This has been another very mild winter, and so we have birds we don’t ordinarily see in January around southern New Jersey.
Ospreys, usually long gone by now, have remained at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township and along Delaware Bay in Cape May County.
Several species of warblers and vireos continue to be seen at Cape May Point State Park, even as nearby crossbills from the north feast on pine nuts.
The big shocker of the moment is the appearance of possibly three crested caracaras, a tropical, carrion-eating member of the falcon family usually found only in Arizona, Texas, Florida and farther south.
The vulture-like bird with white on the neck and tail (called northern caracara in some guides) has been seen recently in Atlantic, Cape May, eastern Burlington and Salem counties.
Mike Crew, program director with NJ Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory, said on his View from the Cape blog that the caracara situation is getting “a little crazy.”
Caracaras move around, usually in the company of vultures, but he said “it looks as though we may well have two and maybe even three birds in New Jersey.”
Since they seldom turn up anywhere in the temperate U.S., Crew wonders whether the birds might be part of a shipment of tropical birds that escaped.
The N.J. Birds Record Committee will study the sightings and photos and try to determine how many caracaras there are and if they’re wild birds.
If it is indeed a caracara invasion, surely the unusually warm season and year are a factor. Last year was the hottest on record for the continental U.S., although only ninth hottest for the world.
Kathi and Brian Tetley have only had to go to the window of their Northfield home to see how the warmth has affected the bird population.
For at least a month, the Tetleys have had a Baltimore oriole at their feeders regularly.
“I’m watching the oriole right now,” Kathi Tetley said Saturday morning. “It’s on the suet. He eats the suet and then he eats a lot of sunflower seeds.”
The black and orange color of the oriole and the namesake baseball team is muted on this bird, suggesting it’s either a female or a first-year male Baltimore oriole.
At other times of the year, orioles feed heavily on hairy caterpillars and fruit.
Kathi Tetley said she tried serving her oriole some orange slices, but “he’s not going for it at all.”
According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Baltimore orioles prefer dark-colored fruits: dark cherries, fully ripe purple mulberries, grapes.
The Tetleys already offer birds quite a spread, with feeders stocked with mixed seed, sunflower seed, thistle seed and suet. They don’t need to offer water, she said, because their property is adjacent to Birch Grove Park and a stream runs nearby.
This week we’re finally getting typical winter temperatures with lows in the 20s as a result of a cold front. A week from now we’ll probably be back to lows about 40 degrees.
The challenge for warm-winter birds such as the Baltimore oriole will be to eat enough to produce the warmth needed to get through the cold spell.
“He’s here all day,” Kathi Tetley said of her oriole. “He’s absolutely ravenous.”
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