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