Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Shorebirds of Cape May

Looking for photos of shorebirds for my final post on Cape May was like scraping the bottom of a barrel: there were many shots of distant flocks on tidal flats and few, if any, worth reproducing. Most of the shores were roped off to protect breeding sites on the beaches. Below a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers with a few Dunlins mixed in.

The Dunlins' summer plumage while on migration to their arctic breeding grounds was strikingly different from their familiar dull winter plumage. Only the drooping bill with its wilting tip looked the same. 

They were sporting a rufous cap and a bright rufous back. In addition they stood out by a sharply defined black patch on their belly, making them very conspicuous among the pale-bellied shorebirds. I wonder, since everything has to have a reason, what's the advantage of having a black underside? 

It is easier to understand the dramatic, and confusing, coloration of the Ruddy Turnstones, shown here with several Short-billed Dowitchers and a Sanderling: it makes them blend in with the pebbles of the shore.

Short-billed Dowitcher above, compare to the slightly smaller Lesser Yellowlegs below.

Some locations were made intolerable by the dense clouds of gnats that materialized within a couple of minutes of our arrival. Pete Dunne, our guide on several trips, was wearing an ingeniously constructed, airy, and bug-proof: The Original Bug Shirt on sale at the Cape May Bird Observatory. I decided I had to have one too. Although a little late on this trip, I will find a useful during black fly season in Vermont, or when exploring swampy, mosquito-infested areas, such as the heron rookery below.

In closing a photo of a Boat-tailed Grackle, amusing and noisy coastal inhabitant. Happy Birding!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Piping Plovers, Purple Martins, and an Osprey

Upon arrival at their breeding grounds Piping Plovers establish a territory which encompasses a stretch of shoreline for feeding and  higher dry ground for nesting. 

A male entering an other's territory may provoke a threat display: lowering the head and fanning and puffing the feathers. This may last for a many minutes. Sometimes they engage in running in parallel along a disputed boundary.

I am guessing  this is a dispute between two males with a female looking on

At a distance a couple of downy chicks were running about without any adults close by.

Purple Martins

On the same beach in back of the dunes a Purple Martin colony with compartmentalized wooden houses and gourds had been set up. They had just begun building their nests and laying eggs. No young had yet been hatched. Both males and females may claim many compartments and defend them against competitors but relinquish most of them once they have settled on one for building their nest, keeping some as spare rooms. Since not all compartments in a house may be occupied, the male of a nesting pair often sleeps in an adjoining one.

Purple Martins are fierce defenders of their nests. They peck, bite and claw at any intruder who tries to enter. Males fight off other males and females other females. Violent battles may ensue if a competitor manages to get inside. The nest openings are crescent-shaped to keep out starlings who can't pass because of their larger sternums.


On any suitable platform along the coast Osprey nests are ubiquitous and man-made detritus is also ubiquitous, below an iconic sign of our human presence, the plastic trash bag. 

Plastic waste such as bags, balloons, and other junk are often mistaken for food and fed to the chicks causing them to starve and die. It reminds us to be mindful of what we discard and pick up such items on the beach when we see them.

I have material for one more post on Cape May:  shorebirds. Until then, happy birding!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

More Life Birds from Cape May

I arrived in Cape May for the Maygration Birding Festival mid afternoon on a beautiful day. I was unpacking my rental car when a very vocal crow dropped from the roof and flew off. A Fish Crow! A life bird for me.  Instead of the customary cawing the bird's nasal twang was unmistakable. It's like being in a foreign country.  Although they are a different species of crows Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus) are indistinguishable from American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) except when seen side by side: they are little bit smaller and their beak is a bit blunter at the tip. To start off with a life bird I thought was a good omen. 

I soon discovered that the hotel I was staying at was on the "wrong" side of Cape May, away from most of the festival activities. It was facing the beach and was surrounded by blindingly white million dollar summer homes as yet unoccupied and was far removed from any stores or restaurants. The streets and sidewalks were empty except for the ocean fishermen parked along the beach side. One advantage though:  no bugs! The biting gnats can be a real problem along the back waters. They appear after a few minutes and cluster thickly around you, so that you want to cover every skin surface except the eyes. 

These are my other lifers: 

Seaside Sparrow, an inhabitant of the marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf coast

Marsh Wren, an impressive singer usually deep in the cat tails only occasionally and very briefly coming to the surface

Blue Grosbeak, larger than the Indigo Bunting, mostly found in the south eastern Atlantic states, distinguished from Indigo Bunting by larger size, larger beak and rust colored slashes on wings.

Clapper Rail, skulking through the cat tails and easily missed. This bird is taking  bath in one of the channels created by low tide.

Forster's Tern, common here but pretty rare in New England

And lastly a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a common breeder in NE but one I have always managed to miss. This brought my lifetime tally up to 300. 

My next and last post on Cape May will be on a - presumed -  border dispute among Piping Plovers, a Purple Martin colony, several more shorebirds and of course the signature bird of coastal regions, the Osprey.

  Happy Birding!