Total Pageviews

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cozumel Trip - by Gary Becker

Our View from Balcony

          On our last trip to Cozumel over 5 years ago, I experienced the worse case of seasickness ever.  We took a boat from the mainland on very choppy seas and my wife(who is a nurse and very experienced  in these things) said she had never seen anyone turn my shade of green so quickly.  Fortunately the vertigo did not kick in until the voyage was almost over so I was only dying for a short time.  On our return trip two weeks ago we flew to Cozumel directly without  the boat crossing adventure.                                                                
         The island was popularized by Jacques Cousteau back in the 60’s when he discovered its great reefs and underwater wildlife.  Unlike Jacques we don’t scuba but we do enjoy snorkeling.  We were very impressed by the great reefs all along the western side of the island which faces Mexico.  Our hotel had a man made beach but the exciting feature was the gorgeous reef just 50 feet from our room. The restaurant in the hotel bordered on the ocean and large waves would crash against its clear Plexiglas  railings while we dined.  From the restaurant people threw food scraps to the fish and crabs while the tourists snorkeled amongst the throngs of excited fish.  We were treated to a wide variety of tropical fish but had additional surprises including schools of squid, spiny lobsters, sting rays, very colorful crabs and Moray eels. 

          One particular colorful eel was feeding around the rocks just off the restaurant.   It was a beautiful lime green color with yellow spots.  I mentioned it to one of the divers who was seated on the beach as I left the ocean.  He claimed to be a Navy diver and after listening to my description of the eel, he asserted that that was no eel but a sea snake.  Having seen several Cousteau episodes with Jacques and his divers swimming among schools of these snakes, I doubted his story since these adventures were set in the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  On our return to Pennsylvania I consulted our local Herpetologist Gary Stoltz who confirmed that to date there are no sea snakes in the Atlantic. Good news since they are deadly poisonous but not aggressive! 
          Although Cozumel is a fairly large island(29 miles long and 9 miles wide) the interior is not accessible. The AAA guide to Mexico describes it as “comprised of patches of insect ridden jungle, expanses of thorny uninviting scrub and scattered Mayan ruins none of them well preserved.  It’s a desolate landscape that makes the islands beaches all the more inviting”.  My birding was  therefore confined to the hotel and the surrounding shore areas.  
     The most plentiful birds were the Great-tailed Grackles, Tropical Kingbirds, Tropical Mockingbirds and Warblers.   The Tropical Kingbirds were so numerous that one mile long strip of road  had six or seven sitting on the electric lines with one bird between each set of poles. 
Tropical Kingbird
        The Tropical Mockingbirds were as ubiquitous as their northern cousins in the U.S. but the Northerns aren’t found in Cozumel.  Although not much different from the Northern, the Tropical has much more white in the tail tip and less white on the extended wings.
Tropical Mockingbird
           I did have one Golden Warbler which is Cozumel’s Yellow Warbler variant(looking just like a Yellow Warbler except for its rufous cap).  
Yellow Warbler (Golden Subspecies)
        The most common warblers were the Palm, Redstart and Yellow-throated Warblers.  The Yellow-throated  were so common I frequently was able to identify their chip note.  They would hang out in the palm trees in the front of our hotel room and then land on our balcony.  
Yellow-throated Warbler

             On the day after our arrival we took a day trip to Ponta Sur Park.  This  wildlife preserve has a population of fresh water crocodiles so we headed for the  marshes hoping  to catch a glimpse of the furtive reptiles.  None were apparent until one of the guides gave a loud whistle and a single croc popped up about 15 feet from us off the boardwalk.  After departing the marsh we ended up at the Celaria lighthouse at the most southern tip of the island.  Here we found great fragments of both brain and branching coral much of it polished by the ocean and quite beautiful. Although not a swimming beach because of the heavy surf there were some shore birds hanging out including small numbers of Semipalmated Sandpipers, American Golden-Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones,  a Solitary Sandpiper and a Little Blue Heron. 
American Golden-Plover
            After checking out the lighthouse we drove past several small ponds one containing a Northern Jacana and arrived at La Playa mas Hermosa(“The Most Beautiful Beach”).  Here we spent some time snorkeling and got to see more lobsters, eels,  sea urchins and many colorful fish. 
Sea Urchins
           We had lunch on the beach under an open pavilion.  Someone had cracked open a large coconut which attracted Great-tailed Grackles, Bananaquits, and Yellow-throated Warblers. 
Great-tailed Grackle

 This day-long adventure ended when our caravan of 10 Polaris ATV’s headed back to our respective hotels.  We tourists were driving these somewhat  beaten-up vehicles several of which(including ours) had no rear or side view mirrors, head or tail lights and somewhat unpredictable functioning gas pedals. 
Stunt Driver - Gary Becker
             Our tour guide merrily took us through the back streets of the main town amidst mopeds, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians in the fading light at dusk. This hair-raising venture was enough to convince me not to rent a car and instead  go it alone.  In addition our trusty Triple A guide warned “that if stopped for a serious moving violation, your vehicle may be impounded and you will be asked to accompany the police officer to the station to pay a fine.(Of course fines for minor infractions can often be settled on the spot, in cash; in Mexico a bribe is a common way of taking care of such situations).  Fortunately taxis were all over the place and people were very friendly and crime was almost nonexistent(so we were told and I believe it).  Consequently we either took a cab or walked.  The walkway into town was very pleasant and followed the ocean, so there were ample opportunities to do some birding. Along this stretch of ocean I found Magnificant Frigatebirds, Snowy and Great Egrets, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Black-bellied and Golden Plovers, Great Blue Herons, White-crowned sparrows, and Warblers.
Magnificent Frigatebird

Yellow-crowned Night Heron
            The warblers would hang out at some grassy areas that were being watered with “recycled water”. These watered areas although drawing in birds chased away some of the tourists as the water still smelled foul.  They would turn off the sprinklers once the tourists arrived from the boats but since I got there early in the morning I was subjected to the stench if I wanted to bird the areas.  A few days later we took a taxi to Chankanaab Lagoon Park. There was another reef here for snorkeling and a botanical garden which provided some birding opportunities. One beautiful  blackbird appeared in a bamboo forest and provided me with some good looks and some good photos.

Melodious Blackbird

          Besides the Tropical Flycatcher, Tropical Mockingbird, Northern Jacana and Golden Warbler this was my 5th life bird for the trip: a Melodious Blackbird. There was a Tequilla distillery in the park and something attracted warblers and vireos to the trees overlooking this site. I came back to the area several times and discovered Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blue Warblers, Redstarts, Magnolia and more Yellow-throated Warblers  Red-eyed Vireos and a Gray Catbird.  There were some enclosed piers leading out from the beach for the “swim with the dolphins” concession. The dolphin handlers kept rewarding the mammals with fish which in turn brought in lots of terns, mainly Royal and a few Sandwich terns and lots of Laughing Gulls.
Royal and Sandwich Tern

          On the morning of our departure I was standing on our balcony watching some of the cruise ships pulling into dock when a small flock of 5 Roseate Spoonbills flew past. I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture of what could have been a neat photo-ending to our  travels. Anyway after breakfast we had a few hours before departing and so we again explored the reef off our hotel which besides the varied critters had a sunken airplane, an anchor and some canons rusting away in the waters.  We were told the plane was dropped there for some movie made years before. It was an eerie spectacle to end the week in what was a bit of a tropical paradise.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Identifying House Finch and Purple Finch

This Fall Migration has produced a nice influx of Purple Finches into southeast Pennsylvania. Each week, it seems, there are more and more reports and increasing numbers. 

The North American Haemorhous finches (Cassin’s, House and Purple) have distinct adult male and female plumages. This both helps and hinders us in making the proper identification. For all practical purposes, we will limit this blog to the two species that are currently being found in our region – House Finch and Purple Finch.

It seems that whenever we have an irruption of Purple Finches there seems to be confusion about how to separate the two species and a resulting increase in the number of House Finches misidentified as Purple Finches.  

Let’s take a look at both species.

HOUSE FINCH – this is the common “red” finch we see in our area all year. They are easily found at backyard feeders, where they indulge on sunflower seeds. They can also be found, with some regularity, in edge habitat feeding on seed heads or berries. Adult males are bright orange-red on the forehead, throat, and breast with a brown back and wings. They have brown, vertical streaks on the flanks and belly. The rump is also orange-red. Adult females and juvenile males are a plain brown and streaked overall. The face is plain without any sharp or distinctive markings. The tail on both sexes has a shallow notch.

PURPLE FINCH – this species visits our area in fall beginning in late September and can be found throughout winter until early May. Purple Finches can usually be found every fall/winter but numbers vary yearly depending on the amount of natural food available near their breeding grounds. When food is scarce in their post breeding areas (southern Canada and the New England states), they descend into the mid-Atlantic which is happening this fall. Similar to House Finches, they can be found at backyard feeders but not nearly in the numbers as House Finches. Unlike House Finches, Purple Finches can be found in a variety of habitats including mixed deciduous and coniferous woods, old fields and forest edges. Adult males have a deep pink head with a raspberry colored crown, eyeline and malar. The back is brownish with some pink edging and the rump is pinkish. Adult females and juvenile males have a brown head with distinct whitish stripes on the face. They are heavily streaked on the belly and flanks. The tail on both sexes is short and deeply notched.

Identification Keys – what to look for.

Size and Shape – Overall, House Finch appears as a slim bird, whereas, Purple Finch looks stocky or chunky.

Tail – Tail length and shape is a good separating field mark. House Finch as a short notch.  

Purple Finch has a deep notch which is a very good field mark to use especially if you’re looking at a perched bird from below or a flying bird overhead. 

Color of adult males – House Finch shows a bright red-orange over the head, face, breast and upper belly. Purple Finch shows a soft, purplish-red or raspberry red color to head down to the belly.

Face pattern of adult females – Female House Finch has a very plain brown face with fine brown streaking throughout. Female Purple Finch has a nice dark brown head and a face that has a bold white eyeline and malar stripe. Both of these white streaks are hard to miss. If these are not present, you probably are looking at a female House Finch.

Flank streaking – Adult male House Finches have a considerable amount of brown streaking to the flanks and belly. Adult male Purple Finches have a varying amount of brown streaking with some birds having little if any streaking. 

Adult female House Finches are covered with fine to medium brown streaking along the flanks and belly. Adult female Purple Finches have prominent thick brown streaking in those areas.

Even distant birds in flight can be identified if you get a good look. Concentrate on the general size and shape, overall color, rump color, tail and flanks.

Call notes – Luckily for us, both species call frequently when flying. Learning the call notes of both species will go a long way in helping you make the identification. I would guess that about 70% of the Purple Finches I have identified this fall have been “heard only” birds passing overhead.

House Finch makes a “cheep” similar to a House Sparrow. 

Purple Finch makes a sharp “pic” or “tek” note. 

I hope this blog will help with your finch identifications.

Photographs by the author.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

In the Zone at Cape May

Zone-tailed Hawk (photo by Dave Eberly)

          There we were, standing on a platform above the beach along Coral Ave, just the five of us. Gary Becker, Rob McGraw, Bob Kelly, Dave Eberly and myself were birding around the cape this morning just hoping to pick up a few good birds, maybe a jaeger or Connecticut Warbler. We were watching a pod of Bottlenose Dophins passing the beach in front of us when Gary gets a text message. He reads it out loud. "There is a probable Zone-tailed Hawk that just passed over the hawk watch platform. We believe that it is now over the beanery". I can't believe my ears. A ZONE-TAILED HAWK? 
            Well thoughts start running through my mind like, should I suggest we head to the beanery to try to relocate the hawk? Then I think, Chances are not very got since the bird is on the move. It this point I just figured we wouldn't see the bird and so I just kept quiet. Then I looked up in the air and in the distance I saw what I thought was a Turkey Vulture approaching and said Out loud, "Here comes the hawk", not really believing it could be the actual bird. So I just put the scope on the bird and what is the first thing I see, a black tail with a broad white stripe. I yelled out that this is the Zone-tailed Hawk just as Dave was thinking the same thing.  Dave was quick to react and get his camera and he was able to get some record shots of the bird as it soared directly over us. As you can see in the photos the white tail band, the silver primaries and secondaries, and the translucence outer primaries confirming the identification. 
              We watched the bird sail out over the bay and out of sight, headed for Delaware. So I assume we were the last persons to see the bird in New Jersey. My understanding is that the bird was then spotted at the Cape Henlopen hawk watch 22 minutes later, as the crew there were put on alert by text messages from everyone in Jersey.
               What a thrill it was for all of us to be able to participate in the sighting of the first record for the state of New Jersey of a bird that is normally found only in Arizona, Texas and points farther south in Central America. This bird appears on the heels of another great bird found by Nick Pulcinella at Cape May a few weeks ago. The Whiskered Tern, only the third record for North America was discovered by Nick at the hawk watch in Cape May (see blog post below). 
Adult Zone-Tailed Hawk - broad white tail band and silver lined wings
           Thanks to my fellow birders for such an enjoyable weekend.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A MEGA day at Cape May

Question Authority! 

One of our father-son talks when my son Josh was growing up was about questioning authority and that experts aren’t always correct. I was hoping that he would learn to question the norms of society, think independently and as a result develop a pattern of critical thinking. So please keep the term Question Authority in the back of your mind when reading this blog.

I was pretty excited when I left home at 5:15am on Friday, September 12th to travel to one of my favorite birding destinations, Cape May, NJ and to do one of my favorite things, photograph flying songbirds. If you are into witnessing visible migration, then standing on the Higbee Dike as the morning flight of songbirds erupts is like nothing else in birding. Trying to photograph these small bullets is challenging but the dividends can be outstanding. 

(Check out this photo taken by Tom Reed on August 24, 2014

Since it usually takes me about two hours to get to Cape May, I knew I would still have at least a couple of hours to enjoy the flight. And as we all know, "best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray” and things started to unravel as soon as I entered Route 55 south. As anyone who has driven this road knows, Route 55 is like getting permission to play NASCAR driver for an hour and cars are zooming down the highway well above the posted 65 mph speed limit. But something was different today, just as my dear hybrid got a head of steam, traffic slowed and slowed and slowed and then stopped. Traffic radio was reporting a serious accident near the Vineland Exit and a subsequent five mile backup (aka standstill). After about forty-five minutes, traffic started to again move ever so slowly and the gorgeous sunrise made the crawl tolerable. But alas my hopes were quickly dashed as all traffic was being re-routed across the median and onto Route 55 north, the opposite direction of the Cape May songbird flight. This detour funneled us onto an exit that understandably was bumper-to-bumper. Thank goodness for the GPS because dead reckoning would not have led me out of this mess since I had no idea where in New Jersey I actually was, and I was in urgent need of relieving my bloated bladder of the bottle of OJ and the Wawa coffee that I enjoyed before the interruption of my NASCAR run. Very long story short, I arrived at the Higbee parking area at 9:30am, a record breaking trip of four hours and fifteen minutes from West Chester accompanied by a record breaking number of expletives. Needless to say, the songbird flight was over. 

I birded the Higbee trails which were now fairly quiet with only a handful of Common Yellowthroats and a few White-eyed Vireos for companions. What was really strange was that I only met three other birders. Higbee can pack birders in like sardines but not today. 

Sharp-shinned Hawk soaring over Higbee fields.
Great Crested Flycatcher near the Higbee parking area.
Moving on I decided to try another of my favorite Cape May birding experiences and walk  the streets of Cape May Point looking for migrants. Many of the yards along these streets have extensive cover and searching for birds here can be fun. You never know what’s going to pop out, a Rock Wren of many years ago or more recently a Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Today there were a few Palm Warblers and a Red-breasted Nuthatch to enjoy. 

Palm Warbler near St. Peters church.
I crossed over to the beach at St. Peters and found a nice collection of gulls and terns just asking to be photographed. The birds were very cooperative and I spent about 45 minutes sitting next to the flock and enjoying their foolery. 

One of two Surf Scoters, probably juvenile males, offshore of Cape May Point.
Juvenile Laughing Gull. 
Juvenile Laughing Gull.
Juvenile Laughing Gull.
Adult Herring Gull.
Adult Herring Gull. 
Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.
Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.

Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.
Adult Forster's Tern.

Adult non-breeding Forster's Tern. 
Adult Common Tern.

Juvenile Common Tern.

Adult non-breeding Common Tern.
Juvenile Common Tern.
A very noisy juvenile Common Tern.

I then drove over to the Hawkwatch where I thought if I was lucky, I might be able to get a few 
images of flyby Peregrines or Merlins. There was a small crowd on the Hawkwatch Platform with the counter calling out a passing adult Bald Eagle and discussing whether the very high accipiter was a Sharpie or Cooper’s. I noticed a couple of Black Terns feeding over Bunker Pond and looking a little more carefully, one of the Black Terns looked different. Right off the bat the bird was larger and 
bulkier, the wings were broader and a light smokey-gray color. The belly appeared to have dark 
blotches and most of all it had an outstanding white cheek patch. I knew right away it was a Whiskered Tern. On a birding trip to Spain in 2002, we stayed in the small town of El Rocio in a hotel that catered
to visiting birders. The building was set next to a large wetland and I could sit on the balcony and watch 40-50 Whiskered Terns as they fed over the marsh. The image of the gray wings and body accented by the white cheek patch stuck with me. I overhead the two hawk counters, Louise and Alec, discussing 
this unusual black tern so I went over to them and asked if they were talking about the gray tern that 
was with the Black Tern. They said “yes” and I told them it was a Whiskered Tern. They seemed a 
little startled and I told them why I thought this (went over the field marks and having seen them in 
Spain etc.) but it just didn’t seem to register with them and anyway they told me they had contacted 
some experts who would be arriving shortly to check out the bird. I was a little surprised there was no European Field Guide available at the hawkwatch, after all, this is Cape May and birds have shown up here from Europe, Asia and even South America. Okay, so I felt a little disrespected and when a 
middle-aged man of Italian descent feels disrespected bad things can happen. Usually phone calls are made and contracts are put out, but, I tried to look at the situation from their point of view. They didn’t know me from Adam and I was not part of the Cape May birding “inner-circle” or even the “extended family” so why should they listen to me. If I were them, I’d like to think I wouldn’t do the same, but I probably would, so I called off the contracts and just took as many images as I could (thank goodness 
for digital photography). Unfortunately, when the expert calvary arrived, the bird had gone. So when 
they huddled around my camera to look at the images in the viewfinder, Mike Crewe, who has 
extensive experience with the species in both Europe and Africa, said instantly “that’s a Whiskered 
Tern, a molting adult.” All hell then broke loose as multiple texts and calls were made to alert the local clan and any visiting birders of this MEGA tick, except there was a problem......the bird was gone. Several search parties were dispatched to check possible locations. While the search was on the Black Tern returned to Bunker Pond with the wayward Whiskered Tern in tow. The birds remained at the 
pond for some time allowing everyone to enjoy nice views. The bird left once again and was quickly discovered sitting within a flock of gulls and terns on the beach at the State Park. At this location the experience was just awesome. The bird was resting a mere 15-20 feet away and was not disturbed at 
all by the barrage of clicking camera shutters. The bird continued this pattern of resting on the beach 
and feeding at the pond and then resting on the beach and feeding on the pond for the remainder of the day. Understandably, the bird attracted many birders and it was nice to see some veteran BCDC 
people, Tom McParland, Honey Stewart and Jim and Linda Waldie. I also ran into a long-time birding friend from Ephrata, Eric Witmer. Eric has a strange history with Whiskered Terns at Cape May. 
When the first Whiskered was found in 1993, Eric and his family were vacationing in nearby 
Wildwood and had come down to Cape May for a visit. While walking around the area, Eric met a 
group of “out-of-this-world happy” British birders who had just discovered North America’s first Whiskered Tern. He saw the bird through their scope and became perhaps, the first North American native birder to see this species. Now, Eric was down for a pelagic trip that was to sail at 10pm and 
as he was getting his camper set up nearby, got a text about the tern and was able to drive over and 
see it. It would not be fair if I didn't mention that there is also a sad component to this superb birding event. When the 1993 Whiskered Tern finally settled in for a time near Little Creek, DE, my long-time birding companion and cousin, Al Guarente made about 15 unsuccessful trips for the bird. Now, 
this very cooperative bird is nearby and where is Al...... a few thousand miles away birding the Pacific Northwest. Oh well.

Black Tern (above) and Whiskered Tern (below) over Bunker Pond, Cape May Point
State Park. Notice the size difference and the broader wing of the Whiskered Tern appearing almost Common Tern like.
Adult non-breeding Whiskered Tern over Bunker Pond, Cape May Point State Park. Dark, blotchy belly, dark cap and white cheek.

Adult non-breeding Whiskered Tern over Bunker Pond, Cape May Point State Park. Broad grayish wings, dark cap and white cheek.
Adult non-breeding Whiskered Tern over Bunker Pond, Cape May Point State Park. Broad wings with grayish underwings, dark cap and brillant white cheek.
Adult non-breeding Whiskered Tern on the beach at Cape May Point State Park.
Garyish upperparts, brown primaries, dark cap, white cheek and wide, pointed red
bill with black proximal mandible.
I’ve birded Cape May probably a hundred times and the place never ceases to amaze me, you just never know what is going to turn up. So my blue funk of a day that started off discouragingly, had a very splendid ending with the arrival of North America’s third Whiskered Tern, which, by the way have all been found at Cape May.     

As an aside, when Josh started to question my authority, I thought maybe that life lesson could have been skipped.