Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed and Easy Tour May 16—21, 2010

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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Although we usually start this tour with a quick exit from Philadelphia, a little fall of migrants caused us to linger right in front of our hotel long enough to see three beautiful Magnolia Warblers in blue spruces and enjoy scope views of a Willow Flycatcher singing from the overgrown field next door. En route to breakfast, we also had roadside views of two toms displaying to a "rafter" of Wild Turkeys.

Our Cape May experience began at Jake’s Landing where we did some woodland birding, highlighted by unbelievable scope views of a Yellow-throated Warbler, and marsh birding where a male Marsh Wren stole the show, singing his bubbly song and building two nests simultaneously. A stop at Cook's Beach afforded us our first views of Delaware Bay. As the tide fell, we watched Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Semipalmated Sandpipers fly around and gather to feast on horseshoe crab eggs, and Louise gave a demonstration on the natural history of horseshoe crabs. We spent a delightful afternoon leisurely exploring the back bays and salt marsh by pontoon boat aboard The Osprey. Among the many highlights of the trip were displaying Great and Snowy egrets in a heronry, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons hunting in the marsh, noisy American Oystercatchers flying around the boat, numerous lingering Brant, and hundreds of nesting gulls and terns.

They say, "When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade." The forecast for rain on the second day of the tour was spot on, but we made the most of it and had a fun day anyway. An advance party went out and tested that water (so to speak) before breakfast, and witnessed an impressive show of swallows and martins feeding over Lily Lake on Cape May Point. After a gourmet breakfast at The Pier House, we ventured out to bird the Atlantic coastal marshes during high tide. There were more than 100 Whimbrels and a showy Clapper Rail at Shellbay Landing. Little did we know that the rail was the first of many. As we drove along Stone Harbor Boulevard to Nummy Island, we saw numerous Clapper Rails and shorebirds, particularly Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Dunlin, that had been forced up to the marsh's edge by the unusually high tide. We felt the full drama of the storm when we parked at Townsend's Inlet. Periodic waves crashed over the seawall and sprayed our vans. The nearby ball field in Avalon held another nice surprise. It was full of Semipalmated Plovers and two Lesser Black-backed Gulls!

After lunch we cut across the peninsula and made a visit to Cape May Bird Observatory Center for Research and Education where Pete Dunne, its director (and VENT leader), welcomed us. Working our way back south, we stopped at the famous Reed's Beach, one of the primary locations where the horseshoe crab and shorebird phenomenon was first discovered. There were quite a few Red Knots in Bidwell's Creek and we found another Lesser Black-backed Gull on the jetty. Later, on our way to dinner at Freda's Café, we discovered that the easterly winds had brought us one last bonus of the day: a large flock of Northern Gannets plunge-diving in the surf, and dolphins frolicking nearby. What an incredible day!

Early morning is the best time to visit the marsh when searching for sparrows. A pre-breakfast stop on Ocean Drive successfully produced several Seaside Sparrows and a particularly handsome Saltmarsh Sparrow. After breakfast, we spent the remainder of the morning woodland birding in Belleplain State Forest. Here we visited one of our favorite Atlantic white cedar groves where we watched a variety of birds including Carolina Chickadee, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Chipping Sparrow, and Eastern Towhee. There were many warblers around us. Hooded made a brief appearance, and Kentucky got pretty close, but was unwilling to show itself. The Louisiana Waterthrushes, however, were quite obliging. A scope-filling Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest and an elusive Wood Thrush were other favorites of the morning.  

No trip to Cape May is complete without a visit to the Nature Conservancy's South Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge. During our afternoon walk here we studied Common, Forster's, and Least terns; Greater and Lesser yellowlegs; and Least and Semipalmated sandpipers. We also talked about endangered beach-nesting birds, particularly the Piping Plover that sat quietly on its nest inside a predator exclosure nearby. Upon our return to La Mer, a cooperative male Common Yellowthroat greeted us. For dinner, we went to The Lobster House at the docks in Cape May.

Our final morning began with an optional outing to Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. The previous evening's winds had brought in an excellent push of migrants including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet and Summer tanagers, and Red-eyed Vireos. Warbler-wise we had wonderful views of Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Prairie, and three male Blackburnians! The biggest surprise of the morning, however, was a Black Tern that flew overhead as we were birding in the field. A scope-filling Yellow-billed Cuckoo won the prize for the most obliging bird of the day.

We spent the remainder of the morning visiting various Cape May Point hotspots. At Cape May Bird Observatory Northwood we enjoyed many fine views of warblers including American Redstart, another male Blackburnian, and a female Black-throated Blue. A couple of Broad-winged Hawks were spotted overhead, Least Terns fished in Lily Lake, and a Carolina Wren sang in uncharacteristically full view. Cape May Point State Park, with its lighthouse, hawkwatch, and nature trails, can be a bird watcher's heaven. During our picnic lunch here, a swan with cygnets was discovered on a nearby pond, while terns and swallows came in to enjoy the fresh water. We took a delightful afternoon walk, seeing more warblers including two Black-throated Greens and the always extraordinary singing Yellow-breasted Chat. We also had fun watching a Tree Swallow and a House Wren singing at their respective boxes.

The exceptional weather and birding made it difficult to leave Cape May. We were lucky to have experienced one of the finest days of the spring. We made our last birding stop of the trip where we began, on Delaware Bay. A few hundred shorebirds and a group photo later, we departed for dinner with our favorite waiter, Florian, at Tuscanos, and our hotel in Philadelphia.