Cape May: A Birding Workshop Sep 13—19, 2015

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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Southbound bird migration is a protracted affair. It starts in mid-summer with adult shorebirds leaving their arctic breeding grounds and continues well into December with seabirds and waterfowl seeking winter food supplies. The peak of bird diversity is generally somewhere in the middle, when Neotropical and short-distance migrants overlap. Each year is a little different due to breeding success and weather. Our 2015 fall birding workshop took place a week earlier than usual due to travel restrictions caused by Philadelphia’s Papal visit. As luck would have it, the weather conditions during the new tour dates were perfect for witnessing migration in Cape May!

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk— Photo: Michael O’Brien

With northwest winds blowing, we began our first day in the field with a quick exit from Philadelphia, reaching Cape May in a flurry of activity. From the Coral Avenue dune crossing at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, we watched raptors and songbirds as they chose whether or not to make the Delaware Bay crossing. Vulnerable American Kestrels turned the corner and headed north, seeking a safer route. A river of swallows followed the same path, with songbirds and accipiters in the mix. More powerful Ospreys, Northern Harriers, and Bald Eagles stuck to their flight paths directly across the bay, while Merlins did whatever they pleased! Loafing gulls and terns on the beach gave us the perfect opportunity to talk about keys to their identification. It was Cape May birding at its finest in an amazing outdoor classroom.

Good birding weather continued to dictate our time in the field throughout the week. Looking to the sky, we visited the Hawkwatch platform in the midst of a big Bald Eagle flight. Fellow VENT leader, Pete Dunne (who was the original hawk counter in 1976), shared his knowledge and wit. He never misses a chance to teach eager hawkwatchers the finer points of hawk identification. An early morning at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area enabled us to witness the spectacle of a classic Cape May morning flight. We watched in awe as hundreds of warblers, vireos, Cedar Waxwings, Northern Flickers, Scarlet Tanagers, and Baltimore Orioles flew north, seeking cover and foraging habitat for the day after their night’s migration. Many paused long enough for good views before moving on.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Woodland and brushy areas produced some excellent passerine birding. Higbee Beach WMA highlights were many: from the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on our first afternoon visit to the handsome Brown Thrasher in full view in the midst of morning flight, to the variety and sheer numbers of warblers. Cape May Point held many little treasures. The pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers in Bill and Edie Schuhl’s garden made us smile, as did the Cedar Waxwing feeding its fledgling and the Cape May Warbler at Lily Lake. The Point is also my favorite place to tag Monarchs. Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area was full of surprises: an Eastern Screech-Owl calling during the daytime, a late singing Pine Warbler, and an early migrant Ruby-crowned Kinglet. It was also where we found our closest Bald Eagle of the week perched in a big old tree.

What Cape May lacks in elevation, it makes up for in its variety of wetlands. Our afternoon boat trip on the Osprey with Captain Bob and Vince took us through Cape May Harbor into backbays filled with birdlife. Here we had some of our best opportunities to get close to and study shorebirds, including a large flock of American Oystercatchers and Black-bellied Plovers (with a single Whimbrel). Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge’s wildlife drive provided diversity to the tour. In its expansive tidal marsh and brackish pools we saw hundreds of ducks, egrets, and shorebirds. Michael patiently described the differences between the many sandpipers, plovers, and dowitchers. Short-billed and Long-billed dowitchers always present a special challenge. A posing juvenile Marsh Wren and scope views of Savannah and Seaside sparrows stole the show. Or was it the skimmer skimming?

Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls

Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls— Photo: Michael O’Brien

The beach, for which the “Jersey Shore” is best known, may be the place where birders spend the least amount of time. But no fall trip to Cape May is complete without a visit to its flock of roosting Black Skimmers. We had excellent views of them on a beautiful morning after a hardy breakfast at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House at the Cape May beachfront. In contrast, we visited Stone Harbor’s beach later in the day to study shorebirds amongst sunbathers who were catching one of the last good beach days of the season. We can only hope that a few were curious enough about what they saw us doing to give birding a try.

Our time in Cape May ended as it began, enjoying the view from Coral Avenue dune. This time we took the opportunity to exercise our newly learned identification skills on raptors and seabirds as dolphins cruised by the jetty—so close that we could hear them breathe each time they surfaced!