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

THE JUNO CHRONICLES — The Blizzard of 2015

Snowed Ash Tree

Snowed Ash Tree, Jan. 27, 2015

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that I always feel, and often obey, a mandate imposed by my hero, Henry David Thoreau.: In natural situations, I resonate to the question, “What would Henry do?”  Of course, he’d journal the development of this storm.

So here goes, with no pretensions as to literary merit.

Yesterday (Tuesday, January 26th) driving home from D&R Greenway, I was puzzled to realize that — a mere two blocks from the red barn of the Pole Farm– I could NOT find that bright red barn.  An infinity of tiny whitenesses created snow fog worse than any white-out during ski trips to Zermatt.  Even more amazing, when close enough to see the barn, it HAD NO COLOR!

“Blowing and Drifting Snow”, –infamous in my Minnesota years, zwooshing across those prairies, absolutely obscuring the edges of major highways–, was alive and well and zwooshing along Cold Soil Road.  I am too aware of ditches on both sides of that narrow (seemingly unsalted, unsanded) roadway. The ditches had filled somehow.  Snow coursed, like fat white greedy hands, onto and beyond the so-called shoulder.

The snow reminded me of Royal Icing with which I had had to frost a wedding cake for a British cookbook at Tested Recipe Institute, 500 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan.  Royal Icing hardens irrevocably – and that’s exactly what the Cold Soil snow-icing seemed to have done.  With the wedding cake, [a fruit cake (!)], I had to go on and make roses.  With the Royal Icing of Cold Soil, I only had to make my halting, near-blinded way a few more blocks into Society Hill.

Royal Icing Snow

Royal Icing Snow

Possibly the hardest part of the homeward journey turned out to be the attempt to back into my parking place, with all stripes and of course parking place numbers, covered.  The car’s a little crooked, but, at least, with four-wheel drive, whenever I do essay a journey, I can go safely frontwards.

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Midnight Tree, Snowflakes Catching the Flash]

Fast forward to morning, Tuesday, January 27.  In the night, emergency orders closed New Jersey roads. Snow didn’t look that perilous at various times in the night, but it’s done a grand job of coating everything.  We never had the wild winds.  Our office was supposed to open at noon, but an early call put that to rest for this day.

This is no Nor’easter — ‘my’ snow pours ceaselessly, angling sharply from southwest to northeast, often flat-out sideways.

Snow From Northwest Coats Tree Trunk

Snow From SOUTHWEST Coats Tree Trunk

I ‘screwed my courage to the sticking place” and proceeded to brush off my car and a neighbor’s, [probably the Samaritan who had done the same for my car, last week, anonymously.]  I could STAND on the accumulated snow.  That hasn’t happened since I was ten years old!  I had forgotten how snow dampens clothes — at first it doesn’t melt and you think it doesn’t matter…

Cold Rhododendrons

Cold Rhododendrons

Now the promised “blowing and drifting snow” has arrived with a vengeance.  (It’s around noon.)  At first, great thick swirls, like Isadora scarves, whirled from the roof.  It seemed as though a Giant on the roof had just drunk hot soup, breathing furious gusts out onto the gelid air.  The energy and curvaceousness of the puffs brought back a Renaissance mural at Rome’s Farnese Gallery.  There, a wind god puffed fat cheeks, and white billows scurried across the wall.

Mid=Blizzard

Mid=Blizzard

Then, out in the middle of the ‘greensward’ between my building and the one across the way, a disembodied curtain of snow zoomed across, blotting out the other buildings.  This was like the Nutcracker’s corps de ballet, impersonating not mere snowflakes, but a vertical blizzard, fast-forwarded.

Frosted Conifers, Mid-Storm

Frosted Conifers, Mid-Storm

Meanwhile, snow descends with the furious relentlessness that categorizes this storm named Juno. This is an ironic name, as I am deep in Masters and Commanders by Andrew Roberts.  You could call it a quadruple biography of the decision-makers of WWII.  This spectacular British biographer/historian has great respect for FDR, affection for and pride in Churchill yet sees ‘warts and all’, and clear eyes and wisdom regarding George Marshall and Alan Brooke.  Juno was one of code names for British beaches in Normandy.  On a later D Day, I visited Juno, touched by intimate bouquets, as though hand-made, carefully placed.  Ribbons of the French tricoleur blew in the sea wind, at sites where British and American soldiers had given their lives to save France and the free world.  Ribbons of snow efface everything here at my study window.

Farm Fresh Omelet, Farm-Raised Bacon, Lettuce from Live Lettuce Plant from Terhune Orchards

Farm Fresh Omelet, Farm-Raised Bacon, Lettuce from Live Lettuce Plant from Terhune Orchards

After a restorative lunch, I note the turkey vulture, tipping and soaring.  This may not be easy for him, as the ground is too cold to generate thermals which vultures require for lift.  He’s elegant, practiced, even graceful.  Pete Dunne, consummate birder, terms vultures “The Wind Masters”.  Pete taught me to appreciate them. This black and grey icon of the wild is very welcome in the totally motionless landscape out my windows.

Sun Like a Lightbulb

Sun Like a Lightbulb

I realize, suddenly, the snow has topped falling.

There is that strange sepulchral glow to the world that comes after storm, but before sun.

Sepulchral Glow

Sepulchral Glow

The other highlight of my day was the sudden gaggle of snow geese, heard before seen.  There is no other sound in the wild to equal their liquid mellifluous murmuring.  It is light years more wonderful than the barking of Canada geese, and thousands of times more rare.  I only encounter the snow geese chorale at ‘The Brig, in South Jersey.

These snow geese, about twenty, were nearly invisible in the impenetrable mass of minuscule flakes, if you could call them flakes. Their cluster (snow geese do not do ‘V’s’) was very determinedly flying sharply east from somewhere north.  I concluded that snow geese must have to gabble throughout their flights, whenever the element for whom they are named rules the day.  Must these black-and-white visitors from afar carry on like this, vocally, so that they do not lose each other, lose their way?

The most important New Year’s Eve of my life, when my century changed, took place at the Brig.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of snow geese blanketed Absecon Bay, the way real snow blankets everything today.  The setting sun of the 20th Century painted the bay water pink and rose and coral, and the snow geese with it.  My New Year’s Eve noisemakers were the liquidities of these birds. And now, for the first time (and I have lived in Princeton off and on since 1968), I hear that music in my back yard.

A mourning dove landed – then, the only sign of nearby life.  It looked anything but mournful, perky rather, even triumphant.

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Snow-Rescuers at Dusk

There is a sea of white on the ground, seafoam on all the clenched rhododendrons, foam and sea spray and god knows what else taking the place of sky.  All day, that sky resembled the solid fog that surrounds icebergs.  This I experienced from the deck of the SS France, which had embarked on the anniversary of the Titanic disaster, sailing that long-ago April of 1964

If Henry were here, he’d be chronicling numbers assiduously.  He would want you to know that all day the thermometer at the front door has ranged very few degrees above ten.  Late afternoon, and it has soared to eighteen.

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Snowplows in Half-Light

This yard is so empty of life, because Society Hill residents are forbidden to feed the birds.

The mourning dove seems taken up residence for now, puffing itself to stay warm.  There is no nourishment for it nor for turkey vulture, anywhere around here.

One friend who lives at Society Hill tells me that she and a friend have seen a coyote right in the middle of their street, very nearby.  I have yet to find coyotes here nor in the Pole Farm, but I am always searching

Another friend has gone ski-birding twice this week.  Some of her miracles include kinglets — those golden-crowned and ruby-crowned living jewels who zip about on the ground, feeding with the dapper chickadees.  And, also at the Pole Farm, she was blessed with two female Northern harriers, and the most elusive and rare male, known as “the grey ghost.”

Although the snow has seemed to stop, swirls arrive, I guess from roofs.  The last burst itself was a grey ghost.

Dire Beauty, Mid-Storm

Dire Beauty, Mid-Storm

AFTER THE STORM

After the Snow Snowstorm 1 2015

Calm after Snowstorm 1 2015