A melody drifts over the meadows, to the accompaniment of cicadas and crickets and birdsong. The tune is deep purple and golden, and it calls to the small creatures of the air with a silken voice: “Come to me! Feed on my rich nectar while you may!” The little aerialists are happy to oblige, raising their voices in sweet harmony to the music of the wildflowers until all the world is ablaze with the Song of September.
I’m Buzz Bixby…
BUZZ BIXBY: …and we’re your hosts for this wonderful panorama of floats, performers, balloons and marching bands, all celebrating pollinating insects and their buggy friends. It’s a beautiful day for a parade… Continue reading
Serendipity (noun): An aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident; good fortune; luck. (dictionary.com) The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. (Google dictionary)
Serendipity is one of my favorite words. It sounds like a sand dune; soft and supple, rising and falling in peaks and dips. Serendipity.
When you are looking for something good, and find something unexpected that’s even better, that’s serendipity. Happens in nature all the time.
In search of avian wonders out of the ordinary, we turn now to the sparkling shores of the Delaware Bay. A large expanse of sandy beaches and saltwater marshes along the New Jersey side of the bay attracts many feathered marvels.
I went to the Bayshore one sunny May day to see migrating shorebirds. I’m easily distracted. A side trip to Cape May Point State Park occupied most of my morning.
Alongside the road, a gravel, shell and grass area serves as a parking lot for visitors. It also serves as a nesting area for the local Killdeer population. We didn’t see this little mother when we pulled in; three feet to the right would have been disastrous.
The Killdeer was incubating eggs right there in the parking area. She was none too happy about our near-miss and our presence, so I took my photos quickly and left her in peace.
And comical. Heads down to feed, the gulls resembled a tail-feathered basket-weave fence. One poor guy in the middle had a complaint.
The stars of the show were the Red Knots. This little shorebird travels immense distances every year from wintering grounds at the tip of South America, to breed in the far north. Along the way, having lost much of its body weight to the rigors of flight, it joins other long-distance migrants at the Delaware Bay, to feast upon the fat-laden eggs of the horseshoe crab.
Horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs at the same time the shorebirds arrive. Unlike this unfortunate crab, most remain right side up and survive to breed another year. Their numbers are dwindling though, due to sustained over-harvesting. Bad news for the shore birds, especially the Red Knots.
There is concern for a number of shorebird species, but the Red Knot population is in the worst shape. In an attempt to protect and conserve these birds, scientists have been tracking their numbers and movements. Spotters were posted at Reeds Beach, recording band colors and numbers. Only time will tell if conservation efforts succeed or fail.
This Red Knot has been captured, weighed and released, and wears some distinctive jewelry to commemorate the experience. Green is the color used for birds in the United States. I saw orange bands as well. Those birds were banded in Argentina!
From Argentina to New Jersey, and on to the far north, shorebirds undertake extraordinarily long journeys, twice, every year. The horseshoe crabs along Delaware Bayshore provide the fuel they need to keep going. Its sandy shores are the perfect places to savor the wonder of these extraordinary birds.
Extraordinary (adjective): 1. beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established. 2. exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, etc.; noteworthy; remarkable. SYNONYMS: uncommon, singular, rare, phenomenal, special. (Dictionary.com)
If the commonplace birds that frequent our everyday world are “ordinary”, then “extraordinary” birds must be those that are unusual or rare visitors in our lives.
What’s ho-hum to one birder might be remarkable to another, however. Here are a few of the extraordinary birds I saw in the woods this spring, each one more special than the last.
I see Yellow-rumped Warblers like the one above all the time. Common, yes, but far from ordinary. Because there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. Yellow-rumps in breeding plumage are quite striking.
I don’t see Black-throated Green Warblers too often, and had never photographed one before. Catching this one was tough. It hung around for a long time, but like most warblers, it never stayed in one place, and was always just a little too far away.
I can’t show you my favorite warbler of the spring. There was a brilliant Blackburnian Warbler in a treetop at Heinz. I’ve only caught brief glimpses of Blackburnians in Michigan. This time I got a good look at the bird, but you’ll have to take my word for it. He didn’t come close enough for a portrait.
Rarer still was this bright confection in Higbee Beach WMA in New Jersey. It’s a Yellow-breasted Chat, only the second one I’ve ever seen. I was shooting here from a tall observation platform at treetop level, the perfect perch from which to watch this warbler sing and dance.
Walking along the path at Cape May Point State Park, I spotted a flash of bright blue. Bluebird? Blue Jay? Tree Swallow?
Warblers to orioles, kingbirds to grosbeaks, there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. They’re all special in their own way.
All across the Jersey Shore, dainty dancers are on the wing. These elegant ballerinas in crisp black, gray and white dart and pirouette effortlessly. At times they hover almost motionlessly high above the stage, then plummet to the surface and back up in one smooth motion. Who are these dazzling performers taking a turn around the dance floor? Why, Terns of course!
This September, the Cape May birding community was abuzz with the arrival of a rare bird. A Whiskered Tern, which breeds in Eastern Europe and winters in Africa, had somehow found its way across the Atlantic Ocean. This is only the third appearance of this species in North America. The bird split its time between Bunker Pond and the beach for a number of days, giving lots of birders a thrill. Of course, I wanted to see it too.
I arrived just in time for the performance. The Whiskered Tern was only there a short while, and never stopped flying. Unlike terns that dive into the water to feed, Whiskered Terns swoop low along the water’s surface where they pick up bugs. The movement is distinctive.
Lots of people got great images of the Whiskered Tern; I wasn’t one of them. Here’s why it was so hard to photograph – the Tern was very far away and in constant motion. Click on this wide-angle photo and try to find it; the arrow points to it in the inset at top right.
On a sliver of sand in the middle of the bay a cluster of Terns waits to take the stage. There are three different species here. The small birds are Forster’s Terns, the supporting players of the company. The large bird on the left with the orange bill is a Royal Tern. At the other end of the island, from left to right, we have a red-billed Caspian Tern, a Royal just behind him, and two more Caspians.
The fishing here is great, and the Forster’s Terns take full advantage of it.
Photographing them is simply a matter of pointing your camera at them and letting them fly in and out of the frame. And they do.
Delicate little terns swirl, twirl and whirl continuously. In turn they dive straight downward and plunge under the water, to come up in a burst of spray, circle around and dive again. It’s an aerial ballet.
It’s my fault, I admit. The snow, I mean. Two years in a row I lamented my lack of good snowy photographs to use for Christmas cards, and those years were marked by a decided lack of snowfall. Be careful what you wish for! This year Mother Nature had the last laugh. We’ve had just about 60 inches of snow, when the winter norm averages 22”. And March can still bring some big storms, so we may not be done yet.
I’m done, though. I loved the snow in January and early February, but I have all the snow photos I need, thank you very much. Enough already! I’ve had it with hiking on slippery, ankle-turning ice.
So the last three weekends I have escaped to the southeast, once to the Pine Barrens, twice to the Jersey Shore. No white stuff, and lots of ducks. I love ducks. They’re so colorful and varied, and they are always doing interesting things. In the winter, places like Barnegat Light and Avalon draw sea and bay ducks in droves. Great places to duck out of the snow.
The Scoters are new birds for me this year. They tend to hang out farther off-shore, so they’re not as easy to photograph. Here’s a large raft of Black Scoters in Avalon, above, with a few Long-tailed Ducks and gulls amongst them. Black Scoter, male, below.
I don’t usually take photos of gulls, unless they’re flying or doing something really interesting. Gulls pose identification problems, and usually I’m seeing the same species over and over. This particular gull flew past in West Cape May, and I’m glad I took the shot. When I got home, I realized I had something different – Bonaparte’s Gull, a life bird for me. It was my second lifer that day.
In popular birding places, you often run into other birders who are happy to share news of interesting birds. Two guys I met in Avalon suggested I go to Stone Harbor Point to look for the Smith’s Longspur that had been seen there. “Just look for a big group of people; that’s where it will be.” Sure enough, out in the grassy meadow between beach and bay was a group of people with binoculars and scopes, chasing a cryptically colored, sparrow-sized bird around. I never would have found it, much less identified it, by myself. Lifer #3 for the day.Smith’s Longspurs hang out in the middle of the country, and are quite rare in the East, which is why so many people wanted to see it. I’m sure this poor bird was wondering if he’d ever get a break from the crowds to eat in peace.
I also heard from two different people of another unusual sighting, a Ross’s Goose in a field behind some homes in Cape May Point. Sure enough, there it was. A great way to end a day of birding at the Shore.
In the last week or two, the weather has warmed enough that the foot-thick snow pack has all but disappeared. My crocuses are blooming, the first rays of sunny gold heralding the inevitability of spring.
The Bald Eagles at Heinz Refuge are incubating eggs. Geese have been migrating north for some time. Soon these winter ducks will take off for their breeding grounds to bring new life into the world. Flowers and trees will bloom, and baby animals will be born.
It won’t be long before spring is off to a flying start!
Wondering what the roads are like on your way to work today? Critter Radio, KRTR 99.9 FM, presents the Critter Traxx Traffic report, sponsored by Critter Traxx Granola. Let’s go to Darryl Dragonfly, our Eye in the Sky. Daryl, what are you seeing on our highways and byways today?
Well, folks, it’s a typical rush hour here in southern New Jersey, not a lot of volume, but traffic is crawling. Up north at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, many of the thoroughfares are actually waterways. Diamondback terrapins are the ultimate sport utility, built for land or water, but not speed. Slow and steady wins the race.
FUN FACT: Grasshoppers hear with their tummies! They have a simple auditory organ, called a tympanum, on each side of their abdomens. They’re much better at detecting rhythm than pitch. They also “sing”, by either rubbing their legs against their wings (stridulation) or snapping their wings while they fly (crepitation).
Back on land, right of way issues have some coquina shells at a complete standstill. Don’t you just hate those four-way stops? Nobody ever wants to cross the intersection first. “After you.” “Please, you first.” “No, I insist.”
At Cape May Point State Park there was a massive duckweed spill moments ago. A green frog looks like he’s wearing most of it! He’s been forced to pull off on the shoulder of the eastbound Creek Expressway. A trip through the frog wash may be in order.
Maybe we should all take a page from her book and call it a day. This is Darryl Dragonfly, your Eye in the Sky, with the Critter Traxx Traffic report on Critter Radio, KRTR 99.9 FM. Remember, be nice to your fellow travelers.
CONSERVATION PIECE: The northern diamondback terrapin is the only turtle out of 300 species to live in brackish waters like those found in the coastal salt marshes, above. The terrapins are at the top of the food web and play an important role in keeping the populations of their prey from growing out of hand. Diamondbacks are themselves in a lot of trouble in New Jersey, however. They have lost a lot of the salt marsh habitat in which they live and the barrier island sand dune habitat in which they nest. They drown in commercial crab traps. Human car traffic kills an average of more than 500 gravid (egg-laden) female terrapins each year in Cape May and Atlantic Counties alone. Thankfully, dedicated people are fighting to protect the turtles, by building barrier fences, helping turtles cross roads safely, rescuing injured turtles, and even retrieving eggs to incubate them and rear the young turtles. For more information on this effort: http://wetlandsinstitute.org/conservation/
Coming up: Crab Dance
Many years ago, my family was enjoying an early evening at the Jersey Shore when a butterfly fluttered by. Okay, nothing remarkable there. What followed was: a nearly identical butterfly passed by, followed in swift progression by two more, then three, five, eight more… In a matter of minutes we went from a clear evening sky to a cloud of butterflies, dozens of them, all flying one direction – south. We looked at each other and asked “Do butterflies migrate?”
We didn’t know it then, but we were witnessing the migration of the Monarch butterflies. Scientists now know that these orange and black insects fly from the northern U.S. and Canada to overwintering grounds in Mexico. Just like for birds, Cape May County is an important stopover for migrating Monarch butterflies.
A Monarch butterfly has a four inch wingspan and weighs a fraction of an ounce, yet it still manages to fly 2,500 miles in a short period of time. What may be even more amazing is that the butterflies that fly south have never been to Mexico. Neither have their parents, or grandparents or great-grandparents. It’s their great-great grandparents that left Mexico the previous February. They made it as far as Texas or Oklahoma before laying the eggs that would become the first generation of the year.
That first generation went through the life cycle of egg, caterpillar and chrysalis before becoming butterflies that would continue the journey north during their six week life.
The other Monarchs shown in this post were seen in Cape May County in September; they are members of the fourth and final generation of the year, born in September or October. These are the butterflies that migrate south. They don’t immediately start a new reproductive cycle as their parents did. Instead they enter a non-reproductive phase known as diapause, which can last six to eight months. During that time, they fly to Mexico, spend the winter, and then return north to start the next year’s cycle.
All that flying is accomplished on an all-liquid diet consisting mainly of the nectar of plants like milkweed, goldenrod, aster, and others. The butterflies drink the nectar through a straw-like appendage called a proboscis, shown coiled up, above. The Monarch caterpillars are much more finicky – they only eat plants of the milkweed family. So Monarch females are careful to seek out milkweeds on which to lay their eggs.
FUN FACT: Monarchs are poisonous! A chemical in the milkweed they eat as caterpillars provides a distasteful and dangerous defense against predators. And the predators know it, and avoid them. This in turn is exploited by the Viceroy butterfly, which isn’t poisonous but looks very similar to the Monarch, an adaptation called mimicry.
CONSERVATION PIECE: The Monarch butterfly’s survival as a species is threatened both by deforestation in their wintering grounds and the disappearance of milkweed plants due to herbicide use in the U.S. Want to help the Monarch thrive? Go to your local garden shop, ask for milkweed plants native to your area, and plant them in your yard. Host a caterpillar!
Coming up: The Critter Radio Traffic Report
Imagine that you’re a Warbler, like the American Redstart above. You weigh just a few ounces. You’ve spent a short, frenzied summer raising a brood of hungry nestlings. Or maybe you’re one of those recently fledged young birds. Now that the weather is cooling and food becoming scarce, your biological clock is driving you to make the long flight south, hundreds or even thousands of miles. You want to stay over land wherever possible, but here you are with water pressing in from both sides: the Atlantic Ocean to your left and the Delaware Bay to your right and in front. Soon or later you will have to cross Delaware Bay. But you’ve been flying all night (to avoid predators) and right now you’re hungry and tired. What do you do?
Look! Here are all these nice food-laden trees just below. An all-you-can-eat buffet! Never mind the crowd of birders and photographers standing on people’s front lawns to watch your every move. On this day in September, for you and dozens of your warbler compatriots, Cape May Point, NJ is the place to be. Black-and-White Warbler, above.
Simple geography makes Cape May County a migrant trap – a hotspot for winged creatures migrating south in the fall. Birds by the thousands follow land as far as they can, and the geography funnels them all over Cape May Point. Before crossing the water, many hungry birds must come down to rest and eat. Black-throated Blue Warbler, above.
Photographing you tiny warblers is a challenge. If you’d only stop moving! Add to that the challenge of identification. In fall you’re out of the more obvious breeding plumages, plus there are juveniles mixed in, who look different from their parents. I’m not really up to par yet on naming these birds, and so rely heavily on more experienced birders. When all else fails, I fall back on my photos and the field guides. Cape May Warbler (above) – I think.
FUN FACT: A tiny Blackpoll Warbler needs to double its weight to fly from New England to South America each year. In human terms, that means a 150 pound person would need to gain 15 pounds a day until they reached 300 pounds!
It’s not just warblers on the move in the fall. Imagine you’re a raptor, soaring on the thermals over Cape May Point. Bald Eagles, Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks and more join you in the sky; Northern Harriers hunt over the marsh. See that wooden platform filled with people? That’s the Cape May Hawk Watch, and the people are there just to watch you migrate. They keep score, too!
Well-fed and rested, you’re ready to continue your journey south. But you’ll have company; after all, birds aren’t the only winged creatures migrating in the fall.
Coming up: Migration Meanderings: The Flight of Kings