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Friday, October 26, 2012

Yellow Rail - An Adventure of a Lifetime

Banding of the Yellow Rail
     Sharon and I arrived in Jennings, Louisiana for the Yellow Rail & Rice Festival. We have been looking forward to this trip for a good three months. The plans called for all the participants to go out in the rice fields as the farmers were harvesting their second crop of rice. The fun part (beside finding Yellow Rails) was getting to ride on the farmer's combine during the harvest.
Participants riding the combine
That's us disembarking the combine
       We were lucky to find a Yellow Rail on our first time out. Most riders didn't have the thrill of finding their lifer Yellow Rail until the second day. Besides the Yellow Rails, we also were able to observe about 10 Virginia Rails and an amazing 100+ Soras.  
      Even before we arrived at the rice fields Sharon and I found some other nice birds. Lots of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. There were thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese and Long-billed Dowitchers. Another 500 White-faced Ibis and lots of shorebirds, including Stilt Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets.
Some of the many Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks
      On day 2 we awoke to very thick fog so the rice couldn't be harvested because the fields were wet and that would clog the combines. So we headed to Lacassine NWR where we added Gull-billed and Caspian Terns. We also saw many Common Gallinule and after much searching were able to find a juvenile Purple Gallinule. Other birds of interest were Anhingas and Neotropic Cormorants and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Common Gallinule

Yellow-headed Blackbirds mixed in with other blackbirds

     The bird banders were out in full force on the second day and there were nets up everywhere. They had a tough job because once the combine made a pass along one or two rows of rice they would have to carry the nets to a new location closer to the uncut rice areas. It was also interesting to watch the banders who were on the opposite side of the uncut fields from the nets. They had butterfly nets and when a rail would flush in their direction and land in the cut sections of the field they would chase it down and catch it with the butterfly nets. They had a banner day today with Soras. We watched as they banded both Soras and Virginia Rails. I was able to release one after banding.
Al with Sora
     After all the time spent in the field both days the banders could not catch a Yellow Rail. Finally on our last trip on the combine when we flushed the third Yellow Rail on our run, I was able to direct the grad students on the ground to the spot where the bird had landed. We then watched them band and release it.
Notice white secondaries of the rail

      It was an exciting time for both of us. The festival itself was a little unorganized due to having to plan around when the fields would be dry. We always started rail trips around noon so the dew would evaporate and the fields would be dry. I would highly recommend the festival for anyone needing to see this bird.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Personal Fall Migration

    The first week of October for the last seven years have been for me as celebratory as Christmas and my birthday combined; here’s why.
    Each of those October weeks have been spent watching peregrine falcons and exploring nature along the last 20 miles of Virginia’s Eastern Shore on the Delmarva Peninsula. Most of my time has been spent watching hawks at, or near, Kiptopeke State Park, just three miles from the peninsula’s end. Nature plays the leading role in life on the Eastern Shore.
    It is a shame that most people traveling south along Route 13 traverse the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel thinking only of their destinations, ranging from Virginia Beach and Norfolk (home of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet) to the Carolina’s Outer Banks. The lower end of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, just before the bay-bridge-tunnel, has much to offer nature lovers.
    Watching hawks and other diurnal raptors migrate in October over KSP is thrilling because it is one of the best spots in the eastern United States to view migrating raptors. More importantly, though, it is one of the best places in the eastern U.S. to see falcons: peregrines, merlins and kestrels. Several other raptor species also appear in very large numbers, most notably osprey and sharp-shinned hawks.

Cooper's Hawk

Peregrine falcons hold an unusual position among those who care about nature and the environment. Peregrines were nearly decimated by DDT, a pesticide formerly used in the states to kill mosquitoes. By about 1965 there were no nesting peregrines in the eastern U.S., and birders noted the flashy bird’s decline, and then disappearance. Legislation spurred by Pennsylvanian Rachel Carson’s eye-opening book, “Silent Spring”, banned DDT in the U.S. Carson and her book are still considered major factors in initiating the environmental movement in our country. Additionally, legal protection for the peregrine and a massive re-introduction program centered largely on captive-bred peregrines provided by falconers saved the Peregrine in the east, and caused it to be removed from the Endangered Species list. The unusual part of this scenario is that many Peregrine supporters had, and have, never seen a wild peregrine, but they supported them anyway.
    My opening October weeks at KSP have solved that problem for me because hundreds pass there, especially during the first few weeks of October. While I have had several days seeing over 100 peregrines in the past, this year had somewhat fewer, though we still had good numbers. This fall season, up to and including October 8, KSP had 544 peregrines, 594 merlins and 2,906 kestrels pass over in 422.8 hours of counting. A total of 8,670 diurnal raptors have passed the hawk watch site in the same time period. There are plenty of more raptors to come before this fall’s parade of raptors across the sky ends. An average of 22,000 raptors annually migrated past KSP over the last 10-years.
Several hundred raptors are trapped at KSP each fall to gather health data on the migrating raptors before they are banded and released. Gender, weight and general physical condition are gathered and recorded. Researchers from across the country have access to both the raptor figures and the additional health information gathered at KSP.
    Also at KSP, the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory traps, bands and releases hundreds of songbirds each fall as part of their research program. Basically the same type of information is gathered from the songbirds that is obtained from the raptors. The licensed banders and well-trained volunteers handle all birds carefully and quickly release them.
    Monarch butterflies, which pose one of the biggest mysteries of migration, also pass through KSP. Nearly all eastern Monarchs end up at their winter home in a mountainous region of Central Mexico where they hunker down in fir trees until it is time to return north. 
    An additional plus for birders and naturalists is the annual Birding Festival held the first weekend of October for the last 20-years at Cape Charles, VA., just 10-minutes away from KSP. Nature lovers will enjoy the information gained from private conservation groups and official state and federal agencies. While birds and birding are the primary focus, there is a great emphasis on coastal, wetland, vegetative and wildlife protection. Birds and wildlife cannot survive without homes, food and clean water.
    The really interesting parts of the bird festival are the numerous birding outings led by experts to local areas incredibly rich in bird life. With the fall bird migration in full swing across the peninsula the trips are quite rewarding. One trip is especially interesting because it involves taking a boat around various barrier islands just off the coast to see water birds of myriad species. Harry Armistead, a local birding expert from Philadelphia, has guided many of those trips. It would be a cliché to say Armistead’s knowledge of birds is encyclopedic, but it would be fairly accurate.
    My wife and I have put a deposit on our rental for next October, when we will again marvel at KSP’s and Eastern Shore Virginia’s natural bounty.

                                                                          John McGonigle

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cape May Fun by Nick Pulcinella

Red-breasted Nuthatch

     We, in the Delaware Valley, are very fortunate to reside near one of North America’s premier migration hotspots – Cape May, NJ.  When the winds are from the northwest or the atmosphere is unsteady with bouts of rain or fog fall migration here can be spectacular. On Thursday, October 11, 2012, I ventured down to hopefully witness some visible migration. A cold front had passed through 48 hrs before and on this day the temperatures were down to the mid-40s and the wind was brisk out of the northwest.

     My first stop was at the Higbee Dike morning flight count where I hoped that my skills at identifying flying songbirds would be highly tested. I was not disappointed. Not only were the birds passing in numbers but the brisk wind had them passing by like bullets. The scene of hundreds of birds zooming by, some individually, others in small groups, some distant at the edge of the bay others so close I ducked a few times thinking I was going to be struck. It was mesmerizing and overwhelming at the same time. The morning flight counter, Cameron Rutt, was doing a superhuman job trying to identify and count these birds in this near impossible situation. He uttered only one word “outrageous.” The flight consisted mainly of Yellow-rumped Warblers with smaller numbers of Palm, Parula, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue Warblers, the latter two, whizzing by introducing themselves with their distinctive chip notes.  There were a few Red-eyed Vireos, Northern Flickers and Red-breasted Nuthatches mixed in for added diversity. The never-ending flocks of Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches that seem to be making a sizeable incursion into the mid-Atlantic provided additional excitement.  One aspect of the morning’s flight was the marvelous flight of Sharp-shinned Hawks. There was no point that I can recall that there were not 4-5 Sharpies in the air.  Similar to the songbirds, these hawks were sometimes within inches of us with at least two birds flying within the three-foot space between the counter and me. The Cape May Hawkwatch based at Cape May Point State Park, recorded 1000 Sharp-shinned Hawks in its first hour.

     As I was driving down in the early morning I was excited at the possibility of photographing some of these migrants in flight. Photographing flying songbirds can be a challenge in itself, but in these conditions, it was absurd. All I can say is “thank God for digital cameras.” Many images consisted of blurred birds, only the tail of a bird or no bird at all. Here a few that made it.  

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Purple Finch

Pine Siskins
     Leaving Higbee Dike, I then birded briefly at Higbee Beach. I was lucky to find a skulking Orange-crowned Warbler in some Poke Weed very near the parking lot. The nearby fields had several White-throated Sparrows and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. The sky over the Higbee fields was busy with Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks and Northern Flickers. 

     I drove over to Cape May Point State Park. There was a large number of Turkey Vultures in the air along with more Sharpies. I also saw single Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks pass by.  There are so many areas in Cape May to bird that it can be difficult sometimes to decide where to go next. One of my favorite things is to walk along the streets of the point checking out the various small yards which at times can act like a magnet in attracting birds in very easy to see situations. I parked the car at the state park and then walked the streets down to St. Peters stopping at the various jetties to check the ocean and bay, and then walking around Lily Lake stopping at the CMBO Northwood center to check their feeders and then back to the state park. Here are a few photos from that walk.    Before leaving for home, I spent some time at the Hawkwatch enjoying more accipiters and falcons. 

Peregrine Falcon

    Below are the lists from both the Morning Flight Count and the Hawkwatch for October 11th.

Morning Flight

    Strong northwest winds this morning and a surge of Sharp-shinned Hawks did not deter the warblers.  What started as a fairly diverse warbler flight (14 species) with Blackpoll Warblers (219) predominating, gave way to a great mid-morning passage of Yellow-rumped Warblers (4852). 

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Butterbutt)

     This marks only the fourth time this year that Blackpoll Warblers have crested triple-digits, and the first time since 9/29 - a great flight for this relatively late date.  And like the large warbler flight on 10/9, few woodpeckers and nuthatches were aloft today.  However, the finches more than compensated with the second-largest Pine Siskin (697) flight and largest Purple Finch (78) flight of the year.  Today's Purple Finches outnumbered the sum from the rest of the fall and we've now amassed 2356 Pine Siskins for the year!

     The past seven days have featured a heavy volume of birds over Higbee Beach. In fact, since 10/5, more than 37,000 birds have been registered in morning flight!

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - 4
Northern Flicker - 44
Red-eyed Vireo - 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch - 29
White-breasted Nuthatch - 1
Brown Creeper - 2
kinglet sp. - 2
American Robin - 37
Cedar Waxwing - 53
Tennessee Warbler - 7
Nashville Warbler - 5
Northern Parula - 101
Yellow Warbler - 1
Magnolia Warbler - 2
Cape May Warbler - 1
Black-throated Blue Warbler - 22
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 4852
Black-throated Green Warbler - 2
Palm Warbler - 124
Blackpoll Warbler - 219
Black-and-white Warbler - 1
American Redstart - 5
Northern Waterthrush - 2
warbler sp. - 2426
Chipping Sparrow - 2
Savannah Sparrow - 10
Indigo Bunting - 8
Rusty Blackbird - 2
Purple Finch - 78
Pine Siskin - 697

Total = 8733

Other highlights included a Solitary Sandpiper, a massive flight of Sharp-shinned Hawks (perhaps 1000+), and 3 Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  A personal highlight for me was a Brown Creeper that briefly alighted on Nick Pulcinella's pant leg!

Hawk Flight

Day's Count   

 Black Vulture                  5             
Turkey Vulture                   44            
Osprey                              85           
Bald Eagle                          11            
Northern Harrier                 42           
Sharp-shinned Hawk          2631          
Cooper's Hawk                   155           
Northern Goshawk          0             
Red-shouldered Hawk      2             
Broad-winged Hawk               66           
Red-tailed Hawk                 17            
Rough-legged Hawk                0             
Golden Eagle                     0             
American Kestrel               146          
Merlin                              35           
Peregrine Falcon                 9           

Total:                            3248

Observation start time: 05:45:00
Observation end   time: 16:00:00
Total observation time: 10.33 hours

Official Counter: Tom Reed

Weather: Sunny throughout, with winds shifting from NNW to NW to W through the day. Winds were around 15-20mph to start, but decreased through the day, ending
at <5mph.

Raptor Observations:
A good flight of SSHA, largely during the morning hours.

Non-raptor Observations:
Pine Siskin (400+), Clay-colored Sparrow (1), White-crowned Sparrow (5),
Rusty Blackbird (6), Eastern Meadowlark (6), Solitary Sandpiper (1),
Pectoral Sandpiper (5)