Random Acts Of Birding

While doing some digiscoping around Cape May, I found a cooperative flock of yellow-rumped warblers. These are such a challenge to photograph and finding a big flock of butter butts is always a good practice. I remember when I first started digiscoping, I thought warblers would be impossible. But after lots of practice, it is possible to get a warbler shot. Maybe one day this will all pay off and I'll be posting a blackburnian warbler?

It was a fairly busy day when I was taking these photos, it was beautiful fall weather and lots of people were out--even non birders. Some people were really polite, they'd pause to let me get the shot before continuing on the trail past me. People are generally curious when they see you with a large scope and want to know what you're looking at. Some are surprised that it's a bird and not some mammal. Some are surprised that it's a brown bird. Many are happy to tell you about other birds they've seen that they think you would rather photograph--the most common being the bald eagle.

I like to set weird goals for myself. Something like trying to get a shot of the red eye on a coot. But often people passing by, I think feel sorry for me for going after something like a coot and want to tell me about the bald eagle they just saw. When I was taking photos of the butter butts above, a couple passing on the trail kept encouraging me to head towards the beach to get a photo of the bald eagle flying around the beach. I thanked them and went back to the warblers, but they insisted, "That eagle isn't going to be there all day, you should go now!" I thanked them and stayed put, but the man pressed me to go for the eagle. I finally said, "I appreciate that, but I live in Minnesota, we have the largest breeding population of bald eagles in the lower 48. I've seen 'em."

I feel bad, eagles shouldn't be taken for granted and I love seeing them and I don't want to minimize someone's eagle sighting--but darn it, I'm after more difficult fish (er-birds). When I'm digiscoping at Carpenter Nature Center, I periodically run into a guy who regularly walks the trails and is always trying to get me to go take eagle photos. The best part is that he also is ready to interpret bald eagles for me: how long it takes for them to get the white head and tail, their mating habits, prey items, pretty much an abbreviated program of what I would give at The Raptor Center. I often think that he should sign up to be a volunteer there--he's full of info and ready to share it with the world.

I am just of guilty of doing these impromptu bird interpretive sessions. While digiscoping some ducks at The Meadows in Cape May, I heard a group of ladies walking by who were trying to identify all the ducks I was photographing. They didn't have a field guide with them and they were trying to remember what they'd seen so far, so they could identify it later. I was happy to say, "Hey, those are pintails, if you want, you can look at them through my scope."

And I was happy to point out other birds I speculated the had not noticed, "If you're interested, there's a male hooded merganser loafing on a mound, check him out through my scope." They seemed very excited and that just kind of goaded me on, what other waterfowl could I point out to them? Why, how about my favorite duck:

the gadwall! And it's about the time that I start pointing out the all gray duck that I realized I was getting that polite look of "Okay, you've been really nice, but please let us go on our way."

So, why this undeniable need to interpret? Is it to try and recruit more birders? Is because we are all so excited by what we see (no matter what our birding level) that we must share it? Is this some sort of lek behavior, "Gee whiz, look at how much I know!"

Anyone else out there ready to interpret birds at a moment's notice?

Skywatch Friday, Cape May, NJ Style

It's Skywatch Friday again! I think I may actually be getting it in on time this week. I'm very confused because it's called Skywatch Friday, but apparently, it begins on Thursday where I live.

This is a view of one of my favorite places that I've been blogging about this week. It's called The Meadows and it's an area run by The Nature Conservancy. I think when people think of New Jersey, they may often think of maybe the opening to The Sopranos with Tony driving over the bridge and you see a lot of factories and industry. Believe it or not, you can find places where you are in a remote area.

While at the Cape May Autumn Weekend, I spent a lot of time at The Meadows, some for workshops, some just on my own. I had a magical Sunday morning there when I was surrounded by tree swallows. All weekend I could see huge flocks of them feeding on bayberries. Tree Swallows have already moved out of Minnesota, so seeing huge flocks in Cape May was a treat. They can afford to be later migrants because unlike most swallows that eat only insects, these will also eat berries, helping them to survive the late migration should they find a lack of insects.

I saw a huge flock off in the distance. This photo really doesn't do it justice. I may look like light blue paper sprinkled with fine ground pepper, but these are all tree swallows. I watched them wheeling and spinning in the air, just enjoying the spectacle. I wondered if I could walk towards the flock, but before I could take the first step, I noticed the flock formed a large cylinder and was heading my way.

Within seconds, I had swallows zooming overhead and whizzing on either side of me. I tried to take photos, but realized quickly that it was in vain, they were moving too quickly. There were thousands of them, a groups so loud, they sheer number of dainty wings flapping was an audible rushing sound. The tree swallows dipped down towards the water and took sips, then zipped over the grasses searching for insects. It was an intense, magical experience and my reverie was broken only when a nearby mute swan gave off it's farty sounding call (yes, that beautiful exotic species that rips up nesting habitat of our native ducks, also sounds like flatulence when it calls).

When the swallows were in the distance, I tried to take a video through my spotting scope. It's not the best video ever, but you get an idea of the the size of the flock. I would say that the birds you see through my scope is about one fourth of the entire flock. There were thousands of tree swallows:

Quite a spectacle to have all those swallows be part of the sky.

Digiscoping The Meadows During Cape May's Autumn Weekend

I think my favorite place at Cape May is The Meadows, an area managed by The Nature Conservancy on the southwest tip of the Cape May peninsula. It has dunes, fresh and saltwater marshes, meadows, ponds, and a mile of beachfront. The lighting can be beautiful and during migration, you can get some great bird shots. There are plenty of ponds and marshes on either side of the trail so that you can get birds in both morning light and evening light if you take the time. Check out this swamp sparrow that was lurking in some of the bushes with some white-throats, the same area were I got the Carolina wren. In the morning or the evening, this place is just the best. Part of my fill in duties at the Cape May Autumn Weekend was to do Clay's digiscoping workshop. It was supposed to be both indoors and outdoors and the forecast was 100% chance of rain, lots of wind and probably some thunder and lightening. Most spotting scopes can take that...but not most cameras. Fortunately, it barely rained and the worse we had to digiscope in was some strong wind.

I had the pleasure of doing the workshop along with Cape May Bird Observatory volunteer Betty Lemley who does digiscoping workshops locally. She is a hoot and if you are going to be at CMBO and do any of their events, sign up for one of hers. A big part of digiscoping is just getting out there and working with your camera. I met one woman who was understandably frustrated with her digiscoping set up. She said that she could never get her photos to come out clear and sharp. She's seen photos on websites that are digiscoped images and were tack sharp, but hers did not turn out that way. I asked how many photos she took and she said not many and that she stopped because they weren't turning out like what she'd seen from others. I assured her for every photo that looks as good as the sparrow above, there are about 200 that look like this:

...or even worse. It takes a lot of photos to get one that looks in focus, even if you have great light, a great scope, and the best digiscoping camera on the market. Here's another example:

I can't tell you the number of duck shots that I have that are like this. It's tough to get them completely in the frame when they're swimming and feeding, plus figure out light settings and focusing. But with some patience and taking lots of shots, you can get a wigeon shot that looks like this:

I was having so much fun working my digiscoping mojo on the wigeon. I just love this duck: some rust, some green and then that big ole honkin' white stripe down the forehead. If you ever hear someone refer to a duck as a "bald pate" they are talking about the wigeon.

Sometimes you get birds that are back lit, like the above Savannah sparrow (there were a ton of these guys scurrying around all the surrounding vegetation, running along the trails, and hiding just as you were about to get the scope on them. You generally want the sun behind you when you're taking photos, but you can get what I call arty shots. Okay, sure this bird is never going to grace the cover of a birding magazine, but since I'm the person in charge of my own blog and I say it's arty, it's all good. Incidentally, I did work my way around this bird so the sun was behind me. It teed up on a stalk, in perfect light. Just as I was getting it in focus I heard the familiar "per CHUP per CHUP per CHUP" of a peregrine falcon. Just as I was thinking, "Crap, that sparrow is gonna bail," it ducked down in the grass before I could snap the photo. Peregrines, I love you guys, but not when you spook my photo subject!

When we took our group out for the field trip portion of our workshop, the rain had stopped but the wind picked up. We decided to go for it and though a few drops fell here and there, we stayed mostly dry. We went to the beach at the meadows and participants got to practice taking gull shots while being pelted by beach sand. Taking shots when it's cloudy is a challenge too, not always the easiest light to work with. In this shot, you can see some of the sand blowing around the great black-backed gulls.

We did work our way around and got the chance to get some waterfowl in the evening sun. I love the gadwalls. It's a gray duck but has the funniest quack. I've actually got it as a ring tone on cell phone, but it just lovely soft grays and black...even with a bill full of aquatic vegetation.

There was also a male hooded merganser hanging out with the waterfowl, a pleasant surprise.

A fun selection of birds and I hope people had a good time and have time to really work with their cameras. One big digiscoping mistake is that people order all their stuff right before they leave for a trip of a lifetime. You really need several days to get used to using the scope, know how to adjust the head on the tripod, what your camera is capable of. The more you play and become one with your setup the more usable photos you'll have.

Common Cape May Birds

I digiscoped so many images this weekend, I'm having trouble organizing them into blog entries. I found a most cooperative northern mockingbird at Higbee Beach. I know for some of you southern readers that a mocking bird is not the most exciting bird on the planet, but for a Minnesota girl, getting a chance to see that yellow eye gleam in the sun. The hawk migration is still going strong in Cape May and Cooper's hawks like this juvenile above were all over the place. A DC Birding Blog (who is banding hawks at Cape May this year) mentioned that they are seeing more Cooper's hawks passing through than sharp-shinned hawks. We usually see the opposite at Frank's banding station in Duluth. A quick scan over at Birds of North America Online says that the ability of Cooper's hawks to adapt to humans has been great, their population has increased very well, however it's uncertain if their increase in population could have a negative effect on other raptor (or even prey for that matter). There is some evidence that Cooper’s Hawks regularly take American Kestrels, and that they may be playing a role in the current declines in this species in the eastern part of their range.

I was trying to take a photo of a couple of black vultures and I even got a blur of a Coop's passing behind it.

I did get a shot of the full black vulture. This was was another common to Cape May but exciting to a Minnesota girl type species. All we get in MN are turkey vultures, so the smaller guys with the all dark head were a treat.

Here is a pair. The one higher up is an adult, the lower, shaggier looking one with a black bill is a juvenile. They had a beautiful blue sky behind them and were on a blue water tower. Looking at the photos, the two blues look kinda weird.

I wonder what we're missing in Minnesota so that we do not get black vultures? We have turkey vultures for part of the year. I'm sure we'd have places for black vultures to nest. It's interesting to note that turkey vultures find their food using their sense of smell, but not black vultures That ability is not nearly as highly developed in black vultures, so they follow turkey vultures to find carrion.

Doing some reading on BNA found an interesting theory: according to some studies, the large communal roosts that black vultures form at night might serve as a means for communicating food locations. They had several studies to back it up. Birds that were marked returned to same carcasses on successive days, could they be leading birds at the roost to food? When the black vultures leave the roost in the morning, smaller groups fly off at different intervals...are the groups following a specified forager vulture (kind of like a forager honey bee)? In one study, black vultures deprived of information about local distribution of carcasses and were released in evening at communal roosts and joined the ends of groups departing from roosts to feeding sites the next morning and tagged vultures that were not privy to a carcass and released to a roost, still arrived at food sites in early morning as members of groups that have come directly from roosts.

Fascinating stuff!

Monday Morning Carolina Wren

I dedicate the following video to Hasty Brook and hope that she got a Carolina wren before she left Cape May to return to Minnesota.

A posse of bird bloggers gathered again for the Cape May Autumn Weekend and since I ended up working the festival, I was able to see them. They had gathered informally and I didn't think I'd get to meet up with them, but when I ended up coming, they invited me along to a dinner for some hearty laughter. Some, I've met before like Hasty Brook, Somewhere in NJ, Susan Gets Native, and Beginning To Bird, but this time I got to meet KatDoc and DC Bird Blog (he's actually banding birds at Cape May this fall--sweet) face to face. Jay Davis from birdJam came along too.

We must have gotten quite rowdy at the table, I noticed that the bar kept turning up the ambient music to louder and louder levels. However, we were able to keep the talking and laughter to new ear splitting level.

A big bonus to this trip is that I hit my 500th bird--I didn't get to digiscope it but I got. And after I saw it, I saw them everywhere. I needed a black scoter, so after the first day of working the Optics Corner at the festival, Jim Danzenbaker, Jeff Bouton, Jeff Gordon, and Bill Stewart (that really cool guy who organizes the bird a thon to buy up migratory habitat to save the red knot). We watched for lines of scoters and after a few lines of surf scoters flying by--a flock that had both surf and black flew by and I could see the difference. Whew! That hump has been passed. Now to work on getting 600. Although, I suppose I should work on padding the 500 on the off chance the AOU is planning to lump some species together.

Oh, and while we were at the beach gettin' my life, a marriage proposal was finishing up. A man made a sand castle for his sweetie, asking her to marry him. There was a small sand treasure chest next to the sand castle that she apparently had to dig the ring out of the chest. It was very cute. We didn't hear what was actually said between the two, but considering they left hand in hand with smiles on the faces and a bottle of champagne, I thinking her answer was yes. Cute.

Gulls On The Rampage At Bringantine

Pintails, I love pintail ducks! So, I'm in New Jersey at the moment for Cape May's Autumn Weekend - THE Bird Show. I'm filling in at the Swarovski booth for my buddy Clay (who is forced to go to Austria). I still have to pinch myself sometimes. Teenage Sharon from years ago dreamed of things like getting a call from a cool optics company asking if I would mind coming to Cape May to do some birding and help out at a booth. When I got into Jersey, Jim from Kowa asked if I wanted to meet for some birding at Brigantine. How could I say no? It was a good idea too, it always takes me a day to kind of get my bearings for birds in a different state. For example, one of the first birds I saw was a small heron looking bird that was all white. Crap, we don't have those in MN, small...white...not a snow egret--it was an immature little blue heron--no fair being white! Anyway, just a good idea to get used to the birds.

While Jim and I were driving around, we saw a herring gull catching something huge--a crab. It was interesting to watch the gull take the large struggling crab out of the water, put in the grass, and hack at it, all while the crab tried to pinch it in self defence.

The herring gull's eye and dark lining just kind of gave this crab killer a maniacal look, much like my beloved accipiters--love those hawks with bright red eyes. Jim pointed out that it was a great day to not be a crab when we found...

...this adult black-backed gull. It was working its way around a mysterious blob in the water...

It was a dead duck. As best we could make out from when the gull would pull the head above water as it tried to rip out a bite, it looked like a female ruddy duck in winter plumage.

We wondered if the duck was already dead or if the gull had killed it. Was she already ill or injured and the gull went after it until she was dead or what. Tough to say, but when nearby mallards realized what the gull was eating, they gave it a wide berth and then flew away when the water's current brought the feasting gull closer.

Peregrines were out in full force at Brigantine. There were oodles of shorebirds and the peregrines would make stealthy attacks from low above the vegetation. This young peregrine was even chased a bit by and adult, you could hear them screaming at each other from quite a distance. The peregrines were a welcome distraction, poor Jim was trying to point out how to tell a western sandpiper from a white-rumped sandpiper. "Notice how the western is lighter in color over all," he asked excitedly.

"Do you want me to answer honesty or tell you what you want to hear? Cause I'm not seeing a lighter color."

We laughed at my shorebird ineptitude. I was able to tell them from the semi-palmated sandpipers, which I felt was a minor breakthrough.

Skimming Cape May Autumn Weekend

On the last day of the Cape May Autumn Weekend, a group of bird bloggers came to the birdJam booth and said they were going to go look at skimmers just down the street. I asked if I could come and they welcomed me along. What could be so great about skimmers some of you may be asking?

A black skimmer is a wonder to behold when you see them head up...oh wait, that is probably not the best angle to view a skimmer, you can't see what makes them so spectacular, so how about this:

Is that just a dynamite bill? That's not a mistake, that's the way their bill is supposed to look, extra long on the bottom and they fly over the water and dip the lower mandible down in the water and when something touches it--usually a fish, it snaps shut to get a firm grip on the prey.

Here's an up close shot of that cool looking bill.

There were a couple of large flocks of skimmers on the beach and Jay from birdJam showed Susan Gets Native how to approach birds by crawling--you're not much of a threat to birds if you're on all fours.

When we scanned the flocks of skimmers, we could see other species mixed in. Above is a sampling of skimmers, gulls and terns.

My gull id is a tad shaky, but I'm calling these small masked birds, Forster's tern.

We also found some laughing gulls mixed in with the skimmers. Considering that the birds were out of breeding plumage, I was feeling that being able to id these birds is somewhat of a triumph of the human spirit.

Eventually, the skimmers went airborne, but when they took off, we found another gull that was towards the back of the flock:

With process of elimination, I think this is a royal tern. The bill looks too heavy to be an elegant tern (but I'm open to suggestions). Doesn't look to bad from this angle, even though it's not in breeding plumage. You can see some royalty there.

But then the bird looks at you head on and it suddenly resembles a member of the Stooge family.

Away from the flock was a huge great black-backed gull being followed by a tiny sanderling. I love looking at size and species comparisons on the beach and was delighted to see such fun birds right down the street from the convention center for the Autumn Weekend.

It was great to meet some of the bloggers in person. In this photo we have Born Again Birdwatcher, Beginning To Bird, Somewhere in NJ, SGN, and me. Heading out for some end of festival birding was a great way to bring it to a close.

Birding The Meadows

I started writing this entry last night, and completely fell asleep while typing it--completely slumped over on the couch. Thank goodness I didn't drool on the keyboard.

Ack! I birded this place Sunday, how is it now Thursday that I'm finally blogging it? Ah well, at least I'm getting to it now. When we watched the weather over the weekend and learned that Sunday would be the first sunny day of the festival, we all were planning our morning birding strategies. Clay Taylor recommended going to The Meadows for just loads of birds flying over, so that was where I went.

We found a good sampling of ducks in the above pond. Here we have a mallard, a blue-winged teal, and a gadwall. It's fun to note the size difference of all three of these ducks when side by side.

I think gadwalls have one of my favorite ducks calls of all time. You can find it on this WhatBird (you may have to scroll down a bit when you get there). They sound like Muppets--mer mer mer. As we were taking these photos, a steady line of small raptors were zipping just over our heads--and I mean mere feet above our heads. The change in weather had pushed songbirds down south on their migration and they were landing in the meadows to feed, sharp-shinned hawks and merlins were taking advantage of the situation. While I was shooting ducks, I would look over my view finder and I'd see sharpie, sharpie, sharpie, sharpie, MERLIN, sharpie, sharpie, etc. It was pretty darned sweet.

Ducks were well and good, but being in Minnesota, I was more interested in doing some beach digiscoping. Clay decided to try his luck with warblers, so we briefly parted ways. I love photographing on a beach with little to know humans. You hear the crash of the surf, you feel the wind on your face, you smell the salty air and you just can't help but feel like an adventurer. I was also feeling more confident about my shorebird id skills and photography after taking that shorebird workshop this summer.

Alas, a little tougher than I thought! Well, one of the things that separates sanderlings from other shorebirds that can look similar like the semi-palmated sandpipers is that they constantly run back and forth with the waves. Which makes them hard to photograph--and just plain hard to find in the scope as the waves and birds move.

Fortunately for me, some much slower shorebirds moved in! Not only that, they have a pretty distinctive bill shape, making them dunlins--whoot! I decided that I would just try to follow shorebirds and take as many photos as possible to have a reference of sanderlings in my photo library.

When I downloaded the photos later in the day, I discovered that some of them were banded! I didn't notice it while out on the beach, but fortunately I was haphazardly shooting and got the evidence. I thought I was photographing sanderlings and honestly, from this angle we can't see the front for positive id, but it's a pretty good bet.

And that wasn't the only one! I found a second banded shorebird! This does look like a sanderling, but it's interesting to note that both birds have similar banding patterns to the banded semi-palmated sandpipers we found this summer during the shorebird workshop. I know the green flag on the bird in the above photo means it was banded in the US, but not sure about the other one. I'll turn these photos into the Bird Banding Lab and when I find out more info, I'll post an update in the blog. Well, as I was just enjoying the day and a set of willets just landed, a peregrine flew into view and chased all the shorebirds away. It dawned on me what a beautiful and unusual site this is for me. To see the large dark falcon fly right on the beach--I usually see them around skyscrapers. Since the shorebirds got the heck out of Dodge, I decided to try my hand at the gray hair inducing task of photographing fall warblers.

I never thought I would say this, but it was like shooting fish in a barrel! It was mostly yellow-rumped warblers, but it was just a matter of picking a perch, keeping your scope aimed there and waiting a few minutes for a warbler to land. This yellow rumped perched here for a full three minutes!

Heck, I even managed to get a shot of it nabbing insects when it flew. That is what is part of the magic of Cape May during migration. Oh sure, you may be able to see many of the bird species there, but it's the sheer number and magnitude that consistently shows up during migration. On year, over a million robins flew over in an hour. While I was photographing this warbler, several hundred turkey vultures were moving through.

I even managed to photograph a second species of warbler--this lovely palm warbler popped up. Only in Cape May, folks, can a novice digiscoper manage to get some decent warbler shots.

The Meadows is run by the Nature Conservancy and you do need to pay a small fee (well worth it) to enter. I will say this, about Cape May--it attracts some old school birders...dare I say crotchety birders. One man was very angry about paying for entering The Meadows, "This place is ruined, I shouldn't have to pay." Which I think is utterly ridiculous. Natural space for birds is at a premium, it takes money to maintain it and people should pay to make sure it stays. Of course, this guy also grunted at the birdJam software, "In my day, we just went outside to learn the bird calls." He would have finished his speech, but he had to run after some teenagers to shout, "Get those darn smoochers offa meh property."

Mental note to old schoolers talking to whipper snappers: Starting a sentence with the phrase, "In my day..." automatically induces eye rolling on the part of the listener.

Speaking of old school, another conversation that I had at Cape May about iPods:

Old School Birder: In my day we did this thing called listening to the radio to get our music.

Birdchick: Yeah, but sometimes the Sinatra or opera isn't on the radio.

Old School Birder: My dear, public radio has opera every Sunday, so there you go.

Birdchick: But what if you're jonesing' for La Traviata on a Thursday night, the iPod's there for ya'.

Old School Birder backs away in apparent confusion that a whipper snapper would know the title of a Verdi opera or the possibility of being able to listen to any kind of music at any time of day...or at the use of the word "jonesing".

I wonder what I'm going to be crotchety about when I grow up? What will be the technology that I think is too much or just think it too complicated to use? I seriously ponder this. "In my day, we held the digital camera to the spotting scope to get photos...we didn't have the camera built into the scope."

And for the record: "old school" and "crotchety" have more to do with a state of mind than with age. I know birders older than I am who act younger than me (I like to think I act like a 15 year old, and there are a couple who qualify as 13 year olds--you know who you are) and some birders younger than me that could qualify for crotchety.