Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Phases of a Cape May Songbird Flight, and How to Handle Them

[Black-and-white Warbler posing at  Higbee Beach WMA, NJ today, September 13, 2015. Click to enlarge photos. Today's excellent flight was unexpected based on the wind, but it is mid-September after all. My group, a flash mob of keen young birders plus me, recorded 70 species including 20 warbler species. This BAWW helped me recover from finding one dead at the Villas, NJ WaWa convenience store on my predawn coffee stop, an obvious window strike (see Twitter post at right) and was at the same time a sign that more birds were moving last night than I expected.]

First it is chaos. Birds flying everywhere, sometimes in all directions but generally trending into the wind and/or northward. Birds re-positioning after being wind-drifted off course overnight, birds searching for the appropriate habitat to forage and rest. This begins at sunrise and can last 1-4 hours after. In this phase, you want to be in a place you can see sky.  If songbirds in flight are your thing, you want to be at the Higbee Dike (if it is August or September) or maybe one of the Cape May Point dune crossovers (especially if it is October or November). If you prefer to try these rapidly moving birds perched, position yourself at a sunlit edge. Most people opt to hang out on the western edges of fields 1-3 or the Tower field at Higbee Beach WMA, letting the flight drift by in front of them.

Later (8:00 a.m.? 9:00 a.m.? depends on the day), the morning flight settles down and landbirds have found both each other and their appropriate habitats. Now's the time to walk the fields and woods at Higbee, the Beanery, or Hidden Valley, searching for pockets holding mixed-species flocks. Choose the habitat you work and the height of your scan for the birds you seek. Trees and looking up for many warblers, orioles, tanagers. Edges and trees looking mid-level for Empids. Rank fields, especially those with ragweed and foxtail, and looking low for sparrows, Connecticut Warblers, and others. Dark, wet woods and looking low for thrushes and other secretive species like Ovenbirds and waterthrushes.

By late morning, songbirds have found a home for the day, and many rest quietly. Now's the time to hit the hawkwatch at Cape May Point State Park, or maybe the South Cape May Meadows for shorebirds. You might find songbirds still active at either place. A Cape May Warbler dropped into the shrubs abutting the hawkwatch platform at about noon today.

By early afternoon, things tend to slow down unless it is a major flight and the winds remain northwest. If that's the case, stay in the field. More than one person has said, "Don't turn your back on Cape May in a northwest wind." If the winds are not stellar, or if you need some hard-earned rest, take a nap, or chill on the hawkwatch platform for a while.

Later on some afternoons, songbirds become active again. This is a great time to work the streets surrounding Lily Lake in Cape May Point, watching for foraging warblers, including some beginning to display Zugenruhe (migration restlessness) as they ready for the next leg of their journey. If the Point is slow, or if you can tear yourself away, the South Cape May Meadows is a fine place to end the day as the sun sets, watching shorebirds, looking for late-flying falcons, nighthawks, or herons. The old magnesite plant area, opposite the fire control tower on Sunset Boulevard, is another excellent late-day option.

This is how I generally do it anyway, all the while plugged into Keekeekerr, and listening to my friends and my sense of wonder.

[My best attempt to get the three Philadelphia Vireos in the northwest corner of field 2 at Higbee today in a single shot. Only managed 2. Higbee was smoking today. We even found an apparently record-early Orange-crowned Warbler, a bird we don't usually think about until October. None of my many attempted photos of that bird worked out, it was being elusive in the ragweed of the "tower field," the field to the left/east as you leave the main Higbee parking area headed south. Glen Davis, counting at Morning Flight, had a prospect OCWA at about the same time we were observing ours.]

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