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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.

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