Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thoughtful Thursday: A New Life

“Thanksgiving reminds us that no matter what befalls us in life, we can take the charred remnants and we can reconstruct a life unimaginably richer than that from which the shards and pieces fell.”

– Craig D. Lounsbrough

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Happy Anniversary

[The angel of light. . .photo by Scott Whittle, .]

Cape May’s best bird ever, IMHO, was the Ivory Gull found in Cape May Harbor by Jim Dowdell on November 27, 2009. Its bright white glow bathed us until December 9 of that year, and still does me whenever I think of it, even now, ten years later.

The ivory gull was seen by hundreds if not thousands of birders from near and far, and was photographed tens of thousands of times.

[ Younger versions of Doug Gochfeld and Melissa Roach. Photo by Scott Whittle.]

“Where were you when you first heard about the Ivory Gull?” I was in far northern New Jersey picking out a Christmas tree with my kids when I heard about the bird, which became the 420th species to be recorded in Cape May County. I knew full well the chances of that bird sticking another day were slim,but was perhaps less troubled than some others who couldn’t go the first day, because I had the amazing fortune to find the last Ivory Gull seen in New Jersey – 23 years before! That bird stayed mere hours before disappearing for good.

The next morning, back in Cape May, my daughter wanted to photograph the sunrise at the beach for her fine arts class, but around 8:00 a.m. my cell phone rang and the good, patient dad went from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. Thereafter, almost every day of the Ivory Gull’s stay I found a reason to pay a visit, before work or for long hours on days off, and took a few thousand photos. Eventually I wrote on my blog, “This bird is like a drug, one I can’t walk away from.”

Late fall 2009 was a great time to be a birder in Cape May – the Ivory Gull starred with a supporting cast the likes of American White Pelicans and a long-staying Swainson’s Hawk, and especially, the many, many birders both local and from afar who comprise the Cape May Birding Community.

Yet my most poignant memory was late in the gull’s stay, waiting in the pre-dawn for it to arrive, with only a few fishermen around. I talked to one of them about the gull—believe me, we birders were noticed by the fishermen at the BreeZee Lee marina, and thanks to our overall good behavior were tolerated with some bemusement.

[Fish Crows on the cleaning table at the BreezeeLee Marina, enjoying the same fare the Ivory Gull did.]

One fisherman was fascinated with the bird, too.

“Is it here yet?”

“Not yet.”

“It’s different than a regular gull, flies fast, like a hawk or something,” he said. “They say it’s from the Arctic.”

“Yes. It follows Polar Bears.”

“Maybe a Polar Bear will show up here one day,” he joked.


Then the Ivory Gull flew in, like a dream.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Thoughtful Thursday - News

"The news and the truth are not the same thing." 

- Walter Lippmann

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

On the Importance of Digital Workflow and Backing Up

This blog was not intended to be what it is titled, but it is, and you're stuck with it because I am an idiot. It is worth noting that we are coming up on the 10th anniversary of the Ivory Gull's appearance at Cape May Harbor, which is what this blog was supposed to be about, complete with some of the 200 or so photos of it and the birders watching it I kept, out of the 2,000 or so photos I pulled the trigger on (keeping 10% is a high estimate of what I typically retain, the rest are sent back to the pixel ether.)

About those photos:

"Okay, Lightroom, search all searchable fields for gull." Lightroom pounds on the door of my 3 terabyte external drive (one of two) and comes back with a bazillion gull photos.

"The hell with scrolling through that. Give me the same search on gull, ivory."

"No photos found."


When I start talking to an electronic device that way, it is never the device that is being stupid.

You could not come up with a photo set more important for me NOT to lose than this one. I knew I had taken them. Why the hell aren't they on this drive, and since they are not, where the hell are they?

Like many digital photographers, I've had my share of mishaps with computers. Ever spill a full glass of orange juice onto a high end laptop? I have . . .twice. Let me know if you need someone to do it to yours. The first time my genius son Don J. was able to fix it, the second time he texted me in all caps UNPLUG IT! And all he could save was the giant hard drive. And then there are the hard drive crashes. . .

All of which leads us to the importance of digital workflow and backing up. You can do it however you want, but here's what I do.

First, all my photos live on an external hard drive, and with varying frequency I back that one up to a second, switch them out, and put the original in a fireproof lock box. When I was not working from home, I would bring the lock box with the back-up to work and leave it there, because if you back up but keep your back-up drive with your working drive, you are not backed up. Right now the fireproof box will have to do.

Why not the cloud? Because I don't trust the bastards, that's why.

Now, about digital workflow. Workflow starts before you take the picture. Are you going to shoot RAW or JPEG? If JPEG, are you going to get your camera to do any post-shot processing for you? Are you going to get your camera to name or number the files a particular way/ Are you going to get your camera to put anything in the metadata attached to the image file? My answers are JPEG, yes, yes, and yes. Maybe I'll dive into these things another time.

Than you take a picture, or 2000 pictures of an Ivory Gull. Now what?

0. Get them the hek off your camera's memory card and onto a hard drive. Reformat the card after you confirm they are on the hard drive.
1. Delete most of them. I used to do this in-camera, but now I view them in Adobe lightroom and select the ones I want for import to the hard drive. I am ruthless about this.
2. Figure out how you want to organize and rename the photos and tell Lightroom to do it. There are many different ways you could decide to do this, with folders and subfolders and Lightroom collections and collection sets, but the one thing I do, the most important thing I always do, is rename the file in a way that allows you to find it again. You owe me a solid for this piece of advice. It's a little bit of work on the frontload which saves a whole lot of pain later.

Thus, the filename of the photo above is, was, and will ever be:

gull, ivory leaving 12 2 09 DPF_8600

Or, generically speaking: subject location/action/details date (which is in the metadata too) extension (my camera puts this in, automatically putting in my initials and numbering files upward.) So if someone contacts me for a photo of this doing that in this place at this time, I'm a couple clicks from finding what I have.

So yeah, I'm an idiot, but I am a thorough one, and in a file cabinet drawer containing several terabytes worth of old hard drives I found the one I had not imported to my new one, found my Ivory Gull pics and about 10,000 others. which, according to Lightroom, brings my photo collection to 64,966, which means I have pressed the shutter at least 649,660 times since I went to a digital SLR in 2007. Which does not include a s--tton of pre-2007 slides and prints, which are in a shambles of disorganization.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Bill Stewart: In Pace Requiescat

How many times have you known someobody who you wanted to know better, and spend more time with, but allowed time and geography to prevent that? Bill Stewart was such a person for me. I met Bill in the field many times over the years, in Cape May and Delaware, and each time enjoyed a strong handshake, a wonderful smile, and inescapable enthusiasm.
The following is from USA Today

Delaware loses 'non-typical nerd birder,' conservationist and coach Bill Stewart
Maddy Lauria
Delaware News Journal

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Bill Stewart's former role with the American Birding Association.

It was over a decade ago that Bill Stewart proposed a big idea to a small group of Delaware birders: Raise $17,000 in a single event to purchase a piece of land to preserve as wildlife habitat.
Some thought he was crazy because the most they had ever raised was a few hundred bucks at events like bake sales. But they followed Stewart's confident lead and met their fundraising goal, plus some.
Then they did it again the next year. And the next. And the next.

Now, Delaware’s birding community is mourning the loss of Wilmington resident William “Bill” Stewart Jr., who died Tuesday after battling cancer, while celebrating his legacy of conservation and determination.

“To know Bill was to love him,” said Collin O’Mara, former head of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and current president/CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “He was a force of nature for nature, and his lifetime of conservation will benefit millions of birds and hundreds of thousands of people for generations.”

Stewart, 67, was a well-known birder, conservationist, educator and former gymnastics coach who helped raise thousands of dollars to permanently preserve nearly 2,000 acres of land for future generations of birders and Delawareans through the Delaware Bird-A-Thon program he started in 2006.

"What he was able to accomplish in a short period of time, and mostly as a volunteer, is absolutely remarkable," said close friend and fellow birder Holly Merker. "It's beyond what most people are capable of accomplishing in a 50-year career."

'He always wanted to lift others up'

Stewart was sick for a long time and had been diagnosed with leukemia 15 years ago. But it was far more important to him that others worried about the birds and conservation efforts than his personal health, said his daughter Maura O'Mahony, whom he called Mollie.

Even on the day he died, he shared a dance with Mollie as he battled stage 4 lung cancer.

"He just fought for everything he wanted," she said. "It's unreal that's he's not here, but I know that we will continue to see him throughout the rest of our lives for sure. His legend has not stopped."
She said he was her best friend and the best dad, someone who set the bar for deciding how invested someone was in a new hobby or goal.

"When anybody would be into something, like something new, we'd ask, 'Are they as into it as Bill Stewart?' As in, are they going to pursue it and forever go with it or just do it a little while?" she said. "That's basically him. He made anyone feel invincible. He made everyone feel like they were somebody."

The father of five and grandfather of three spent most of his life in the Wilmington area, where he became a vital part of Delaware’s birding and conservation communities over the last two decades. His heart was always in Delaware, his colleague Merker said, and Stewart helped put the First State on the birding map by showing visitors and locals the state's beauty and international role in shorebird migrations.

“So much of the progress we made through the Delaware Bayshore Initiative – restoring habitat, increasing access and engaging youth – was because of Bill’s tireless passion and ability to bring folks together,” O'Mara said.

Since that first Bird-A-Thon founded by Stewart in 2006, the event, with support from partners like Delaware Wildlands and others, has raised more than $400,000 to protect properties such as the 600-acre Passmore Farm near Townsend. Last year, he challenged everyone to raise $100,000 and they almost did, bringing in a record $92,000 with an eye on preserving land for shorebird habitat in Sussex County.

Funding from the program that Stewart founded also has helped start a hawk watch program in northern Delaware, as well as a science education grant for researchers.

“It’s made a really big impact, I think, on conservation and bird conservation in Delaware,” said Sally O’Byrne, a fellow birder and longtime friend of Stewart. “It’s just amazing the way he challenged us to do things like that and he just plowed forward and got things done.”

'A force of nature'

A self-described "non-typical nerd birder" because of his athletic background as a surfer and gymnastics coach, Stewart previously told Delaware Online/The News Journal that his goal was to be an ambassador for the birds because they had enriched his life so much.

"I thought it was our responsibility as Delaware birders and concerned conservationists to see what we could do to help the red knot and hopefully not allow them to go extinct," he said in a 2018 interview. "What's so cool is that it doesn't matter what you do, all of us kind of get along because we're all brought together with this commonality of birds."

During the 20 years or so that conservationist and birder Jim White knew Stewart, he was often impressed by Stewart’s energy to tackle so many projects.

“Birders were always interested in conservation, but Bill took it to the level of action, of doing something,” White said. “His real strength was his energy to do something like that, to go out and have everybody work with him.”

Stewart was always willing to help out, White said, especially during the Delmarva Ornithological Society’s annual Christmas bird counts. White realized how much Stewart, who also was a surfer, loved the sea when they were on the water counting birds and looking for seals.

As the winds kicked up water off the shores of Cape Henlopen, Stewart stood on the boat and reveled in the frigid saltwater spray.

Life lessons through sport

In his earlier years, Stewart also was a part of the area's gymnastics community, coaching students full-time at First State Gymnastics from in the 1970s and 1980s.

That’s where he first met gymnastics judge Cheryl Hamilton, who recently judged the World Championship in Germany, as well as the 2016 and 2012 Olympics.

Hamilton said she knew the kids loved working with Stewart, but didn’t realize how much until their kind words came pouring in this week.

“He taught them dedication, perseverance, to accept challenges. That’s just the guy he was,” said Hamilton.

She said Stewart helped some of those students, like Debbie Forgey, get college scholarships and qualify for national events.

Forgey, now a Lincoln, Nebraska, resident, said it was Stewart's coaching skills that helped her get a full college scholarship for gymnastics.

But it was Stewart's ability to make her feel like she could accomplish anything that has stuck with her throughout the decades, ever since she was a 12-year-old girl wearing glasses and a leotard. Stewart nicknamed her "Bug."

"He just has this gift of making you feel like you're important," Forgey said. And it wasn't until his passing and seeing the outpouring of love from former students on social media that made her realize she wasn't the only one he made feel that way.

"I have to laugh about that, that he was able to instill in each one of us enough confidence that we thought we had it. I thought I was the one, but they all were," she said. "That's the most amazing thing to me."

Always working 'full-force'

Stewart also was active in the American Birding Association, where he served as conservation director and hosted youth birding camps out of Lewes. He helped raise the funding needed to install a peregrine falcon camera at the top of the Brandywine Building in Wilmington, where he would host summer watch parties each year.

Professionally, he also spent time as a teacher in Virginia and received his degree in education from West Chester Univerisity. He also had a knack for interior design, which shone through his many years working at Hunt Country Furniture, where he eventually served as executive vice president.
He received numerous awards for his conservation efforts, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Conservation Champion Award, the U.S. Department of Interior Citizens Award and the 2015 Rosalie Edge Conservation Award from the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, according to the American Birding Association.

In 2011, he founded Red Knot Outfitters, providing private birding guides and tours throughout Delaware and nearby areas, with an emphasis on the spring and fall migrations of shorebirds. That endeavor also focused on education and conservation, Merker said.

They also sold out the first-ever Frontiers in Ornithology Symposium this fall, an effort to help young birders figure out how to turn their passion into careers.

It was Stewart's never-ending passion for conservation that inspired Matthew Sarver to get involved with the Delmarva Ornithological Society – and soon follow in his footsteps as the organization’s conservation chair. Even though they butted heads on many projects, Sarver said the end result was always worth it and that they never let their professional differences get in the way of their friendship.

And it was Stewart’s early appearance to meetings, ready to pop a beer and talk birds or just about life, that Sarver said he’ll remember.

“It’s hard to imagine the organization without him being involved,” Sarver said. “The amount of energy and passion he had for all of these projects was really incredible. He just wanted to get stuff done. That was his legacy.”

A celebration of life for Stewart will be held on Friday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Delaware Nature Society’s Ashland Nature Center at 3511 Barley Mill Road in Hockessin.

Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Fri-D Let's Make it Easier

For a variety of reasons, none too good, I've been out of the Cape May Birding scene for over a year. Now that I'm back, I run into old friends who ask me what I've been up to. I've been saying, "trying to get good at birding."

A couple people have actually laughed out loud at this. I experience a great deal of discomfort talking about myself, and it is in fact completely true I am trying to get better at birding. but I've been told I'm not too bad at this stuff, and I better be good, since I've been doing it for about 40 years in 49 states, 12 countries, and 5 continents with most of the very best birders who ever walked.

This is dangerous. The good get better, and the new get overwhelmed. There are so many field guides now that a lot of my scrawled notes in my old guides are superfluous, although at scrawling time people didn't know the stuff I was writing down or didn't talk about it. All this new accessible info is great, right? Not if it makes birding harder. It ain't no good at all then.

Everyone looks for the 'red head' on male Eurasian Wigeon (I was listening to fellow birders calling Green-winged Teal Eurasian Wigeon, and even Redheads, just the other day], but what color are Eurasian's flanks? What if your duck has it's head under water? Ref. photo above.

Or, e.g., swans:

[If it's on a little pond, it's a Mute Swan, except when it's not. If it's on anything from May through September, it's a Mute Swan. If it's fanning its wings over its back, like the two above, it's a Mute Swan that's pissed off. If it's got a straight neck, almost no visible tail, and honks, it's a Tundra Swan, like the one in front. No bill color needed, and the hell with details of feathering at the base of the bill. Bunker pond, Cape May Point, NJ last week.]

Some i.d.'s are difficult, sure, so let's keep the easy ones easy.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Thoughtful Thursday: A Foolish Thing

“If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”

― Anatole France

[Perhaps speaking on silent Empidonax flycatcher i.d.? Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphins know better, like this one near the North Wildlwood seawall a couple weeks ago.]

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A Good Day's Birding

[I like Bufflehead - who doesn't? They're back, like these at Cape May Point State Park, NJ, Sunday November 9, 2019. Click to enlarge photos.]

It was a good day to be a Cape May birder last Sunday. Periodically I check recent visits to CM on eBird, and when I did that night, I was puzzled a bit to see I had encountered more species than any of the other birders out that day. A lot more, except my friend Tom Reed, who unsurprisingly for someone so talented came up with a pretty long list.

I don't care much about lists, but they can be an index of how the birding has been. My day list for south of the Cape May canal, a.k.a. Cape Island, is at the end of this post. How come so many?
  1. A long time in the field.
  2. A long time out of a vehicle - actually, NO time IN a vehicle.
  3. A long walk - 7 miles.
  4. Multiple habitats visited: neighborhood, meadows, freshwater wetlands, a little salt marsh, beach, dune, dune forest, scrub-shrub, upland forest, wet woods, ag areas . . .
  5. I listened. All the time. I don't know, it's what I've always done, sometimes at the expense of looking.

Proof of that last point: I missed Mourning dove, Rock Pigeon, Northern Gannet, both loons, all three scoters . . . wasn't looking, which is why I love birding with my son Tim or friend Pete. They look.

[One of three Eurasian Wigeon (2 drakes, 1 hen) on Lighthouse Pond west Sunday. I looked for these.]

Cape Island (Cape May Co. south of the Cape May canal), Cape May, New Jersey, US
Nov 9, 2019 7:43 AM - 2:23 PM
Protocol: Traveling
7.0 mile(s)
74 species
Snow Goose  1
Canada Goose  274
Mute Swan  72
Tundra Swan  2
Northern Shoveler  12
Gadwall  128
Eurasian Wigeon  3     Continuing, two drakes one hen.
American Wigeon  100
Mallard  95
American Black Duck  3
Northern Pintail  30
Green-winged Teal  56
Ring-necked Duck  2
Bufflehead  10
Hooded Merganser  12
Pied-billed Grebe  1
Virginia Rail  1
American Coot  26
Piping Plover  0     Late. Calling at Meadows. Was someone playing a tape?
Killdeer  1
Ring-billed Gull  1
Herring Gull  1
Lesser Black-backed Gull  9
Great Black-backed Gull  2
Black Skimmer  7
Double-crested Cormorant  50
Great Blue Heron  2
Turkey Vulture  56
Osprey  1
Northern Harrier  2
Sharp-shinned Hawk  3
Cooper's Hawk  3
Bald Eagle  1
Red-tailed Hawk  5
Red-bellied Woodpecker  3
Northern Flicker  3
Merlin  1
Blue Jay  4
American Crow  8
Carolina Chickadee  4
Tree Swallow  14
Golden-crowned Kinglet  5
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  2
Brown Creeper  1     Beanery
Winter Wren  1     Beanery wet woods near horseshoe pond.
Carolina Wren  12
European Starling  6
Gray Catbird  2
Brown Thrasher  1
Northern Mockingbird  5
Eastern Bluebird  9
Hermit Thrush  1
American Robin  170
House Sparrow  30
American Pipit  1
House Finch  6
American Goldfinch  6
Chipping Sparrow  1
Field Sparrow  1
Dark-eyed Junco  4
White-throated Sparrow  55
Vesper Sparrow  1
Savannah Sparrow  9
Song Sparrow  35
Swamp Sparrow  45
Eastern Towhee  2
Red-winged Blackbird  110
Rusty Blackbird  2     West Cape May.
Common Grackle  10
Orange-crowned Warbler  1     Along bunker pond and again from Hawkwatch platform, could’ve been two different birds.
Nashville Warbler  1
Palm Warbler  2
Yellow-rumped Warbler  190
Black-throated Green Warbler  1     Probably continuing, this time from Hawkwatch platform, scene by several others.
Northern Cardinal  2
View this checklist online at

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

What Are You Doing Here?

[Yellow-rumped Warbler at my water drip (perhaps the greatest addition to a yard's bird attractiveness), October 19, 2019. Click to enlarge photos.]

Hello, yeah, it's been a while. . .

So on the morning of October 19, 2019 I was out listening for NFC's - that's shorthand for Nocturnal Flight Calls - and a nice thrush flight was underway. On my eBird list I placed a single unidentified thrush, although I knew exactly what it was.

I knew what it was, but the date made it unlikely.  Here is an important law of birding, if there is such a thing: A BIRD OUT OF ITS NORMAL DATE RANGE IS AS RARE AS A BIRD OUT OF ITS GEOGRAPHIC RANGE. It's something I've known for years and years, but I first heard it said by Paul Lehman, who said it so emphatically it deserves capital letters.

But later in the day I heard this "pep-pep-pep-pep" out the window and I said to myself, I KNOW what that is. It was this:

[Wood Thrush, Del Haven NJ October 19, 2019. Not the latest Cape May county record, but late enough to use caution. It's a hatch-year, aged by the molt limit in the wing coverts, meaning it started from its egg last summer.]