Cape May and Bombay Hook Sep 22—28, 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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As déjà vu would have it, the 2013 Cape May & Bombay Hook tour began with similar conditions to last year’s—in the midst of a wonderful cold front! For our first morning in the field, the group left Philadelphia bright and early, arriving in Cape May with lots of time to enjoy fall songbird migration in all of its glory. Cape May Point was full of life! Warblers gleaned insects from the vegetation along Lily Lake while small flocks of migrants continued to move well into the morning. Early favorites included a Black-billed Cuckoo (that eventually posed for the scope), several Cape May Warblers, and a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. All of the common raptors were accounted for. Some particularly nice views were had of low-flying Broad-winged, Cooper’s, and Sharp-shinned hawks, creating the perfect opportunity for identification instruction. The desire for even more diversity prompted us to head to our favorite dune crossing in Cape May Point. Here, at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, we watched gulls and terns feed in the “rips” while falcons, songbirds, and Monarchs moved through the dunes. A particularly close Parasitic Jaeger completed the morning’s full panorama.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Cape May offers a nice diversity of habitats in a small area. Throughout the week, there was no need to go far afield to experience songbird migration. We witnessed the awesome spectacle of “morning flight” at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area, strolled the old golf cart paths at Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area (a repurposed golf course), and continued to seek out little gems amongst the tree-lined streets of Cape May Point. We won’t soon forget watching the northward movement of birds at Higbee, flickers most gaudy, as they “recalculated” their migratory flight path; female and juvenile Blue Grosbeaks as they foraged in the old fairway; and Blackburnian and Bay-breasted warblers, brilliant in the afternoon light, near Lily Lake. By the end of day two, we had tallied 21 species of warblers, always a fair barometer of birdiness!

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Exploring the coastal marshes of the Cape May peninsula is like a treasure hunt. Our leisurely cruise on “The Osprey” unveiled many treasures of the Atlantic coastal backbays. The afternoon light illuminated our views of Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Marbled Godwit, and Whimbrel. American Oystercatchers were a lot of fun, piled onto the jetty, wearing their tuxedos and smoking carrots. By van we visited the bayside. Here we were overwhelmed with Marsh Wrens right on the roadside at Jake’s Landing as we scoped Seaside Sparrows in the Spartina grasses. One particularly bold Clapper Rail ventured into the road right in front of our van! Throughout, we always kept an eye to the sky for raptors, gulls, terns, and swallows, but it was the Cape May City, beach-dwelling, diurnal-roosting Black Skimmer flock that was noticed by birder and non-birder alike. This huge flock of skimmers was joined by many Forster’s, Common, and Royal terns during our visit. The skimmers were feeding at night when the fish rise to the surface, but the terns were just resting between tides.

Whimbrel

Whimbrel— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Bodies of water, such as Lily Lake and Bunker Pond, provide a critical source of fresh water for both migrant and resident species. The water level at Bunker Pond was just right for us to see a variety of birds utilizing different feeding strategies. Autumn’s first arrivals of ducks, including a handsome drake Eurasian Wigeon, hung in the deeper areas while herons, egrets, and shorebirds worked their way around the edges. An American Bittern, standing in full view below the Hawkwatch platform, caught and ate a frog to the pleasure of many gawking spectators (including a couple of members of the Cape May Young Birders Club) while a more secretive Black-crowned Night-Heron watched from the reeds. Several species of shorebirds provided excellent comparisons. All of this while hundreds of swallows zipped all around us.

Monarch

Monarch— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Another critical source of fresh water in the Delaware Bay region is Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. In fall, its impoundments provide refuge for migrant shorebirds and waders, as well as wintering ducks and geese. Delaware offered us a great variety of shorebirds, including “Western” Willet, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Wilson’s Snipe, all in view of a spectacular tidal marsh. American Avocets, seen here in the hundreds, rarely cross to the east side of Delaware Bay. Another bird that rarely makes the bay crossing, Brown-headed Nuthatch, is worth the the ferry ride (which included great views of Lesser Black-backed Gull and Northern Gannet) in itself.

A large part of Cape May’s uniqueness can be attributed to the people who are drawn to it. Meeting hawk bander, Joey Mason; seeing the close-up beauty of American Kestrel and Cooper’s Hawk; and listening to her passionately speak about her work with kestrels was moving. Spending time in the field with birding legends Dick Walton and Richard Crossley was a pleasure. But just seeing the happiness that birding provides to everyone we met was memorable in itself.