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 ....

Saturday, September 13, 2014

California - Orcas, Albatrosses and Condors

A rare weekend off - chasing some Bucket List critters in California

Just back from California and somewhere between tech stuff in San Francisco, wine stuff in Napa, and a visit to LA, I managed to squeeze in some birding in Monterey County.

I haven't done a Debbie Shearwater Pelagic Trip since the 90's but booked a couple for the weekend.  Had hoped to do both but, given the schedule, I had to choose one and given the locations, opted for an 'old school' Monterey trip - not likely to produce lifers, but most likely to produce nostalgic memories (these things get important when you're a worn-out old world-lister).

Joined the crew at 7am and met Debbie (who didn't remember me from the old days), Brian Sullivan (on board bird expert and eBird grandee), and a crew of birders some newbies, some pelagic veterans.  The weather was perfect with flat seas, almost no wind, and overcast skies - given my tendency to hurl chum in the smallest of waves I was really excited for a nice, low key, pelagic sampler.  Definitely looked like it was going to be a great trip, and it was.

Black-vented Shearwaters - lots of these in the Sooty Shearwater flocks ...
Once out of the docks, and past a nice selection of Shore (rock) birds, including Black Turnstone, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird and Black Oystercatcher, we soon headed out into the bay.  Shearwaters were everywhere, in staggering numbers.   Apparently the anchovies are recovering and there were vast flocks of shearwaters  chowing down within sight of land.  This place is just truly awesome in terms of the biomass of interesting things.

As we worked out way out we spent several hours pushing the shearwater flocks around.  The trip the day before had had a Flesh-footed Shearwater (good bird) so Debbie was keen to spend time kicking the shearwaters around to see what was there.  There were tens of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters, thousands of Black-vented Shearwaters, lots of Pink-footed Shearwaters and even a few Manx Shearwaters (newly breeding in the Pacific?).  We also had a brief look at a bird that felt good for STREAKED SHEARWATER, but not seen by all and none of us got good photos.  Definitely a Shearwater day on a Shearwater Journey.

Pink-footed Shearwater
Shearwaters aside, we did get a good mix of other pelagic species.  A Scripts's Murrelet was the class act among many Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets and lots of Common Murres.  A good smattering of Red-necked Phalaropes, Sabine's Gulls, and single Northern Fulmar (please split these Pacific Birds - so obviously not the same species) also added some interest.

The world's rattiest Northern Fulmar
There were also Elegant and Common Terns, a nice mix of Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers and a few gulls to look at.  Never a dull moment for an East Coast birder on a West Coast pelagic.

What was missing though was Storm-Petrels.  A single Black-Storm Petrel, not seen by me, was the only Storm-Petrel record on the trip.  Each and every trip is different ... the joy and the frustration of pelagic birding.

One of the best things about West Coast pelagics though is the presence of LOTS of sea mammals.  

Dall's Porpoise
 We had 8 species of Sea-mammal on this trip: Sea-Otter, California Sea-Lion, Northern Fur-Seal, Harbor Seal, Humpback Whale, Harbor Porpoise, Dall's Porpoise, and ORCA!

A family of 6-8 Orcas came by while we were watching the Murrelet and we were able to follow them for maybe a half and hour.  Truly awesome to finally see Orcas - a bucket list species and a check mark ....
Black-footed Albatross over Orcas (pretty cool) ....

As usual (for me at least on a West Coast Pelagic) the star bird was am "East Cost" bird (although to be fair, a West Coast race, and potential split).  The shout went out from the bow that there was a "Booby flying towards the boat" and soon we had a Brown Booby in the chum slick and later found it's roosting log and got some good shots.  There have been several Brown Boobies in New York over the last few weeks - none of which I got organized to chase - so the irony of seeing one in California wasn't lost on me.  Nice bird and a state bird for me.  I've now seen them in three states, eventually I'll get one in New York ...

Black-footed Albatross
So with no plans for Sunday, we decided to look for Condors - California Condor is technically still extinct in the wild and how often to you get to chase extinct species?  A quick morning trip to Pinnacles National Park drew a blank (although I did get my life Yellow-billed Magpies nearby).  So an afternoon trip to the Ventana Inn in Big Sur became my last hope for this species on this trip.  When we got to the restaurant (and Condor stake-out) the waitress informed me that there had been a juvenile Condor seen that morning, and that "we never see Condors here".  Half way through lunch through I spotted a distant juvenile condor and then a closer adult - perhaps the waitresses need bins?     Short-ribs, beer and Condors ... not a bad way to spend an hour or two .... but unfortunately my camera was having problems so no photos.  Still, a good reason to go back to a beautiful spot and no complaints on my part.  Perfect weekend break ... maybe I'll even bump into a Lawrence's Goldfinch one day ....