September 2, 2015 -- John Heinz NWR at Tinicum

    This is the start of what I anticipate to be a three month journey that will take me around the Gulf Coast, through the Rio Grande Valley, to Big Bend NWR in the southwest corner of Texas, and potentially into Joshua Tree NWR in southern California.  I'm starting with four short two or three day camping trips to southern New Jersey as a kind of dress rehearsal if you just watched the movie Birdman, or alternately as a series of preseason games if you are an NFL football fan.  After the Adirondack trip, I left our camping gear stacked in the garage, so it only took a half hour to sort through it and pack the car with what I need.  Most of that time I spent testing the flashlights and lamps and reloading them with fresh batteries.  Tonight I have a tent site reserved at Cape May Court House.  On the way there, I followed Chris to her job, which is near the Philadelphia airport and the John Heinz NWR at Tinicum.  After leaving her, I got to the refuge from the back way and stayed off 95.

    I don't think this NWR has ever failed to provide me some pleasant surprise.  Different visits have provided:  nesting baby Bald Eagles, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Least Bitterns, a Northern Saw-whet Owl, and a Great-crested Flycatcher.  Except for the eagles, these were life birds for me and I haven't seen them again since the first sightings.  Honestly my expectations for John Heinz were unrealistically high.  Today I saw over 30 species of birds, including lots of Wood Ducks, herons, egrets, a few Cedar Waxwings, Greater Yellowlegs, a Red-eyed Vireo, and Common Yellowthroat warblers.  But I did get a real surprise by finding a huge three foot long Snapping Turtle sunning himself on the hiking path.  This guy was big in every dimension, his head bigger than a softball, his feet so huge that he looked like something out of Jurassic World, one of the old men of the marsh.  There was a plover with no dark ring around its neck and I took a few photos of it.  It wasn't a rare Piping Plover.  It was a common juvenile Semi-palmated Plover.  I'd be lying, though, if I told you that when I saw the plover that the initial adrenaline rush wasn't fun.  

 

 

Great Egret and ducks at Tinicum -- "Hey!  Who forgot to use deodorant?"

 

 

Snapping Turtle  at Tinicum - Sept 2, 2015

 

 

Wood Duck at Tinicum - Sept 2, 2015

 

September 2, late afternoon -- The Meadows, Cape May

    This is the Nature Conservancy site where I saw the Black Skimmers and Glossy Ibis a few weeks ago (if you haven't checked this out by clicking on the link to the photo gallery on the main page, you should.  These pictures are cool).  Today the site is completely different.  The water is really low.  The wading birds are mostly gone somewhere else.  There are only some Canada Geese, some sandpipers (which I heard later are Bairds!  I hope a got a good picture of one.), a few lazy gulls, and a crow who was so torpid in the 95 degree heat that he stayed perched on the railing of the observation deck until I started to climb the stairs.  I saw a little sparrow in the tall grass and focused on him.  I got a life bird!  It was a first year Grasshopper Sparrow.  He was nice and yellow on his breast with some streaking which initially made me think he was Lincoln's.  But everything else said Grasshopper, including location, time of year, and environment.  The first year Grasshopper Sparrows have some streaking and that's the id.  Except -- hold on -- it could also be a non-breeding adult Bobolink.  Bobolinks have also been reported in this region and after looking at many photos and drawings of both birds, I'm not really sure.  Initially, I thought sparrow because the bird seemed too small to be a Bobolink.  But Bobolinks aren't that much bigger.  I think an expert will say it's a Bobolink, but honestly, it could be a Grasshopper Sparrow.

 

Grasshopper Sparrow on a blade of grass (or it could be a small Bobolink), Cape May, NJ - Sept 2, 2015

 

September 2, late afternoon -- Cape May State Park trails

    These are wide open now that breeding season is over and you can walk all the way back to a connecting trail to the South Meadows Nature Conservancy site.  With the oppressive heat, I was not surprised to find that there was very little bird activity.  I had fun taking shots of a dragonfly in flight.  It was one of the really big ones and he was guarding an entire small meadow.  He did not like me being in his space and kept hovering in front of me, then darting past me.   I used the technique that I was successful with in getting pictures of the dragonflies at the lily ponds.  I manually focused on the spot that a dragonfly had landed on, knowing that he would return.  This time I focused on the spot in space where he had been hovering.  It took a few tries, but when I got the manual focus set correctly it worked.  Every time that the dragonfly returned to hover in front of me, he was in focus.  I realized that I was noticing something amazing.  The dragonfly has the capability to return to the exact spot in the air, over and over.  Think about that.  Put your first in the air above the kitchen table.  Walk into another room and then come back into the kitchen and try to put your first in the exact spot that you had it before.   What is the chance that you can get that exactly correct over and over?  Answer -- zero.  My camera says that a dragonfly can do that as many times as he wants.  How does he sense that exact spot in the air?   Maybe he does it by using his multifaceted eyes to triangulate space in a very exact way.  Maybe he has senses that make him aware of things that we don't know are there.  

 

Dragonfly in flight, Cape May, September 2, 2015

    Nearby I saw some hummingbirds that seemed the same size or smaller than the dragonfly.  There were several Common Yellowthroats and dozens of Monarchs.  This is the largest number of Monarchs that I have seen in a day since I was a kid in upstate New York.  

    On the way out, I checked out the beach -- almost completely empty.  On some fall days, it is packed with gulls.  On the impoundments were Great Egrets, Canada Geese, Mallards, Mute Swans, and a tire.  I was thinking about a web article that I read last week mentioning that it is too bad that such prime wild life real estate is populated by so many non-migrating migrators (the geese) and invasive species (the swans).  The article made particular mention of a new arrival -- a Black Swan, native of New Zealand and probably an escapee from a private collection or zoo.  I stopped and went back to take a second look at the tire.  The tire moved.  Then it moved a lot and an elegant head of a Black Swan emerged from the murky water.  He may be invasive, but he is still beautiful.

 

Black Swan, Cape May, September 2, 2015

 

Black Swan, Cape May, September 2, 2015

 

 

September 2 -- Camping at Ponderosa Camp Ground, Cape May Court House

     It was too hot to sleep until 11:30.  I read some Jack Vance short stories until it cooled down into the seventies.

 

September 3 -- Higbee Wildlife Management Area

     I was at the dike at 7:00 AM to see if there would be any warbler activity.  When there is a northwest wind in the peak of the fall migration, I have heard that thousands of warblers will take flight from this location just after dawn.  I have heard about this, but after several tries, I haven't seen it.  Perhaps in the next few weeks, I'll get my bird watching in synch with the wind direction.

    This morning there were impressive flights of Kingbirds, multiple flocks of over a hundred.  There were a few other birds mixed in with them.  A much more experienced birder next to me identified a few orioles in the flocks, which I also saw.  Later when I walked the trails around Higbee, I saw lots of Kingbirds with a few Cedar Waxwings mixed in.  So the orangey birds in the early morning flocks may have been waxwings, not orioles.  I saw very few warblers at Higbee, except for lots of Redstarts.  Also there were a lot of Red-eyed Vireos, some Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, and a Great-crested Flycatcher.  When it cools down and the wind is right, the birds will be here.

 

Great-crested Flycatcher - note the rufous coloration on tail and wings, yellow belly, grey throat, and nice crest - Cape May - Sept 2, 2015

 

Red-eyed Vireo - Cape May, Sept 2, 2015  

 

 

September 3-- mid-day at the Villas WMA - aka Cox WMA 

     I got coffee at the WAWA closest to Higbee, which is in West Cape May and from there I was only about five minutes from this absolutely pleasant park / wildlife management area.  It is a reclaimed golf course and there are former golf cart paths that make great trails around the spacious grounds.  There is a fair amount of water, which was probably tough on the former golfers, but great for the animals who live here now.  At one end of the park there is a large pond with two beaches and a dock.  A pair of Osprey was roosting in a big tree overlooking the pond.  I sat down to write the morning trip observations and also the following thoughts:

    1)  There are a lot of very pleasant people in the world.  One of them called out to me as I left the WAWA in West Cape May.  "I like your belt, brother."  So he noticed the bungee cord holding up my pants and approved.  Just now a dad and his approximately four-year old son came by with fishing poles.  They hadn't caught anything, but were both enjoying being outside.  "That's the name of the game, brother."   I like being called brother.  I hope this continues.

    2)  I need to keep reminding myself that my real purpose in birding and keeping the journal is to hang out in a nice place and to enjoy the passage of time.

    3)  I'm getting a nice break from being relevant.  Eventually I may join something and help out with something, but for now, hanging out at the Villas is fine.

    4)  The personality that I've created for my current stage of life is complex.  I'm pretty good at the part where I use a bungee cord instead of a belt.  The parts where I need skills at photography, writing, web-site development, camping, cooking, birding, naturalism, philosophy, golf, mountain climbing, and hiking -- those are giving me a little trouble.  When I'm standing under a tree and hear a bird who sort of sounds familiar, and don't know how to set the camera for the dim lighting, and have forgotten my battery charger, and my feet hurt  -- then I'm over-tired.  I need to sit at a nice place like the Villas and do nothing.  Or go get lunch.

 

September 3 -- The Wetlands Institute 

     This is a very nice spot with a boardwalk and dike that takes you out into the salt marsh that borders the road going in to Stone Harbor.  The address is 1075 Stone Harbor Blvd.  The phone is 609-368-1211.  The trail has interesting and helpful information signs that talk about the ecology of a salt marsh.  I was treated to Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, a Little Blue Heron, gulls,  a possible Virginia Rail (who ducked back into the grass too quickly for a good identification), and a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron.  I saw the BCNH from a distance while I was standing on the boardwalk.  I snuck up the dike and poked my head around the row of hedges.  I was only about ten steps away from the bird.  I thought that as soon as I stepped out and snapped a pic, he would run away.  That didn't happen.  I quietly and slowly leaned up against a boat on a trailer and for the next twenty minutes watched the bird eat.   I got a lot of very clear pictures and had a hard time picking out the best.  He was eating Fiddler Crabs, so I chose one of the photos where he has a juicy crab wriggling in his beak.

 

juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron eating a Fiddler Crab, Wetlands Institute, Stone Harbor -- Sept 3, 2015

 

Snowy Egret, Wetlands Institute, Stone Harbor -- Sept 3, 2015.

 

September 3 -- Nummy Island

     This is a huge salt marsh near Stone Harbor between the Grassy Sound bridge and the Stone Harbor Bridge.  Anywhere along the road, you can pull off and view the wildlife.  There are no trails and you can't get really close to most of the birds, but with good optics, there is a lot to see.  I saw a lot of Great Egrets, a Little Blue Heron, a Black-crowned Night Heron, many Osprey, and gulls.  The marsh was a beautiful shade of lime green and stretched out for miles.

 

Little Blue Heron, Nummy Island - Sept 3, 2015

 

September 3-- Stone Harbor Point 

     I finished the day on the ocean beach at 2nd Ave and 122nd Street in Stone Harbor.  It was low tide, so I could walk on the flat sand near the water.  The ocean breeze felt wonderful.  There were hundreds of sandpipers, plovers, and Ruddy Turnstones running around.  The birds were relatively unbothered by the sparse crowd of people.  A nice family got me to take their Christmas card picture on the beach.   It was a pleasant end to a nice day tromping around the marshes and fields of southern New Jersey.

 

End of the day at Stone Harbor, Sept 3, 2015

 

September 16, Wednesday, lunchtime-- Cape May Court House  -- "Go Your Own Way"

     On the way out of my driveway this morning, the radio treated me to a cover by the Cranberries of this great Fleetwood Mac Song.  I think that this song really resonates with a lot of people.  It keeps getting time on the airwaves after almost 40 years.

     I cancelled week two of my fall trip preseason.  Too hot.  No winds.  Didn’t feel like it.  Today winds are predicted to be South winds (meaning FROM the south), which is not good.  The migrating birds in this location want a Northwest wind to blow them across the mouth of the Delaware Bay and back to the coastline.  It seems to me that a Northwest wind (blowing south and east) will blow them directly out to the ocean, but it appears that they want that and will angle back to the coast farther down south.   But, even though the winds are wrong for birding, I learned some stuff two weeks ago and I want to try them out.  Also this is a nice spot to sit outside and type on my laptop, which is what I’m doing right now. 

    My electronic platform is completely mobile.  The laptop has Microsoft Word for creating text documents.  When I have WIFI, I am connected to the cloud for backups and updates to the BirdsEatFree.com website and to Flickr to create photo albums.  I plan to do these updates as I go along in October and November.  I found that taking notes and trying to do the photo edits and the journal updates from the notes does not work half as well as commenting on the experience in real time.  Right now, at this moment, I am doing this in the field for the first time.  Ta Da!!! 

    My photo editing software is loaded on this laptop, so to edit my photos, I just connect my camera body to the laptop.  This is the same as I would do at home.  Uploading pictures to the website or to Flickr just requires internet access.  I won’t always have that.  Whenever I do, it won’t take long to do the uploads.

     Additionally, my music is downloaded to my phone and the phone is connected to the Amazon Prime music library, my books are on my Kindle, and I figured out how to listen to music and get travel directions at the same time over my car’s Bluetooth connection.  All this stuff is pretty routine, but I didn’t need or use any of this stuff a year ago.  It’s kind of cool to be working on my journal at my campsite with a Tufted Titmouse peeping in the tree above me.  He’s about four feet away.

    I got a copy of the IBird Pro application downloaded to my phone for $9.99.  It has photos , drawings, audio recordings, extensive descriptions, range maps, and everything else that the manuals have.  My bird guides also have on-line versions now, but I like turning the pages of the hard-covered versions, so I didn't buy those yet.

    Not finally, but finally for now, I learned how to use my smart phone as a WIFI hotspot.  That was ridiculously easy to set up and means that I no longer have to check for WIFI availability at my motels or camp sites.  If my phone has service, I can get to the Internet through the hot spot.  For the places that I go, this is a big deal.

    I'm not sure if I will have time to use it, but I found my Tiny Chess electronic device.  I'll add it to my camping gear.  In the past, I have only been able to beat it at the middle levels.  I bet that I have regressed in my chess play over the last few years and Tiny Chess has not.  I intend to initially set the device at beginners and intermediate for a while and beat up on it badly.

 

    Here are the camping issues from two weeks ago and the fixes: 

        - Night sounds were really cool, but I don't know what they are.  Fix:  Listen to the recordings of night birds on IBird Pro.  The repetitive descending warbling sound that was like a ten-year-old human kid on lots of caffeine and sugar was the sound I most wanted to identify.  It was an Eastern Screech Owl.

        - Really hot in the two man tent.  Fix:  Bring the six man tent.  This is car camping.  I don't need to travel light.  The extra space in the tent will give me more circulation.

        - Bread got wet.  Fix:  I replaced the twenty year old cooler that I got when Mike was in T-Ball.  I bought some six inch tall plastic storage boxes that fit in the bottom of the cooler.  Ice and drinks sit in the boxes at the bottom of the cooler.  On top of the boxes and out of the damp, I put a two tiered plastic box to hold meal-size plastic storage containers and my bread.  There is room for about 10 meals, which is all that I would want to prepare in advance.

        - Didn't cook at all.  Fix:   I set up the camp stove right after getting the tent up.  I heated up Chicken and Chinese Eggplant Curry over rice noodles for lunch.  It was delicious. 

        - Bad Attitude.  Fix:   I talked about it with Chris.  When I said that I needed to remind myself that I don’t have to try to prove that I’m in a magical place by getting an interesting picture every time, she pointed out that “if being in a magical place was the objective, then that could be more easily accomplished by staying home”.  She said that I could quote her on that, and I just did

        - Making campsite reservations as I go along might not be a good idea.  A common thread seems to be that it is hard to get through to talk to someone on the phone.  Eventually they will pick up or call back, but that could take an hour or more.  The reason is that there is frequently just one person in the office, who has other duties, and who might be off taking care of those assignments.   Fix:  I started calling for my October campsites and motels.  I’ve got stuffed booked up to 10/23.  Because I could talk to somebody local at each place, I feel pretty good about the choices I made.  If my schedule changes, I can always adjust my reservations.  That will be lots easier than trying to do it on the road from scratch. When I get the itinerary complete, I’ll post it as a journal entry.

        - Poison Ivy, bug bites, sunburn.  Fix:  wear the gear that I brought and use the sun block and bug repellant that I brought.  Duh! 

   Lunch is over.  I think that I’ll take a trip down to Cape May Point and see if there is any activity at the hawk watch.  That will probably be quiet, so my backup plan is to take a nap on the beach.  In the evening, I might tramp around Higbee WMA.

 

Black and White Warbler, Sept 16 - Cape May Court House

 

September 16, evening.  

     On the way  out of the campsite, I saw a Black and White Warbler in the oak trees around my tent.  That made me decide to go to the Villas (a. k. a. Cox WMA) which has a similar tree-like environment.  That was a good call.  There were a lot of these interesting, heavily striped birds climbing on the branches of the trees and flitting around the lower bushes.  Also there were a lot of Redstarts (which have yellow, not red, on their sides and tails), and Common Yellowthroats

    In the evening, I went to the Cape May Lighthouse State Park hawk watch and stayed on the platform for only a few minutes.  The Black Swan is still there on the impoundment in front of the platform.  Among the many Canada Geese, Mute Swans, and Mallards, there were also Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Green-winged Teal, and a tiny Pied-billed Grebe.  The buzz at the time was that a Cape May Warbler was feeding in the bushes to the left of the platform (left when you stand facing the water).   Despite the name, these birds are rather unusual to see at Cape May.  So I got down off the platform and joined two birders who were watching this bird.

    There were two Cape May Warblers in the pine trees and apple trees.  The birds were probably eating bugs that were swarming in the trees.  One of the warblers was an adult with lots of yellow on his breast, a very drab grey head and back, lots of streaks on his breast a white underside of his tail, edged in black.  The other bird was very grey and drab and had no yellow on it.  I showed its picture to a walk leader who had wandered in with his group.  That person thought maybe the picture was a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher.  I can’t be really snarky about this because it wasn’t me who provided the correct id.  On Thursday, I again saw the birders who had pointed out the Cape May to me and they asked, “Did you get both the adult and the juvenile?”   Of course, the grey bird was the juvenile.

 

Redstart, Cox Wildlife Management Area, Villas, NJ - Sept 16, 2015

 

Cape May Warbler,  Cape May Lighthouse State Park, NJ, Sept 16, 2015

 

September 17, Thursday --  photography mistake

     At some point, I accidentally turned the dial on my camera from Aperture only focus to Shutter Speed only focus.  I spent two hours in the morning at Higbee taking photos with the shutter speed tamped down really low and got several hundred photos of a black screen.   Lesson learned.  Every now and then check back to make sure that the pictures are actually being recorded.  I’m glad that this didn’t happen at a place that I may be at for once in a lifetime.  As it happened, I lost photos of a Yellow Warbler and lots of Common Yellowthroats.

    I spent the afternoon at the pavilion next to the Cape May hawk watch.  I broke out my laptop and wrote two chapters in my book.  I’m far enough along on it that I can see it getting finished late this year or early next year.  It’s called “Athletes Eat Free” and has no birds or bird watchers in it – so far.  While I was working, I turned around to see a birder studying the Cape May Warbler tree.  It was one of the birders from Wednesday and from the morning at Higbee.  This time were looking at Black and White Warblers.  I said hi again and we chatted again.  These were two veteran bird watchers who are long time hawk watchers at Douglas Mountain.  They were taking a day off from hawk counting at their usual post to do – what else – birding!  “Sometimes, you just got to mix it up a little,” they said.  While we were talking a Bald Eagle flew over the pavilion.  It was white and raggedy looking from underneath.  “I would have thought it was an Osprey.  I thought that the Bald Eagles were always dark in front,” I admitted.  That got me a very welcome lesson on how to determine the ages of these birds.  I’ll pass that on now

    Bald eagles don’t attain their classic look of all black body and wings with all white heads and tails until the fourth or fifth year.  Sometimes, at about four and a half, they have a black edge around the otherwise white tail.  As a first year, the eagle is pretty much brown all over both body and wings and looks a lot like a Golden Eagle.  The juvenile has a little white on its underside on the wing parts near its body.  In the second year, the adult colors are just starting to come in, so the eagle looks dirty white, scruffy, and mottled.  This continues into the third year, where enough white on the top of the head and cheeks has come in to give him a dark eye stripe.  The white scruffy bird that flew over the pavilion was a second year Bald Eagle.  The veteran hawk watchers knew it was an eagle by its “gizz”, the way it looks and feels, the way that most people know a robin just because you’ve seen them thousands of times.  But a quick way to see that it wasn’t an Osprey is the shape of the wings.  The eagle wings are wide and the front edge is very straight.  The Osprey wings are long and narrow and always bent along the front edge, lots of times making a nice “M” shape.   My eagle picture is boring, but here is an Osprey that I took a little while later.  You can see the bent edge at the front of his wings.  He also has a delicious fish.

  

Osprey, Cape May, NJ - Sept 18, 2015

 

September 19, Friday --  the way the wind  blows

     Monday morning there had been the first North wind in several weeks and 40,000 to 60,000 warblers lifted off from the area around the dike at Higbee in just several hours.  From mid-morning on Monday for the rest of the week, the region has been very quiet for birding.  I talked to several birders who had been at the dike on Monday and several who, like me, had missed it.  None of them seemed particularly shocked that I had chosen to stay home in order to watch the Eagles game on Monday Night Football and to play golf on Tuesday.  “Life happens,” one of the veterans said.  I met one guy who wasn’t particularly interested in the warbler flight.  He had his camera on a tripod, focused on the ground in front of him.  He was looking for jumping spiders.  Not spiders in general.  Specifically, tiny spiders who don’t build webs and hunt down their prey by jumping at them.  The guy looking for jumping spiders is a guy who really loves a challenge.

    The only one actually up on the dike on Friday was the official hawk counter.  I was there at dawn to join a few birders on the platform below the dike.  We saw some Common Yellowthroats and I got a picture of a Yellow Warbler.  I’m thinking that it is the same bird that I saw on Thursday.  I tramped around the paths for several hours and saw a fair number of Common Yellowthroats, a pair of Brown Thrashers, and a pair of Cooper’s Hawks.   Ironically, right after I got home on Friday afternoon, a young Common Yellowthroat trapped itself on my back porch.  I took its photo before shooing it out the screen porch door.  Here's two photos from my morning walk that are a little more interesting.

 

Coopers Hawk, Higbee Wildlife Management Area, NJ - Sep 19, 2015

 

Brown Thrasher, Higbee Wildlife Management Area, NJ - Sep 19, 2015