Picasa, since I don't have access to Adobe products right now. Click to enlarge all photos.]

Mainly what I did for last weekend's counts was sit in the passenger seat as one or another of my kids drove us from place to place. Every now and then I would get out to look and listen, but now on day 28 of what has been called a "viral syndrome," I only recently have been able to walk any distance. We did the Walnut Valley count on Saturday, and the Cape May count on Sunday.

[Winter wrens are always elusive to photograph, so I was pleased this one came right up to the truck with some pishing. Delaware lake, Warren County, New Jersey on Saturday.]

[Juvenile great blue heron fishing in Delaware lake, Warren County, New Jersey. With the warm fall, all water was open for both of my Christmas counts last weekend an unusual condition.]

[A colorful male yellow bellied sapsucker, Always a good find on a New Jersey Christmas Bird Count. This one was near Delaware lake.]

[A definite highlight on the Cape may count was three red-headed woodpeckers. All were on the edge of Green Creek, on Cape may national wildlife refuge the property. Sick as I was, I nearly collapsed walking the half-mile to the standing dead trees that line Green Creek Marsh, and was very glad the woodpeckers were there to make it worthwhile for me and my son Tim.]

[A scene from a little over a week ago, when a sizable number of humpback whales move close to shore off Cape May County. This one was seen from the handicap accessible platform at 2 mile beach. ]

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Catching up, first impressions of the Nikon 200–500 5.6 on the D 7200, and get a flu shot

On the non sequitur (for this blog) comments on the flu shot, you can read to the bottom of this post to find out why I think you should get one. I promise there will be bird and nature relevant material further down in this blog.

I am both way behind and way ahead. I'm behind because of the flu, plus some other superbug, 23 days and counting, three weeks of work missed, a day in the hospital. I just have to let the missed work go, and I hope my employer does too.

I am ahead because one more time I have been shown how many great friends I have, as well as how wonderful my grown children are. Everyone has been taking care of me. Unearned grace. Count my Chessie Daniel Boone in that mix of unearned grace. Thank you all.

I'm also ahead because a month ago I decided to make some capital expenditures in the form of a camera and lens for my side business. The camera is a Nikon D 7200, the lens is Nikon's new 200– 500 mm f 5.6. Many friends have been asking me what I think of this rig. We have only just begun, since it was only today that I cracked 3500 shots with it. I know that sounds like a lot, but it really isn't.

My impression so far is that Nikon has said (finally!) to Canon's 7D Mark II and 400 mm f5.6, "Oh yeah?"

As I often say, I am a naturalist/birder who carries a camera so he can document and share what he sees. Not the other way around, so don't expect any "measurbation" here. As we go along learning, I'll share some photos along with what I think about them, about what's in them, and generally rarely about what I think about what the camera did. It's not about the camera.

A final caveat before we see some images: the only computer I have right now is a crummy laptop, and I'm blogging using an iPad, and I've had to figure out how to get photos from my camera to the computer and thence to the iPad. I think if you click on these images they will be rendered as 1200 x 1600. I think. They have been minimally processed using Picasa, since with my main machine down again that's all I've got to work with. OK, here we go:

[This is one of the first images I took with the new rig. Kind of grainy, nothing particularly special... Except it was completely dark outside, and this was handheld at 200 mm at 1/50 of a second at ISO 25600. Nikon claims 4.5 stops of Image stabilization for the new lens. I'll grant you that some of my shots in the dark were blurry but many were startlingly crisp.]

[The scissor tailed flycatcher at Forsythe a few weeks ago. 500 mm, F7 .1. The focusing capability of this camera / lens combination seems very good, certainly much faster than my D7000 with the 300mm F4 prime and 1.4 teleconverter.]

[The new 200–500 is not considered a "" prime lens, but strikes me as very sharp. This song sparrow was at the beanery a few weeks ago. 500 mm, F8, ISO 140.]

[Red shouldered hawk over Cape May a few weeks ago.]

[These Bufflehead were shot more recently than the other photos in this post, just a few days ago when I dragged my sorry butt down to 2 mile Beach to see the humpback whale show (more on that in the future blog,hopefully many of you got to see them). This was one of the first times I tried to take more than a snapshot with the new gear. 500 mm, F6 .3, one 500s, ISO 160. All the shots in this blog by the way were handheld without flash, and with the len's Image stabilization on sport mode.]

Today, thanks to the support of my adult kids, I stumbled my way through our annual Christmas Bird Count of in Walnut Valley, Warren County New Jersey. For really the first time, I took some serious pictures with the new camera of some wonderful birds. I will be sharing those soon.

Finally, on that flu thing, please get your shot. I've never had a flu shot, and I've never had a cold in the last 20 years. This thing seriously came close to, I don't know, Killing me? No fun. Too many birds left to be seen, and too many friends left to make.
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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Cedar waxwings, raptors, and the computer dies again

So only two weeks after my amazing son, Donald Joseph, and I completely disassembled my laptop, replaced the keyboard, souped it up a little, and got it back together, my pal Boone helped me out by knocking a full glass of orange juice onto it, taking it out once again.

As a consequence,I am really getting to know my phone, but I can't process photos on it, which is a real bummer, because I recently splurged on a new camera and lens after going over four years without buying literally any kind of durable goods. [That is what you do when you are a naturalist of few means, but want to eventually have the gear you need.] Info on the camera and lens will have to wait until we fix the computer again, but in the meantime I thought I would share these two photos. The first was taken using my iPhone 5 with a phone scope adapter on a Zeiss Diascope.

Readers should know, by the way, that I am an equal opportunity employer when it comes to optics. Don't have a lot of money, but what I have I use to get the best equipment to enjoy my time in the field. Thus, I use Zeiss binoculars and a Zeiss spotting scope because I think these are the current best in show, but I shoot Nikon cameras and lenses. My point and shoot camera is a Canon, And if tomorrow some manufacturer comes out with better binoculars, camera, point-and-shoot, or phone, I will save up until I can get the equipment I need.

[These Cedar waxwings were enjoying wild grapes on Friday.]

[This was some of the crew looking for and eventually finding both the Swainsons Hawk and a Golden Eagle, and enjoying an awesome buteo and eagle flight at the magnesite plant on Saturday, November 21, 2015 in Cape May.]

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sky. Birds. Joyful.

Even by November standards. Even by Bayshire standards. The sky this morning is extreme.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Blue Jays: the best part of birding begins AFTER you have identified the bird

[Blue Jay with Scarlet Oak acorn, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, NJ, October 30, 2015. Note not only the acorn in its bill, but the expanded crop (swollen throat), with some unknown number of additional acorns. This one's an amateur compared to the one pictured below. Scarlet oaks are all the red-leaved oaks along the Garden State Parkway in southern NJ right now. Well named, this is a typical dry-site tree, especially in the Pine Barrens. It's a big acorn crop for them this year; the jays are happy. Click to enlarge all photos.]

Explore the literature on any bird species, and you may well become astonished at how little we know about the most common ones. This is one reason among many that my copy of The Birder's Handbook, published 27 years ago (update, anyone?) sits in its tatters beside me pretty much whenever I write about birds. I don't get any money from Amazon by linking to it, by the way. This book was and is a landmark in the world of bird lore. One reason is that in the species accounts, whenever some fact about a bird was unknown, the authors placed a question mark in the account, a very intentional cue to keen observers that they could contribute to our wealth of bird knowledge and ultimately conservation. Thus, for Blue Jay, we see for example, "MONOG?" This means that in 1988, we suspected but didn't know if Blue Jays mated for "life." "Life" is in quotes because if one member of a pair of birds of a species with a long-term pair pond dies, the other immediately seeks a mate. You can't make babies without a mate, and making babies (and thereby passing on your genes) is what it is all about in the natural world. Also, scientists long ago established through DNA testing that even "monogamous" birds cheat on each other all the time.

Fast forward to 2013, when the Birds of North America Online account for Blue Jay was last updated. It would appear that we now know that Blue Jays mate for "life" (there are those quotation marks again), and that the basic social unit for the species is the mated pair, accompanied by dependent offspring after hatching.

Neat stuff. But wait. The BNA account, which is overall excellent, also calls the Blue Jay "Resident throughout most of range." Anyone who has been to Cape May, NJ in fall or Whitefish Point, MI in spring knows that this is a bunchabloody nonsense, especially in flight years, when flocks of hundreds of Blue Jays appear at these and other locations. Blue Jays are active diurnal (daytime) migrants, and we don't yet understand exactly what they are doing or why. The BNA account mentions, but glosses over, some Blue Jay migrations that had been reported prior to 2013, citing for example migrations in Maryland with flocks averaging 11 birds and 29 at maximum. Those are pitiful flock counts compared to what one sees at Whitefish and Cape May.

Remember, we're talking about Blue Jays here, not Spoon-billed Sandpipers or Colima Warblers. Shouldn't we kind of know everything about them by now?

Well, I hope not. We'll never know everything about anything.

Blue Jays get a bum rap because they scare away birds at your feeder (often artfully imitating a raptor call to do it) and are well-known nest predators made infamous beginning with J.J. Audubon's 1842 portrayal of a pair devouring somebody's future babies (eggs) in his magnum opus, The Birds of America. So what, says I? Birds have to eat, and birds have to die. Who's yelling at the lions for eating the gazelles?

These are fabulously amazing, fascinating birds. I happen to know that Blue Jays are my famous best friend, Pete Dunne's, current favorite species. While we are out deer hunting, we love watching them move in lines of skirmishers through the woods, in constant contact, always ahead of, behind, or beside the enemy, never being caught.

Now we get to the heart of the matter: the best part of birding begins AFTER you have identified the bird.

Last Friday, October 30, 2015, a group of friends, me included, witnessed some remarkable Blue Jay behavior during a bird walk I was leading. Friday was a day when I expected a significant land bird migration which to my surprise did not unfold, at least not at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, near Atlantic City, NJ. [If you haven't yet liked the refuge Facebook page, please do and pass it on. It's the best place to get the latest news on Forsythe, including bird news, closures, and more.] So we were "forced" to observe and enjoy common species, like Blue Jays. Poor us, right?

I began by pointing out that on careful observation, one will quickly realize that autumn Blue Jays are often busy caching "hard mast," especially acorns. From October to March, hard mast accounts for at least two thirds of a Blue Jay's diet.

Typically Blue Jays will find acorns in one area and transport them to another, sometimes only a hundred yards away, but sometimes several miles away, all for later consumption when times get hard. This acorn dispersal by Blue Jays is key to the spread of oak trees, and has been ever since the last glaciation. Blue Jays are much better at acorn dispersal than squirrels, since jays fly far while squirrels hop short.

With more careful observation, you may discover that in any given area in fall, Blue Jays with acorns are always flying in one particular direction, and Blue Jays without acorns are flying in the exact opposite direction. At Forsythe, we soon discovered that some jays near the visitor center were hitting two particular Scarlet Oak trees near the Children's Nature Discovery Area (a.k.a. the refuge's nature playground), plucking multiple acorns from the trees themselves (which is safer than getting fallen ones from the ground), and flying a relatively short distance east to wherever it was they were caching them.

Neat! We spent some time watching and photographing them. But it gets better.

Towards the end of the walk, we found ourselves in the spot, more or less, where the Blue Jays had been heading with their prizes. I saw a jay flush ahead of us as we approached, but after that. . .no jays.

I asked the group, "What's happening here?" I didn't even mention the jays. I can be kind of a jerk when I am teaching something important.

Eventually I added a clue. "What's NOT happening here?"

After a long pause, someone said, "There are no Blue Jays."

"Why not?"


I asked, "If you were a Blue Jay, would you want an apparent herd of large mammals to know where your acorn cache was?"

We walked a bit farther, and heard a Blue Jay sound. Quoting the BNA account, "...the total vocabulary of Blue Jays is immense and precludes precise categorization." They are not kidding. If you hear an unfamiliar bird in the woods, it's either a jay or a titmouse.

The sound we heard was a sort of a mew. And looking back where we had been, we saw a single Blue Jay perched on an exposed perch. We were being watched.

I said, "There's the sentinel. We won't see any more caching behavior until we are well away from here."

When the walk concluded, my SCA intern and I hid in the shade of the Visitor Center and watched from afar. Soon the procession of jays, maybe 6-8 birds in all, began again. East with acorns, west without.

Again:  the best part of birding begins AFTER you have identified the bird.

[A professional Blue Jay. Two Scarlet Oak acorns in the bill, and who knows how many in the crop (there's another question that we don't know the answer to!)]

Sunday, October 25, 2015

In Case You Were Wondering...

[In case you were wondering why the Freiday Bird Blog has been kind of quiet, this is the current state of my big HP laptop. Keyboard went, part is coming from China. More time to bird I guess, but I'm running out of camera memory.]

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Fish for Dinner

[Osprey with Menhaden, Cape May, NJ, October 10, 2015.]

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Wildlife Olympics

Ice Dancing:

Balance Beam:

[All at Norbury's Landing, Cape May, NJ, October 7, 2015. Click to enlarge.]

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tides Happen, plus, By the Length of Their Legs They Will Rise

[Juvenile American Golden-Plover, left, with Red Knots at the Wetlands Institute, Stone Harbor Causeway, Cape May, NJ today at about 11:00 a.m. The reddish plants are Salicornia, or glasswort. The grasses are the hugely important Salt Marsh Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) - salt marshes have autumn colors just like forests. The plover is told from Black-bellied in this view by its thin bill, small head, and dark cap highlighting the white eyebrow. Click to enlarge all photos.]

Tides happen, and birders, fishermen, boaters, crabbers, waterfowl hunters and coastal homeowners had better pay attention.

[At this point, you may just want to scroll past the brief but technical tide fact sheet that follows to go straight to this weekend's birds, but then again, maybe not. Our natural lives are driven by natural forces, and tides, winds, storms, and birds are all interconnected. Your call.]

A first thing to know is that tides vary on macro- and micro-geographical scales. Simplifying with a couple examples: what happens in the mid-Atlantic is not the same as what happens in Florida, and what happens on the Delaware Bay, NJ is very different temporally and in scale from what happens on nearby Barnegat Bay, NJ.

In the mid-Atlantic, we have two high tides and two low tides every day, separated by about 6 hours. The time of each tide gets later with each passing day. You can Google why, but trust me, it does. So get a good tide app or tide chart from a local fishing tackle shop.

Looking at the micro-geographical scale, today on Delaware Bay near my house the tide was low at 8:16 a.m. and high about 6 hours later at 2:43 p.m., with a theoretical range from high to low of 5.5 feet. (This is based on the North Highlands Beach tidal station.) If you think about it, 5.5 feet is a hell of a lot - stand on the tidal flats of the bay at low tide and realize that in 6 hours the water will be spilling into your mouth. And, as everybody knows, there are plenty of places where the tides are way more extreme, e.g. the Bay of Fundy.

I use the word theoretical because with the long-lasting northeaster we're enduring, the tide hasn't gone fully out for a few days, so the tidal range hasn't been so widespread between high and low. This morning on the bay, at "low tide" it was basically close to a normal high tide, and I eyeballed "high tide" as about a foot higher than the forecast high.

Looking at nearby places, one notices that some places have greater tidal ranges, some less, and every place has different tidal timing. So. . .  consider for example the Beach Haven Coast Guard Station, on Barnegat Bay on the bay side of Long Beach Island, 40 miles northeast as the crow flies from Delaware Bay. There, today, the tide theoretically varied about 2 feet from low to high, and low tide was 8:47 a.m., high at 3:03 p.m. - running a half hour or so behind the tide on Delaware Bay. Pretty limp tidal variation compared to the big Delbay tides, due to variation in what I've come to think of as the "plumbing" of the system. This plumbing is complex, and I'm still trying to work out the mechanics of it on the finest of scales, as in, the particular places I bird or launch a kayak from.

So, you've got to know what's predicted at your particular spot, and then you have to know how the weather and the moon will affect that.

On the moon, the reader's digest version is that at full and new moons, the tidal variation between low and high tide will be substantially greater than during the rest of the month. Full and new moon tides are referred to as "spring tides," and they are big, and can wreak consequences on bird and beast, including man.

On the weather, the reader's digest version is that on west (from the west) winds, the tide will tend to be pushed out, staying lower than predicted. East (from the east) winds keep the tide higher on the Atlantic coast, because wind-driven wave action holds the water close to shore. That's what's happening right now, big time.

This has already become way more theoretical than a simple bird blog should be, so let me give a couple examples of when I got screwed by the tide because I wasn't paying attention.

One summer, I was a leader on a birding by boat trip in Great Egg Harbor, NJ, on a fine large pontoon boat captained by an experienced man. The tide was low and theoretically rising, but a west wind was keeping the water offshore. We nestled up to a wonderful heron rookery, enjoyed the comings and goings of 100's of 5-6 species of herons and egrets and ibis for a while, and got soundly stuck. No problem, the tide would come in and lift us off.

Not. Sea Tow pulled us off 2 hours later.

Another "fun" episode: last summer I went kayaking one day on a falling tide. The theory was, ride the tide out, hang out for a while, then ride the tide back in. This usually works out remarkably well, making for a lazy man's kayak trip (as long as you have a good map and sense of direction).

Unless it's a full moon and west wind.  Then, you ride the falling tide out, hang out, try to come back in, realize there's not enough water to float even a kayak that only draws 3" of water, hang out more and eventually drag your kayak while forcing yourself through knee-deep muck (which you know at any moment could turn into neck-deep muck). At least you got some good Clapper Rail pictures on this trip. . .

One more example, and then back to today's birds. When Hurricane Sandy came through in late October, 2012, east winds had already been keeping the Atlantic coast tides very high for several days. I live, on purpose, about a mile from Delaware Bay and 7.5 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. I want to be near all the great Cape May birding, fishing and kayaking areas, but want nothing to do with coastal flooding or hurricanes, other than chasing the rare birds or birding spectacles that such events might bring. Sandy was a monster, and thank goodness she just grazed Cape May (and instead came ashore directly over Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, where I work. . .). But those damn east winds meant at high tide the night Sandy passed, I had 3 feet of water in my street. Luckily, my house sits a few feet above the street, my dog swims well, and I have a canoe and two kayaks in case it got higher. . .

Right, birds.

[As the tide rose at the Wetlands Institute today, the short-legged shorebirds became increasingly nervous. The American Golden-plover flew around and landed briefly, before eventually pulling out for good. Where it went to spend high tide, no one knows. Click to enlarge.]

I have recently been tweeting about this unusual persistent and pernicious pattern of easterly winds that has pretty much crushed the normally brilliant late-September neotropical bird migration in Cape May, NJ. It's been pretty depressing, especially for the many people who timed their birding vacations to hit the neotrops.

But the birding hasn't been "bad." It's just been different.

[Speaking of tides, today the normal high tide was going to come early because of the east winds, and the pool east of the Wetlands Institute near Stone Harbor NJ is a known hotspot for shorebirds at normal high tide - which luckily I figured out that today meant 3 hours before the actual forecast high tide. This juvenile Hudsonian Godwit (back bird, with yellowlegs) was exactly the species I was looking for. Perfect time, place and weather. Most HUGO's migrate offshore over the Atlantic to South America, but east winds bring them to the Atlantic Coast. Sam Wilson made a nice pick on this bird, and together we worked out which godwit it was. In this photo, the bill looks slightly foreshortened because the bird is angled towards the camera. Note the eyebrow, patterned back (indicating a juv.), and long, thin, bi-colored bill. At one point it raised its wings, showing black wing linings to rule out a fancier godwit. It was far, so this photo is heavily cropped; click to enlarge.] 

[As the tide rose, the short-legged birds - the Red Knots (there were 210+) and dowitchers (at least 2 Long-billed and 4 Short-billed) became increasingly anxious, and shuffled about trying to find bottom.]

[Soon, the American Golden-Plover, Red Knots and Dowitchers cashed it in, and headed for higher ground as the tide flooded the pool. Their legs weren't long enough to stay.]

[The big, strong, long-legged Western Willets and a few Greater Yellowlegs were the last shorebirds standing in the rapidly flooding pool, seeming determined to stay right up to the point of swimming for it. Somehow, the Hudsonian Godwit snuck out of there with only a couple members of the accumulated crowd of birders spotting it go, and no photos taken. So it goes sometimes.]

[Eventually, by about 12:15 p.m., still 2 hours to go before official high tide, even the long-legged Western Willets and Greater Yellowlegs had to throw in the towel and search for higher ground.]

[A few days ago, this was somebody's house on Grassy Sound, near North Wildlwood NJ. Northeasters are a serious business. . .]

[Take tides, northeasters, and sea-level rise seriously. This is the high-tide view of the salt marsh west of Stone Harbor, NJ today, after days of a northeaster, at about 2:15 p.m., taken from the top of the Route 147 bridge into North Wildlwood, NJ. Those houses are along the Stone Harbor Causeway.]

Here's a list of birds seen at the Wetland's Institute today. No, it hasn't been good for warblers lately, but there's always something to thrill to during fall migration.

Stone Harbor Causeway--Wetlands Institute, Cape May, New Jersey, US
Oct 4, 2015 10:30 AM - 12:15 PM
Protocol: Traveling 0.3 mile(s)
Comments: Northeaster, half tide and rising, already quite high.

Submitted from eBird for iOS, version 1.1.2 Build 27

27 species

American Black Duck 10
Double-crested Cormorant 75
Great Egret 8
Snowy Egret 15
Little Blue Heron 2
Black-crowned Night-Heron 3
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 1 Juv
Osprey 1
Clapper Rail 1
American Golden-Plover 1 Juv
Semipalmated Plover 2
Greater Yellowlegs 50
Willet (Western) 71 Actual count, there have been a bunch here lately.
Lesser Yellowlegs 15
Hudsonian Godwit 1 Juv
Red Knot 210 Actual count.
Stilt Sandpiper 2
Short-billed Dowitcher 4
Long-billed Dowitcher 2
Laughing Gull 10
Herring Gull 10
Forster's Tern 2
Tree Swallow 300
Northern Mockingbird 1
Song Sparrow 1
Red-winged Blackbird 5
Boat-tailed Grackle 10
View this checklist online at

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday: the 7 P's

"Proper planning and preparation prevent p--s poor performance."

- Saying of U.S. Marine Corps and British Army, among others

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Do These Three Images Spell Fallout Tomorrow, Despite the East Winds, Or Am I Seeing This Wrong?

Large nocturnal take-off, front made it off the coast, showers in the early morning hours. . .if the wind had a west component, I'd feel more sure, but I think Thursday could be a very interesting day.

Wordless Wednesday: A Ballet of Angels

[Tree Swallows staging at Cape May Point State Park, Saturday, September 26, 2015. Click to play video.]

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Packing Lunch

[Adult Peregrine Falcon over the Cape May, NJ hawk watch today, lovingly carrying a. . . ]

[juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, I think. Note the orientation, like the way Ospreys carry fish.]

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fri-D: the Teal

Nobody I know really likes female-plumaged ducks. They're just a pain to identify. How many times have I been leading a summer birding tour in the western U.S. and been pressured to find a definite Cinnamon Teal when Blue-winged Teal are also present? Too many.

And by the way, I use "female-plumaged" rather than just "female" for a good reason, since male North American ducks molt into what is known as an "eclipse" plumage in summer, which by modern molt terminology is their "alternate" plumage. Most "alternate" plumages are also "breeding plumages," i.e. the fancier, more colorful plumage, but ducks screw all that up. Someday maybe I'll write a post about telling eclipse plumage male ducks from females, which is not often easy. Witness the regular appearance of female-plumaged Eurasian Wigeons in Cape May that then call like males, and eventually molt into obvious males. In early fall, many male ducks come south looking like females.

Right, so, teal. I'm leaving Cinnamon Teal out of this, since you have to be smarter than me to i.d. a female-plumaged Cinnamon in the east.

Let's pretend you saw the two ducks in the photo next to a Mallard (and they were next to a Mallard when I took this picture, but you can't see it in the photo), and you realized they were little. Green-winged Teal is our smallest duck, averaging a mere 14" in total length. For comparison, an American Robin is 10". Little ducks. Blue-winged Teal are slightly bigger, averaging 15.5". Mallards loom over all three, at 23".

So are these two ducks the same species? Well, no, but if you dialed in on the green patch on the wing of the front duck, beware. Both Green-winged Teal and Blue-winged Teal have green secondaries (much more prominent on the male BWTE than the female, which shows hardly any green.) Also, it is important to remember that, unless a duck is flying or preening or otherwise opening its wing a little, you can't see its flight feathers at all, because the whole wing is buried in the body plumage and under the scapulars and tertials. Are we having fun yet?

An excellent place to start with any bird identification is the bill. As an aside, in female ducks, bill color and pattern is often very useful.  These two both have dark bills, but flick your eyes back and forth between the two. That back bird has a big, thick bill compared to the one in front, doesn't it?

Another excellent place to start with any bird identification is the exact face pattern (the warbler face plate in the old Golden Guide remains one of my favorite pieces of bird art). The front bird has a dark line through the eye. The back bird does too, though arguably a little less distinct, but it also has white eye-arcs and a white smudge at the base of the bill. What are male Blue-winged Teal known for? Oh, yeah, that white half moon in front of the eye. . .

Duck butts are also often useful for i.d. The front bird has a buffy horizontal stripe directly beneath the tail, the back bird does not.

So, the front bird is a female-plumaged Green-winged Teal, the back bird is a female-plumaged Blue-winged Teal. Both species are pouring south right now, with many of the Blue-wingeds on their way to South America (most "only" to Central America, some only to the southern U.S.), while the Green-wingeds don't go quite as far, wintering south to Mexico with many wintering in the U.S.

By the way, did you know any duck can be identified, sexed, and aged just by its wing? Also check here . Ducks are perhaps the best known and most studied wild birds. Why? They taste good. . . and are deeply loved by duck hunters, birders, and the public in general.

This photo was taken at Forsythe NWR during my lunch break one day this week.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday: The Internet

[Pronghorns north of Belle Fourche, SD, July 2015.]

"I've come to love the internet because it helps me plan when, where and how to get the hell away from the internet, and to share what I found when I come back."

- Don Freiday

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

This Thing Happened, Part Two

Last week I blogged about an unusual bird that appeared at the Higbee Beach WMA, NJ, dike during the morning flight of September 15, 2015. I've been reflecting about whether to go public with it or not, and have decided, well, what the hek. You can read about Glen Davis's thoughts about this same bird here; Glen also decided to go public with this observation.

This stuff is sometimes pretty boring, but still essential to the maintenance of a state's checklist, and useful as we monitor the expansions and contractions of our birds' ranges and populations.

The following is constructed from the NJBRC's excellent sighting report form.

New Jersey Bird Records Committee
Species: Kirtland’s Warbler
Scientific name: Setophaga kirtlandii
Number of birds: 1
Sex (if known): Unknown
Age/plumage (if known): The density of the streaking below was less than on the breeding birds I saw in Michigan in May, 2014, suggesting female or first fall. I am working off illustrations and photos, not experience, on aging.
Place, including nearest town, and county: Higbee Beach Dike, Cape May, NJ
Date(s) & time(s) of your observations: September 15, 2015 at about 8:00 a.m.
First and last dates bird was present, if known: only September 15, 2015
Date of completing this form: September 15, 2015, about 2 hours after the sighting.
Observer making this report: Donald P. Freiday
Address: [redacted]
Telephone: [redacted]
E-Mail: [redacted]
Other observers (if possible, each should submit this form): Glen Davis, Mike Lanzone

Who found the bird? Independently by Don Freiday, Glen Davis, and (not sure if i.d’d) Mike Lanzone
Who first identified it? Freiday and Davis

Optical equipment used: Freiday used Zeiss 8X42 FL’s
Distance from bird: estimate 40 meters straight overhead when first glassed, then headed away to the south-southeast.

Weather and light conditions: Great. Sunny, blue sky, wind northwest 5-10, bird was lit from sun behind us and later, as it passed over headed south, to the left (east) of us.
Was the bird photographed? Yes, by Mike Lanzone, but photos are apparently unidentifiable.

Was the bird videotaped or recorded? No.
If so, are photographs and/or recordings included with this report? No

If not, are they accessible to the Committee? How (for example, URL?) Maybe, check with Mike Lanzone, but when he looked at the back of his camera a few minutes after the sighting he said they were not helpful.
Indicate your prior experience with this and similar species:  I saw Kirtland’s singing and chipping (not flight note and not flying) several times for extended periods of observation on its breeding grounds in Michigan in late May 2014. My only experience is with singing or calling males. As to the similar species, i.e. those considered below, I’ve seen 100’s to 1000’s of all in all conditions, including overhead in flight.

What books, illustrations, and advice did you consult? When? Sibley app on my iPhone five minutes after the sighting (mainly to silently query Glen Davis about what he was thinking); Sibley FG and The Warbler Guide app 2 hours later.
Was this report written from notes made during, or after, the observation? This is being written up on my computer now that I am home, about two hours after the sighting. I made no notes at the time of sighting, but carefully reflected on what I had seen before looking at any guides. The only conversation about the bird’s field marks I had prior to writing it up was with Glen Davis, and the extent of that was exchanging the notion that the streaking pattern on the underparts was “weird,” and that I thought it was a KIWA, and Glen had reached the same conclusion. I believe I have been careful not to corrupt what I saw with what one finds in the field guides.

Description: Include information on the bird's plumage, shape and size, vocalizations, habitat, behavior, etc. Describe what you actually saw. Sketches are helpful. (THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE REPORT; RECORDS WITHOUT DETAILS WILL NOT BE VOTED.)

This was a day of a big, diverse flight (27+ warbler species), following an immense flight the day before of ca. 56,000 birds, mainly warbler sp.'s (I was not present for the massive previous day flight). A cold front passed 2 days prior to this sighting, winds remained more or less NW since, skies clear the night before and the morning of the sighting. September 12&13 had lowish volume but diverse migrations; September 14 had a one hour 56,000 bird flight first thing in the morning; and the date of the observation,  September 15th, 2015,  was the classic big, diverse flight that happens many years in mid-September in Cape May. The September 15, 2015 flight was the best morning flight I’ve observed in the 8 years I’ve lived in Cape May. My full list for the morning, sans this bird, is at .

I blogged about the weather conditions the day before this sighting. That blog can be found at
About 8:00 a.m., the bird in question came over medium-high. When I detected it was almost straight overhead, headed south. When I first saw it, I got that electric feeling you get when you see a different, rare bird.

It was the kind of bird that you say to yourself, "I'm not calling this one until I am sure." About the time I was saying this to myself, Glen Davis, the official morning flight counter at Higbee, said, "No way! I'm not even going there." I knew right away he was on the same bird.
I had about four seconds of reasonably good, basically straight-up binocular views of this bird, in good light and good focus, then watched it fly away until it disappeared over the trees to the south-southeast. I opted to watch it and try to identify it, rather than snap off some photos. Then I stood silently for maybe five minutes, processing, ignoring the ongoing flight. I carefully considered what I had just seen, the field marks I felt I could reliably say I saw well, evaluating what, if anything, was missing to confirm this identification (other than a photo, or independent corroboration.)

What I saw: a warbler in flight. I did not develop a good read on the size of the bird, except that I could tell it was not small, so definitely bigger than a Northern Parula or Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. It was alone in my field of view during the observation, a fairly rare incident on this big flight morning, so I had nothing to directly compare it to. It was southbound, against the grain of the main flow of the morning flight. It was stocky, with a broad chest, and its wingbeats seemed slower than any of the 1000’s of warblers I’d seen that day so far, suggesting a larger warbler. Its underparts were entirely yellow except for white undertail coverts, and it had dark streaking below that I initially described later to others on the dike as “weird.” Glen Davis agreed on the weird part when we discussed the sighting a few minutes later, though we did not discuss the specifics. As I saw it, the streaking was in 2 or maybe three fine dark rows along each side of the bird’s underparts, right under the wings, with a few flecks in the center of the breast. Its tail had a dark base, with white at the distal ~ half, with black corners at the tip. The underwings seemed dark. The face was plain; if there was an eyebrow or eyeline they were not obvious. I did not notice anything particular about the wing shape. It seemed fairly long tailed. With the view I had, I can’t say anything about the bird from above.  I did not notice anything else particular about the bird’s flight style, e.g. whether it was steady or buffeted, or whether in undulated or jinked side-side. One might think that four seconds with a bird in flight, plus a few more watching it disappear, is not enough time to absorb these details, but I feel pretty confident about them.
From my first look, after the initial jolt, I thought this bird was a Kirtland’s Warbler, even though I’ve never seen one in flight overhead.

After about five minutes of cataloging all this in my mind, I dialed up the bird on the Sibley app on my iPhone, to the view of the first winter in flight. Nobody had said anything out loud about what the bird might have been, and I think it was only the three of us that actually got on it.  I walked over to Glen Davis, held up the phone, and said, "That bird we just had going south?" Nobody had said anything out loud about the bird’s potential i.d. up until then.
Glen said, "That is EXACTLY what I was thinking." Then later, Glen said, "Thank-you." Thus, Glen and I arrived at the same conclusion independently.

I believe Glen, Mike Lanzone, and I were the only 3 who got on this bird. Mike took some photos which turned out not to be identifiable, at least not by looking at the back of his camera. Mike said he thought he heard the bird, and wasn't sure if the flight note matched Kirtland’s. I did not hear the bird call, and am unfamiliar with its flight note because I've only encountered this species on its breeding grounds in Michigan, in May, 2014, and never in a view like this.
Later, coincidentally, I was chatting with Richard Crossley on the Cape May Point State Park hawk watch platform about where he had been this morning, since he was not on the dike. Without any information about this sighting, he said, "Oh, I was out looking for a Kirtland’s Warbler along Sunset. It's the perfect time of year and perfect conditions for one.”

Name the species you consider ID contenders; explain how you eliminated each. If there is not complete agreement on this ID, state who disagrees and why.
Magnolia Warbler does not fit because of shape and tail pattern, and the nature of the streaking below, and because I should have perceived it as small. Prairie Warbler does not fit because of the tail pattern, because I perceive PRWA UT coverts as looking yellowish, though maybe not as bright as the rest of the underparts, plus I should have perceived a Prairie as thin and small, not stocky, plus the streaking pattern below is subtly different, usually thicker than what I saw, except first winter PRWA, which is variable and sometimes lacks defined streaking, but never has a tail pattern like the bird in question. Prairie's show a ton of white on the tail. Cape May Warbler does not fit because this bird was definitely not short-tailed, I did not perceive it as small, the face/nape pattern was wrong, and the streaking pattern does not fit.

As to who disagrees, Mike Lanzone seemed unsure, particularly about the call he thought he heard. I haven’t talked with Mike in detail about what he saw, nor have I talked with Glen in detail about what he saw. I know Glen and I and Mike are all three reluctant because identifying flyover warblers is a risky business.

This comes down to whether an observer or observers can reliably i.d. a rare warbler in flight. And, whether a sight record without photographs, even when corroborated by two experienced independent observers,  can be accepted, especially for an exceedingly rare (in this case, first state record) observation.

I am confident that we saw a Kirtland’s Warbler. Despite that, I am concerned that the conditions of this sighting may not be adequate for a first state record, and thus this may need to fall into the “tantalizing” realm. If the records committee believes Glen's and my observations match, this sighting becomes more valid. I have not shared this write-up with Glen or Mike [until now].

Date: 9/15/2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Mountain, Its Birds, and Its People

[The scene today at the Scott's Mountain Hawk Watch at Merrill Creek Reservoir.  This could just be the friendliest hawk watch on Planet Earth. Included in the scene or nearby: today's official counter, Paul Murray; Henry Kielblock, proprietor of this watch; Rich Kane, dean emeritus of NJ birding; Dave Dean, Kurt Zimmerman, Paul Shanahan, Norann Hein, Tom Koellhoffer, Don and Rebecca Freiday, and 40+ others.]

Last summer when I encountered my friend Henry Kielblock at Forsythe NWR, NJ, I told him I would visit him, other old friends, and the Broad-winged Hawk migration at the Scott's Mountain Hawk Watch at Merrill Creek Reservoir, NJ this fall. Today I made good on that promise, and it was a fine day to do so. A cold front had passed, and winds for the mountain were forecast to be NW going to N going to NE, perfect for this site. My daughter Rebecca joined me and the cast of characters that make this watch one of the friendliest birding sites anywhere.

[Here's the weather map as it stood tonight, after today's flight. You can see the blue arc at right with the arrows pointing right; that's the cold front that passed, with high pressure behind it. That's what you want to see for fall bird migration, generally speaking.]

My promise was not only to Henry. It was to myself.  I love the hills of rural northwest NJ. People unfamiliar with this state need a reality check, because it is truly a natural gem despite its ill-gotten reputation. I grew up in and spent the first part of my adult life in these hills, and going back still feels like going home to me.

[Adult Bald Eagle today, flying beyond the American flag that waves prominently at the Scott's Mountain, NJ Hawk Watch. Click to enlarge. ]

Early on, meaning beginning at 9:00 a.m. or so, birds were flying, including plenty of Bald Eagles. These included the local breeding pair and their offspring, and a number of migrants.  As Bald Eagles have increased and spread throughout the U.S., counting them at hawk watches has become increasingly difficult.  The official counter must watch each bird that passes and make a decision as to its provenance - a migrant, or one of the locals? A great problem to have.

[Eagle flock: 4 Bald Eagles in one frame at Scott's Mountain today. I well remember the days when if you were lucky enough to find a single eagle, you would watch it until it disappeared, because you never knew when you would see another one. A success story of grand proportions. Click to enlarge.]

One of the more amazing sights of the day was when the local adult Bald Eagles took a break from chasing off any migrants to renew their pair bond:

[The Merrill Creek Bald Eagle pair in classic talon-clasping courtship. They hooked up perhaps 400 meters up, and tumbled almost to the water before breaking away from each other. Aerial foreplay. Click to enlarge. ]

[Wait, what? This is part of a flock of 30+ Lesser Black-backed Gulls, the first of many more migrants to come, and probably headed eventually to the landfill opposite Florence, NJ. It is amazing that we still don't know the derivation of the now hundreds of LBBG's that appear in the region each year.  Where are they breeding? Rich Kane told me this southbound migration of LBBG was a regular sight at Merrill Creek.]

Despite the many other great birds present or passing, we were all up at Merrill Creek to see Broad-winged Hawks.  The spectacle of the mass departure of this raptor from the forests of North America to wintering grounds in Central America and South America is without question one of the greatest natural phenomena a naturalist can encounter, and is one I've been addicted to since I began birding over 35 years ago. We loved the Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, American Kestrels, Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, vultures, and everything else today - but the Broad-winged Hawks made the day what it was: spectacular. And it wasn't even a big flight by Broad-winged Hawk standards, "only" 2,457 for the day. By comparison, Cape May had. . . 5 today.  That would be 0.2% of Scott's Mountain's total for Broad-winged Hawk today. Regular readers of this blog know I am the last person who would malign Cape May's birding, but. .  .

In my home grounds of Cape May, NJ, we don't often get truly large Broad-winged Hawk flights, since these birds seem to prefer to follow the inland ridges southward. Only if strong and persistent west or northwest winds coincide with mid-September does Cape May get big Broad-winged Hawk numbers.

[There are hawk watches north of the Cape May canal . . .]

[Part of a "kettle" of 160+ Broad-winged Hawks at Scott's Mountain today.  Broad-wingeds don't so much flock together on purpose as need to move all at about the same time, headed to the same places, and so accumulate where migration conditions are favorable, such as ridges like Scott's Mountain where updrafts and thermals help them along. Click to enlarge.]

[Angels: Broad-winged Hawks against the halo of the sun. Broad-wingeds, and other raptors, often ascend so high during migration that scanning the perimeter of the sun for silhouettes is one of the best ways to find them. Click to enlarge.]

I made some feeble attempts to video the Broad-winged Hawk kettles over Scott's Mountain today, using my DSLR on a tripod.  Here's the best I could do; the conversations in the background are almost as fun as the birds!

[How many hawk watches have a bin of communal munchies (the owl is not edible, however)? How many have the official counter walk from one end of the site to other proffering fresh baked cookies? At Scott's Mountain, this is the norm.]