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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Jersey: Cape May

2022 Narrative

Talk about a place that never disappoints! Cape May is always a winner of a tour due to its epically renowned volume of migrating birds. Add in Cape May as a charming tourist town full of great food, and this being a short- in-length tour, one really gets a bang for their bird-bucks!

We departed bright and early from Philadelphia to get started on our week of fantastic birding in Cape May. The first stop on the agenda was Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, an expansive tract of coastal salt marsh with a long and birdy wildlife drive. We had some great sightings here: large flocks of ducks featuring American Black Duck, bucketfuls of herons and egrets along with both Glossy and White Ibises, and a wide diversity of shorebirds including American Avocets and a Hudsonian Godwit. A new state bird for me was an American White Pelican. Afterwards we got some sandwiches and checked out my former job- the Avalon Seawatch, one of the three bird counts run by Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO). While not rocking, we did have a couple flocks of Black and Surf Scoters migrate by giving some nice looks! We then drove on to Cape May and settled into our seaside motel where we would stay for the duration of the trip.

One of the real treats of this tour is a morning trek into the salt marshes via boat. We jumped right in the boat for our first morning at Cape May. The boat had a flat bottom that allowed us to get right up in the Spartina marsh grass. This feature gave us particularly fantastic looks at Seaside and Nelson’s Sparrows foraging on the grass seed heads. This excursion gave us some great looks at flocks of shorebirds including point blank views of American Oystercatchers, Whimbrel and Black-bellied Plovers. Multiple Clapper Rails showed well, and our only Brant and Common Raven of the tour were also highlights.

The main attraction at Cape May is often the Hawk Deck near the famous Cape May Lighthouse. Nearly our entire time there, a constant volley of Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks punctuated by Merlins and American Kestrels really gave the tour participants a chance to work on their raptors in flight skills. A number of Northern Harriers, Broad-winged Hawks and Peregrine Falcons were also often observed much to our delight! And it’s not just raptors here…we had great looks at a number of dabbling ducks including a great look at a Eurasian Wigeon. And intermingling with the hawks overhead were truly stunning amounts of Tree Swallows swirling around.

For day two we spent it bopping around Cape May checking out some of the various sanctuaries and parks. The winds were not super favorable for songbird migrants overall, but between the diversity of habitats we stitched together a really lovely day of birding. Warblers were decently plentiful, and we also did some marsh birding which netted us our only American Golden Plover and Stilt Sandpipers of the tour. We had some fantastic looks at a flock of wintering Willets and enjoyed learning how to identify the differences between young Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons. It’s hard not to spend at least a little time at the Hawk Deck when at Cape May and I was glad we did today as there was a great push of Broad-winged Hawks moving that day. Another treat was a volley of Peregrine Falcons migrating overhead- we saw 9 in about an hour!

The next morning, we got going extra early so we could take the ferry to Delaware where we spent the morning combing the coastal pine forest for migrant warblers as well as the adorable Brown-headed Nuthatch. This was a success on both accounts and with our morning targets achieved early we decided to venture farther afield than I thought we would for this day’s adventure. We trekked up to Bombay Hook NWR where the shorebird numbers were just off the hook with hundreds and hundreds of Avocets, Black-bellied Plovers, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitchers. A number of stately Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits were sprinkled throughout the flocks and we were glad to have made it to the refuge. The ferry trip itself was full of birds as well; for our morning voyage, we had a stowaway Pine Warbler riding along on a seat next to us! And on the way back we were treated to large flocks of Laughing Gulls and Brown Pelicans, with a couple of Parasitic Jaegers looking for an easy meal to steal from the gulls.

No trip report to Cape May would be complete without talking about the amazing warbler migration that occurs here. On our penultimate evening at Cape May, the winds switched around making for excellent conditions for songbirds to migrate in overnight. We headed the next morning straight to Higbee Dike where CMBO conducts their songbird Morning Flight counts. Participants were stunned at the river of warblers, flycatchers and Northern Flickers that shot past. Some of the warblers we saw zipping by included Northern Parula, Bay-breasted, Palm, Black-throated Blues AND Greens, Redstart, Blackpoll and of course, Cape May Warblers. While we were on the observation tower news broke of a stunning rarity: a critically endangered Kirtland’s Warbler had been discovered! We hustled over to the dunes it was foraging in and after a quick search were treated to a great look at this first state record for New Jersey! We spent the rest of the day going to some of the migrant stopover sites where flocks of warblers were furiously foraging to refuel for the next leg of their migrations, and we were treated to great looks of Black-throated Blues, Cape Mays and Chestnut-sided Warblers among many others.

In all, it was an amazing trip to Cape May; we recorded 152 species of birds as well as enjoyed the lovely and welcoming community that is Cape May. Full of delicious eats, a gorgeous ocean coast and full to the brim with friendly birders Cape May is a fantastic spot that is worth visiting again and again!

For a complete list of birds observed and additional photos check out our eBird Trip Report here:


-          Skye Haas


Created: 30 December 2022