10/9/15 – 10/11/15
Cape May, New Jersey in the fall is one of those birding sites you can never be sure of. You never know what you might see or in what quantities. The best way to approach the place is without any expectations at all. That is what the four of us (Bob Ringler, Maureen and Dave Harvey, and myself) did as we drove across the Delaware River Bridge and headed for Cape May.
Our first stop was at the Riverside Beach Park in New Jersey. This was nowhere near Cape May, but always proved to be a good rest spot. We met two other members there (Laura and Jerry Tarbell), making us six in all. A walk around the park not only provided a well needed leg stretch, it also gave us a chance to practice our birding skills. Bordering the Delaware River, the park offered a variety of habitats. Species seen or heard here included Blue Jay, Killdeer, Canada Goose, Fish Crow, Great Egret, Mallard, Great Blue Heron, Herring Gull, Double-crested Cormorant, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Carolina Wren, Great Black-backed Gull, American Goldfinch, Song Sparrow, and of course, House Sparrow and European Starling. Driving over the Maurice River farther down the road, we were excited to see a large flock of Tree Swallows moving through the area.
Our first stop in Cape May County proper was at the Wetlands Institute along the road to Stone Harbor. Our trip leader, Bob Ringler, and I had been here once before. As we recalled, at low tide, shorebirds congregated on the small tufts of wetlands vegetation that could be seen from the Institute. The tide was definitely low when we arrived. Unfortunately, we had our timing reversed. The shorebirds were to be expected when the tide was high. Consequently, the only birds we saw or heard there were a Snowy Egret, a Northern Mockingbird, a Carolina Wren, several Mourning Doves and House Sparrows, and more Yellow-rumped Warblers than we could count. We did our best to find another warbler species among them.
Stone Harbor Point was to be our next destination, however, it was so windy that we decided to head for what is known as the South Cape Meadows. This area, protected by The Nature Conservancy, has more ponds than meadows, making it a great place to find interesting waders, shorebirds, and ducks. The young woman sitting in the booth at the entrance told us where we should look for a Hudsonian Godwit. This evidently was the hottest find to be had at that time on Cape May.
After playing hide and seek with us for a while, the godwit came out and stood at the water’s edge. Another birder told us that it had been put upon by a Cooper’s Hawk earlier in the day. I guess that would be enough to make any bird decide to keep a low profile. We all had good views of it, however, and later were able to give directions to other birders who wanted to see the bird.
The godwit wasn’t the only star to be seen in that particular spot however. Just a short distance away swam two Eurasian Wigeon. This beautiful species was joined in the water by American Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Black Duck, Green-winiged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Gadwall. Other birds passing over the area included Laughing Gull, Osprey, Great Egret, and more large flocks of Tree Swallows.
Continuing around the loop path, another birder walking by told us where we might find a Little Blue Heron. This we soon located, along with a Snowy Egret. Someone also spotted a Ruddy Duck. Before leaving the area, we added Redwinged Blackbird, Great Black-backed Gull, and Swamp Sparrow to our list.
Our last stop before heading to the motel was one of the platforms overlooking the beach at the southwest side of Cape May Point. This was a nice place to sit and look for birds along the shore. We did see a line of Double- crested Cormorants fly by. There were also some Great Black-backed Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and Laughing Gulls. At some point, a Black Scoter passed in front of us. On one of the nearby rock jetties, we scoped three American Oystercatchers, a Ruddy Turnstone, and a Least Sandpiper. Nectaring on the goldenrod that grew around the platform were numerous Monarch butterflies. Others sailed by on the wind.
It was just starting to drizzle slightly when we left for the motel. All of us were staying at the Cape May Harbor Motor Inn on Pittsburg Street. Bob and I had booked a kitchenette, so we were able to host the rest of the group for dinner. My wife, Mary, had made beef
stroganoff for us. All we needed to do was heat it up and add some rice, vegetables, and a bottle of wine. It was delicious.
Once the dishes were cleared and washed up, I relaxed with a book. Bob was in the shower. I could hear thunder outside, but didn’t think much of it. Then, the lights suddenly started blinking. Eventually, they went out. I looked outside. The whole of Cape May seemed dark. Bob managed to make it out of the shower without breaking his neck. It stayed dark for about a half hour. Then the lights came on again. I had just settled back into my mystery novel, when the power again went out. This time, I decided to just go to sleep. I didn’t sleep well. Sometime during the course of the night, I heard a Great-horned Owl outside. It was pretty close to the motel. I don’t know when the electricity came back on.
We set out from the motel this morning at around 6:45am. The “No Vacancy” sign was up. Evidently, more people had come in late last night. In the neighborhood around the motel, we could hear Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, American Crow, Mourning Dove, and Carolina Wren. Driving down to the end of Beach Avenue, we noticed that most of the other motels were full as well.
There is a pavilion at the end of Beach Avenue. Bob and I have had luck here before early in the morning. Today, however, there were a lot of people on the beach. There was even what appeared to be a photography class. People with cameras on tripods were spread out across the sand. In spite of that, we were able to record Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, American Robin, Tree Swallow, Great black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Royal Tern, and Turkey Vulture. We also watched as five Brant flew by in a line.
Everyone who birds at Cape May, stops at Higbee Beach in the morning. This is the best place to see migrant songbirds in the fall when they all funnel in there after a night on the wing. We climbed the steps to the tower and began watching and listening. Unfortunately, most of the birds that flew by either kept on going or quickly disappeared into the vegetation. The wind no doubt had something to do with this. We were able to identify Yellow-rumps, but that was the only warbler. There were lots of them though.
Evidently, there were even more Blackpolls. The counters from Cape May Bird observatory who can identify birds by their flight calls claimed that over 500 of this species had passed over. Other species that we could hear included Herring Gull, Fish Crow, Carolina Wren, Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker, and Cooper’s Hawk.
The road at Higbee Beach ends at a parking lot overlooking the ferry terminal on the other side of the Cape May Canal. We walked along a path from here to the beach. There, on the rock jetty, we spotted a Ruddy Turnstone. There was also a Western Palm Warbler poking about the rocks. It looked rather out of place there. Other birds along the beach included Double-crested Cormorant, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, and Laughing Gull. While we were standing there, a Forster’s Tern flew by. It got caught up in the wind and for a while almost appeared to be floating still. It was beautiful to watch.
Hidden Valley was on our way back from Higbee Beach. Since the wind was still pretty fierce, we decided that the protected area there might make a better venue for birding. We parked the cars in the small, muddy lot and set out to make a loop around the one large field. With tall trees on one side and a meadow on the other, we soon had a nice assortment of species. These included Northern Cardinal, Eastern Towhee, American Crow, Swamp Sparrow, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Common Yellowthroat, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Flicker, Red-tailed Hawk, Carolina Wren, Palm Warbler (Eastern this time), White-throated Sparrow (First of season for most of us.), Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Song Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Mourning Dove, and Northern Mockingbird.
There were also quite a few interesting plants here. A blue Morning Glory added some color to the otherwise green and tan landscape. There was also what looked to be an orange-red variety of the same species. The flowers of these were smaller, but quite brilliant.
From Hidden Valley, we continued to the Cape May Bird Observatory Hawk Watch platform. Pulling into the State Park where this is located, we had to stop to let a large group of Amish cross the road. Many of them had binoculars around their necks. After a quick bathroom stop, we took our positions on the crowded platform.
Many of the birds we saw here were on the large pond in front of the Hawk Watch. We listed Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Blue-winged Teal, Mallard, Ruddy Duck, Canada Goose, and Great Egret. There were also quite a few Mute Swans. (New Jersey hasn’t dealt with this destructive species the way Maryland has.)
In the air, we watched Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, American Kestrels, Osprey, and an adult Bald Eagle that passed over soon after our arrival. Large flocks of Tree Swallows filled the sky making dark, perpetually moving clouds above. Other birds seen or heard here included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Belted Kingfisher, Rock Pigeon, Carolina Wren, Redwinged Blackbird, and Northern Mockingbird.
Some of the species mentioned above were also seen when we walked along the trail leading between the eat while sitting in the parking lot. A local vendor was selling ice cream sandwiches though which could not be resisted. Another birder had told us about a protected spot not far from there called Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area. It had once been a golf course, but had since been planted with trees and allowed to grow over, making a nice habitat for woodland species.
There we saw or heard Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, Cooper’s Hawk, Tufted Titmouse, Gray Catbird, Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Northern Flicker, Chipping Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Palm Warbler, American Goldfinch, Swamp Sparrow, and Song Sparrow.
Overhead were Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was having a go at an Osprey for some reason. People were fishing in the large pond there. We spotted Mute Swans and Mallards. A Spring Peeper called and there
was a Viceroy Butterfly flying about which you do not see all that often.
Then we got lost. Hard to believe that we had so much difficulty finding our way back to the parking lot. But, we did. There were no signs and no landmarks to which we could refer. Some of us began wishing we had a golf cart to ride in. No such luck. Eventually, I had to pull out my phone and Google our location on a satellite map. That information at least kept us from going farther off course than we had originally intended. Then, someone came by walking his dog. He gave us directions.
We were all pretty much exhausted at this point, so we drove back to the motel, cleaned up a bit, and then set off for dinner. You couldn’t see the ocean from the Oceanview Diner where we ate, but the food was good and they had free parking out front. After dinner, a few of us decided to walk around Cape May a bit. They have a nice shopping area downtown which is cordoned off from vehicle traffic.
We checked out of the motel early this morning. Bob and I woke up at 6:30am, but we still managed to meet the others in the parking lot at the designated 7:00am time. I never showered or ate breakfast so fast in my life! While packing up the car, we identified a Downy Woodpecker and some Rock Pigeons.
Bob wanted to have another look from the pavilion at the end of Beach Avenue. On the way, we spotted a large flock of BlackSkimmers flying up and down the beach. We quickly parked and ran to have a look. By that time, many of them had landed.
It wasn’t quite as crowded at the pavilion as it had been yesterday. Someone heard a Killdeer calling. Other birds included Double-crested Cormorant, Black Scoter, Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Sanderling, and Tree Swallow.
From here it was on to the Wetlands Institute. The tide was high this time and there were some shorebirds there. Most of these were either Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs, although we did see one Western Willet and a couple of Least Sandpipers. Some Black-bellied Plovers also flew by. Other species on the marsh included Snowy Egret, Black Duck, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, and Great Egret.
Some Boat-tailed Grackles perched on the weather vane of the Institute headquarters. There was also an Osprey on one of the nesting platforms who hadn’t yet figured out that it was time to leave. We also heard or saw House Finch, Mourning Dove, Yellow-rumped Warbler, House Sparrow, Barn Swallow, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Northern Mockingbird.
The most excitement we had here, however, was due to the variety and rarity of the sparrows we found. Working our way around the side of the building, someone spotted what looked like a Lincoln’s Sparrow. A couple people had fair views of it, but the bird was soon lost again in the Phragmites. Continuing our search around back, we soon discovered all manner of sparrows feeding in on the short grasses there. Our list soon included Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, and even a Clay-colored Sparrow. The Lincoln’s Sparrow even put in an appearance here. We all got to see it this time. Walking back to the car, we were able to add Swamp Sparrow, making a total of six species.
Jumping into the cars again, we were ready to head to our last stop, the beach at Stony Harbor Point. Before driving off, however, I had to release a stowaway Red Admiral Butterfly that had hitched a ride on my pants leg. On the way, we made a short stop at the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary where we searched for birds on the Holly Path Trail. We found only one, a Downy Woodpecker.
Parking in the lot at Stony Harbor Point, Maureen Harvey spotted two Northern Harriers over the marsh in the distance. Then, Jerry Tarbell pointed out a pod of dolphins feeding in the surf. There were at least five of them, probably more. We watched them for a while before heading down the beach. There had been quite a bit of storm damage to the dunes, so we had to tread carefully.
There were a number of shorebirds on the beach, including Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderlings, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Western Sandpipers. These were joined here and there by Herring and Great Black-backed gulls. Tree Swallows swooped low overhead while Monarch Butterflies drifted slowly in the breeze. Just off shore, five Brant flew by. I wondered if it was the same group we had seen earlier.
From, here, we headed home.