Special features

Cape May mystique

When fall is winding down across most of North America, it is peaking in Cape May at New Jersey’s southern tip
By Pete Dunne | Published: 10/1/2005

Cape-May-wMost days, the staff of New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory doesn’t work to the accompaniment of radio programming, but this was no ordinary morning. David Sibley, author of the Sibley Guide to Birds (2000), was being interviewed by Diane Rehm on National Public Radio, and despite David’s recent relocation from New Jersey to Massachusetts, he was still considered part of the family.

Rehm asked all manners of questions relating to the acclaimed book and to birding — all of which David fielded in a lucid and thoughtful manner. The observatory staff members listened quietly.

Rehm didn’t pose the question that all of us must secretly have anticipated until the end of the interview. “What,” she asked, “is your favorite birding location?”

And from half a dozen offices, half a dozen voices shouted in chorus: “Say it, David! Say it!”

And he did.

Sibley isn’t the first person to express partiality for Cape May. Alexander Wilson, the “father of American ornithology,” made six trips to the peninsula to study and collect birds. Said Wilson of its birdlife: “If birds were good judges of excellent climate, then Cape May’s is the finest in the United States, for it has the greatest variety of birds.”

Audubon spent a summer of study here, too, collecting and painting birds in the vicinity of Great Egg Harbor. Spencer Baird, assistant secretary and secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was a frequent visitor. And, of course, Witmer Stone, curator of northern birds and vice president of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and the author of the great two-volume work Bird Studies at Old Cape May (1937), was devoted to this birdy little peninsula.

Sibley can’t even claim the distinction of being the first famous field-guide author to be accounted a Cape May Firster. When Roger Tory Peterson was in his teens, he hitchhiked to Cape May with several friends. The future author and illustrator of A Field Guide to the Birds (1934) slept on the porch of a Cape May resident and recorded his life Louisiana Heron (now Tricolored Heron) while here.

Tricolored Herons and David Sibley were old confederates by the time the journeyman artist arrived in Cape May — like Roger, a boy in his teens. But during his years here, Sibley discovered lots of other great birds, several of which were additions to the Cape May checklist, but in my mind one will always stand out: a Fork-tailed Flycatcher tallied in a plowed field on May 19, 1984, during the first World Series of Birding. He saw it standing beside Peterson. The two men were members of the same team. It was a North American life bird for both of them.

A favorite destination

If you are so inclined, you can still hitchhike to Cape May (but even Kenn Kaufman chooses to fly to Philadelphia and pick up a rental car these days). There is probably no such thing as a bad time to visit and no time when all of the cape’s great birding spectacles are manifest. But if you have heard of Cape May’s fame — and if you read this magazine, you almost certainly have (after all, readers of Birder’s World named it one of their 15 favorite birding destinations in 2002) — then chances are, you associate Cape May with fall migration. So why not treat yourself this fall and savor a bit of birding at the Migration Mainline?

You might be thinking that it’s too late to plan a visit to Cape May now, but it’s not. By the time fall is winding down across most of North America, it is peaking in Cape May. Birders commonly enjoy the greatest migratory spectacles (or “fallouts”) of the season during the last week in October and first week in November.

And if any presumed lateness of the date makes you concerned about species diversity, you needn’t worry. Twenty years ago, New Jersey Audubon hosted its annual Cape May Autumn Birding Festival on the last weekend in September. The goal was 200 species. A decade ago, the date was changed to the last weekend in October. Know how many species were seen? That’s right: 200. Different species, to be sure, but exciting species, too.

Partial to Cape May

Alexander Wilson
Collecting birds for his masterwork American Ornithology, Wilson made six trips to Cape May and nearby Great Egg Harbor, including a four-week stay just a few months before his death in 1813. He watched gulls and shorebirds feed on horseshoe crabs, studied Ospreys, and named a species that he discovered in southern New Jersey the Cape May Warbler.

John James Audubon
In the summer of 1829 at Great Egg Harbor, Audubon painted Marsh Wren; Osprey; American Robin; Seaside, Field, Vesper, and Sharp-tailed Sparrow; and Laughing Gull for Birds of America.

Roger Tory Peterson
As a teenager, Peterson took his “first great ornithological adventure” to Cape May, and he returned many more times throughout his life. The field-guide author studied a heron rookery in Stone Harbor, investigated hawk shooting, and documented DDT-induced declines of Peregrine Falcon and Osprey. He also led the winning team at the first World Series of Birding.

Witmer Stone
President of the American Ornithologists’ Union, National Association of Audubon Societies, and Pennsylvania Audubon Society, and vice president of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Stone holds a special place in the history of Cape May. His Bird Studies at Old Cape May (1937) describes 300 bird species of southern New Jersey and the ornithologists who studied them.

David Allen Sibley
After birding in and around Cape May for more than a dozen years, Sibley wrote The Birds of Cape May (1993), the first complete treatment of the county’s birds since Stone’s Bird Studies. But Sibley, as we all know, was just getting started. In less than a decade, he would publish best-selling works on bird identification, bird life and behavior, and birdwatching.

Six months of autumn

Fall begins with the arrival of the first southbound shorebirds on or around June 21. By early July, the marshes are brimming with a tide of dowitchers, yellowlegs, and Whimbrel. Peak numbers and species diversity occurs in late July.

Along the Atlantic shore, Stone Harbor Point, about 40 minutes north of Cape May, and the Two Mile Beach Unit of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, about 20 minutes to the north, are regional shorebird hotspots — great locations to find both Piping Plover and Red Knot. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, located north of Atlantic City about an hour away, has long been a regional shorebird stronghold. Curlew Sandpiper is annual there. Ruff, too. Spotting scopes are near-mandatory, and here’s a word to the wise: Wear jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. Ignore this advice, and the evil greenhead fly will make you pay a price in blood.

A second shorebird peak, corresponding with the arrival of juveniles, occurs in late August. This is a great time to find Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Northern Phalarope on the edges of drawn-down impoundments and at sod farms. But unless you are a dedicated shorebird watcher, you’ll probably want to budget your time — meaning you’ll want to spend every morning in the woodlands of Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area, which lines the shore of Delaware Bay between Cape May Point and the Cape May Canal. (The Cape May-Lewes Ferry puts in on the other side of the canal.)

It happens every day of every autumn: Two birders approach each other, trade smiles, and start trading sightings: “Yeah, ran into a nice little pocket over at the corner. Just the usual stuff, but I had a great look at Wormer (Worm-eating Warbler).”

“Nice. Caught up to a Wormer and a Golden-winged (Golden-winged Warbler) in the second field.”

“Good one! Only other thing of note was a Philly V (Philadelphia Vireo) in the parking lot.”

“Excellent! Tracked one down yesterday while searching for the Olive-sided Flycatcher…”

But this is the kind of banter you find in the leisurely paced woodlands. Up at the top of the dredge-spoil containment dike on the north end of Higbee Beach, where the Zeiss-sponsored Morning Flight Project is in full swing, the discourse tends to be a little more adrenalized. The dike raises birders up to treetop level, so it affords an unimpeded view in all directions.

“Canada Warbler!… Cape May!… BT-Blue! There’s… aaah… Cerulean? Cerulean up there.”

High-water mark

There’s scant time to give directions while standing on the dike. All the bird counters and interpreters can hope to do is train their binoculars, shout names, and wish you luck.

Welcome to birding’s high watermark. Here a handful of hyper-skilled birders are pushing the limits of birding, pinning names to fall warblers engaged in morning flight, a mass relocation of migrants conducted for several hours after sunrise.

Identifying fall warblers in flight is not for birders afraid to wear egg on their face. If after a week you still have trouble telling a Red-eyed Vireo from a female Black-throated Blue Warbler, you stand in a large, honest band of the birding spectrum called the Majority. But if you want to see hundreds of warblers — and sometimes thousands or even tens of thousands — in a morning, the dike is the place to be.

Morning flight shuts down just in time for you to head for the hawk watch platform, located in the shadow of the lighthouse in Cape May Point State Park.

Social center of Cape May

For many people, Cape May means raptors. Organized counts, conducted by wardens hired by the National Association of Audubon Societies to monitor the hawk shoots that were popular in the early part of the 20th century, go back to 1931 (three years before Maurice Broun, Hawk Mountain’s original curator, set foot on the Pennsylvania sanctuary).

In 1976, the Cape May Bird Observatory began full-season counts. Conducted from September 1 to November 30 and now sponsored by Leica Sports Optics, the hawk watch tallies an average of 50,000 hawks of 15 species (not counting vultures).

September features kestrels, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and a dash of Merlins and Peregrines. The last week in the month and the first 10 days of October normally host the peak falcon flights, but you will have to be lucky to see flights as large as 298 Peregrines or 867 Merlins in a day. Both totals constitute records. Flights in excess of 100 Peregrines and 250 Merlins are annual.

In October, Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks dominate the first half, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks the second. The first and second week in November, the stage is set for peak diversity as early migrants linger (it’s not unheard of to have Broad-winged Hawks in early December) and late-season migrants (like Northern Goshawk and Golden Eagle) are peaking. Twelve-species days are regular. And there have been two days when 14 species of raptors were tallied (again, not including vultures).

You don’t need to be a raptor expert to stand at the social center of the Cape May birding universe. You can rely on the seasonal naturalists to point out birds or answer your birding questions. And if you don’t have questions, you can just savor the flight while trading stories with the visitor next to you, pausing now and again to savor a passing Merlin or soaring Bald Eagle. And while the official hawk count ends on November 30, anytime a cold front passes in the month of December, you’ll get a flight.

But chances are, in December you’ll head for the Avalon Sea Watch, located on the Atlantic shore at the north end of Avalon about 45 minutes north of Cape May. From mid-September to mid-December, the seabirding action is nearly nonstop. It takes a special breed of birder to cast his or her aspirations at the horizon the way die-hard seabird watchers do, but the rewards can be extraordinary. I mentioned earlier that the average raptor count is 50,000 birds. In late October, you can see this many scoters in a single day. Scoters in lines. Scoters in sheets. Scoters as far as the eye can see. And loons and gannets and jaegers and alcids and gulls.

The count is sponsored by Nikon Sports Optics. Spotting scopes are essential, and warm clothing is a life-and-death matter. The northern tip of Avalon extends a mile farther into the ocean than the coastline to the north. Migrating seabirds cut the corner, but there’s no mercy from wind, whipping in off the open water.

Or does the thought of 81 Parasitic Jaegers and 51 Razorbills keep you warm? Totals vary from year to year, but that’s how many were seen in autumn 2004.

Legends of the fall

I know what you’re thinking: It all sounds like too much to cram into a visit. But I didn’t mention everything.

I didn’t mention the monarch migration that in good years can see roost trees lacquered in gossamer-winged insects and beach-side goldenrod bowed beneath the weight of butterflies.

I didn’t mention the August Purple Martin concentration on the Maurice River (pronounced “Morris”), which flows south past Vineland and Millville and empties into Delaware Bay at Bivalve. Every night in late August, between 60,000 and 100,000 birds spiral into riverside reeds.

And I only paid lip-service to the great late-season fallouts of middle-distance migrants. Ever see 1,500,000 American Robins or 100,000 Yellow-rumped Warblers in a single morning? It happens sometimes.

And if it truly is too late to plan a trip to Cape May this autumn, don’t despair. Spring is pretty bird-filled too. So is summer and winter. But if you won’t take my word for this, trust Alexander Wilson. Or David Sibley!

Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and a contributing editor to BirdWatching magazine.