Cape May Birding Festival Finale

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On the last morning of the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival, we took a trolley tour that included the second stop at Cook’s Beach for more shore birds…but the rest stop at the New Jersey Audubon – Cape May Bird Observatory Center for Research and Education offered some different types of photography.

I indulged in some macro photography with my cell phone…targeting some of the native plants in the garden beside the building.

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There was a bee stealing nectar from the base of a flower.

I managed to capture pollen threads on native honeysuckle using the phone camera at close range (no macro lens).

Using my camera…and zooming – the cliff swallow nesting in the eaves of the building was visible. The bird kept an eye on the people below but did not move from the nest. Nearby many carpenter bees were making holes in the siding of the building. They were moving around too fast to photograph.

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As our group was getting ready to leave – someone noticed a box turtle in the front vegetation. What a beautiful specimen!

Cook’s Beach Birds

The highest density of birds we saw at one place during the  Cape May Spring (birding) Festival was at Cook’s Beach. They are drawn to the beach by the horseshoe crab eggs – rich food to fatten them up before they continue north on their migration.  I took lots of pictures and was challenged to select the ones I would include in this post. I took a sequence when something startled the birds and they took off – swirled around and landed again. The beach seemed very full even when there were a lot of birds in the air.

In some places the gulls seemed to dominate and there were a lot of horseshoe crabs still around. The Laughing Gulls (black head) and larger Herring Gulls are easy to distinguish.

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Sometimes it was a large group of just Laughing Gulls.

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I got my best picture of a cormorant of the festival at the beach. The birds were on the pilings – not the beach – and seemed to be observing the ruckus on the beach. The out-of- focus birds in the foreground are Ruddy Turnstones. The gull is probably a second year Herring Gull.

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This picture includes Forster’s Terns (the black and white birds) and Ruddy Turnstones on the pilings – preening. The Ruddy Turnstones look rounded…probably are already fattening up.

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There is a back of Ruddy Turnstone on the beach in this picture….and the bird facing the camera is a Red Knot. Both birds are a little larger than the other shorebirds.

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The crowd of birds in the picture below are all Red Knots.  The birds with reddish color are in breeding plumage. The others are non-breeding. Note that two seem to be making eye contact.

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I liked this lineup of Herring Gulls, with the mature bird in front and sitting…the immatures standing behind.

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How many birds can you recognize in the picture below:

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The easy ones are laughing gull, red knot, and ruddy turnstone. There are some smaller shorebirds in the mix as well.

I couldn’t resist one botanical picture as we headed back to the car – a rose growing where vegetation meets the beach.

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Cook’s Beach Horseshoe Crabs

We went to Cook’s Beach twice during the  Cape May Spring (birding) Festival.  It’s a Delaware Bay beach and there were lots of horseshoe crabs both times. They were there to mate and lay eggs. There were groups of males gathered around females all along the beach.

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Sometimes the groups are tossed around as a group in the surf.

The creatures are so odd looking with their tank-like shell and spikey tail….and the leggy creature under the shell.

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Sometimes they are legs-up in the sand and use their tails to turn themselves over!

The crabs sometimes get high up on the beach behind rocks…tangled with other crabs. Hopefully they will find their way out and back to the sea or over to the beach to find mates.

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They are awkward on land and at the edge of the sea.

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But more maneuverable than I expected. I took a series of pictures that shows a horseshoe crab making tracks heading back to sea.

In general – the older the crabs, the more barnacles. Evidently the barnacles are not just on the top of the shell either.

Some of the crabs were dug into the sand until the next high tide…and some had been tagged.

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Tomorrow I’ll post about the birds we saw at Cook’s Beach…enjoying a feast of horseshoe crab eggs before continuing their migration.

Back Bay Birding Boat Trip

Our afternoon session on the second day at the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival, was a pontoon boat trip around Cape May’s back bay (Cape May Harbor and tidal wetlands along the Intracoastal Waterway). I saw more birds than I could photograph…but the boat was steady enough for photography as well. Can you identify the birds in this picture?

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They are easy enough: American Oystercatcher, Black-bellied Plover (2 of them), and a Laughing Gull. I didn’t identify the one facing the water.

There were lots of Laughing Gulls and they were close enough for portraits.

There were a few Brant (geese) that hadn’t left yet. From far away they look a little like a Canada Goose but smaller; taking a closer look…the markings are quite different.

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I took a picture of the Great and Snowy Egrets to provide a comparison of the two birds in the same photo: size, bill color, etc.

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There was an island where there were a lot of nesting Laughing Gulls and Forster’s Terns.

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The terns (different stages of development) were feeding on the mud flat.

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A Least Tern seemed to enjoy the bobbing of a barrel.

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By far the ‘star’ of the nesting birds were the Osprey.  They seemed to be nesting on everything sticking out of the water that could hold a nest!

The Peregrine Falcons were also using a man-made structure for their nesting site: a bridge. The bird was protecting her young as our boat went underneath the bridge. The female was with the chicks. The male was having lunch on the next bridge support over.

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Being on a boat provides a different perspective….and we would not have seen the falcon any other way. Even though many of the birds seemed to be watching our progress…they were not disturbed by the boat as they are by large groups of people moving about on land.

Rea Farm, “The Beanery”

Our second day at the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival, started at 7 rather than 5:30 AM like the first one and was closer to our hotel at Rea Farm – a former lima bean farm (thus “The Beanery” name) owned by the Rea Family with birding rights leased to New Jersey Audubon. We had a large enough group that the guides split us into two and we made different circuits through the property. The land has some cultivated areas, but most has returned to heavily vegetated thickets and wet forest. Some of the farm buildings and abandoned machinery are being taken over by vegetation.

There has been some effort to remove invasive plants and give natives a chance to grow. We heard a lot of birds and I saw many with my binoculars. It was a very cloudy day – not great for catching fast moving birds. The only reasonably good picture I got of a bird was of a Great Crested Flycatcher.

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There were a few spittle bugs – not that you can see the nymph of the froghopper (Cercopoidea) through the foam.

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I reverted to plants as subjects for my camera on the hike. There was a lot of variety. The zoom on the camera makes these photographs quick and I didn’t step off the mowed grass path. I had tucked my jean leggings into by socks and sprayed my boots and leggings with insect repellent…but the area is known for its ticks….not a place to go off trail.

Overall – the walk through the variety of habitats at The Beanery was a great way to start our second day at the festival.

South Cape May Meadows – Part 2

Continuing about South Cape May Meadows

There were snowy egrets in many places we went

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As well as osprey

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And shorebirds.

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The cliff swallows were very active as dusk neared. They look very similar to tree swallows in silhouette but are easily distinguished if their color can be seen.

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A red winged blackbird was making its mating calls in some reeds near us….the breeze swaying his perch.

As we neared the end of hike there was oystercatcher on a nest. This one had even less protection than the one at Two Mile Beach. I was zooming in as much as the light would permit so we weren’t close enough to alarm the bird…but it was watching us very carefully.

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The moon was visible about the wetlands as the light shifted to dusk.

The lighthouse at South Point was visible from the trail too.

And then I couldn’t resist some sunset pictures…stopping for a few seconds several times as we continued hiking back to the cars.

It was a great way to end a day that had started with wake up at 3:30 AM and in the field by 5:30. So many habitats (forest, beach, wetlands) and birds…all in one day!

South Cape May Meadows – Part 1

After dinner on the first full day of the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival, we headed over to South Cape May Meadows, 200 acres near Cape May Point that is owned by The Nature Conservancy. There are two Purple Martin houses near the entrance; I photographed the birds and the ‘green roof’ of the nearby shed while we waited for our group to accumulate.

There were active Black Skimmers on the wetlands. It will take some practice (and more magnification) to truly capture the action. The Canada goose provides a good comparison for size in this sequence.

I caught a portrait of a skimmer that was momentarily still a little later

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And a shimmer showing off its wings as the light was fading.

Tomorrow’s post will continue the sights from our late-in-the-day visit to South Cape May Meadows.

Two Mile Beach

There were other sights beside the oystercatchers and whelks at Two Mile Beach  during the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival .

A Horseshoe crab heavily encrusted with barnacles had dug into the beach to survive until the next high tide. They can survive for quite a few hours that way. Our guide from the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the sand from around it. The crab had already died unfortunately….very sad. It would have been exciting to carry a living crab down to the water’s edge. It was interesting to learn that all the older crabs accumulate barnacles. It changes the look of their shell (do the barnacles block some of their senses as well? I didn’t think to ask.

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There was a young Herring Gull at the edge of the water getting lunch. Is that a small horseshoe crab? It’s a crab rather than a bivalve or fish for sure.

And there was an adult Herring Gull nearby.

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The whelks were not the only kind of marine snail on the beach.

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A smelly carcass of a dead whale was also on the beach. From far away it looked like a rock but as we got closer the smell wafted around us. Closer still and we saw the flies. It was too deteriorated to determine the type of whale. One flipper looked less decayed…a little swollen.

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On a more positive note – a piping plover was investigating the beach. The male was making courtship scratches in the sand. Maybe they will nest on the beach. It used to be a place that plovers nested but it’s not happened in recent years.

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As we walked back toward the dune path, I noticed an odd lump with black markings in the sand. I zoomed in with my camera – a ghost crab! We had been seeing their holes with the remains of their dinners scattered around all over the beach. They are predators and their color camouflages with the sand. The black eyestalks were what I noticed first.

My husband commented that the guides we’ve had that are staff at a National Wildlife Refuge (at Bosque del Apache, Sevilleta, and Two Mile Beach) have all been excellent. I agree with his assessment.

Two Mile Beach Whelks

We also found whelk shells and egg cases at Two Mile Beach during our field trip during  Cape May Spring (birding) Festival . The shells are the largest on the beach and appear in a range of colors due to weathering.

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There were also whelk egg cases. Our guide encouraged us to open them to find the small shells inside – whelks that were never grow to adulthood because their egg cases have become detached from their anchor in the sea and washed to the shore.

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We took a picture with the cell phone and I dug out my macro lens clip for a closer look. They are miniatures of the adults!

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I didn’t bring anything to keep the sand and tiny shells…and there was not time to count the ones that were in the case. Supposedly each capsule can contain up to 100 eggs! From the picture – I think there were at least 30.

Two Mile Beach Oystercatchers

Our first afternoon field trip of  Cape May Spring (birding) Festival was at Two Mile Beach. The part of the beach that is part of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge is closed from mid-April to mid-October; the leader for the trip (a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist) took us on the dune trail to the part of the beach that is owned by the US Coast Guard. That part of the beach has nesting birds too! The first one we saw was an American Oystercatcher on a nest. These birds are hard to miss. They are large…with a bright red bill and red rimmed yellow eye. The nest is on the ground…with very little material involved. The grasses provided a minimal curtain.

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Both the male and female take turns at the nest. We say second bird moving on the sand – meandering toward the nest. We stayed well back and watched. Note that the bird has been banded.

Eventually the bird decided we were too close and we retreated out of the range of my zoom lens to give the birds the confidence to make the nest duty swap.

Heislerville Wildlife Management Area

Our next field trip of the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival was at the Heislerville Wildlife Management Area a the end of Matt’s Landing Road. There are ponds on each side of the road as it gets close to Haase’s Marina. There were shorebirds on the mudflats – like these that (I think) are all Semipalmated Sandpipers. It was a challenge to get birds in small enough groups where the individual birds could be distinguished.

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Some are easier to identify than others like this Semipalmated Plover.

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On an island in one the ponds: a Double-crested Cormorant rookery! It is one of the few in the mid-Atlantic region. Most of the cormorants migrate further north for the summer and to breed.

There were the usual Red-wing Blackbirds and Crows around too. We heard both Fish Crows and American Crows…not sure which one this was.

Heislerville was the first place I began to realize the numbers of birds that migrate through Cape May in the spring and fall….I couldn’t resist a picture of birds in flight…with a lot still on the mud flat!

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There was a group of Black Skimmers on another island almost out of camera range with a Forster’s tern on a log in front.

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Overall – the area was rich in bird sightings - and a good contrast to the state forest earlier in the morning.

Belleplain State Forest

We got up at 3:30 AM to get to our first organized field trip of the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival by 5:30 AM – a very early start to the day at Belleplain State Forest.  As the sun came up, the forest was full of bird song. We heard a lot of birds…saw fleeting glimpses of a few. I am in awe of people that can identify birds by simply hearing them! I enjoyed the morning light for photography of the forest itself while I listened to the birds and tried to spot them with my binoculars.

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The mountain laurels were in all stages of their bloom. They like the shade under oaks but sometimes the sunlight streamed through the canopy to spotlight the clusters of blooms. The buds look very pink…the petals make a ‘balloon’ before they open into the full flower that looks white with red specks.

On one of the early stops – before it was fully light – I noticed a tree full of burls. These are swellings in the trunks or big limbs of trees that are covered by bark. They are part of the tree’s response to stress like injury or disease. Because of the number of them in this case, it’s more likely to be a disease of some kind.

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The only easy birds to photograph during the trip were some Canada Geese (with goslings) on a small lake.

The lighting makes quite a difference. I liked the green background but the painterly look (nearer the limit of the digital zoom) of the bright picture is also appealing.

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There was moss growing over the roots of a tree near a lake – a carpet melded to every nook and cranny of the surface with the roots on the surface showing through.

Some Virginia Creeper was growing on a stop sign.

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There were wet woods along the road. Some frogs croaked. There were water bugs on the surface – interference patterns and the tree reflections.

One of my favorite pictures of the morning was the tip of a pine branch – dying or dead – spotlighted – surrounded by green.

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 Overall – it was a great morning to be out in the forest – getting a fill of the forest before be headed to the shore.

Cape May Point State Park – Part 2

Continuing the posts about Cape May Point State Park

There were Forster’s Terns on lined up on a railing of an observation platform that was roped off to human traffic.

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I zoomed in to get a bird portrait

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And then back to get the whole platform as the birds flew around – a little ‘musical chairs’ on the platform railing.

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There was a Great Egret and a gull (maybe a ring-billed) mixed in with the terns. The other birds give some size comparison for the Forster’s. There was a breeze that ruffled the feathers of some of the birds…giving them a scruffy look even though they were preening almost constantly.

Overall – the short walk through part of the wetlands filled the time before we headed back to the hotel and the kickoff for the festival….primed to get underway early the next morning with field trips.

Cape May Point State Park – Part 1

After arriving in Cape May and picking up our packets from the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival, we headed over to the Cape May Point State Park to walk around the wetlands. It was a good intro to the area. It was a sunny afternoon and still cool enough to be comfortable walking around.There was a Great Egret surveying the water.

Nearby there was a Mute Swan nesting.

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The mate was out on the water. They aren’t native birds…and too big to ignore. I heard later from several guides that nesting swans can be vicious. Good thing this nest was on an island – not where anyone would be walking.

A non-bird find: a painted turtle just to the side of the trail. I zoomed in for a closer look. He emerged a little from his shell. The shell looks like it has algae on it…hopefully it is not actually growing on the shell and going to cause a problem.

More birds we saw in the State Park in tomorrow’s post….

Road Trip to Cape May NJ

Last week we drove up to Cape May NJ for the Cape May Spring (birding) Festival. It’s a little over 3 hours for us. We decided to wait until mid-morning to let the traffic clear out…but the traffic was still very heavy on I-95. It took us more than an hour to get to the Maryland House Service Area; we opted to take the stop even though we usually pass this one by. It has been rebuilt in recent years with more areas for people to sit and eat…even places to charge electronics or use a laptop (although no one was doing that while we were there). The landscaping is still growing into the place.

Getting back on the road – the major traffic seemed to have cleared. We got to Delaware Memorial Bridge about 30 minutes later. And we were in New Jersey.

Our route turned south now that we had passed over the Delaware River and were on the other side of the Delaware Bay. Millville NJ was along our route to Cape May. I had completely lost track of where it was located in New Jersey since I had visited back in Fall 2014 (see post here).

This time we continued further south – into an area I had never been: Cape May, the furthest point south in New Jersey with the Delaware Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. We arrived by mid-afternoon, checked in to our hotel and then picked up our registration packets for the festival. Then we headed out to the Cape May Wetlands State Natural Area. I’ll post about it tomorrow….and the rest of festival in the days to come.