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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Jersey: Cape May

2016 Narrative

In Brief: The second half of September is a time of peak bird diversity in Cape May, and no matter what the weather, the great array of habitats, and the convergence of so many migrations in this rich area, essentially guarantees that a week spent here at this time will afford a spectacular view of the region’s birdlife.  Cape May is indeed among a handful of locations where bird migration is at its most visible.  From our base on the beach in Cape May proper, our tour is designed for maximum flexibility, leaving the day’s plan open and subject to weather.  We go where the birds are.  There are early mornings at Higbees Beach, where recently-arrived songbirds move in a kind of whispered frenzy, through the trees, high in the sky, and everywhere; soft-lit afternoons on the wide sandy beaches and saltmarshes of Stone Harbor, covered with great flocks of shorebirds; and leisurely midday strolls at Cape May Point, studying ducks, gulls, terns, and sparrows, while keeping an eye to the sky for the passage of hawks and falcons.  One day is devoted to taking the ferry over to Delaware and exploring the incredibly rich birdlife there, and a rather fascinating contrast in habitats.  Our tour this year was all of these things and more.

In Detail: After a first evening at our hotel near the airport outside of Philadelphia, our little group set off for Cape May early on the morning of September 19, into sheets of rain from a tropical storm that had just swung up the coast.  The weather persisted as we arrived on Cape Island, the name designated to the area south of the Cape May canal, so we took cover under a beach pavilion, from which vantage point we could watch the dramatic light on the ocean while staying dry, and large groups of gulls and terns, including a number of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Royal Terns, and Black Skimmers flew by.  The tide was high and, with the heavy rain, now bursting the banks, so we spent some time driving the edges of the marshes northeast of town, and finding groups of shorebirds huddled in gravel parking lots, and even a Clapper Rail standing out in the rain.  Eventually, severe flooding forced us back to higher ground, and it was time for lunch.  Rain was heavy at times, and we decided to check into our hotel early and reconvene later in the afternoon, which proved a good plan.  The day was looking brighter by the time we were out in the South Cape May Meadows, and we had a wonderful walk, happy to be out and moving about.  Among the highlights was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which dropped in while we were watching the various ducks and shorebirds in the freshwater pools.  Our walk took us nearly to dinner time, and, having made the best of a stormy Day One, we had a good meal and made plans for the morning.

Even with the weather not suitable for nocturnal migration, Higbees Beach is still a good bet for any early morning.  With the rains of the previous day, there was a fair amount of bird activity at first light.  Migrant songbirds, which presumably had arrived sometime in the past few days, were moving about in loose flocks.  Most impressive was a roaming flock of Baltimore Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, and no less than eighteen Rose-breasted Grosbeaks!  Small groups of southbound Bobolinks flew over, supporting the theory that migration at Cape May never does cease.  There were small numbers of warblers to be found as well, including Prairie Warbler.  After a sit-down breakfast, we headed up the Atlantic side of the Cape May peninsula, to the beautiful coastal dune forests of Two Mile Beach.  Numbers of Tree Swallows moved along the shoreline here, as we walked out to view the protected beach, where, in Summer, Piping Plovers and Least Terns nest.  We found a great number of Sanderlings here, as well as good studies of Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, and a few American Oystercatchers.  A pair of Peregrines patrolled the beach, keeping the shorebirds on the move, a Caspian Tern was spied, and a single Brown Pelican passed by.  Leaving Two Mile, we continued up the coast towards Stone Harbor (yesterday’s flooding have subsided), passing through Nummy’s Island and occasionally stopping to observe groups of shorebirds and waders in the tidal pools along the road, including several stunning Little Blue Herons.  It was just about high tide when we reached the well-known saltmarsh pools around the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, where we studied a resting flock of yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers, a single Tricolored Heron, and a number of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, before returning south to Cape May.  We picked up sandwiches for lunch and had a picnic on the Coral Avenue “dune crossing” in Cape May Point, a roomy wooden platform with great views of both the ocean and the tops of the trees and gardens around the Point.  The convergence of the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean here at the tip of New Jersey creates what are known as the “rips”, an agitation of water and, hence, an upwelling of foods for birds and other marine life.  Large numbers of Common and Forster’s Terns, Laughing Gulls, and smaller numbers of other gulls (especially Great Black-backed), are the norm.  A few careful scans during lunch produced at least one Parasitic Jaeger, seeming to cut through the throngs of buoyant Laughing Gulls like a dark, sharp-edged thing, in its piratic pursuits.  We also had views of both Black and Surf Scoters, as well as a locally-rare Common (!) Eider just off the beach.

After lunch we made the very short drive to Cape May Point State Park, location of the iconic Cape May lighthouse, as well as the legendary hawkwatch platform.  Here is a veritable birder’s playground, with wide sand beaches, grassy dunes, maritime dune forests, freshwater ponds and marshes, and, nearly always, other birders, often from far-away places.  It’s the place to come to learn what’s happening around Cape May, and also one of the best places anywhere to study North American raptors in autumn migration.  After visiting the hawkwatch and scanning the beaches, we took a walk into the rather open forest behind the dunes to see what migrant songbirds might be lingering there.  Among the resident Carolina Chickadees were a number of warblers, including multiple Cape Mays, Black-and-White, Prairie, and Magnolia, as well as a late Yellow-throated Vireo, seen beautifully in the telescope.  Several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers made appearances, as we kept pace with the flock along the trail.  Having come full circle back to our starting point at the carpark, it was now late afternoon, and we decided to make a last stop at the area known as the Magnesite Plant, near Sunset Beach, and the southern portion of Higbees Beach Wildlife Management Area.  Field Sparrows migrate later in the season, and at this time are still generally in or near breeding territories, shy and inconspicuous as they molt their feathers in anticipation for their journey.  One such site is the Magnesite Plant, and after some searching, and tracking their soft calls, we had good views of a family group, before heading back to our hotel to rest up and freshen up before dinner. 

Next day, the 21st of September, we had a hearty breakfast at first light, so as to be fueled for a full morning of birding.  Winds were generally favorable over the night, and the inclement weather of the past couple of nights meant there was a bit of a build-up of birds anxious to be on the move.  As the sun rose over Higbees, many warblers could be heard and spotted in overhead flight.  This is the phenomenon referred to as “morning flight”, which can be generally defined as the morning movement of nocturnally-migrating songbirds, in a direction which would seem to suggest their taking corrective measures for any navigational errors made during the night.  Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than at Cape May and at Higbees in particular.  Songbirds coming out of the fields and woods of Cape Island, as well as those having drifted out to sea, generally travel a flight path towards the northwest, towards, it would seem the Appalachian flyway.  The famous dike at Higbees, at the northwest corner of the island, has long been the spot to witness this spectacle, where the flight is most concentrated, and the birds are generally still low to the ground and at their most identifiable.  On some mornings, the flight can be almost overwhelming.  This particular morning was perhaps by Cape May standards rather average, but by most other standards, the consistent presence of warblers in the sky was very nearly off the charts.  Among those we were able to identify were a number of Northern Parulas, Blackpoll Warblers, and the distinctive (even in flight) Black-throated Blue Warbler and American Redstart.  We spent a couple hours at Higbees, walking the fields and hedgerows, and getting some good, if brief, views of birds that occasionally paused in the treetops on their way.  By ten o’clock we had made our way down to the Cape May marina, and on board the Osprey, a comfortable, glass-enclosed “birding” boat which explores the harbor, inlet, and coastal saltmarsh habitats around Cape May.  From the boat we had excellent views of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, shorebirds (including a large flock of American Oystercatchers, some Black-bellied Plovers, “Western” Willets, both yellowlegs, and Ruddy Turnstones), Belted Kingfishers, Bald Eagle, and, of course, Ospreys, while enjoying the exceedingly pleasant weather.  Getting in just after midday, we had a sit-down lunch right by the marina, and returned to our beach-front hotel for an afternoon break during the “heat” of the day.  We reconvened at three o’clock and went down to the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Northwood Center, located on Lily Lake in Cape May Point.  Having gotten word that a modest flock of songbirds had been working this stretch along the lakeshore all day, we took our time here, and were rewarded with breathtaking views of Blue-headed Vireo and the rather rare Philadelphia Vireo, along with several species of warblers.  We continued to explore a few other spots around the Point, and, by the time we made it to the South Cape May Meadows for a walk, it was evident that a late-afternoon Merlin flight was underway, one of the great shows at Cape May in Fall.  In an hour or so we counted around thirty, and sometimes as many as five or six were in view at once, with a sprinkling of American Kestrels as well.  While watching the sky, we also enjoyed scope views of a male Eurasian Wigeon among a group of American Wigeons out in one of the ponds at the “meadows”.  With the sun sinking and the falcon flight waning, we called it a day and headed back to our hotel, and had a later-than-usual dinner.

With migration again occurring overnight, our Day 4 plan was similar to the previous day’s, although this time, after leaving the pancake house, we decided to see the morning unfold from the southern end of Higbees, under the wide-open skies at the Magnesite Plant, and around Davey’s Lake.  Davey’s is a nearly hidden gem.  A small freshwater lake nestled in the dunes just north of Sunset Beach, it is surrounded by some of the most pristine and beautiful natural habitat in Cape May.  A series of high sand dunes flanks the lake, protecting dense groves of oaks and other native trees, and tangles of greenbrier, interspersed with red cedars and clusters of beach plums.  It is a vision of the primeval coastal Atlantic, and my favorite arena in which to behold the spectacle of migration at Cape May.  On this morning there were plenty of birds moving about, many warblers taking off from the trees and heading up the Delaware Bayshore.  From one dense grove came the call of a Wood Thrush, and the season’s first Ruby-crowned Kinglets favored the junipers.  Upon reaching the lake, we were distracted by an odd series of chirps, and surprised to see that they came from a River Otter moving along the reed-bank on the far shore!  It was a gorgeous morning, and we tarried long on our walk.  From here we drove towards the Point, where the “rips” were roaring offshore, and from the vantage point at Coral Avenue had good views of at least two Parasitic Jaegers patrolling the waters.  At eleven we stationed ourselves at Triangle Park, a small butterfly garden at the Point, and watched an informative demo of the Monarch tagging project at Cape May, while a flurry of migrant raptors, mostly Sharp-shinned Hawks, vied for our attention.

After another excellent lunch and a short “siesta” at the hotel, we headed up the parkway to the site of Cape May Bird Observatory’s Avalon Seawatch, in the town of Avalon.  Here, where the coastline bulges out into the Atlantic, one can witness yet another of Cape May’s annual spectacles: the migration of waterbirds down the Atlantic seaboard.  Every year the passage of scoters, other ducks, cormorants, loons, gannets, gulls, and terns are tallied here, in numbers and at a close range not to be experienced virtually anywhere else.  Big flights don’t happen every day, however, and mostly in October and November, though it was enjoyable to visit on this, the first official day of the count, and to chat with some of the staff members of the Cape May Bird Observatory.  Avalon comprises the northern portion of an island whose southern terminus is Stone Harbor Point, and it was a short drive down the now nearly empty streets (the post-Labor Day quiet having set it in on the Jersey Shore), to this our next destination.  Stone Harbor Point is a big, every-shifting peninsula of sand, sparse vegetation, and salty pools, and is a major resting area for shorebirds, as well as an important breeding site for terns and shorebirds.  We walked the beach here in the incredible soft light of late afternoon, having excellent studies of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers (the former in greater numbers than anywhere else on the New Jersey shore, here reaching the northeastern reaches of where it is common).  A big flock of American Oystercatchers waded in ankle-deep, while Sanderlings tried to stay relatively dry just at surf’s edge, and large numbers of Semipalmated Plovers were scattered on the flats.  A little ways down the beach was a Piping Plover, either lingering from Summer, or a migrant, perhaps even from one of the Great Lakes populations.  A Peregrine Falcon patrolled the broad, bird-covered expanse of sand in front of us, as the light continued to soften, and we made our way back to Cape May.

Our final full day, the 23rd of September, we boarded the 7am ferry to Delaware.  The crossing was pleasant, and we made a timely arrival at about 8:30 in Lewes.  The ferry terminal here is a short distance from the beautiful Cape Henlopen State Park.  Less than twenty miles from Cape May Point, Henlopen’s scenery is rather strikingly different: a beautiful coastal forest of open, mature pines.  One bird in particular knows well the difference; the Brown-headed Nuthatch reaches the northern terminus of its range here, and is rather common, though until very recently, had never been recorded in New Jersey.  After taking breakfast in town, we visited the state park’s nature center, where we quickly located a vocal party of these delightful little cherubs.  Inside the center, we marveled for a while at live displays of some of the sea life native to the area, before deciding that the morning had been so expediently executed as to allow for the trip up to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, the pearl of Delaware, about an hour to the north.  The coast of Delaware here is a flat region of farmland, interspersed with rich alluvial forests, intersected by brackish tidal creeks, giving way to expansive saltmarshes, mudflats, and broad sand beaches.  Huge numbers of shorebirds use this shoreline on migration.  Bombay Hook is one of the more accessible points in this very large network of habitat.  Though we didn’t have long to explore the refuge, we situated ourselves at one of the best vantage points to view the enormous mudflats, just as the tide was coming in and covering the entire expanse.  The shorebirds, here by the thousands, covered the exposed areas, becoming more concentrated as these areas shrunk, and eventually began moving out in great flocks towards freshwater pools to rest, preen, and drink.  A scan across the huge refuge revealed that this was happening everywhere.  Shimmering skeins of Semipalmated Sandpipers could be seen as far as one’s eye could discern.  Among the more abundant shorebirds (which also included Semipalmated Plover, and Least and Western Sandpipers), we spotted a group of Marbled Godwits out on the flats, as well as a handful of White-rumped Sandpipers in a group of “peeps” close enough to study.  Also here were several hundred American Avocets, a common sight at Bombay Hook, while it is a rare species in New Jersey.  An unexpected treat was an obliging group of Bobolinks in the reeds along the refuge drive, allowing for a good study in the telescope, along with several Savannah Sparrows.  As the incoming tide covered the flats, we took an epic lunch of crab cakes at Leipsic’s famous Sambo’s Tavern, and headed south towards another of Delaware’s great refuges, Prime Hook.  In the roadside pools along the road here we found an incredible bounty of shorebirds, terns, and gulls, including more look at White-rumped Sandpiper, and another feeding horde of avocets.  A flock of Long-billed Dowitchers flew over.  We continued on our southerly path, arriving at the ferry terminal in Lewes in time to board the ferry.  On our return crossing, we spotted at least five Parasitic Jaegers and a few Bottlenose Dolphins (as well as a Humpback Whale seen by myself, which unfortunately sounded, not to be spotted again), and while approaching Cape May in the balmy late afternoon, took in a marvelous view of the Point, over which a mass of insect-hawking Laughing Gulls hung like a thin cloud.  After a rather hot, fast-paced but incredibly birdy and fulfilling tour of Delaware, we were all ready to rest up at the hotel, before a festive final dinner together. 

We did a bit of birding on our final morning, returning to Higbees, where we found a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Blue Grosbeak, and some other great things; and taking one last view of the lighthouse and the Point.  There was a change in the weather, and a dramatic bright smoky sky hung over Cape May, Peregrine Falcons were on the move, there were many swallows in the air, and a lingering sense that something incredible was about to happen.  That, for me, is what Cape May is all about.

We reached Philadelphia around midday, and reluctantly parted ways.  Thank you all for a perfect trip.  It is hard to express how wonderful a thing it is to have shared the time with you, and though short, it was long also, and though life continues in ever-changing settings, I hope you took something along with you, as I surely did.  Hope to see you all again!

- Evan Obercian

Updated: November 2016