Cape May Big Day

Yesterday, October 6th, was the first October Global Big Day. For the past 4 years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has held an annual Global Big Day event in May. 2018 is the first year that this Big Day event was also held in autumn. With spring now in the Southern Hemisphere and autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, the Lab thought it would be great time to track the migrations around the world.

Dave and I went to Cape May for our big day. We hiked around our two favorite Cape May locations: Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows.

It seemed like everyone had the same idea about going to the Point. It was packed with birders of all ages. Many people were participating in the fall Hawk Watch, which takes place daily during the migration. Located on a prime location of the Altantic Flyway, Cape May is one of the best birding areas in the country to catch a sight of migrants, whether they are hawks, warblers, or anything in between.

Cape May Point highlights:

  • Tree Swallow massive flock!: We had the opportunity to observe a large flock of Tree Swallows gathering on the beach. It was amazing to watch them swirl around over the sand. Tree Swallows migrate in huge flocks that can number in the hundreds of thousands. They take about 3-4 months to migrate from their summer to their wintering grounds, leisurely stopping en route to forage, preen, and rest.  Sometimes the flocks are so large that they come up on weather radar as “roost rings”.

 

  • Monarch Butterflies. It’s also migration time for the Monarch Butterfly. Cape May happens to be a fantastic place to experience their journey. We saw many as we walked the trails.

 

  • Palm Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Warblers are now migrating through the area to their wintering grounds. There were Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the trees, Common Yellowthroats skulking through the bushes, and Palm Warblers zooming across the path. During fall migration, warblers adopt more drab plumage as opposed to their bright spring breeding plumage. The Palm Warblers we saw were actually the Western subspecies. The Western Palms are more numerous on the Atlantic Coast during fall migration.
Palm Warbler (Western)
Palm Warbler “Western” subspecies (Image by BirdNation)

South Cape May Meadows Highlights:

  • Atlantic Ghost Crab: Atlantic Ghost Crabs can be found from Block Island, Rhode Island south to Brazil along the coast. They are primarily nocturnal, so it was a surprising but wonderful sight to see one running along the trail.
Atlantic Ghost Crab (Image by BirdNation)
  • Winter Waterfowl: The winter Waterfowl are already starting to arrive. We saw groups of Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls at the Meadows (as well as some Ruddy Ducks and American Wigeons at the Point).
  • Common Buckeyes. We saw a few Common Buckeye butterflies fluttering around the paths.
Common Buckeye
Common Buckeye (Image by BirdNation)

Overall, we saw 31 species for our October Big Day (60 species for the May Big Day at Forsythe NWR. It’s always a joy to go birding in Cape May, especially during fall migration.

Tell us some of the migrants you’ve been seeing in your area in the comment section!

First of Season

Tonight we walked at Boundary Creek. During this walk we saw 4 “first of season” birds. “First of season”  (or “first of year”) is a term birders use to simply refer to the first time they observed a specific species in a specific season.

We were greeted by the crooning of a Northern Mockingbird from high upon a tree.

While searching for the singing Mockingbird, we discovered a male Orchard Oriole (first of season). Unlike the bright orange of the male Baltimore Oriole, male Orchard Orioles are chestnut and black.

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Orchard Oriole (Image by BirdNation)

The observation platform that overlooks the creek was filled with birdsong. We saw/heard a male Baltimore Oriole and Yellow Warbler (first of season for both). Other birds included a Carolina Wren eating a worm, Red-winged Blackbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, Song Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, Canada Geese, and American Robins.

This recording prominently features the Baltimore Oriole, Canada Geese, Yellow Warbler, and Red-winged Blackbirds.

At the beaver pond platform we saw a first of season Common Yellowthroat. We also observed Mallards, a small flock of Great Egrets flying overhead, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calling, and a Gray Catbird. On the way back to the car we found an Eastern Bluebird, which is the first time we’ve seen one at Boundary Creek.

It was great to get out on a warm spring evening to experience the new arrivals.

New Adventures

We took advantage of our 3 day weekend by going on 3 birding adventures. One of our trips was to Palmyra Cove Nature Park, but the other days we explored 2 new places: Taylor Wildlife Preserve and Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve.

On Saturday night we wanted to go to Amico Island. Every time we go there, we pass a place called Taylor Farm & Wildlife Preserve. People go to Taylor Farm to pick their own fruits and vegetables, but part of the property was turned into a wildlife preserve with a few hiking trails. We’ve been curious about Taylor’s for awhile, so we decided to check it out. We never made it to Amico that night, but had a great time exploring Taylor Wildlife Preserve instead.

Taylor’s Wildlife Preserve is right on the Delaware River and Dredge Harbor. It’s a wooded habitat that features stretches of wetlands. We arrived to the sounds of Gray Catbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds. As we walked towards the foot trails we spotted some Northern Cardinals, Eastern Phoebes, and Baltimore Orioles. Yellow Warblers and Warbling Vireos sang from high in the trees while we explored the winding trails. We found the wetlands area not long after entering the trails. There was a beaver lodge, Eastern Kingbirds, swallows, Common Yellowthroats, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

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Taylor Wildlife Preserve (Image by BirdNation)

“Breep! Breep!” A raucous call came from high in the tree over our heads. It was a Great Crested Flycatcher! These large flycatchers have lemon-colored bellies and long tails, although the crest mentioned in their names are not very prominent. For being about 7 inches in length, the Great Crested Flycatcher has a pretty ear-piercing call. These flycatchers are agile fliers, and we watch it for a bit before it disappeared into the treetops. We also ran into a muskrat on the trail. He didn’t notice us right away, and was pretty surprised when he realized he was being watched. It was a fun moment.

Another highlight of our Taylor trip was finding Wright Cove, where there is a platform with an Osprey nest. At the end of April, Dave and I bought a spotting scope and tested it out at the local yacht club where some Osprey nest nearby. We found a second tower with nesting Osprey that night, and wondered if there was a way to see them better from land. It turns out the Wright Cove in Taylor Preserve is exactly where we want to be to see these Osprey really well. We will definitely go back to observe them, as well as explore more the preserve.

We woke up early Sunday morning to spend some time at Palmyra Cove. It was a quiet morning so we were able to see 42 species. Some highlights included Cedar Waxwings eating berries, a Green Heron flying through the woods, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at the honeysuckles, and an Orchard Oriole pair chasing each other around. We ended up seeing some more Great Crested Flycatchers on this trip too. Ever have the experience where once you learn something is around, you start seeing it everywhere? Well it seems like we’ve been missing Great Crested Flycatchers for awhile, because now that we know them, we’ve been seeing them all weekend! Amazing how learning about a species can open up a brand new world you never knew was there before.

Today we went to Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve in Woodland Township for the first time. The preserve is 1,227 acres of pitch pine/scrub oak woodlands. An interesting feature of the preserve is a spung. A spung is a hydrologically isolated wetland that relies entirely on rainfall/snowfall to maintain its water level and is habitat to rare plants/amphibians.

Our hike started off with some of the usual suspects: Eastern Wood-pewees, Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Towhees Gray Catbirds, Common Yellowthroats and woodpeckers. But we kept hearing an ascending buzzy sound. It turned out this was the sound of the park’s namesake: the Prairie Warbler. Despite its name, these warblers don’t live on prairies, they prefer scrubby pine forests. This makes Huber Preserve the perfect breeding habitat. We were able to see and hear these beautiful yellow and black warblers throughout the entire walk.

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Prairie Warbler (Image by David Horowitz)

At one point on the blue trail Dave heard a low bellowing call. We froze and listened. “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO!” I couldn’t believe it. I could recognize that voice anywhere; it was a Barred Owl! It was in the distance, but we heard it call a few times. I’m so excited that we added our 2nd owl to our lifelist :-).

There are actually 2 spungs at the preserve: one on the green trail and the other on the red trail. I really wanted to go to the red trail spung (which was mentioned on their website), but we would have had to walk at least 3 miles (one way that is). You can bike at the preserve, so we will probably go back and bike to that spung. We did try to find the green trail spung, but its seems like it dried up. So no spungs for us today :-(. We did however see a Pine Warbler, more Great Crested Flycatchers, Ovenbirds, an American Redstart juvenile male, Black-and-White Warblers, and the Prairie Warblers/Barred Owl listed above, so it was a great day despite there being no spung. It was a fun weekend of adventures, and overall May was a great birding month for us.

2017 Birding Vacation! Part 2

(This is Part 2 of the post “2017 Birding Vacation!”. If you’d like to read Part 1 of our trip, click this link)

We had a blast birding in Maryland at Pickering Creek Audubon Center and checking out the National Aquarium, but the fun wasn’t over yet. The following day Dave and I drove into Delaware to go birding at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

Bombay Hook is a 16,251 acre wildlife refuge located on the coast of Delaware near Delaware Bay. The refuge is mainly tidal salt marshes, but also features freshwater impoundments as well as upland habitats. Bombay Hook is a sanctuary and breeding ground for migratory birds as well as a variety of other animals. Spring at the refuge features the large concentration of shorebirds as well as warblers.

We arrived at the visitor center in the morning to a flurry of bird activity. There was a Purple Martin colony and the feeders were busy with House Finches, American Goldfinches, and sparrows. One particular male House Finch was more of an orange shade than red. Plumage (feathers) can vary in color based on diet, so if a finch is lacking certain nutrients it may be orange or yellowish. There was a short loop behind the center where we saw Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Yellow Warblers, woodpeckers, and a few Northern Mockingbirds. We even saw a cute immature Mockingbird.

Like Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, there is a wildlife drive that winds through the marsh and upland habitats. The drive begins at the Raymond Pool, which has a short Boardwalk Trail and an observation tower. Out in the pool there was a huge flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, a Semipalmated Plover, Dunlins, a Solitary Sandpiper, and the bird I’ve been waiting for: the American Avocet. When I was planning our vacation and saw that we could see Avocets at Bombay Hook I knew we had to go. These elegant birds have long legs, rusty-colored necks, and a long upturned bill. They were beautiful to see in person.

 

On the other side of the pool we found some Snow Geese, Laughing Gulls, terns, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Red-winged Blackbirds, Double-crested Cormorants, and Common Yellowthroats. This trip was the first time that I’ve seen Dunlins in their breeding plumage. When they visit New Jersey in the winter they lack their large black belly spot, so it was cool to see them in breeding mode. A juvenile Bald Eagle appeared and picked up a dead bird that was nearby. We knew it was a juvenile because it was all brown and lacked the white head/tail feathers. It was one of 4 Bald Eagles we saw during the trip.

The Boardwalk Trail looped around a small section of the marsh, and there were Marsh Wrens everywhere. We see Marsh Wrens at Boundary Creek in the summer, but this trail was cool because you were on eye level with them. Marsh Wrens buzz around the cattails and reeds with their tails cocked up while making an elaborate, gurgling rattle. We weren’t able to get any good pictures since they were usually deep in the reeds, but we did get one of their nests. On the boardwalk we also saw Eastern Kingbirds, a female Northern Harrier, Tree Swallows, and Barn Swallows.

The next part of the loop was the Shearness Pool, which also had a short trail and an observation tower. This is were we saw our first Black-necked Stilts. These black-and-white beauties have long, thin red legs. Stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird (second to flamingos of course). Nearby waded an unusual looking bird. It look nervous, constantly bobbing its head while it walked. It was deep in the water though, and you couldn’t see it’s legs. It’s neck was red, had a clean white belly, a thin bill, grayish-brown upperparts, and a very distinctive black eye patch. After much deliberation, we determined it was a female Wilson’s Phalarope. They are one of the few birds were the “gender roles” are switched: the females are more colorful than the males and defend the males who are busy raising the young. When I enter our finding into ebird, it came up as “rare” (even though our list from Bombay said they were “occassional”. I’ll keep you updated if our Phalarope is confirmed, but it was cool to find a rare bird on vacation. (Sorry the Phalarope photo is real blurry, it was use for proof, but maybe you might be able to confirm it for me)

 

Bear Swamp Pool featured a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers in the stunning breeding plumage. We did see one at Forsythe recently (while looking for the American Golden-Plover), but it wasn’t in breeding plumage. There were at least 60 relaxing on the mudflats. An Osprey appeared and was hovering over the water for a bit. We were watching it dive for fish, and a few more Ospreys appeared, until there were at least 5 fishing over the pool. Then a more unexpected visitor arrived: a raccoon. The raccoon was on the other side of the pool and swam over to our side. It was amusing to see a raccoon swimming in the salt marsh in the middle of the day. We drove up closer to where it stepped on land and it popped it’s head out of the bushes to look at us before hiding!

The last area was the Finis Pool. One the way we heard an interesting call from the woods; 3 clear notes ascending. We didn’t figure out who it was at the time, but I recorded it and learned yesterday it was a Northern Bobwhite singing his “poor-bob-WHITE!” song. We also stumbled upon some Great Egrets resting in a tree. It took a few minutes to realize they weren’t alone: there was a Little Blue Heron right next to them! On the way out we actually found a Bobwhite before it quickly ran back into the bushes.

We saw a whopping 55 species on our Bombay Hook Trip with 4 life birds (avocet, stilts, phalarope, and bobwhite). To see the full eBird checklist you can click this link. Combined with our Maryland trip we saw 6 life birds (the 2 Maryland ones were the Yellow-breasted Chat and White-eyed Vireo). We had an amazing time on our 2017 Maryland and Delaware birding adventure!

The Birds of Spring

So far, May has been a pretty busy birding month for us: new life list editions, an owlet, purchasing our first spotting scope, big day events, and rare birds. The past week wasn’t as busy, but we still had the opportunity to get out a few times this week to enjoy the spring migrants. Dave and I went to Strawbridge Lake and Boundary Creek, Dave and his dad went to Palmyra Cove, and I went with my mom and sister to Haddon Lake for Mother’s Day.  I wanted to share some of the pictures we took on this week’s trips.

Strawbridge Lake

 

Palmyra Nature Cove (all these pictures were taken by Dave)

 

Haddon Lake Park

 

We didn’t take any pictures at Boundary Creek because it was supposed to rain and pretty dark out. The highlight of that trip was seeing 5 Baltimore Orioles: 3 males and 2 females. It was fascinating watching the orioles flying around chasing each other, fighting, calling/singing, and displaying.

We have a very exciting trip coming up…I can’t wait to share our experiences with you! It’ll be a surprise…stay tuned.

Common Yellowthroat Sunday

Today’s featured warbler is the Common Yellowthroat, which can be found throughout most of the United States during the breeding season.

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)

Description:

Common Yellowthroats are small warblers with a round head and medium-length rounded tail. Males have olive upperparts and yellow throats/chests. Their most unique and distinctive feature is a broad black face mask. They have a thin white line across their forehead that contrasts the black mask. Females are a dull olive-gray color with a faint yellow throat.

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Male Common Yellowthroat (Image by the USFWS via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Summer (breeding): Canada and most of the United States, with the Southwest being less common. Migrates through parts of California and Texas. Winters in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Found Year-Round in the Southeastern United States to the Gulf Coast, and parts of California, Meixco, and Baja, California

Habitat:

Common Yellowthroats are the only wood warbler that nests in open marshes. Found in reed beds, swamps, briars, streams, overgrown fields, pine forests, and brushy thick areas. They tend to avoid dry habitats.

Diet:

Mainly insects and sometimes seeds. They tend to forage low in the trees, bushes, and other low vegetation growth. They glean insects off the foliage or forage on the ground, and sometimes will catch an insect in mid-air.

Breeding/Nesting:

Males may court females by doing a flight display where he flies up then lands on a perch to sing. They will also follow the female or flick their tails. Males arrive to defend their breeding grounds earlier than the females and fight more intensely after the females arrive. A female will signal that she’s ready to mate with her partner by fluttering her wings and chipping rapidly. This behavior attracts more males than her mate however, so it’s possibly that the female with also mate with a male who’s not her partner.

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Common Yellowthroat Felmale (Image by Tom Grey via birdnote.org)

The female will spend between 4-5 days constructing a nest close to or on the ground. She starts by building a platform of leaves and grasses then weaves together the cup with sedge and grasses. She lays between 3-5 eggs that are white with black or brown spots. The female incubates the eggs for about 12 days while being fed by the male. Common Yellowthroat nests are frequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (I experienced a Yellowthroat adult feeding a cowbird chick once, you can read about it here). Both parents will feed the young, who fledge between 8-12 days after hatching. Common Yellowthroat chicks stay dependent on their parents after fledging for longer than most other warbler chicks do.

Sounds:

witchity-witchity-witchity! or which-is-it, which-is-it

Conservation:

Although still pretty widespread, populations have declined due to the draining of salt marshes.

Fun Facts:

  • There are 13 races of Common Yellowthroats, which differ slightly based off their face mask patterns and the brightness of their yellow. The brightest Yellowthroats live in the Southwestern United States.
  • Common Yellowthroats mainly migrate at night.

The Tricksters

It was a beautiful spring afternoon at Amico Island. I was on a quest to find warblers, and I was excited when I spotted a life bird in the meadow.

It was a male Common Yellowthroat. There was also another bird with it. Common Yellowthroats are tiny warblers that are yellow and olive with a black mask over the eyes. The other bird though…was strange. It was almost double the size and brown. The big bird was crying for food while the little Yellowthroat tirelessly tried to satisfy it with whatever food it could find. Then it hit me: the Common Yellowthroat was feeding a Brown-headed Cowbird chick! Brown-headed Cowbirds are brood parasites. This male Yellowthroat had no idea that he was feeding a chick that was not even the same species as him. How did this happen?

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A juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird with its Common Yellowthroat parent (Image by Darin Ziegler via allaboutbirds.org)

There are about 100 species of birds that are considered brood parasites. Parasitic birds don’t want the responsibility of raising chicks; they pass that on to other unsuspecting bird species. These birds are sneaky: they will target females of other species and lay their eggs in that nest instead of creating one of their own. Why would they do this? Parenting consumes a large amount of time, resources, and energy that can be saved by having another bird do all the work. So then how do brood parasites pull off such trickery?

Brood parasites may  use different technique in order to invade a nest. Sometimes a bird will patiently wait for the host to leave the nest so they can sneak in. Certain species will use a “disguise” by mimicking other harmless species to fool the host.. For example, in this study found in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, biologists learned that Cuckoo Finches  from Africa will attempt to fool Tawny-flanked Prinias by pretending to be the harmless Southern Red Bishops (Check out the studies by Claire Spottiswoode and other scientists here). Other will pretend to look like predators and scare the poor hosts right off the nest.

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A Cuckoo Finch chick (left) and Tawny-flanked Prinias chick (right) (Image by Claire Spottiswoode

If a brood parasite successfully makes it to a host nest without being detected, it will lay eggs that look similar in size and color to the correct specie’s eggs. The parasite’s eggs will be thicker but usually have a shorter hatch time than the host species so that the parasite will hatch first. Many birds cannot tell the difference between their eggs and the intruder eggs and raise whatever is in their nest. If the parasitic chick does end up hatching it will usually murder its siblings so it can get all the food. For example, Common Cuckoos have been known to push their sibling’s eggs right out of the nest to avoid them from ever hatching. African Honeyguide chicks will stab their siblings to death with their sharp hooked bills.

All of this sounds pretty terrible, right? However, it’s not always victory for the brood parasite. Many host birds are discovering these tricks and fighting back.  Some host species will lay eggs that have a unique pattern, or “signature” so if they see an egg that doesn’t match they will dispose or destroy it. For example, Gray Catbirds will puncture any parasitic eggs they discover. Superb Fairy-wrens from Australia will teach their chicks a specific sound while they are still in the egg. Only Fairy Wrens are able to learn it, so if the chick is not including the “password” while calling for food, the host will know who the intruder is. Other species form adult lookout groups to catch and attack brood parasites while certain species will design their nest so that the invader gets trapped.

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Superb Fairy-wrens (Image via australianbushbbirds.info)

Brood parasites and their hosts are a fascinating example of avian evolution. While parasitic birds like the Brown-headed Cowbirds and Cuckoos are continuing to try and trick other species, the hosts are developing new strategies to defend themselves and their broods.

Have you ever experienced a brood parasite at work? Let us know if you have in the comments.