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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

May 22, 2010 some time in the afternoon Stone Harbor Beach Cape May, NJ

"There's an immature Common Eider out there!" called my grandfather - it was floating by the end of a rock jetty bobbing up and down in the swells. We didn't realize it at the time but Common Eiders are rare birds in Cape May at this time of year! We are used to seeing the last eiders depart around this time, but in Cape May they are scarce the year through. So instead of freaking-out, we took a quick look and walked on in search of new species.

We had already gotten all the usual species: House Finch, Red-Winged Blackbirds and more in the Phragmites, sand dunes, bushes and a pond that greeted the visitors warmly (and in winter coldly) with the bird species that swarmed here: Red-Winged Blackbirds in the Phragmites, Robins on the dunes, finches and sparrows flitting through the bushes and Spotted Sandpipers (along with many other shorebirds) teetering around the pond.

We strolled down the beach watching gannets way out in the distance soaring over the waves in small flocks of five or so birds. Semipalmated Sandpipers scuttled about like two legged crabs always playing tag with the rollicking waters of the mighty Atlantic. Hundreds of birds stood like statues on the sand dunes that looked out to sea - they were mostly peeps (probably Semipalmateds taking a break from their frenzied game of dodge the waves and digesting their tasty meal of worms) but there were a few plovers mixed in. Both Semipalmated and Piping Plovers were visible from our perspective. In the distance hundreds of shorebirds swarmed through the air - were they Red knots or Dunlin? I cannot say, but our adventure was not even close to finishing yet.

We turned back towards the car. As we walked by the pond previously, we had noticed a path that went away from our side of the beach and instead went toward the massive flock of birds which were hanging about on the other side of the peninsula, so we decided to take a look - maybe we might identify them. As I scanned the pond a dowitcher landed and then a second later flew off - nobody else had seen it. The dowitcher was probably a Short-Billed, the commoner species on the eastern seaboard and the only dowitcher that I have seen. An Eastern Wood-Pewee perched on a bush and an alarmed Willet flew overhead displaying its species' main field mark, the long white streak running down the center of the wing, but the distant shorebirds remained unidentified.

We spotted a grackle on a bush not that far from where we saw the pewee but this time we couldn't identify the species. (Unlike Rhode Island, Cape May has two species of Grackle: the Boat-Tailed Grackle and the Common Grackle. We have seen both species before but never together, which would have helped in are identification considerably.) We stopped to scan the pond one last time: Spotted Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Piping Plover(s?) and maybe a Semipalmated Plover (I can't remember exactly but we probably did). I lagged behind for a moment, just enough time for a beautiful Dunlin to fly in! "Dunlin, dunlin!" I cried. The Dunlin stayed long enough for everyone to get great views of its black chest, rufous back, and everything in between. It was a lifer for me and my brother!

Monday, June 28, 2010

May 21, 2010 late afternoon some time between 1:30 to 4 pm Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge Cape May, NJ

Our last stop was Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (also known as The Meadows). The large salt marsh and beach, where Piping Plovers nest, make up most of the refuge but there is also a scrubby meadow and pond made for feeding the nesting pairs of Piping Plovers.

As we drove down the road that would lead us to the refuge we spotted a Black Vulture soaring high in the sky with a group of TVs (Turkey Vultures) - this was a first for the year! As we drove into the parking lot of the refuge it was hard not to see the massive flock of birds hawking insects. Laughing Gulls made up most of the group - there were hundreds of them feasting on the tiny insects swarming in the sky above. There were many TVs and even a few Blacks gulping down insects by the gallon. There was even a Bald Eagle soaring majestically over head!

The two leaders of the walk also pointed out a Mississippi Kite catching Dragonflies high above and then eating them still on the wing (one of our leaders was Louis Zematis a famous bird artist and a judge for the two thousand and nine young birder of the year contest illustration module!). The Mississippi Kite was both scarce in Cape May and a lifer for all of my family!

There were tons of Forsters Terns hanging out on the marsh (lifers!). They were very elegant terns with beautiful silver grey and white bodies and long slender forked tails. Every once in a while a male tern would fly in and feed a female. The female have the males feed them as a test to see who would be the best parent. She will mate with the one that brings the most and biggest fish-it was very interesting to watch this amazing behavior.

There were some Gadwalls lazing around on the marsh along with some other waterfowl: Red-Winged Blackbirds cried from the cattails, a Bobolink flew by, a flock of shorebirds flew over head which contained some Dunlin (Dunlin would be a lifer but I was going to wait for a better view to count them), a yellowlegs waded in the water, Semipalmated Sandpipers scuttled about, life went on as it should. There were a few Piping Plovers along the beach - one even had a group of four or so chicks in its wake. Oystercatchers lazed about while terns and Gannets flew over the rolling waves and plummeted for fish in the water. An immature Bonaparte's Gull swam on the water and a few seconds later a Laughing Gull landed next to Mr (or Ms) B. We turned around and headed back for the car. We didn't see much more after that. (I left out a bunch of common birds like egrets and geese).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"John Adams" bird era error

We were watching a movie called John Adams last night. We were almost finished the first disc when in the middle of an important meeting they started playing chirping House Sparrows in the background. The movie was supposed to be in 1775 but they were playing the calls of House Sparrows which were only introduced in 1840! I fear that they are not ornithologists.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

May 21, 2010 all day sunny Rea Farm and Higbee Beach, Cape May, NJ

Black Racer

Orchard Oriole

baby Downy Woodpecker in hole

a bad photo of a Prothonotary Warbler

Box Turtle

It is hard to believe after such a great day yesterday that it could get any better but it was going to get a lot better today!

Our first stop would be Rea Farm locally known as the Beanery. It was a hot spot for Spring and Fall songbird migration. Our goal bird was the Prothonotary Warbler a large brightly colored bird with big black eyes, blue gray wings and a bright yellow body. We got out of the car and walked over to the bunch of birders watching something through their numerous scopes and binoculars. One birder was kind enough to let us take a peak through his scope at a singing male Indigo Bunting shining like a star in the early morning light. We were very lucky to see so many good birds in the two hours we spent there from a Green Heron to a Red-Eyed Vireo! Here is a list of the birds I can recall seeing at Rea:
Green Heron,
Canada Geese,
Wood Ducks,
Greater Yellowlegs (three flying over head just as we were leaving),
Red-Bellied Woodpecker,
Downy Woodpeckers (nesting - I got a photo of one of the babies),
Great-Crested Flycatcher pair which were presumably nesting in the woods close to the path,
Carolina Chickadees, a lifer! I have been to Florida before but never saw one probably because most of our birding was done around the house we were staying at which seemed not to have any local chickadees,
Magnolia Warbler (I am pretty sure I saw this here),
(tons of) Blackpoll Warblers,
American Redstart(s?),
Prothonotary Warbler a lifer! After long hard wait the bird finally showed himself to us! He had been singing for ten minutes or so. I would have been so frustrated if it didn't show,
Black-And-White Warbler(s?)
Common Yellowthroats,
Indigo Bunting and many other birds that I can't think of right now. Why didn't I keep my notebook up to date instead of checking them down on a weekend checklist?

Our next stop was one of the most famous migrant stops in America: Higbee Beach! The name suggests that it is solely a beach but Higbee has acres of meadow and woodland as well. This was probably the best part of our trip to Cape May. I almost instantly heard the bird the leaders were calling a Blue Grosbeak (a lifer!). The Blue Grosbeak is a large bird with a bill almost the size of its head! The male is a rich navy blue except for the wings which are a strong rufus, the female on the other hand is as drab as you can get in the bird world with a fulvous back and a brown hued breast. The first bird we saw was a Northern Cardinal in a tree in the corner of the parking lot and a nesting American Robin. The most exuberating bird for me and my family present at the time was a beautiful Yellow-Breasted Chat! A lifer! The bird was hopping about at the entrance giving amazing views a perfect opportunity for photographing this beautiful bird (I got a very nice photo). There was a Field Sparrow flying across the meadow right at the entrance and a singing Indigo Bunting.

One of the leaders (Don Freiday or is it Frieday pronounced "Friday") caught a big Black Racer, a snake species. The leaders found a nesting Great-Crested Flycatcher, one of the largest flycatchers around here. The Flycatchers kept hopping into a hole in a tree. It was very interesting to watch (though it was hard standing still and watching them when I knew there were lifers around the corner and there were!). We walked under a canopy of trees where nothing much resided, other than a few ants, and into a second meadow. We hadn't taken ten steps when one of the leaders called out "Blue Grosbeak". She set up the only scope they had bothered taking along and set it on a speck in the distance about the size of a Northern Cardinal. At last we had seen a Blue Grosbeak ("up close and personal" as James Currie host of Birding Adventures TV show would say). It was so far off and we were only allowed a three-second look through the scope - I can't say that it was either particularly up close or personal! There was a male hanging around with the female but it was harder to see.

Twenty-seconds later Don Freiday found us a second reptilian lifer, a Box Turtle, a medium sized land turtle (not a tortoise) which is able to shut himself inside his shell. We saw two Tufted Titmice flying across a field which Don Freiday called a record flight for a Titmouse. They aren't big fans of long distance flights and prefer to hop from tree to tree. Sadly I got distracted and forgot to watch if he made it all the way to the other side of the meadow or got wimpy and turned back.

The leaders got really excited (as well as the whole group) when Don Freiday heard a Mourning Warbler singing from the under-brush. We were unable to locate it (he said that in his life of bird walk leading he had only shown a few groups this secretive bird! Why weren't we one of them?). There were many common warblers where he had heard the Mourning Warbler singing such as Yellow. I spotted a brilliantly colored male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird perched in a bare tree. It was one of the few birds I personally spotted on the whole walk!

"Orchard Oriole" called Don. We looked up at a bird just a bit smaller than an American Robin as it flew over us. Great! another lifer! I was beginning to worry that we weren't going to see any more!

A bit further down the path we saw a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher flitting high in a tree. This was a far as we would go due to flooding in the path. We turned around and headed back, there were a few Magnolia Warblers hopping through the bushes by the path.

"Orchard Oriole" I called. At last I had found a good bird. It was feeding in a sumac I think 12 feet away from me. I had walked a little way a head of everyone else (though I can't remember what they were watching). I was later advised by one of the leaders who told me to walk behind them because everyone would get mad at me not the leaders of the walk if I was the one that scared a bird away by mistake which often happens if you are in the lead.

We came across a mixed warbler flock, a pair of Orchard Orioles, some Blue Grosbeak and some other of the birds we had seen already but were still very exciting just a little way down the path! There were Yellow and Blackpoll in the flock. A probable Blackburnian was flitting through the tree tops but we didn't get our bins on it for a positive identification. There were some Blue Grosbeak feeding in one of the many fields and a pair of Orchard Orioles munching on something in a tree.

The last good bird we saw was a beautiful Prairie Warbler, a yearer, singing high in a tree giving us "killer views" (another James Currie expression which he often says. Though he would actually say "killer views through my Nikon Field Scope").

As we walked into the parking lot some local birders took the time to check the rare bird alert and a man shouted "Mississippi and Swallow-Tailed Kites at the Beanery!" Ten or so birders jumped in their cars and made a long procession down the road to Rea Farm. We walked over to one of the men who had led the first walk at Rea. He told us that someone had said they saw them but no one else had. He said that the Swallow-Tailed Kite was reported to be heading in the direction of Higbee! The irony of it all!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

May 20, 2010 all day Cape May NJ and the drive down Part one

Finally the day had arrived! After weeks of longing to be out there with the experts, our grandparents (John and Therese Goodchild) had asked us if we would like to go birding at Cape May NJ, one of the most famous birding spots in the US and only a six hour drive from Rhode Island. We were finally going to Cape May to watch the Red Knot migration and migrating songbirds! It had previously been decided that we would be birding solely by our selves but we had just recently discovered a led trip to some of the best birding spots in Cape May. Unfortunately it was very expensive for the group of us and we were only able to do one day - the rest would be spent birding by our selves like we had planned.

As we drove down the highway heading south we marveled at the diverse habitat around us and tried to identify all the birds and road kills we saw. We did pretty well seeing a few dead and living White-Tailed Deer. We saw a Peregrine Falcon on the George Washington Bridge and many other nice birds including: 1 possible Black Vulture eating on the side of the highway (we would see many more in the following days), two flocks of high flying Glossy Ibis, lots of Turkey Vultures wheeling over head (nicknamed "TVs"), Laughing Gulls everywhere flying over head and perched on lamp posts and a Yellow Warbler.

Cape May bore an amazing resemblance to both Cape Cod and Florida, two of my favorite birding hotspots. No wonder Cape May was famous for birding. We finally parked our car in the parking lot of the Grand Hotel which happened to be directly across from the sea where dolphins jumped and sharks were being pulled up by fisherman.

The beach would be the only place we were going to bird that day - after all it was around 3 pm. We walked across the road and started to scan - there were many Least and Common Terns flying lazily across the horizon. We thought we might have seen a Forster's Tern flyby which would be a lifer - we only later found out that the Forster's was one of the most common birds on the beaches of Cape May (luckily we would see many Forster's Terns on the morrow)! Laughing Gulls were everywhere: on the beach, on buildings, perched on poles, flying over head and, true to their name, laughing. We saw a Common Grackle too. Some ladies who were strolling down the beach were kind enough to point out some dolphins (or porpoises ) feeding out in the waters of the Atlantic.

We came back a bit later and had an even better experience! Laughing Gulls, a Herring Gull, Double-Crested Cormorants flying way in the distance, Least Terns, Common Terns, a flock of mystery sandpipers, Purple Martins (I am pretty sure that they were nesting at Cape May Point State Park which is famous for the raptor migration - they had a very large population of Martins and it wasn't far from where we were on this beach), a European Starling and a House Sparrow. The dolphins were still feeding out in the ocean displaying there magnificent fins to the world. But by far the most exiting moment was when, after a lot of struggling, a fisherman dragged a small two and a half foot shark onto the sand! Of course this was not his intended prey, so he threw it back - the poor creature was so stunned that he beached himself. The fisherman once again grabbed him by the tail and tossed him back in. It disappeared under the water and was gone (I find it very impressive that it took a full grown man five minutes to drag a (baby?) shark onto the beach)!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

May 15, 2010 7-8:30 am Windy 55' Swan Point Cemetery, Providence RI

Today at Swan Point we had the usual swarm of birders all with long telephoto lenses (still acting like Red Green's birding buddies). As usual we went right to the hotspot, but the Sun had not yet warmed the trees in the clearing (for that's where we were). That said, the birds seem uninclined to freeze in the shadows when there were warmer trees just a few hundred yards away, so we decided to check out the woods where we don't usually see much. It was the same for today - they really don't like those woods (though other birders have told us this is THE hot spot).

As we left the confines of the woods and headed back towards the clearing I spotted a Black-Throated Green Warbler flitting on delicate wings from bough to bough high in the canopy. But the excitement came when we noticed a small yellow bird with a black hood. It was playing hide and seek with the Black-Throated Green. The bird was a Hooded Warbler! A lifer!!!

Here is a list of all the birds we noticed on the cemetery hike ("L" means lifer and "Y" means year bird): Hooded (L), Black-Throated Green (Y), Blackpoll Warbler (Y), a striking male Scarlet Tanager lamenting to the birders about his hard 2,000 mile night migration (Y), Wood Thrushes (Y), Northern Parula, Grey Catbird, Blue Jay, American Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Baltimore Oriole, Eastern Phoebe, Mallards, Eastern Kingbird, Northern Cardinal, Red-Tailed Hawk, Tufted Titmouse, European Starling, Northern Flicker, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Chimney Swift, American Goldfinch, Mourning Dove, Common Grackle, Brown-Headed Cowbird, Black-Capped Chickadee and American Crow. In the end we had a list of 27 species: 1 Lifer and 4 year birds!