All posts for the month October, 2010

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Photography by Hank Davis

Every Sunday and Monday at 8am, the Delaware Nature Society runs free bird walks at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve.  I led the walk this Monday, and we didn’t have to go far to see birds.  What is known as the Sharp Road Field was recently hayed, but several large patches of standing grass and milkweed were left for cover and food for wildlife.  We circled these patches to find migratory sparrows and ended up seeing a wide variety of birds, including some rare species.  Enjoy the photos by Hank Davis to give you a glimpse of what we saw yesterday morning.  Attend a bird walk at privately-owned Bucktoe Creek Preserve sometime in the future.

I was very surprised to see a Bobolink this late in the season. These meadow-loving members of the Blackbird family have usually migrated out of our region by mid-October. This individual, late by a few weeks, is on its way to South American grasslands for the winter.

Savannah Sparrows were abundant in the meadow. They perched up in the morning sun and allowed a close approach. These sparrows are migrating through our area now in substantial numbers.

This juvenile White-crowned Sparrow was one of six found on our walk. They usually occur in thickets and hedgerows at this time of year as they pause on their way south. A few overwinter in our area, but most winter further south.

The bird of the morning was a single Vesper Sparrow. This meadow species is very difficult to find in migration. Birders that spend many hours searching for them in migration don't see them every year. Although superficially similar to a Savannah Sparrow, the Vesper has a bold eye-ring and a different facial pattern. We also saw the white outer tail feathers when it flew.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

The autumn trip to Kiptopeke finally went!  Last year two Nor’easters cancelled the trip, and the year before that, not enough people signed up.  So with 6 participants, Judy Montgomery and I headed down to the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula last Thursday.  Of course, a Nor’easter was headed straight for us.  This year, only one of these storms was predicted, and the heavy rain raced past us as we drove south.

After the Nor'easter cleared, we watched raptors migrate past in the evening light from our porch at Kiptopeke State Park.

The southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula is a wonderful place to view migratory birds and butterflies.  These travelers concentrate here due to the narrowing of the peninsula, and if the weather does not permit passage over the Chesapeake Bay, birds rest and feed here in huge numbers prior to crossing.  For a group, Kiptopeke State Park offers wonderful accommodations.  We stayed in one of five red-roofed lodges that would be easy to see from Mars, but are situated in a beautiful meadow and are spaced out far enough where you feel isolated from other groups.

Birding is the main event for the three-day trip, and we started off about as well as you could.  On our first morning, we visited the songbird banding station in the park.  As the sun rose, the banders checked nets and returned with several cloth bags, each containing a bird to be banded.  The first bird they extracted from a bag was one that I have only seen once in my life, a Connecticut Warbler!  These rare birds are tough to find in the wild and are a chunky, thrush-like warbler of thickly vegetated places.  We could have stopped right there and the trip would have been considered a success.

Jen, one of the banders at Kiptopeke, holds a Connecticut Warbler, the first bird of the morning.

Other birds we banded and released were Yellow-rumped Warblers, Palm Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and Brown Thrasher.  Following our banding session, we departed for the small fishing village of Oyster to catch a boat to Wreck Island, situated 7-miles offshore.  Dot Field from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation met us, but didn’t have a boat.  It was too windy for the trip!  Nightmares of small craft advisories and 30mph winds came true.  Not to worry, though, we had a backup plan.  Dot guided our group to two Natural Areas preserved and managed by the State. 

Savage Dunes Natural Area is unlike anything I have seen on Delmarva.  This area contains a habitat called Maritime Dune Forest, which reminded me of similar places I have seen on the Outer Banks.  70-foot high dunes with scattered loblolly pine and southern red oak were the main feature here.  Apparently this kind of habitat is globally rare, very restricted and endangered. 

Here is the scene at the highest eleveation on the entire eastern shore of Virginia at Savage Dunes Natural Area along the Chesapeake Bay.

Wildlife was all over this place including tiny Cricket Frogs, numerous Bald Eagles, a single Golden Eagle, lots of butterflies and dragonflies, and many, many migratory songbirds.  Other areas at the preserve were former farm fields that the state has let return to nature for the purpose of providing resting and feeding areas for songbirds.  It was a great place for a hike.

An immature Bald Eagle was one of many we saw at Savage Dunes Natural Area.

A Wolf Spider hunted for insects across the sand at Savage Dunes.

The predictions of a windy afternoon bore out.  We were blasted in the evening and the windows of our lodge shook all night.  The sun rose, and the wind still howled.  Our plan for our final day was to visit another wild barrier island, but we didn’t need a boat to reach this one.  As the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel departs mainland Delmarva south, you cross an island called Fisherman’s Island, the southernmost point of the peninsula.  Normally this 2,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge is off-limits to the public.  On Saturdays, they offer guided tours and we took full advantage.

Our guide on Fisherman's Island was a retired professor from M.I.T. He was very knowledgable about plants, wildlife, and marine life. At one point, he very excitedly pointed out a Palamedes Swallowtail butterfly, which is a rare vagrant from further south.

The sustained wind was about 30mph on the island.  Approximately 10,000 Tree Swallows swarmed above us like mosquitoes.  Dozens of Sharp-shinned Hawks zoomed all around seeking an off-balance bird to pluck from the air or a branch.  Several Broad-winged Hawks, who refused to cross the Chesapeake Bay in such a head wind, seemed hopelessly stranded as they floated around the island.  The end of Delmarva was a super place to end our trip.

The Chesapeake Bay around Fisherman's Island was very rough in the windy conditions. Foam raced across the beach, and our eyes had to be protected from blowing sand.

Looking south from Fisherman's Island, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel crosses the bay towards Virginia Beach, the State's most densely populated area. On our side of the bridge, 20 miles away, there was nothing but woods, farms, marshes, beach, lots of wildlife, and very few people.

Our Delaware Nature Society trip to the area caught sight of 94 species of birds.  We experienced the thrill of hundreds of migratory raptors winging by, the songbird banding station, hawk watch, hikes at 2 impressive nature preserves, and Fisherman’s Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Rare birds like Golden Eagle, Connecticut Warbler, White Ibis, and Peregrine Falcon were an added bonus and it turned out to be a great trip to the southern tip.

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

An adult male Cape May Warbler gleans tiny flies from tree bark in Cape May, NJ. Image by Derek Stoner, 9/26/10.

When considering the best location to observe fall migration of birds, there is one place that comes to mind for most birders: Cape May, New Jersey.  An annual tradition among birders is to make a pilgimmage to Cape May, that favored place where birds always seem abundant and rarities are expected. 

A tiny 6-square mile island at the tip of the Garden State, Cape Island is at the bottom of a big funnel(New Jersey) that channels all the migrating birds into a small area, making the viewing and finding of birds that much easier.  Afraid or unwilling to make the 14-mile crossing of the mouth of the Delaware Bay, many birds hang out in Cape May to rest and refuel before continuing their southbound journey.   A recent Delaware Nature Society trip to Cape May, led by Judy Montgomery and me, turned up all kinds of amazing sights as we enjoyed a day of “Fall Flight.”  

Monarchs by the millions(literally) pass through Cape May on their way south, fueling up on nectar to provide the energy for their journey.

A couple of bright male Cape May Warblers(so-named because the first-specimen was “collected” in Cape May back in the 1800’s) entertained us with their feeding antics as they gleaned gnats off of tree branches.  We watched these handsome warblers from as clsoe as 6 feet, and binoculars were not necessary! 

One of the big stories of this fall is the massive numbers of migrating Monarch butterflies funneling through the Cape.  One day in mid-September, and estimated 1.4 million Monarchs roosted in Cape May overnight, departing the next morning orange and black clouds!  On our visit, we merely saw thousands of Monarchs passing by in a constant stream, some pausing to sip nectar from the abundant flowers.

A Dickcissel brightens up a brown patch of brambles.

As expected, we did see our share of unusual birds. One of the best is this Dickcissel, a type of prairie-dwelling sparrow that sometimes shows up in fall on the East Coast.  Curiously, they like to hang out with the ubiquitous flocks of House Sparrows.  A bright yellow-chested Dickcissel sure stands out in the drab sparrow crowd!

A juvenile Black Skimmer knifes its specialized beak through the water, ready to snap up a fish.

One of the amazing sights of the day(besides the hundreds of migrating hawks and falcons) is the concentration of waterbirds we saw.  At the famous “Meadows” bird refuge, we found 9 species of shorebirds, 5 species of ducks, and a real stunner of a bird:  the Black Skimmer.  These birds cruise over shallow water with the tip of the incredibly-long bill slicing through the water.  When the bill encounters a fish, the bill snaps shut, trapping the prize.  We watched this graceful creature swoop back and in front of us, gracefully picking minnows out of the water.   

Fall migration is a spectacle best seen to be understood and Cape May stands alone at the top in terms of diversity of birds to be observed.  A world-famous hawk watch is conducted there, as well as an incredible sea watch, where more than a million waterbirds are counted each fall.  For great stories, photos, and updates on the Cape May migration scene, visit “View From the Cape” :

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

In the autumn, the best bird feeder in my yard is not plastic and filled with seeds…it is an American elm tree.  This tree, which was planted in the backyard 10 years ago literally swarms with aphids each and every fall.  They buzz around the tree, line every crack, and coat every branch.  Walking past the tree, you must go through a fog of these tiny, winged insects. 

This is the American Elm in my backyard that attracts zillions of aphids in the fall. In turn, lots of migratory songbirds feast in the tree.

These little insects attract small songbirds which gorge themselves at this tree from about mid-September through October.  Earlier this year, a Cape May Warbler spent two days feeding at the tree.  This week, a Brown Creeper inched its way up the trunk, plucking aphids at every hitch.  Today, however, was the big show of the season so far.  At about the same time, the following species were in the tree feeding: Ruby Crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet (several of each), Blackpoll Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Palm Warbler, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Nashville Warbler, and a Downy Woodpecker.

This Northern Parula hung around the tree for a while, getting its fill of aphids.

This Blackpoll Warbler fed on the tree all morning. It was very tame and allowed a close approach. Here it is picking an aphid off a branch.

This Palm Warbler stopped in briefly to feed at the American Elm.

I watched the birds feed for a few hours this morning.  Mostly, they allowed me to get quite close, since they were very preoccupied with feasting on the thousands of insects that coat the tree.  Later in the morning, I saw a chickadee getting in the act as well.  Since I’ve never seen a chickadee eat the insects before, I looked a little harder.  It turned out to be a Black-capped Chickadee, which is rare where I live in southern Chester County, PA.  My resident Carolina Chickadees would rather stick to the plastic kind of feeder filled with seed. 

I was very surprised to see a Black-capped Chickadee feeding in the tree on insects. This bird is a rare migrant where I live near Kennett Square, PA. The resident Carolina Chickadees pay no attention to the aphids, preferring to feed at the regular bird feeder.

This is exactly why we should plant native plants in the backyard.  Native plants attract insects which attract birds and other predatory insects and so on.  Today I can see how even just one tree can support dozens and dozens of birds, possibly hundreds over the course of the fall migration when they stop to refuel here. 

Ladybug Beetle larva are also attracted to the elm tree to eat the aphids. Check out the winged aphids all around the larva.

American elms have mostly succumbed to the introduced Dutch Elm Disease and there are few in the ecosystem around us.  My elm is genotype that has been developed that is resistant to this disease.  Just imagine the impact American elms had in the ecosystem when they were commonly found in our area.

This Ruby-crowned Kinglet hovers to pick aphids off a leaf.

You can see some of the aphids buzzing around the head of this Tennessee Warbler, which was another fantastic bird to see in the tree.

For more information on native plants in the backyard landscape, check out Bringing Nature Homeby Douglas W. Tallamy.