Following the fall migration

Thursday Ocotber 4, 2012


As migrating birds and butterflies take to the skies and wing their way south, Danny and I take to the road and head to Cape May at the southern tip of New Jersey to observe nature on the move. Our first stop on this autumnal birding trip is the Edward Forsythe Wildlife Refuge a little north of Atlantic City.

At the first pullover along the wildlife drive around the spectacular salt water marshes, a young green heron, (OK - green- backed heron) poses, striated neck stretched upward, bittern-like, blending into the reedy stalks. The air above the golden marsh is alive with hundreds, if not thousands, of tree swallows. No matter how long we watch these birds constantly insecting, we find no other species of swallow.

White twinkling terns swoop and splash. A quick swivel with the glasses and we identify common terns and Forsters, those birds with a smear of Egyptian kohl around the eye. Small laughing gulls in a variety of plumages mingle on the muddy flats with other gulls and terns. A count of great egrets yields 17. A small flock of glossy ibis fly in, land across the waterway and herky-jerky walk into the swaying reeds and all but disappear. A hunting harrier puts up one small flock of shorebirds after another, never close enough to identify.

Ducks dot the ponds and pools and most are in that frustrating fall eclipse plumage, which is the ornithological way of saying 'brown all over.' Adults have lost their breeding outfits and the young have molted into dull copies. We are able, though, to pick out pintails, blue- and green-winged teal, shovelers and, of course, black duck and mallards.

Onward to the cape. We head first to the hawk observation platform. Few people are about. Uh-oh, this doesn't bode well for a dazzling display of hundreds of hawks zipping by overhead. We are greeted with a chorus of crickets and cicadas with loud solos by the resident mockingbird. What is that? From within the scrubby oaks a strange insect is calling: beeeeezzzz... bee. It sounds as if he were standing in place twirling a kazoo that grows louder, then fainter, louder, then fainter. I've never heard anything like it and no one I asked knew what it was. Hmmm. Perhaps a southern cicada?

The warm breeze is from the south, there'll be few hawks today. We wander through the woods finding only a couple of warblers, these also in fall frustrating plumage, know to birders as confusing fall warblers. Not only are these usually brilliantly colored birds dull and non-descript, they rarely sing at this time of year. So finding them among the turning leaves that match their outfits leaves us, well, confused.

Colorful butterflies are everywhere. Orange monarchs nectar on the brilliant purple New England asters that bloom in clumps near the marsh, in fields and along roadsides. The lime- yellow cloudless sulphur prefers goldenrod, though we don't observe any land. Red admirals, orange fritillaries, spicebush swallowtails and weird-winged skippers of various sizes flit about. In places there are more butterflies than birds.

Early the next day we scan the ocean from the balcony of the motel and are delighted to see skimmers. The shore is dark in places with mixed flocks of seabirds: a multitude of gulls and terns. We cross the road and amble along the water's edge and are able to stand maybe 10 feet away from the birds and observe all the variations within the adults and young of the different species. Skimmer, skimmer, laughing gull, common tern, Forster's tern, more skimmers, herring gull, ringed- bill, then three big terns. We check out the head with that receding hair line and the orangy-red bill and determine that these are royal terns, slightly bigger than the laughing gulls.

One of the skimmers gets a message and the entire flock lifts off and the skimmers, as a cohesive unit, streams and swirls, twists and turns over the water. If a massive flock of undulating redwings or starlings is called a murmuration of blackbirds, could we call this a susurration of skimmers? What wonderful creatures are skimmers, with that weird bill and the ability to, open mouthed, skim the surface of the waves for tiny morsels of food.

Now we hear tell that lesser black-backed gulls are in and among the greater blackbacks, a species we have yet to observe. A greater or two waddle along the shore, but in the distance we can see there are many more in and around the jetties down the beach. Off we go along the shore, scanning the waves for mergansers, loons and scoters (none) and the horizon for gannets (none) and checking out the legs of each and every blackback we come across. All the adults have flesh-colored legs.

We continue along scanning the legs... flesh... flesh... flesh... and listening to calling royal terns... kerrra... kerrra... kerrra... and then Danny says, "Look at those two - they have yellow legs!" I turn and focus my binoculars on the birds, "Yes! very yellow, quite distinct. I can see the yellow eyes, too." Yay! Finally we have tracked down a lesser black-blacked gull. It is smaller, but very similar to its greater relative. A life bird!

Stay tuned for Following the Fall Migration, part 2 when we find yet another life bird!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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