Huzzah for Herons and Hawks and Other Hopefuls

*Now with corrected title. Oy.

One is always optimistic for any adventure to Cape May.  Possibly the premiere birding spot in the state, Cape May has the promise of good birds even on a bad day.  (That’s either a run-of-the-mill bad day and a bad day birding!)  The biggest problem is the distance.  It’s about three hours away (non-breeding season).  Basically you take the parkway until it ends, and you keep going.  Stop before Delaware.

Iconic Cape May Light House sets the scene and acts as a beacon bringing in birds and birders.  Last stop in NJ! Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Iconic Cape May Light House sets the scene and acts as a beacon bringing in birds and birders. Last stop in NJ! Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

It seems that the weekend of October 4th and 5th was the weekend to be at Cape May.  Once again, I joined the Montclair State University Ornithology class for the Saturday trip. That professor (previous adviser) was staying over through Sunday to make a weekend of it.  My *new* adviser was headed down Sunday to stay over through Monday.  The flight was supposed to be spectacular for Sunday, but I was only going for the day and had some assignment due for class that I couldn’t give up another day for.

Duck, duck, more ducks. It's fall! Blue-winged teal not yet in Basic (breeding) plumage and a an American Widgeon. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Duck, duck, more ducks. It’s fall! Blue-winged teal not yet in Basic (breeding) plumage and a an American Widgeon. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

As the trend has tended to be, the light started off poorly (what’s with that?!), but at least there were fun birds to see.  Tara and I got there a bit early, caught the last of the rains, but did get to see Blue-winged Teal, American Widgeon, and a Glossy Ibis fly overhead.

Glossy Ibis in flight.  Note curved bill. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Glossy Ibis in flight. Note curved bill. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

One of the best parts of Cape May for any new birder I suspect, and perhaps for the ornithologists who study raptors, is seeing the Bird Demo at their Pavilion.  The Cape May Bird Observatory has a long-running banding program particularly for raptors and will typically have 2 birds to show up close for any interested birders at about 10 am each weekend morning.  This day both birds were Sharp-shinned Hawks.  Look at that beauty.  Wispy feathers on the face, the slight notch in the parted beak,  the distinct color patterns!

What's better than a bird in the bush? Sharp-shinned Hawk in the hand.  At Cape May there is a long-running raptor banding program. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

What’s better than a bird in the bush? Sharp-shinned Hawk in the hand. At Cape May there is a long-running raptor banding program. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

So there were plenty of Ardeidae to be had.  Ardeidae is the family of herons to which herons, bitterns and their allies belong while Pelicaniformes is the order, which of course includes pelicans.  No pelicans spotted today though.

Great Egret with a fish. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Great Egret with a fish. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

I think I might actually have video of the Great Egret wrestling and flipping the fish.  Is flipping the fish bird-slang for flipping the bird?

On the far side, there was also a Great Blue Heron hunkered down hunting near the ducks.  Mallard with the speculum appearing…. blue? Normally it’s more of a purple.

More games with birds: duck, duck, heron!  Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

More games with birds: duck, duck, heron! Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Also at a far distance, we had a few problematic sandpipers.  There was quite a bit of disagreement as they were poorly positioned each time and cameras and scopes could make little headway.  We did at least resolve than in the morning, there were probably two separate sandpipers simultaneously creating that discord.  Here’s one of the spotted.  We had Pectoral and Western.  As I look over my notes, I don’t see the third,  I wonder if we decided not to call it because of the lack of concurrence.

One of the pesky peeps plaguing our ID skills.  Thank goodness for photos and zooms. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

One of the pesky peeps plaguing our ID skills. Thank goodness for photos and zooms. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

One of today’s two lifers; I had three opportunities to view it.  Now how often does one get a lifer and three viewing opportunities?   I tell you, it’s the Cape May promise.   Little Blue Heron in it’s white juvenile form.  Hard to tell in this photo as it’s experiencing momentary shyness, but there is a blue bill, thus ruling out Snowy Egret.

Lifebird: The Little Blue Heron that wasn't (blue). Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Lifebird: The Little Blue Heron that wasn’t (blue). Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

I do have to say that while at the Hawk Watch Platform we ran into Steve of Every Stranger Is a Promise and a second birding adventure involving rattlesnakes that I never had a chance to write up.  So I went up to the upper level and hung out with him for awhile. Best of both worlds as I could see better and hear more of the identification calls as well as pay attention to the birds under observation by the class. Steve did suggest I follow up with him to go look for Short-eared Owls this winter in New York.  So yay, more birds!

After a bit, by which I mean several hours, we decided to go for a loop through the field trails to pick up additional birds.  Lots of accipiters, most of which weren’t photographed as the birds buzzed past: Broadwing, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shoulder, and great views of a Merlin.  We caught this particular Merlin in three different locations, but I’ll just share one photo:

The magnificent Merlin with minimal magnification. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

The magnificent Merlin with minimal magnification. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

We had a chance to watch it eat a Yellow Warbler (hence the yellow warbler in the sightings list).  It flew in one tree ate for a bit, flew off and happened to land much closer to our new location.   It then flew away, and we (I) was distracted by another new bird.

So to back up the story a bit, as we headed into the trails, two exiting birders stopped us to inform us that the Common Gallinule was present today.  I was so excited I near sent my adviser back to learn the precise location of the bird, but he said he had a good idea (or he really didn’t want to go chasing after people!).

So each waterway we found, I’d search thoroughly.  I’d scout ahead so I could have more time, then linger behind making sure I hadn’t missed a single feather.  I did find a Green Heron for the class that way.

Obscured Green Heron is not a Common Gallinule. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Obscured Green Heron is not a Common Gallinule. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

At the next pond, my adviser found my my dream bird of the day:

Common Gallinule. Lifer. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Common Gallinule. Lifer. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Lifer #2, the Common Gallinule.  And an additional photo of Lifer #1 the Little Blue Heron this time with beak feature obviously not black.

Little Blue Heron up close. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Little Blue Heron up close. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

We wrapped up shortly after that as the light faded with a bit more time on the platform. Then after the class departed home we went to the beach for a bit. Was close to getting a lifer gull then the flock spooked and I didn’t see it, alas. (But there’s a promise of gulls in December, so cross fingers!) I’ll close out with one of the last (but not the last) bird of the day. The last bird of the day was a screech owl that flew over the car on the drive home listening to bad radio, but there’s no photo of that.

Osprey with fish in the fading light. Cape May, NJ.  Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Osprey with fish in the fading light. Cape May, NJ. Photo taken on October 10, 2014.

Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Gadwall
American Wigeon
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Green Heron
Glossy Ibis
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk —
Broad-winged Hawk
Common Gallinule
Semipalmated Plover?
Pectoral Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Caspian Tern
Common Tern
Forster’s Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Merlin
Peregrine Falcon
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
House Sparrow

Back to Business at Brigantine

Hopefully now that fall migration is settling down, I can catch up with the blogging. (Ha) I’ve been doing things, bird things even, but it’s hard to write with binoculars or a bird in the the hand. Though I hear that’s worth two in the bush!

In mid-September I had the opportunity to join the Montclair State University ornithology class on their first trip. Destination: Brigantine.

The conditions were rubbish for photography, but we saw decent birds.  It was windy, cloudy, and high tide!

Mute Swan only, no Tundra this trip.   We had a fair showing for ducks in September.  I may have picked up Green-winged and blue-winged Teal for year.  So, since it’s two months late, no more words, enjoy photos and bird lists!

Blustery day at high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Blustery day at high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Mute Swans swim through the rushes and reeds of the  freshwater interior. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Mute Swans swim through the rushes and reeds of the freshwater interior. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Lone Double-crested Cormorant at high tide. Brigatine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Lone Double-crested Cormorant at high tide. Brigatine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Semipalmated Sandpipers nice and close because it's high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Semipalmated Sandpipers nice and close because it’s high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Equally close Least Sandpiper at high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Equally close Least Sandpiper at high tide. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Ospreys have similar problems to people.  I'm pretty sure that it's feathe Brigantine / Forsythers are blowing in its eyes. NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Ospreys have similar problems to people. I’m pretty sure that it’s feathers are blowing in its eyes. Brigantine / Forsyther. NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Boat-tailed Grackle. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.Boat-tailed Grackle. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Seaside or Saltmarsh Sparrows abound. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Seaside Sparrows abound. Brigantine / Forsythe NWR, NJ. Photo taken on September 13, 2014.

Mute Swan
Wood Duck
American Black Duck
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
American Oystercatcher
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Least Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Laughing Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed
Caspian Tern
Common Tern
Forster’s Tern
Black Skimmer
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Peregrine Falcon
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Eastern Bluebird
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Bobolink
Red-winged Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Piering Back Through Time

August is often a quiet birding month. If you are fortunate enough to be by the seashore or along a flyway, you can witness the beginning of the migration season as shorebirds move through. Why do shorebirds depart so early?

Well here in New Jersey, we’re quite fortunate when it comes to shore birds!  We have our endangered Piping Plovers nesting on our beaches and the Ruddy Turnstones refueling on their migration, but oftentimes don’t realize the Ruddy Turnstone’s behaviors are more typical of their family (Scolopacidae). Many of the shorebirds migrate to the far northern reaches of this hemisphere. Not sure what marketing strategies they used, but it worked. “Experience Long Days in Short & Sweet Summers”?

Goodness knows I’d response to such an advertisement.  And the shorebirds definitely do.  Take a look at the two maps below.  Gleaned from the riches of the internet, on the left we have a generalized map showing the migration pathways of shorebirds between the polar reaches.  Most of our neotropicals (sciencespeak for summer birds found in the Western Hemisphere) prefer to spend their winters in more climates with a shorter commute.  However, the shorebirds hold most of the records for long distance migration (the way Kenya produces champion Olympic runners).

  • About ~1800 species perform long distance migrations (18%).
  • White-rumped Sandpiper flies 15,000 miles one way.
  • Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica fly 11,000 miles nonstop.

Now the map on the right shows breed locations for Snow Geese.  While not a shore bird, the map depicts the preference for extreme latitudinal breeding grounds also evidenced by dozens of shorebirds.  These habitats are rich with the food resources needed by the birds. So why do shorebirds migrate so early?  Long commute.

So back to birding here in the mid-Atlantic.  August saw me house-sitting once more in New York.   While house-sitting I had a few opportunities to go a birding hotspot in the county known the “the Pier”.  It’s not wooden nor is it like a boardwalk.   It’s a one-mile road once used for military purposes now converted into a paved and tree-lined walk into the Hudson River (that generally keeps your feet dry – bonus!). This is a nice spot for ducks, shorebirds, warblers, and some raptors depending on the season.  It juts out the western shore of the Hudson River as a signal to all weary birds they can find refuge here.  Just south of the Pier is a marsh which further extends sanctuary for these feathered friends.  It’s probably the best/only shorebird birding location in Rockland county.

There have been some enviable birds seen here.  Generally not by me.  But what I’m trying to build for myself is a solid working knowledge of the usual suspects at this site so I can find the fun ones.  So the remainder of this post is the dialogue in my head as I processed and assessed these images.   It’s like a note to myself for in the future when I forget what the shorebirds look it because it happens every year.

Mallard in flight. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Mallard in flight. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

As I continue working towards improvement in bird photography, I’d like to focus on birds in motion.  (Some of this may need to wait until I get a functional camera).  I like this photo though despite the blur and shadow.   The mallards are around year-round, but I do want to try to remember to appreciate them!

Osprey on the prowl. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Osprey on the prowl. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Another fairly frequent visitor: the Osprey.  Usually if I remember to look up often enough and scan with the binoculars, I can find at least one Osprey.  Another in motion photo.  In this one, the M-shape that helps to identify the species is less evident.   I know some birders who strongly feel Ospreys must be observed for it to be considered a good day of birding.  Thus the 24th must have been a good day.

Least Sandpiper forages among large rocks at high tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Least Sandpiper forages among large rocks at high tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

And to close with some photos of shorebirds.  Which is what one particularly seeks in August.   Notorious for traveling in large groups and looking like carbon copies, shorebirds can be very frustrating to identify.   I know when taking these photos in August, my focus was on photography rather than identification.

Least Sandpiper gazes out at the tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Least Sandpiper gazes out at the tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Both the above photos featured the Least Sandpiper.  There are three small sandpipers in the region collectively known as peeps.  Please don’t eat them, they’re not as sweet as they sound!  In fact I would argue the opposite of sweet is not bitter, but frustrating!  How often is a day of birding either characterized as sweet or frustrating?   The Least is the smallest peep, but when you’re lacking a ruler and distance is an issue 1/4 inch differences don’t help!

The most obvious give away are the legs.  Take a look at the two above: yellow.  Now if in deep water, mud, or shade or poor lighting (90% of all situations +/- 5.5%) the yellow isn’t obvious.

What else stands out to me?  There seems to be a bit more of an intentional eye line, the feathers have more of a rust color, the bill seems a bit shorter?

Semipalmated Sandpiper hunkers down to wait for better times, or tides. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Semipalmated Sandpiper hunkers down to wait for better times, or tides. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Now this fellow above is different.  Legs are darker.  No discernible eye line. More like an eye spot? Brown-brown feathers.  I’d say this is a Semipalmated Sandpiper.  Which I believe in the Mid-Atlantic region is the most common.  (Despite what my August collection of photos appears to indicate!)  Slightly larger, which I know from my bird guide and websites, not the photo!

Least Sandpiper scrambles at the water's edge. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Least Sandpiper scrambles at the water’s edge. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Last and least!  The Least Sandpiper here again.   Note the rust-tinges, yellow legs, eye line.   Also, it seems that the upper breast, just below the neck region is also buffier than in other sandpipers (comparison not yet available).  Note that the Pectoral Sandpiper who is better known for this feature has coloration much further down and is a larger sandpiper.

I also just really like this photo.  It’s one in a series of 5 taken moments apart and all the others are just slightly out of focus with my autofocus.  Thanks, camera.

Additional Reading:
Ecological Studies and Environmental Monitoring at Bylot Island Sirmilik National Park.
Bird Migration. Wikipedia.

Birding by Bike

As summer winds down and migration starts up, the birding has been low-key.  Early excursions into work yield about 20 different species each trip with minor variation.  Still, we faithfully arrive around 7 once to twice a week, just to verify the birding is less than exciting.

One of the nicest things about living in this region is that it’s fairly flat and pretty good for cycling. On weekends we easily get dozens to hundreds of cyclists riding past.   Many nights after work, I’ll pull out the bike and do a nine mile course along a creek, through a marsh, out into a river, past backyards, and a few forested patches.  The 9 miles is beginning to feel easier on the thighs.  If I focus on birds, I feel the ache a little less.  I entertain myself and my mother who frequently rides with me by identifying the birds scolding us and flittering across the path. Yesterday this course yielded a Wild Turkey.  Today was even more exciting!

The omen of good birding was granted by a Great Egret within the first half mile.  I spotted a Bald Eagle flying away into the distance as I cycled through one of the inner regional marshes, and in the riverine marsh I spotted 8 Least Sandpipers scrounging around in the mud.  Thank goodness for yellow legs, but not yellowlegs!   New for the state list and the year list, woo!

There’s talk of the Biggest Birding Expedition of the Season down to Brigatine for Saturday.  We’ll see if it actually happens.  It was supposed to be last Saturday, but that fell through.

In other good news, I finally found my camera charger and recharged the camera batteries,so hopefully there’ll be more photos soon!