Cape May, New Jersey: 24-28 September 2021
Every autumn, my closest birding colleagues and I migrate to Cape May, New Jersey, to experience the fall migration of dragonflies, butterflies, falcons, warblers, and hawks and eagles. Cape May features beautiful weather in September and October, and the town also offers up a nice selection of restaurants. This makes for a very pleasant weekend of naturizing, reminiscing, and dining.
For nature, we have a traditional series of sites that we like to visit during our stay. Each provides unique encounters with the migration phenomenon.
young Cooper's Hawk
The place where every birder likes to meet up is the hawk-watch platform at Cape May Point State Park. This is where the Cape May Bird Observatory conducts its autumn raptor count.
from the beach looking back toward the Hawk Watch platform and light house
The 2020 season produced a count of 31,595 raptors, including more than 10,000 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 4,700 American Kestrels, 733 Peregrine Falcons, and 635 Bald Eagles, among the sixteen species it regularly counts. The watch also counts other bird species that migrate by.
The State Park is right on the shore where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, and there are trails that give access to ponds, woods, scrub, and a broad white beach. Lots of sea ducks migrate along the beach in the late autumn.
Merlin disarticulating a dragonfly
Groups of eager birders assemble on the large wooden platform that gives a good look across the Park, allowing the counters to pick up the raptors as they pass by. Some pass by low and right over the platform, but most are seen as small specks as they glide by at high elevation.a large juvenile Bald Eagle tussling with a smaller adult Bald Eagle
The Bird Observatory also has a natural history bookshop that sells birding optics at the Northwood Center, about a half-mile from the State Park. This is set in a tiny patch of woods that can be great for birding on certain windy days, when scores of migrant warblers seek out the woods to shelter and feed.
young Peregrine Falcon
Nearby the Northwood Center is Lily Lake and tree-lined avenues that can be very birdy on select autumn days. The Siberian Elms sometimes produce effusions of tiny insects that attract clots of foraging songbirds at eye level. This is great for photographers.
Northwood Center woods
Most mornings, we all meet up at the dune-top platform at the south end of Coral Avenue, just a bit west of the State Park. As many as twenty birders will perch here and watch passing Ospreys, Bald Eagle, falcons, accipiters, and wood warblers on days with strong northwest winds. Most of the birds pass along the pine-topped dune from east to west as they look the move back up the northern shore of Delaware Bay.
Western Palm Warbler
They are migrating northwestward, even though they want to head south. This is because many birds do not enjoy crossing broad expanses of salt water. The northwest wind blows the migrating birds down into the geographic cul-de-sac that is Cape May Point.Merlin
Certain birds (e.g., Bald Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine) will simply head out from the Point and cross to Cape Henlopen, Delaware, just to the southeast across the broad mouth of Delaware Bay. But the vast proportion of songbirds head up to where they can cross Delaware Bay where it is less challenging.
Alex Wiebe pointing out bird to Bert and Eleanor Harris, Milton Harris, David Wilcove, and Louise Zemaitis
Coral Avenue is where one sees how brilliant some birders are. Over and over in a morning these experts call out the species names of tiny songbirds that look like moving specks high in the sky. They distinguish species by behavior, shape, movement, and the high-pitched call notes emitted by the birds in flight.
This year I watched Michael O’Brien and Alex Wiebe call out the names: Blue Grosbeak, Dickcissel, Indigo Bunting, Blackpoll Warbler, Bobolink, and others. We mortals struggled to pick out these tiny waifs moving through the sky...
juvenile Peregrine Falcon
The main challenge of Coral Avenue, as well as most birding venues in Cape May, is that in the throws of migration, most of the birds are on the move and seen only in flight. That makes seeing them well and photographing them more difficult.
Just east of the State Park is the Nature Conservancy’s south Cape May Meadows reserve. This abuts the boundary of the State Park, and is another nice place to stretch one’s legs and look for birds and butterflies.
This year there were some shallow wetlands that hosted several species of waders, visible from an elevated blind. We spent long periods in the blind, looking down on foraging sandpipers at very close range.
Separating the Semipalmated from Least Sandpipers was fun, but identification of the single isolated Western Sandpiper took the intervention of the experts to I.D.
I showed three different local authorities the photographs of this bird, and all quickly produced the same identification. Great minds think alike.
dorsal view of Peregrine Falcon
The Meadows has a number of trails through open scrub and this is great for looking at butterflies and dragonflies, when the birds are not much in evidence.
Right in town, on Beach Avenue, one can find a wintering flock of Black Skimmers on the main bathing beach. It is always fun to spend time with this flock. They make a great photo subject...
four views of Black Skimmers
Farther afield from Cape May Point, one can venture off “Cape Island” to the northeast to find other great birding locations.
Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls
Further northeast, one comes to Stone Harbor Point, which is a sandy point that is all parkland, welcoming to birds and walkers. Its about a forty minute walk through beach sand to the point from the parking lot, and on a beautiful autumn day it is a paradise on earth.
The breakers hit the beach to the left, and the marshy estuary is to the right, with a very low dune rise down the middle. Birds can be seen in every direction.
We spent a fair amount of time chasing down the moving flocks of American Oystercatchers. Our high count was 173. That’s a lot of oystercatchers.
oystercatchers... and look for Marbled Godwit in lower image (head and bill obscured)
There are lots of gulls here as well as terns. Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Caspian Terns were the ones that caught our eye.
We also found flocks of migrant Semipalmated Plovers and the local resident Piping Plovers, much paler and blending into the fluffy white sand.
Come evening, our thoughts turned to fresh seafood. This year we dined at Blue Pig, Freda’s, and Sapore Italiano—all at the top of their game. The key is to start making reservations at least a week in advance...
The motels fill up quickly on autumn weekends. I get around this by tent-camping. At night, from my tent in the Depot Travel Park on Broadway, in West Cape May, I had the pleasure of hearing a yipping pack of Coyotes one night. On another night, I heard four Barred Owls calling all at once. It’s worth waking up for that!