Tag Archives: migration

The Dry Tortugas

I spent the last five days first driving down the mainline Florida Keys and then travelling by ship to the Dry Tortugas, a set of low-lying islets about 70 miles off the coast of Key West.

Just traveling to Key West is a remarkable journey.  It is about three hours south of Miami on US 1, also known as the Overseas Highway.  The name is apt, as you can often see the Gulf of Mexico to your right and the Atlantic on your left as you traverse this relatively narrow two-lane highway.  The most impressive stretch is Seven Mile Bridge, a span that covers almost seven miles of open water between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key.


The Keys hold a remarkable diversity of special wildlife.  I saw the endemic Key Deer, a miniature race of White-tailed Deer.  They stand about two feet tall at the shoulder, making them a little larger than a cocker spaniel.  There were also plenty of cool birds, including a rare Western Spindalis, Mangrove Cuckoo,  Black-whiskered Vireo, and the majestic Magnificent Frigatebird:

Magnificent Frigatebird

Frigatebirds are kleptoparasites, meaning that they steal food from other birds. They will wait until a smaller seabird like a gull or tern has captured a fish, and then harass it until it drops its prey.

I didn’t get too many photos of the mainline Keys because the weather was incredibly stormy.  Thursday was particularly crazy, when 4.14 inches of rain fell in the span of about four hours.  It was the fifth wettest May day ever recorded in Key West, and many of the streets were flooded by up to 18 inches of water.  As a reference for you Seattle folks, we only have three months where our average monthly precipitation is more than 4.14 inches (November through January).

Storms over the Ocean

On Friday, I joined Wes Biggs and Florida Nature Tours aboard the M/V Spree for a three day tour of the Dry Tortugas.


Wes is an extremely experienced and knowledgeable birder, and a real character.  He has a story for every occasion, and an opinion on pretty much every topic.  I really enjoyed getting to know him a bit on this trip.

It took about seven hours to motor out to the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of our marina on Stock Island.  The Tortugas were first discovered by Europeans by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 as he explored the lands that were to become Florida.  He named them Las Tortugas because his men collected many sea turtles there for food; the adjective ‘dry’ was added later on nautical charts to indicate that they are too small and too low to provide any fresh water.  The three largest islands in the group are between 30 and 60 acres, with three or four other much smaller islets.  They sit just a couple feet above sea level.

In 1846, the Federal Government began to build a fort on Garden Key, a construction project that continued for decades.  Fort Jefferson was never really finished, but it is an impressive edifice:

Fort Jefferson

It takes up more than 90% of the land area of Garden Key, and with 16 million bricks is the largest masonry structure in all of the Americas.  It was an active military base through most of the 19th Century, and was an important Union outpost during the Civil War.

Fort Jefferson Moat

Most famously, Fort Jefferson was where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned for a number of years after he was convicted of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln.  Mudd treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after he assassinated Lincoln, and was alleged to have been involved in a plot to kidnap the president.

Dr Mudds Cell

Some claim that Dr. Mudd is the original inspiration for the expression “your name is mud(d)” – although this is disputed.  After he tried to escape, Mudd was sent to live in the dungeon:

Leaveth Hope Behind

Over time, his reputation changed somewhat.  Dr. Mudd was present during a yellow fever outbreak in the late 1860s, and helped to treat the many affected prisoners and soldiers.  He was eventually pardoned for his great medical efforts in 1869.

Today, Fort Jefferson is the heart of Dry Tortugas National Park, and one of the places we spent the most time on our three day trip.

Fort Jefferson Sign

The interior of the fort is filled with grass, trees, and bushes – the perfect stop-over point for trans-Gulf migrants on their way from the Yucatan or the Caribbean to the US mainland.

Inside Fort Jefferson

We saw a number of warblers, thrushes, vireos, and flycatchers who dropped in for a rest and a bite to eat, including this gorgeous Scarlet Tanager.

Scarlet Tanager

In addition to searching for passerines on Garden Key, seabirds were another focus of the trip.  One of my favorite is the large tropical tern called a Brown Noddy:

Brown Noddy

We saw thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns nesting on Bush Key:

Island Closed

Hey, someone needs to tell all those birds that this island is closed!

We also saw both Brown and Masked Boobies.  Hospital Key, not much more than a big sand bar, is the only nesting site for Masked Booby in the United States.  This Key was named during the yellow fever outbreak, when it served as a quarantine area.

Hospital Key

Those tiny white dots are the Masked Boobies.   A pod of dolphins also greeted us upon our arrival at Hospital Key:


We also visited Loggerhead Key, the largest of the Tortugas islands and the home to the Loggerhead lighthouse.

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

Spree at Loggerhead

After three amazing days, it was time to head back to Key West.  The seas were a bit rougher than normal, and despite the many wonders I had witnessed I was ready to spend the night on dry land.  The Tortugas are a special place, and I hope to return some day with my kids to share its magic with them.

Rainbow over Fort Jeff


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My entire year has been devoted to searching and finding amazing things in nature and in schools.  But here is a short post about other kinds of searches.

I assume most of you are here because you know me – my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.  Or perhaps you found one of the hundreds of cards I have been leaving in my wake as I have been touring the country:


I’ve been trying to spread the word that preserving the natural world can go hand-in-hand with a healthy business environment and a strong local economy.

Although most visitors to this blog have met me before, quite a number arrive here through an internet search using a engine like Google or Bing.  How do I know that?  Because WordPress tracks visitors to my site that arrive through search engines, AND it records which searches were used to get here.  A little creepy, no?  But it has been very interesting to look through the search terms that landed visitors to my blog.  Some of them are very predictable, like:

  • sleeping spotted owl
  • authentic and needed innovation
  • ediz hook reservation for native birds
  • bronx science high school

Others are a little unusual, but I can still understand why someone might do such a search, and how they might end up here:

  • sparkle and flicker owl
  • small sea duck 4 letters
  • location of mineral water
  • how many owls are there in the us and what states do they live in?
  • bird at obtuse angle

And then, there are the howlers and real head scratchers:

  • how do you wipe your butt on a cactus
  • land/geographic characteristics of delaware in the 1600s
  • goose rocks me christmas tree made out of lobster traps
  • emu sleeping blanket
  • diagram of olympic jumping zones
  • should a student in australia come up with a formula for magnesium oxide other than mgo?

I promise I did not make these up.  Any fabricated search terms I could come up with could not complete with the genuine article, anyway.  How DO you wipe your butt on a cactus?  I hope to never, ever find out.  I will include more funny search terms in later postings.

Another search I did recently was for a replacement knob cover for my Nikon binoculars (seen here at the end of the red arrow):


It seems I’ve been using my optics so much this year that I’m wearing them out!  The covering for the focus knob (which apparently goes by the official designation of ‘central axis button’) has come loose, making it very difficult to focus my binoculars.  And focusing, as you might have guessed, is an important function in any pair of optics.

I visited two local repair shops in the Seattle area, neither of whom could help me. A call to the Nikon service center was answered by a very polite and helpful-sounding woman, who ordered a free replacement part for me.  The downside: the piece is back-ordered, and won’t ship for at least 6-8 weeks.  Needless to say, this is not an acceptable solution during the spring of a big year.  So I visited my local hardware store and bought some waterproof silicone plumbing tape.  After removing the offending knob cover, I was able to patch together a temporary fix:

Binos fixed

Hopefully this will hold until the new part arrives.

Finally, I will leave you with a cool ‘find’ that I wasn’t even searching for.  It’s a new short documentary entitled Gulf Crossing, and you can watch it FREE online.  It talks a great deal about the migration phenomena that I have discussed in recent posts, and features truly tremendous video of some spectacular migrating birds.  You can watch it here: http://gulfcrossingmovie.com/Gulf_Crossing.html


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More Migration Miracles

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of migrant oases dotted along the Gulf Coast which can be good for seeing neotropical migrants winging their way past.  I visited a several of them, from the South Padre Island Convention Center to Lafitte’s Cove near Galveston all the way to Peveto Woods in southwestern Louisiana.

Welcome to Louisiana

Peveto Woods

But some of the oldest and most famous coastal migrant traps are the Houston Audubon Society’s nature preserves in the tiny town of High Island.  Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks have been attracting birds and bird watchers to this section of the Texas coast for decades.

Boy Scout Woods

When the north wind blows, Boy Scout Woods can blow your mind with an incredible diversity and sheer numbers of birds.  While I was there, a moderate southeast wind was predominant; good weather for migrating, and many birds overflew the coast riding the favorable tailwind, stopping miles inland at larger tracts of favorable habitat.  Even under these conditions, the sanctuaries at High Island produced a slow but steady influx of warblers, tanagers, buntings, and orioles.  And while small songbirds (known more formally as passerines) are the usual highlight at High Island, the sanctuaries also play host to other kinds of migrating birds, like this nighthawk, who is trying to catch a quick nap before continuing on its migration once night falls again.

Lesser Nighthawk

High Island also serves another function, a more social one for us humans.  It is one of the great Meccas of the birding world.  All serious birders eventually make the pilgrimage to High Island, and it’s a great place to meet and talk to other birders.  Some of them are from up the street, and some of them are from Europe, South America, or Australia.  Some are first timer newbie birders who marvel at the local Cardinals, and some are grizzled veterans who can ID a flying Prothonotary Warbler from 200 yards away, just by its ‘chip’ call note.

The grandstand area is the grand central station of the High Island birding community.  Audubon memberships and t-shirts are bought and sold.  Wooden bleachers have been set up near a small pond, a water drop, and a fruiting mulberry tree.  Birds and birders circulate there throughout the day to see and be seen.

High Island

There is a network of trails and boardwalks that go throughout the property, which travel through a couple of different habitats from weedy fields to mature stands of oak.

BSW Trail

The sanctuaries use to host several dozen hundred-year old oak trees, but many of them were damaged or killed by a series of hurricanes that included Ike and Rita.  While they are different places now with many of the big trees gone, the High Island sanctuaries are still good for birds, and a new generation of trees is growing up.

Of course, there are many species of birds who are on tremendous journeys of their own for whom trees and bushes offer no respite at all.  Shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, godwits, and curlews need open fields, mudflats, and beaches to feed and rest.  Houston Audubon is doing its part to help these birds as well, and I spent an afternoon at their Bolivar Flats tidelands preserve a dozen miles or so south of High Island on the coast.

Bolivar Flats Sign

There I got to see thousands of shorebirds taking a break from their epic trips.  Some of these birds “winter” in Patagonia (during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer!) at the southern tip of South America and breed at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska.

This Red Knot is just transitioning into his rusty summer plumage.

Red Knot

I saw many, many Willets, including this one who was doing a dance (I think it was the Willet Hokey Pokey):

Willet dance

Each shorebird was hanging out in its own preferred habitat.  This Long-billed Curlew stalked the waterline:

LB Curlew

A Hudsonian Godwit fed in the grass:

Hudsonian Godwit

And Wilson’s Plovers loafed in the dry sand up the beach:

Wilson's Plover

Protecting this habitat is vitally important for migrating shorebirds.  Yes, they can travel 10,000 miles in matter of weeks.  But they can’t do it if they don’t have rest and refueling stations along the way.  If the entire Gulf Coast succumbs to beach condos and oil refineries, these shorebirds will be squeezed out of existence.

Oil refinery

Fortunately, groups like Houston Audubon, the Nature Conservancy, and the Texas Ornithological Society are fighting to preserve important sections of coastline, and the birds who call this area home.  One way to learn more about shorebirds and their amazing migrations is to band them.  Researchers place tiny plastic and metal bands on the birds’ legs, and use them to track the birds along their migration route.  I was fortunate enough to spot a banded Piping Plover, and used the internet to report my sighting to the ornithologists who banded it.  If you look closely, you can see the red and white bands on its legs in the picture below:

Banded Piping Plover

My trip to Texas is winding up, and it is time to go home and spend some time with my family.  Soon, it will also be time to finish planning my next adventure:  Florida and the Dry Tortugas.

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Migration Miracle

People in Seattle often ask me why I go to Texas to go bird watching.  And they often do so with a skeptical tone in their voice and a perplexed expression on their face.  There are many reasons why Texas is arguably the very best place in the United States to go birding.  One is the large number of specialties that occur here and nowhere else in this county or in the world (Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo, and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken to name only three).  A second reason is the proximity to the Mexican border, where many Mexican species reach their northern-most limits and a few rarities from further south occasionally just venture into the US (like Least Grebe and Crimson-collared Grosbeak).  These reasons alone would make Texas a must-visit.  But there is a third reason to come down to the Lone Star State, and it has to do with migration.  In order to fully understand why Texas is such an amazing place to see migrating birds, it’s helpful to back up a minute and consider why birds migrate in the first place.

Migration is an expansive and complex phenomenon.  Birds migrate for many different reasons.  But here is a brief introduction to why many of our birds “fly south” in the winter and “fly north” in the summer.  A big clue can be found in our global geography.

world map

Even a casual glance at a world map shows that there is more land mass north of the equator than south of it.  In addition, the two largest continents of the Southern Hemisphere taper to a point as they approach the South Pole, leaving a relatively small land mass at high southern latitudes near Antarctica.  In contrast, continents in the Northern Hemisphere tend to flare outwards as they go north towards the pole, creating a huge expanse of territory in the north temperate and arctic regions.  These lands in the northern US and Canada, northern Europe, and Siberia can be bitterly cold in winter, often locked below layers of ice and snow.  In the summer however, these vast areas warm considerably.  There is abundant nesting habitat, swarms of insects, and an explosion of seeds and fruits there during the brief boreal summer.  In short, it is a paradise for birds, but only for a few short months from early May to the end of the September.

While many birds are content to live their lives in the tropics year round where temperatures are mild and food is consistently available, some species have discovered that it is worthwhile to travel north during our summer, feast on the incredible abundance present, raise their young, and then high-tail it out of there before the weather turns again.  It is a risky strategy, but one that can pay huge dividends.  We call these birds who have taken on this high risk/high reward lifestyle in the Americas “neotropical migrants.”  They include our summer breeding songbirds like warblers, orioles, tanagers, and flycatchers.  We often think of them as “our birds,” but really, we are just borrowing them for a few months.  They spend most of the year in Central and South America, often leaving as early as August and not returning until May.

Now you can begin to appreciate why Texas can be an amazing place to see birds in the spring and the fall.  Almost all of the neotropical migrants who breed anywhere in North America must pass through (or at least over) Texas twice a year.  Anytime in April or September, you can be almost any place in Texas and see migrants passing through.  But there are some locations which are truly special places to see migrating songbirds, especially the true dare-devils of this risk-loving group.

Suppose you are a Yellow Warbler, and you are trying beat all of your peers to the prime nesting habitat in an Ohio wetland.  Arrive too early, and there are no insects to eat and you may freeze to death.  Arrive too late, and all the of best territories and mates are already taken.  So you need to race there as fast as you can right during the “Goldilocks” window – not too early, and not too late.  Traveling up from Central America, you could play it relatively safe, and travel all the way around the Gulf of Mexico.  Some birds do this; we call them “Circum-Gulf migrants.”

Traveling north, they eventually hit the Gulf of Mexico somewhere near the Yucatan Peninsula (perhaps at point A, below).  There they scream “oh crap!” (or whatever birds scream when they find out that 600 miles of open water stand between them and that sexy female warbler they hope to find in Ohio), and turn to follow the Gulf all the way around the eastern coast of Mexico and up into Texas, arriving at Point B several days later:

Gulf Map

Of course, there are also the dare-devils that I mentioned earlier.  They eye the Gulf and say to themselves, “Hey, 600 miles is no biggie.  If I leave here at sunset, I could fly all night and all morning and be there by lunchtime – especially if the weather is good and I have a SE tailwind to push me along.”  These extreme risk takers, called Trans-Gulf migrants, are making a pretty good bet.  They can save a couple days of precious travel time by flying nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico.  Of course they cannot eat or drink en route, and they can’t rest until they make landfall, some 18 hours later.  For healthy birds, everything is usually fine unless they meet bad weather in transit, like a northerly headwind, rain, or (worst-case scenario) thunderstorms.

When the wind blows from the north or storms brew over the Texas shoreline, birders head to the coast, to places like High Island (point B on the map above).  High Island is a tiny town just a couple dozen miles from the Louisiana border, and just half a mile from the beach.  It sits on a salt dome, so it is a dozen feet above the surrounding salt marsh flats.  The added elevation means that it’s the only place for miles and miles around that has trees (the little bit of added elevation means that their roots are not drowned by saltwater).  The Houston Audubon Society has several small nature sanctuaries in High Island filled with trees and native vegetation.

Boy Scout Woods

Trans-Gulf migrants that hit unfavorable weather are in trouble.  Some exhaust themselves and drown in the Gulf.  The ones that make it to land are in desperate need of a place to rest and food to eat.  They look for any suitable place to set down, even if it’s just a couple acres of trees like the nature preserves at High Island.  Birders on the ground can watch birds literally falling out of the sky.  You can see dozens and dozens of species – sometimes thousands of individual birds – hopping around at your feet and in the bushes, trying to find food and water and just rest for a minute.  My wife and I once witnessed a dozen Scissor-tailed Flycatchers come in off the Gulf just over the waves and crash-land on the sand dunes, where they sat, exhausted.  One April morning in Key West, I watched a thunderstorm precipitate a massive fallout of birds in a tiny park near the island’s tip.  I saw 100 Yellow-billed Cuckoos and 300 Indigo Buntings flopping around the bushes and small trees, along with about 60 other species of birds.  While fallouts are exciting for bird watchers, they are bad for bids.  The daredevils are paying a heavy price for their high risk strategy, many forfeiting their lives.

I didn’t witness any spectacular fallouts this time in Texas, but I was near the coast on several occasions when a light mist was falling or when the wind shifted slightly from the north.  At the South Padre Island Convention Center, there is a small planting of trees – really no bigger than a modest-sized suburban backyard.  But it is one of the only natural shelters for miles around for tired migrants.  The blue and yellow building in the picture below is the Convention Center; you can see the trees poking up slightly above the surrounding salt marsh:

Convention Center

One afternoon I watched that tiny area fill up with warblers, buntings, vireos, and orioles.  Even normally shy species were too hungry and tired to play coy.  This Black-throated Green Warbler flitted close around me for ten minutes, almost landing on my head:

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green2

As the Convention Center has become well known as a stopover place for migrant songbirds, volunteers have planted more trees and bushes, and even added a water feature for the birds.  Drips and water features are very attractive for neotropical migrants, who are thirsty from their flight and often want to bath and clean their feathers.  I saw a steady parade of birds come through the little pool, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler (left) and Nashville Warbler (right):

Warblers in the water

And then some Indigo Buntings came by:

Indigo Buntings Join

And even a Painted Bunting, whose brilliant blue, red, and neon yellow-green plumage is not adequately captured by this bad photo:

Painted Bunting

On that particular day, Nashville Warblers were particularly abundant, and I watched a steady stream of them come by to bathe:

Nashville Warbler bathing

A group called the Valley Land Fund decided to add a little more migrant stop-over habitat about a mile south of the Convention Center.  They bought up a number of adjacent vacant lots in a residential area, and planted them with trees and shrubs.  They fenced them off, but also created many spaces for birders to see into the new natural gardens they made.  In this way, the birds got a refuge, and birders got another place to watch the birds:

SPI woodlots

Valley Land Fund

Of course some migrant birds like sandpipers and plovers don’t find sanctuary in trees on their journey.  I’ll write about them in my next post.


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Hawk Mountain

Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania is one of those famous places in bird watching circles that all serious birders eventually visit.  September is a good time to go there, so I worked it into this trip.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a private reserve in the Appalachian mountains, near the town of Kempton, PA.  It is well known as a hawk watching site, and volunteers there keep an active count of the number of raptors which pass by the ridge.  In an average fall season (September to November), counters tally about 18,000 hawks, eagles, and falcons!

I paid my entrance fee, and hiked the mile or so through the woods up to the North lookout, which is the principle hawk watching location.  The hike up was quite pleasant; the forest was beautiful, and the sunny morning had a touch of autumn crispness.  I stopped to study an eastern Hairy Woodpecker, which was bright white and black – as opposed to our pacific northwest Hairy, which is light gray and black.

Along the trail were numbered markers, but no corresponding interpretative signs.  Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has gone all 21st Century, using QR codes to store the trail marker information.  If you are not familiar with QR codes, you can see an example of one in the photo below (it’s the pixelated square).

QR codes are like traditional bar codes, but they are able to store information in a more dense way (in 2-D instead of just 1-D).  They are readable with a bar code scanner, or with any smart phone that has a camera and a bar code reader app (I use Red Laser on my iPhone).  Advertisers often use QR codes to encode web addresses (URLs) so that interested customers can use their phones to go immediately to an ad’s website.  But out in the woods on Hawk Mountain, you might not get cell service.  No problem!  QR codes can encode lots of different kinds of information, not just URLs.  When you scan the QR code above, your phone’s app decodes the information and reveals the clear text (no internet connection needed):

Pretty cool, if you have a smart phone.  But kind of a bummer that not everyone can read the “signs.”  Gives me some ideas for a science lesson though when I get back to Lakeside….  By the way, you can check out more about QR Codes on Wikipedia (that page has some cool example pics!).

Back to the hawks!  Why is Hawk Mountain such a good place for observing raptors?  Well, these birds of prey are moving south, and they want to do so in the most efficient way possible.  Unlike many songbirds, most raptors tend to migrate during the day, taking advantage of rising air thermals.  The sun warms the land below, creating updrafts – especially along mountain ridges.  The raptors can use these updrafts to rise high in the air and to carry them along on their journey.  Here’s a sign from the trail:

So if you position yourself on a mountain ridge from mid-morning to mid-afternoon and look north, you have a good chance of seeing some migrating hawks.  Finding my first one was easy!

Finding the next ones were a little more challenging.  I made it up to the North lookout, and found a rock to sit on not far from the official counters.  There were already dozens of other people hawk watching.

Hawk watching is different than most other kinds of bird watching because most of the time the birds are quite distant.  You usually can’t see most of the normal field marks – the color of the legs and tail, the exact pattern on the underwings, the shape of the bill, the color of the eyes, etc.  Most of these birds stream by quite quickly, and they might be a mile away or more.  So you have to learn how to ID the birds based on overall shape (often in silhouette) and other clues like how fast they flap.

If you see them from below, some raptors have thin, “sharp” wings like falcons, while others have broader, “fatter” wings like the buteo hawks (e.g. Red-tails and Broad-wings).  Ospreys tend to make an “M” shape with their wings and bodies.

If you see them from the side, some birds like Turkey Vultures fly with a definite obtuse dihedral angle (their wings make a “V” shape).  Other birds, like eagles, will appear almost flat.

Other clues can help.  Size is not one of them, since a Bald Eagle at a great distance is the same apparent size as a much smaller Kestrel which is closer.  But flapping behavior can be a good clue.  Some birds mostly soar, flapping very little.  Others flap a lot.  Some tend to flap in patterns: flap-flap-glide.  In general, bigger birds flap more slowly than smaller ones (Golden Eagles have much bigger wing areas than Cooper’s Hawks, so they get much more thrust per flap).

All of these clues are important, because much of hawk watching comes down to “lump identification” – as I discussed in a previous post.  Actually “speck identification” is a little more accurate.  Here are some photos for you to try to ID for yourself (birds in the pictures are about the same apparent size and resolution I saw in my binoculars).


I was intrigued by the idea of hawk watching, but I have to say that after a couple hours of speck identification I decided that I like my birds big and close and in my face.  Yep, hawk watching has an elegance and intellectual appeal, but that’s not mostly why I go birding.  I did get to see some cool kettling – “kettles” are large groups of hawks that are rising together on the thermals.

Pretty cool, huh?  (You must think it’s pretty cool if you are STILL reading this post about hawk watching!)  The biggest kettle I saw had over 50 hawks.  The biggest ones that form in a season might contain thousands.  By the way, if you are ready for the IDs for the last three pictures they are: Bald Eagle (see the white head?), Red-tailed Hawk, and a kettle of Broad-wings.

After a couple hours on the mountain, I was ready to head down.  The counters had already tallied well over 200 raptors before lunch (and 1600+ the day before!).

After Hawk Mountain it is on to Connecticut for a couple of days, and then my September trip to the East Coast will be winding down.


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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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