The Turtle 200

Critter Radio Logo v3Welcome back, race fans, to the annual Turtle 200! It’s been a year since the armored beasts took to the track. We have a good lineup of reptilian racers for you today, all tuned up and ready to roar down the track at a breakneck quarter-mile an hour. You can hear all the action right here on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. Tension is mounting!

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8388acaThere’s quite a crowd watching the action from the turtle bleachers. They crane their necks for a better view as the competitors plod past.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8379Every stadium has that one guy, right? Big, pushy, late to the party, he has to climb over everybody to get to his seat. Today it’s a Red-bellied Turtle throwing his weight around amongst the smaller patrons.

The Red-bellied Turtle, sometimes called a Red-bellied Cooter, likes deep water with a sandy or muddy bottom and lots of aquatic vegetation. They sometimes hang out in the sun with Painted Turtles and Red-eared Sliders, but they are much larger. They are distinguished by their reddish plastron, the lower shell. Red-bellied Turtles are listed as a threatened species in Pennsylvania. Loss of habitat is taking its toll, as is nest predation, road mortality when females come on land to lay eggs, and competition with the exotic Red-eared Slider.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3589acsHere we go, fans! Coming into the first turn is an Eastern Box Turtle. Surprising to see him in the lead. Box Turtles are known to be particularly slow, which is saying something when you’re talking about turtles. Look at the domed carapace (upper shell) on this guy!

140926_Forsythe NWR_3606acsLooks like he’s made the turn safely. He was really pulling those Gs though!

140926_Forsythe NWR_3618acsThe look on his face says it all.

160531_PA HNWR Evening_9169acsThis Painted Turtle shows some uniquely beautiful markings as he strains his neck going around the curve.

FUN FACT: A few species of turtles have an eye stripe like this. A fellow photographer pointed out that, no matter what angle the head and neck are, that eye line is always parallel with the horizon.

Wait! The Caution flag is up!

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8341acsSeems we’ve got a three turtle pileup of Red-eared Sliders on the track.

Red-eared Sliders look quite similar to Painted Turtles, and the two species frequently sun together. The red stripe on the side of the Slider’s head gives it away. They don’t belong here; they are native to the Mississippi River Basin. But they are popular pets, and frequently released into the wild, so that they have become established throughout the country. They often out-compete other turtles, the hallmark of an invasive species.

HNWR Snapper_6644 ASNow we’ve got a green flag, we’re back to racing. A snapping turtle has lumbered into the lead.

This is one BIG turtle! They can reach 60 pounds. Everything about them, from their heads to their claws, is huge. You don’t want to get near their powerful jaws.

HNWR Snapper_6657 aThe Snapper meanders on down the track, dragging his very impressive tail behind him.

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Terrapin_2130acsThe White flag is up – it’s the final lap. A Diamondback Terrapin moseys toward the finish line.

She’s almost there…

06222016_DE Bombay Hook Terrapin_1481acs…AND she’s pulling over for a pit stop. In an actual pit, which she’s digging herself to lay her eggs. Right in the road. Track managers frown on this type of behavior; it makes a mess for the grounds crew to clean up. In the meantime, this beautiful female has cost herself the trophy.

Diamondback Terrapins are turtles of brackish estuaries, tidal creeks and marshes. They are the only turtles in the country that live in water with a salt content between that of fresh and salty seawater. Population numbers are dropping due to habitat loss, and predation. Females crossing roads to lay eggs are killed by cars, they are collected illegally for the pet trade, and frequently drown in commercial crab traps. Numerous conservation programs are trying to help these beautiful turtles.

160526_PA HNWR Morning Turtles_8110acsNow another Snapper is gliding toward the finish line…

Oh, the drama! The Snapper had the finish line in his sights, only to be passed by a Painted Turtle in the last few yards as the checkered flag waves.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3555acsThere’s your winner, folks: the Painted Turtle has taken the coveted Turtle 200 Cup!

That’s another fine race in the history books. Don’t miss next year’s competition, brought to you by KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. It’s sure to be another nail-biter!

We leave you now, as always, with the words of the incomparable Ogden Nash:

The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks

Which practically conceal its sex.

I think it clever of the turtle

In such a fix to be so fertile.

Winter’s Edge

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1513acsLong gone are the warm days of summer, days when families crowded the beach with their beach blankets and umbrellas, their sand pails and horseshoe sets. The only creatures frolicking in the surf are ducks. The stiff ocean breeze, so welcome when the temperature was 80°, is a torment at 35°. Autumn lingers, but teeters on the edge of winter. The beach is empty.

Of humans, but not of wonders.

At last, the beach is ours!

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1563acsFrom late fall to mid-spring, the Jersey Shore is ours to explore, empty of crowds and noise. Now there are plenty of treasures to collect, shells and rocks and sea glass, safe from the many feet and the mechanical beach-sweepers of summer.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1555acs2Lines of dune fencing stretch across white sand to the horizon.

141128_NJ Holgate_2948acsThe winter birds arrive at the Shore with the colder weather. Long-tailed Ducks bob in the waves. The females seem to have a lot to say to the pink-billed males.

141128_NJ Holgate_2706acsThis sparrow-like bird is a Snow Bunting.

141128_NJ Holgate_2774acsAs we walked along the beach at Holgate one November day, we kept seeing these odd tree sculptures. For a bit, we thought some enterprising soul had placed driftwood on end as an artistic expression. Then we realized that these were the broken stumps of dead trees, and we were walking amidst what once had been wooded dunes.

141128_NJ Holgate2902-5 Pan acsThe dunes at Holgate, looking west toward Barnegat Bay. The southern tip of Long Beach Island is a part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. It didn’t always look like this. Only a few years ago, it was a thicket of dune plants and shrubs. Then Superstorm Sandy paid a visit, inundating the entire area, breeching the island from bay to ocean in places. These weathered roots, trunks and branches are what are left of once vital vegetation. Devastated, but starkly beautiful.

FUN FACT: These plants were flooded with water, but died of thirst. Why? Fresh water flows easily into a plant through the tissues of the roots, a process called osmosis. But this was a saltwater inundation. Ever have a salt shaker gum up in humid weather? Salt absorbs water very easily, pulling water from the plants into the soil and leading to dehydration. It also interferes with the chemical processes by which a plant obtains nutrients. The combination of nutrient and water deficiencies has laid waste to the dune plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1480acsThis is what a healthy dune community should look like. Stone Harbor Point.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1520acsGood fences make good neighbors.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1489acsDune fences make good dunes, and if successful, good dune grasses and plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1552aGood fences make good backdrops for wildflowers, still abloom in mid-November.

141122_NJ Hereford Inlet_1646acsOne doesn’t have to go far from the beach to find woodland critters. The gardens at Hereford Lighthouse provide a fine place for squirrels to make a living.

141122_NJ Nummys Island_1892acsIn the late light of day, a pair of American Oystercatchers squabbles.

Even on the edge of winter, wonders abound at the wild edge.

Tern, Tern, Tern

140917_Osprey_1010acsAll 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.

140917_Cape May Point Whiskered Tern_1504aI 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.

140917_Cape May Point Whiskered Tern_1538acs3Lots 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.

140917_Cape May Point Black Tern_1463aAnother uncommon bird was the Black Tern, above. Again, always flying and always far away. It shares the same swoop-and-pluck feeding style as the Whiskered Tern, and they were often seen together.

140917_Osprey_1019acsOn 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.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3357Farther north at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, the theater is an intake where the tidal water flows into and out of the impoundment.

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.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3380acsEntrée.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3379acsEn pointe.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3446acsPas de deux.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3398acsPas de trois.

140926_Forsythe NWR_3393aThe corps de ballet.

140923_Cape May Point State Park_2452acs 2Common Tern takes a bow, as the curtain falls on today’s performance.

Snowy Days Are Here Again

Forsythe Snowy Owl_5213aIt was the news report that finally did it.

All week long, by word of mouth and the Internet, I’d been following the dispatches of a horde from the North. But when reports actually appeared on the TV news broadcasts, I knew I’d have to do something about it. I knew I’d have to face the invaders myself.

I gathered my lieutenants and headed into the bitter wind on a hastily arranged reconnaissance mission.

Forsythe Snowy Owl_5182aAnd who were these invaders, these large, nearly white creatures, with sharp talons and luminous yellow eyes? Abominable Snowmen? No, snowy owls.

1 Snowy Owl_5105aThese large owls range from the usually all white adult male to females and juveniles who are white with dark bars and spots. In North America, they make their living on the grasslands and open tundra of the Arctic, hunting lemmings and other small mammals, by day as well as night.

Forsythe Snowy Owl_5205a In many years, New Jersey might see two or three of these large birds at most. But this year, since Thanksgiving, there have been reports of over twenty snowy owls in the state, many clustered along the shore and the Delaware Bay. Other Mid-Atlantic states are reporting similar influxes of owls. Reports of snowy owls being seen in Pennsylvania are coming in from Berks, Chester and Lancaster counties as well as State College and Presque Isle State Park on Lake Erie. The birds are turning up in Long Island, New York, Ohio, and Boston, as far south as North Carolina, and there’s even been one vacationing in Bermuda, and another in Florida.

What in the name of Harry Potter is going on?

Snowy owls are among a number of species of birds subject to winter irruptions in which large numbers of birds appear in areas far outside their normal range. These events are unpredictable in both their frequency and intensity. It would appear that the winter of 2013-2014 is shaping up to be an irruption year of historic proportions.

Forsythe Snowy Owl_5214CONSERVATION PIECE: Experts are divided on the cause of the irruption. The easy answer is the cyclical fluctuation of the lemming population, their main food source up north. The owls may produce large numbers of owlets when lemmings are abundant but skip breeding altogether when prey is scarce. The driving force behind the irruption may well be an overabundance of prey, leading to an owl population boom. Come the Arctic winter, there are more owls than available food. There may be other factors involved, however. At this point, ornithologists have more questions than answers.

FUN FACT: The snowy owls are looking for treeless areas that resemble the tundra they’re used to, so they’re most likely to be seen in places like beaches, marshes and fields, and, oddly, airports. In fact, in the highly developed Northeast, where native grasslands have all but disappeared, airports may be the best available open habitat for these birds. Sightings of owls – and conflicts with aircraft – have occurred at several airports along the East Coast

Forsythe Snowy Owl_4764a After researching the latest owl sightings online, Robb, Don and I decided our best chance of seeing a snowy owl would be at Forsythe NWR at the Jersey Shore. We thought the best we’d do would be a short look at one fairly far away, so when we got a good look at this bird above looking out over the marsh, we were pretty pleased.

Forsythe Snowy Owl_4870aLittle did we know that there was another owl further down the road, calmly sitting on the rocks not 30 feet from a large group of birders and photographers. Look closely to see it perched at the water’s edge just right of center, above. We watched this white beauty for at least a half hour.

Preening Collage 1 We spoke in hushed tones as the bird calmly preened, running feathers through its beak one by one. When it was time to move on, it was hard to tear ourselves away. Since that day, there have been many more reports of owl sightings, and it appears they are here for the winter. I am hopeful I will get another chance to see another of these majestic birds, but my first encounter with a snowy owl was a real hoot!

LOCAL FOCUS: If you are interested in seeing these magnificent birds for yourself, there are a number of opportunities. Check the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s online bird survey, eBird, which has been tracking the irruption thanks to reports of hundreds of amateur observers. Their article on the phenomenon includes links to real-time maps showing the most recent sightings. http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/gotsnowies2013/

3 In Your Face_5288aHappy Whoo Year!

Coming up: Snowed In

Crab Dance

Forsythe NWR Crab_6482a Have you ever noticed something for the first time, and after that you see it everywhere? For me, this was the summer of the Fiddler Crab. Why I’d never noticed them before escapes me, but after my first encounter with a few at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, I saw them just about everywhere I went. Usually in large numbers!

Fiddler crabs are small crabs that live in salt-water and brackish water marshes, beaches and mudflats. They are colonial and social critters that are active during the day.

Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute_2629aThe male crabs are particularly odd-looking because one of their front claws is grossly enlarged. It’s used to court females and engage in ritualized combat with other males. In tai chi, we have a move that looks just like this!

FUN FACT: Fiddler crabs molt their shells as they grow. If a male loses his large claw, he will grow a new one during the next molt, on the opposite side of his body. The movements of his small claw against the large one resemble someone playing a fiddle, hence the name.

Crab Collage 1Fiddlers eat by scooping up mud or sand (left), removing algae and other organic material, and then returning the mud in the form of a pellet (right). Females like this one rapidly alternate between both claws as they feed. A male crab’s large claw is useless to eat with, so he has to eat one-handed.

OC Corsons Fiddler Crabs_4642a Here is a fiddler crab near her burrow, with sand pellets to the side. They dig their burrows one pellet at a time, carrying it under their body as much as five feet away before returning to fetch another pellet. These burrows can be as deep as two feet! That’s a lot of work for an inch long crab.

Cape May Skimmer Peep_6854aThe marsh bank below this Semipalmated Sandpiper is riddled with crab holes. The burrows are important shelters from not only predators, but the daily ebb and flow of the tides. Fiddler crabs have biological clocks synchronized to the tides, and retreat to the burrows when high tide approaches, plugging the entrance with mud.

OC Corsons Fiddler Crabs_4621aThe smaller crab here approached this larger female very tentatively, and then tried to scurry past her. Only to have the large female scurry right alongside. They moved in parallel like that for quite some way. Was this a territorial dispute? Is the small crab a juvenile? Some of life’s little mysteries we’ll never solve!

OC Corsons Fiddler Crabs_4533aIt’s a big world out there for a little crab. They have a lot of predators. Threats can come from larger crabs like the marsh crab, diamondback terrapins, and even mink and raccoons. Then there are the dangerous birds, like Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, terns, and gulls.

Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute_2528 Gull and CrabSometimes the crab fights back. I’m not sure who’s captured who!

OC Hermit Crab_091753a Here’s a different sort of crab – a flat-clawed hermit crab. Hermit crabs are soft-bodied, and must find someone else’s shell to live in, typically abandoned sea snail shells. I collect a type of moon shell known as a shark’s eye. Usually they’re empty, but I was delighted to find someone at home in this one! I couldn’t coax him out to play, though. Hermits are usually nocturnal, so probably he’d have rather been napping. (It makes me cringe to admit it, but these are cell phone photos. It was all I had with me at the time.)

FUN FACT: Hermit crabs need to replace their shells as they outgrow them. Crabs like to shop for new shells, trying various ones on for size. Sometimes this leads to fights, or a number of crabs ganging up on one whose home they covet. Sometimes they form a “vacancy chain”. A new shell in the neighborhood will draw a crowd of hermit crabs. The largest crab in the group will move into it, leaving his shell behind. That will be taken by the next largest crab, leaving his shell to the third largest, and so on down the line!

OC Hermit Crab_092723Take time to look at the little things in life. You never know what you might find!

Coming up: Looking for Fall

The Critter Radio Traffic Report

Cape May Point State Park_4230 aWondering 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?

Forsythe NWR Turtles_6197 aWell, 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.

Forsythe NWR Insect_6461 a This grasshopper may not seem to be tearing up the asphalt, but he’s leaps and bounds ahead of everybody else!

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).

OC 51st Street Structures_5861 a I’m making my way over Ocean City now. Traffic here is in better shape. Bay Avenue is all clear.

OC Dolphins_3670 a The dolphins are swimming along at a nice pace.OC Dolphins_3656 a Whoops! Bit of a fender-bender on the southbound Ocean Turnpike. Looks like the sun glare got in somebody’s eyes.

OC Corsons Inlet_4773 a 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.”

Cape May Point State Park_4115 aAt 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.

Cape May Point State Park_4090 a Hoping to avoid the duckweed altogether, an American Lady is enjoying a break from her travels. Nothing like a little flower nectar at the truck stop for a nice respite.

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.

OC 51st Street_5847 aCONSERVATION 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

Migration Meanderings: Fallout

Cape May Lily Lake_4850 a 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?

Cape May Lily Lake_4883 aCape May Lily Lake_5035 aLook! 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.

Cape May Lily Lake_5014 a 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.

Cape May Lily Lake_5158 aPhotographing 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.

Cape May Lily Lake_4862 a Are you this flexible? Black-and-White Warbler again, leaving no food tidbit unturned.

OC 51st Street_5872 aWarblers show up in other places, too. Palm Warbler, Ocean City.

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!

Cape May_8250 aIt’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!

Tuckahoe WMA_5596 aThe Osprey above was lingering at Tuckahoe WMA before departing for warmer winter digs.

OC Corsons Inlet_3413 a Collage Maybe you’re one of these Tree Swallows, hunting mosquitoes at Corson’s Inlet State Park in Ocean City.

OC Corsons Inlet_3407 aYou might be one of the shorebirds, waders, gulls and terns that are fueling up to move south. Here a few fish try to evade a hungry Laughing Gull at Corson’s Inlet SP.

Cape May Meadows_3974 a Is this prehistoric looking bird a friend of yours? Glossy Ibis, South Cape May Meadows.

Cape May Point State Park_4209 aHo, hum, not another Egret? Actually, no. This is a juvenile Little Blue Heron. Mature adults are a dark dusky blue, but the juveniles are white, and look a lot like Egrets. Cape May Point SP.

Forsythe NWR Bird_6188 aPerhaps you are a dainty Forster’s Tern, flying slowly, head down, looking for prey. There it is! A sudden dive straight down, and you’ve got lunch. Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

Forsythe NWR Bird_6142sBlack Skimmers at Forsythe NWR.

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