CAPE MAY BIRDING: SKIMMER VISITATION

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that three Intrepids — Carolyn Yoder, Jeanette Hooban and I–, luxuriated in the haven of Cape May a week or two ago, sheltered in a restored Victorian home,  a half-block from the sea.  From its rocking-chair-rich porch, we could see dunes, bayberry, maybe even the seaside goldenrod, and the miraculous blue-grey eternality of the sea.  At sun-up and sun-down, roseate skies over dunes and waves revealed winged waves of rare and graceful skimmers.

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Nightly Gift: Cape May’s Skimmer Flock

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Why We Bird — Skimmer-Transfixed

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Heedless Hiker and Rare Flock

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“Home from the Sea” – Nightly Skimmer Reunions

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Jeanette in Heaven

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Cruel Tourist

Two men who may well have flown in from Australia for the Cape May Birding Weekend, rushed to me after a third harsh and heedless one insisted upon flushing that priceless flock.

“She walked right toward them!  She just walked right INTO them!,” one exclaimed, quivering with shock or fury or both.  In a quieter manner, the other man shook his head, almost mourning, “And to think we traveled 5000 miles to see them.”  “We don’t have them at home,” added the other.

What they did not know is that I’d accosted the first skimmer-disturber.  Another woman — slender and fit, who zoomed right INTO that sacred group.

“Don’t do this!,” I whisper-admonished.  “These birds have been feeding all day to get ready to sleep here for the night.  When you flush them, they use up calories!  Now they’ll have to go out and feed anew, and the sun is going down.  Feeding uses calories!” 

She kept right on zooming, holding her camera/phone practically in the faces of the flock’s sentinels.

“Please?!,” I urged.  She flounced up, waved her phone in MY face, giving me a grin that would require an obscenity to describe.

I apologized to the far-flung traveling birders.  “I am so sorry Americans are so cruel.”

Exasperated, I shouted a sarcasm after the relentless disturber:

“YOU are more important than birds!”

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SCATTERED! Cape May Skimmer Flock Evicted by Heedless Walkers

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CAPE MAY BIRDING WEEKEND PRELIMINARIES – Intrepids at Hawk Watch Platform

Birding, –whether its interval involves weeks, weekends, or stolen moments before sundown–, guarantees the unexpected.

Below is a potpourri of impressions from the Intrepids’ Cape May week, in extraordinarily hot October.

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Sunrise, Cape May, October 2016

Above, Carolyn Yoder watches for the Cape May skimmer flock, at sun’s arrival, on our empty beach.

Below, note birdless sky at the Cape May Bird Observatory Hawk Watch Platrorm, in the face of implacable winds out of the southeast:

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Ready for Action, neglected scope and camera at Cape May Hawk Watch Platform in Hot October 2016

 

“…Home are the wanderers, home from the sea…” For a series of idyllic days, Jeanette Hooban, Carolyn Yoder and I woke and slept to the sound of waves.  Except for our superb dinner at the Ebbitts Room of the Virginia Hotel, we never left the (perfectly restored charm-ful Victorian) house without binoculars in hand.

 

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Timelessness Central, Cape May Dwelling

 

Extraordinary fellowship was the hallmark of our days and night.  Especially as Carolyn Yoder. read aloud of Whitman and of Yeats, on this beckoning porch, in pitch darkness seasoned with moonrise.

 

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Dunes and Sea from Timeless Porch of Restored Victorian Cape May Residence

 

As for birding itself…   Well, let’s just say that 21st-Century people tend not to realize the crucial factor of wind-direction, –for birders, to be sure; but even more-so, for the birds.  Fall migrants need tail winds straight and strong, out of the northwest, surging them southward.  Our four southeast-buffeted days brought glorious sunrises, sunsets, and even a delightful dip in the Delaware Bay.     Birding?  Let’s put it down to quality over quantity   –that lone whimbrel on the Skimmer’s Back-Bay Birding pontoon Cape May saltmarsh expedition, above all.

 

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Jeanette Prepares for her Dip in Delaware Bay, at Higbee Beach

 

When the keenest birder abandoned his scope and camera (see above) and the raptor workshop began to speak of optics rather than birds, we took ourselves elsewhere.  We headed for Higbee Beach, scoping it out for our final morning’s dawn.  We planned to discover which warblers (especially) had chosen to rest among dunes and shrubs, rather than take on Delaware Bay.  Basically, this Intrepid Expedition convinced us that planning and birding do not go hand-in-hand.

 

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Migrant Human Crossing Delaware Bay — well, not exactly crossing…

 

I joined Jeanette, somewhat unexpectedly, attired in my shorts and shirt, when waves suddenly removed sands from beneath my feet.  The water was divine — cool as perfectly chilled champagne, and as invigorating.  My favorite part was looking up at sky through the Bay, (neither of us had ever entered it before).  I pretend I can still taste remnant salt on my sunburnt cheeks.

We had a little competition for that body of water:

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Ferry (Cape May – Lewes, Delaware) Entering the Bay

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HIgbee Beach, Where We Would Have Spent our Last Morning, Had not FOG and Windlessness Rendered Even the Atlantic Ocean Invisible

 

We have new respect, –the three of us–, for wind direction.  Those inescapable currents act like giant policemen’s hands, holding up all in flight, causing everything from slowing to fall-outs in bird-centric Cape May.

(As I work on this blog, we are experiencing serious south-westerly wind, so fierce that it is gusting ‘my’ goldfinches right off their thistle socks.  This wind is of no use to migrants, either.  Nor to all the other obsessive birders down there for Cape May Birding Weekend, in its full swing at this moment…)

 

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Cape May Bird Observatory’s Hawk Watch Platform Sponsors

Our first day on the Platform, we had an American bald eagle implacably chasing a migrant osprey over the tree line, most likely the osprey’s breakfast.  The ‘spotters’ told us, “eagles usually win.”

Humans on the Hawk Watch Platform had time to memorize the wisdom of our brilliant ornithological mentor, Pete Dunne, meticulously and wittily differentiating sharp-shins from Cooper’s hawks.

My i.d. skills were especially honed on this journey because a dear friend, –who prefers to remain anonymous–, loaned me HER priceless Swarovski optics for the duration.  Miracles were witnessed through them, not all of them at ‘The Point.’

 

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Carolyn Yoder and Jeanette Hooban Walk Away from a Lake Full of Swans

 

A good deal of time was spent studying mute swans in coordinated pairs, on the lake below the platform, and on the lake reflecting Cape May Light.  This land is mercifully preserved, and assiduously maintained, despite dire storms, –so that birds, pollinators, native wildflowers, and humans may thrive there.

 

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Feisty Butterfly on Cape May Point Boardwalk

 

The leitmotif of our pre-Birding-Weekend days was the bell-like muffled chatter of yellow-rumped warblers in and out of high tide plant and vines.  In normal years, we wouldn’t have been able to see the ivory blossoms of high tide plant for nectaring monarchs.  Amazingly enough, we may have been granted a higher proportion of lepidopterae than birds, for most of our time on the platform.

 

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Jeanette Discovering the Gadwall, confirmed by official Hawk Watch Platform Spotter, from Cape May Bird Observatory

 

Fellowship is high among today’s birders.  The second day, Jeanette was convinced that head shape and neck design meant a bird other than black duck.  Here she is, her discovery being confirmed and identified.  Queries are welcomed and richly answered.

But even Pete Dunne noted, “When talk turns to Cape May restaurants, we know the wind is wrong on the Platform.”  I teased him that a talk on such topics would be his next article.  Pete shook his head…  “Done that!,” he noted, turning to watch a sharp-shinned hawk twisting in high erroneous gusts.

Birders tend to have many teachers, over our years of (unending) apprenticeship:  But there is no one from whom I more joyously and thoroughly learn birding essentials than Pete Dunne.  Every aspect of Cape May Point echoes his work there, since he essentially founded Cape May Bird Observatory, standing on a picnic table and counting raptors decades ago.  Pete dared declare that Cape May had the highest seasonal concentrations of migrating raptors along the East Coast/Atlantic Flyway.

 

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Raptor I.D. Flag at the Point

 

Many of us first learned of Pete in his New York Times columns on nature in general; birds, birders and birding in particular.  But I must not overlook his long list of books, among which two favorites are Featherquest and Tales of a Low-Rent Birder.

The subtly witty Pete is the Ur-speaker at birding events.  He remains the ideal guide on a day devoted to avian creatures – whether on a boat on the Maurice River or on a rather odd bus in Philadelphia, riding from the Heinz Refuge to the shaded, bird-rich grave sites of America’s earliest ornithologists, Alexander Wilson and George Ord.  It would seem that birder-feuds are less virulent now than in their day — Ord is known for fiery resentment of colleagues, John James Audubon and Thomas Say.

 

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From Far and Near

 

The miracle of Pete Dunne is that he does not hold his encyclopedic knowledge ‘close to the chest.’  Quite the contrary — there is no more dedicated, determined teacher.  As Guide, he not only wants everyone ‘on’ the bird.  Pete sees to it that you take home field marks, silhouette nuances, and nearly-nonsense jingles so that you can do all this without him.

 

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Habitat-Protectors of the Future

 

As I tell Pete most times when I’m privileged to be with him, “All of us take you with us, every time we pick up our binoculars.”

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Pete Dunne on the Hawk Watch Platform from Internet

 

 

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Carolyn Watches Birdwatchers at the Platform

CAPE MAY CALLING

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Beach Walk to the Light, Cape May

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that The Intrepids are prone to stealing the last glimmers of summer, by going away toward the end of October.  Jeanette is determined to wade, even to swim.  With any luck, newly prospering humpback whales and/or clusters of minke whales will migrate alongside our beachwalks, beginning Monday.

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Storm at Sea, Cape May

This October flight pattern  stranded me up in the Berkshires, while Sandy roared his/her impossible way throughout those distant mountains. Next-door North Adams lost power for days.  Somehow Williamstown was spared. I spent that week marooned, but warm, unlike my Princeton neighbors.  My days were spent reading thick books and watching a weather station of mere words typed — not even a commentator, not a picture, not even of Mantaloking’s destructions.

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Stormy Williamstown

For there was no way for me to come home from my three-day runaway to wild beauty of the mountainous type for nearly a week.  Driving back roads home, trees were down on all sides, and I never knew what literally lay ahead.  But nowhere on that interminable route was as ruined as Princeton.  Police cars spun blinding lights on the tarmac of familiar gas stations, for people were at each others’ throats over necessities.  It had been rather blessed, being stranded between the Berkshires, Green Mountains, the nearby Catskills.  That kind town took me to heart as a refugee.  That multi-houred drive home brought me not surcease, but power outage at home, after all that.  Tasha O’Neill and Alan McIlroy took me in, wrapped me in wool, gave me a warm supper in their twinkling greenhouse.  To this day, I rue my blase assertion, in a cafe about 2/3 of the way to Williamstown, hearing the owners talk of the coming storm: “Oh, don’t be silly.  There aren’t hurricanes in mountains.”

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Mount Greylock Vista as Storm Nears

Other Octobers brought returns to Williamstown with Jeanette Hooban and Carolyn Yoder, followed by last year’s sentimental journey to Cape Cod.  This year, Jeanette found us a bright (probably modern) Cape May Victorian home to rent, a block from the sands.  This means the three of us can stroll in quest of birds, at this time of key raptor migration, at first light and last.  The weather’s to be good.  The birding spectacular.  A friend came to work today to loan me her Swarovski optics, –a king’s ransom in monetary value, and beyond price in bird details that will be evident for me as they only are with those phenomenal lenses.  Also beyond price in terms of trust and friendship.

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The Faithful Gather on the Cape May Hawk Watch Platform

Carolyn Yoder, my co-author of the book on Stuart Country Day School’s fifty years of excellence, is driving us.  Jeanette found the ideal setting, at a price even I can afford.  [Basically less than a night at a normal hotel…]  Jeanette’s bringing wine.  I’m bringing breakfast muffins from Lawrenceville’s phenomenal Gingered Peach bakery.  Cape May will have a bakery, but it won’t hold a candle to this!  My Cape May Bird Observatory Membership is in good order, so we’ll have access to all the latest migratory information; as well as certain birding sites only available to members in good standing.

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Skimmers Return from the Open Sea

Carolyn’s never been to Cape May.  Jeanette, I think, never overnight.  I’ll be the site-and-restaurant guide.  You all know there is nothing I cherish more than leading enthusiasts to new nature experiences.

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Cape May Irresistible, Even in Winter                 (from Internet)

We’ll do Back Bay birding on the Skimmer (pontoon boat with naturalist staff), and walk Reed’s Beach at leas one dawn when there’ll be warblers collecting and facing the dauntless challenge of Delaware Bay.  The birds, of course, are the true Intrepids.  The hawk watch platform should lend irresistible raptors, as well as the resident peregrine.  There’ll be wild swans on ponds tucked in among the dunes, and a black one has been recently sighted.  We could also find loons in those jewel-like pools.  We hope for squadrons of skimmers zooming in from the sea, and maybe even new whales and late dolphins.

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The Peregrine’s Bunker, near the Hawk Watch Platform

NJWILDBEAUTY readers may remember about the adventures of Tasha O’Neill and Alan McIlroy, last Christmas Day.  I would be groping upward from Cape May; and they downward from Princeton, in fog so thick we could not see the hoods of our cars.  Our destination was the Brigantine Wildlife Refuge near Smithville, otherwise known as Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, where we have a festive Christmas picnic ever year.  Tasha pooh-poohed my dawn proposal to call our off our plans: “There’s so much fog, I can neither see nor hear the sea, and I am inches from it.  We’re not going to get any birds!”  “Carolyn,” insisted wise Tasha, “this isn’t about birds.  It’s about fellowship.”  Of course it was:

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The Christmas Red-Tail at the Brig,                          taken by Tasha O’Neill

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Tasha O’Neill and Al McIlroy in the Christmas Fog at the Brig, 2015

And fellowship will be the core of this journey, beginning Monday for the week. Three friends-of-long standing, who cherish the same things with the same passion, will stretch their wings together in setting new to two of them.  Anything could happen…  but, probably not an October hurricane.  I had remnants of that last weekend at ‘The Brig’, so that birds could not fly and we couldn’t see the sitting ones without open rain-smeared windows, so that wind-driven rain soaked us in the car.  We earned our birders’ stripes that day.  But this coming week will be easier.

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Where the Warblers Meet the Bay — Reed’s Beach, Cape May

And, o, yes.  October is an ‘R’ month.  We are traveling to the home of Cape May Salts, my favorite oysters after Wellfleet.  I told my colleagues at work this afternoon, “We’ll be o.d.’ing on oysters.”

Here’s to adventure!