Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed and Easy Tour May 13—18, 2012

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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From its beginning at the Heislerville Wildlife Management Area heronry to its culmination at Cook's Beach with the shorebird and horseshoe crab spectacle, our 2012 Spring in Cape May Relaxed and Easy tour was a delight of sights and sounds. Each day we were treated to a slightly different mix of the region's diverse avifauna.

Five species of shorebirds, Cape May, New Jersey

Five species of shorebirds, Cape May, New Jersey— Photo: Michael O'Brien

The saltmarshes of the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean were bustling with activity. We enjoyed many opportunities to view shorebirds up close, and practiced recognizing the differences between various sandpiper species. A flock of "peeps" on the road at Shellbay Landing was particularly accommodating. And a lone male Wilson's Phalarope at Heislerville WMA, amongst hordes of Short-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and others, was a highlight. We did remarkably well in our efforts to find the often elusive marsh sparrows—both Seaside and Saltmarsh sparrows gave us excellent views at Jake's Landing. But it was the exuberant little Marsh Wren singing at his nest and Clapper Rails making uncharacteristically lengthy appearances that stole the show.

The always popular "Osprey" cruise provided the unique opportunity to explore the normally inaccessible back bay marshes around Jarvis Sound. Here, among a thriving colony of Laughing Gulls, we found numerous migrant shorebirds, a lingering Brant, and a very late breeding plumage Horned Grebe. And, as advertised, we enjoyed up-close views of nesting Ospreys.

Of course, Cape May is about more than just marsh birds. At Belleplain State Forest we searched for nesting songbirds and had splendid, often scope-filling views of Blue-winged, Black-and-white, Worm-eating, and Yellow-throated warblers, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Wood Thrush, and Acadian Flycatcher. An active pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers even led us to their nest! Farther south, a search for migrants produced Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, and American Redstart in Cape May, and a stunning Baltimore Oriole bathing in a puddle at Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area. We also enjoyed the opportunity to compare the similar songs of Hooded and Magnolia warblers at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area.

No trip to the shore is complete without spending some time at the beach. The Atlantic Ocean is bustling with life in spring when terns and gulls are always in sight, and dolphins can be found frolicking offshore. We visited the beach-nesting birds at Cape May Point and had wonderful views of nesting Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers while listening to the diminutive Least Terns' noisy courtship (which was just getting underway). Seawatching at Townsend's Inlet gave us the opportunity to compare the very similar Common and Forster's terns, as well as Herring, Great Black-backed, and Lesser Black-backed gulls.

But it is the beach on the other side of the peninsula that Cape May is perhaps most famous for in spring. We ended our tour with the impressive sight of hundreds of migrating shorebirds feeding on the eggs of horseshoe crabs along the Delaware Bayshore. Although well below their historical numbers, brilliantly colored Red Knots were showing well, along with good numbers of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Sanderlings. With a backdrop of Bald Eagles chasing Ospreys and Marsh Wrens bubbling nearby, this was the perfect way to end our tour.