Cape May, NJ, to Mission, TX: So Different, Yet So Much Alike

From 1974 to 2001, my birding home was Cape May County, the southern tip of New Jersey. Deep-south Jersey and deep-south Texas have much in common. Both are world-class nature watching destinations, their economies rely heavily on tourism, they have developed infrastructures, and both are south of the Mason-Dixon Line. They also have shared an ignorance of the value of the natural resources needed to sustain eco-tourism.

In the early 1970s, Cape May’s tourist season began on Memorial Day and ended on Labor Day, while much of the then known birding was from April to May and September to October. To those of us involved in the then newly formed Cape May Bird Observatory, it sounded like a perfect fit; just ask innkeepers and restaurateurs to expand their season and make more money. Unfortunately, we failed to consider our species’ dislike of change. Eventually, a small group was convinced to open in early May and close in late September. Before long, they were earning enough extra profits so their neighbors could not help but notice. Currently, the off-season in Cape May is maybe January and February.

Likewise, in the 1970s, the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas recognized the economic significance of Winter Texans, but did not appreciate its potential as an eco-tourism destination. It’s hard to identify everything that changed The Valley’s collective understanding of the natural blessings that have been bestowed upon it, but if I had to point to one factor it would be the success of The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Begun in 1994, this was the first of the seven annual festivals/workshops eventually held in The Valley.

Cape May also has various festivals, one of which is the oldest continuing birding festival in the United States. Historically, it was held during the last weekend of September or the first weekend of October, but as the tourist season expanded, it became possible to hold this festival in late October or early November (the best time of year for rarities!). Indeed, I well remember November 1997.

The month began with a species that is now an annual November visitor to Cape May, although 20 years earlier I had to travel to The Valley to see it: the Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva). Shortly thereafter, a Brown-chested Martin (Progne tapera) appeared. This bird, only the second U.S. record and rarely found north of Central America, stayed long enough to be seen by many visiting birders. With all these gung-ho birders in town, a number of other rarities were found, including MacGillivray’s Warbler (Oporornis tolmiei) and Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens). This phenomenon of birders drawn to an area by a rare bird discovering additional rarities is known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect - but explaining that will require another article.

Similarly, Spring 2002 saw many birders invade deep south Texas because of a string of rarities including Flame-colored Tanager (Piranga bidentata) at the Valley Land Fund (VLF) lots on South Padre Island, Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) in Laguna Vista, Yellow-faced Grassquit (Tiaris olivacea) in Bentsen/Rio Grande State Park, Rose-throated Becard (Pachyramphus aglaiae) and Short-tailed Hawk (Buteo brachyurus) at Santa Ana NWR, and Masked Duck (Nomonyx dominica) at Sabal Palm Sanctuary. In February 2008, the first (and still only) White-crested Elaenia (Elaenia albiceps) ever recorded north of Central America was discovered at the VLF lots on South Padre Island. Then, in December 2009, the first U.S. record of a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum) was discovered at Bentsen/Rio Grande State Park in Mission. The next month, Loredo hosted another U.S. first record, an Amazon Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona). 

Whether in Cape May or The Valley, these traveling birders purchase gas, food, lodging, etc., in the areas they visit, adding significantly to the local economies upon which all of us depend. Recent studies in The Valley show that well over $100 million is added to the annual economy. 

Another significant natural history discovery in The Valley during was of a colony of Xami Hairstreaks (Callophrys xami) north of Brownsville. This little gem was thought to be extirpated from Texas until this colony was discovered, a fitting climax to an extraordinary butterfly season in The Valley.

But my most amazing butterfly experience was in Cape May on October 9, 1999 when Monarch (Danus plexippus) butterflies streamed by at 200 to 225 per minute throughout the day! Back then I helped tag Monarchs, and the following winter we were informed that seven of the Monarchs we had tagged that Autumn in Cape May had been discovered on their Mexican wintering grounds. Cape May has other wandering butterflies, such as Cloudless Sulphurs (Phoebis sennae), Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui), and Little Yellows (Eurema lisa). Likewise, The Valley attracts Tropical Leafwings (Anaea aidea), Gray Crackers (Hamadryas februa), and  Mexican Bluewings (Myscelia ethusa). Both even share certain species, such as Black Swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes), Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia) and Gray Hairstreaks (Strymon melinus). And both host species that the other does not, such as Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) in Cape May and Blue Metalmark (Lasaia sula) and White-striped Longtail (Chioides catillus) in The Valley.

Nonetheless, Cape May and The Valley have a lot more in common than being south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Perhaps the most important common point is that we each have been blessed with an extraordinary natural history. If we don’t get too careless, or too greedy, it will continue to support itself, and help support all of us, for a very long time.

Mike Hannisian