Cape May Birds and a Hawk Up Close

Images © Todd Klein.

The last two Fridays I’ve been birding at Cape May Point on days when the weather was favorable — northwest winds pushing migrating birds toward the coast — and have seen lots of great birds. Dozens of Northern Flickers like the one above, for instance. This is a young bird without the head markings of full adult plumage.

Here’s a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, that bird name that Yosemite Sam used to get a laugh with in the cartoons.

There were still a good variety of warblers last Friday like this ever-elusive Ovenbird, but this Friday most had passed through except for Yellow-Rumped, some of which will stay all winter.

There were quite a few Sharp-Shinned Hawks cruising the fields looking for a meal of small songbird, but they’re tough to get a photo of, this is about the best I can do usually.

After doing my volunteer time at the Cape May Bird Observatory this morning, I went to the Hawk Watch platform at the state park, where the official hawk counter notes every raptor that passes by, a project partly funded by the New Jersey Audubon Society to help us understand what’s going on with bird populations. Most of the raptors that come this way are young birds born this spring, migrating for the first time. If the winds are right they’re pushed toward the coast, then follow it south, until the come the the pointed end of New Jersey. Then they usually stop to consider whether they want to fly across the Delaware Bay, or go up the bay side of the state to a closer crossing. It makes Cape May a natural migrant trap and an excellent place for fall birdwatching.

There’s another science project going on here with raptors: banding. For decades raptors have been trapped humanely at several locations around Cape May Point and banded by naturalists also hoping to learn more about the lives of migrating birds. You can read about the project HERE. While I was on the  platform today, one of the banders appeared with a recently trapped hawk in one of the cans they use to keep the birds quiet while they affix the metal identification bands to their ankles. He announced it was a young Red-Shouldered Hawk, a species we don’t see very many of here, and everyone gathered around to see and photograph the bird as he took it out of the can.

Here’s the bander (I neglected to get his name, unfortunately) showing the hawk’s wing. Notice the light section near the wing tip, this is called a “window,” an area which allows more light through. It can be seen even when the bird is soaring high overhead, just a silhouette, and a good way to identify the species.

Here’s the underside of the bird and its wing, and you can see the metal band on its leg. It has numbers and I think an email address you can contact if you should find a dead bird with a band. Only about 30 percent of young birds survive a full year in the wild — migration is a dangerous business — and only a fraction of those are banded, but every year a few bands are reported, adding to our knowledge.

In this light you can see the beginnings of the rufous red beginning to show on the shoulders, the color that gives the bird its name. It will get a lot more of that color as it matures, and some on the front as well. Note you can still see the “window” in the wing tip. This bird was quite calm and cooperative. The bander said Red-Shoulders tend to bite, but this one didn’t try it. He thought it was probably a male because of the relatively small size for the species. In most raptors, the females are larger.

Raptors are not only important to the food chain, they’re handsome and beautiful, as you can see here. It was a thrill to see this one up close. A short time later, he released it, and we watched it soar up, circle the area a few times to gain altitude, and head on its way.

Here’s the official tally board for the Hawk Watch, with yesterday’s numbers in the left column, the largest count so far this fall. The next column is the totals for the year. The raptors with the highest counts are Sharp-Shinned Hawk at 7,659 and American Kestrel with 3,727. Red-Shouldered total is only 11. So you can see why the bander was excited to have caught one and wanted to show it off. Everyone on the platform benefitted!

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