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

Snow Break for the Birder

On Saturday I met up with my adviser, his wife and a friend from grad school and we headed back to Sandy Hook, home of the Snowy Owl spotted during our Big Day. I was excited to do my first real birding since my return from the Galapagos, but as departure time approached and I thought of all the snow out there, the thought of trudging through snow and cold caused me to drag my feet.  Granted I should have been thrilled that we caught a break between the storms and we were all free, but it wasn’t registering.

But it wasn’t so bad. There was no wind and the snow was manageable. You might notice there’s something off about the photo….

Trekking over the white sand beach. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Trekking over the white sand beach. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

No footprints!  For the most part we were able to walk entirely on top of the snow without leaving footprints.  It felt very magical and many a remark was made about elves.   But also no owl.  I didn’t do any of the planning or scouting for this trip, so it went overlooked that the last time a snowy owl had been spotted was on January 20th.

Surprising flock of Field Sparrows.  Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Surprising flock of Field Sparrows. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Like last time we also had nice views Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers. New were Bald Eagle, Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, American Robin, Common Goldeneye, Black Scoters and Field Sparrows. I got a glimpse of a Merlin while everyone else was mesmerized by a flashy immature Bald Eagle. So slow start to NJ birds, but getting good birds.

Horned Grebe finds a calm patch of water.   Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Horned Grebe finds a calm patch of water. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Working Sandy Hook is slowly improving my identification skills of a few birds I only see about once per year. so yay! Just need to actually order my scope, so I can be a real birder.

Hermit Thrush. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Hermit Thrush. False harbinger of spring. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Call me crazy, but winter is rapidly winding up. While it cannot end too soon for many people (another several inches of snow predicted for this week?! whee!), to me I see the closing window of opportunity for Snowy Owls and Long-eared Owls.

Ghost Birds

This week I rejoined the birders of Rutgers Newark for the Wednesday Walks.  When I arrived, Claus immediately set off in pursuit of the Clay-colored Sparrow and Lark Sparrows he had discovered on his scouting excursion earlier that morning.

Well, we discovered sparrows galore! 200+ Chipping Sparrows, 100+ White-throated Sparrows, a few Song Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos, and even Eastern Towhees and Swamp Sparrows.  We searched long and hard, high and low…. located an unidentifiable (due to distance) falcon… Probably the American Kestrel who frequents the campus and had been seen earlier in the morning, but looked a bit Merlin like for the hopeful.  Woodpeckers were also scarce this morning with only a lone Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in evidence.

It was a chilly morning!  I was grateful I had pulled a lazy birder and thrown clothes over my pajamas rather than change – it provided just the right amount of warmth.  But the two birds that would have been new for the list: the Lark Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrows were lost in the host of sparrows (reference).  I did see my first American Woodcock of the year – dead, but it was still a woodcock.   (They’re already on my life list so I feel less guilty about counting it!)

Unfortunately as the campus became more active, the sparrows became more restless.  A few times the host swarmed when someone walked too close and a few would inevitably fly into the windows.  We walked through the fall zone, practicing avian triage.   My patient was inclined to scramble away from the others, but for some inexplicable reason tolerated me.

RecoveringChipping Sparrow catches a ride around campus on m arm.

Recovering Chipping Sparrow catches a ride around campus on my arm. Photo by Claus Holzapfel.

He rode on my arm for a bit before he went to rest in a planter to resume his recovery. Claus Holzapfel, excursion leader also writes up the Wednesday Walks. His write up can be found here.  Additionally you can see all the bird species that have been idenified on the urban Rutgers Newark Campus as well as their efforts at wilding an urban oasis to increase biodiversity.