Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed & Easy Tour May 17—22, 2015

Posted by Louise Zemaitis


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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Cape May is known for being both a birding mecca and national historic landmark. VENT’s 2015 Cape May Relaxed & Easy tour, from the Red Knot and Horseshoe Crab spectacle to the thriving backbay saltmarsh ecosystem, to The Rusty Nail’s delicious berry cobbler, enjoyed the full spectrum of what this little seaside resort has to offer.

The first morning’s drive from Philadelphia took us straight to Cape Island. En route to Cape May Point State Park, we made an impromptu stop for four Mississippi Kites at a local farm. At the park we quickly found a number of migrants, including Swainson’s Thrush and Blackpoll Warbler, in close proximity to the lighthouse. Our luck with songbirds continued at The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows where we enjoyed scope views of a brilliant Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak. The nearby mud flats were filled with shorebirds, giving Michael an excellent opportunity to provide a concise tutorial on their identification. After lunch, the group enjoyed a leisurely afternoon seawatching from the Coral Avenue dune crossing at Cape May Point. We worked out different species of gulls and terns while watching for dolphins at the mouth of Delaware Bay.

Shorebirds on Delaware Bayshore

Shorebirds on Delaware Bayshore— Photo: Michael O’Brien


Our second day in the field was devoted to beaches and marshes. The morning’s high tide was just right for seeing shorebirds and Horseshoe Crabs on the Delaware Bayshore. Cook’s Beach was teeming with life! We were heartened to see the beach covered with Red Knots and Semipalmated Sandpipers, species that have been severely impacted by declining numbers of Horseshoe Crabs. We turned around to see the marsh dotted with singing Seaside Sparrows. It was interesting to observe how the sky filled with hundreds of gulls when an immature Bald Eagle flew by, leaving the shorebirds sitting tight (an eagle could catch a gull, but wouldn’t stand a chance of catching a swiftly-flying shorebird, so they were unconcerned).

Traveling to the Atlantic Coast, we visited the 50th Street dune in Avalon (making one stop on the causeway to watch Yellow-crowned Night-Herons catch Fiddler Crabs). On the beach we met up with a couple of local celebrities, a confiding Piping Plover pair, affectionately named Bob Barker and Kelly Ripa by their protectors in the NJ Conserve Wildlife Program. It was amazing how well they were camouflaged against the light-colored sand.

Seaside Sparrow

Seaside Sparrow— Photo: Michael O’Brien


We boarded “The Osprey” after lunch for a leisurely pontoon boat cruise through Cape May’s back bays with Captain Bob and first mate, Vince. The saltmarsh teemed with life. Dapper Black-bellied Plovers and American Oystercatchers foraged in the mud flats, and a very large flock of Whimbrels wheeled around and settled close by. A late Brant and immature Common Loon bobbed in the channel. Regal Ospreys allowed close views as they sat in their lofty nests, as Forster’s and Common terns and Laughing Gulls jostled for nesting territories around them. It was a glorious afternoon on the water!

Horseshoe Crab eggs

Horseshoe Crab eggs— Photo: Louise Zemaitis


The next morning was spent at Higbee Beach WMA and Cape May Point State Park enjoying the variety of species that Cape Island has to offer, a pleasant combination of birds of both land and sea. The highlight of the day, however, was our second trip to the Delaware Bay at Norbury’s Landing and Miami Beach. Here we soaked in the spectacle of the shorebird feast. Using our binoculars, we could see lines of tiny multicolored Horseshoe Crab eggs that had been deposited on the beach by the surf—easy pickings for hungry endangered Red Knots and Semipalmated Sandpipers in need of doubling their bodyweight in order to have a successful breeding season in the arctic. We also had scope views of an Iceland Gull, rare to Cape May, loafing with other gulls on a sandbar.

Clapper Rail

Clapper Rail— Photo: Michael O’Brien


The woodlands of Belleplain State Forest are magical in spring. The oaks, pines, and cedars are full of birdsong. Our last morning of birding was spent exploring the forest and nearby Jake’s Landing. We enjoyed scope-filling views of singing Yellow-throated Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Chipping Sparrow, but it was a sweet pair of nest-building Acadian Flycatchers who stole our hearts. Or was it the singing Wood Thrush? Tough call. At Jake’s Landing, we had wonderful scope views of Seaside and Saltmarsh sparrows, only to be trumped by one of the most memorable events of the tour, bathing Clapper Rails! And they enjoyed a good, long bath!

Before heading back to Philadelphia, we made one last stop. Undeterred by a passing rain shower, we birded from the vans at Heislerville WMA and were treated to excellent last views of many shorebirds in the impoundments; a nesting colony of Double-crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, and Black-crowned Night-Herons; and a surprise breeding plumaged Red-throated Loon. A most suitable parting shot for our Cape May adventure!