Rothko sunrise on the big beach at Wildwood Crest on the Cape May peninsula, hanging down from New Jersey’s southeastern end like an appendix. I was on the beach about 50 minutes before sunrise, with a long row of mostly-empty-in-the-off-season motels behind me, and the Sanderlings already working the edge of the waves in the near-glooming dark. A migratory bottleneck, Cape May is renown for birding in the fall, when southbound birds funnel along the coast turn right at the end of the peninsular, continuing over the mouth of the Delaware Bay. The place was simply swarming with bird-watchers, showing, incidentally, their economic if not yet their full political potential. We — a NYC Audubon tour led by Joe Giunta — visited the famed hawk watch on Saturday and Sunday, both times under unusually hot and muggy conditions. That’s crappy weather for migration; birds want a tail-wind behind them, and in October that’s a cold wind from the north. Still, birds were moving: 443 Sharp-shinned Hawks were seen there on Saturday. Our highlights included a mature Bald Eagle passing overhead, as well as numerous accipiters and falcons, giving me an opportunity to refine my sense of the differences between Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s, as well as between Kestrels, Merlins, and Peregrines.Hiding from the brutal sun, two Southern Gray Treefrogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) no bigger than my thumb joint, were tucked into the hawk watch’s woodwork. This is an endangered species in NJ. Elsewhere, we heard tree frogs and cicadas (and mosquitos!), giving a rather tropical feeling to the woods at Higbee Beach WMA, except for the masses of black walnuts going to rot and squirrels at our feet.There are a number of ponds around the hawk watch, luring in ducks and waders (among many others, we saw Wood ducks, a Eurasian wigeon, Stilt Sandpipers, Black Skimmers, plenty of egrets). Here are some Caspian Terns (Sterna caspia), a new species for me, amid a scrum of immature Laughing Gulls (Larus atricilla).Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia). Cape May is also noted for its Monarch butterfly congregations, channeled down the peninsula during migration like the birds. A volunteer was capturing and tagging the distinctive orange and black fliers with tiny little stickers; but it was a slow day in bad year for Monarchs (beset as they are at both ends of their epic migrations: their Mexican habitat is ever more chopped down and we continue to mow and pave over our grasslands, including the all important milkweeds).
An especial highlight of the trip was at sunset in the heavy fog on Nummy Island. Black-crowned Night Herons were leaving their diurnal roosts. Their bark-like “kwok” calls echoed in the fog, then the birds began to take flight to their nocturnal feeding grounds in the marshes and tidal flats around us.
An ant wrestles with a lepidoptera wing. An aerodynamic challenge.
The Skippers in the family Hesperiidae are small, fast, confusing, and perhaps not even butterflies. But we will leave that to the taxonomists…Also, they are all over the place: walking through a meadow or even a semi-feral lawn now can stir them up. A subsection of the Skippers, the Grass Skippers, have a characteristic “jet plane position” perch in which the hindwings are opened further than the forewings, as above. This one, with the tell-tale black stigma, is a male Sachem (Atalopedes campestris).This is a female Tawny-edged Skipper (Polites themistocles), I think. One detail to note here is that the clubs of the antennae are bent, characteristic of Hesperiidae.Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus), almost twice as big as the above species and easier to ID with the silver-white mark on the hindwings.
Barely… actually she seems to be doing ok with those chucks missing from her forewings. This is an Eastern Tailed-Blue (Everes comyntas); a female, with brown wings on the upperside; the male has blue. Wingspan is close to an inch, so about half inch when perched. And the tails made much of in the common name are tiny: they come off the hind wings like little streamers. You can seem them better below:
There are moments when the beauty of the world takes your breath away. Like, for instance, when a Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) spreads its wings in a patch of sunlight, opening and closing them in quick succession — as if were silently clapping — and flashing this incredible blue iridescence. And then you remember why you are living.
Come on, butterfly –
it’s late and we’ve leagues to go
with each other still.
(my synthesis of several translations)
The Common Sootywing (Pholisora catullus). A tiny — wingspan is less than an inch — fluttery butterfly, that looks black from a distance, but up close is revealed to be a rich brown.
Another black and yellow animal for the day. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). All over the place right now, but hard to get a lens on unless they are feeding. Mostly I see them moving. This is the largest regional butterfly, and pretty much unmistakable, although further north the slightly smaller P. canadensis is found, and there is some overlap between the two ranges. And in the southern Appalachians, PA to GA to AL, there is the even larger P. appalachiensis, which flies only in spring.
Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) are out and about now, moving fast.
One of the large “dark swallowtails,” which I find impossible to identify in motion. That’s the point. Both the Spicebush and the Black Swallowtail (P. polyxenes) mimic the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor), which evidently tastes disgusting after loading up on Pipevine toxins. Predators learn this and avoid them, and the range of other large dark swallowtails that are actually delicious (I mean, if you’re into this sort of thing). There’s also a dark intermediate female form of the giant Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (P. glaucus); the one quick field mark there is that her body is NOT white-spotted.
For the Spicebush, notice how the inner row of orange blobs on the underwing are interrupted by an arrow-like silvery blue green wedge.