East Winds, a first count record, and the waters of oblivion: The First Quarter of the Avalon Seawatch

Greetings Seawatch acffectionados! So sorry to not be with you lovely readers of the sightings blogs sooner, but better late than never right? My name is Skye Haas, I am returning for my second fall as primary counter at the Avalon Seawatch. As again from last year, the fantastical funny and talented Tom Reed is working as the relief counter two days a week. It's fantastic to be back at the scope staring over the waves in search of web-footed birds as they migrate down along the Jersey shores! 

The following is a summary of what has been going on out at the Avalon Seawatch for the first three weeks of the count. And what a start to the count it has been! 

Change is the name of the game for the 2015 count season! Two major developments you may or may not of heard so far. One is the introduction of a new data recording system for the CMBO counts. We have switched to electronic data submission through Specteo. Now every sighting gets entered in through a tablet and this is the part that is exciting for you; a sifter of data and records, you can follow along in real time as we observe and record our sightings! You can follow along everyday as we are out in the field here at this link-  https://raptor.specteo.com/cape-may-bird-observatory/avalon-seawatch/

The other big change this year is our new count location! We have slightly shifted our count site from the parking lot at 7th Street to the base of the 8th Street Jetty. Having now worked at both locations (more on that in a moment!) I can only say how much better the new site is! We've lost nothing in regards to what we could see before, and now have an even better view of the ocean side of the count. Before when a large flock of scoters would be whipping past the 8th street jetty, one had mere moments to get that flock counted up before they disappeared from view. But now the time those birds are in view is much longer and believe me it will make a difference in accuracy in the counts. Plus being so much closer to the the jetty allows for closer looks at the birds going by; I had a jaeger flight the other night that was just delightful as so many of the birds were right off the end of the jetty and were fantastic looks. The other great boon of a new count location is that I have a count shelter now! A small but roomy structure has been generously constructed by the town of Avalon for us to use for the count season. It is comfortable and practical and allows for protection against the sun, rain and wind. Having spent too many days last year during bad weather trying to count from my car, I cannot express enough how much better this new building is. And its cute too! Fans of the tiny house movement are sure to envy my seaside digs. Having worked out of my fair share of ramshackled huts, I've dubbed it the Shack-Mahal. But not even the Shack-Mahal could withstand something no-one could of foreseen... the worst weather system to hit the Jersey shores in several years. With the first week of the marred by strong east winds, things got downright nasty with the colliding of a particularly wet front off the Appalachias with Hurricane Joaquin. After the beach flooded the shack twice, all involved felt the best thing to do would be to remove the shack till the storms passed. So it was back to 7th Street and my faithful Nissan to see what birds were foolish enough to move in those 40+mph winds. 

So let me tell you about what has been going on birdwise at Avalon. I'll try to summarize what has been observed so far. Overall the count has been slow with too many days of east winds and a lack of cold fronts to push birds out of the north country. 

As to be expected, the geese are are near absent but on 10/11 a decent flight of waterfowl occurred that included on our first flight of Brant with 286 birds. Dabblers have been scarce, but the last few days have seen a few humble flights peaking again on the 11th with 83 Green-winged Teal, 58 Northern Pintail and 11 Gadwall. A Blue-winged Teal on the 10th is a surprisingly rare sight at Seawatch. A pair of very early Common Eiders went by on the first day of the count (9/22), and both Scaup species have been recorded on the count but no other species of Aythya have been seen yet. The quintessential seawatch birds Scoters, have again been slow so far, with a season total so far of 749 Surf Scoters, 2183 Black Scoters and 3 White-winged Scoters. 

Loons & Grebes-
What can I say, it's been slow for these species so far. Only 69 Common Loons with a peak of 22 have been recorded so far, and Red-throated Loons weren't even recorded until 10/7. This will change in the weeks to come.... Grebes- nary a one so far. 

Normally these open ocean birds are not seen during a count season here at Avalon, but this an been an exceptional fall for tubenoses. Its been the one saving grace of all these east winds pushing birds closer to shore. 3rd count record of Cory's Shearwater was seen on 9/29, 3rd and 4th records of Great Shearwater on 10/3 & 10/7 and on 9/30 a Storm-Petrel was observed flying through the waves. Though not identified to species, it was likely thought to be a Leach's. 

Sulids, Pelicans & Herons-
While overall Double-crested Cormorants have been slow, we are at a seasonal total of 18,419 with a high count of 5474 on 10/5. A decent showing of Great Cormorant has occurred with 27 for the season so far. Northern Gannets as expected have been very few with only 46 seen so far. Brown Pelicans had a good showing with 44 on 10/6 for a seasonal total of 93. Not too many Herons yet, but there have been two good evening Egret flights with 148 Snowy Egrets on 10/6 and another 63 on 10/11. Also on the 11th there was 67 Great Egrets. 

Its been slow for shorebirds (have you detected my central theme yet?), but most days can turn up a few American Oystercatchers, Black-bellied & Semipalmated Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlin and Sanderlings. Western Sandpipers with the odd Semi-Sand holding on have been around and a couple of Red Knots and Dowitchers have been seen. On 10/5 a White-rumped Sandpiper was observed. Fantastic numbers of these birds have been seen in the Great Lakes lately, it will be interesting to see if that is mirrored here in the weeks to come. A Willet by on 10/7 is a notable bird for Seawatch but without a doubt the shorebird highlight has been Hudsonian Godwit with a single bird recorded first on 10/6  followed by a flock of 29 birds on 10/11!

Gulls, Terns & Jaegers- 
The early gull season is one that is dominated by the passage of Laughing Gulls. When I first returned to Cape May, I was shocked how many juvenile Laughing Gulls were present; they obviously had a great breeding season here in the coastal marshes. While always challenging to divine intent among gulls floating around, there have been a few obvious days where Laughers were in active migration with a high count of 622 on 10/1 with the season total currently standing at 2552. Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls are omnipresent and another possible outcome of such prolonged easterlies have been a good early season showing of Lesser Black-backed Gulls with 19 for the season so far. Most notable among the larid sightings so far is an apparent 1st cycle LaughingXRing-billed Gull that CMBO Naturalist Jacob Drucker photographed on 10/10! This hybrid combo is rarely observed, and I personally have never seen a photo of this hybrid in this age class. 
Oh the terns! Its been a good tern season so far. Great numbers of Forster's Terns have been around, though clouds of foraging birds over the ocean have been hard to tell if they were migrants or not. We've certainly been seeing more Common Terns then what was observed last season. The Royal Tern numbers have been good with a fantastic evening flight of 278 on 10/8 with a robust season total so far of 1156! But the most notable species so far of the entire count so far, and quite possibly already for the rest of the season was the first count record of a pair of SOOTY TERNS passing by as Hurricane Joaquin churned up the tropical seas to the south of us on 10/3. An adult/juvenile pair of birds passed right in front of us and delighted the few of us fool-hearty birders braving the storms. Almost equally surprising were 2 more Sooty Terns (both adults) passing by the next morning! 
Finally the jaeger show has been excellent for a third year in a row! What has caused this increase in numbers has been a common topic of discussion among the Cape May birders, but I can at least say, its been a heck of a lot of fun to see! For the second year in a row a juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger was seen (10/1, 3rd count record). And on the evening of the 10th, an impressive 71 Parasitic Jaegers were recorded with 172 for the season so far! The seasonal average is 138 so we do seem to be doing pretty good for them with a lot more of the count yet to go!

So come on over to Avalon to see some migrating waterbirds! Someone is ALWAYS there and sometimes there are even a few great birds to look at. We are back to the new count location (shack and all!) off the 8th street jetty. Hope to see you in the field!

Sooty Terns captured in flight as they made their way past the Avalon Seawatch. These birds were the first Sooty Terns the count has seen in it's start in 1993 and enjoyed by the select few who were brave enough to fight the Nor'easter weather. [Photo by Jacob Drucker.]

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