Old Friends

At the end of March, Dave and I visited Cape May Point State Park and South Cape May Meadows for some early spring birding. There were still a lot of winter visitors around, but many spring migrants were starting to arrive.

First of season (year) species during this trip included Ospreys, Field Sparrows, Common Grackles, Greater Yellowlegs, Great Egrets, Eastern Phoebes, Tree Swallows, and my favorite: the American Oystercatchers.

The beach of South Cape May Meadows is where we ran into one of our old friends: Oystercatcher 38. We met 38 last year at the same location, but according to his account from the American Oystercatcher Working Group, 38 is about 8 years old.

American Oystercatcher 38 (Image by BirdNation)

This year 38 was with an unbanded Oystercatcher that could potentially be its mate. They were running around the beach together.

38 with its potential mate (Image by BirdNation)

At one point, 38, his mate, and another pair engaged in a courtship display. During a courtship display, pairs will stretch their necks forward and down with their back parallel to the ground. They will run side-by-side with their mate will making pip! notes and bobbing their heads. Occasionally the pair will fly up in the air while piping. Many times pairs from other territories will join in on the display. When multiple pairs display together it is referred to as a “Piping Tournament” or “Piping Ceremony”. It was fun to see our friend 38 again. Below is a video of their piping tournament.

American Oystercatcher Piping Tournament (Video by BirdNation)

If you ever see a banded oystercatcher I would recommend submitting your sightings to the American Oystercatcher Working Group. They are a great organization, and their website contains a wealth of information about the American Oystercatcher’s life history, behavior, and banding. Check out their website at http://amoywg.org/

Timberdoodle!

Spring is almost here, and we are certainly getting signs of the coming season in New Jersey. The weather is finally starting to warm up a bit, and I’ve been hearing American Robins start their bouncy spring songs each morning. The spring migrants are returning, and that includes a very fascinating and unique species…the Timberdoole!

Well, the Timberdoodle is its nickname (and an awfully cute one at that). I’m referring to the American Woodcock, a small bulbous shorebird that migrates through New Jersey in March.

I heard about these birds pretty early into my life as a birder, but never have had the chance to see them because…I would forget. I would be so busy in the spring that I would remember about the timberdoodle after it already passed through the area. I knew this year would be different.

Dave and I went to Rancocas Nature Center (where I’m a teacher naturalist on some weekends) to watch the display. The meadow at RNC is a great place to check out the Timberdoodle. The Timberdoodle is not just a bird you simply go to just get a sight of, the allure of this little bird is the famous “Sky Dance”.

American Woodcock (Image via Pinterest)

Timberdoodles like to spend their time in brushy fields near deciduous forests. In the cover of darkness, the male Timberdoole will give a distinct buzzy “peent!” to get the female’s attention. After a few calls, the male rockets up into the air with a flutter, soaring up and circling about 200-300 feet in the air. As the male ascends into his dazzling display you can hear his wings twitter. After reaching his peak, the male circles back down to the ground and land in the same spot next to the female. These aerial display can last into the night and take place around dawn as well. Once a pair does mate, the male provides no parental care. Males usually mate with multiple females. The female will feed the chicks for a week, and about a month later the chicks will become independent.

It was really amazing to see the American Woodcock’s sky dance. We observed at least 4 birds participating in the display. We even had a pair fly right over us! I’m so glad we had a chance to observe these magnificent birds in action.

I was able to get a short recording of the “peents” at the beginning of the display (I was too mesmerized watching to record anything after it start lol). You can hear a few peents through the wall of sound that is a bunch Spring Peeper frogs calling.

American Woodcock “peents!” with Spring Peeper background

Have you seen a Timberdoodle? Tell me about your experience in the comments!

Book Review: The Shorebird Guide

As birders, we’ve all been there: you’re at a beach or marsh and there’s a large group of shorebirds in the distance. You scan the flock with your spotting scope. There is definitely variation between the birds, however they seem similar. Are you seeing one species or a mixed flock? What’s a birder to do?

Consult The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson. This guide is a fantastic resource for learning ways to identify shorebirds.

As the book begins, the authors explain that out of 217 shorebird species, about 50 are found regularly breeding in North America. Most birders will encounter about 35-40 of these species per year, so you’d think that it would be easier to learn to identify these species. However, many birders find shorebirds notoriously hard to identify. Plumage variation within a single species throughout the year depends on age and breeding status, which can be quite challenging. In addition, many times shorebirds are found at far distances, making it difficult to see their details.

O’Brien’s, Crossley’s and Karlson’s approach is not about the details, but the overall impression of the bird. Yes, plumage details are important, but in order to become better at shorebird id, one should first start with general size, shape, voice, and behavior. These characteristics are fundamental and less variable than plumage, so the more you practice birding by impression, the more accurate your identifications will become.

This field guide is split into four main sections. The introduction gives basic information about shorebirds in general, such as families, population threats, topography, molting, aging, and more detail about their identification approach.

I find the second section to be the most valuable: Species Photos. The top of each account shows a range map, the scientific name, size, structure, behavior, and status. There are 870 beautiful full color photos included in this guide. The variety of photos for each species is quite impressive. For each species there are close-ups, plumage variations, age variations, flocks at a distance, species in flight, and mixed species photos. Each photo has captions that go into detail about characteristics to look for, as well as some quiz questions to test your knowledge.

The third section is Species Accounts. This section has no photos. It includes information about status, migration, taxonomy, molting, vocalizations, and more details about behavior.

The final section features the appendix with the quiz answers and a glossary. I like that back cover contains silhouettes that are intended to be used as a quiz so you can practice.

I would highly recommend The Shorebird Guide to anyone who is interested in improving their shorebird identification skills.

Cape Cod Vacation: Monomoy Island Excursions

This is Part 3 of our Cape Cod Vacation. You can check out Part 1 (Race Point Beach) here and Part 2 (Skaket Beach) here.

On August 14th, the second day of our Cape Cod vacation, Dave I and went seal watching with Monomoy Island Excursions. We took the 10 am seal cruise on their boat, The Perseverance from Harwich Port into Nantucket Sound. The cruise includes stops at Wychmere Harbor, Stage Harbor in Chatham, and Monomoy NWR; as well as pass many of the popular beaches along the cape.

The seal cruise was definitely the highlight of my trip. It was a beautiful morning and I enjoyed every moment. Not only did we have an amazing experience seeing Grey Seals, we also saw many birds.

Highlights of our Seal Cruise

  • The seals, of course! We saw a herd of at least 70 Grey Seals on our trip. Low tide hit its peak 2 hours before our cruise, so many of the seals we saw were relaxing on a sand bar. It was fascinating watching the seals interact with each other, vocalize, and curiously watch us back.

 

  • Our “Winter Birds” on summer vacation. We saw immature Common Eiders, Black Scoters, and White-winged Scoters, which we usually see in New Jersey during the winter.

flock of eiders
Common Eiders (Image by David Horowitz)

  • Lots of seabirds, including Herring Gulls, Laughing Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Forster’s Terns, Roseate Terns, Least Terns, Common Terns, and a Great Shearwater.
  • A few hundred Double-crested Cormorants
  • Many Osprey and a Northern Harrier

captain osprey
Captain Osprey (Image by David Horowitz)

  • A huge school of fish under the boat (in the thousands)
  • Stage Harbor Lighthouse 

Stage Harbor Lighthouse

  • Shorebirds and Wading Birds, including Willets, Snowy Egrets, Short-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Spotted Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, and a Great Egret
  • The Staff. Our Captain and the naturalist on our cruise were really friendly and informative. A few minutes into the trip, noticing our Cape May/NJ Audubon binocular straps, the naturalist (I don’t remember his name) asked if we were birders. It turns out that he’s been birding on Cape Cod for over 30 years. He spent many years leading tours at Monomoy, as well as participating in the local birding community. He is also a bird bander. Throughout the trip he would come over and talk to us about birds. It was really fun to talk to as well as learn from him.

My seal cruise with Monomoy Island Excursions was fantastic and will certainly be an experience that I won’t soon forget.

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Journey On (Image by BirdNation)

 

Cape Cod Vacation: Race Point Beach

Hi friends! This past week, Dave and I went on an amazing vacation to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We’ve vacationed at Cape Cod twice in the past with Dave’s family (Dave going many more times throughout his life), but these trips occurred before we were birders. Therefore, we were really excited to go back to see what we may have missed in the previous years.

During our recent visit to The Wetlands Institute, we purchased the Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight by Ken Behrens & Cameron Cox. According to the guide, Cape Cod is considered one of the top seawatching sites in North America. Many locations throughout the Cape are discussed in the seawatching book, including our first vacation spot, Provincetown.

Provincetown is located at the tip of Cape Cod, where Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean meet. We spent our first morning exploring Race Point Beach, on the Atlantic side. Race Point Beach is part of the National Park Service’s Cape Cod National Seashore. (Side note: interestingly, on Thursday there was a shark dangerously close to the shore attacking a seal, causing Race Point Beach to be closed. Other areas along the cape have reported sharks really close to shore over the past day) 

Highlights from our trip (26 species):

  • 1000s of terns (including 2 lifers)!  Large mixed-species flocks that included Common, Least, Forster’s, Roseate, and Black Terns. The terns were varying ages/plumage and would frequently take flight and land again on the beach.

  • Common and Red-throated Loons. In New Jersey, we usually don’t see loons until the winter. One cool thing about traveling 7 hours North of where we live was seeing some of our winter visitors in their summer spots. The Red-throated Loons were juveniles, and one of the Common Loons was sitting on the beach for a bit. Loons are designed to be expert divers, so their feet look like little wedges sticking out behind their tail. Therefore, they are pretty awkward moving on land. To get back in the water, this loon would slowly shuffle until the water helped it back in.

  • Our first Great Shearwater. We saw a few throughout our walk.
  • Hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants (and lots of gulls of course lol)

the crew
The Crew (Image by BirdNation)

  • Small groups of seals close to shore. The first time I’ve ever seen seals in the wild!

grey seal
Grey Seal (Image by David Horowitz)

 

  • Lots of shorebirds/”peeps”. Including Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willets, Greater Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, and Piping Plovers. The Piping Plovers were juveniles. We watched a few Semipalmated Plovers do what looked like some sort of dance or pair bond display.

 

Race Point Beach was an amazing birding spot and a great way to start our vacation. Our trip was really action-packed, so instead of telling you about it based on each day, I’m going to split up the posts into specific places we went. There’s just too much for one post :-)! So this post was just about our Monday morning. Stay tuned to hear about our cool evening at Skaket Beach!

 

 

Stone Harbor

Sunday we took a trip down to Stone Harbor, NJ. Stone Harbor Point is considered an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Audubon Society and the surrounding area has many birding hotspots. We visited 3 areas on our Stone Harbor trip: the SH Bird Sanctuary, SH Point Beach, and The Wetlands Institute.

Our first stop was the 21-acre Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary. The sanctuary consists of maritime forests and meadows. The paths were relatively short and sometimes it was difficult to see what birds were around . We ended up seeing/hearing 15 species of birds in our short visit. There were a few Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, some Osprey, and House Finches.

 

 

The second destination was Stone Harbor Point. This was actually our second trip to the Point. The last time we were at the Point was after seeing our first Red Knots at Fortescue Beach in May. At that point it was about to thunderstorm, so I was looking forward to seeing the Point in sunny weather. I definitely was not disappointed.

The beach was busy with a variety of shore and seabirds. Three Brown Pelicans and a few Ospreys soared above the waves. As with almost all beaches, there were many gulls, including Laughing, Herring, and Great Black-backed. Black Skimmers floated above a tide pool hunting for fish at a dizzying pace. There were also many terns in different stages of development. Least Terns (mainly adult but a few juvenile) dotted the sand near a tide pool. They looked like little wind-up toys as they shuffled along the beach with their tiny legs. There were a few Forster’s and Common Terns.  Two juvenile Common Terns squawked incessantly at a parent who seemed indifferent to their clamor. S/he eventually gave them some fish, but seemed to wonder when their annoying mainly-grown chicks would move out to a different patch of sand and start hunting for their own food πŸ˜‚. I have to admit, all those terns really tested my identification skills. I’m not the best at terns, so it was challenging but definitely educational

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“FEED US!” (Image by BirdNation)

One of the most exciting parts of this trip was having the opportunity to observe a family of American Oystercatchers. (Last year we were lucky to see T2’s family on LBI, you can read about that here). This family had 5 oystercatchers and 4 out of 5 were banded. The adults were A58 and its unbanded mate; the chicks were A78, A79, and A80. I reported the banded birds to the American Oystercatcher Working Group, so I’m excited to learn their story. I’m assuming the chicks were hatched/tagged at Stone Harbor, but curious about A58.

Throughout our walk we kept seeing small groups of shorebirds zooming over the waves and beach. They all congregated at the end of the beach in a massive flock. It was a mixed flock of Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Red Knots, and Ruddy Turnstones with gulls interspersed. The shorebirds were also in various stages like the terns were, with many birds transitioning between breeding and nonbreeding plumage.

 

After our awesome walk at the Point, we visited The Wetlands Institute. The Wetlands Institute is an organization aiming to conserve coastal ecosystems as well as educate the public. You can view the beautiful marshland from their lecture hall as well as the observation tower and Salt Marsh trail. We saw at least 10 Ospreys, a Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egrets, and a Great Egret. “Terrapin Station” was all about terrapins and horseshoe crabs. “Secrets of the Salt Marsh” featured a small aquarium with the featured animal being a Common Octopus. Octopuses are fascinating and intelligent creatures. The octopus at the Institute was really cool; I could have watched it all day. The Wetlands Institute was a great way to end our birding excursion to Stone Harbor.

Misty Cape May Morning

Today we took our first summer birding trip down to Cape May Point State Park. It was a really hot day, around 90 degrees, but we still managed to see 30 species birds. On the drive down it was pretty foggy, and it was still pretty misty by the time we got down to the Point.

Misty Morning at the Hawkwatch Platform Pond (Image by BirdNation)

Bird species along the main trail included Mute Swans, Mallards, Tree Swallows, Common Yellowthroats (heard), Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, Ospreys, Northern Mockingbirds, Purple Martins, Canada Geese, an Eastern Kingbird,and Red-winged Blackbirds. There were also hundreds of tiny toads hopping across the trail.

Tree Swallow portrait
Tree Swallow (Image by BirdNation)

Purple Martin female
Purple Martin female (Image by BirdNation)

We had a few fun surprises on the beach. Two Brown Pelicans flew by over the ocean.

Brown Pelicans
Brown Pelicans (Image by BirdNation)

After I took the above picture the pelicans skimmed very close to the ocean’s surface. They used an aerodynamic phenomenon call the “ground effect”. As the pelicans fly close to the water with their full wingspan, the air is “funneled” between their wings and the ocean surface. This effect allows the birds to stay aloft and increases efficiency. Eventually the bird must gain some speed by flapping and slightly ascending in order to continue its glide. Many birds use the ground effect over water, but this principal also works on land.

Another interesting thing to note about these Brown Pelicans: the bird on the left is an adult and the one on the right is immature. You can see the whitish-yellow of the adult’s head that the immature bird lacks.

We also spotted pods of dolphins! They were relatively close to the beach, and would occasionally leap out of the water (wish I captured that in a picture!).

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Bottlenose Dophin Fins (Image by BirdNation)

There were also many pairs of American Oystercatchers. Some pairs were just strolling along the beach together, while others were guarding/sitting on eggs. This pair has a banded Oystercatcher, so I’ll submit my band findings to the American Oystercatcher Working Group and let you know what I find out.

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Taking a stroll (Image by BirdNation)

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Banded American Oystercatcer (Image by BirdNation)

This couple added some furnishings to their nest site…

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Decorating the Nest (Image by BirdNation)

We were also really lucky to catch a glimpse of this couple’s two eggs (from a safe distance behind the barrier zooming in with the camera of course!) It was our first time seeing American Oystercatcher eggs.

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American Oystercatcher Eggs (Image by BirdNation)

Our final beach surprised was a Sanderling in breeding plumage. It was all by itself, so I wonder where its flock mates went. Sanderlings are usually at the shore in the winter, so I think this little guy missed the memo that its summertime now.

Sanderling breeding plumage
Sanderling in breeding plumage (Image by BirdNation)

Our misty Cape May trip was a great way to start off our summer birding.