Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year's Toast

stolen shamelessly, and modified slightly, from an advertisement for Grey Goose vodka (fitting for a birding blog, natch?)

To nearest
To dearest
To my crew
To the cahoots
To the ones who have been there
To the ones who will be there
To dropping everything
To saying anything
To no judgments
To no doubts
To loyalty
To trust
To favors
To lifelongs
To been too long
To nothing's changed
To everything is different
To having history
To having your back
To moving on
To never too far
To growing up
To settling down
To my second family
To friends

Happy new year to all my birding friends. You truly are my second family and are never far from my thoughts and my heart.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cape May Part Two - It's All About the Birds

Flocks of tree swallows swirl over the sand

This year Cape May had the largest autumn migration fall-out in over 10 years. Driving to early morning field trips, I had to drive 10 miles an hour to avoid running over the dozens of birds on every paved surface - even the middle of the street. I had to stop the car at one intersection to pick up an exhausted sparrow who didn't move when my car approached and put him on the side of the road where he would be safer. The sky and trees were dripping with birds. Thousands of robins, yellow-rumps and sparrows, tree swallows (along with a lifer cave swallow), finches and kinglets flew through the night and landed in Cape May to rest and feed before continuing migration. Dozens of raptors wheeled through the sky at any given moment.

The weekend provided two life birds for me (cave swallow and lesser black backed gull) and almost 100 species total. But it was the sheer numbers that were breathtaking. I have only been birding for six years, but this was a spectacle unlike anything I had seen and had only read about. I felt blessed to be able to witness it.

My picture taking ability is limited to large birds perched close, so all the bird pictures I have are of mute swans. The most exciting birds I saw were the raptors - dozens of sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks perched on telephone wires and calling to each other, then flying down to the ground only yards away where I could get good looks at their patrician profiles. An osprey, immature and mature bald eagles, both turkey and black vultures, dozens of harriers (where I learned to identify the juveniles by their gorgeous buffy rufous bellies), red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons (!!!), broad wing hawks and dozens of kestrels were highlights of the weekend. There is no place like Cape May for raptor watching.

Morning flight over the hawk watch platform at Cape MaAlign Centery Point Park
(click to enlarge and view the spectacle of hundreds of birds in flight)

One of the more unusual birds I saw close up was the woodcock blown in from over the ocean and perched under a staircase across the street from the Grand Hotel. It was obviously exhausted and stressed, so we stayed a respectable distance and, thanks to Jim from Kowa Optics who showed us the location and lent us his scope to observe, I got looks at a forest bird who flys mostly at dusk at Cape May in broad daylight!
Getting great looks at kinglets, thrushes, sparrows, ducks and shorebirds like oystercatcher, dunlin, black bellied plover, sanderling, purple sandpiper, ruddy turnstone (one of my favorite shorebirds), woodpeckers, herons, egrets and terns made for an educational as well as exciting weekend. I was able to clearly see size difference in the cackling goose at the tail end of the V formation of Canada geese. I learned to differentiate the white scapular outline on mallard duck wings and see the color and size difference of lesser black backed gulls vs. great black backed gulls.
I couldn't have asked for a more exciting weekend - birds and great friends.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cape May Autumn Migration - It's All About the People

Me and Susan at the Hawk Watch Platform at the Cape May Lighthouse.

The Flock (part of it, anyway) at the Autumn Festival. From left to right, me, Susan, Laura and Delia

The 2010 Cape May, NJ Autumn Migration Festival on my birthday weekend (October 29-31) turned out to be a magical birding experience. A lot of it had to do with the birds - the largest migration fall-out since 1999 (according to the Cape May experts) and two wonderful life birds (lesser black backed gull and cave swallow).

But mostly, the weekend was about the people - my birding peeps. Birding experts and heroes (Pete Dunne, Bill Thompson III, Louise Zemaitis, Jeff Gordon, etc), founding members of the Blogger Flock (who embraced me as one of their own at this very Festival three years ago) and newly-found bird friends and all-around wonderful people.

New friends, Gareth and Rick, at the C-View Inn, relaxing with The Flock after a hard day's birding.

Jersey-licious Laura (on the right) and saucy Susan at the C-View Inn

After arriving Thursday evening from business in Harrisburg, I hit the early morning Friday field trip at The Beanery. My first friend sighting was Jeff Gordon, newly appointed president of the American Birding Association and his lovely first lady, Liz Gordon. Then other friends arrived: Laura, Susan, Delia and Delia's partner AB.

Lots of hugs, giggles and catching up, interspersed with some birding, ensued. Throughout the next three days, we traveled Cape May marveling at the birds and enjoying each other's company.

Susan, Bill Thompson and Delia doing some bird-gazing

Top left: Jeff and Liz Gordon leading a field trip at The Beanery

Top right: Delia getting ready to enjoy whipped cream with a side of blueberry pancakes at Uncle Bill's

Bottom left: Parts of the Flock representing in Cape May (from left: Laura, Susan, Delia and me). Photo courtesy of Laura Hardy

A recent study by a psychologist at Stanford University concluded that one of the best things a man can do for his health is to be married while one of the best things a woman can do for her health is nurture relationships with other women. The myriad ways we connect with our women friends, offering unconditional support in tough times, love and laughter in good times and sometimes just an easy quiet being is undoubtably good for our souls. Being able to share our feelings in a non-threatening atmosphere boosts levels of serotonin, helping combat depression and foster well-being.

I didn't need a study to tell me that these women (and men) are good for me and my soul. But it did reinforce for me that time with my friends is the greatest gift I can give myself. Combine that with a hobby that never ceases to instill in me a sense of wonder and awe in powers greater than myself, and it was definitely a magical weekend.

photo courtesy of Laura Hardy

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

One Way to Kill a House Sparrow

I found this dead sparrow hanging from the feeder in the backyard. Obviously it got it's head stuck while digging for seed. You can see the seed stuck to it's face once I removed the corpse from the feeder. What a way to go. I have found four dead sparrows in my backyard this year. Two under a hedge. One in this feeder and one with it's head stuck in the holes of ornamental brick that surrounds the base of my other feeders. House sparrows are annoying, aggressive and invasive. I am not shedding any tears over these dead sparrows, but cleaning up the corpses is kind of disgusting - especially when you have to detangle broken necks from the tiny holes in a feeder. Yuck.

Deep cleansing breath. I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the autumn sunshine and built a fire in the backyard pit. Good book, crackling flames, sunshine, golden and crimson leaves wafting slowly out of the trees, the smell of wood smoke. Life is good.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Autumn Birding

With an unexpectedly free Sunday morning, I decided to use my Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve membership for only the second time in 2010 and take a birding jaunt on a sunny October day. With the temperatures in the mid-70s yesterday, I was unprepared for the very chilly temps in the mid 30s this morning, so I did not bring gloves or dress in enough layers. Walking briskly through the woods to keep my core temperature above freezing, I listened to squirrels rooting around in the dry leaves and woodpeckers banging on the trees. Crows and blue jays provided the only bird noise for quite a while. It was too cold to stand still and look for warblers. As soon as the sun came up, tufted titmice and chickadees added their voices to the din, but I was still the only human in the entire preserve. I was going to die of hypothermia all alone and no one would find my frozen body for hours.

Even the Bowman Hill cactus were shivering.
Walking across the bridge over Pidcock Creek, I stopped to scan the trees hoping for something warbler-ish. I was rewarded with red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatch and golden-crowned kinglets. Butter butts (yellow-rumped warbler), flocks of goldfinches (almost as many as an irruption - if they were the breed that irrupts) and wood thrush made for a rewarding morning and took the chill off. Red-bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers were in abundance. Fly over blue herons, turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks rounded out the day.
Two and a half hours later, fingers numb with cold, nose running and ears tingling, I packed it in for a cup of hot coffee and the Sunday New York Times at the local diner.
Log cabin at the Preserve

I haven't been spending enough time birding lately, but am looking forward to the Cape May Autumn Migration Festival at the end of October. Not only will I get to bird at the height of migration in the migration capital of North America, but I will see my blogging friends (Susan, Laura and Delia) as well as pay my respects to the newly hired president of the American Birding Association and friend, Jeff Gordon. I plan on bowing in supplication and calling him "Your Highness" just to watch him blush. Seriously, it will be a wonderful way to spend my 46th birthday (Sunday October 31st) - with friends and with birds. What more can a birder ask for??

Wooded (and chilly) path through the Preserve

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Non-Pelagic Birding on the Outer Banks

After a 9 and 1/2 hour drive to North Carolina, I was tired, but ready to bird! So Uncle Jim and I started our birding weekend in his family room. Birding by Butt, North Carolina-style. Watching the crepe myrtle tree out the window and the pond with the drip faucet, we bagged ten species. Nothing unusual, but an auspicious start to the weekend. He also took me on a tour of his bat box, stuffed with sleeping brown bats. No screech owls in the nest box, but a colony of purple martins (Uncle Jim swears they are all lesbians - he runs a gay-friendly establishment). We made a quick run to the wastewater treatment plant next door and got ruddy ducks, bluebirds and some gulls and then to the quarry for rough-winged swallows.

Uncle Jim doing some birding from the couch.
a The next morning, we packed the car full of snacks, gear, luggage and a cooler full of ice and drinks and made our way to Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (stopping along the way wherever we thought there might be birds). It was quiet, muggy, hot and....quiet. Not much in the way of bird activity.

At one point, we got out to set up the scope to look at......a great egret. Yup. That's how desperate we were. As a matter of fact, Uncle Jim told me to make sure I put this picture on the blog telling everyone that we are setting up a scope to look at AN EGRET! But slowly and surely, we added a species here and a species there. Pretty soon we had an decent list. When we made it to the Outer Banks, we made sure to see the three lighthouses - each with a distinctive paint pattern and light flash pattern.

Ocracoake lighthouse. My favorite - short and stubby. I can relate.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Relocated in 1999, about 1/2 mile inland to pretect it from the eroding beach.

The Bodie Island lighthouse (under scaffolding for sandblasting and re-painting that will take about 12 months).

Another view of the Ocracoake lighthouse

This is the British Cemetary on Ocracoake Island. During WW II, the HMS Bedfordshire, a British fishing trawler was hired by our Navy to escort a band of merchant ships to the Outer Banks. The Bedfordshire was sunk by a German U-boat and the bodies of 4 sailors washed ashore at Ocracoake and were buried by the locals. The tiny cemetary is now maintained by the US Coast Guard station at Ocracoake.

Standing by the barrier protecting the least tern (LIFER!) and black skimmer nesting sites.
It's hard to see in this photo (click on the photo to enlarge), but the bottom of the sign reads, "Illustration by Julie Zickefoose". Hey, I know her! I've birded New River Festival with her! Awesome!
While on Ocracoake, we noticed signs posted on a lot of lawns and in front of a lot of businesses with slogans like "We the People, not We the Plovers". It seems that nesting sites for piping plovers and least terns are being protected at the expense of tourists and residents being able to drive on and access some of the beaches. At a restaurant one night, the waitress asked us if we were birders (looking out the window through binoculars at a green heron may have given us away). When we said yes, she asked our opinion on the plover issue. We explained about the endangered plover and how our encroachment on it's habitat has been the cause of it's demise and she expressed dismay at not knowing that it was an endangered species. It seems that bit of information is not getting as much press as the loss of tourist dollars due to lack of beach access. However, with the local economy built on fishing and tourism, it's easy to see why residents look at protecting a few birds not nearly as important as their livelihoods. I have a feeling this issue isn't going away any time soon.
So it was an awesome birding trip- 81 species, including ten life birds, but more importantly, time with Uncle Jim.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pelagic Birding Off Cape Hatteras, NC

Why did I say "yes"? A pelagic birding trip? Me? I get motion sick just riding in a car! No freakin' way. I just knew I would spend most of the trip heaving my breakfast over the side of the boat, adding to the chum slick and embarrassing myself in front of experienced birders. So I had resigned myself to never having pelagic birds on my life list. But it was my birding mentor, Uncle Jim, who suggested the trip. I love birding with him.
So in January I agreed. In February I started to panic.
I got a prescription for scopolomine patches from my doctor, stocked up on Dramamine, bought sunscreen and a rain slicker and pants and prayed to the bird gods and Neptune. Be gentle with me, please.
I studied my field guide to prepare for the birds we were likely to see. Uh-oh. They all look alike - small, brown and gray. This is not going to be a typical spring warbler trip! Well, I will be with some experts who can help me sort them out in between bouts of puking over the side.
The Stormy Petrel II waiting for birders at 5:00am

I drove to North Carolina and Uncle Jim and I birded Lake Mattamuskeet, Pea Island and the Outer Banks (to be covered in another blog post) on the way to Cape Hatteras where at daybreak on Saturday, we boarded the Stormy Petrel II, owned and operated by Brian Patteson and his wonderful staff.

There is a Wilson's storm-petrel flying off to the right in this picture. Honest. Click on the picture to enlarge.

We left dock at 6:00am to head to the gulf stream (a two hour and twenty minute top-speed ride). Lots of fun, if a bit damp. The only time I got queasy was when I went into the bathroom. The enclosed space and the rocking motion made for a bad time, but once out in the fresh air where I could see the horizon, I was just fine. I even managed to eat lunch without getting sick.

In my new rain slicker - steaming towards the Gulf Stream.

Uncle Jim getting salt-sprayed but looking foward to good birds.

Once we got out to the gulf stream, we saw dozens of Wilson's storm-petrels (they soon became the trash bird of the trip - they stayed with us the entire time we were on the gulf stream). They danced and fluttered on the ocean partaking of the menhaden oil that the Stormy Petrel II staff spread on the water to attract more birds. Wilson's storm-petrels dip their feet into the water as they feed, "paddling" to either hover over the food source or perhaps stir up more food. It gives an impression of seabird butterflies. Beautiful and magical. White-rumped storm-petrels soon joined in. I could not tell the difference between the two - the field guides say that the white-rumps have a divided rump patch, but with the speed of the birds and the rocking motion of the boat, all I could see was a brown bird with a white rump.

Pretty soon, black-capped petrels and greater shearwaters joined in. The shearwaters were easy to study since they often floated on the ocean like gulls and let us take good long looks. A Leach's petrel and Audubon shearwater were spotted by some but I didn't get on them. I did get great looks at a lone bridled tern (another lifer). A few Cory's shearwaters flew by. It is amazing to think that these birds spend all their time at sea unless they are nesting or are blown ashore in a storm. Pelagic life list was up to six. Life was good. But pelagic birding is long stretches of blue ocean and boredom punctuated by moments of intense excitement as a bird flies by. Six hours passed and the boat finally revved up to take us the two and a half hours back to shore.

Sunrise on the Atlantic

Suddenly, there was a big ruckus at the front of the boat. A group of six false killer whales was spotted. They gave us great looks as they swam close to and under the boat, almost playing with us. Dolphins, sunfish and flying fish rounded out the ocean wildlife for the day. Then, sooty and manx shearwaters flew in. Awesome - two more lifers for a total of 8 pelagic species for the day.
Two hours later we pulled into dock, salt-caked, sunburned and very tired, but exhilarated from the sights and sounds of a day on the Atlantic.

Fishing boats following us out to sea under a gorgeous sunrise

Wilson's and white-rumped storm petrels dancing on the oil slick (click to enlarge)

After a seafood dinner and a good night's sleep, we left for Ocraoke Island and the Cedar Island ferry, making our way back home. Thanks to Uncle Jim and the crew of the Stormy Petrel II for a fabulous time.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Backyard Carnage

A fine spring day, scrubbing birdfeeders, admiring the plants in bloom in my yard (unfortunately, the forsythia didn't bloom - but it is full of green leaves and house sparrows!)...

This is the weeping cherry tree in the front yard. Was even more beautiful last week before half the blooms blew off.

And then I noticed this.....


Feathers at the base of the birdfeeder pole. No guts, no bones, no beaks....

Just feathers.

Lots of them.
I think it was a junco. But I am willing to entertain opposing points of view. Any thoughts from the more expert birders out there?

I just wish I had seen the sharpie or the red-tail who had lunch courtesy of the poor bird at my feeders.

After all, hawks have to eat, too.

Deep cleansing breath.

More yard beauty...