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!

A Whirlwind of Warblers

Ah, fall migration! One of the most exciting times of the birding year. As I stated in the recent Barnegat Lighthouse trip post, winter migrants have started to arrive and summer visitors are getting ready to go down South. This means that we get another chance to see warblers passing through the area, now in their fall plumage.

Saturday we took a trip to Palmyra Cove Nature Park. It started out normal enough: Wild Turkeys, a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, Mallards. Recently we’ve been taking the trail to the Dredge Retention Basin then the Red-wing Blackbird Trail to the Cove. This time Dave said he wanted to take the Saw-whet Trail. The Saw-whet Trail is only 1/4 of a mile, but it ended up being the busiest 1/4 mile of the day. Busy with what?

Warblers. A whirlwind of Warblers.

We were surrounded by warblers in all directions. They were flitting around the trees looking for food and chasing each other. There were other birds too, such as Carolina Chickadees, Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Wood-Pewees, Cedar Waxwings, Great Crested Flycatchers and American Robins. But they were mostly warblers.

There are 56 species of warblers found in North America. Warblers are a diverse groups of small birds that can be found in all different colors. Sometimes male and females of a particular species will look the same and sometimes they are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different from one another). There are also some warbler species that have a “Bright” and “Drab” plumage variations. But that’s just the start. There’s spring vs. fall plumage, 1st year male/female vs. adult male/female and so on.

So the world of warblers is wonderful but it’s also…confusing. And while I was happily surrounded by warblers of many kinds, the big question became: who are they?

We did recognize a few of them; namely Black-and-white and a male American Redstart. But everyone else was a mystery. One was yellow with a black eye patch. A few had distinctive yellow and black tails. Others were gray with wingbars and yellow bellies. I had no clue who they were, but I was excited to spend time watching them.

Figuring out who they were wasn’t easy. Thankful, Dave bought me The Warbler Guide last year. If you want to learn about warblers, this book is essential for your library (you can read my review at the link above). Dave and I (as well as my friend Maria) figured out that our new warblers included: many female/1st year male American Redstarts, a Blue-winged Warbler, “Drab” Chestnut-sided Warblers, “Drab” Magnolia Warblers, and Mourning Warblers. The “drab” warblers would have been more difficult to figure out if it wasn’t for The Warbler Guide because not all fields guides are as detailed with plumage variations.

Dave was able to take a decent amount of picture so that we can try to identify the new warblers when we got home. The problem with warblers is that they are small, usually far away, and moving non-stop. Basically, they are challenging to photograph. So the pictures below aren’t the best we’ve ever taken, but I think he did a nice job considering (we don’t consider ourselves photographers, just birders who happen to take pictures of who we see).

So by the end of the day we added 4 new birds to our life list: Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and a Veery (we’ve seen the male versions of our other “new” warblers, so they weren’t new to our life list). I didn’t realize we saw a Veery until a few days later. I was entering my list onto ebird thinking we saw a Hermit Thrush, but that bird wasn’t on the list under thrushes. Veery was there so I decided to see what it looked like and aha! There it was! It looked just like the picture we had.

I’m so happy fall migration is here. Have you seen fall warblers migrating through your area? Who are you seeing? Tell me about your fall warblers in the comments.

 

 

Orange-crowned Warbler Sunday

Hi, friends! Our warbler of the week is the Orange-crowned Warbler. It’s one of the few North American warblers that is more abundant in the Western US than the East.

Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothypis celata)

Descriptions:

Orange-crowned Warblers are one of the plainest New World warblers. Their plumage varies, but they tend to be yellowish or olive. Western Orange-crowns are yellower while Eastern birds are grayer, especially around the head. The orange crown described by their name is very rarely seen in the field. It’s usually only seen when the warbler raises its crest in agitation or excitement. Orange-crowned Warblers have small, sharp pointy bills, short square tails, and short wings. These features help distinguish them from other similar-looking warblers, such as Tennessee, Yellow, and Nashville Warblers. They are also slim and the brightest part of their plumage is usually the yellow under their tails. Orange-crowns also have a split eyering and thin dark eyelines.

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Orange-crowned Warbler in Texas (Image by Dan Pancamo via wikimedia commons)

Range:

Summer (breeding): Alaska and Canada, parts of the Western United States. Migrates throughout most of the Eastern and Midwestern United States. They migrate early in the spring and leave later in the fall. Winters further north than most other warblers. Instead of wintering in Central/South America like most wood warblers, Orange-crowns stay in the southern United States, Mexico, and some parts of California.

Habitat:

Shrubby vegetation, brushy deciduous undergrowth near or in forests.

Diet:

Mainly insects, some berries, nectar, and sap from woodpecker sapwells. They flutter around from branch to branch catching insects and will feed at flowers for nectar. In the winter Orange-crowned Warblers sometimes visits feeders looking for peanut butter and suet. They’ve even been spotted drinking from hummingbird feeders.

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Orange-crowned Warblers (Image by Easton Parkhurst via utahbirds.org)

Breeding/Nesting:

Orange-crowned Warblers tend to return to the same breeding spot each year. Males return first and sing to defend the territory. The female builds the nest low to the ground and covers it with vegetation. It takes her about 4 days to build an open nest cup out of a variety of grasses/twigs and lined with animal hair/grasses. The male does not assist with building the nest but will keep a close watch over the female.

3-6 white and reddish brown-speckled eggs are laid and incubated for about 11-13 days by the female. Both parents will feed the young, who will fledge 10-13 days after hatching. The parents will feed the young for a few days after they leave the nest.

Sounds:

A trilling song that may rise up then fall at the end: chee chee chee chew chew! The songs vary geographically. Males form “song neighborhoods” where males who live in adjacent territories will mimic each others songs.

Conservation:

Populations have declined slightly since the late 60s, but are generally stable. These warblers don’t face many of the same issues that other warblers do, such as deforestation in tropical areas, since their wintering grounds are farther north.

Fun Facts: 

  • There are 4 subspecies of Orange-crowned Warblers: the Pacific Coast lutescens, who are brighter yellow; the celatathe grayest and dullest form in Canada and Alaska; orestera found in the Rocky Mountains/Great Basin who are intermediate in color; and the sordida,  he darkest green form found only on the Channel Islands and small parts of California and Baja, California.
  • Orange-crowned Warblers breed in more forest types than any other warbler. They like open woodland and can be found in oak, laurel, fir-aspen, maple, willow, alder, and chaparral (to name a few).

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.

Yellow Warbler Sunday

Today I wanted to feature my favorite North American Warbler: the Yellow Warbler. Here are some fascinating facts about these adorable and bright birds.

  • Yellow Warblers are one of the most widely distributed wood-warblers. They breed throughout a majority of the United States and Canada up to the Arctic Circle, and winter as far south as Mexico and parts of Northwest South America.
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Yellow Warbler (Image by Gerrit Vyn via allaboutbird.org)
  • Yellow Warblers, as their name suggest, have bright yellow plumage throughout their whole body. Females and immature birds are a paler yellow than the males. Males have faint chestnut-colored streaking down their breasts. All Yellows have elongated bodies, edging on their wings, plain faces, large black eyes with faint eyerings, and straight black bills.
  • There are numerous races/subspecies of Yellow Warblers. They are usually split into three main groups (that can be further split into even smaller races): Yellow Warblers (United States/Canada), Mangrove Warblers (Central and South America), and Golden Warblers (West Indies). The groups are determined mainly by the head color of the male. Mangrove Warblers are chestnut-hooded and Gold Warblers have chestnut caps.
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“Golden” Yellow Warbler (Image by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble via wikimedia commons)
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“Mangrove” Yellow Warbler (Image by Charles J. Sharp, sharpphotography.co.uk)
  • You can find Yellow Warblers in wooded areas along streams, lakes, and marshes. They tend to prefer willow, cottonwood, and alder trees. They also can be found in orchards and waterside thickets. In their winter they live in sub-tropical habitats in towns, woodland edges, and open-country.
  • They will forage from low in the tree up to the top, but males tend to forage higher up than females.
  • Yellow Warblers mainly eat insects and sometimes berries. Two-thirds of their diet can be made up of various species of caterpillars.
  • Yellow Warblers build small but sturdy nest cups that are found in a vertical fork of a small tree or bush. However, because they are usually in an open areas, they are frequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Many Yellow Warblers can figure out when there is a Cowbird egg in their nest, so they will build another layer over the intruding egg and bury it. Unforunately, when this happens their real eggs get buried too, so they are essentially starting their nest over. Some Yellow Warbler nests have been found with 5 to 6 layers because the Cowbird would continue to try to lay its eggs and the warbler would keep burying them!
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Yellow Warbler nest with hatchlings at Boundary Creek (Image by David Horowitz)
  • A male Yellow Warbler will defend his territory by singing or using a circle flight display.
  • Breeding pairs are monogamous and may stay together for more than one nesting season.
  • Yellow Warblers arrive at their breeding range in late April/May and some leave right after their young fledge (early July). However, some stay later into August or linger into the fall.
  • The oldest-known recorded Yellow Warbler was an 11-year-old female. The maximum age of wild Yellow Warblers is usually 10-years-old.
  • Males sing a bright and melodic song. It’s so cheery that many people say it sounds like sweet-sweet-I’m-so-sweet! (I’ll agree with that! haha :-))

What is your favorite species of warbler? Tell me about it in the comments.

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Singing Yellow Warbler (Image by BirdNation)

Palm Warbler Sunday

Hi everyone! Now that it’s spring it’s time to start a new weekly feature. We are a week into spring and I’ve already seen many spring migrants in my neck of the wood. Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, American Oystercatchers, Killdeer, Eastern Phoebes, and Osprey are just a few of the migrants arriving in New Jersey. Over the next 2 months, many more bird species will be arriving in North America after their winter breaks, including one of my favorite groups: the warblers.

Warblers tend to be some of the later spring migrants, with many arriving in late April/early May. I thought now would be the perfect time for us to starting learning about warblers so we’ll be ready to identify them when they arrive. Our first warbler will be one of the early migrants: the Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

Description:

Palm Warblers have prominent rusty caps that they show off while constantly pumping their tails. Their upperparts are brown with tan wing bars and underparts are yellow with faint brownish stripes. They have a very noticable supercilium (“eyebrow”) above their eyes. Their tails are long and square, block black base and white tips. Males and females have similar plumage.

 

Range:

Winters in Florida, the Gulf Coast, the southern Atlantic Coast, the Caribbean, and some parts of Central America. Migrates through the Eastern part of the United States. Summer (breeding) in Canada.

Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler (Image by Corinne Errico via njaudubon.org)

Habitat:

During migration, Palm Warblers can be found in woodlands, near ponds and streams, and open pastures. At their breeding grounds, they live in open boreal coniferous forests and bogs that contain tamaracks, spruce, cedar, and pine trees. They tend to stay in the lower parts of the tree, in bushes/thickets, or on the ground.

Diet:

Insects, berries, and seeds. They may glean insects off of leaves or catch them in mid air. During the winter they will usually forage on the ground.

Breeding/Nesting:

Palm Warblers arrive on their breeding grounds in April and the female will start building her nest by early May. Males may have more than one mate. Females build a small open cup nest in low trees near the trunk or on the ground. She weaves a variety of grasses and other plant materials together on top of sphagnum moss. She will usually conceal the nest with a clump of grass and line the inside with feathers.

The female lays 4-5 creamy white eggs with brown spots. The eggs are incubated for around 12 days. Sometimes Palms deal with brood parasitism by Brown Cowbirds.However, they will usually discover the intruding egg and cover it to add an extra layer to the bottom of the nest. Both parents will feed the chicks and within 12 days the young are taking their first short flights. Palms can possibly have 2 broods per year.

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Palm Warbler (Image via pintrest/fineartamerica.com)

Sounds:

A weak trill song, a chip or tsip call

Conservation:

There are currently no major threats against Palm Warblers in their winter or summer habitats, and their population is considered stable.

Fun Facts: 

  • Being called “Palm” these birds sound more tropical, but they actually live farther north than many other warblers.
  • There are 2 subspecies of Palm Warblers. Western Palms have white bellies and paler breasts, while Eastern Palms are yellower and patchier.
  • In their winter grounds of Florida you may see a Palm Warbler near palm groves, but you won’t find them in the palm trees themselves.

 

I’ve only ever seen one Palm Warbler so far. It was at Palmyra Nature Cove and was my first warbler I learned to identify. Have you seen a Palm Warbler? Tell me in the comments below.

The Warbler Guide

Dave and I were getting ready to go on a birding trip. We were going to Hawk Mountain, so I wanted to bring our small Canon camera instead of the DSLR since it’s easier to carry around. Dave usually keeps the Canon in his sock drawer, in the left corner right on top. I opened up the drawer, but the camera wasn’t there. I started pushing socks around.

And then there it was. Nope, not the camera. The Warbler Guide. The book that Dave and I were looking at in Barnes and Nobles a few weeks earlier.

My first thought was Oops. I found my Christmas gift.”  I felt slightly panicked. Then my second thought was one of excitement: “He bought me The Warbler Guide!” . I realized I had to try and act cool to pretend that I didn’t find the book. So I quickly closed the drawer said “Hey Dave, I can’t find the camera, can you help me find it?” I started petting our cat Jenny who happened to be sitting nearby to try to take my mind off of what I found. It was hard to contain my excitement. I guess I did a pretty bad job of it because a few minutes later Dave asked, “Did you see something in my drawer?”

I admitted that yes, I did find the book. He told me that I could have it early since he planned on getting another thing for Christmas too. Dave and I can never actually wait until the holiday to give each other gifts anyway (we get too excited and can’t keep the secret) so we always give gifts early. I’ll consider it a Thanksgiving gift lol :-).

The Warbler Guide is amazing. Written by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, it won a National Outdoor Book Award in Nature Guidebooks in 2014. If you are serious about learning to identify North American warblers, then this is the book for you. This guide is extremely detailed. I am already in love with it.

warbler-guide

The first section of the book is called “What to Notice on a Warbler”. This section focuses color and contrast, behavior, the face, the body, and the undertail . There are many pictures to help explain the key identification points. One of my favorite parts of this section is “the face”, where the authors goes deeper into significant facial features such as eye rings, cheek patches, superciliums (a.k.a the “eyebrow”), and more.

Another section is titled “How to Listen to Warbler Songs”. This section explores the elements that create warbler songs. The authors use audio spectrograms (a.k.a sonograms) to show harmonics, song stucture, and phrases. This chapter explains in detail how to read the spectrograms, but later in the book you can explore the spectrograms of each individual species in this book.

The largest section of this guide is the individual species accounts. Instead of putting the warblers in taxonomic order like other field guides, the authors decided to put the birds in alphabetical order. They explained in the beginning of the book they did this because the taxonomy of warblers has significantly changed recently, and some of the warblers in question are still not settled. The authors also felt it would be easier to find the warbler you need if the birds were listed alphabetically.

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Example of a Species Account (Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, published by Princeton University Press)

Each species accounts are about 3-6 pages long with numerous pictures. Information provided includes physical descriptions, range maps, photos of distinct views/many additional photos, comparison species (with photos), aging and sexing, and spectograms (with comparison to other species). There are a few features in each account that you usually don’t see in other field guides such as undertail patterns, preferred habit in trees (high canopy, understory, ground, etc), a color diagram, and behavior icons. All this information is easy to read and well organized.

Other great features of this book include quizzes to test you id skills, habitat and behavior charts, a taxonomy chart, descriptions and diagrams of flight patterns, silhouettes broken down by region, and species accounts of similar non-warbler species.

My favorite feature is the “quick finder section”. The quick finder section are all illustrations. The “quick finders” include faces, side views, 45 degree views, under views, seasonal plumage views, types of undertails, and song finder charts.

The Warbler Guide has a wealth of information for serious birders. It’s well organized and has hundreds of great pictures to show key identification parts. There’s a website listed in the back of the book where you can access additional resources. You can also purchase for iTunes the audio tracks that are featured in the book, so you can study the spectograms while listening. I think it’s an essential book for anyone who wants to explore the wonderful world of North American Warblers. I can’t wait to devour the information in this book.

And who knows, this may be the perfect gift for the warbler lover in you life. Just make sure you hide it better than Dave did :-P.