Saturday, November 27, 2010

Rea Farm ("The Beanery")

I have to thank Abigail Parker for her intimate knowledge of all the best places to go for birds and insects in the Cape May region of New Jersey. One of my favorite stops was at the Rea Farm, where we visited on October 17 of this year.

Actually, I should also thank Abby for letting Heidi Genter and myself be her guests, since Rea Farm is only open to members of the New Jersey Audubon Society. The site was once a working lima bean farm, hence the local name of “The Beanery.” The idle remains of the huge lima been shucking machines are a landmark for the parking area at the entrance to the birding area. They look like covered bridges to nowhere.

Property owners Les and Diane Rea decided to lease visitation rights to the Cape May Bird Observatory (a project of New Jersey Audubon) beginning in 1999, in the wake of sharply falling demand for lima beans. They also grow flowers, and run a nearby farmstand where you can purchase local fruits and vegetables.

The Beanery comprises 82 acres and is located near the very center of Cape Island. It is consistently the warmest place on the isle in late autumn. Migrating birds may linger there longer, among the fields, hedgerows, and swampy woodlands. The three fields, ringed with tractor paths, are the centerpiece of the farm. Several species of sparrows frequent the tall grass and autumn aster flowers, providing a real challenge for birders.

Then there are the raptors. Hawks, vultures, and even eagles like the immature Bald Eagle above can be seen daily over the fields as they rise on thermals in the afternoon. The unobscured skies over the fields and parking area afford great views of the soaring birds.

There is no shortage of insects, either, particularly Buckeye butterflies, their caterpillars, and chrysalids. At least they were very abundant during our visit.

Dragonflies forage over the fields as well, including the Common Green Darner, and Carolina Saddlebags (below).

The crops that are still grown feed grasshoppers as well as people, and while this Carolina Grasshopper found them tasty, I’m sure that such insects are not welcomed!

Rea Farm is yet another gem among the seemingly endless jewels that are Cape May birding areas. I can hardly wait to go back and visit during another season, to see what else calls the area home.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Avalon Sea Watch

The Cape May area of New Jersey has an abundance of birdwatching activities during the fall migrations. One of the best is the Avalon Sea Watch held in the town of Avalon. The watch is on from September 22 to December 22 every year, and is operated by the Cape May Bird Observatory.

Abigail Parker, Heidi Genter, and myself visited the sea wall site of the seabird tally on October 16, 2010. We arrived just in time for a presentation by a volunteer from New Jersey Audubon. He described how to identify the more common seabirds. Believe it or not, you can identify many birds by the flight formation of their flocks, and how high off the water or horizon they fly. A diagram on an easel offered a visual aid as the guide described the silhouettes and behavior of the various birds.

Right in front of us, on the rocky jetty beyond the sea wall, were a handful of various birds, including a flock of Black-bellied Plovers, in the image below. Among them is another bird, possibly a Ruddy Turnstone.

Eavesdropping on the presentation was a Herring Gull. This gull was such a constant presence that it was christened “Jake” (if I recall the name correctly). Jake was no doubt waiting for a handout, but he was most polite and patient. His colleagues were not always so well-behaved. A walk out on the jetty among fishermen and other tourists found another gull determined to make off with someone’s bait fish.

The wind was ferocious, and forced some of the shorebirds, like these Semipalmated Plovers, to seek shelter behind whatever rocks they could find. Western Sandpipers (yes, Western sandpipers!) joined them, and birds of both species tucked their faces into the feathers on their back to avoid the onslaught of blowing sand. Sunglasses are recommended to you for just this reason. Blowing debris will ruin anyone’s day.

The dedicated volunteers that tally the birds from dawn to dusk, day after day, are to be commended. The data amassed by such dependable folks will help determine the health of bird populations in North America and help direct conservation efforts where they are most needed. Oh, and the average annual count is nearly 800,000 birds since it began in 1993. Among them are flocks of cormorants like this one.

I highly recommend the Avalon Sea Watch for anyone, from novice to expert birder. You are certain to see a good variety of birds in a very short period, no matter what time of day you arrive. Dress warmly, though, and don’t forget that eye protection.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cape May Point State Park

After spending time at Cape May State Park on October 15, 17, and 18 of this year, I can highly recommend this natural gem to any naturalist. There is literally something for everyone, from history to architecture to nature.

The most obvious landmark at the park is the lighthouse, 157 feet in height. It was erected in 1859, after erosion forced the dismantling of the previous lighthouse built in 1847. Many of the bricks from the older version were incorporated into the current tower.

An equally impressive structure is a World War II bunker, constructed as part of the Harbor Defense Project of 1942. The entire park is actually a former military base, and the bunker was originally 900 feet from the shore. Today, at high tide most of it is under water.

A pair of linear one-story buildings near the lighthouse houses the restrooms, park visitor’s center, and a small natural history museum that contains some live animals as well as typical taxidermy mounts and other old-style interpretive exhibits.

You might be better off simply exploring the trails that lace through 153 acres of wetlands and open woodland. The half-mile Red Trail is wheelchair-friendly, while the Yellow and Blue trails eventually end up at the dunes and beach. While watching for birds above, be sure to note what is underfoot on the boardwalks, too. We saw this ribbon snake on one of our treks.

Other animals may cross your path as well, like this male Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly

The boardwalks also have several platforms, and even a few wooden blinds, from which to watch waterfowl on on the open water in the marshes. There are obviously continuing efforts being made at habitat restoration as well, with numerous plantings installed on drier ground.

Do take advantage of the many programs and guided nature walks offered here. There is even a hawk-banding demonstration from mid-September through October.

The official website for Cape May Point State Park offers more details than I can share here, but by all means consider a trip here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cape May, New Jersey

You looked so very pretty when we met in Ocean City
Like someone oh so easy to adore.
I sang this little ditty on our way through Ocean City
Heading south along New Jersey’s shore

On the way to Cape May I fell in love with you
On the way to Cape May I saw my dreams come true.
I was taken by your smile as we drifted through Sea Isle.
My heart was really gone when we reached Avalon.
On the way to Cape May, Stone Harbor skies were blue.
We were naming the day when Wildwood came in view.
If you’re gonna be my spouse, we better head for that courthouse
On the way to Cape May,
On the way to Cape May.

Thanks to Abigail Parker for sharing this song with myself and Heidi Genter during our visit to Ocean City and Cape May. Abby and Heidi are both accomplished vocalists, not so myself. “On the Way to Cape May” was penned by Maurice ‘Buddy’ Nugent around 1960 and sung by a variety of artists since. The most popular version is performed by Philly Cuzz and the Shoobies, and played regularly on a certain Philadelphia radio station on Fridays.

I like to think that the song also describes my time getting to know Heidi, and while we didn’t stop at the courthouse, I think we fell in love with Cape May, as well as with each other. Easy to do with the beaches, dunes, salt marshes, and balmy weather in mid-October.

The cape is a world-famous destination for birdwatchers (“birders”), especially during fall migrations, and is it ever a great spot. The Cape May Bird Observatory makes birding easy, with events almost every day and volunteer bird experts helping you find and identify the birds.

Cape May Point State Park is where most of the action is. The lighthouse serves as a beacon to orient to. Close by is the Hawk Watch, an elevated platform overlooking a wetland set back behind the dunes and the beach. Spotting scopes are usually available for sharing, and interpretive signs inform you of the wildlife you are likely to see. Adjacent picnic shelters afford meeting places for bird, butterfly, and dragonfly walks. Trails originate there as well, and boardwalks take you through the marshes.

Besides Cape May Point State Park, there are other locations worth exploring. Rea Farm is a working agricultural enterprise open only to members of the New Jersey Audubon Society, Bird Observatory, and their guests. The fields and swampy woodlands offer superb habitats for a variety of songbirds and insects. Lily Lake, surrounded by a fairly upscale suburban neighborhood, lures waterfowl and wading birds. Sunset Beach, with its landmark “concrete ship” is a great place to find “sea glass” and quartz agates, as well as knick-knacks at a truly wonderful gift shop.

I’ll be adding more installments about some of these places as time allows. For now I bid you farewell, along with this Great Egret departing the wetlands near the Hawk Watch.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sports Mentality

I think I have at least a partial answer to why men get so worked up over spectator sports. Women, and a few men I suppose, often react by saying something like “Why are you so upset, it’s only a game?” Well, no it is not, and I’ll explain why.

Sports are symbolic, a metaphor for justice (or injustice), success and failure, even good and evil. We want desperately to believe that we can triumph over adversity ourselves, succeed through hard work, and vanquish our own demons. Increasingly, men are feeling disempowered and seek symbolic justice through spectator sports.

We believe, these days at least, that we are at the mercy of employers, bosses, banks, government, and maybe even spouses. Real or imagined, we feel powerless to change our own circumstances and have largely lost faith that the “good guy” can finish anywhere but last. We rail against “America’s team,” the franchises and universities rolling in wealth and entrenched in “tradition,” as they represent the evil overlords of our own jobs, careers, and personal finances.

When “our” team wins, we feel vindicated, hopeful, and energized by association. When that team loses, we sink further into despair and hopelessness. It doesn’t seem rational, you say. It doesn’t have to be. It just….is. It is about respect, or lack thereof, and we feel disrespected much of the time in our personal lives. We are disgraced, humiliated, and repeatedly dismissed when we attempt to advance in the workforce. We bring home smaller wages, driven down by “illegal immigrants.” Our jobs are shipped overseas, not unlike professional sports teams that abandon one city for greener pastures elsewhere. It isn’t fair, and that is the bottom line.

I guess that is what irritates me the most. I don’t get people who respond to the disappointments, trials, and tribulations of others with comments like “life isn’t fair.” Maybe not, but why the hell aren’t you working to make it fair? Why is that not a priority with you? Why is it not a priority with our society, and why are those who want to make life more equitable for all labeled as “socialists” or “communists?” Why is that a bad thing?

We won’t talk about any of this, of course, engage in meaningful dialogue, or God forbid take action to change the status quo. We may not even have voted on Tuesday. No, we will turn up the volume on the TV so we can better hear the sports announcers. We’d rather be at the game in person, but the team owner jacked up the ticket prices to pay for those new luxury boxes at the stadium.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ocean City, New Jersey

Sunrise. Deserted boardwalks still beckon as the sun seeps over the horizon. Beach and jetty are cool on a mid-October morning, but holding hands with a loved one warms me. The sound of the surf is soothing. The casual flapping of the gulls is relaxing, effortless wingbeats exercising indifference to us.

Ocean City, New Jersey is a “dry” island, devoid of alcohol sales, but it profits from the tourist trade all the same. The off-season leaves few but the locals strolling and cycling along the waterfront. There is still attention to detail, though, decorative cornstalks heralding autumn.

There is a stark contrast between the wild Atlantic Ocean and the amusement park mentality of local enterprises. They merge on the boardwalk where grackles and gulls will steal your fast food. Few shops are open now, the ferris wheel sits idle, and Music Pier is taking an intermission.

Beyond the fa├žade of glitz and the aroma wafting from the pizza joint that stubbornly persists in cooking pies, the neighborhoods are modest, quaint, and peaceful. Houses have modest gardens, but the residents groom them well. It is not a terribly romantic place, yet one feels comfortable here. You will be back, you know it, but no rush. No hurry here, the gulls, grackles and tides will be patiently waiting.