Cape May, New Jersey – Back to the Start

New Jersey Birding

People often ask The Bird Nerds how we became interested in birding.  The short answer is Cape May, New Jersey.  Each year in late October, Sarah’s parents spend a long weekend in Cape May to view raptors during migration.  About two years ago, with a love for nature, but no particular interest in birds, we joined them for the trip.  With the guidance of Sarah’s parents we learned what an extraordinary place Cape May is, and about the great challenges a bird faces traveling thousands of miles every six months.  At the time we scoffed at the dozens of birders carrying cumbersome optics on the trails, but here we are two years later with multiple pairs of binoculars, a camera with a telephoto lens, spotting scope, and birding blog.

Cape May is considered to be one of the top 10 “hot spots” for birding in the United States. In the fall, when birds migrate south along the coast, they reach the southernmost tip of New Jersey and see the Delaware Bay ahead (and a 17 mile crossing over water instead of land.) Many birds, especially first year migrants, choose to land in Cape May for a day or two to recharge before continuing on their journey.  There is more information to share about birding in Cape May than can fit on this blog, so if you want to learn more please check out the New Jersey Audubon website or the very informative book by Clay and Pat Sutton “Birds and Birding at Cape May.”

We arrived in Cape May after a full day of birding Brigantine and following tradition, had a belly-buster dinner at the Lobster House and went to bed early. The next morning we woke up before the sun, and headed to the dike at Higbee Beach to catch “Morning Flight.”  Morning Flight is an interesting phenomena where birds fly in the opposite direction of their intended migration path, most likely to reorient themselves before continuing on.  We have never birded this spot before, and I don’t think we were there on the best day – other birders commented on how slow it was.  But we did catch a nice sunrise, and a beautiful mature Bald Eagle.

Sunrise over the dike at Higbee Beach

Sunrise over the dike at Higbee Beach

Bald Eagle flying over Higbee Beach

Bald Eagle flying over Higbee Beach

Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area is always on our list of stops when visiting Cape May. It is comprised of multiple fields, a deciduous and dune forest – the variation in habitats makes it a great spot for seeing different types of birds.  We headed to the fields and found Goldfinch and Song Sparrows nibbling on seeds.

Goldfinch blends into the fields at Higbee beach while snacking on seeds.

Goldfinch blends into the fields at Higbee beach while snacking on seeds.

Northern Harrier in flight

Northern Harrier in flight

Later in the morning, the raptors started circling in the sky above us, looking for a rodent or songbird to eat for breakfast.  Things can get competitive – we saw the Harrier in the picture above get attacked by a Cooper’s Hawk.

We had to keep an eye on the time as we hiked Higbee, because at 10am each Saturday and Sunday a Raptor Banding Demonstration takes place at Cape May Point.  We drove to Cape May Point State Park, and settled into the picnic tables near the Hawk Watch Platform. The Cape May Raptor Banding Project collects data on migrating raptors by capturing them in nets, taking measurements and placing a metal band around the bird’s leg before releasing them.  During the banding demonstrations, volunteers pull recently captured birds out of a Pringles can, or other suitably sized container and give a short talk about the banding process.  This is a great way to learn about the species we see all weekend and the best opportunity to see them up-close.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk during a banding demonstration.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk during a banding demonstration.

After the banding demonstration, we spent some time at the Hawk Watch Platform, which is like the central command post for Cape May birding.  This is where official hawk counters are stationed to keep a tally and point out what is flying by.  There is also a tally board where you can see what type and how many birds where counted the previous day.  The platform is a large, tiered deck that overlooks a freshwater lake to the north, and the ocean to the east.  Birders of all levels meet at the platform, so it is a great place for new birders to learn.  One knowledgeable man even had an entire row of spotting scopes set up, just so people could try them out and ask him questions (he wasn’t selling them himself.)

We took this opportunity to set up our own, entry-level spotting scope that was a birthday present to Tim, and scan the lake.  With the help of other birders, we spotted a rare Eurasian Wigeon LL, swimming with a group of American Wigeons.  He must have been blown off course because they aren’t normally found in North America.

The Eurasian Wigeon has a red head, while the American Wigeon's head is green.

The Eurasian Wigeon has a red head, while the American Wigeon’s head is green.

There were also Coots, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Swans and a Lesser Scaup LL swimming in the lake.

View of a freshwater lake and lighthouse at Cape May Point.

View of a freshwater lake and the lighthouse at Cape May Point.

After a delicious lunch at nearby restaurant “The Red Store”, we decided to check out Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management area, a location we had not been to before.  There was a lot of buzz in the birding community about a rare Western Kingbird reported here.  This park is a former municipal golf course that has been reverted to a natural area, and it was very interesting to see what happens to a golf course when nature takes back over.  After much wandering, we didn’t find the Kingbird, but we did see some Chipping Sparrows, lots of Eastern Phoebes, an Osprey or two and a Bald Eagle.

IMG_3019

A pair of Chipping Sparrows – highly appropriate for a former golf course.

IMG_3034

One of many Eastern Phoebes

IMG_3054

Osprey

Early the next day, Sunday October 19th, we headed to another favorite birding spot spot of ours, the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, known locally as the “Cape May Meadows.”  This is a gorgeous place, as you can see in the picture below, even in late October, the fields were exploding with flowers.

Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge

Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge

The refuge is circled by a looping trail which takes you through meadows, by freshwater ponds, onto sand dunes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean then back, with a view of the lighthouse the whole way.

Trail at Cape May Meadows

Trail at Cape May Meadows

It was a beautiful Fall day but very windy, which we thought might keep the hawks from the sky.  Luckily, this was not the case.  Every time we looked up there was a Sharpie, Kestrel or Merlin in the sky.  This is what makes a trip Cape May so unique – the sky is full of raptors.  On a good day like this one, you will see a new raptor every 15 seconds or so.

One of many raptors in the sky

One of many raptors in the sky

Walking along the trail, we spotted a Mallard and a Pied-billed Grebe swimming in one of the ponds.

Pie-billed Grebe

Pie-billed Grebe

Suddenly, the Grebe dove under the water and came up with a huge fish in his bill.  It looked much to large for him to eat, but we watched amused while he gave it his best shot.

Pie-billed Grebe with large fish.

Pied-billed Grebe with large fish.

We followed the trail onto the dunes and took in the huge expanse of beach.

Remains of an old bunker at Cape May Point beach

Remains of an old bunker at Cape May Point beach

We walked down to the ocean and right in front of us was a new addition to the life list: a pair of Black Scoters LL.

Black Scoters are large sea ducks

Black Scoters are large sea ducks

We continued on the trail, arriving at a large viewing platform overlooking a pond.  Here we found Northern Shovelers, a handsome dabbling duck with a huge bill.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

We also spotted a happy birdwatcher taking in the surroundings.

Happy birdwatcher

Happy birdwatcher in her natural environment

Our last stop in Cape May was back to the Hawk Watch Platform, followed by a walk along the trails at Cape May Point State Park.  The trials here are very well maintained, with a boardwalk that winds through the marsh and forest.  We thought there were a lot of hawks out at the refuge, but now a little later in the day, there were even more raptors overhead.  It was a spectacular ending to our long weekend of birding, and we are already looking forward to next year.

Here are the lists:

Higbee Beach Dike – October 18, 2014 7:11 AM – 8:03 AM
Osprey
American Crow
Great Blue Heron
Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Herring Gull
Mourning Dove
Canada Goose
Palm Warbler
Blue Jay
Bald Eagle
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker

Fields at Higbee Beach – 8:03 AM – 9:54 AM
Northern Cardinal
Blue Jay
Common Yellowthroat
Palm Warbler
American Goldfinch
Song Sparrow
Double-crested Cormorant
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Osprey
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Harrier
Eastern Phoebe

Cape May Point State Park Hawkwatch Platform 10:33 AM – 11:21
American Wigeon
Eurasian Wigeon – LL
Canada Goose
Northern Cardinal
Pied-billed Grebe
Mute Swan
Mallard
Osprey
American Coot
Cooper’s Hawk
Northern Mockingbird
Northern Shoveler
Ruddy Duck
Green-winged Teal
Turkey Vulture
American Kestrel
Lesser Scaup – LL
Great Egret
Merlin
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Great Blue Heron

Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area 1:58 PM – 3:35 PM
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Blue Jay
Common Grackle
Osprey
Mourning Dove
Chipping Sparrow
Bald Eagle
Spotted Sandpiper
Eastern Phoebe

Cape May Meadows – October 19, 2014 – 9:54 AM – 11:26 AM
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Song Sparrow
Cooper’s Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Osprey
Eastern Phoebe
Canada Goose
Northern Harrier
Double-Crested Cormorant
Mallard
Tree Swallow
Northern Shoveler
Mute Swan
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Swamp Sparrow
Pied-billed Grebe
Northern Pintail
American Kestrel
Laughing Gull
Black Scoter – LL
Palm Warbler
Merlin
Turkey Vulture
Lesser Yellowlegs
American Black Duck
Black Vulture
Savannah Sparrow
European Starling
House Sparrow
Broad-winged Hawk

Cape May Point State Park Hawkwatch Platform 11:52 AM – 12:19 PM
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Eurasian Wigeon
Northern Harrier
Green-winged Teal
American Coot
Feral Pigeon
Mallard
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Laughing Gull
Turkey Vulture
House Sparrow
Herring Gull
Pied-billed Grebe
Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cape May Point State Park Trails 12:19 PM – 1:04 PM
Cooper’s Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Northern Harrier
American Kestrel
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Eastern Phoebe
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Tree Swallow
Mute Swan
Canada Goose
Double-crested Cormorant
Belted Kingfisher
Mallard
Turkey Vulture
American Wigeon
Northern Flicker
Merlin
Osprey

One thought on “Cape May, New Jersey – Back to the Start

  1. Thank you, Sarah, this was so enjoyable…I love birds, and always have. The freedom of travel without fear of airplanes, like I have! Xxoo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s