Friday, November 28, 2008

Raptor Banding

I had the opportunity to accompany several of the hawk banders out to one of the sites where they band raptors here on Cape Island. This was actually my first time observing raptor banding, and it was a real treat watching them "flap" (a pulley system attached to a harnessed up pigeon or starling) and the response we would get from various species of hawk. They caught three hawks during my two hours there, a pretty good total for this late in the season.
My favorite of the three was a young Red-shouldered Hawk that came seemingly out of nowhere (the back side of our blind) and was on top of the pigeon before we even realized! I even got to release this bird, which was also a pretty cool experience. In the photo you can see the pale window that is visible on young Red-shouldered's in the outer primaries (right).
The Red-tailed Hawk that we caught was also a young bird and I definitely have a lot of respect for raptor banders because I wasn't interested in tangling with one of these guys as they go onto their back with talons up as you go to extract them from the net... A majestic looking bird (below), I don't appreciate their aesthetic appeal as much as I probably should. The other hawk they caught was a young male Cooper's Hawk that was interestingly missing several of its tail feathers (a close call with a Peregrine Falcon perhaps?). It was a really fun experience that gave me a further appreciation for a side of birding that I don't often see up close. Bonus birds near the blind were a late (wintering possibly?) Yellow-breasted Chat and a young Northern Goshawk that we observed a couple of times from the blind but that we were unable to lure into the nets...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"November Sea Watching", the case of the missing fair weather fans...

It shouldn't come as any surprise to me, but as the temperature gauge has plummeted over the past weeks, so have the numbers of visitors to the seawatch. This isn't necessarily a bad thing... Some days I'm glad for the solitude or the presence of a couple of the stalwart regulars who know what to expect and whose company I welcome. The days of the "are you watching for whales?" questions have been replaced by the army of contractors that spend their time here fixing up the million dollar mansions that are vacated for the winter once Labor Day weekend rolls around. The birding honestly hasn't gotten any worse. There are still very busy days, and the diversity of birds that move by during a day has definitely increased. But gone are the days of 40,000 scoters, and 30,000 cormorants. The kicker is, this is the season when the really "good" birds pass by here (and the default shorebird is no longer Sanderling, they have been replaced by the more hardy Purple Sandpiper - below). Whether it's King Eider, Harlequin Duck, Black-legged Kittiwake, Razorbill, or (a potential lifebird for me) the diminutive Dovekie; this is far and away the best season to see any of these really scarce birds. The days with high numbers of birds definitely are more interesting now, but the slow days seem to last forever now that numbness begins to set in on my toes or nose. I have to admit, I've asked myself whether I'm crazy on quite a few rather bitter days. That question really came into focus last week when I was just doing a typical scan of the horizon to see if any Red-throated Loons were sneaking by between the troughs, and I pan my binoculars onto this:

Yep, it is indeed a small canoe, with a pirate-esque sail rigged up and a lone man piloting it on south. Now I shake my head whenever I see small speedboats going out onto the ocean because I've seen how quickly the temper of the sea can change. A canoe, on the north Atlantic in mid-November!?! This guy makes my daily bird vigil in 24 F blowing snow seem positively enlightened! I really wish that I was able to discuss with this man things like the bermuda triangle and the lost marine city of Atlantis, because I have a sneaking suspicion that he would have been able to shed some very interesting little known facts about these topics if he is out in a a "sail-canoe" (I feel I can coin this term) on the open sea at this time of year...
Also, this is unfortunately the first Thanksgiving that I will not be back home for. It's going to be kind of weird. But I wish you all the best and enjoy a day with family and friends!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New daily record for Northern Gannet

Today I got rewarded for a week of counting very little with quite a spectacle. Northern Gannets were incredible to watch today as they were a cloud literally everywhere I looked along the ocean this morning. Gannets are a type of seabird that fly above the water and dive with great speed into the water pulling their wings in towards their bodies at the last second so that they can dive further under water. They will dive up to 30 feet under water after fish and actually dive so rapidly, that they catch the fish on their way back up from their dive. They will typically form large flock over schools of fish and just bombard them from the sky. Watching feeding flocks of gannets is one of the things I do to keep myself entertained on the slow days, because they dive with such grace and are such proficient hunters. Well today, I ended up counting 16,946 of them as they migrated by. This shatters the previous single day record (7,685) for the fifteen years worth of data collection that the Sea Watch has been conducted. While this photo really doesn't do the bird justice, a small fraction of what I observed can be seen in this photo of a feeding flock over a school of baitfish (Bunker) that were being driven close to shore by larger predatory fish like Bluefish and Striped Bass. The fisherman were having a great day along the jetties as well!
(And in case you're curious, there are 39 Gannets in the above photo which represented just .002% of the total I saw today...)