Monday, November 4, 2013

Cape May, New Jersey - 10/11-14, 2013


                                                                                                  Jim Sweeney

      Vin Zollo and I led a South Shore Bird Club trip to Cape May, New Jersey from Friday, October 11th to Monday, October 14th.  Our group was comprised of eleven hardy participants who were willing to brave the inclement weekend forecast of a nor'easter.

       Undaunted by the elements, our group left Massachusetts early in the morning on Friday and made the journey to Cape May, via the Garden State Parkway, all the way to exit 0, the convergence zone for a phenomenal variety of North American migratory birds.  Due to the government shutdown, we were not able to follow our original plan which included a stop at Brigantine (i.e., Forsythe N.W.R.) on the way to Cape May.  Instead, we traveled directly to Cape May and stopped at the Avalon seawatch briefly to check for migrating sea ducks.  Although the winds were strong and northeasterly, there was no palpable migration afoot when we arrived.  Because the weather was so challenging, we decided to check out Nummy's Island, a great place for migrant shorebirds, herons, and terns, located on the east side of Cape May.

       As soon as we arrived at this location, we were fortunate to observe five Caspian Terns -- the largest tern species in the world --  near the bridge to the island.  At times, the Caspian Terns were stalled in the wind and hovered like kites, offering exceptional views to the entire group.  Nummy's Island rarely disappoints and today was no exception.  Despite the windy conditions and occasional rain, we observed five Tricolored Herons, nine Black-crowned Night-Herons, two Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, ten American Oystercatchers, and eight Boat-tailed Grackles.

Black-crowned Night-Heron at Nummy's Island

Boat-tailed Grackle
       The most interesting avian sighting, however, was a "little brown job" that was observed picking at Crab Grass at the edge of the road with a mixed flock of sparrows.  After several attempts to get unobstructed views of the bird, our group finally had decent looks and the identity of the bird was revealed: Clay-colored Sparrow! 

       On the morning of October 12th, we gathered early, stopped at the local WaWa market for provisions, and headed straight for Cape May Point State Park.  Because the winds were whipping, we decided to forgo our normal early morning strategy to look for migrant passerines at Higbee Beach.  Instead, we walked out to a platform in the dunes and secured a spot that afforded a panoramic view of all the birds approaching Cape May point from the north and exiting the New Jersey coast for the shores of Delaware and Cape Charles.  From our vantage we could see a group of dedicated hawkwatchers, festooned in their finest rain gear, gathered at the viewing platform at the east end of the parking lot.

       While we set up our spotting scopes, Palm Warblers, Savannah Sparrows, and Swamp Sparrows jumped and scurried amongst the goldenrod and assorted weeds immediately surrounding the platform.  Occasionally, these birds would alight on the railing and provide close up views that made binoculars unnecessary.  We faced the strong northeasterly winds to see what was coming towards the point.  One highlight was observing several large groups of migrating Great Blue Herons (totaling fifty eight birds!) departing Cape May point and flying out over the ocean for points south.  Great Egrets came by in several pulses and we tallied twenty birds in just a few minutes.  On the horizon we spied our first kettle of Turkey Vultures with a single Black Vulture embedded in the group.  Raptors were clearly on the move and taking advantage of the windy conditions. In two hours time, we observed twelve Osprey, two Northern Harriers, two Sharp-shinned Hawks,
one Cooper's
Hawk, one Red-shouldered Hawk, one Red-tailed Hawk, one American Kestrel, two Peregrine Falcons, and five Merlins pass over the point.

       As we watched distant birds on the horizon, passerines engaged in morning flight flew over us lisping and chipping.  While most of these birds were sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers, our group was treated to the presence of a fly over Dickcissel thanks to its electric flatulence flight call that was clearly heard by all present.  We looked skyward in an attempt to locate the calling bird and, after several seconds of searching, were pleased to see the bird drop into the dune weeds about fifteen feet from the platform.  Despite our collective attempt to locate the bird, it was not observed again.  However, our group concurred that the repeated audio we experienced was every bit as rewarding as a prolonged look at this species in great light.

       Before moving on to Higbee Beach, we made a brief stop at the hawkwatch platform.  In the small pond on the east side of the platform, we observed a raft of American Wigeon that included a drake Eurasian Wigeon.  In addition to the wigeon, we saw eight Blue-winged Teal, more than one hundred Green-winged Teal, fifteen Northern Shovelers, and a dozen Ruddy Ducks.

       At Higbee Beach the raptor show continued unabated.  The winds remained strong and out of the northeast and almost immediately we started seeing Ospreys and Merlins passing over the weedy fields.  As we walked the edges of the hedgerows, Swamp Sparrows poured out of the weeds from every direction emitting their resonant chip notes.  Many Sharp-shinned Hawks and an occasional Peregrine Falcon were observed overhead as they were buffeted by the high winds.

Birding at Higbee Beach

      Other passerines were hard to find in the open field habitat, so we decided to bird the road leading to the Cape May Point Canal.  This road descends into a hollow with dense vegetation and is relatively protected from the wind.  About thirty yards down the road, we encountered a nice mixed species foraging flock comprised of Red-eyed Vireos, a Black-and-white Warbler, two American Redstarts, three Northern Parulas, a Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warblers, an Eastern Wood-Pewee, a late Great Crested Flycatcher, and a Baltimore Oriole.  White-throated Sparrows occupied the understory and alerted us to their presence with their tambourine-like calls.

       Subsequently, we worked our way north on the Delaware Bay side of Cape May.  On our way to Reed's Beach -- a significant staging area for migrant Red Knots in the spring --  we stopped at a small pond and observed a flock of fifty two Greater Yellowlegs.  While scrutinizing the yellowlegs, we realized the flock contained a western Willet and a Stilt Sandpiper.  gray shorebirds can be confusing at this time of year, but patience and careful observation can reveal a few gems in what initially appears to be a single species flock. 

       The morning of October 13th produced the same difficult conditions as the previous two days.  Showers and northeasterly winds were forecast again.  However, we took solace in the fact that we were in Cape May where the phenomenon of avian migration is particularly concentrated and seemingly undeterred by the weather.  In short, the birds were in Cape May.  It was really just a matter of what we were willing to tolerate in order to see them!  We stuck with the strategy of starting the morning at Cape May point.  It was apparent early on that the major push we had experienced the previous morning had diminished by today.  Although we only spent a brief time at the dune platform, we were lucky to see (and hear) fifteen Royal Terns as they flew close to shore.  Some members of our group were also happy to observe a distant Parasitic Jaeger through their scopes.

Undaunted by the rain at Cape May Point

       We then decided to try our luck at Higbee Beach.  The sparrow show continued to be impressive with one hundred and fifty Swamp Sparrows recorded.  Two Field Sparrows were a nice addition to the species list and ten Palm Warblers enlivened the moribund and monochromatic fields.  Later in the morning, the skies began to lighten and the precipitation ceased, but the winds remained strong and constant.  We decided to make a stop at the Cape May Bird Observatory Northwood Center's book store.  A stop at the book store is a must for any bibliophile looking to add a few ornithological tomes to the already sagging shelves of one's library.  In addition to having a nice selection of Cape May birding souvenirs, optics, gifts, and information, the small property almost always hosts birds of interest.  This visit produced a ridiculously tame male Black-throated Blue Warbler that approached within five feet of a crew of observers standing near the
entrance.  The warbler doggedly pursued insects on and around a small bench just feet away from the steps to the shop.  I had to look twice to ensure that the bird was not actually tethered to the bench!   This was an exceptionally close encounter and it lasted for close to five minutes.  After perusing the book selection and exercising restraint around impulsive spending, our group was informed that there was a Magnolia Warbler close to the shop.  After a few minutes of searching, we found the skulking bird low in the tangles surrounding the shop.

       Our next destination was a stop at Hereford Inlet on the east side of Cape May.  We walked out to the beach and observed a large group of Sanderlings running back and forth with the ebb and flow of the waves.  We were pleasantly surprised to find three Western Sandpipers trying their best to blend in with the Sanderlings.  This was not a difficult task since everything about the beach -- the water, the sand, the sky -- was some subtle variation of gray.  In addition to the sandpipers, a first year Lesser Black-backed Gull appeared on the beach and sat for extended scope views.

Western Sandpiper

       In the early afternoon our group made another stop at Nummy's Island.  We watched a dozen Tricolored Herons in beautiful light as they poked around the saltmarsh and sailed by in small groups.  At the traditional heron roosting site at the east end of the island, we saw twenty one Black-crowned Night-Herons pop out of the trees, lift up into the wind, squawk, and settle down again.  While I walked the causeway, briefly separated from the rest of the group, a projectile Nashville Warbler blew into the nearby Bayberry for a brief appearance.  Others were able to pick out a single Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in the midst of the roosting Black-crowns.

One of a dozen Tricolored Herons at Nummy's Island

       Later in the evening, we decided to visit "the Meadows" at Cape May point.  We picked up Gadwalls and Northern Pintails at this location along with one hundred and fifty Green-winged Teal.  We also scored a bonus Eastern Meadowlark that floated over the dunes like a paper plane and dropped down on the beach.  Other noteworthy species observed at this location included a Glossy Ibis, a vocalizing Virginia Rail (at twilight), and a perched Great Horned Owl (pointed out to our group by another birder).  As we walked back to the parking lot at deep dusk, the trail ahead of us was carpeted with over fifty Savannah Sparrows desperately foraging for their last meal before the light disappeared.  When we reached the parking area, Vin Zollo  called out and drew our attention to groups of fifty Black-crowned Night-Herons and forty Great Blue Herons leaving Cape May point and flying out over the ocean.

Birding from the dunes near "the Meadows"
Caspian Terns
Twilight birding at "the Meadows"

       The early morning hours of October 14th were clear, but breezy.  However, the continuous gale had subsided and a change in the weather was apparent.  Because the conditions had improved substantially, we opted to start the day at Higbee Beach.  It was nice to feel the sun on our faces.  It was even better to have the sun on our faces while scores of Sharp-shinned Hawks streamed overhead.  A lone fly over Bald Eagle raised everyone's binoculars simultaneously.  Twenty Northern Flickers, easily identified from a distance by their saltatory flight style, were busily orienting themselves during the morning flight.  We estimated that four hundred Yellow-rumped Warblers were present at Higbee Beach in the early morning hours.  Everyone was impressed by the thirteen Brown Thrashers that were smacking and snapping from the growth with periodic vocal embellishments that resembled the sounds made by East African tropical birds known as
boubous.   As we
slowly walked the trails at Higbee Beach, we detected three Blue-headed Vireos and two Scarlet Tanagers.  The perching birds were able to go about their business now that the strongest gusts had subsided.  Some participants were lucky to observe an Orange-crowned Warbler in the warm ochre hues of this sunny morning.

        Later in the morning, we visited the hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point State Park.  Conditions were good for raptor migration, so we parked ourselves on the platform and looked in every direction (including down).  In about an hour of birding at the platform, we observed one hundred Sharp-shinned Hawks, thirty five Cooper's Hawks, and a single Broad-winged Hawk, an uncommon migrant in any season at Cape May (with the exception of a few aberrant days from time to time).  On the small pond nearby, our group spotted a distant (but discernible) Common Gallinule that had been reported the previous day.  The bird paddled in and out of the cattails just long enough for a few brief scope views.  Another interesting sighting was an adult White-crowned Sparrow feeding with a group of House Sparrows below the hawkwatch platform.  Hundreds of Tree Swallows were migrating and dipping low over the water.  Several flocks of Blue Jays rowed over
the platform
in waves.  These diurnal migrants were fun to watch against a background of migrating hawks. 

        Despite all the action at the hawkwatch platform, we all knew our time at Cape May was running out.  Our group decided that it would be a worthy endeavor to look for Black Skimmers in the vicinity of the Second Ave. jetty in Cape May.  As soon as we stepped onto the beach, a Peregrine Falcon materialized above our group.  From a considerable distance, we noticed a large flock of four hundred Black Skimmers flying close to the beach like an undulating banner in the wind.  We drove north to see if we could get a better look at the birds.  After a short hike across the sand, we came to a slight rise and found the Black Skimmer flock in front of us.  Preening birds were packed tightly with basic plumaged Forster's Terns hugging the edges of the flock.  Black and Surf scoters were migrating along the coast and a pair of Ruddy Turnstones negotiated the slippery surface of a nearby jetty.

Black Skimmer flock

       We stood in the sun, soaked up its warmth, and marveled over the spectacle before us.  It was hard to believe that so many tourists, Victorian cottages, and restaurants of Cape May were only a few hundred yards away.   Most of us stood quietly in front of the skimmer flock as if in a meditative trance.  Everyone knew it was our last encounter with Cape May's birds for at least seven months.  As we walked back to the street through the beach sand, a Common Buckeye butterfly landed on the path and spread its wings to reveal its complex pattern of colors.  Twenty four hours earlier, seeing this waif of a creature would have been the rarest sighting of the trip.  Everyone paused to absorb this final sighting.  Although non-avian, the butterfly served as a reminder that there is always something special to see in Cape May, from the unanticipated Clay-colored Sparrow in the throes of an autumn storm to the brilliant colors of a resting
butterfly at the
edge of a seaside resort.

      One should never be too concerned about the weather forecast during migration in Cape May.  There are always birds to be seen regardless of the forecast.  Bad weather simply means a change in birding strategy and planning. However, if a nor'easter is in the forecast, one may also want to consider a change of clothes and footwear.  Wet is still wet even when the birding is spectacular!    


  1. A great read Jim. Maybe next year....

    Mike E.

  2. Sounds like a great trip!

  3. Jim, GREAT post and thanks sharing, looks like you group had a good time.

    Shawn C.

  4. Excellent post, Jim!

    It captures the weekend nicely. The weather really didn't matter at the end of the day. We were birding Cape May - in the fall - and all was good. Thanks for leading yet another great trip to Exit 0 and beyond.