Monthly Archives: September 2012

Geography is Destiny

Florida seems like a obvious destination for a bird watcher.  Maybe you can also imagine Arizona, California, or Maine.  But New Jersey?  Yep, I’ve traveled all the way to Joisey (unofficial slogan: howyadoin‘?) to watch birds.  But why?  The answer lies in the geography of New Jersey, specifically the southeastern part of the state that juts out into Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.  At the tip of this finger of land sits Cape May, one of the most famous birding locations in the US.

What’s so special about Cape May?  In a word: migration.  Many of “our” songbirds, hawks, and shorebirds only spend a few short months with us during the summer breeding season.  When falls arrives with its shorter days and cooler temperatures, these estival visitors wander south to the topics (or all the way to the austral temperate and polar zones in some extreme cases!).

Given a choice, most birds prefer to migrate over land.  As they head south down this peninsula, these migrating birds get more concentrated as the land narrows.  At the tip, the intrepid ones press on and fly across the bay to Delaware.  But many of them see a few dozen miles of open water in front of them and scream “Oh $&!*” (or some bird equivalent) and fall out of the sky near the tip to rest, feed, and call their insurance agent to make sure their life insurance policy is paid up.  If you are a bird watcher, the tip is where you want to be as the birds drop in for a short stop before continuing off across the water.  So that’s why I’ve traveled here to spend the last few days exploring the area around Cape May County.

If you are a really Serious Birder, you spend dawn and the hours following at the observation towers at a place called Higbee Beach not far from the southern tip of Cape May.  Here you can watch hundreds of 4-inch birds fall from the sky.  They zip by at 20 mph or more, often visible for only a few seconds, at ranges of up to 300 yards.  And you can hear these Serious Birders call out the birds as the blast past (“Prairie Warbler!  Baltimore Orioles!  Redstart!  Flock of nuthatches!”)

I hung out on the dike for a while, but to be honest I couldn’t even find all of the birds in my binoculars, let alone ID most of them as they powered by.  So I wandered down to the woods, fields, and meadows just inland from the dike where you can often study the birds at close range for longer than a second or two.

The number of birds varies with the wind and weather conditions, but I had pretty good luck this week, tallying 17 species of warblers alone.

Cape May is also famous for its hawk watch, in which scores of dedicated volunteers count the number and type of each hawk, falcon, and eagle which pass by overhead.  Some of these folks can ID a hawk from several miles away, when it is literally only a speck in the sky, by the subtleties of its shape and movements.

Another thing that is special about Cape May is the large population of Horseshoe crabs who live here.  In fact, many shorebirds time their spring migration to arrive at Cape May exactly the same time the Horseshoe crabs are laying their eggs.  The shorebirds then feast on the crab eggs, refueling on their long flight from South America to northern Canada or Alaska.

I enjoyed watching this Mute Swan swim near the Cape May Lighthouse.  Mute Swans are not native to North American, and are famously aggressive to other native waterfowl.  As such, they are often considered pests.  But they are beautiful.

I even picked up a left-over World Series of Birding t-shirt at the NJ Audubon center.  What, you didn’t know there was a World Series of Birding?  No, of course I am not making this up.  Look here for details.  I’ve never been able to go, since it is always in early May.  In fact, I’ve never been to New Jersey before (unless you count driving on a short stretch of I-95 or stopping at the Newark airport).  Prime birding time here is May and September (the north and southbound migrations), when I am usually busy teaching.

Well, right now it’s past my bedtime.  More later…


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Ptrying for Ptarmigan, Ptake Ptwo

Three days after my unsuccessful trip to Mt. Rainier to see White-tailed Ptarmigan, I noticed that someone posted on Tweeters (the Washington birding listserv) that she had seen ptarmigan along the same Mt. Fremont trail a few days after I was there.  It was obvious that the birds were still around, even though I missed them over Labor Day weekend.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the time for seeing these birds at all during my big year was growing seriously short.  I decided to try for them one more time, so yesterday I trekked 90 miles back to Sunrise for Round Two.

The day was again spectacularly beautiful.  I was surprised at how much snow had melted from around Frozen Lake in only six days.

I was also treated to great views of American Pika (not to be confused with Pica, that strange disorder in which people eat dirt, chalk, and rocks).  Pika are lagomorphs, which is to say that they are closely related to rabbits and hares.

This little guy was alternately collecting herbaceous goodies and storing them in his burrow, and sitting on a rock and chirping at me.

I also saw more goats on my trek up Mt. Fremont.  There are two herds which have been roaming the landscape near Sunrise this summer.

As I approached the Mt. Fremont lookout, I turned up the sensitivity on my ptarmigan scanner.  An hour passed, and no ptarmigan.  As I was beginning to lose hope of seeing this species, I thought that maybe I saw a ptarmigan-shaped rock down the ridge just past a little bend in the trail.  Was that really a ptarmigan, or just a rock?  It wasn’t moving.  I needed to get closer to tell for sure.

I stumbled down the trail, trying to keep an eye on that ptarmigan-shaped rock.  I was so intent on watching this rock that I didn’t immediately notice what was around that little bend in the trail.

“Goat!” I yelped, as I rounded the corner and came nearly face-to-face with a fully grown Mountain Goat.  While these fuzzy alpine denizens seem cute and cuddly, a mountain goat killed a man a couple years ago in Olympic National Park.  They can be aggressive and dangerous when provoked.  It’s best to keep one’s distance from them even when they are calm, to avoid habituating them to humans.  I saw that there were in fact quite a number of goats loafing here, including some kids born this spring.  I had found part of the second herd.

I gently eased my way back around the corner.  The goats went back to their snoozing.  But what about that ptarmigan?  I scanned the area, and saw this:

Can you spot the ptarmigan in the photo above?  It’s dang hard to see!  Eventually, it stood up for a moment, and I got good looks at an adult female White-tailed Ptarmigan.  They are usually quite tame, but I couldn’t get any closer because the goats were between me and the ptarmigan.  Here’s my best long-range photo, zoomed and cropped:

After 20 minutes of watching her, I headed for home.  The moon was rising over the ridge as I descended.  It was a good day.


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Mt Rainier Ptarmigan Adventure!

I knew White-tailed Ptarmigan was going to be a hard one.  If you want to see all of the regularly occurring birds in the US and Canada in a single year, you know that some birds will be easy, and other birds will be like ptarmigan.  White-tailed Ptarmigan are birds of the mountain West.  They prefer alpine habitat above the treeline, mainly above 7000 feet in Washington state.  While there are scattered records for ptarmigan from several locations around the state, there is only one place where they are seen more than just occasionally: Mt. Rainier.  So last weekend, Kristi’s mom watched the kids while we spent the day at Sunrise on the eastern flank this enormous dormant volcano.

We got up well before dawn, and arrived at Sunrise by 7:30am.  Earlier in the summer, several other birders had reported seeing ptarmigan near the end of the Mt. Fremont Lookout trail, a 6 mile hike with about 1000 feet of elevation gain.  Not a walk in the park, but totally reasonable.  We set off.

The views were spectacular.  We spotted some common mountain birds, like Horned Larks and Mountain Chickadees.

Lower down, the wildflowers were in full bloom.  I think the meadows reach their peak color in late August.

Frozen Lake was mostly unfrozen, with a medium patch of snow and ice still hugging the shore.  As we ascended higher, we spotted some mountain goats in the distance.

They were grazing and frolicking in a meadow down below our trail.  Although birds weren’t plentiful, the scenery was spectacular in every direction.

At last the lookout tower came into view.  This tower was used as a wildfire lookout for several decades in the middle of the last century.  Modern technology has rendered it obsolete in its role in fire detection, but you can still climb its steps and enjoy the view.

As we approached the tower, we scanned the hillsides for any signs of ptarmigan.  It was amazingly quiet up there, and we listed for any telltale ptarmigan clucks or whistles that sometimes betray their presence.  Half an hour passed, and checked the trail again going some distance in both directions from the tower.  We stopped and had lunch, and snapped a few more pictures.

Then more looking, listening, waiting, and watching.  Another half an hour passed, and then another.  We saw a falcon, perhaps a Prairie Falcon, harassing some ravens, and flocks of rosy finches flit from rocks to snowfields and back.  But no ptarmigan.  Finally, we decided to head back to Sunrise for the trip home.  Six miles, five hours, spectacular views, a great hike, and no ptarmigan.

I knew ptarmigan would be hard.  They are extremely well camouflaged and often sit inconspicuously among the rocks and heather.  The habitat up there doesn’t support huge numbers of them, and they move around from place to place in search of food.  My success rate in seeing ptarmigan in the alpine zones of Washington is only about 25%.  Unfortunately my window for viewing them seemed to be closing, as their high altitude habitat is only accessible during the summer months: mid-July through late-August is considered the best time to see them.  Fall snows will be coming soon to Rainier, and I left without seeing the ptarmigan.



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