Cape May: A Birding Workshop Sep 21—27, 2014

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 conducting a birding workshop centered on migration and migratory birds, one is at the whim of the wind. At the southern tip of New Jersey, the Cape May peninsula serves as an avian funnel for birds heading south on their autumn migration. But these birds are much more concentrated when winds blow out of the northwest. Well, it just so happened that our 2014 workshop arrived in Cape May with a stiff wind blowing out of the northwest— it was on!

American Kestrel

American Kestrel— Photo: Michael O’Brien

There are many places to witness migration in Cape May, but we chose to spend the early morning hours of that first morning at our favorite dune crossing on Cape May Point. This spot is particularly exciting and illuminating because we can witness birds making that critical migratory decision—do I risk crossing the mouth of Delaware Bay, or do I return back north and look for a safer spot to cross? Some raptors, such as Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey, have no qualms about crossing the bay, while others such as American Kestrel and Sharp-shinned Hawk tend to hug the dunes and travel varying distances up the bayshore before crossing. Our group was captivated as we watched each passing raptor make its own decision to cross or to turn back. Songbirds were also moving in abundance, mostly flying west down the dunes. These primarily nocturnal migrants got drifted to the coast overnight by northwest winds and were backtracking to the north and west in search of cover and foraging habitat for the day. Meanwhile, a swarm of gulls and terns were a constant distraction,  some feeding in “the rips” and some loafing on the beach. We discussed classic bird ID challenges such as Sharp-shinned vs. Cooper’s hawks, Common vs. Forster’s terns, and Herring vs. Lesser Black-backed gulls, while marveling at the squadrons of American Kestrels winging by like paper airplanes and solo Merlins putting on their after burners. We stood in a river of Tree Swallows rushing past, accentuated by warblers and hummingbirds. This dazzling display of migration and abundance whetted our appetite for knowledge in the days to come.

Each habitat we visited during the workshop afforded us new opportunities for study. The freshwater ponds at Cape May Point State Park held a variety of ducks, many of which had just arrived from their breeding areas to the north. Jessie took the opportunity to share her outstanding knowledge of waterfowl with us as we sorted though a long list of species, most offering close views. Lily Lake, just south of Cape May Bird Observatory’s Northwood Center, also held some gems: a side by side comparison of Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned night-herons, a bathing Green Heron, and two drake Wood Ducks, with a bonus River Otter (unusual for the middle of the day). The “rattling” of Belted Kingfishers (yes, they migrate too!) became a familiar background sound as we visited various ponds around Cape May.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Some of the more dramatic moments of the trip played out during our forays to the beach. Gulls and terns were ever-present. The beachfront in Cape May resembled a large nursery of Royal Terns still feeding their young. These birds disperse well north of their breeding grounds in late summer and early fall to take advantage of an abundance of food off Cape May. Mixed with the Royal Terns were nearly 1,000 Black Skimmers, also gathering in Cape May to take advantage of abundant food. We were particularly pleased to see a much higher percentage of juvenile skimmers than in recent years—evidence of a good breeding season! Just offshore, thousands of terns and Laughing Gulls were attended closely by several Parasitic Jaegers. These migrants from arctic breeding grounds were performing acrobatic maneuvers as they attempted to steal fish from gulls and terns, a behavior known as kleptoparasitism.

Two mornings in the field were spent exploring the Atlantic coastal saltmarshes. Our backbay boat cruise on the Osprey was a highlight for many. Captain Bob took us to see a large flock of sharp-looking American Oystercatchers in Cold Spring inlet at the jetty. And along the way, a playful pod of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins followed our wake. The high tide enabled us to explore many of Jarvis Sound’s creeks, which were full of shorebirds, including many Black-bellied Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers, and a lingering Whimbrel. We had excellent views of a roosting flock of Least, Semipalmated, and Western sandpipers—the perfect opportunity for a “peep” mini-workshop! Close views of a Great Cormorant in Cape May Harbor were also a highlight. On our second outing to the marshes, we explored the area around Stone Harbor by van. The tide was extraordinarily high. White egrets dotted the marsh edges, and a flock of Willets at the Wetland’s Institute provided a nice study of the differences between the Western and Eastern subspecies. There was only one “Eastern” left in the crowd and Michael offered a fine explanation why, and how to tell their differences. We felt lucky to get looks at a couple of Saltmarsh and Seaside sparrows before the weather took a turn. We took the opportunity to seek shelter at La Mer and enjoy Michael’s indoor program about the dynamics of migration in Cape May and Jessie’s program about eBird.

Semipalmated and Western sandpipers

Semipalmated and Western sandpipers— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Woodland and brushy areas provide safe haven for migrant songbirds. Considering the Jersey Shore’s popularity, it is amazing how much habitat has been preserved in Cape May. Higbee Beach and Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Areas are invaluable. We also realized the importance of native vegetation in the community of Cape May Point. Songbird highlights were many, as were the viewing possibilities. One morning at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area, it was exciting to witness the spectacle of fly-by warblers engaged in morning flight. This phenomenon, which we had also witnessed at Cape May Point, is a brief early morning movement by otherwise nocturnal migrants as they seek out cover and foraging habitat for the day. When the “morning rush” settled down, we had wonderful views of many songbirds throughout the week including 4 species of vireos, 17 species of warblers, and a surprising 2 species of chickadees! The very rare Black-capped Chickadee that appeared at Cape May Point State Park one day before our picnic lunch was a real treat. It was also a treat to have particularly close and prolonged views of a few species. The juvenile White-eyed Vireo at Higbee was so close that we could see its dark eyes, and the Eastern Bluebirds at Cox Hall Creek were simply stunning. Some birds around Cape May Bird Observatory and Lily Lake—Magnolia and Black-throated Blue warblers were most memorable—were so close that naked eye views were satisfying!

There is much to be said about the birds of Cape May, but the people who are drawn there are special as well. Meeting birding legend, Pete Dunne, on his beloved hawkwatch, was a particular honor. Master bander Joey Mason’s wonderful demonstration with a male Sharp-shinned Hawk in hand was an extraordinary experience. Listening to her impassionately speak about her work with “Keeping Company with Kestrels” was inspiring. Learning about the Monarch Monitoring Project’s work, 25 years and still going strong, in Cape May as we tagged Monarch butterflies together was also a lot of fun. We always feel it a special privilege to share the joy felt by all who witness migration in Cape May, and we were pleased to have the opportunity to share that joy with this group.