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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Jersey: Cape May

2021 Narrative

In Brief:  Cape May, New Jersey is the undoubtedly the capital of birding in North America, and WINGS’ first visit in several years not disappoint! We tallied in an impressive 151 species of birds for the week with warblers (18 species), shorebirds (25 species) as well as great raptor flights and a handful of goodies that were not on our radar. Highlights we encountered included European Wigeon, Great Cormorant, four Roseate Spoonbills, Hudsonian Godwits, Avocets, Blue Grosbeaks and an afternoon that was just filled with Kestrels and Merlins winging their way southward. We boated twice on this caper, taking the Cape May-Lewes ferry to Delaware for Brown-headed Nuthatches, and on another morning we boarded a flat-bottomed boat to explore the coastal salt marshes with flocks of herons and egrets as well as saltmarsh specialties like the Diamondback Terrapin. One of the true delights of this tour is how little time we spent in the van. Most of our days we birded in a five-mile radius, drifting from the Morning Flight Count to the Hawk Deck to enjoying flocks of Black Skimmers on the beach in front of our inn. Cape May is an adorable resort town and our evening meals were excellent with many participants bending towards the ample local seafood. And everywhere one went, there were groups of birders enjoying their Cape May experience like us. It felt like community, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s tour.

In Detail: WINGS had not been to Cape May since the fall of 2016 and while overdue, we had a most welcomed return to the capital city of birding! Cape May is a very special place, the volume of migration that occurs here is simply stupendous with seasonal totals of hundreds of thousands of birds recorded annually. Set on a narrow peninsula surrounded by extensive salt marshes, birds are funneled down through southern New Jersey as they migrate southward along the Atlantic Coast.

Day One

We began our birding adventure at our hotel in Philadelphia where we got to meet one another and converse over dinner at a nearby restaurant. We turned in early so we could get a fresh start in the morning and drive down to Cape May. It is a few hours’ drive to Cape May through the Pineylands and down the Jersey Turnpike. Cape May is an incredibly charming resort town full of delicious restaurants, gorgeous gardens and a vibrant birders’ community. And it is indeed quite the community of birders here. At its heart is Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO), one of the longest running programs of its kind in the Americas. CMBO has been pushing the envelope of field identification for years now and its three count programs have contributed immensely to our knowledge of birds and migration. The hawk count has run for over forty years, while the morning flight program of counting migrating songbirds is the first of its kind! And perched out into the Atlantic Ocean about 12 miles north of Cape May lies Avalon where a fall seawatch has run since the early 90s and counters record hundreds of thousands of migrating waterbirds with seasonal totals of over a million birds reached a handful of times. With all these incredible opportunities to study birds, a number of birding experts have settled here and a wealth of field identification books and resources have been produced here. Names like Sibley, Crossley, O’Brien, Karlson, Cox and Sutton are labeled on the spines of our bird books and these authors have all spent time living here. So excitement was palpable as we pulled up to Higbee Meadows about an hour after sunrise and got right to birding. A decent flight of songbirds had occurred that morning and among the plentiful numbers of Redstarts, Black and White Warblers and tail bobbing Palm Warblers, we were treated to looks a handsome Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blue Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Carolina Chickadees and a nice look at a Blue Grosbeak! After a couple hours of wandering the meadows we grabbed some subs and headed over to the hawkwatch where an excellent movement of American Kestrels and Merlins were near constantly darting right over the hawk deck. A surprising treat was a pair of White Ibis that looped around us multiple times before heading back to the marsh. Another rarity we were able to connect with was a male Eurasian Wigeon. These handsome ducks while rare, are a regular visitor to the ponds here on the Cape. It was getting on in the afternoon so we headed over to the Sea Crest Inn to check into the ocean-view lodging we would stay at for the duration of the tour. Afterwards we headed over to the Northwoods Center, CMBO’s office/bookstore. The grounds here along with the ring of trees that surrounds the small lake in front of the shop can be an excellent spot to watch warblers in the late afternoon as they gather to feed. It was then off to dinner, but not before stopping at the beach for a few minutes to marvel at the large flock of Black Skimmers roosting on the beach. A goodly handful of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were also present.

Day Two

For our next morning we returned to Higbee Meadows (a common theme to anyone’s visit to Cape May!). Again we were treated to warblers moving through the brush, along with some Least Flycatcher and vireos. A treat was listening to the rollicky song of a White-eyed Vireo though it stayed hidden from view. However, another notorious skulker in the form of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo perched right out in the open for several minutes giving everyone a fantastic look! But overall, the songbird action was a little slow this morning compared to yesterday so we decided to head up to Forysthe NWR also known as Brig, an extensive coastal salt marsh chock full of waterbirds. By the time we got up to Brig, we first headed to the picnic area to make lunch and there we picked up a few new passerines like Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Wood-Pewee and fantastic looks at a pair of Brown Thrashers. We then headed out on the 10-mile auto loop wildlife drive through the marshes. Ducks were plentiful, with nearly all the dabblers present in good numbers, and a pair of Snow Geese were an unseasonable surprise. The marsh was peppered throughout with elegant Great and Snowy Egrets. An American Bittern gave a great look and nearby a small flock of Glossy Ibis were a treat. And of course one can’t forget the plentiful flocks of shorebirds. Good numbers of both Yellowlegs and Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers were present and some goodies we got were Stilt Sandpipers, a Long-billed Dowitcher and rare to the east coast, a Wilson’s Phalarope!

Day Three

The next morning the weather was wet with unfavorable winds, so we slept in a touch and had a more leisurely breakfast. By then the sun had come out and it was time for us to board the Osprey, a flat-bottomed boat that takes birders out into the Intercoastal Waterway of Jersey for an in-depth look at the salt marshes. As always, a morning spent boating is a great time and we were treated to in-our-face looks at American Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Royal and Forster’s Terns and Boat-tailed Grackles. A nice score, though distant, were a pair of Great Cormorants – the only ones we would see on this tour. Also a surprise was a Whimbrel along the shore. Bottlenose Dolphins came right up to the boat! For our afternoon birding we kept with our marsh birding theme and headed to Nummy Island to look for Seaside and “Sharp-tailed” Sparrows. Unfortunately we struck out on finding those, and although a Clapper Rail taunted us by repeatedly calling from the marsh grass, it never showed itself. However we still had some great looks at Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, a large flock of Willets and our only Red Knot of the trip.

Day Four

We roused quite early the next morning as the overnight weather conditions were excellent for nocturnal migration and the chances were very good for a rocking morning flight of passerines. Not the usual way one watches warblers but an amazing migratory phenomenon that should be experienced by all is the morning flight of songbirds post a migratory movement of them the previous night. As dawn hits and thousands of songbirds find themselves still over the open waters of the ocean, they need to re-orient and find good stopover habitat for rest and refueling. The researchers at CMBO discovered that the dike at Higbee along the Delaware Bay coastline acts as an excellent conduit for these morning flights and has conducted a daily count of the multitudes of warblers, orioles, woodpeckers and other small landbirds streaming up the coast in the first few hours of daylight.  We first ran through the local Wawa getting some quickie breakfast burritos to go and then secured a place on the observation tower at Higbee by dawn. At first there was only a trickle of passerines flying, but after a little while there were dozens and dozens of warblers zipping past! Certainly a challenging way to see these tiny birds but all still marveled at the migratory spectacle. Even though most went unidentified we still tallied in 14 species of warblers past us, along with a steady parade of Northern Flickers. A fun catch was a female Scarlet Tanager that provided a good look despite being on the wing! We then headed to the South Cape May Meadows, a fantastic freshwater marsh owned by The Nature Conservancy. This spot is always a hit, and today was no different! While we saw larger concentrations of shorebirds on this tour, the observation blind here allowed for some very close studies of shorebirds in their winter grays. We had a delightful look at a Sora, as well as a pair of Glossy Ibis. A Northern Waterthrush also showed very well for this normally-skulky species. Raptors were also pretty decent overhead today with a great look at a Peregrine Falcon and our only Red-shouldered Hawk of the tour. Late in the afternoon we stopped by the home of Louise Zemaitis and Michael O’Brien to check out the lingering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds coming to their meadow gardens.

Day Five

It was another predawn start today as we had quite the adventure planned—we were going to take a car ferry across the Delaware Bay! With the voyage being about 90 minutes, this offered an opportunity to have a mini-pelagic! Our crossing gave us many views of Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns and Great Black-backed Gulls along with our only Black Scoters of the tour. Upon arrival at Lewes, Delaware we headed straight to Cape Henlopen State Park where among the pine-clad dunes is found the northernmost population of Brown-headed Nuthatches. We were barely there for five minutes before we heard the squeaky toy chitterings of these adorable tiny birds from the van window. We rolled out lickety-split and got some great looks at the nuthatches. As they moved off, we were then treated to a fantastic look at a Pine Warbler! We did a little more poking around, but as delightful as this park is, we wanted to get up to Bombay Hook NWR where a host of good birds had been recently reported. And my goodness, was this right decision! The wildlife drive was just brimming with waterbirds. The duck numbers were in the hundreds and easily a few thousand shorebirds were observed! We tallied in 15 species of shorebirds with several new ones for our tour including the strikingly marked American Avocets and a small flock of Hudsonian Godwits, along with an American Golden-Plover! A flock of both Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers allowed for a workshop on how to differentiate between these two very similar looking species. Another few new birds for the tour included Common Gallinule, Pied-billed Grebe and both Ruddy and Wood Ducks. But the undeniable highlight was the flock of Roseate Spoonbills foraging right along the drive! These almost preposterous looking waders had staged quite the irruption flight into the northern states in the summer of 2021 and had been delighting birders up and down the east coast with sightings of these subtropical pink birds. We had to tear ourselves away from the refuge that afternoon so we could make it back to the ferry to return to Cape May. The crossing this time yielded a couple really great birds; even if they weren’t the most cooperative, the pair of Red-necked Phalaropes and an adult Pomarine Jaeger were still exciting! But Cape May had one more surprise in store for us as we made our way back to shore. Migration of course not being only the purview of birds, Cape May is also well known as a major conduit for the passage of Monarch Butterflies. Apparently, all the bird counts that day had been remarking about the incredible numbers of monarchs on the move, and word broke that a super roost of butterflies was occurring in the pines at the southernmost tip of Cape May! Even though we were tired from the long day and more than ready to go get dinner, this was an opportunity that we just could not pass up. The scene was simply magical! Everywhere you looked there were dozens of monarchs floating in the warm evening breeze and hundreds of these gossamer creatures were alighting in the pines. A large crowd had gathered to bear witness to this spectacle of migration: entomologists, birders, neighborhood residents; all were moved by this amazing sight!

Day Six

All good things… One last morning in Cape May. The tour was such a delightful time. The group was satiated from all the amazing sightings, but none the less we headed out on the trail for a few more hours of birding before driving back up to the Philadelphia airport. Clearly another movement of songbirds had occurred overnight and with it the Myrtle Warblers had arrived! Dozens of “butterbutts” were always streaming by overhead. And with the Myrtle Warblers heralding the changing of the guard, we noticed a lack of the warbler diversity we had enjoyed all week. However, we did see several species of sparrow this morning with great looks at a small flock of sweet-faced Field Sparrows. It was a wonderful experience to go out on, and our joyful group bid adieu to this special place and departed the Capitol City of Birding.

-          Skye Haas 




Created: 11 November 2021