Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Cape May, New Jersey, 9-13 October 2020

Kinglets, Warblers, Peregrines, and Monarchs 

in a time of COVID

For some 30 years, David Wilcove and I have been scheduling autumn birding pilgrimages to Cape May, New Jersey. Here is a place where one can revel in an abundance of songbirds, seabirds, and raptors all in the bucolic surroundings of southernmost coastal New Jersey.

     Northern Parula

These days, David brings along students and colleagues associated or affiliated with Princeton University, where he teaches. And I bring along friends and colleagues from the Washington, DC area. This year, we decided to keep the tradition going in spite of the pandemic.

     Mute Swan

In 2020 our group included Paul Elsen from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Alex Wiebe and Dan Liang of Princeton University, and Christian Caryl of the Washington Post. We were hosted by local naturalists Louise Zemaitis and Michael O’Brien, who went out of their way to ensure we had a fun and productive birding weekend. 

     Black-and-White Warbler female

And we got to spend time with other birding experts that we incidentally rubbed shoulders with while out birding—people like Tom Johnson and Olivier Langrand—two superlative ornithologists. And we also bumped into long-time birding friends such as Amy and Tom Donovan, who migrate to Cape May  every fall for the birds and Monarch Butterflies and the glory of autumn.

    Summer Tanager female

We were treated to woodpeckers, warblers, kinglets, siskins, jaegers, gulls, terns, scoters, ibis, falcons, hawks, and harriers, among others. And lots of migrating Monarch Butterflies.

    Western Palm Warbler

The second weekend in October is typically the peak season for the passage of Peregrine Falcons, and this indeed was one of the major pay-offs of the weekend, though there were Merlins in good numbers as well as Ospreys in good numbers.

    Peregrine sharing beach with biker

Over a five-day period we birded the following local birding hotspots:

Coral Avenue is a wooden platform atop the dune on Cape May Point, just a bit west of the more famous Hawkwatch in Cape May Point State Park. The platform at Coral Avenue is a great place to start the day, especially when a decent northwest wind is blowing. One can scan for Parasitic Jaegers-- dark, raptorlike seabirds racing across the bay as they search for terns to mug. The jaegers force lesser birds to give up fish they have caught, often engaging in amazing aerial chases with the evading terns. 

    scoter flock over ocean

And Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers race through the pines atop the dune, looking out for lurking Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Over the beach we see American Kestrels and Merlins race by in the winds. And this year we had the added bonus of flock after bouncing flock of Pine Siskins high overhead, arriving from the boreal forests of New England and Canada—apparently this is a flight year for this winter finch.

    Peregrine over beach at Stone Harbor Point (this and three images that follow)

Cape May Point State Park is well-known to birders because it hosts the autumn hawk watch managed by the Cape May Bird Observatory. The daily hawk watch takes place atop the broad wooden platform in the corner of the big parking lot, not far from the beach. Throughout the autumn, a team of counters tallies all the raptors that pass by, and the counters are joined by scores of happy birders, who get shown hawks and falcons of all sorts (as well as other interesting birds that pass by). 

For beginners, it is great to have an expert point out the birds and attach species names to them. The weekend we were there the hawkwatch tallied more than 50 Peregrine Falcons each day, and hundreds of additional raptors of nearly a dozen species. Some days with ideal northwest winds produce thousands of raptors in a day (for instance, the Thursday October 8th produced 2,000+ American Kestrels and a total count of 5,000+ raptors).

South Cape May Meadows (TNC) abuts the state park and is an open brushy wetland site great for walking about and birding. Our morning visit there produced Sora, Virginia Rail, and various ducks, as well as raptors overhead. It is also great for sparrows, because it has so much low thick vegetation.

Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area hosts the morning flight, which counts songbirds in migration. Higbee is a great spot for sparrows, warblers, flickers, and accipiters when the northwest wind is blowing. We were out there Saturday morning, hunting the shrubbery for songbirds.

Stone Harbor Point about a half hour drive northeast of Cape May, is a large open expanse of beach great for walking and for watching migrating Monarch Butterflies, shorebirds, gulls, and passing  falcons. While walking down to the point on late Saturday morning, Christian Caryl and I spent more than an hour photographing a single young Peregrine that did not seem to mind our presence on the beach with it. We also were impressed by the large flocks of Sanderlings along the ocean shore. 

    Three images above of Sanderling flocks at Stone Harbor Point 

Nummy’s Island is a large saltmarsh island not far from Stone Harbor. On a very rainy Monday, when the remnants of Hurricane Delta were blowing, we ventured out to Nummy’s in search of three sparrow species that are marsh specialists: Nelson’s, Saltmarsh, and Seaside. Because we timed our visit to the high tide, we found the sparrows had been flushed out of the extensive marshes and were hiding in narrow thickets on each side of the road. In spite of 35 mile-an-hour winds and sheeting rain, Alex Wiebe was able to point out to us these reclusive birds as they darted to a fro. These birds are tough to see even under ideal circumstances.

    Red-breasted Nuthatch male. This autumn is seeing a flight of these little birds...

Avalon Seawatch is another autumn census site for the Cape May Bird Observatory. At the northeasternmost point of Avalon beach a small beach hut looks out over the large stone jetty extending out into the sea. Here the counter tallies the migration of ducks (mainly scoters), brant, gannets, cormorants, shorebirds, terns, gulls, jaegers, and falcons, as well as other odds and ends. 

    Black Scoters on the deck off Coral Avenue overlook

On our visit we saw hundreds of scoters in long lines as well as some nice shorebirds on the jetty— Ruddy Turnstone and Purple and Semipalmated Sandpiper. 

    Black-throated Blue Warbler male behind the Northwood Center (and at head of this article)

Lily Lake and the Northwood Center, a wonderful spot right in the middle of the neighborhoods of Cape May Point, and not far from the Coral Avenue overlook, is, at times, great for close encounters with migrant warblers and kinglets and other small songbirds. 

We found dozens of small foraging birds swarming a series of Siberian Elms on East Lake Avenue, just south of the Cape May Bird Observatory Bookstore at the Northwood Center. And we found the small woodland reserve behind the bookstore to be filled with foraging warblers one of the afternoons we visited. It is a nice change when the birds are not on the move but instead are hunkered down and feeding. One can spend some peaceful quality time here, the foraging birds being entirely oblivious to the observers.

    Ruby-crowned Kinglet (three images above)

Cape May in autumn is great for three reasons: lots of raptors, large numbers of songbirds, and the unexpected appearance of rarities. You never know what will appear. We were surprised on Tuesday morning at Coral Avenue to have a late Summer Tanager, a flock of White Ibis flying by, and a Yellow-headed Blackbird overhead in a large blackbird flock. In my head I am already planning a trip to Cape May next autumn...

    Two images above of Lesser Black-backed Gull: (top) adult, (lower) first winter bird


  1. My dream was always to have a small house in cape May and now I do! You got some great shots!

  2. Great article and pictures! My husband and I just came back from a trip to the Cape May area. We've been to a good number of the places you mentioned, and now we have some more to visit on our next trip. Thanks for sharing.