Birthday Birds

When Dave asked me what I wanted for my birthday a few weeks ago, I told him I wanted warblers (naturally lol :-p). What I really meant was that I wanted to spend the morning birding in Cape May, NJ, which is a great spot to see warblers during migration. We actually did not see many warblers; only a few Yellow and Pine Warblers. But you know what, I’m okay with that, because instead I saw this guy:

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Wood Stork (Image by David Horowitz)

A Wood Stork!

Wood Storks are primarily found in Florida and South America, but can also be in other Southeastern/Gulf Coast states certain times of year. They are consider rare outside their range, so a Wood Stork in New Jersey is a special treat! Adult Wood Storks are bald, so this bird is a juvenile since it has brown head feathers.

This particular Wood Stork has been around Cape May and showing up on the NJ Rare Bird List for the last few weeks. I checked the list on Saturday night and there were 22 sightings, but over a few different Cape May locations, so I wasn’t sure where it would be.

The first destination for our trip was Cape May Point State Park, where it was previously seen around the Hawk Watch Platform. We were driving past Lake Drive, when the car in front of us (who’s license plate happened to be “SAWWHET” as in saw-whet owl haha) started randomly pulling over. Dave was driving so I looked to my right and saw a few birders looking up at a tree. And there was the Wood Stork.

“OH MY GOSH! WOOD STORK! IT’S RIGHT THERE!”

Dave quickly turned the corner onto Lake Dr. We quietly parked an made our way to the other birders. The Wood Stork was sitting up on a tree preening. It was so beautiful, especially its eyes. It would interrupt its preening every so often to look back at us, almost as if it was posing for our photographs. Then it would preen again and loudly shake its feathers back into place. It was a fascinating bird to watch, and I’m thankful we had the opportunity to spend some time with this magnificent Wood Stork.

Once we arrived at the Point, the sound of a familiar friend echoed through the air.

“poor-bob-WHITE!”

I was happy to hear that the Northern Bobwhites from our last trip were still around, although we didn’t actually see them today. At the ponds near the Hawk Watch Platform there were over 20 Mute Swans, Mallards, Tree Swallows, and a Great Egret. We also were able to watch a number of Northern Mockingbirds fly around with each other through the bushes and shrubs. Other birds at the Point included a Yellow Warbler, Pine Warblers, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a Snowy Egret.

We took the connector trail into South Cape May Meadows. It was quieter for us than in the past, but we still managed to see some birds. These included another Yellow Warbler, Carolina Wrens, a Black Vulture, a Turkey Vulture eating a dead gull, a Cooper’s Hawk, Mourning Doves, more Mockingbirds, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

I’m so happy that I had a chance to see the Wood Stork and was able to have a wonderful birding day with Dave. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my birthday.

 

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The Daily Mockingbird

Summer is a special time of year to many people. People love the beach, having some time off, and spending time doing outdoor activities. There are certainly things that I appreciate about summer too, but it’s gone from being my favorite season as a kid to my least favorite. It’s my least favorite season to go birding because like many of us, birds would rather stay out of the heat as best they can and are less active during the day.

But there is something that’s really special to me about the summer since I’ve been into birding: the daily Mockingbird. It seems like once the end of May hits, I end up seeing Mockingbirds on a daily basis, usually multiple times throughout the day. Northern Mockingbirds happen to already be in my top 10 of favorite birds, but seeing the flash of their white wing patches in the middle of a summer’s day gives me a kind of joy I can’t describe. Here are some interesting facts about these vocal virtuosos.

  • Throughout the year Northern Mockingbirds, who can be found all across the United States, tend to be alone or in pairs. Whether they are alone or not, they are always conspicuous. Mockingbirds love being up high on trees, fences, or other platforms to proudly sing their songs, but you could also find them running around on the ground or grass.
  • The Northern Mockingbird’s scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, roughly translates to “mimics many harmonies”. If you’ve ever heard a bunch of different bird songs/calls in a row, but they are only coming from one bird, then you are listening to a Mockingbird performance. They are part of what is called the “Mimics” (which also includes Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds), meaning their songs are made up of songs fragments they learned from other species, as well as mockingbird-specific songs.
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Northern Mockingbird at Strawbridge Lake (Image by BirdNation)
  • The number of songs a Mockingbird can sing varies based on its range, but many male Mockingbirds can sing up to 200 songs! Females sing also, but not as loudly or as often. Males tend to have two sets of repertoire: songs for summer and songs for fall. The songs themselves are a mix of long musical phrases that are repeated usually 2-6 times before a new phrase starts. A Mockingbird song can range anywhere from 20 seconds to a few hours! Singing is used as a way to defend their territory as well as sexual selection for mating. New songs can be learned throughout life.
  • A frequent movement done by Northern Mockingbirds is what’s called the “wing flash display”. In the display, they will partially or fully open their wings showing their large white patches while taking jerky steps forward. Some scientist thing this display may help startle insects and make them easier to catch. The odd this is though that other mockingbirds throughout the world that don’t have wing patches use this movement too…so we’re still not quite certain what the purpose of this display is.
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    Mockingbird Wing Display (Image via wikipedia commons by By Manjithkaini (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia CommonsManjith Kainickara)

    Singing is a large part of a Mockingbird’s life, and they can sing both during the day and at night. Unmated males are probably the most insistent though; they make up most of the nocturnal singers. It’s more common for an unmated male to nocturnally sing during a full moon.

  • Northern Mockingbirds are popular in United States culture and are the state birds of 5 states: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas (formerly in South Carolina).
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Mockingbird eating crumbs at Palmyra Cove parking lot (Image by David Horowitz)
  • Northern Mockingbirds don’t just imitate other birds. They can also imitate dogs, cats, frogs, and even artificial sounds like car alarms! They may tend to fool us humans into thinking there’s another bird around, but other birds are not normally fooled by the Mockingbird’s mimicking ways.

Over the years, I’ve found many different Mockingbird territories in parks I frequent as well as other places in my area. My favorite is the Mockingbird who lives towards the front section of Boundary Creek. Dave and I took a walk on Sunday at Boundary, and my Mockingbird friend was running around the lawn grabbing bugs. He frequently flicked his long tail and hopped around to expose the bugs, then quickly snatched them up. He was quite amusing to watch. I love going to Boundary and finding him either running around or upon his treetop sings his little heart out (his picture is below).

Do you have an Mockingbirds that live nearby? Tell me your mockingbird story in the comments.

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Boundary Creek Mockingbird (Image by BirdNation)

The Master Mimic

One thing I like about being off for summer is that I don’t have much of a routine. After having a strict schedule of teaching and taking classes for a majority of the year, it’s a very welcome break. There is one routine that I tend to pick up while I’m home each summer that I really enjoy: the Daily Mockingbird.

Around this time of year I see at least 2 Northern Mockingbirds a day. It doesn’t matter what the weather is or where I’m going; there’s always a Mockingbird somewhere. It used to be a random thing, but now I’m starting to notice some regulars in the same spots around the same time of day. It always makes me smile, because I’m a fan of of the Mimidae family of birds, which the Northern Mockingbird is a member of. So today, I wanted to share some fun facts about this fascinating bird.

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Northern Mockingbird (Image via wikipedia.org)
  1. Northern Mockingbirds like to be the center of attention.

Mockingbirds are pretty conspicuous. They like to make their presence known by finding the highest perch around to sing their songs. Although they like to be the center of attention, they do not appreciate intruders in their territory. They are very aggressive and not afraid to attack other birds, dogs, cats, and even humans who venture to close. They prefer to spend their time in large open fields and lawns, where they hop, walk, and run around to find insects.

2. Although they look pretty plain, they have some pretty impressive wing patches.

Northern Mockingbirds are a pale gray overall with white underparts. They have something pretty cool under their wings though: large white wing patches. These patches make Northern Mockingbirds pretty easy to identify while in flight. They will use the “wing flash” display  frequently, where they will open their wings either fully or halfway. We are not sure why exactly they do this. A theory is that they use their white patches to startle insects to make them easier to catch. They may also prance towards an intruder slowly flashing their white patches.

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A Mockingbird uses the “wing flash” display (Image by Kelly Colgan Azar via ebirdr.com)

3. Northern Mockingbirds are masters at mimicking others and sing really impressive songs.

Mockingbirds are appropriately named. They are professionals at mimicking the sounds of other birds and frogs that live in the area. Their songs are made up of short phrases that may be repeated 2-6 times before they pause and start a new sound. Mockingbirds learn new songs throughout their lives and may learn up to 200 different songs. Both males and females sing. Males will sing from February to August, then again from September to November. They have different sets of songs for spring and autumn. Females usually sing in the autumn in a quieter voice. Their songs may get quite long and Mockingbirds will sing all throughout the the day into the evening.

4. They are not only good at singing animal sounds, though.

Although they mainly imitate other birds, Northern Mockingbirds also imitate unnatural sounds. Some examples include sirens, squeaky gates, and cameras. Another animal sound they are know for is imitating barking dogs.

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Singing away… (image by Lillian Stokes via stokesbirdingblog.blogspot.com)

5. Unmated males are particularly determined singers.

Not only will they sing during the day, but unmated males are known to be nocturnal singers. They will sing throughout the night to be more attractive to potential mates. They tend to sing nocturnally during the  full moon. Nocturnal singers can sing up to 1,000 songs per hour!

6. Northern Mockingbirds used to be pretty popular pets.

From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, people would cage Mockingbirds as pets. People were attracted to their beautiful songs. They were so popular that they almost disappeared in the wild in some parts of the East Coast. Some particularly impressive singers would sell for around $50! Thankfully, they are no longer pets and have become widespread again. In recent years they have expanded their range northward.

On the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, the first paragraph about Northern Mockingbirds states: “These slender-bodied gray birds apparently pour all their color into their personalities.” I couldn’t agree more. Northern Mockingbirds have really interesting personalities, and I think it’s safe to say they deserve the title of “Master Mimic.”

Do you have a Northern Mockingbird that lives nearby? Tell me about your Mockingbird experiences in the comment section.