Wednesday, September 29, 2021

 

Cape May, New Jersey: 24-28 September 2021

Every autumn, my closest birding colleagues and I migrate to Cape May, New Jersey, to experience the fall migration of dragonflies, butterflies, falcons, warblers, and hawks and eagles. Cape May features beautiful weather in September and October, and the town also offers up a nice selection of restaurants. This makes for a very pleasant weekend of naturizing, reminiscing, and dining.

 

    Osprey

For nature, we have a traditional series of sites that we like to visit during our stay. Each provides unique encounters with the migration phenomenon.

 

    young Cooper's Hawk

The place where every birder likes to meet up is the hawk-watch platform at Cape May Point State Park. This is where the Cape May Bird Observatory conducts its autumn raptor count.  

 

    from the beach looking back toward the Hawk Watch platform and light house

The 2020 season produced a count of 31,595 raptors, including more than 10,000 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 4,700 American Kestrels, 733 Peregrine Falcons, and 635 Bald Eagles, among the sixteen species it regularly counts. The watch also counts other bird species that migrate by.

 

    Red-tailed Hawk

The State Park is right on the shore where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, and there are trails that give access to ponds, woods, scrub, and a broad white beach. Lots of sea ducks migrate along the beach in the late autumn.

 

    Merlin disarticulating a dragonfly

Groups of eager birders assemble on the large wooden platform that gives a good look across the Park, allowing the counters to pick up the raptors as they pass by. Some pass by low and right over the platform, but most are seen as small specks as they glide by at high elevation.

 

    a large juvenile Bald Eagle tussling with a smaller adult Bald Eagle

The Bird Observatory also has a natural history bookshop that sells birding optics at the Northwood Center, about a half-mile from the State Park. This is set in a tiny patch of woods that can be great for birding on certain windy days, when scores of migrant warblers seek out the woods to shelter and feed.

 

    young Peregrine Falcon

Nearby the Northwood Center is Lily Lake and tree-lined avenues that can be very birdy on select autumn days. The Siberian Elms sometimes produce effusions of tiny insects that attract clots of foraging songbirds at eye level. This is great for photographers.

 

    Northwood Center woods

Most mornings, we all meet up at the dune-top platform at the south end of Coral Avenue, just a bit west of the State Park. As many as twenty birders will perch here and watch passing Ospreys, Bald Eagle, falcons, accipiters, and wood warblers on days with strong northwest winds. Most of the birds pass along the pine-topped dune from east to west as they look the move back up the northern shore of Delaware Bay.

 

    Western Palm Warbler

They are migrating northwestward, even though they want to head south. This is because many birds do not enjoy crossing broad expanses of salt water. The northwest wind blows the migrating birds down into the geographic cul-de-sac that is Cape May Point. 

    Merlin

Certain birds (e.g., Bald Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine) will simply head out from the Point and cross to Cape Henlopen, Delaware, just to the southeast across the broad mouth of Delaware Bay. But the vast proportion of songbirds head up to where they can cross Delaware Bay where it is less challenging.

 

    Alex Wiebe pointing out bird to Bert and Eleanor Harris, Milton Harris, David Wilcove, and Louise Zemaitis

Coral Avenue is where one sees how brilliant some birders are. Over and over in a morning these experts call out the species names of tiny songbirds that look like moving specks high in the sky. They distinguish species by behavior, shape, movement, and the high-pitched call notes emitted by the birds in flight. 


This year I watched Michael O’Brien and Alex Wiebe call out the names: Blue Grosbeak, Dickcissel, Indigo Bunting, Blackpoll Warbler, Bobolink, and others. We mortals struggled to pick out these tiny waifs moving through the sky...

 

    juvenile Peregrine Falcon

The main challenge of Coral Avenue, as well as most birding venues in Cape May, is that in the throws of migration, most of the birds are on the move and seen only in flight. That makes seeing them well and photographing them more difficult.

 

    Lesser Yellowlegs

Just east of the State Park is the Nature Conservancy’s south Cape May Meadows reserve. This abuts the boundary of the State Park, and is another nice place to stretch one’s legs and look for birds and butterflies.

 

    Least Sandpiper

This year there were some shallow wetlands that hosted several species of waders, visible from an elevated blind. We spent long periods in the blind, looking down on foraging sandpipers at very close range.

 

    Semipalmated Sandpiper

Separating the Semipalmated from Least Sandpipers was fun, but identification of the single isolated Western Sandpiper took the intervention of the experts to I.D.

 

    Western Sandpiper

I showed three different local authorities the photographs of this bird, and all quickly produced the same identification. Great minds think alike.  

 

    dorsal view of Peregrine Falcon

The Meadows has a number of trails through open scrub and this is great for looking at butterflies and dragonflies, when the birds are not much in evidence.

Right in town, on Beach Avenue, one can find a wintering flock of Black Skimmers on the main bathing beach. It is always fun to spend time with this flock. They make a great photo subject...





    four views of Black Skimmers



    Saltmarsh Sparrow

Farther afield from Cape May Point, one can venture off “Cape Island” to the northeast to find other great birding locations.

 A short drive is toward Wildwood, where one crosses broad saltmarshes good for birding. We visited Two Mile Landing this year to hunt for the marsh sparrows.

 The Saltmarsh Sparrow is a little mouse of a bird that hides in the beautiful wet stands of Spartina alterniflora. We located a single individual willing to show itself in the afternoon sun. No sign of either the Seaside Sparrow or Nelson’s Sparrow this time...

 

    Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls

Further northeast, one comes to Stone Harbor Point, which is a sandy point that is all parkland, welcoming to birds and walkers. Its about a forty minute walk through beach sand to the point from the parking lot, and on a beautiful autumn day it is a paradise on earth.

 

    Caspian Tern

The breakers hit the beach to the left, and the marshy estuary is to the right, with a very low dune rise down the middle. Birds can be seen in every direction.

 

    American Oystercatchers

We spent a fair amount of time chasing down the moving flocks of American Oystercatchers. Our high count was 173. That’s a lot of oystercatchers.

 


    oystercatchers... and look for Marbled Godwit in lower image (head and bill obscured)

There are lots of gulls here as well as terns. Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Caspian Terns were the ones that caught our eye.

 

    Piping Plover

We also found flocks of migrant Semipalmated Plovers and the local resident Piping Plovers, much paler and blending into the fluffy white sand.

Come evening, our thoughts turned to fresh seafood. This year we dined at Blue Pig, Freda’s, and Sapore Italiano—all at the top of their game. The key is to start making reservations at least a week in advance...

 

    Mute Swan

The motels fill up quickly on autumn weekends. I get around this by tent-camping. At night, from my tent in the Depot Travel Park on Broadway, in West Cape May, I had the pleasure of hearing a yipping pack of Coyotes one night. On another night, I heard four Barred Owls calling all at once. It’s worth waking up for that!



Monday, August 30, 2021

 

    Whimbrel in the Spartina marsh grass of Lieutenant Island passage.

Outer Cape – Provincetown to Stellwagen Bank and Minimoy Island

22-28 August 2021

 

    The Dolphin 10, one of the Dolphin Fleet whale watch vessels, which berth in Provincetown harbor.

The timing of my trip to Cape Cod perfectly aligned with the arrival of Tropical Storm Henri on the coast of New England. I departed New Haven on the morning of the 22nd, and drove eastward into the path of Henri. As Henri made landfall at Westerly, Rhode Island, I drove through the heart of the storm on an empty Interstate 95. Winds gusted to 50 MPH and rain, leaves, and debris filled the air as I struggled to keep the car on the roadway. I stopped once, for about 15 minutes, when conditions were simply too much to handle. I managed to transect the entire tropical storm from western verge, to eye, to eastern verge, in about three hours. As I left Providence for Fall River, the rain and wind lessened, and when I reach Orleans, on the lower Cape, there was no rain, little wind, and light cloud. I had made it! It was a novel experience for me, but not one I recommend.

 

    Roseate Tern foraging over the sea, in front of Herring Cove Beach.

Original forecasts had the storm striking the Cape, but a last-minute detour to the west took the storm into the interior of central New England, and left Cape Cod untouched. I arrived at Provincetown in mid-afternoon, to find partly sunny and pleasant conditions. Because of the dire predictions of meteorologists, my campground, Dune’s Edge, had closed for all of Sunday and Monday—all for naught... This forced me to stay in a nearby motel.

 

    Gray Seals loaf on Race Point beach. 

At the end of the day I visited Race Point Beach with colleague, writer, and whale-watch naturalist, Dennis Minsky. I had hopes of seeing wind-blown tropical seabirds, but since the storm never made it this far east, no surprises! We did encounter another birder, Marsha Salett, editor of the Bird Observer, who had her scope trained on the horizon, where she could see various shearwater species foraging about a half-mile offshore.

 

    Manx and Great Shearwaters resting on open ocean


The next morning I rose before dawn and returned to Race Point Beach and walked west to the Point, a famous birding hotspot. Again, my hopes were that the storm had carried waifs from the south and east to this spot. But no. Things were quiet and the birds typical. I did pass by a loafing group of about a hundred Gray Seals on the beach, where they had spent the night.  

 

    young Gray Seal portrait

Later in the day I drove south to Wellfleet. I first visited the causeway crossing the saltmarshes to Lieutenant Island. I was there for the high tide, which brought shorebirds into the marshes because of the inundation of the mudflats under the rising tide. This is a great spot for seeing Whimbrels. Today I saw 5-6 flocks of these handsome waders pass by, looking for a place to hunt fiddler crabs during the high tide. Whimbrels are a favorite of mine.

 

    Whimbrel flushes from spartina grasslands 

I then visited the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary, just south of the causeway, and walked out to the inundated flats, wading much of the way on their little boardwalk. A lovely walk but birds were few—just some cormorants, and the expected species of gulls and terns.

 

    Bonaparte's Gull in non-breeding plumage

Provincetown is a great place to spend some days hunting down nature. And the town itself has lots of entertaining features—restaurants, bike paths, art galleries galore, historical buildings, and bustling urban beach life.

 

    Center Methodist Church building in downtown Provincetown

Dune’s Edge campground, situated just north of Provincetown center, reopened on Tuesday morning, and I set up camp that morning. This piney woodland is a splendid place to camp. From there I can quickly bike to just about any place in Provincetown (I always bring a bike with me to the Cape). Moreover, there is a great paved bike path that winds through the dunes to the north through the National Seashore. This is always a fun diversion.

 

    Least Sandpiper on mudflat

One morning, Dennis and I walked the West Marsh harbor flats that are enclosed by the curving outer finger of sand that forms the very tip of Cape Cod. These flats are extensive and during low tide are great walking and birding. There were scads of waterbirds as well as groups of Gray Seals in the deeper pools of water. Among the shorebirds, it was mainly Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers, yellowlegs, and a few other species. 

    Double-crested Cormorant fishing in the shallows the West Marsh mudflats

We came upon a flock of 100+ terns, a mix of Common and Roseate. A few Least Terns foraged and fed young of the year. Of course, there were plenty of cormorants there, too. And Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. But there were perhaps 500 or more birds scattered about, giving us something to sort through. Our highlight was a breeding-plumaged Dunlin. A first for the week.  

 

    Atlantic Horseshoe Crab cruising the shallows--on the move! 

A friend and neighbor of Dennis’s, Ross Sormani, organized a birding trip for the three of us to Minimoy Island, just offshore south of Chatham, at the Cape’s elbow. Tiny and low and sandy Minimoy lies just west of the northern portion of the better-known (South) Monomoy Island, which has the historic lighthouse on the south end.

 

    Egrets and gulls and cormorants line up on Minimoy Island, with the Cape mainland (Harwich?) in the far distance. 

Ross arranged for a local clammer to take us out. We arrived at the island around 7:30AM, and we spent more than three hours circling the island, scoping the waterbirds that abounded there. We counted 90 Snowy Egrets, at least 20 Great Egrets, hundreds of Semipalmated Plovers, perhaps 200 Sanderlings, and a whole raft of other species in smaller numbers.

There were birds everywhere across the sun-blasted flats. It was just us, the trove of birds, and several clammers making their harvest. The sun was unrelenting and we were relieved to be back in the boat, headed to the mainland. Minimoy is a birding heaven during the fall migration. As we feasted on our lunch in Harwich Center we discussed plans for future visits to Minimoy.

    Cormorants bake in the sun of the Provincetown breakwater

I did four whale-watch boat trips during my stay in Provincetown. This is my favorite activity, in part because my friend, Dennis, is one of the naturalists for the Dolphin Fleet. I spend the entire three hours outbound and inbound out on the rail, looking for wild creatures—fish, sharks, turtles, whales, dolphins, and seabirds. It’s work, but it is great fun.

 

    Wood End Light and lightkeeper's house of the outermost Cape.

Near the shore there are lots of scenic vistas. 

    View from the whale watch boat looking eastward to the Pilgrim Monument (1907) of downtown P'town

The views back to Provincetown are always evocative.

There is always a chance of seeing an Ocean Sunfish, the largest of the bony fishes (also the strangest). They can grow to 4-5 feet across and they lie flat on the surface, waving their pectoral fin this way and that. I saw two of these bizarro creatures this year. But got no photos.

 

    fins of a Basking Shark

I did photograph a Basking Shark, and also got nice looks at a small Blue Shark. For some reason these two sharks like to spend time right on the surface of the calm sea.

 

    scallop-fishing boat, followed by gulls and shearwaters

We also encounter fishing boats, mostly those out for sea scallops. They are often followed by gulls and other seabirds. It’s nice to see exactly where my scallops are coming from!

 

    Humpback whale "fluking"

A whale watch out of Provincetown focuses on Humpback Whales for two reasons: they tend to be the most abundant species in these waters, and they are the most active above the surface of the sea. By contrast, the other two regulars, Fin Whales and Minke Whales, tend to show nothing more than the arch of their back and their dorsal fin when the come up for air.

 

    Humpback Whale "blowing"

Humpbacks are often found in female-calf pairs and sometimes small feeding aggregations of adults without young. This year I saw an adult threesome and an adult foursome.

 

    Humpback Whale mother and calf "logging"

When whales dive they often throw their tail (fluke) up to given themselves a downward push. Whale watchers appreciate seeing the fluke, which is patterned with distinctive white and black. Individuals can be identified by this patterning.

 

    One Humback plays while the other flukes

Whales also play about, sometimes raising their long white pectoral fin up out of the water.

 

    Atlantic White-sided Dolphin breaks the surface

Dolphins are seen some times. On one trip we encountered a pod of some 20 Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, in the very same place we were watching the Humpback Whales.

 

    juvenile Northern Gannet paddles away from Whale Boat

Of course, I was focused on hunting for interesting seabirds out over the water. I saw lots of seabirds but nothing out of the ordinary. Stellwagen Bank in late August produces the following: one species of storm-petrel, four shearwaters, one jaeger, and one gannet. Plus some gulls and terns. What follows is a series of bird images, each with its own caption.

    Cory's Shearwater hunting

    Great Shearwater fleeing boat

    Manx Shearwater races the boat

    Sooty Shearwater eyes the boat

    two Parasitic Jaegers 

    Wilson's Storm-Petrel (above and below)

Of course, there was lots of talk of local lobster diver, Michael Packard, who was swallowed by a Humpback Whale in June right off Herring Cove and lived to tell the story on Jimmy Kimmel. I met two of Packard's sisters as well as his crew member who manages the boat while Packard is diving (with scuba). The crew member saw the whale surface and eject Packard. This is not a common occurrence.