Cape May: Birding's Home Town
I first birded Cape May in 1974 after reading Witmer Stone’s description of the Autumn migration in his 1937 book Birds Studies at Old Cape May. Our Autumn migration runs from late June through December, and peaks between September and November. (Rarities tend to peak in November.) Flights, typically triggered by cold fronts with their northwest winds, push migrants to the Atlantic coast which they follow south to Cape May City, west to Cape May Point, and north along Delaware Bay. The stronger the front, the more likely a great flight. If the conditions are just right, the result can be extraordinary, as happened on October 4, 1977 and November 7, 1999.
During a slow, pre-dawn, two mile drive along Sunset Boulevard on October 4, 1977, over two dozen birds hit my car. Although birding was difficult because of the number of birds and their constant motion, I did see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker climb a utility pole only to find a Sharp-shinned Hawk atop looking for breakfast. A Brown Creeper landed on my leg, looked up, circled around, discovered I was still there, and flew off. Along the beach, hundreds of birds were desperately trying to regain land, without being driven into the surf by marauding Great Black-backed Gulls. An Eastern (then Rufous-sided) Towhee was so exhausted he let me carry him to a shrub.
The November 7, 1999 flight was discovered the evening before as a constant stream of birds just above the street lights. Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis stayed up until 2:00 a.m., and said the number of birds increased as the night progressed. The next morning, I drove to Higbee Beach 90 minutes before sunrise. Birds were everywhere. During five minutes in Higbee’s parking lot, over 100 American Woodcock flew north within 15 feet of the ground. As we entered the first field, scores of birds flew from the ground before us. The commonest species included American Robins; American Woodcock; Dark-eyed Juncos; Yellow-rumped Warblers; White-throated, Song, Field, and Swamp Sparrows; and both kinglets. About 30 minutes before sunrise, Turkey Vultures began soaring, below tree-top level! A flying American Robin then brushed my face with its wing.
Most of Cape May’s traditional birding areas are south of the intra-coastal canal: Cape May Point State Park (with its lighthouse, multi-tier hawk-watch platform, ponds, and trails), South Cape May Meadows (Paul Lehman and Shawneen Finnegan, who live across the street, have a yard list of 300+ species!), Hidden Valley (fields and wet woods), Rae's Farm/Beanery (open to birders via a lease negotiated by Pete Dunne), Lily Lake (waterfowl, land birds, and raptors), and CMBO’s Northwood Center (excellent for up-close looks of warblers and finches!). However, good birding regions north of the canal are also very productive. These include the Delaware Bay area, the mainland, the back bays, and the barrier islands.
The Delaware Bay area can be reached off route 47 (Delsea Drive) by taking various roads west, and is usually best during Winter and Spring. Good examples are Jakes Landing Road and Reed’s Beach. Jakes, at mile 19.8 on route 47 (markers every tenth of a mile), traverses mixed woods and fields, and extends to a parking lot with a raised platform overlooking an extensive salt-marsh. The woods can be good for wintering owls, finches, and sparrows; and breeding Scarlet Tanagers, Wood Thrushes, and Yellow-throated and Pine Warblers. The salt-marsh can be good for wintering Northern Harriers, Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks; Bald Eagles; Short-eared and Great-horned Owls; and breeding Seaside and Sharp-tailed Sparrows; Marsh Wrens; and Clapper Rails.
Reed’s Beach offers the annual spectacle of Sanderlings, Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, and Laughing Gulls gorging on Horseshoe Crab eggs, and peaks during the second half of May. Take Reed’s Beach Road (County Route 655) west at mile 11.4 of Route 47. At the "T" go north on Beach Avenue, and park in the lot on the right. (The $1.00 fee, and others like it, help keep Cape May natural and open to birders.) A platform affords good views of the beach, Delaware Bay, and the birds. For current information on Reed’s Beach visit Tom “Green Heron” Reed’s web-site: www.geocities.com/george_08210
Cape May’s mainland areas include Belleplain State Forest, CMBO’s Center for Research and Education (CR&E), Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, and Cape May National Golf Course. Belleplain SF has ponds, streams, White Cedar swamps, mixed woods, and fields throughout the northern part of Cape May County. It is best during Spring migration and the nesting season. Breeding birds include Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; Prothonotary, Hooded, Yellow-throated, and Worm-eating Warblers; Summer and Scarlet Tanagers; Acadian Flycatcher; Bald Eagles; and many more. Migrants include the gambit of northeastern species. (All of Cape May County is within 10 miles of the Atlantic Ocean or Delaware Bay). My favorite Belleplain experience occurred in May 1999 during the monthly program I do with fellow Associate Naturalist Judy Lukens. While watching an adult male Blackburnian Warbler, two soaring Sandhill Cranes bugled and spent the next five minutes cavorting above us. (Unfortunately, a Massachusetts Audubon group had left the area 10 minutes earlier, and we could not relocate them.)
CMBO’s Center for Research & Education, mile 15.7 on route 47, has an 8,500 square-foot center housing a wildlife art gallery, offices, bookstore, and a 170 seat lecture room. (This remarkable facility was funded solely by our members!) On January 1, 1997, a Northern Lapwing memorialized it with a fly-over; a County first. The grounds consist of 26 acres of marsh, uplands, ponds, and a wildlife demonstration garden. Its regular birds include American Goldfinch; Ruby-throated Hummingbird; White-throated, Song, Swamp, and Field Sparrows; Eastern Bluebird; Turkey and Black Vultures; Bald Eagle; and many others. (It’s also great for butterflies and dragonflies.)
Cape May NWR currently contains over 8,000 acres throughout the County, and is projected to total 16,700 acres. Two of my favorite areas are Kimble Beach Road, mile 10.3 of Route 47, and the Woodcock Lane tract just south of there. The former is especially good in late Autumn and early Winter for Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Meadowlark, American Goldfinch, and various sparrows. On October 24, 1999, I was privileged to find a Say’s Phoebe here, the second County record. The Woodcock Lane tract consists of a large field, mixed woods, and salt-marsh. It’s a great place to compare Indigo Buntings with Blue Grosbeaks, and to find a variety of butterflies.
Cape May National Golf Course, on route 9 south of Rio Grande, was designed by Robert Mullock with wildlife in mind. I am particularly fond of it as our team is the “Aircast Eagles”, a World Series of Birding team that birds just this golf course. Our cumulative list is 116 species (without House Finch!). We win our division every year (and will do so at least until another team enters it). Also recorded here have been Golden-crowned and Le Conte’s Sparrows; Red Crossbill; and Bohemian Waxwing!
The back bays, salt-marshes and open water between the mainland and the Atlantic barrier beaches, are best explored by boat. CMBO arranges regular trips on The Skimmer, a forty foot catamaran rated by the Coast Guard for 41 people. Captain Bob Carlough and his First Mate/Wife Linda are very good at finding and giving you up-close looks of nesting Osprey, Brown Pelicans, both cormorants, Brant, virtually all our herons and egrets (Linda is especially good at spotting American Bitterns), ducks, loons, shorebirds, and, of course, Black Skimmers. (In early Spring, The Skimmer takes us on Bald Eagle cruises on Cumberland County’s Maurice River.)
My favorite Skimmer experience occurred in 1998 during The Bird Show when a large flock of Brant cut across our bow. As the last bird passed, it folded its wings and plunged into the water; just out of reach of a stooping Peregrine Falcon!
The barrier islands, as is true throughout much of the United States, has been paved into virtual non-existence. Nonetheless, good birding can be had at such places as Stone Harbor Point, Avalon’s Marion P. Armacost Community Park, and the Avalon Sea Watch. To reach Stone Harbor Point, turn east at mile 9.9 of the Garden State Parkway onto Stone Harbor Boulevard (County Route 657), cross the draw bridge, turn right (south) on Second Avenue, and park in the lot at 121st Street. From here to the point scan the ocean and beach for Northern Gannet, all three scoter, Oldsquaw (a.k.a. Long-tailed Duck), Sanderling, Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Piping Plover, Brown Pelicans, Great Cormorants, both loons, etc. Around the point you also may find Dunlin, Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Eider, Savanna Sparrow, and various raptors.
To reach Avalon’s Marion P. Armacost Community Park, take Second Avenue north (it becomes Dune Drive) to 74th Street, turn left and park in the lot on the right. Great and Snowy Egrets; Black-crowned Night-Herons; and Glossy Ibis are common breeders which can be seen courting, mating, incubating, rolling eggs, and feeding young. Cattle Egrets, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, and Boat-tailed Grackles are also fairly common.
To get to the Avalon Sea Watch, the first fully staffed seabird count in the country, take Dune Drive north to 7th Street, turn east (right) to First Avenue, and park in the small lot where the watch is held. Avalon extends farther east than any nearby area (hence its slogan “cooler by a mile”). From mid September to mid December, when the watch is officially kept, someone will be there to help you spot and identify the hundreds of thousands of migrating seabirds. Northern Goshawk, Common Redpolls, and Franklin’s Gull also have occurred; and a special treat was this Winter’s adult male Harlequin Duck.
But Cape May’s greatest asset is its birding community, and The Cape May Bird Observatory (a division of the New Jersey Audubon Society - www.njaudubon.org.) is the center of this universe. Pete Dunne is CMBO’s Director and guiding spirit. Pat (Super-charged) Sutton is Program Director. Dr. David Mizrahi is the new Director of Research. Vince Elia (co-author of New Jersey Birds) and Patti Hodgetts are Research Associates. Chris Baker (Northwood) and Phil DeRea (CR&E) run the book stores. Kathy Iozzo is the CR&E Administrative Director. Dale Rosselet is Director of Education, and Debbie Shaw is Program Registrar.
All non-profit organizations need dedicated volunteers, and CMBO is no different. Ours are Val Armstrong, Carole Familetti, Todd Kline, Jane Kurtz, Carol La Mountain, Bev Linn, Willa Patzera, Dave and Linda Thomas, and Kay Wetherill. Our Associate Naturalists guide trips and give workshops and other programs. We are Jim Armstrong, Gail Dwyer, Shawneen Finnegan, Mike Fritz, Bill Glaser, myself, Judy and Karl Lukens, Fred Mears, George Myers, Michael O’Brien, Tom Parsons, Keith Seager, Sandy Sherman, Dave Ward, and Louise Zemaitis.
But CMBO’s two hardest workers are undoubtedly Sheila Lego (Northwood Administrative and Marketing Director) and Marleen Murgitroyde (Business Liaison). Together they (somehow!) make possible everything from the World Series of Birding to The Bird Show. In fact, a great way to bird Cape May is through CMBO’s “Guides for Hire” run by Marleen (firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-884-2736), or by joining us for the World Series of Birding, our Spring Weekend, The Bird Show, or any of our workshops or other programs. Contact Marleen for these, too. Regardless, stop by, say hello, and pick up our free bird (butterfly, dragonfly, etc.) map and literature, including lists of local inns, restaurants, and shops which support CMBO.
No article, indeed no book, can capture the birding experience that is Cape May, and I have no pretense I have done so here. Suffice it to say that while Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, mine will always be in Cape May.
Michael R. Hannisian