September – hawks and shorebirds and other stuff too

 

                     Breathe

It hurts my eyes when I forget to blink

And sometimes leaves its mark upon my face.

But when I find a shady spot to think,

The sun’s okay, when it stays in its place.

 

Now if I were a bird, then I would fly.

Or if I were a snake, then I would crawl.

If I were a beaver, then I would try

To put a dam across your waterfall.

 

A kangaroo can’t play a game of chess

Or sing a song, or say his lines on cue.

He’ll hop until you say to stop – unless

Marsupials won’t take that stuff from you.

 

What did I do today?  You want the facts?

Eat, sleep, and breathe.  I also scratched my back. 

 

 

 

 

 

A birder hard at work in New Jersey, September, 2013

 

 

      I found a book at our library that listed the “one hundred best birding sites” in the world.  I plan to go to two of them this fall.  But before I get to that I need to tell you about my gouty toe.  Gout is one of those controllable issues that go away if you eat right and stop drinking beer.  Of course, liking rich food and an occasional beer or two is what caused the gout in the first place.  Chris and I celebrated our wedding anniversary in style at a great local restaurant.  I got veal and a tasty beer.  That same week, I cooked two pounds of bacon and ate a lot of it myself.  Also I had a couple liverwurst sandwiches with Bloody Marys.  I didn’t tell any of this to my doctor, but I think she suspects anyway.  My big toe is ratting me out.  I’m not sure why the big toe is the spot that the inflammation is in, but it is.  My office mate, a fellow Seinfeld TV show fan, said without batting an eye, “That’s because he’s the captain of the toes.”  This is a reference to the bit where George said that the big toe is the captain of the toes but sometimes the second toe gets bigger and tries to take over the foot.  Jerry commented, ”a coup d’etoe!”   My office mate and I were elated.  How often do you get to use the “captain of the toes” reference?  So watch for it now.  If “big toe” comes up in a conversation be ready with either the captain of the toes remark or the coup d’etoe reference.  Either is “genius”.

      Chris commented that writers seem to write their most passionate work when they suffer, so maybe the pain in my toe will help with that.  I thought that was supposed to be emotional pain, but I’ll do my best to work with what I’ve got.  Instead of writing from the heart, I’ll write from the toe.  As a first time writer, that seems appropriate.  My next book will be “from the knee” and be about sports.  Moving up the body, I’ll write a book about sex, then up a few inches more and write a diet book.  Until I’m on my fifth or sixth book, I might not have to use my brain at all.  That’s a relief.  While I was on this topic, Chris made another interesting comment.  She said that sometimes I “wear my toe on my sleeve”.  I’m afraid to ask her what that means.

 

September 1 – Jersey Shore – not the TV show

We went to three beaches on the Delaware Bay side of the shore.  We started at Reed’s Beach, then went to the next beach further south, Cook’s Beach.  We spent the late afternoon in beach chairs on Sunset Beach, which is a little north of Cape May.  My plan for the day was to sit on the beaches with my shorebird book and my Sibley’s and attempt to figure out which gulls, terns, and sandpipers that I was seeing.  I also planned to take some pictures and figure out the difficult ids at home. 

      The plan worked.  There were lots of Great Black-backed Gulls there.  I thought on-the-spot that the big flocks were mixed.  Looking at the pictures at home, the very different plumaged birds were just different ages of GBBG’s.   All brown with black bills were juveniles.  First years had mostly white heads with darker backs and white chests streaked with brown.  Beaks were still black.  The adult birds had lost the checkered look on their backs and were dark and even colored.  They had regal all white heads, necks, and breasts.  Their bills were all yellow except for a red spot on the bottom tip.  I got some really close head shots and on those you can see a very red eye ring.  I got shots of every age group and also ones where the birds are rising up from the water showing their spread wings.  So the Great Black-backed Gull session was a success.

      Next up were terns.  There were lots of small black-billed terns with black masks.  Those are Forster’s Terns and I got lots of good shots of them perching on pylons and posts. The distinctive feature that I used to separate these from the Common Tern was the pale nape (back of the neck).  I also saw the big, orange-billed Caspian Terns.  Late in the day, a small white tern flew by my post on Sunset Beach.  It had a very yellow bill which is unique to Least Tern

 

Forster’s Tern, Reed Beach, New Jersey, September, 2013

 

 

Adult Great Black-backed Gull, Reed’s Beach, New Jersey, September 2013

 

Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull, Reed’s Beach, New Jersey, 2013

 

      After looking at gulls, I worked on sandpipers and plovers.  I thought the sandpipers were the Westerns that I had seen in Delaware and made sure to get their pictures this time.  While I was focusing on a different species of sandpiper, a plover walked up next to him and got in the picture.  That turned out to be fortunate for two reasons.  First, it’s a nice picture.  Second, with the obvious Semi-palmated Plover standing next to the not-at-all obvious sandpiper, I could accurately size the sandpiper.  The two birds were about the same size.  The sandpiper might have been even a little bigger.  So we are talking 7 ¼ inches here.  That rules out peeps and suggests a Sanderling.  His feathers were pretty hacked up.  He was white below, with a little washed out rust color on his neck.  His top was partly dark and partly grey.  So he was a breeding adult that was starting to molt.  In a different picture of the same few birds on the same few birds on the sandbar, a second sandpiper was next to the one I just described.  The second sandpiper had the same shape, size, and bill, but it was a light gray color on top and white below.  So that one was an adult, non-breeding Sanderling.

      Chris had spotted some peeps on the dirt road leading to Cook’s Beach and we stopped to get their pictures.  Those were juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpipers, with a slightly shorter and thicker bill than Western.  Its legs were clearly a greyish-green, not black.  It was all white below with a buff colored swash on the side of its breast.  Dark brown on top.  Look at page 145 of the Shorebird Guide by O’Brien, Crossley, and Karlson.  That’s my bird.  My picture is not as good, but still, I think that I’m starting to get this part of the hobby.

 

 

Juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Cook’s Beach, New Jersey, September, 2013

 

      We saw other birds too, but I don’t need the books on most of them.  At the end of the day, parked in my beach chair, I was shocked to see grey-backed gulls with black bills!  They had mostly white heads with some black patches.  Even more surprising was that using the binoculars, I could see a very bright red line on the top edge of their bills.  That had to be unique, but my guides did not show any gull with a black bill with a red line.  I took a lot of pictures of those gulls and also the brown, black-billed gulls that were with them.  It took a while, but I figured it out without getting out of the beach chair.  They were Laughing Gulls that were going out of their breeding plumage when they have red bills and black heads and going into their non-breeding plumage when they have black bills and mostly white heads.  The changeover takes place in September.  The brown birds were the juveniles.  I think this id should come with a joke – like “Who got the last laugh?  Answer: whoever was more gullible.”  Or. “How many Laughing Gulls does it take to steal a piece of bread?  Answer: 20.”  But I can’t think of anything to compete with the “captain of the toes” joke, so I think I’ll just move on.    

 

9/5 – I actually plant some chestnut trees!

The Chestnut Project team traveled to Hildacy Farm in Media, PA to plant twelve trees.  Tyler did not have a good spot for these trees and Hildacy Farm had room in their orchard and also had a prime spot cleared in a mature wooded area on the edge of a large meadow.  We planted seedlings that were about 85% American and 15% Chinese.  They were selected for their preponderance of American characteristics along with a measure of the Chinese resistance to the blight.  It felt really good to dig a hole and leave a chestnut tree in it.  Every person on the team showed the enthusiasm that I felt.

      One of the topics that we talked about was the science of gene splicing and genome mapping.  It is entirely possible that before the Chestnut Project succeeds, DNA science may make it possible to just splice the desired genes together.  That would be wonderful and brings up an interesting thought.  When we get to the point that we can create a blight resistant American Chestnut, should we also bring back the Passenger Pigeon by splicing its genetic material into living pigeons?  Should we do that?  Where would we stop?  How many of the billions of extinct species should be returned to the planet?  What kind of havoc would that create?  And, the ultimate question, where will the big money be?  That will be in designer genes for Homo sapiens ultra.

      Back in the present, Hildacy Farm is part of Natural Lands Trust and besides being a nature preserve is also the headquarters for National Lands Trust, the largest non-profit land conservation program in the region.  NLT has 40 preserves and over 100,000 acres in southeast PA and NJ.  One of the other sites that we’ve been at is Stroud Preserve where we saw bobolinks this spring.  Hildacy Farm and NLT headquarters are at 1031 Palmers Mill Road, Media, PA.  The NLT phone number is 610-353-5587.

 

9/7 – John Heinz NWR at Tinicum

In early spring John Heinz NWR had the Northern Saw-whet Owl.  In late summer, it had nesting Least Bitterns.  So could it top that in early fall?

      Chris, Beans, and I joined a large Sunday morning walk that combined members of Tinicum and members of the Valley Forge Audubon Society with the public at large, at least eight of them members of Tyler Arboretum, including Chris and me.  Besides wonderful company (and I’m not just sucking up), the highlights were a female Redstart, three Red-eyed Vireos, a Warbling Vireo, a Great Crested Flycatcher, hundreds of Wood Ducks, and the special catch-of-the-day – a Black-throated Green Warbler.

      The Great Crested Flycatcher had the typical flycatcher shape, but it was much bigger, almost robin-sized.  It had a bigger crest and flashes of red on the tail.  With so many expert eyes, it was possible to pick out the bird flitting about deep in the bushes and distinguish its field marks.  If the bird was out in the open, sitting quietly, I could identify this distinctive bird.  Today I needed and got lots of help.  I was really impressed by the spotting of this bird and the persistence in which the spotters stuck with it.  It was worth the effort.

      The Black-throated Green Warbler came near the end of the walk and hung around long enough for everyone to get very good looks at it.  Obviously, it had a black throat.  It had very obvious black streaks on its breast and a dull green back.  The other black-throated warblers have clear breasts, except for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, which isn’t found in southeast PA.  Our warbler was feeding up high in a tree near the trail and stayed visible for a surprisingly long time.  Visible, but always moving. 

      What else did we see besides the very common birds?  There were Rough-winged swallows, Great Egrets, Forster’s Terns, Caspian Terns, Green Herons, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Grackles, and an entire Kingfisher family.  There were huge Cicadas sitting on the tree branches and appearances by the beautiful Red Spotted Purple butterflies.  A muskrat swam across the impoundment.  Among the many interesting plants identified by this fine group of naturalists was the Blue Mist flower, both uncommon and uncommonly lovely.  I gotta say that John Heinz NWR is batting 3 for 3 with 3 homeruns this year.  That’s not too shabby for a refuge so close to Philadelphia that you can see the skyline.

 

9/10 – Hawk Mountain

The first of the spots on the “top 100” list is Hawk Mountain.  This is the Holy Grail of hawk watching, the place where hawk watching started.  Up until the 1930’s, it was the place to go to kill hawks.  The local guys would climb the mountain and blast away, killing the hawks by the thousands.  I found a book written in the 1970’s (F22.)  in which the author interviewed some of the shooters who remembered the experience from when they were young men.  They didn’t think that they were doing anything wrong.  In fact, killing a predator seemed like a good thing to them and often they got paid a bounty from the government.  In 1934, Rosalie Edge leased the land to “create the world’s first refuge for birds of prey”.  The quotes are because I lifted the phrase from “Hawk Mountain News”, which arrived at my home with my membership card to Hawk Mountain.

      I got to the mountain at 7:30 AM and found an empty parking lot at the Visitor Center.  I had to wait an hour for the office to open so that I could pay either my membership or the trail fee.  While I was waiting, I met one of the hawk counters and she gave me the scoop on where to pay and where the trail started and how long to the top.  From the Visitor Center, It is just a mile and a half to the North Lookout.  Near the top, there are a number of lookouts and I poked my head into each one to catch a view of trees and mist, no birds, except for coming out of the Appalachian Lookout.  In the bushes off the trail, a decent-sized animal was making a racket scrabbling around in the undergrowth.  I waited and when I took a step off the trail, a Ruffed Grouse thundered up and away.  A second quickly followed.  These chicken-sized game birds are brownish red with black and white markings.  I saw them in the New York woods as a kid, but haven’t seen them since.  Sometimes they rise up making a lot of noise to confuse a hunter or predator, but sometimes they drift away silently.  I’ve seen both behaviors.

      When I got to North Lookout, I was the fourth person there.  The others were the two official counters, Arlene and Rudy, and an off-duty counter, Rob.  I hadn’t even put my stuff down when Arlene announced, “There’s a Red-headed Woodpecker!”  I was facing the wrong way and missed it.  That was the only good bird that we saw for a few hours.  The problem was that I came on a day when there was little wind.  The previous day had a nice Northwest wind of 7 mph and a Broad-winged Hawk count of 850.  That’s a good number, but nothing like Arlene’s first day on Hawk Mountain, which was 22,000 birds.  Let me spell that out so that you don’t think it is a typo – twenty two thousand birds.  That was a record day and everyone who is a Hawk Mountain regular knows about it and knows that Arlene is Arlene Koch, a popular nature writer in the local area.  She and Rudy are both past presidents of the Pennsylvania Ornithological Association and have traveled internationally for bird watching.  Among other things, Arlene writes a nature column for a local newspaper.  She is very nice and despite her accomplishments, she doesn’t take herself too seriously.  She commented that on her first day she got shushed by her friend when she looked at the hawks and commented, “I didn’t know crows were brown!”

      Throughout the day other hawk watchers joined us for a few hours.  A junior high school group of about twenty surprisingly sophisticated kids with one teacher watched from the rocks below us for a few hours.  We saw enough birds to keep us interested, including sixty Broad-winged Hawks, several Sharp-shinned Hawks, Black Vultures,  TVs (which is what we call Turkey Vultures on Hawk Mountain), lots of swallows, and many flocks of waxwings.  Rudy and Arlene kept remarking that they thought that one specific bird of each large flock was a Bohemian Waxwing.  Eventually I caught on that this was a birding joke.   I saw a birding joke a few weeks ago that someone sent me online.   It’s a cartoon with a bird lying on a couch, and the bird is saying to the psychiatrist next to him, “When I was a baby, my mother would throw up in my mouth”.   While I was taking a mid-morning break to chat with Mike on the cell phone, a Bald Eagle flew through.  Five or six times Broadwings flew right up to our spot to dive bomb the plastic owl decoy that is set on a pole at North Lookout.  Hawks hate owls and the decoy is there specifically to attract the hawks to attack it.

      Since it was a slow day and for most of it the three counters and I were the only watchers on the mountain, we started chatting.  I commented that they must be seeing a lot farther than me because the birds over the ridge about five miles away seemed too far to identify with my binoculars.  Arlene let me look through hers- 10x, with a $2500 price tag.  They had much better resolution and color and with 10x versus my 8x, the birds were bigger.  She hadn’t heard the suggestion that 8x is the maximum for birding binoculars and has always used 10x.  My next pair is going to be 10x as well.  After hearing stories of how she and Rudy had birded all over the world, I started to get a little nervous (let me be honest - a lot nervous) about how my writing project would appear to these superior birders.  How silly and pompous the observations of a rookie birder must seem, especially as they quickly pick through my constant and obvious mistakes.  As a trial balloon, I worked into the conversation my misidentification of an immature Little Blue Heron as a Little Egret (which George at Exton Park, another superior birder, had been able to set me straight on).  Arlene’s comment was “That’s the process.  Now you know why that id was absurd.”  That made me feel a little better, but I relaxed even more after I started to sense that these people already knew that I was silly and pompous and didn’t mind.  I wasn’t going to be able to hide my short-comings in the book, so worrying about it on the mountain would do no good.  I settled back and watched the trickle of Broadwings fly through the valley.

      Walking down the mountain in the late afternoon, I took the easy and longer trail.  I met up with Arlene, who had left after me but taken the shortcut trail.  So we finished the walk out together.  As we passed a rock that marks the halfway point from North Lookout to the trail head, she dragged her foot slowly across the rock.  She told me that Hawk Mountain is the place where hawk watching started and that every birder who does a project anywhere near the region feels an obligation to pay a visit to this sanctuary.  “Lots of great birders have walked on this rock,” she exclaimed.  I thought, “I just saw one drag her foot across it.”  She had a sore wrist from a fall on the walk up the mountain and we got on the topic of injuries.  She told me about a prior accident where her doctor had told her she wouldn’t be able to use the arm or go birding anymore.  On her next visit to the doctor, she used that hand and arm to tweak her nose at the surprised (and happy to be wrong) medical expert.  “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do!” she said while demonstrating the nose tweak.  When we finished up the walk, Arlene gave me a present that I will always value.  She said, “It was nice talking to you.”

      At home, Chris wanted to chat about how the trip went.  On one hand, I had seen a lot less birds than I would have seen if there had been a northwest wind.  But still, I saw sixty Broadwings and some Sharpies (which is what us hawk watchers call Sharp-shinned Hawks) and I had never seen either of these birds before.  Also the Ruffed Grouse are hard to find, so that was also cool.  I surprised both Chris and myself by not wanting to talk about my day.  I liked sitting on the mountain lookout.  I plan to go back a few times during the fall migration.  I also plan to go and sit for a few hours when the hawks and hawk watchers are gone.  I’ll bet it is nice that way too.  Here’s a paraphrase of Aristotle that I got from Mike:  “The result of any action should be contemplation.”

 

Thursday, 9/12 – Exton Park – tiny falcons

I saw five American Kestrels; one perched on a distant wire, another close up in a tree, one flying high up, and two together just overhead.  These falcons are the size of a robin and close up not too hard to identify.  They have a lot of white and reddish brown plumage, with dark vertical lines on their faces and blue/grey wings.  When they are flying, you see a lot of white and reddish brown on their bodies and blunt-pointed wings.  Sue considers kestrels to be one of her favorite birds and offered the fun-fact that they can see mouse urine.  I trust her on almost everything, but I had to double-check this remark.  In Stan Tekiela’s “Birds of Pennsylvania”, the author notes that kestrels can “see ultraviolet light.  This helps to locate mice and other small mammals by their urine, which glows bright yellow in ultraviolet light.”  So now we know.

 

 

 

9/13 – Hawk Mountain

The winds were from the northwest.  They counted 350 Broad-winged Hawks.  I wasn’t there.  I had to work.  Damn!

 

9/14 – Cape May State Park, New Jersey

Here’s the second spot on the top 100 best birding spots in the world.  This one makes most of the top ten lists.  The birds migrating down the east Atlantic coast fly down the coast of New Jersey until they reach the mouth of the Delaware Bay.  Before taking the fourteen mile flight across open water, they try to see if the coast is just a little irregular here and fly around the point and back a few miles along the Delaware Bay.  If the wind is southerly or easterly, they’ll wait for a better wind to do the crossing.  Again, for this spot, a northwest wind is best.  Sometimes large numbers of birds jam up at this point.  In the spring, migrating birds stop in the region to gorge their famished bodies on crab eggs.  In the fall, they are passing through by the millions and being funneled into a small area because of the geography of the land and water.  Birders come from all over the world to see them.

      Cape May State Park is at the southernmost tip of New Jersey at the end of Lighthouse Road.  There are no entry fees and you can bring your dog, although some of the trails are closed to pets.  During the fall migration, Cape May Bird Observatory hawk counters man a hawk watching pavilion.  It is a large three-tiered deck that can hold a lot of people.  The seating faces north and fronts a large freshwater impoundment.  The ocean is nearby on the right, behind the dunes and out of sight.  The hawks seem to fly in from the north, as you would expect, and pass either overhead or to the left.  On this particular Saturday, the winds were good.

        From about 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM, there was a lot of activity.  In the impoundment, there was a juvenile Little Blue Heron (I’m getting good at this bird), two Snowy Egrets (one was a juvenile with legs that were yellow in back and only black in the front), Great Egrets, Canada Geese, Mute swans, and Laughing Gulls.  There were two small duck-like birds that were different.  One of the Cape May Birding Organization (CMBO) interns got them in her spotting scope and we teamed up to pick them out in a field guide.  They were Pied-billed Grebes, common water birds that sink rather than dive under water and can stay submerged for a long time hunting for food.  They are mostly brown and have pointed bills like a chicken.  They have a distinctive “grebe” shape, kind of flat, short, and round.

      Overhead, we saw at least a dozen Merlins.  These are falcons that are a little bigger than Kestrels, but are much stronger fliers.  Their wings are sharp-pointed and their plumage is much darker and bluer.  Just looking at the outline of the wings, the differences are mainly that the Merlin wing is thicker front to back and more pointed.  This distinction is not really as subtle as it sounds, but there is absolutely nothing subtle about the way the Merlin flies.  Kestrels are excellent fliers, but Merlins handle the wind better and more aggressively tear through the sky.  I saw two of them pick off big dragonflies and eat them on the wing. 

      In the afternoon, we saw at least twenty Kestrels, some Red-tailed Hawks, a few Osprey, one Monarch Butterfly, and four Pectoral Sandpipers.  These sandpipers are pretty large, almost as big as robins.  We saw them flying up from the far edge of the impoundment and going up over our heads.  Their breasts and heads were brown and their undersides mostly white, going up into their wings.  The outer parts of their wings were a dark, bluish color.  The official counter pointed out these special birds and commented on their incredible journey from the edge of the Artic to the tip of South America.

      At 5:00 PM, Chris, Beans, and I joined a CMBO organized bird walk.  First we went out on the beach and looked at a Forster’s Tern and a group of Common Terns mixed in with the gulls.  The Forster’s Tern was non-breeding, no on the black cap and yes on the black bill.  The Common Terns were still in breeding plumage, with black caps and orange bills.  On the east side of the impoundment we saw more Merlins and Kestrels and four Cooper’s Hawks and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  There were lots of Tree Swallows.  A Bald Eagle took ten minutes to fly in from the north and disappear to the south.  Two flocks of about eight Glossy Ibis flew through and also some Cormorants.  Most of the ducks were non-breeding Shovelers, but there were some Mallards, and some Shoveler-Mallard hybrids.  An Osprey flew through and the leader commented on the “M” shape of the wings.  A Red-tailed Hawk flew over and the leader commented on its “pataginal bar”, the black bar on the leading edge of the wings.  On the west side of the impoundment, farther back into the marsh we saw a lot of birds.  A quick list includes:  Barn Swallows, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Widgeons, Greater Yellow Legs, Red Start (both red ones and yellow ones), Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Hummingbird, Fish Crow, Spotted Sandpiper, Wood Duck, and Red-winged Blackbird.  The Wood Duck was beautiful in its full breeding plumage.  A Kestrel and a Shooper were sharing a tree from which they launched out to grab dragonflies.  The Shooper is the name that we hawk guys call a bird that we can’t tell whether it is a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s.  The leader was saying Cooper’s and the other co-leaders were all arguing for Sharpie.  We passed a small pond with Spotted Sandpipers and a single Least Sandpiper.  Just after that we were walking through a field when a group of crows started kicking up a ruckus in the trees at the edge of the field.  They scared up a big brown raptor that flew low, right over our heads.  It had long wings, feathered at the tips.  The body was brown and the undersides of the wings were barred.  Her back was brown.  She was an adult, female Northern Harrier. I’ve been wanting to see this bird and up to now have only had a few expert-made identifications of a far aloft bird that I couldn’t distinguish myself.  A good lesson-learned is that when crows are upset about something, try to find out what they are upset about – it will probably be something interesting.  Just before we left the marsh, we got another treat – a flock of Short-billed Dowitchers flew by.  Their moderately long bills and fat bodies are distinctive.  It was a lot easier to id dowitchers, however, when they were standing still in Bombay Hook last November.  I looked back to that trip account and saw that those birds were the Long-billed Dowitchers.  Are you catching a theme here?  I’m thinking Bombay Hook this November will be a good thing to do. 

Logistics:  Dinner was at an outdoor table in a Cape May restaurant.  Beans behaved very well and even got a few pets from people passing by.  We camped out at a campground along Route 9 just outside the town of Rio Grande, NJ.     

 

Juvenile Snowy Egret with legs partly green and partly black, Cape May State Park, NJ, September, 2013

 

Common Tern, note dark carpal bar and orange-red bill, Cape May State Park, NJ, September, 2013

 

Terns, Delaware Bay, New Jersey, September 2013

 

9/15 – Sunday morning at Higbee Beach WMA

We had to make a choice between going more inland for a guided walk in a marsh habitat or going at it alone.  We are finding out that guided walks are not easy when you have a dog.  Beans did well and the leaders and participants complimented us about her behavior, but Chris missed at least half of each walk.  That’s okay with her, but on Sunday we wanted to just explore by ourselves and not have to be concerned about our puppy acting like a puppy.

      One of the famous bird-watching spots in southern NJ is the dike at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area.  You get to it by driving to the end of New England Road, which is Route 641.  The road goes straight in to the parking lot for the WMA.  Instead, turn down the dirt road on the right just before the parking lot.  Unless it is late morning and very bad wind conditions (meaning no wind or a southeast wind), there will be cars parked along the sides of the road about ¾ of a mile down the road.  At the end of the dirt road is a small parking area for the beach along the bay.

      Every morning during the fall migration, CMBO has counters stationed on the dike to do a morning bird count.  This is the spot to see scads of warblers and other migrants taking off at dawn.  On good days, this is supposed to be awesome (good – meaning cold and windy).  This was a very bad day!  It was 75 degrees, no wind, and perfectly blue skies – horrible weather!  There were very few birds.  From the platform on the left side of the road, I spotted a few warblers, including a Yellow Warbler, a Black and White Warbler, a Hooded Warbler (black throat, yellow front), a female Blackpoll Warbler (mostly grey with a grey speckled whitish breast), and a little, blue, scruffy bird that may have been a molting Cerulean Warbler.  I would have guessed Bluebird, but it was a much smaller bird than that.  I also saw an Osprey fly through and a single small hawk hunting in the brush, probably a Sharpie.  On top of the dike to the right of the road, I watched for an hour with the counters and a half dozen other birders.  We saw zero birds.  Oh well, that happens.

      Ironically, while I was up on the dike, Chris and Beans saw a Redstart along the road.  We spent the bulk of the morning walking the trails behind the WMA parking lot.  Those are awesome.  They circle around the edges of big open fields that are edged by stands of trees.  So there are lots of places for the birds to hide and yet enough open area to give the humans a chance to see them.  From an observation deck along a trail, we were looking at a Pine Warbler (greenish/yellow below and on its back, white wing bars, grey head), when a hiker came down the trail from the other direction.  We exchanged observations about what we’d been seeing.  In a very thick French accent, he said something about Yellow-billed or Black-billed Cuckoos.  We filed that away and headed the way he had come from.  We found several yellow birds in the trees above the path.  They were not cuckoos.  They were a little bigger than sparrows, clearly larger than the warblers that we had been seeing.  They were plain brown on top, yellow on their breasts, and dirty white on their bellies.  They had some white lines on their faces that gave the impression of a dark eye line behind dark bills.  This was a new bird for me and I’m not 100% sure, but they were most likely Yellow Chats.  While we were looking at the chats, another couple hiked up from the direction we were headed.  In very good English, they told us they had seen a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and where it was.  So we went to see it.

      Coming around the bend where I was hoping to see the cuckoo, I heard a knocking noise that I thought was probably a woodpecker chunking up some soft wood.  Clearing the bend in the trail, I saw the woodpecker high up in a tree.  But he wasn’t pecking at the branch he was perched on.  His beak was up and he was making the sound with his voice!  “Tok tok tok tok”, over and over.  Looking up at him, I could see that the bird was white below and that what I could see of his sides and his head was brown.  I saw some white and black striping, but wasn’t sure if that was on his back and tail.  Later, looking in a field guide, I determined that the striping had to have been on his tail.  It was not a woodpecker.  I hadn’t actually seen that the bird’s bill was yellow, but I had clearly seen a yellow eye ring.  The clincher for the id was the sound it was making.  The sound is clearly described in the field guides and when I listened to the recorded sound on my iBird app, I was 100% sure that he was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  The only other possibility was the smaller Black-billed Cuckoo, who makes an entirely different sound.  This was a double first for me – first, I saw a very cool new bird; second, I used his song to make the id without a birding group expert interpreting it for me. 

 

 

Wednesday, 9/18 – Bird ‘n Brew

George organized a party for the bird watchers of Exton Park.  We met for an evening bird walk and then went to the Victory Brewery in Downingtown for dinner.  I haven’t done any restaurant/dinner recommendations in my home area, but if I was going to do that, Victory Brewery would be high up on the list. 

      The attendees were a different selection from the Thursday morning walks.  George was the only retiree.  Another man and I were the only two getting close to retirement, although a third also has grown children.  The rest of the group’s participants were the young studs of birding.  Brian, the school teacher that I had met on an August walk, was there with his girlfriend. Although she obviously is a good birder, she made it clear that she isn’t as crazy on it as she thought the rest of this group was.  With so many sharp-eyed birders on the prowl, I expected that we would see something really good.  I wasn’t disappointed.  In the brush along the trail, we saw a small bird flitting around, then a second, then a third.  It took some time, but since they didn’t fly off, we eventually were able to see their field marks.  First were the yellow breasts and grey heads.  Then we got good looks at black striping on the sides of their breasts.  Magnolia Warblers!

      After the warblers flew off, we were looking at something far less exciting, when I saw George farther up the trail motioning vigorously to us.  I said, “George wants us to come see something”.  He met us halfway.  “American Bittern”, he whispered.  George had his birding scope set up on the edge of the pond.  On the opposite shore, there was a Great Blue Heron.  A few feet from the heron, moving in and out of the tall grass, was the American Bittern.  When he held still and pointed his bill straight up, he looked like a clump of grass or a stick with the bark stripped off.  It is no wonder that this bird is so hard to spot.  He moved slowly and when he wasn’t actually catching something in the water, he stepped back to disappear into the tall grass.  There were many expert birders in the group; some of them had only seen this bird once or twice before.  For a few of us, this was our first sighting.  He stayed on the shore for at least twenty minutes, while we watched him and took his picture.  At the end of the evening, as we split up in the restaurant parking lot, one of the group said, “Good to meet you.  Good birding today.”  He got that right.

 

9/18 – Thursday – didn’t make it to work!

I had scheduled time off in the morning, and used it to help harvest chestnuts at Tyler Arboretum.  The orchard has many nut producing, pure American trees.  Most have died back once from the blight and regrown from the roots, but one row is the original growth and shows the most obvious damage from the disease.  Those are fifteen or twenty feet tall and all their nuts are reachable from an orchard ladder.  This was my first time up on this tripod style ladder and I was surprised at how sturdy the triangle structure makes it.  After picking the pods that had turned brown and the thick spiky pods that were already opening, we brought them back to the shed to open the pods and sort the nuts.  Every tree in the orchard has an identification number and we separated the nuts by which tree they came from.  We bagged them to ship to Penn State for storage and later use as a source of pure American seeds.  Any nuts with weevil damage got discarded.  We found a few with the weevil larva still in the nuts and when one of these small white worms started crawling across the table top, I got to use the weevil joke from the movie “Master and Commander”.  If two weevils are racing, should you bet on the small one or the large one?  The answer is to always choose the lesser of two weevils.  All together now, “Groan!”

Harvesting chestnuts, Tyler Arboretum, September, 2013

 

Native American Chestnuts, Tyler Arboretum, September, 2013

 

      When I got home, there was a Swallowtail Butterfly flitting around a beautiful rose bloom on the plant that my co-workers had given me when my mom died in the spring.  On the side of the screen porch, a Ruby-throated Humming bird was sleeping.  After taking pictures of the hummingbird, I went inside the porch and touched the screen with a piece of paper.  I wanted to see if the bird was stuck on the screen.  It wasn’t.  Touching the screen woke the bird up and it sped off across the yard really fast.

      So how can you go into work after that?  Here’s my e-mail to my team:  “I spent the morning picking chestnuts.  When I got back home, there was a butterfly and a hummingbird in my yard.  I’m going to extend my Paid Time Off to a full day and go look for meadowlarks and bobolinks.”  My team and boss were okay with this.

      I tried going to Stroud Preserve, but got lost again.  While I was driving around in the countryside outside of West Chester, I went by a park with some dogs running around and playing.  Since I had Beans with me, I decided to stop there instead.  This was Shaw’s Bridge Park, the only West Chester park that allows dogs to go unleashed.  I asked a man with a Golden Retriever named Tiger for directions to Stroud.  I think Tiger’s owner is named Aaron.  I got the directions, but instead of leaving for Stroud, I stayed to let Beans play with Tiger and to talk with Aaron.  Beans got along great with Tiger and even followed Tiger into the Brandywine River – at least up to her chest.  At one end of the park, there is a marsh walk with a pond.  There were mallards and a Great Blue Heron.  Also there were some unidentified warblers along the path.  So I didn’t see meadowlarks and bobolinks, but Beans had a ball.

      Since I had been outdoors all day, I decided to make it a clean sweep and go for a walk in the evening.  I went back to Exton Park to see if I could get a picture of the bittern.  During the Bird ‘n Brew, I had left my camera in the car, not wanting to use my small camera in front of some serious photographers.  It was my loss.  They got pictures and I didn’t.  So I was hoping for a second chance.  The bird was exactly where we had seen it the previous night.  I saw it briefly, and then it ducked back into the grass.  I waited twenty minutes, but it didn’t come back out.  I walked up the trail to see if I could get a better angle from a different observation spot.  Before I got there, I saw one of the crew from the Bird ‘n Brew, Arthur.  Although Arthur is brand new to birding this year, he is getting amazing success with bird photography.  It was Arthur’s picture of a Cooper’s Hawk that George showed me when we were talking about the hawk in my backyard.  I got a demonstration of the secret to his success – hard work, which of course is almost always the “secret” to any successful person’s good fortune.  Arthur was there to get a better picture of the bittern and had already done so.  He showed me a clear and well-composed photo of the bittern.  After I complimented it, he shared the info that one of the really experienced birders had been calling him a “savant”.  He confided that the compliment was wrong.  He was getting good pictures because he works hard at it.  He studies a lot in the nights and gets to good spots every morning and evening.   

      We went back together to my original spot and the bittern was back out.  Arthur suggested that we continue to a lookout at the end of the pond closest to the parking lot.  From there we were closer to the bird and both of us got pictures.  His were good enough to be in a magazine.  Mine weren’t that good, but still you can clearly see and identify the bittern.  In the picture, you can see how good his camouflage is.  He is the exact color and shade as the dried grass he was standing in front of.  If you weren’t looking for him and didn’t know exactly where to look, you would just look right past him.  So even though this is one of those “blurry” pictures, I’m going to include it.

American Bittern, Exton Park, Pennsylvania, September, 2013

 

 

9/20 - Friday - East Lake Drive, outside the CMBO

I saw a Eurasian Collared Dove on a wire alongside the road.  I had heard from a birder on one of the John Heinz walks that these birds could be seen inside the town part of Cape May, but I didn’t see them there.  This splendid white bird is shaped like a Mourning Dove, but is a little taller and much bigger overall.  It gets its name from a dark band on the back of his neck.  He was introduced from Europe into the Caribbean (I think that’s where he showed up first in our hemisphere), became common in Florida by 2000, and has been spreading north.  I can attest that he has made it to New Jersey in 2013.  It is currently popular to despise all invasives (even though many of us also came from Europe to the Caribbean and spread throughout North America), but I have to take the side of this dove.  He is stately, regal, and very beautiful.  If he displaces a few of our Rock Doves (pigeons), I can live with that.

 

 

9/20 – The Meadows at Cape May

The official name of the Meadows is the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge.  It is an Important Bird Area owned by The Nature Conservancy, an international organization that is concerned with global conservation issues, including preserving sensitive migratory spots.  It is on Sunset Boulevard in West Cape May.  It has hedges, grasslands, marsh, ponds, and ocean beach.  It is an important nesting spot for many birds, including Piping Plover, Least Tern, and American Woodcock.  I didn’t see any of those, but on a CMBO Friday evening bird walk, I saw a Great Horned Owl and a Sora.  Both birds were in spots that the walk leaders know about.  The Sora had been around for a few weeks.  The Great Horned Owl (or owls) had been perching in his (or their) favorite spot for years.

      The owl was in a stand of trees a few hundred feet to the left of the trail past the lookout platform, heading toward the ocean.  You could see him with the naked eye, but with binoculars or birding scopes, you could see all his detail.  He was puffing out his throat repetitively.  The walk leader speculated that he was doing it to cool off.  It was a cool evening, but he was tucked into a secure spot with no wind, so it makes sense that he was warm.

      The Sora is a robin-sized rail that has a reputation for being bold, at least when compared to other marsh birds.  It is a brown bird, speckled with white, with a grey throat and a yellow bill.  It popped out and back into the brush for about ten minutes.  It was almost dark when we got to his spot, and he kept us entertained until it was too dark to see.  In this light, my moderately priced binoculars could not perform as well as their high-end versions.   But we were close enough to see him unaided by technology.  I think he was oblivious to our noisy group, but he was still hard to pick out because of his size, color, and behavior.  He didn’t stay in one spot, but would go behind one bush and emerge a few bushes away.

      Some of the other birds that we saw on the walk were Ospreys, Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, Solitary Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Lesser Yellow Legs, Killdeer, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, Merlin, Semi-palmated Plover, Sanderlings, Lesser Black-backed Gulls (they aren’t just European anymore), Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Laughing Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Royal Tern, four Gadwalls (these non-breeding birds were very similar to adult female Mallards, but even more grey-brown overall with a thinner bill and plainer head). 

 

Friday logistics – You can’t bring dogs into The Meadows, so I was doing this trip solo.  I used the same campground that Chris, Beans, and I were at the previous week.  I set up late in the morning and went to Cape May State Park in the afternoon, no wind and no birds.  I set up a beach chair in a shady pavilion and wrote a poem until it was time for the Meadows walk.

 

 

 

Saturday, 9/21 – The Beanery

This excellent birding spot is a former lima bean farm on Bayshore Road, West Cape May.  It’s also called Rea Farm.  New Jersey Audubon has leased the “birding rights” to this location, which is similar to landowners leasing “hunting rights” to groups of hunters.  So to bird at The Beanery you need to join NJ Audubon, join Cape May Bird Observatory (609-884-2736), or get a day pass at the CMBO Northwood Center on 701 East Lake Drive.  There are big fields lined with wet woods and bushes and a small pond.  The area is sheltered from wind by surrounding tall trees, so it is a good spot to look for migrants taking a rest stop on their long journeys.

      We saw some nice warblers, including Palm Warblers, Black and White Warblers, and Yellowthroats.  A lot of hummingbirds and dragonflies were buzzing around big flowering bushes.  A Carolina Wren sang its sweet song for us.  A green Heron flew over and also an Osprey.  In a Sweet Gum tree we saw a Yellow Warbler, another Black and White Warbler, a Red-eyed Vireo, and a Hairy Woodpecker, but we focused on an Alder Flycatcher, commenting on how similar it is to a Willow Flycatcher.  The two birds are almost identical; the Alder is a little darker. 

      At one point the group was looking at a group of Bobolinks in a field.  I could not find them until I finally realized that they meant the plain brown birds flitting around in the bushes.  They looked nothing like the beautiful breeding birds that we had seen at Stroud Preserve in the spring and summer.

      At the pond, we saw a family of Black-crowned Night-herons.  The juvenile bird was sitting on a log that had fallen across the pond.  The adult female was on a different branch behind him.  The adult male was tucked into some heavy brush at the edge of the pond.  He was staring out at us malevolently, one red-lined eye watching us from his hiding place.  The adults had thick, dark bills, clear white bodies, yellow legs, black backs, and as advertised black crowns.  These are pretty large birds.  Although they are only as tall as a Snowy Egret, at about 2 pounds, they weigh as much as a Great Egret.  Their dark red eyes gave the adults a wild and dangerous look.  The juvenile also managed to look primitive and slightly deranged, even with a more subtle eye line.  He was a light brown with white spots over all of his wings.  He was staring out from his perch with obvious body language that screamed that he was the baddest of the bad ass birds on the pond – except for his dad – and his mom – and the Osprey.  

Juvenile Black-capped Night-heron, The Beanery, New Jersey, September, 2013

 

Adult female Black-capped Night-heron, The Beanery, New Jersey, September, 2013

      While I was snapping off a few dozen pictures of the herons, several of which came out very nicely, I heard the rest of the group talking about the beautiful colors of a Flicker in a tree near the pond.  Ecstatic about seeing a life bird and actually getting pictures of it, I ignored the Flicker watchers, at least until the end of the walk.  While we were walking out from the last field, I noticed that an older lady was lagging behind with her husband.  I went back to make sure that they were all right.  They were fine, but they mentioned that there was a lady with a hurt back even farther behind.  So I waited a little longer.  The slow-poke turned out to be a middle-aged woman who had hurt her back falling off a horse.  I walked in with her and we commented that she had put her CMBO decal on her binocular lens cover where it fit, but I had mine on the side of my binoculars where I was claiming that it looked like a racing stripe.  That led to observations about birders in general and the different motivating factors for birding.  I admitted that I had started by wanting to get some exercise outdoors while learning about nature, but lots of times I was caught up in counting life birds.  She wasn’t into that at all.  She said her motivation was Zen.  She commented that she liked being able to walk the same paths many times and feel how different each experience was.  Her highlight on this walk was seeing the beauty of the Flicker.  I thought that two people could go on the same walk and have totally different experiences.  While I was focusing on the Night-herons, I ignored the Flicker.  I don’t regret my choice.  But now that I think about it, I would have liked to see the Flicker too.  Maybe that attitude makes me Zen and not Zen.   Mike has been recommending Alan Watts to me, paraphrasing Watts by saying “If you think you’re Zen, then you’re not.”  So I went to the internet and treated myself to some classic Alan Watts.  One of his powerful quotes is “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes.  Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”  You can see how simple that is and how incredibly difficult.  Doing things is easy.  Not thinking about God is easy.  The hard thing is to do something and not think about something else.  It is not my habit to see the bird and just experience seeing the bird, right then, not in relation to the past (life bird!) or in relation to the future (getting a picture!) or in relation to myself (I’m doing Zen!).  There’s a whole series of Carlos Castaneda books (“Don Juan Among the Yaquis”) where a sorcerer’s main teaching is to “shut off the internal dialogue”.  Try that.  Try just sitting where you are and not have any words pass through your mind.  Start now…  How did it go?  Did you catch yourself thinking about not thinking?  When the dialogue stopped for a few seconds did it feel restful?  Did you notice some sight, sound, or smell that you had been blocking out, that now was observed?  I had been thinking that my bird walk buddy and I had been on different walks at the same time and place.  With a little help from Mr. Watts, I saw that this was not a helpful observation.  He said, “If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected to everything.”  I like that thought.

      When I read this section to Chris, I had to admit that the last paragraph was awkward.  It was like I jammed together some tasty crumbs and called the result a cake.  Chris’ reaction to the shutting off the internal dialogue experiment was “No problem. I do that all the time.”  In reference to experiencing simple things deeply, she was on board with that.  She thinks that most people take their daily experiences for granted and that when they peel potatoes, they just peel potatoes, but don’t get anything more out of it than a nice potato salad.  She knew that I have a constant conversation going on in my head and finds that curious.  She doesn’t think that pondering about ordinary experiences yields any great insight, but it might yield a deeper sensation of those experiences.  The reward is to understand the beauty of simple things.  I am drawn to rephrase by quoting a favorite poem.  In Little Gidding, T. S. Elliott wrote:

               “We shall not cease from exploration

               And the end of all our exploring

               Will be to arrive where we started

               And know the place for the first time.

               Through the unknown, unremembered gate

               When the last of earth left to discover

               Is that which was the beginning;

               At the source of the longest river

               The voice of the hidden waterfall

               And the children in the apple tree “

      As for taking a walk at the Beanery, that’s as good a place as any to start or end something.  For any question, whether you are old or young, a walk in a field can help.  Or talk to your best friend.  It might be that your answers are right in front of you.

 

Saturday afternoon - 9/21 – Sea Isle City Beach

I spent the afternoon on the Atlantic Ocean taking pictures of sandpipers and plovers.  I walked south almost all the way to Stone Harbor.   It was a lot of fun.  When my camera ran out of charge, I left for home.

Sanderling, New Jersey, September, 2013

 

Western Sandpiper, New Jersey, September 2013

 

Semi-palmated Plover, New Jersey, September 2013

 

Saturday - 9/28 – Cape May State Park

Chris, Beans, and I came back to New Jersey for our fourth weekend in a row.  After setting up our campsite, we went to the state park, hoping to see hawks.  There was no wind and no hawks, so we went for a walk, retracing the path we had followed with the CMBO group two weeks ago.  Crossing the dunes we saw a Sharp-shin darting around the beach grass.  Along the impoundment, we stopped to glance at a flock of gulls swimming off-shore.  My sharp-eyed sidekick noticed that one of them was different and patiently pointed it out to me.  It was a Black Skimmer!  These are the large black and white ocean birds with huge orange bills, the bottom part much longer than the top.  They fish by skimming along the surface of the ocean and scooping up fish.  Do you remember the flock of birds that I tried to digiscope off Pawley Island in South Carolina?  Those birds were so far away that my pictures were very blurry, only good enough to serve as evidence of the id and maybe as a souvenir.  But this guy was so close that I could take better photos of him directly, which I did!


Black Skimmer, Cape May State Park, New Jersey, September, 2013

 

      A little farther along the path, we met the CMBO Saturday evening walk coming from the other direction.  We said hi to the leader and told him about the Skimmer, just to make sure he didn’t walk by the gulls without stopping.  He told us that they had seen an American Bittern on the marsh part of the walk.  After looking at some Egrets, Glossy Ibis, and a group of Greater Yellowlegs, we walked far up past the impoundments and then back to the beach.  It was full of gulls, thousands of them, mostly Great Black-backed and Laughing Gulls.  On the way back, we split up so that I could do the marsh walk where pets are not allowed.  Thinking about the bittern, I stopped and checked out each little creek along the path.  Crossing one little foot bridge, I turned my head and glanced up stream, saw the American Bittern, and kept walking.  Then it registered what I had seen and I stepped back onto the bridge.  The bittern was fishing in the stream less than thirty feet from the bridge.  He was taller than a duck with a round heavy body.  Hunting, he held his head low and scrunched his long neck back into his body.  The way the sun was hitting him, he looked dark brown with white spots on his back.  I crouched down on the bridge and rested my arms on the lower rail to take several pictures of him.  Two came out very clearly, even though I was looking directly into the sun.  I made no noise and did not spook the bird, but after catching something and eating it, he flew up from the water, heading directly towards me.  He flew just over the top rail of the bridge.  I could easily have reached my hand up and touched him as he flew just over my head.  He landed on the other side of the bridge.  Now with the sun at my back, he looked orangy yellow and I could see the stripes on his chest and neck.  He edged around a bend in the stream and out of my sight.


American Bittern, Cape May State Park, New Jersey, September, 2013

 

Sunday - 9/29 – Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area

This is a reclaimed golf course on Shawmount Ave in Villas, New Jersey.  All the obvious landmarks of a golf course, like greens and sand traps, have been removed, but some of the paved golf cart paths are still there.  So the WMA managers have cleverly used these small roads on some of the nature trails.  It is awesome to be walking on a modern macadam road, looking at wildlife in a wild area.  Or perhaps it is just unusual.

      We met a nature photographer from England in the WMA parking lot before the Sunday morning CMBO walk.  He is an experienced nature documentary film producer/photographer.  This was his first trip to America and he added an additional interesting twist to the walk, as some of the common local birds were still new to him.  That included Cardinals, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and all four of the common local woodpeckers:  Red-bellied, Flicker, Hairy, and Downy.  So when these popped up, we made sure that our visitor from England got to see them.  We saw a Merlin perching on a tree top, until several annoying Blue Jays chased him off.  There were a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Cooper’s Hawk, and an Osprey.  The small, pretty birds were also well represented by a Carolina Wren, a Redstart, and a Yellowthroat.  When we saw a Brown Thrasher, reddish brown above and streaked below, a little bigger than a robin, I commented that this was a first for me.  The CMBO co-leader jokingly asked what country I was from.  At least I think he was joking.

 

Sunday afternoon – 9/29 – The Beanery

There was another bird walk in a marsh that promised to yield a new bird or two, but instead I took Chris and Beans to The Beanery.   That sounds appropriate.  We did not see any life birds, but we enjoyed the warm sun, the fall colors in some of the trees, some beautiful butterflies, and an overflight of four Peregrine Falcons, large falcons with sharp pointed wing tips and short tails.  Even this late in the year, there was a constant buzz of insects in the fields and along the edge of the woods.  I mentioned to Chris, “Sometimes you go looking for hawks and you get bitterns.” 

      “Is that an analogy or just a statement?” she asked.

      I responded, “I’m not sure.”

 

 

 

A moth at The Beanery, September, 2013