Sunday, September 14, 2014

Whiskered Tern in Cape May, New Jersey

A quick twitch for another European vagrant.  A tale of three twitches.

Twitch #1: In 1985 I was a rabid teenage birder simply itching to see new species.  With no car, and no birders in the family, my options were limited but desperate to see new things I decided to start hitch-hiking to chase rarities in the UK.  One of the first twitches was to chase a WHISKERED TERN that had shown up in Devon.  Three rides, three hours, and I got the bird!  So easy (although I did meet some "interesting" people on the way).  I thought the trip a great success and many similar trips were to follow in the coming years.

Twitch #2: Fast forward 8 years to 1993 and I was living in New York when a Whiskered Tern showed up at Cape May, and was later re-found in the Bombay Hook area of Delaware.  By that point I'd seen the species in several countries (and have since seen it in several more) but, this being an ABA bird, Philip Dempsey and I drove down to try to see it.  We dipped....

Twitch #3: Fast forward another 21 years and on Friday I heard that Louise Zemaitis had found another Whiskered Tern in Cape May, NJ.  I woke up on Saturday morning to a barrage of photos of the bird on Facebook - it seemed to be sticking, so perhaps I should try again?  Some quick texts to old birding buddies Philip Dempsey and Michael Duffy and come Sunday morning we were on our way at 6am with a 3+ hour drive ahead of us.

Cape May Lighthouse (photo: Michael Duffy)
On the way down we were a little troubled at the lack of reports and the puzzling silence on Facebook.  Had the bird left?

Stopping for coffee somewhere in central Jersey we all anxiously checked our phones and (to our great relief) got word that the bird was still being seen.  When we got to Cape May at 9:15am the news wasn't great though; the bird had been seen a couple of times early in the morning but hadn't been seen for some time.  We'd come all this way though so we settled in to watch and an hour later the word got out that the bird had reappeared on the beach in the tern/gull roost.

Whiskered Tern - dead center in this long-distance record shot.
Mission accomplished - although too far away to get decent shots.  So after watching the bird until it wandered off, we decided to do the same and hit some local birding spots.  Heading back to the beach an hour or so later we again got distant views of the bird and watched it until it picked up and flew over to feed at Bunker Pond.  While I never did get more than record shots we did get to watch the bird for 20 minutes as it fed over the fresh water.  An interesting feeding style, swirling over the pond then dropping to grab damselflies (?) on the water surface.  Nice views, great bird.  Only the 3rd record for the ABA ever.  Very glad we came.

Whiskered Tern - two distant flight shots.

The bird was good but perhaps the best part of the day was catching up with old friends.  I don't often get to bird with Michael and Philip these days (Michael became a world-lister and Philip a surfer).  I also got to spend time with Louise Zemaitis and Michael O'Brien, Jeff Gordon, Mary Gustafson, etc.  A veritable who's who of the birding world in one place.  Who knows, perhaps I should twitch more often ....

Photo: Michael Duffy
Postscript: 8 days later and the bird is still there (no doubt having been seen by every serious ABA lister by now).

I'd assumed that Whiskered Terns ate small (tasty-looking) damselflies but I've since seen photos that show it eating large migrant dragonflies.  Given the location, and the abundance of large migrating dragonflies, there's no reason it wouldn't stay for another week or two before (presumably) heading South to the dragonfly-rich wetlands of Florida.  Potential for many other state firsts here ....

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