Archive for October, 2013

More from Cape May

Today in Cape May I saw a Cape May Warbler. The very first Cape May Warbler was recorded and identified in Cape May by Alexander Wilson around 1800. The name given to a new species is frequently related to the location where it was first seen, hence the name Cape May Warbler. But the name does not necessarily imply that the bird is a common bird of the area. In fact, more than one hundred years passed before the second Cape May Warbler was recorded in Cape May.

So do not rely on a bird’s name for a clue on where to find it. I have seen a Carolina Chickadee in Carolina and a Baltimore Oriole in Baltimore. Connecticut Warblers are rare in Connecticut, but Canada Warblers are more common. I’ve seen a Pine Warbler in a pine tree, but never a Palm Warbler in a palm tree.

Before today, I saw my first and only Cape May Warbler 4 years ago in Central Park. If I was a budding ornithologist I have might have named it the Central Park Warbler. The bird would never know. And it would confuse the many birders who flock to Central Park in spring. Chances are they wouldn’t find either a Central Park Warbler or a Cape May Warbler.

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I’m writing this post in a motel room in what I call the Birding Capital of the East Coast – Cape May, NJ. Cape May is unique in the birding world in that it has more first-class birders per square mile than anywhere else on planet earth. Pick up any top bird book and odds are that the author lives or lived in Cape May. Birders flock to Cape May for two reasons. The first is the quantity and quality of birds seen in the area. The second is the number of top birders attracted by the good birds. The combination results in the sighting and identification of an amazing number of rare birds. It is an example of the “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect” in action.

I’m here for the Fall Birding Festival sponsored by New Jersey Audubon. This 3-day event features programs, workshops, demonstrations and bird walks led by the top birders in the country. When I attended the very first Fall Festival 15 years ago my strongest impression was the number of attendees – over 3,000. That is when I realized I was not the only nut around looking at birds.

For birders, the most famous aspect of Cape May is the Hawk Watch Platform. The geographic location of Cape May at the southern tip of New Jersey funnels migrating hawks. An official hawk count has been conduct there for decades. The current hawk watch platform is a double decked structure that has room and seating for about 100 hawk watchers.

I skipped out of the formal programs and presentations to spend about one half hour at the hawk watch. In that short period of time I saw 6 species of raptors including: Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Coopers Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Swainson Hawk, Kestrel. There was also a kettle of about 75 Turkey Vultures and a few Black Vulture. Surprisingly, the more common Red-tailed and Broadwing Hawks did not appear.

For ordinary folk Cape May is a resort town.

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owl with book

It seems that every couple of months a new bird ID book or field guide is published.  I know because I have an entire library shelf full of them.  Each new guide is better than the last one.  But if you think about it, despite all the new bird books, we don’t have any new birds. The birds around today are the same ones that were around centuries ago. So why so many new books? An old bird book contains the same birds as the new books.

That is why I was excited to come across a web site that has access to over 12,000 free bird books, some of which were published over 150 years ago.  It contains books written by some of the most famous historical names in ornithology.  What a treasure trove.  The books are in various formats including pdf format for reading on your PC of iPad.  And there aresome audio versions (unfortunately, they are read by a machine that just reads the words without phrasing, emphasis or emotion.


Check out this website:


The site has about 1 million books on all topics.  And it is easy to sort by subject.  It is fun.  Enter “birds” in the Search box and you are shown 12,000 bird books that are further divided in sub-categories.  


Play around with it.  For example, I clicked a book titled “Key to N. Am. Birds”  written by Elliott Coues and published in 1872.  Then I leafed thru the book, page by page.

Try it. Play around for yourself.

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The following is ripped directly from the pages of The New York Times Sunday Magazine:

Scientists at the University of Mexico noticed that city birds were picking up cigarette butts and bringing them back to their nests. Like good scientists they wondered why. So they studied dozens of finch and sparrow nests. Some contained fibers from the cigarette butts, some didn’t.

It turns out that the nests with cigarette fibers had fewer parasites than those without fibers. Nicotine, it seems, wards off parasites. The birds were smart enough to know this.

However, the scientists were careful to point out that they do not recommend smoking just to help the birds.

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French Fly Gulls

Every Tuesday The New York Times has a separate Science section that frequently has info birds. Last week, for example, they answered the question “Why do sea gulls hang out at shopping centers?”

First, the Times pointed out that to ornithologists they are not sea gulls, they are just plain gulls. There are about 30 different species of gulls and they don’t all hang out by the sea. You can find gulls in farmers’ fields in Iowa. That is not near any sea.

Why shopping centers? Well, gulls are omnivoires. They frequent places with an abundance of food. And humans often discard potential food in the parking lots of shopping centers: candy, potato chips, half-eaten twinkees. The portions may be too small for humans, but ample for a gull. If you add a fast food place there is a treasure of food: bread and rolls, sandwiches, and their all time favorite, French fries. French Fry Gulls may be more accurate terminology than sea gull.

If you have the opportunity, read the Science Times section of the Tuesday the New York Times. Almost every week there is good information about birds

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Birds have the best vision of almost any creature, much better than humans.

Tests showed that a Kestrel (a small falcon) can see an insect only 1/8 inch in length at a distance of 59 feet. At that distance the insect would be invisible to the human eye. Most humans would not begin to notice the insect until they are within 13 feet.

Raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons), because of the construction of their eyes, have the best vision of all birds. I’ve just read that an eagle’s vision is so good that it can read the telephone book from 100 yards away, that is the length of a football field. I am not sure that is really true. However, it should be easy to test if it is true. But first you would have to teach the eagle to read.

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