Friday, May 11, 2012

Corax Confirmation and Cocczyus in the House

I was able to manage a quick hour or so of birding in North Jersey this morning, and was anxious to pay my Raven nest a visit.

The attending parent was again sitting on the other side of the Red Pine trunk from the nest, throat hackles glistening. Almost just as I left her/him ten days ago.

The difference was that clearly visible in the nest, were two fluffy (but not fuzzy), fleshy-gaped, and milky bluish-grey eyed nestlings. Each of the nestlings was easily the size of an American Crow, and I don't know what, if any, is the correct term for a baby corvid, but "pup" seems the most apt.

They mouthed things on the edge of their nest, and looked at each other, out and about at things, and over at their mum in a way that was far more reminiscent of 8-10 week old Black Labs than something usually called a "chick". Maybe it was just their blackness, but these weren't mere gaping passerine mouths governed by stimulus/reponse, or bloodthirsty eaglets. In addition to their ebon softness, there was a certain playfulness to their actions, which rendered them far more like a litter then a clutch.

I only stayed long enough to check them out, and confirm that there were indeed young present, because the second I moved for a camera, mom grew antsy on her perch, so I just drove away.

Eight hours later, at Land's End in Cape May, as far away from the cool (It was only 52 up there this morning) breezy mountain-top pine grove as one could be and still be in the same state; a quick turn around Higbee's Beach, just before sunset as the wind mercifullly began to die down turned up not only more Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings than I have seen yet this year, but also my first Yellow-billed Cuckoos of 2012. Three to be exact.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo numbers and breeding pairs wax and wane based on the number of caterpillars present in any given growing season. Last year with an awful drought was the worst year I've known for them in the ten I've lived in Cape May. (Yellow-billed Cuckoos are one of the few breeding landbirds in the hedgerows and woods of Cape Island, so their numbers are readily noticed by those not brain-dead or list-obsessed. But I repeat myself.) In a good year there may easily be four pairs at Higbee's alone.

I'm hoping that the masses of Admirals, Ladies and Punctuation Marks prsent the last two weeks will leave behind a bounty of Cuckoo Chow. Yellow-billed Cuckoos have a lot of charm, and are sleek, graceful beings. Not Ravens by any means, I am very fond of them nevertheless, though their charm has a much more...archosaurial quality and feel.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Just in time, the Phalarope

Following a charming (read: sarcasm) day, I managed to squeeze in a turn around Brigantine NWR late this afternoon and early evening. I guess I must've been good, because literally as I pulled up to the first observation tower at Gull Pond and popped my trunk to retrieve my scope, a nearby birder announced she had a Wilson's Phalarope.

And even better, she really did!

And a female, in spring. A fine fair thing, a female phalarope in spring.

She was most cooperative, and climbing the tower to escape the no-see-ums, I managed a few dark photos-it was a very rainy day, which is fine, since it was far from cold, we need the rain desparately, and I was looking at a female Wilson's Phalarope.

An interesting size comparison/illusion with a drake Blue-winged Teal

They fed in each other's wake for quite a while. I suppose each was kicking up and filter feeding/picking after their own fashion.

"What are you lookin' at?"

Otherwise the tide was low, spreading the birds far and wide, and the mist was heavy. Revealing not so much, but for lots and lots of breeding plumaged Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, both Yellowlegs, and courting Willets, and laughing pairs of Gull-billed Terns, and some hunting Merlins.

My first White-rumped Sandpiper, ice-cream cone shaped, and sporting fine darted pin-stripes on it's sides with a rusty cap and ears was a welcome addition to the year list, and just on the early side of on-time.

A breeding plumaged Cattle Egret was also a nice tick. These pedestrian little egrets are getting less and less common every year, on this, the northern edge of their range A not unusual boom...then bust scenario for recent colonizers and range extenders.

And other than a Bald Eagle, some handsome Whimbrel, and a raspy voiced Caspian Tern or two, this lingering Snow Goose caught my eye. Undoubtedly a cripple, or with a belly full of lead, it is always incongruous to see one among green, in May.

There is nothing more restorative than watching natty migrant shorebirds, sleek courting terns, Pill-will-willeting pied-winged Willet pairs, and a sprouting saltmarsh for a couple of hours on a rainy Wednesday in the beginning of May. Even the bloodsucking no-see-ums remind one of the vital.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The nasty and the nice, or "You thought Lyme Disease was bad...?"

I should be writing about the fantastic Cerulean Warbler I found at eye level this morning, if for no other reason than Ceruleans usually like the very tops of the very tallest trees like Tulip Poplars and Sycamores, and this whisper-singing, migrant specimen was in a Russian Olive about 8 feet off the ground.

The real reason I should be writing about Cerulean Warblers is that they are stunning creatures, and have undergone a precipitously frightening decline in numbers in recent years, in no small part due to the barbaric, and ultimately disrespectful practice of "Mountain-top Removal" to extract coal. (And we knock the Taliban for destroying graven images when they blow up beautiful Buddhas, while we desecrate our own unique landscape the very same way for our own far less respectable religion of God Electronica...don't get me started.)

Anyway, a fine source to learn more about Cerulean Warblers and their plight is Birdlife's. Good people doing good work at Birdlife International.

While today was again full of hundreds upon hundreds of Red Admirals, and Anglewings, and to a lesser extent, American Ladies- this whole Butterfly invasion of 2012 thing is really getting out of hand- the thing that struck my attention above all else was the hole in an Eastern Cottontail's right ear.

Not the opening of the ear canal, as if I was examining a specimen, but a gaping, and self-inflicted hole in a tick-infested bunny's ear.

I looked up, and for a brief second I thought I had stepped into a Magritte. Why, I just saw clear through that bunny's ear, I thought. And hefting quality German optics, I saw I was no madder than when I had left the house, and the poor thing had several bloated festering ticks on its "good" ear and nape.

I can only surmise the Cottontail had scratched its own ear clean through from discomfort cause by ticks. Now there's a how dy'do.

This is what caught my attention. Eastern Cottontail, (Sylvilagus floridanus) with a big hole in its ear

Yup, you can see clean through that ear alright.

You can see the bloated female tick on the left ear and on the left side of the nape. There are also many smaller ticks visible if you look closely

Otherwise, she seemed happy and healthy. In an "Other than THAT Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" kind of way I suppose.

And now that the nasty has caught your attention (never knock the effectiveness of the Le Grand Guignol), I'll leave you with some lovely images of May wildflowers.

In certain patches of dune scrub at Cape May Golden Heather  (Hudsonia ericoides) is now in bloom. Not a true heather, but really a "rock rose", Golden Heather really could pass for the genuine article, and is a lovely dune specialty regardless of systematics. It also tends to get trampled and run over by off-roaders and the otherwise ignorant. This patch was not without its empty bottles and and bon-fire remnants (some of which clearly were taken from the vandalized towers at Higbee's Beach.) Hudsonia requires full sun, so unfortunately a clearing in a remote bit of dune forest where illicit parties can be held is its preferred habitat.

And this patch of Blue-eyed Grass (Sysirinchion sp.) among some spring asters was too lovely to pass by.  And no, its not a grass at all, clever reader, but a diminutive member of the Iris family. A totally cheerful little flower, whatever its lineage.

And I will leave you with that lovely image, dear reader. But rest assured, there is a tick or several hiding in the leaves of that lovely wildflower. You can bet on it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

And lo, it was May all of a sudden...

...and it was good.

The weather and fates conspired just so last night, to cause a fine fall-out of the little feathered crack-vials known as Wood Warblers on this incredibly improbable and wrong-facing location known as Cape May Point.

No fewer than 23 Parulid species got tallied by me in four hours covering a stretch I can usually do in two, tops. Four Vireos, both eastern tanagers, ditto for orioles, Wood Thrushes, Veery, Blue and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Now there is a bird- what a fine, fine thing is a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak-good lord), smart black Bobolinks overflowing with bubbling burble coming from the hay, and everywhere the eye-searing blue and ultimately cheerfully paired pharases of Indigo Buntings (sweet-sweet, dear-dear, see-see, here-here)

Birds were everywhere. Summer tanagers so pumped on hormones that me imitating "Picky-tck" back at them caused an investigation of my face at 3 yards; yamaka donning Wilson's Warblers singing their doppler-effect Chimney Swift-esque song; Parulas buzzing every and anywhere; fire-throated Blackburnians singing so far up the chromatic scale they attracted the attention of dogs, and plump little wide-eyed Nashvilles peering around oak blossoms all the while singing their big schizophrenic song. And the ultimate as far as I am concerned, Audubon's "Black and Yellow Warbler" the perfection that is a Magnolia. No Bird-of-Paradise, nor Andean Tangara, nor alpine Sunbird has anything on a male Maggie in May. To paraphrase a certain brit- The creator was having a particularly good morning when he dreamt up Magnolia Warblers. Had his Wheaties, got a little lovin and a good night's sleep the night prior to be sure.

It was a good morning.

And birds were just a part of it. There are still far too many Red Admirals and American Ladies around the Cape May peninsula to be considered normal.

And mercifully, everything's gone green. The saltmarsh, the freshwater marshes, and the forest. Easy on the eyes, viscerally comforting, energizing, green. With a capital "G".

May Apples under the American Holly understory deep in the back of Higbee's Beach
Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) a fascinating insect-eating  carnivorous plant that most birders trample at Higbee's

One never knows what lurks around a corner in May

This tom was thoroughly nonplussed by my presence

Until I gobbled at him. Then he forgot the object of his attention and checked me out.

And there, as soon as she showed herself, he turned tail and followed. Apologies-these were thru a handy little point-n-shoot zoomed up as far as it could. But you get the idea.
Red Admirals are still everywhere one gazes in Cape May, many tattered as this

And the even further tattered remnants of many litter the beaches and roads

Questionmarks are likewise easy to see. This one was strangely cooperative for the usually athletic and wary butterfly

Red Admirals ar eliterally everywhere one's eyes rest- and most are not that tattered at all really

American Ladies too are far too abundant right now
And anyone who disputes that a May Laughing Gull is not one of the most handsome creatures in the Western Hemisphere clearly has no soul, and must be a replicant in need of having a Blade Runner hunt down his/her sorry ass.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"W" is for Whimbrel...and White-faced

Shorebirds and waders abound in the marshes and beaches of South Jersey in May. That is like saying commuters abound on Manhattan-bound highways and subways at rush-hour, and a fact that hardly needs this cusimaniac to bring it to anyone's attention, at least if they've not ever been counted among the living that is.

This May day in any given South Jersey tidal marsh was like any given Wedensday at 7:30 a.m  on the George Washington Bridge, and therefore full of commuters seeking their fortunes elsewhere, only to return again, and again, and again to seek them once more.

And like any given day, some of the ordinary caught in the memory, and some of the memorable wasn't so ordinary at all.

A White-faced Ibis at Heislerville WMA

a crap record shot of the same White-faced Ibis. An annual rarity in NJ, and regular in spring at this very spot

The wonderful and ever rarer gouachey red of the C. canutus rufa, the "Robin Snipe"

"Robin Snipe"- Red Knot- hiding among Short-billed Dowitchers and Dunlin at high tide

American Whimbrel (Hudsonian Curlews) hiding in the salt hay

a flock of dozens of  foot-tall, duck-sized birds can just disappear

What a profile, and what camouflage

The Boreal and the Surreal

Due to a variety of circumstances passing understanding, I recently found myself from one end of NJ to the other in one day. Granted, New Jersey is kind of teeny compared to say, Montana, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so it's not really such a feat, but the difference between the Appalachian north, and the carolinian coastal plain of the south are far greater than a scant 140 miles or so would indicate from a glance at a map.

A turn around the mountains (well, hills, really compared to what get called  mountains in the Tyrol, or the Cordillera Real, or the high Sierras, but they are what passes for mountains in New Jersey, and might as well be the Himalaya to a Kansan) in my home town was downright rejuvenating for one who had just driven the length of the flatter than flat Delmarva Peninsula and the merely flat coastal plain of NJ.

Misty and grey on International Worker's Day, the hills of home did not disappoint. The oaks were golden and buzzy with the songs of Black-throated Green Warblers, the forest floor covered with the single, vertical oval leaves of Canada Mayflower and the odd Hepatica, my first Red Eft of 2012 crawled across a carpet of mosses and needed its rough little orange back stroked with the back of a finger. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks chinked and sang their rich loud warble, as Chestnut-sided Warblers proclaimed how pleased pleased pleased tomeetchYA they were (Though I'm sure we met last fall. Perhaps their memories are as mercurial as their plumage?). The smell of Hemlocks and birch and maple loam pervaded all.

A bit incongruously, a pair of Black Vultures kettled up out of the glen. Long ago, in Reagan's second term, I found the first pair of Black Vultures in the county at a friend's pig farm. They were a true rarity then, and today rather collided with the highlight of the day, a true highland and boreal speciality, the Common Raven, which in 1980 something would've been far more absurd in May than the rarity which were Black Vultures.

I had just come from a mountain-top cemetery where a few years ago I had found a pair of Ravens with a recently fledged, still pale-eyed youngster. I stepped out of the car, and while thrilled to have a Pileated Woodpecker flyover, was disappointed by a pair of crows, and no Ravens. I walked around the graves, and back into the woods, to the tune of Ovenbirds and Blue-headed Vireos. Still no Ravens. So I tried imitating a Raven, knowing that each second I was not hearing the far-carrying, echoing off the ridge-sides, deep moans and rolling R'ed croaks of Ravens they were that much more assuredly not to be found where I was.

After a while, having errands to run, I gave up. No Ravens for me, not this time. Not here.

Just as I got to my car, I looked up, for no real reason, and there, not fifty feet from the side fo the road, and easily seen if I had looked the right way from the driver's side window when I had parked, in the shade of a dense stand of Red Pines, was a 3 foot deep, and about as wide bundle of sticks. Standing stock still, and vertical next to it on the spoke of a pine limb was the attenuated, long-tailed bulk of a Raven, silently staring at me. I had been watched the entire time.

I involuntarily smiled and slipped into the car. There is no doubt why Raven was Prometheus or Mercury or Loki of so many native American cultures. The largest perching bird had made a fool of me for sure.

Now we fast forward, via that mundane miracle of a modern time-machine, the Toyota, and a few hours later, I found myself at sunset on a broad Atlantic saltmarsh. Having left the Boreal, now the Surreal decided to have some fun with an already mind-bent little ornithologist.

The wheeling flocks of Shorebirds were amazing, but expected. The Terns balling up as a Peregrine tried to single one out (The old and the sick thing may well be true of four-footed predators, but Charadriformes and Peregrines? No, not so much. The healthiest Forster's Tern or Black-bellied Plover can zig when it should've zagged in front of scimitar-winged death in a power stoop. It is always the strongest swimmers who drown.) The scores of long-legged waders, the Bald Eagles, the Skimmers, the Clapper Rails, the wheezing chorus of Seaside Sparrows in the Spartina all, again amazing, and sights and sounds for winter-weary eyes and ears but not above the realm of the understood, all within the parameters of normal-however remarkable and wonderful.

Then the butterflies sank in. I was aware that they were everywhere, and that there were a lot of them. There were not just a lot, though, but more than that. Far more. More than what was reasonable, more than what was fathomable. More even than what was enumerable, at least by human eyes and hands, and then add dash of a lot more than that for good measure, too.

There were thousands upon thousands of butterflies flying landward off the marsh and from the ocean beyond. Most were Red Admirals, but there were fair numbers of Anglewings and Ladies, and the odd Monarch or ten.

Were they locusts, it would've been a plague. But they were butterflies, and it was sunset.

And it was wonderful.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Solitary Sands

Today was more about packing and shopping than birding. Tomorrow I head out for a few days of surveys off the Delmarva Peninsula.

As a result, expect no work on drawings of Pine Warblers, and no erudite elucidations on the bird life of Cape May for the next week or so, at least not from this Cusimaniac.

Today, between jaunts to CVS and the laundromat, I did however find three very dapper olive bespangled with white breeding plumaged Solitary Sandpipers (Not so solitary after all, are we, Eh?) and a first "summer" Bonaparte's Gull on a recently filled rain-pool at the Beanery. First Solitaries I've seen this year, and handsome little Tringines they are. Unusual spot for a Boanparte's too, and interesting to see him pulling up earthworms near the recently mulched and flooded cherry saplings.

If you don't see a post within a week, just assume we needed a bigger boat, and Hooper is now shark-chow....