Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed and Easy Tour May 12—17, 2013

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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When birding Cape May in springtime, there is always an element of excitement. Choices are made based on weather and tides, determining when and where to go. During our 2013 Spring in Cape May Relaxed and Easy tour, those decisions led to great birding and some wonderful surprises.

On our first day in the field, an unseasonably strong cold front beckoned us to get to the southern tip of New Jersey. After a morning stop at Heislerville Wildlife Management Area, with its close views of shorebirds and active heronry, we proceeded south. In West Cape May we were greeted by several migrant raptors including four Bald Eagles (one of which did some aerial acrobatics as it stole a fish from an Osprey) and three Broad-winged Hawks. During an afternoon seawatch, timed with the changing tide, we compared Common, Forster’s, and Least terns, had excellent views of a Lesser Black-backed Gull as it flew over the surf, and spotted a rare Western Grebe as it floated by.

American Oystercatcher with chick

American Oystercatcher with chick— Photo: Michael O’Brien

With the northwest winds continuing to blow, we stayed south and spent the next morning at Cape May Point State Park. Here we were treated to an amazing variety of species, particularly swifts and swallows. Chimney Swifts swarmed above a lawn mower, Tree Swallows defended their nest boxes, Barn Swallows hawked for insects in the dunes, while an unusually high number of Cliff Swallows (and a couple of Banks) hunted over the ponds. We were awed by a dazzling male Baltimore Oriole as it picked Tent Caterpillars from their webs. At the beach we saw two Piping Plovers sitting quietly on their nests.

The afternoon high tide determined that we visit the marshes. Starting on the Atlantic side, we drove from Stone Harbor to Nummy Island. Along the way we had nice views of Little Blue and Tricolored herons, and many shorebirds including single White-rumped and Stilt sandpipers (the latter very rare in spring in Cape May). But it was a pair of American Oystercatchers with two newly hatched chicks who stole the show! Cutting across the cape, we went to Cook’s Beach on the Delaware Bay. Local biologist, Karen Williams, showed us a live Horseshoe Crab and spoke of its history, while flocks of Red Knots, Dunlin, and Semipalmated Sandpipers flew by in search of Horseshoe Crab eggs.

Our third morning in the field took us to Belleplain State Forest in search of songbirds. We enjoyed scope-filling views of several species including Red-eyed and White-eyed vireos, Northern Parula, Ovenbird, and a particularly fine puffed-up singing Wood Thrush. The best find of the morning, and perhaps the trip, was a singing male “orange” Scarlet Tanager (a very rare color variation). Back to the marshes, we spent the afternoon on the Osprey exploring Jarvis Sound. Here, amidst a thriving colony of Laughing Gulls, we studied flocks of migrant shorebirds in the saltpans, lingering Common Loons and Brant in the back bays, and close-up views of nesting Ospreys.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Our last day in the field yielded many highlights and surprises. More westerly winds brought lots of migrants to Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. It was a morning filled with primary colors: blue (Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting), yellow (Prairie Warbler and Yellow Warbler), and red (Summer and Scarlet tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and 3 Red-headed Woodpeckers!). A particular highlight among the many migrants was a lovely little Chestnut-sided Warbler, ignoring us as it fed close to the path. Working our way north, we visited Cook’s Beach to witness the shorebird and Horseshoe Crab spectacle once again, and Jake’s Landing to watch Saltmarsh and Seaside sparrows while Marsh Wrens displayed above their nests. The winner for serendipity bird of the tour was the Swallow-tailed Kite that circled above us during a brief stop at Cape May Bird Observatory in Goshen.

We ended, as we began, with a pleasant visit to Heislerville WMA. Amid thousands of shorebirds, we got parting shots of Black Skimmers, Diamondback Terrapins, and mating Horseshoe Crabs before heading back to Philadelphia.