Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Dead Towhee

What is fast becoming an annual ritual for myself and my friend Rob, a day-trip to Cape May on the second weekend in November, yet again produced a fantastic birding day in 2005.

The unusually wet Fall and recent hurricanes combined with strong southerly flows had seemed to be bringing a gamut of atypical birds to New Jersey in recent days. Reports of multiple Frigatebird-species sightings in Barnegat & Sandy Hook, Franklin's Gull at the Cape, and inordinate numbers of Cave Swallows numbering in the hundreds, also at the Cape had us excited about what me may see on the trip. And thankfully the weather forecast called for an unseasonably warm mid-November day.

We arrived at the Hawkwatch platform just after sunrise, and were immediately met with a handful of Cave Swallows, in addition to very-late Barn Swallows, flying among the numerous Tree Swallows. After staying for a bit we eventually left and birded some of the well-known spots like Hidden Valley and The Beanery with very nice results.

We then returned to the Hawkwatch for lunch and a short rest. When you wake at 4 a.m., a lunch at 11 a.m doesn't seem inappropriate!. We stayed around for a little while in hopes that the Frigatebird might make an appearance although it did not. Then I heard one of the hawkwatcher's cellphone ringing, and I stated to Rob "Well, that' s probably good news". So I eavesdropped on the conversation and heard that a rare bird may have been found. After hanging up, the hawkwatcher said that a possible Yellow-Headed Blackbird had been found at the Nature Center in Cape May but was awaiting confirmation. The eyes of both Rob and I widened as this central-US bird is annual but very difficult to see in our state, with most sightings at Brigantine or in Salem County for just one day.

After about 15 minutes I heard the phone ring again, and immediately upon hearing that the bird was confirmed, I was packing up my scope for the trip across town. Several birders caravaned to the Nature Center, and joined the half-dozen birders now already there. At first the bird was not seen, but did appear a few minutes later. After some brief looks, we noticed what appeared to be a toy bird laying belly-up on the platform feeder that the Nature Center had outside it's building. It was then we were told the story of how the Yellow-Headed Blackbird had come to be found.

Evidently, it was not a toy bird at all. In fact, an Eastern Towhee had crashed into a window at the Nature Center and the staff had placed the stunned bird on the feeder hoping it would recover and fly away. A short time later someone went to check on the bird, and saw that it had indeed passed, but also noticed the Yellow-Headed Blackbird feeding on the ground beneath the feeder.

We saw the blackbird a few times for brief moments, but then the bird disappeared for a bit. At one point, in an attempt to lure the birds back to the feeder, a staff member removed the deceased bird, and this action caused the blackbirds to fly away. However the flock was quickly re-found in a small spit of phragmites nearby, from which we were able to get even closer and better looks of this rarity now well lit up in the sun and showing off the beautiful yellow-face and breast of this rare blackbird. We enjoyed the bird for another quarter-hour before the flock flew away well off into the distance.

This rarity was a life-bird for myself, and a state-record for Rob.

November birding in Cape May is fantastic. There is always the chance of a rarity or vagrant showing up, in addition to seeing other birds very late into the season. It's always been a chance to get your last views of migrants, as well as, other summer breeders that won't return again for several months. In this case, at least one Towhee will not return at all.

(photo credit - Bob Miller)