Friday, June 21, 2013

Let's go fly a (Mississippi) kite: feasting on cicadas at Belleplain

I hate cicadas. There. I said it. As a nature lover, I know I should appreciate them. I know I should marvel at the recent brood, which has emerged from the ground after a 17 year wait. And I know I should probably be thrilled by the otherworldly spaceship-kinda sound that indicates their presence in a stand of trees. I know all that, but I just don't like 'em. There you go.

When several of my naturalist Facebook friends started posting their cicada sightings and observations, I asked the question, "Which birds feast on cicadas?" One particularly enthusiastic friend practically shouted, "Kites!" The smallish (14 inches from bill tip to end of tail feathers) Mississippi kite and his larger (22 inch long) swallow-tailed cousin survive on dragonflies and cicadas they capture midair.

Only thing is, neither is an abundant visitor to New Jersey. They generally spend all their time south of the state, and though Mississippi kites have been making a very slow progression northward, it's still a big treat to find breeding pairs here. In any case, a handful of accidental visitors would be no match for the millions of cicadas emerging from their long slumber in the soils of New Jersey. We could only hope that word would get out on the kite network, and much as seafood enthusiasts head to shellfish festivals, these raptors would zoom up to the Garden State for a once-in-a-lifetime gustatory event.

And, indeed, it didn't take long before an observant birder announced a sighting at Belleplain State Forest in Cape May County. Not just one Mississippi kite made it up here for the feast: as many as 15 at a time have been spotted roosting in a dead tree along Lake Nummy. Neither Ivan nor I had ever seen one in New Jersey, let alone more than a dozen, so we weren't going to let this opportunity pass us by.

Belleplain is situated midway between the Atlantic and Delaware bayshores in upper Cape May County, in the lower range of the Pinelands. A fair amount of the 2000 acre property is designated for small campsites, and the kites were said to be visible from one of them in particular. We drove in, found a place to park at a trailhead near the side of the road and asked two passing hikers for quick directions to the campsite area. I was inclined to just head toward the most intense cicada hum, but Ivan preferred a more direct route.

As an entry-level Pinelands experience, you couldn't ask for a nicer venue than Belleplain. Pitch pines dominate the woods, and the sandy level ground is cushioned with fallen and dried needles and leaves. Plenty in interpretive signs are posted along the hiking path, alerting strollers to the plants and natural features around them. We even found a bit of history near Lake Nummy, which had once been a cranberry bog owned by the Meisle family before the state acquired the land in 1928. During the late 1930s, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps had actually dug the lake by hand where the bog had been, creating a new recreational feature while also planting scores of pine trees to re-establish the forest.

After a bit of unintended additional exploring, we found the (fortunately uninhabited) camping area and searched for the appropriate site from which to see the kites. Another birder was already at one of the lakefront sites, spotting scope poised. Hmm, I guess we found the right place. Indeed, we looked across the lake to the top of a tall dead tree and found a good dozen large birds visible to the naked eye. A quick glance through the binoculars confirmed it.

Watching the congregated kites seemed almost a bit voyeuristic, as several were passing the time by preening and grooming. Others would lift off occasionally, presumably to nab a cicada in mid-flight. In general, they seemed pretty happy with where they were, no worries about having to seek out food. We were able to study them to our heart's content, a rare opportunity in our own state.

So, I guess I have to give the cicadas credit: they brought us good luck with the kites. The luck for the cicadas, well, not as good.

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