Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed and Easy Tour May 17—22, 2009

Posted by Louise Zemaitis

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Louise Zemaitis

Louise Zemaitis is an artist and naturalist living in Cape May, New Jersey where she is a popular field trip leader teaching birding workshops as an Associate Naturalist wi...

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Our inaugural Cape May Relaxed & Easy Tour began in Philadelphia where we were serenaded by a Yellow Warbler as the group loaded the vans for our journey to Cape May. After our first rest stop of the tour in Dennisville, our Cape May birding began at Cook's Beach on the Delaware Bay. Here we witnessed the spring spectacle of Ruddy Turnstones, Red Knots, Sanderlings, and Semipalmated Sandpipers feasting on horseshoe crab eggs, and Louise gave a demonstration on the natural history of horseshoe crabs.

A cold front had passed during the night creating chilly and windy conditions—perfect weather for spring hawkwatching in West Cape May! Between the Beanery and Stevens Street (Michael and Louise's house) the group had nice views of seven species of raptors including Bald Eagle and Red-shouldered Hawk. After a wonderful lunch at Bella Vida Garden Café in West Cape May, we took a walk at the Nature Conservancy's South Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, a favorite coastal wetland birding hotspot. Tricolored and Little Blue herons and American Coot, uncommon in spring, were favorites among the many species seen. We talked about the plight of the endangered Piping Plovers as we watched them walk in and out of their nest predator exclosures. We finished our day with a fine dinner at Freda's Café. The "Crabcakes Marcus" is highly recommended for future visits.

We began each day in Cape May with an early breakfast at The Queen Ann (Louise's sister's Victorian house). On our second morning we drove to Belleplain State Forest where we traveled to a number of habitats searching for woodpeckers and songbirds. The woodland edge provided excellent viewing of a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches gathering food for their nestlings, and also of a female Summer Tanager on the ground collecting nesting material. In a nearby grove of pines we saw Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Pine Warblers, and had stunning views of an Acadian Flycatcher. Traveling to the northern edge of the forest, we found one of the most fascinating birds of the tour in the wooded area next to Tarkiln Pond, a singing male Cerulean Warbler x Northern Parula hybrid. Traveling back into the forest, a young grove of Atlantic white cedars proved to be most productive for viewing of Blue-winged and Prairie warblers, Indigo Bunting, and a Red-headed Woodpecker (on a dead tree in the distance). Amongst the oaks and mountain laurels we found a number of other species including Hooded Warbler, Ovenbird, White-eyed and Red-eyed vireos, and Eastern Wood-Pewees. Four pewees, vying for territory, were so close that we could hear their bills snap.

The afternoon's perfect weather and incoming tide provided a most excellent birding experience aboard "The Osprey," a pontoon Eco-tour through the saltmarsh. We cruised through Cape May's Intracoastal Waterway and back into the tidal creeks. Some of the many birding highlights included a flock of Brant (not quite ready to head north to the high arctic), many egrets and herons (some in a rookery), several Osprey nests (a previously endangered species), and hundreds of Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Whimbrels. Our evening meal at Panico's in West Cape May completed another great day.

The next morning was spent birding on Cape Island. Our walk at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area was colored with dazzlingly-blue Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks and a lemony Yellow-breasted Chat. Next, after a quick stop at Cape May Point State Park, we enjoyed some of the most relaxed birding of the tour (some of us in easy chairs) at the Coral Avenue dune crossing in Cape May Point where we did a seawatch at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Surf and Black scoters bobbed near the jetties while we scanned the horizon for passing Northern Gannets and terns. Finishing our morning at Cape May Point, the group did a little shopping and warblering at Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center. Here we had some absolutely stunning views of a male Magnolia Warbler and a female Blackpoll Warbler.
 
Our afternoon was spent on the Atlantic coast at Stone Harbor Point and Nummy Island. Here we studied terns and shorebirds under excellent viewing conditions. We shared one of the most exciting birding moments of the trip while witnessing Michael find a male Curlew Sandpiper, a real rarity in Cape May! The beautiful brick-colored bird was feeding not far from where we were standing. It was a life bird for almost everyone. For dinner, we went to The Lobster House at the docks in Cape May.

On our final birding day we started at Ocean Drive with nice views of Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed and Seaside sparrows. Next, we chose to take a second look at the Delaware Bay shorebird spectacle at Cook's Beach. The viewing could not have been better! The weather, the lighting, and the tide were all just right. The beach was littered with tiny horseshoe crab eggs that were being hurriedly gobbled up by thousands of shorebirds and Laughing Gulls. It gave us hope for the future of Red Knots and Semipalmated Sandpipers, whose numbers have been in precipitous decline over the past decade. A moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs seems to be making a difference! Among the masses of shorebirds, we enjoyed studying a single White-rumped Sandpiper at close range. We finished our morning birding at Villas Wildlife Management Area, a gem within a highly developed area. This old golf course, with its big old trees, provides excellent habitat for both resident and migrant species. We particularly enjoyed seeing a Baltimore Oriole and a Scarlet Tanager, both males.

This was a tour with two finales. The first was at Lucky Bones where we had a delicious lunch followed by homemade ice cream sandwiches and our group photo. After saying farewell to a few of our members, we headed north making a few more birding stops on our way back to Philadelphia. At Beaver Swamp Wildlife Management Area we had great views of a Gull-billed Tern and a fledgling Bald Eagle at its nest, while iridescent Glossy Ibises fed in the afternoon light. Our last birding stop, Jake's Landing, was the grand finale. Here we were treated to particularly fine views of a Yellow-throated Warbler in the pines, a Marsh Wren singing and displaying at the edge of the marsh, several Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows sitting up in the marsh grasses, and Clapper Rails in full view!