Chuck Will’s Widow

20 May 2015 Jake’s Landing Rd NJ. Along the New Jersey coast, close enough to Atlantic City to be a probable distraction to birder office-workers, is one of the most wonderful wildlife refuges ever, the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Quite what Mr. Forsythe had to do with it and why his name has supplanted the earlier far more evocative maritime name of Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, I’m not sure. But that’s U.S. politics, none of my business, and more significantly, I don’t suppose the thousands of birds that live and feed there, care one amphipod’s antenna whose name is glorified.

We spent the best part of the day prowling the twelve-kilometer roadway around the estuarine reserve and scored multiple jaw-dropping sightings of birds. It was quite cool, verging on cold, with a northerly wind blowing and I could only begin to imagine what a wickedly exposed and bone-numbing place it would be in February. Still, the birds knew it was indeed May and there was more on their minds than where the wind was coming from.

Starting with an early sighting of a group of Glossy Ibis, the day just got better and better. Mud flats with scampering Semi-palmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers and Snowy Egrets were flanked by wide expanses of salt-marsh where Ospreys on nest platforms are commonplace and singing Seaside Sparrows every hundred metres or so, stake out their territory. Overhead were squealing Least and Forster’s Terns strategizing to push each other from patches of key shoreline. At one stop we watched a large group of dozing Black Skimmers and Dunlin, every now and then an imagined alarm sent a few of them wheeling around, maybe it was really just about getting some wing-stretching exercise, I’m not sure. This gallery of photos from the day, gives I hope, some idea of the richness of Brigantine. (Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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But despite everything that Ed Forsythe could produce, my Bird of the Day was yet to come. As the day wound down, and we pondered our late day birding, my companion suggested that we might want to make one last ditch effort to find a Saltmarsh Sparrow; his nemesis bird. So we spent a couple of pre-dusk hours at a rather down-at-the-heels, former fisherman’s dock at the edge of a tidal inlet sorting through various false alarms: calling Clapper Rails, a skulking Least Sandpiper and Seaside Sparrows that refused to change identity. Finally with light fading, no Saltmarsh Sparrows, and Black Flies making it increasingly difficult to concentrate, we left the salt marshes.

Clapper Rail

Clapper Rail

The way back to the main road led through a large forested area where, according to reports, a Chuck Will’s Widow was said to be. I’m a fan of Chuck Will’s Widows and all of its near-relatives, collectively known as Nightjars or Goatsuckers. They are a marvelously named group of odd-looking birds with equally odd habits, calls and in some cases, odd onomatopoeic names. The collective name Goatsucker, refers to the ancients’ belief that while the goatherd slept, these birds sucked the she-goats udders and thereby blinded her; quite why they’d bother to suck goats is beyond me. The familiar names: Chuck Will’s Widow and Whip-poor-will, refer to their far-carrying calls as they fly circuits around their territory.Red-necked Nightjar

This picture taken in Spain last year of a Red-necked Nightjar is pretty much what they all look like. Exquisitely camouflaged, they spend the day out of sight just waiting for nightfall.

Anyway, despite several quiet listening-stops at the side of the forest road, the putative Chuck Will’s Widow eluded us . Finally as we left to go – and you’ve probably guessed how this is going to end – we made one last stop. Almost immediately we heard something. Getting out (ignition key removed to silence the pitiful dinging of an insecure car) we heard it; a Chuck Will’s Widow doing its rounds. If you say its name aloud (not whispered to yourself) clipped and with the emphasis as follows,CHK–whi-WHDo you’ll get some idea of its call: then repeat a thousand times. Or better yet follow this link for a recording.  I was ecstatic! It’s been some thirty years since I last heard a Chuck Will’s Widow; and I have certainly never seen one; with Nightjars it’s all auditory for me. They’re almost never seen or heard in Ontario and besides they’re virtually invisible anyway, so it’s up to the imagination and, as night falls, the imagination is a powerful magnifier.

Purple Sandpipers

19 May 2015 Stone Harbor Beach. NJ. This was a full day of birding and my notes spill over with really wonderful sightings, many of which should be or could be Bird of the Day. The notion of singling out just one as Bird of the Day is a very difficult on an adventure like this, but there’s a blog to write and so I’ll try. Setting aside glimpses of an Acadian Flycatcher Hooded Warbler and Yellow-Throated Warbler (all of which would be treasured sightings in Ontario) perhaps the birds that really took the biscuit were late in the day shorebirds, a pair of Purple Sandpipers.

We had an idea that walking the length of the wide, white gleaming beach of Stone Harbor would turn up a few new birds; we had Black Scoter and Northern Gannet in mind. Both of which would be distant sightings at best and we soon realized there’s far too much Atlantic Ocean out there and specks in the ocean haze are well, just specks; so neither of them made the day’s tally.  But we encountered some Piping Plovers, little, scampering, sand-coloured shorebirds, a handful of American Oystercatchers and the pair of Purple Sandpipers.

Purple Sandpipers are a wonderful example of a species adaptation to and exploitation of a niche. They look like other sandpipers in that they are generally small to medium sized, mottled and spotty, on the long-legged side and certainly relatively long-billed. Most sandpipers live close to water where they feed by wandering around picking at invertebrates and other shoreline delicacies. Purple Sandpipers are no exception to the general rule, but have chosen to find their food in perhaps one of the most perilous and hair-raising of places, among the always wet, surf-splashed rocks and jetties of ocean shorelines. They spend their feeding hours scampering among rock crevices, skipping and dodging the battering of surging surf.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper

I’m certain they know all there is to know about staying one fluttering step ahead of the breaking waves, but I can’t help recalling how it was for me as a boy. I grew up on the south coast of England where scrambling over the sort of rocks that Purple Sandpipers would find good footing and easy pickings, was part of growing up. We went crab-fishing on shorelines like this, but on those slippery-as-ice, sea-weedy rocks ended the day with bruises, grazed shins and soaked feet. My poor mother!

Purple Sandpiper in surf

Purple Sandpiper in surf

Purple Sandpipers are not really purple; they are little darkish side and perhaps with some imagination have a purplish sheen, although I never saw it. But what I did see was a wonderful little creature that understood and exploited life on the edge. Bird of the Day despite almost too many contenders.

Prothonotary Warbler

May 18 2015 Cape May N.J.  There are dozens of well-recognised places for excellent bird watching on Cape May. It’s kind of the Manhattan of avian society with some parts of the Cape as crowded with birds as Time Square is with people. To carry the analogy a little further, certain corners of Cape May draw purposeful shorebirds while others attract foppish passerines; just as Wall St is for deal making and Midtown for shopping.
Today we spent half a day in at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area which is widely known as one of the best places to see newly arrived migrant passerines. It was hard going because the trees had pretty well fully leafed out and the sun was quite fierce. We could hear plenty of birds so we knew they were close, but finding them was really challenging. Still in the few hours we spent there, we made some good finds including a talkative Yellow-breasted Chat, an inquisitive Prairie Warbler and a fly-catching Blackpoll Warbler.
It was getting hot by the time we left, and we headed to a rather ramshackle conservation area which comprised the parts of an active farm that are either too wet or too overgrown for cultivation. It was there that we found a male Prothonotary Warbler, a spectacularly glowing little bird that lights up the dark, wet habitat it favours. In this case it was sharing a soggy thicket of old willows with a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Red-eyed Vireo, a Blue-headed Vireo and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Male Prothonotary Warbler

Male Prothonotary Warbler

The Prothonotary Warbler has a rather handsome slate-blue back, but the rest of him is a fiery yellow-orange and he truly stood out in the dank gloom. It is one of those birds that enthusiasts seek out and exchange smug ‘if-you’re-lucky’ tips as to its whereabout, the sort of intelligence that come laced with discouragement: ‘…when last seen’, ‘If you’re lucky’ or ‘…but it may have gone by now.’ Other birders will know what I mean.

Well, we had the good luck to enjoy it for quite a while even though it remained fairly high above us; I even managed to get a couple of decent photos.
p.s. The next morning we went to another site, a quiet lonely road in a delicious hardwood forest. We spent some time at a bridge over a small creek that flowed through dense dark undergrowth, the sort of place where mosquitoes thrive and so apparently do Prothonotary Warblers for there we found another; again lighting up the darkness.

Red Knots

17 May 2015, East Point, New Jersey.  As if Cape May weren’t special enough as a place to go and watch any and all birds in spring and fall, it is also a destination to witness the spectacular spring assembly of migrating Red Knots, today’s incontestable Bird of the Day. The Red Knot is a strikingly colourful and compact shorebird with a story, some of it jaw-dropping and some of it hand wringing. On the jaw-dropping side is the bird’s breeding biology, notably the almost incomprehensible 10,000 mile semi-annual migration between the far reaches of South America and its breeding ground shores of Canada’s Arctic Ocean; a journey made in three or four stages with non-stop flights between each refuelling stop. Such a journey would not be possible without reliably abundant food at all of those refuelling stops.

Red Knots and Semi-palmated Sandpipers

Red Knots and Semi-palmated Sandpipers

You would not for one moment suppose that the Horseshoe Crab matters a whole lot to Red Knots. Horseshoe Crabs have been around since the dawn   of time, they don’t prey on Red Knots and mind their own business crawling around the shallow sea-floors; they seem to have been doing little else for millions of years. But each year in May, Horseshoe Crabs in tens of thousands make their way to the Delaware Bay shores of Cape May to mate and lay eggs; it is quite a spectacle as dozens of what look like upside-down frying pans, wash, tumble and crawl ashore, clawing their way over rocks and each other to mate and lay thousands of pearl blue eggs in the surfy tideline. Those collective billions of eggs are what make the Delaware Bay a critical refuelling stop for Red Knots, they may not feed again before completing the next 3,000 mile flight to their high Arctic breeding grounds. It’s hard to comprehend that this, you wouldn’t call it a ritual, perhaps cycle would be better, has been happening every spring for millions of years. They were definitely here before any of our Homo erectus ancestors even thought of leaving Africa for greener pastures.

Female (L) and male Horseshoe Crabs

Female (L) and male Horseshoe Crabs

Two apparently exhausted Horseshoe Crabs

Two apparently exhausted Horseshoe Crabs

The problem is that 20th Century man, Homo sapien, decided Horseshoe Crabs could be harvested and pulverized for fertilizer. After all, the reasoning went, they’re ugly, no use to anyone and we might as well do something useful with them. Cataclysmic over-harvesting of Horseshoe Crabs meant fewer eggs to feed Red Knots, less food led to lower (or failed) breeding success and in the last decades of the twentieth century the knot population crashed by something like ninety percent.
It is still possible to see Red Knots in breathtakingly huge numbers here on the western shores of Cape May, but it is sobering to contemplate what this might have looked like a century ago when the population was vastly greater and what has since been lost.
My companion and I were witness to this drama today: thousands of Horseshoe Crabs hauling ashore to multiply, and hundreds upon thousands of shorebirds, particularly Red Knots, Least sandpipers, Sanderlings, Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Laughing Gulls waiting to feast on the eggs. I for one was utterly speechless watching perhaps one of the world’s greatest bird spectacles.

Mourning Warbler

11 May 2015. Paletta Park, Burlington, ON. This was a day of astonishing contrasts for me. I spent the morning at the bird observatory where the weather was warm (around 25 deg C) and dry, and birds were plentiful and varied,- if sometimes a little hard to find. On my return home shortly after midday, (here I should digress to explain that the geography and weather of this part of Ontario is dominated by two factors: An abrupt escarpment which elevates much of the Lake Ontario hinterland some 100M above lake level; The presence of Lake Ontario itself.) I found that the lake plain was shivering under a blanket of cold air and accompanying fogs; the temperature at my home was 12 deg C.

Stepping out of my car, I heard a song that I didn’t recognise, I grabbed my binoculars and was soon looking as a beautiful Cape May Warbler, and then a Canada Warbler, a Blackburnian, a Chestnut-sided, a Tennessee and a Yellow Warbler all in my neighbour’s little tree. Then the penny dropped: this sweep of cold air, this fog, had forced last night’s migrating birds to the ground.

I ate a hasty lunch and headed to a leafy park at the lake’s edge where I was rewarded with one of those magical May days, surrounded by colourful little warblers and vireos wherever I looked. It seemed for a while, as if every one of them was perfect as if lifted from a field guide illustration. The list was long, nearly twenty warbler species, tediously long if I were to name them all here, but it includes several sparkling Canada and Magnolia Warblers, Northern Parulas and the always engaging Wilson’s Warblers. There were vireos too: Blue-headed, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos and they, along with excellent sightings of Yellow-throated Vireos at the bird observatory, they made for a vireo-rich day.

Bird of the Day was a Mourning Warbler seen skulking through some thick undergrowth. Skulking is what they do best; well maybe not best, they are good at it but are interesting singers and disarmingly handsome. The male is generally yellow to greenish-yellow all over except for his head and shoulders, which are hooded slate grey shading to speckled coal black under the chin. I gasped and ooh-ed and ahh-ed like a wide-mouthed innocent at a circus act.

The day did produce some good photo opportunities, some at the bird observatory, and some at warbler park. Here are a few.

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Green Heron

5 May 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. One of my favourite stream-side walks is a reliably good spot to find breeding pairs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Green Herons. In fact, with a full-bodied, almost a river, stream on one side and a large marshy pond on the other it’s good for many birds at almost all times of the year. It is also along the route of one of my census walks.

At this time of year the menu-specials change daily. For several weeks it’s been a sure place to see a succession of waterfowl starting early in April with: Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead and Wood Ducks, then later progressing through the brief appearances of Blue-winged Teal and Gadwall. By the time it’s all over, I am sure the area will be home to families of: Red-winged Blackbirds, Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Belted Kingfishers, Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, Green Herons, Warbling Vireos and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, to name but a few.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

I have been anticipating the return of the Green Herons for a while and today, as I walked the trail, a trio of them flew over, banking low and looking for home. They are quite distinctive in every way: visually they’re elaborately unmistakable, and in flight they’re buoyant, even bouncy. Like most herons they’re vocal croakers when alarmed or in flight, in the case of the Green Herons theirs’ is a sharp coughing bark with an almost metallic ring.

The fly-past group didn’t go very much farther and later as I was on the return leg of the census I spotted two of them in a Manitoba Maple. Two’s company and three’s a crowd, as we know and here were two engaged in either some pair-bonding or territorial squabbling, I’m not sure which. Think back to your own youth, those modes of posturing can be hard to tell apart. The gallery below is of the few photos I was able to get through the trees.

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Heard, but not seen, along the walk was a Northern Waterthrush. It’s a reminder to get exploring some of my other favourite spots. But for now in this, the early days of the cascade of new spring arrivals, the Green Herons made an already fulfilling morning extra colourful; Birds of the Day.

Cerulean Warbler

4 May 2015 Cayuga ON. There were lots of first-of-the-years at the bird observatory today: the warm southerly breeze kept on delivering them. At first light a Whip-poor-will called from some distance away and by around 7.30 we could hear the noisy calls of Baltimore Orioles and they were all around us before long. As we watched a group of half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers gleaning insects in a budding Northern Hackberry (tree) we found a Tennessee Warbler.   On the census we watched small groups of Western Palm Warblers foraging low along woodland edges. My best birds of the day for a while were Yellow-throated Vireos calling raspily, but three Chimney Swifts wheeling and chasing high overhead, Warbling Vireos singing their tumbling scatter of notes from high in the treetops or a beautifully marked Black and White Warbler kept pressing to be Bird of the Day.

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But the Bird of the Day was came as I prowled a stretch of rich woodland. I was enjoying a gloriously flame-faced Blackburnian Warbler as it worked its way around the newly opening buds of a Manitoba Maple, when I found that I was looking at a male Cerulean Warbler. This species is so uncommon that it took me a while to understand what I was seeing. Prior to today I have only knowingly seen one (perhaps two) Cerulean Warblers.

The species is being assailed from all sides, its best breeding grounds in North America have disappeared to make way for farmland and their wintering grounds in the Andes have been cleared for the cultivation of coca. This little bird is in trouble; it is listed as Endangered in Canada and Indiana and Threatened in Illinois and Wisconsin.

The beauty of today’s sighting was not only in the thrill of its rarity but also that it stayed around long enough for three of us to study it at length. My initial doubts and puzzlement vanished as it moved around, showing me all sides and at times turning its gloriously blue head and back to best effect. Such consideration allowed me to mentally eliminate any possible confusion with other species. Getting a photograph was a real challenge as it was always on the move and back-lit by a bright sky; still I managed a couple of reasonable shots; here they are.Cerulean Warbler2 Cerulean Warbler

The day didn’t stop delivering. Before we closed up around noon we had banded an Indigo Bunting, Magnolia Warbler and Ovenbird and seen a Great-crested Flycatcher; all great birds – all day.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Yellow Warbler

3 May 2015. Hamilton ON.  I think today was the day of the Yellow Warbler; they’re back and, I hope, ushering in the warblers of May. In a week or two, Yellow Warblers will be too numerous to count, they’ll be just a part of the background noise. But today I was greeted by the first of the year; and standing in one spot, I could distinguish four, maybe five, all singing their hurried ‘Sweet sweet shredded wheat” song. I think they were all males, bright buttercup yellow with chestnut streaks down the breast. My Birds of the Day for being here.

Yellow Warbler )m) in full song

Yellow Warbler )m) in full song

I started the day really early by taking my daughter’s dog for a walk; something I used to do frequently. The sun was still lingering below the horizon as we walked a couple of kilometers along a power-line right-of-way, a wide expanse of grassland flanked by scrubby forest. About every one-hundred metres along the edges, a Field Sparrow was singing its territorial heart out, for every four Field Sparrows there was an Eastern Towhee, also in full song and in the distance a singing Brown Thrasher. It reminded me of my formative days in England when my dad and I would cycle around the dew-sparkling countryside listening to the exuberant dawn chorus of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Skylarks; these are vivid memories.

Brown Thrasher ( a little later in the year)

Brown Thrasher ( a little later in the year)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

The Yellow Warblers showed up later in the morning up on one of my census walks. They, along with a single Western Palm Warbler, a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a singing Warbling Vireo (another first) made going without breakfast worthwhile. I counted a couple of dozen Common Terns swooping over the lake waters and a handful of their cousins, Caspian Terns, loafing on a shingle shoreline.

 

Upland Sandpiper

29 April 2015. Fenelon Falls ON. I have, perhaps recklessly, volunteered to participate in a provincial effort to determine and monitor the population of Loggerhead Shrikes. Although not terribly rare in the southern half of the U.S.A. it is extremely uncommon in the northeast and the Loggerhead Shrike is considered endangered in Ontario. Loggerhead, by the way refers to its disproportionately large head, it might also be read as blockhead!

The project I signed on for entails visiting pre-determined sites in parts of the province that have appropriate shrike habitat. In my case, it meant a long day, nearly 500 kilometres of driving and in the end no shrikes at all. But actually finding one was not the only purpose, the first step is to establish just what cohort of species uses the same habitat, so my day’s efforts were as much about learning what is there as finding a shrike; indeed I had a low expectation of finding a shrike at all.

This was the first significantly warm day of the year and it’s starting to look as though it’s going to stay that way – more or less. The assigned sites were still reeling from the battering of winter, there was scarcely a hint of green anywhere, and although we heard a Brown Thrasher and several Eastern Meadowlarks singing, and saw Tree Swallows and a pair of Eastern Bluebirds investigating nesting boxes, it was generally rather quiet.

This was the right habitat for and we kept hoping to find Grasshopper, Vesper or Clay-colored Sparrows but no such luck; maybe it was still a bit too early. Several Savannah Sparrows kept us entertained though and as the shot below shows they’re rather pretty in their own right.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

As the day wore on, my companion Eric and I debated the Bird of the Day. At first I was all for an exuberant Brown Thrasher seen and heard working the perimeter of its chosen territory and marking it with long performances of its rich double-phrase song. But later a really hard to make out Upland Sandpiper ended up being my Bird of the Day. Upland Sandpipers are one of those species that has a special place in my heart. There’s something incongruous about them: they’re built like a shorebird, like a dowitcher or a yellowlegs. But instead of wandering around in the muddy edges of lakes and estuaries like any decent shorebird, they make their home in expansive grassy fields. No doubt they find plenty to eat, but at some point their ancestors gave up shorelines and well, here they are chasing grasshoppers and the like; just a little odd.

Eric’s day seemed to be missing a piece until much later, on our way home, we found a wonderful Rough-legged Hawk. I take credit for spotting it a long way away perched atop a small cedar tree. Like many birds, Rough-legged Hawks seem to be keenly aware of the slightest potential threats and although we were perhaps half a kilometer away, when we got out of the car it grew uneasy and took flight. But once airborne it circled around allowing us to enjoy long looks at its strong markings: a broad terminal tail band, black belly and dark underwings. That was Bird of the Day for Eric. We could agree to differ; I still preferred the Upland Sandpiper.

Tree Swallows

24 April 2015. Cayuga ON. April is regularly a month of expectation, encouragement and disappointment. My diary is full of entries attesting to the fact that April can blow hot and cold. Here are a few examples from the last week of April: 1990 “Today was the third day of a sudden heat-wave, temps went to the low 30s.” 1981 ” After a record low night minus 5 deg C.” 2013 “Cold and snow squalls all day.” This week we’re living one of those cold breaks and it has stalled the spring migration in its tracks.

Today I walked the census route at the bird observatory. It was cold, the north wind sliced right through me, and my fingertips were ready to drop off. The census was modestly successful but I was in no mood to linger.

Tree Swallows are always early to return in the spring so there must be something in their make up that enables them to survive late cold spells; or maybe some just starve to death and that’s the way it is.

Tree Swallows waiting out a cold wind

Tree Swallows waiting out a cold wind

I admired a group of six Tree Swallows that were clustered together trying to stay alive by fluffing up their feathers and sheltering each other. They made no attempt to fly away at our approach; that would use too much precious energy. They were a doleful sight but photogenic at the same time.