Monday, October 9, 2017

Out on a Limb

Of all the warblers that we can see in the eastern US, some are pretty common - birds that breed in our area or are conspicuous. Like the Common Yellowthroat. For Pete's sake, it has the word "common" right in the name. Easy to see in spring, summer and fall.

Common Yellowthroat
Others are pretty rare or secretive making those birds a big target for birders. Warblers like Mourning or Connecticut. Finding either of those warblers elicits text messages and alerts. A Swainson's warbler makes ABA Rare bird lists. I've only seen these birds a few times and none this season.

And still others may easier for some birders to see than others. These warblers migrate through each year and plenty of birders see them. Sighting these birds doesn't warrant a text message. Birders talk about the sightings in common conversation. Mostly, these birds either elude me or give me a fleeting look without photo opp. Nashville, Wilson's and Tennessee fall into this category. Tennessee warblers are very bland looking by comparison to Blackburnian or Golden-winged warblers but they have a magic all their own. I regularly miss seeing Tennessee warblers which is why I'm so confused by the past month. So far, I've spotted at least 5 of them. One day, there were even 2 together. I'm going out on a limb with the ID. Maybe the birds are another species? I checked the field guides. Overall green, no markings on the wings, light eyebrow, short tail. I finally got some decent photos after seeing the bird for 3 days in a row. What do you think?

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

I really hope it is a Tennessee warbler or I'm going to be really embarrassed.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Migration of a Different Kind

Cape May in fall is touted as "off the charts" and "so many birds". This marketing brings many birders to Higbee beach in September and October expecting lots of birds. Us "locals" know that the migration phenomenon only happens when conditions are right. Those conditions consist of winds blowing from the northwest overnight and birds bottled up to the north of NJ waiting for the right winds. Even when everything looks right, the birds sometimes fool us and don't show up. That happened this weekend. The winds blew out of the northwest on Thursday night but Friday morning left us birders high and dry for the most part. Luckily, there were a few stray birds. We saw over 50 Northern Parulas. This one posed on a posy for us. The ID here is the green patch on the back and split eye ring.

Northern Parula
This young Black and White warbler was lit up by the morning sun. The ID here is that this "black" and white is really more "brown" and white. 

Black and White Warbler
This House Wren was none too happy with us walking past. Kind of giving us the stink eye.

House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are showing up on their way south. This one was really trying to show off. They are so twitchy that they are hard to photograph.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Once this little flurry of birds past through, I went to work. Other birders found some more migrants but not the quantities that we expected.

Saturday was worse than Friday. Barely any birds at all. Peanut and I walked the fields, went to breakfast, birded some other places, then I went to the State Park at the lighthouse to sit at the hawkwatch hoping to see a show. I did get a show but not of the bird variety. I walked up the trail between the hawkwatch and the beach dunes and walked into a dream world of Monarch butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly Roost
The photo above depicts 80 butterflies. They were everywhere. Flying, feeding on flowers, and hanging on the cedar trees. Click on the video below to see them in action.

I've never seen anything like this before. I met a woman who monitors Monarchs. She said that the butterflies were stopped in NJ due to the high winds and that they would spend the night roosting in the trees. If the winds were good on Sunday, they would head south. And they did.

There were so many Monarchs that there weren't enough flowers for them to each have their own.

Feeding Frenzy
I also learned to tell the difference between male and female Monarchs. This one is a male. Notice the 2 little spots on the viens.

Male Monarch Butterfly
This one is a female. No spots.

Female Monarch Butterfly
All in all, an amazing experience. I hope the birds come through soon.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Taken By Surprise

You just can't predict birds. My local birding patch is an abandoned housing development in Abington that we refer to as The Mudhole. The developer cut down most of the trees, cleared 15 acres, put in sewer, a road and curb cuts, then abandoned the project. That was 10 years ago. Since then, the local joggers and dog walkers have used the area (posted private property) due to the flat road and lack of traffic. The landscape is weedy fields and small trees backed by mature woods. Peanut LOVES this place. She runs free, darting in and out of the weeds and woods. Most of the time, she has dog friends that join our walk making it that much better. 

I usually bring bins and usually find local breeding birds such as cardinals and a few migrants stop here in spring and fall. I don’t know what happened yesterday, but the Mudhole was hopping with birds. I tallied 35 species on our morning walk including close looks at Tennessee, Wilson’s, Magnolia, BT Green, BT Blue and a Mourning Warbler! In addition, I saw a Pileated Woodpecker for the first time at this location too. Of course, I am in the habit of leaving the camera in the car since it never gets any action. So, no photos. Sigh.

Peanut and I headed back to the Mudhole after work. This time, the camera came with us. We found a few more special birds but not the frenzy of the morning. We added a nice juvenile Palm Warbler.

Palm Warbler
And a Great Blue Heron roosting in a big old tree. I regularly see them flying around the neighborhood but never perched like this. 

Great Blue Heron
The best birds of the evening were the Common Nighthawks soaring overhead. These birds are in the "Goatsucker" family and only fly at dusk and dawn snapping up insects. Folklore has it that they suck on goat tits but that isn't true. They migrate in flocks. I counted 14 of them last night. David Sibley (author of the field guide) describes them: "Long pointed wings held angled and raised, bounding flight and white bar across primaries distinctive".  You can ID the bird even in this crappy photo. 

Common Nighthawk
A better photo shows the markings of the bird. You can still see the white bar but you can also see the giant head that this bird has. They have a wide, gaping beak which helps them snap up the insects in mid air. 

Common Nighthawk

The sad news is that another developer has recently taken over. The Mudhole will soon be turned into an “Active Adult” community for people 62+. They plan to put a walking path in but it won’t be the same. Just when it was getting good. . . 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Solar Eclipse Experience

Let me start by saying that there are no words to describe the experience during the total solar eclipse. I'll try here but it probably won't come across as awesome as it was in real life.

I first learned of the predicted US total solar eclipse a year ago and immediately decided that I wanted to see it first hand. As August 21, 2017 drew near, I asked the nerds if they wanted to head out. Only Lori and Tara said yes. Once we purchased the eclipse goggles from Amazon, there was no turning back.

I studied the maps. The "path of totality" stretched from Oregon, across the country to South Carolina crossing a total of 12 states.

We could have gone anywhere but how do you make plans in advance to see an eclipse of the sun when you don't know what the weather will be? My friends Patty and Steve took a chance and booked a trip to Oregon. Steve is an astronomy buff and probably knew that the odds of clear skies in Oregon were high. My coworker Tom went to South Carolina with his wife and friends because they knew people there and wouldn't be totally disappointed if they didn't have clear skies. I, on the other hand, didn't want to take a chance so I concocted a plan to just drive to the closest place along the totality path that had clear skies. The eclipse date was a Monday, so we had 2 days to get to where ever we saw clear skies predicted. Lori and Tara agreed to go as far as Nebraska if necessary.

Luckily, we didn't have to drive to Nebraska. We only had to go to Tennessee. And, we went in style. Crazy Lori rented an RV so that we had our own bathroom and sleeping arrangements in case everything else was booked up. Smart, smart thinking. We only made it to Natural Bridge Virginia on our first day due to late start and horrific eclipse traffic on I-81. It actually worked out nicely. We got to see one of the 7 wonders of the world (as listed in the 1800s :-)) and once owned by Thomas Jefferson. He purchased it from King George III for $2.40.

Natural Bridge
This was also the birdiest part of the trip. The creek that carved the natural bridge is home to many Louisiana Waterthrushes - we saw 3 along the creek - and this Green Heron.

Green Heron
You know I drove most of the time but when I wasn't driving, I was on the Internet trying to get us camping spots at RV parks. I managed to find one in the Smoky Mountains about 2 hours north of our destination. Everything else was booked solid. Everything. It worked out great.

E-Day arrived and we didn't want to miss out on being on the actual path so we were on the road by 7 AM anticipating traffic jams. Driving the RV on mountain roads is not an easy task but I managed to do a pretty good job. In fact, we pulled up next to a guy from NJ who complimented my driving. He said that he was following us for a while and impressed on how I handled the RV. We made it to our destination - a little crossroads near Tellico Plains called Belltown by 9 AM.

Path of Totality - Belltown TN
Now what? Sit and wait til 1:30 PM when the show starts. But where? We couldn't sit on the side of the road for hours. Leave it to me. There was a house and barn on the corner where we wanted to be. Yes, I marched right up to the front door and rang the bell. No answer but I found the homeowner, Charlie, out in the yard. I asked him "Do you know where you are?" to which he replied "Yes I do". Picture Charlie with a shaved bald head and biker mustache staring at this nerd in his yard. Comical. I asked him if there was anywhere that we could park the RV. Anywhere around the neighborhood? A parking lot? Anywhere? Meanwhile, I'm eyeing up the barn on the corner. We went round and round for a few minutes. Me pointing out all of the other cars with out of state license plates cruising up and down the road. Him telling me that he could tell I was a Yankee by my accent. He finally said, "Well, I guess you could park over by the barn. How much would that be worth to you?" $20. Sold.

Nerd T-Shirts
We pulled in and got ourselves set up. Before you know it, other cars are slowing down and I'm collecting $20 per car for Charlie and his wife Karen. By the end of the day, they had $160 and a yard full of strangers. Karen and Charlie, 4 dogs and 5 miniature horses were all very friendly.
Accumulating Strangers

Lori and the Minnies
Everyone that pulled into the yard was really nice. The chance encounter of strangers from Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Georgia made the experience that much better. We could have gone to a crazy party town like Nashville. Or, we could have found a spot to be totally alone. But this was perfect. Of course, I ended up being the Master of Ceremonies for the whole thing - taking photos of people in front of the barn, lining the whole gang up on the path (and making them all hold hands), getting everyone's email address so we could share photos, etc.

Path of Totality - Strangers on the Line
Then the show started. I didn't realize that it would take 3 hours but it did. I bought a special filter for my camera so that I could safely take the photos without burning out the sensor in the camera.

Partial Ecplipse
Once the sun was totally eclipsed by the moon, you can look at it without the goggles and photograph it without the filter. I read an article online about how to take the photos. The author wrote that the most important thing to do during an eclipse is to actually look at it and experience it before trying to photograph it. Sage advice. I did both. As the moon took over, the temperature cooled and the light was less intense.

At the very start of totality, just as the moon is about to cover the sun, the last little bit of light is called "The Diamond Ring". You can see it in this photo.

Diamond Ring
This is when the skies darkened and the cicadas started calling. Karen's miniature horses came out of there little stall to cool down. Lori took video of the scene which can be seen and heard on FaceBook.

Then, the sun was totally eclipsed. The effect is called "The Corona" since it looks like a crown shooting out from the dark center. The corona is actually the sun's atmosphere. I was dumbfounded.

This lasted just over 2 minutes and then another diamond ring appeared on the opposite side of the moon.

Diamond Ring
And then just as fast as the sky darkened, it became light. The cicadas stopped chirping and the little horses went back to the barn. Slowly, over the course of another hour, the moon left the sun and the strangers left the yard. We were the first to arrive and the last to leave. I took almost 1000 shots of the event. In this one, you can see three sun spots lined up.

Partial Eclipse with Sun Spots
Sadly, none of us will be around for the next total solar eclipse to cross the US in 2079. We may still be here in 2024 when we can see one near Illinois.

It was awesome. Words can't describe it.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Radar Love

My bird club - DVOC - sponsors an intern each year at the Academy of Natural Sciences. We use money from fundraisers to help support the cost of the intern's work. The interns are then invited to give a presentation at a meeting. This year, Jenny gave a presentation with many topics but she ended by telling us about her upcoming work with Sanderlings. You should know by now that I spend alot of time on the beach in the Villas looking for tagged shorebirds (mainly Sanderlings). For instance, here is 13Y from  July 2015

And here is again from this week! Back to the same beach.

Semipalmated Sandpipers are also banded. These birds return year after year too. I know 74J like an old friend. I first spotted this fiesty little bird in 2012 and have seen him every year since. Here he is from this week.

Old friend - 74J
Here is a new one to me. 25X.

I really enjoy spotting these banded birds and recording the sightings on the website. I get to see history and maps of other sightings.

This year, there was a new twist involving Jenny and her research. She contacted me to ask if I knew anyone in the Villas that would be willing to have an antenna in their yard. You see, she is tracking Sanderlings with radio transmitters that are mounted on their backs. Our friends Diane and Terry now have an antenna in their yard. Low and behold, YJ+ showed up on the beach last week with an antenna sticking out of his back. You can see it in this photo.

YJ+ antennae bird
I contacted Jenny about it and sure enough, YJ+ is one of her study subjects. I can't wait to find out what Jenny learns from YJ+ and the others that have the radios. I know it seems cruel for the individual bird but YJ+ seemed no worse for wear and I'm sure the burden will help scientists protect their shorebird brethren.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Meet Mr. White

Mr. White's first name? Bob. As in Bobwhite. As in quail. Harvey, Barb and I ran into 2 Bobwhites today at The Nature Conservancy's Meadow preserve. These birds are very tame because they are raised from eggs to chicks by various nature agencies and then released into the wild. The idea is that they will be hunted later on (sick, I know). Anyway, these 2 Bobs put on quite a show today. The older guy was calling "bob - WHITE"

Adult Male - Northern Bobwhite
And then the younger guy would call "bob - WHITE"

Young Male - Northern Bobwhite
It ended up as a dual of quail with the old guy calling "anything you can do, I can do better"

Adult Male - Northern Bobwhite
And the young guy responding "I can do everything better than you"

Young Male - Northern Bobwhite
The old guy shouting "No you can't"

Adult Male - Northern Bobwhite
And the young guy shouting "Yes I can"

Young Male - Northern Bobwhite
In the end, the young guy was definitely winning the shouting match and also started chasing the old man around. The old man gave up and found a friend.

Barb's new friend
The young guy posed for more photos. This one with the Cape May lighthouse in the background.

Young Male - Northern Bobwhite
And this one singing while sitting on The Nature Conservancy sign which I sent to my contact at The Nature Conservancy for a laugh.

Young Male - Northern Bobwhite
A fun way to spend the morning before work for sure. After work, I hit the beach in the scorching heat and found a few banded Sanderling.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Assignment: Warbler

On our annual trip to Connie's family cabin in Potter County, our friend Frank gave me an assignment. He wants photos of all of the birds that are found on Hogback Mountain - the mountain and area surrounding our cabins. He specifically wanted a photo of Hooded Warbler which we hear in the woods all around the mountain. Hooded warblers are easily heard. The male's song is very loud and distinctive however, seeing the bird is challenging. Photographing them is even more difficult since they are a bird of the deep woods with low lighting.

With 4 days to accomplish the task, I set out to photograph Hooded and other warblers. Started slow due to some torrential rain. This Common Yellowthroat was happy when the sun came out.

Common Yellowthroat
I got a bonus with Blackburnian wablers posing for me. Here is one guy who came to investigate me and Peanut right outside of our cabin.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler
Here is Yellow-rumped warbler in the pine trees near the house. I forget that these birds nest in Potter County and am pleasantly surprised when I see them flitting around.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Meanwhile, we found another accommodating Blackburnian warbler up at the slate quarry. This time, I used sound recording on my iPhone to draw the bird closer. Here he is looking at me like "you're not an intruding male, why do you sound like one?"

Blackburnian Warbler
Once he checked me out and figured he was safe, he hung around the rocks and picked up a few bugs to munch on.
Blackburnian Warbler
There is a great spot to watch and photograph birds down along the stream. I headed out by myself one morning in hopes of finding a few birds. Luck was on my side. This juvenile Black and White warbler picked bugs in a tree right beside the bridge at eye level.

Black and White Warbler
He didn't care about my presence at all.

Black and White Warbler
He was doing a great job feeding himself.

Black and White Warbler
This Yellow warbler also showed up to feed his baby in the same tree. That baby looks big enough to get her own food.

Yellow Warblers
I ran across this family of American Redstarts at their nest just upstream from the bridge. Here is Mom checking up on the 3 babies.

Female Redstart at nest
Here is Dad feeding one of the babies a big fat insect. Male Redstarts are very colorful with black and orange markings.

Male Redstart at nest
I made great progress with the warblers but struck out on Hooded until our last day. I finally ran across this female at the edge of the path, close enough to photograph.

Female Hooded Warbler
I noticed that she had that big bug in her mouth and sure enough, the baby appeared and screamed to be fed.
Baby Hooded Warbler
Dad was close by keeping an eye on the situation.

Male Hooded Warbler
Finally, assignment accomplished! But that didn't end the photography. I also ran across this baby in the woods.

And these Mandarin duck babies at the campground where they are kept as pets. All three are named Daisy.

Every year, I wonder why we don't stay longer. (oh yeah, because we have jobs)