Saturday, September 20, 2014

A close shave: visiting Cape May's Whiskered Tern

Some people will travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles to visit the same spot every year. Ask the many Canadian families who migrate to Wildwood every year for their sun-and-fun vacation, a ritual that has by now spanned generations.

Birds, apparently, can be of similar mind, or at least we can imagine that to be the case from the story of the Whiskered tern. The species, normally seen only in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, has shown up in North America only three times, all within the past 21 years.

Every time, it's been seen in Cape May.

Yup -- of all of the places a seabird can decide to set down in the entirety of the continent, New Jersey has been its first choice in 1993, 1998 and again this year. (In the interest of full disclosure, one was seen in Delaware for a month after the second New Jersey sighting, but it's presumed to be the same bird.) It's not exactly the annual Wildwood trip, and it most certainly hasn't been the same individual bird all three times, but Garden State birders do appreciate the loyalty, spotty as it has been.

A crowd usually forms when a rarity is sighted in Cape May.
This year's Whiskered tern was first sighted at Cape May Point State Park on September 12, at the bunker pond not far from the annual Hawk Watch platform. Unfortunately, Ivan and I couldn't make the trip until today, but continued reports of the bird's presence kept us hopeful it would wait around for us. The worst case would be if we made the trek only to discover we'd just missed it by a whisker.

Last night's birding reports were that the bird had been seen at the bunker pond. We were barely out of the car at the State Park when a fellow birder told us the tern was farther down the beach, near Coral Avenue. Say no more. We buckled back up and made the quick trip a few blocks. The presence of cars from as close as Pennsylvania and as far away as West Virginia both told us we were in the right place and confirmed what a big deal this bird was. We traversed up a set of stairs over a dune and down to the beach, passing a viewing platform where a large group of binoculared folks was scanning the sand.

Sure enough, the bird had left about ten minutes before we arrived. Had we not stopped for a quick Wawa breakfast, we'd have seen it. Another birder reported that the bird habitually stuck around the beach in the mornings. If we were willing to hang out and periodically scan the standing flocks of gulls and more local terns on the beach, we'd probably see the Whiskered tern eventually.

That seemed fair enough. Scores of gulls and terns were out over the ocean a hundred yards or so from the beach, occasionally diving down to grab a fish breakfast. They'd have to set down sometime. Obviously this was the right place to be, provided our target bird hadn't already eaten his fill for the morning.

Looking through piles of gulls and nearly identical terns for something different can be a bit frustrating this time of year. We knew we were looking for a bird with a broad black cap and a gray body that would differentiate it from other terns, but light and nature can play tricks on your eyes. Plumage evolves into the fall and winter months as it turns from breeding colors to bland for many species. To make matters even more challenging for me, the Whiskered tern isn't listed in North American guides, and we hadn't printed pictures from the web.

As we waited for our guest to show, we had a nice but puzzling surprise: a trio of Surf scoters swimming nearby. These guys normally spend their summers breeding in the upper reaches of Canada. Were they just early arrivals for their normal New Jersey winter, or, odd as it might seem, had they just never left here in the spring?

The whiskered tern is the black-capped, gray-bodied bird
in the center of this digiscoped photo.
That question still in the air, we saw the platform birders had migrated to the beach and one of them was pointing toward a group of birds milling around in the sand. Scanning the impromptu flock, we found it pretty easily -- it was standing in full view, the only tern with a light gray breast. The poor guy looked a little lonely and downcast, as if he realized how different he was from the others around him. Sure, we were anthropomorphizing, but I had to wonder if maybe his European or Asian accent had set him apart unfavorably among the rest of the terns. Or maybe he was just missing the Black tern that's been seen with him several times. Or maybe he was just resting.

In any case, we were thrilled to have gotten to Cape May before the Whiskered tern made his leave for wherever he decides to go next. Why he's in New Jersey has yet to be determined (if ever), but he's definitely made friends. It was a new life bird and new state bird for both Ivan and me, a double feat that's become increasingly rarer for us.

Still, we wondered: why is it called a Whiskered tern? We didn't notice any hint of whiskers, or even a five o'clock shadow. Perhaps the name was given for something that can only be seen with the bird "in hand," as ornithologists will say about a specimen taken for research purposes. Or maybe it's just one of those odd names. Any ideas, birders?

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