Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed and Easy Tour May 15—20, 2011

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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After a quick exit from Philadelphia, our Cape May Relaxed and Easy tour made its first official stop at Cumberland County's Heislerville Wildlife Management Area. The morning's high tide created perfect, close to the edge viewing conditions for shorebirds. Our entire group was treated to stunning views of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Short-billed Dowitchers; Curlew Sandpipers (one male and one female); and a heron rookery. The biggest surprise of the morning, however, was a male Northern Bobwhite (sadly, a declining species) that walked right alongside the van.

We boarded The Osprey after lunch for a leisurely afternoon pontoon boat cruise through Cape May's back bays. The Atlantic coastal marshes teemed with activity as noisy nesting terns and gulls jostled for high ground (much to the dismay of the local Ospreys on their nests above). Some highlights from the trip included Common Loon, Tricolored Heron, several Whimbrels, and a handsome Saltmarsh Sparrow. That evening we enjoyed one of the non-birding highlights of the tour, a fine dinner at Freda's Café.

One of the great advantages of being in a birding hotspot is flexibility. In Cape May you can bird before breakfast, as some members of our group chose to do on a couple of occasions. The morning's cloudy, damp weather kept the Purple Martins and Rough-winged and Barn swallows low in the dunes over Cape May Point State Park, affording excellent viewing opportunities. After a gourmet breakfast at The Pier House, the skies cleared and we went to the famous Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area where we were serenaded by Indigo Buntings and a Yellow-breasted Chat while birding the fields. We watched a male Prairie Warbler sing from the beach plums in the dunes where we took a path to the beach. Here we saw our first horseshoe crabs of the tour (inspiring me to give a lesson in their amazing natural history). We walked along the beach flipping crabs that had become stranded on their backs by the high tide. When we got to the jetty we were treated to nice views of a flock of Purple Sandpipers.

In the afternoon we visited Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center where we were surprised to find a Prothonotary Warbler singing at Lily Lake, and watched a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird make arcing displays to a potential mate. We finished the day with some seawatching from Coral Avenue dune crossing. Our vista included a raft of Black and Surf scoters near the jetty, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins frolicking just off shore, and four Cedar Waxwings near the van.

The woodlands of Belleplain State Forest are magical in spring. The oaks, pines, and cedars are full of birdsong. Our third morning of birding was wondrous. We enjoyed scope-filling views of Ovenbird, Eastern Towhee, and an immature male Summer Tanager (whose plumage had the appearance of Western Tanager). We watched several Eastern Wood-Pewees battling for territory, an Acadian Flycatcher building its new nest, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers sitting on theirs (so cute!). Undeterred by a passing rain shower, we birded from the van and happened upon a male Scarlet Tanager bathing in a puddle in the road right in front of us! Nearby, at Jake's Landing, we watched Seaside Sparrows and a particularly energetic Marsh Wren put on a show at his nest.

Our afternoon was spent exploring the Delaware Bayshore. A slow drive down Beaver Dam Road was highlighted with sightings of a male Prothonotary Warbler singing from the maples, and turtles in the puddles on the road. During stops at Cook's Beach and Norbury's Landing we took in the primordial scene of Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Semipalmated Sandpipers feasting on horseshoe crab eggs as the sounds of Laughing Gulls filled our ears. We can only hope that conservation efforts continue to help save this endangered phenomenon, as horseshoe crab numbers have continued to decline due to over-harvesting.

Our final morning in the field began with an exciting outing to Cape May Point. The resident birds were up and singing in the nice weather as we walked the trail at the state park. A report of a rare White-winged Dove in the neighborhood compelled us to make a quick extra stop before having breakfast at Uncle Bill's Pancake House. The remainder of the morning on Cape Island included a mini hawkwatch on Stevens Street in West Cape May near my house, and a walk at the South Cape May Meadows (one of The Nature Conservancy's crown jewels) where we observed beach-nesting Piping Plovers, American Oystercatchers, and Least Terns. The weather was so nice that we decided to have lunch at Sunset Beach Grill where we could watch birds fly past the infamous concrete ship at the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

After saying farewell to Cape Island, we headed north towards Philadelphia, making a couple more bayshore stops. Reed’s Beach provided us with a fabulous parting shot of the shorebird and horseshoe crab spectacle, and at Stipson's Island road we had close views of a Northern Harrier hunting in the marsh and a male Orchard Oriole bathing in a puddle (a recurring theme).