Spring in Cape May: A Relaxed & Easy Tour May 15—20, 2016

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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Spring in Cape May is a season of diversity. Birdsong fills the air from forest to field to marsh, as local breeders establish their territories. Migrants continually pass, many staging to replenish fat reserves for their long journeys, en route to summer homes. During VENT’s 2016 Spring in Cape May Relaxed & Easy tour, we enjoyed a fine sampling of bird sightings—and some wonderful sounds along the way!

Semipalmated sandpipers and plovers

Semipalmated sandpipers and plovers— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

Our birding itineraries in Cape May are always dictated by weather and tides. On our first morning, the timing was just right for a high-tide visit to Heislerville Wildlife Management Area. The impoundments at Heislerville fill up with shorebirds when surrounding mudflats are covered by high tide, so on our visit there we enjoyed thousands of shorebirds packed shoulder to shoulder, providing excellent opportunities for close study. The majority of birds were Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, with smaller numbers of numerous other species. Michael O’Brien, author of The Shorebird Guide and guest VENT leader, enlightened us with some useful identification tips on dowitchers, peeps, and yellowlegs, while picking a lone female Wilson’s Phalarope out of the flock. Changing habitats, a short visit to Belleplain State Forest produced nice views of Summer Tanager, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, and other local breeding songbirds. After lunch, with light westerly winds blowing, the group headed to Cape Island in search of diurnal migrants. Hawkwatching at the Rea Farm produced Bald Eagle and Cooper’s Hawk, and at Cape May Point State Park we worked on swallow identification in the midst of a bustling Purple Martin colony.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

Favorable migration conditions continued through the night, so we began the next morning at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area to search for newly arrived songbirds (which migrate at night). The Higbee fields were alive with activity, and we had great looks at Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Field Sparrow, Orchard Oriole, and numerous Eastern Kingbirds. At Cape May Point, cedar trees around Lily Lake were full of migrant warblers, including Bay-breasted, Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, Blackpoll, Black-and-white, Yellow-rumped, and American Redstart. After a very productive morning, we enjoyed a more leisurely afternoon with a back-bay boat cruise on The Osprey with Captain Bob Lubberman and naturalist Barb Bassett. The saltmarsh was bustling with activity! A pair of Clapper Rails bathed in a creek, two different adult Common Loons fished in the channel, nesting Ospreys occupied every suitable structure, and there were shorebirds, gulls, and terns everywhere.

The following morning, we returned to Belleplain State Forest, with our sights set back on songbirds. The birding along Pine Swamp Road was fantastic. We watched Yellow-throated, Blackpoll, and Pine warblers, and a Northern Parula at length, but it was the scope-filling view of a singing male Worm-eating Warbler that really stole the show! The second most memorable scope view of the morning was of a demure little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher sitting on her nest, intricately woven with lichens and spiderwebs. The balance of the day was spent looking at the bay and ocean. From Pierce’s Point on the Delaware Bay, we had our first views of shorebirds feeding on Horseshoe Crab eggs. Back to “The Point,” we settled in for some afternoon seawatching on Coral Avenue dune crossing platform. We picked out a few more shorebirds and terns, but were surprised when the highlight of the afternoon appeared: an exuberant male Eastern Towhee displaying to its mate, tail splayed and body quivering. Another afternoon bonus was a male Blackpoll Warbler in the low shrubs at Cape May Point State Park—what a treat it was to see this usually “treetop” warbler at eye level!

Least Tern

Least Tern— Photo: Michael O’Brien

 

The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (aka “The Meadows”) is, throughout the year, one of Cape May’s finest birding spots. It did not disappoint. Our morning outing there was exceptional. The Meadow’s freshwater pools were filled with ducks, shorebirds, and bathing terns. Also, a strong breeze forced swallows and swifts to feed low to the water, in the leeward side of the tower and adjacent bushes, allowing much closer views than usual. We stood mesmerized as these masters of the air swooped and wheeled after prey right in front of us. It was fun picking out the smaller, trimmer, faster Bank Swallows, having learned how to recognize them based on size, structure, and behavior. We continued to apply that new knowledge with the terns and shorebirds as well. A very satisfying morning in the field!

 
Red Knots

Red Knots— Photo: Michael O’Brien

After checking out of the hotel and finding an out-of-place Northern Bobwhite in the neighborhood, we made our second visit to the Delaware Bayshore, which was timed with the outgoing tide, best for seeing Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderling, and Semipalmated Sandpipers partaking in the feeding frenzy. We watched in awe as large flocks wheeled around and settled in areas where there was an abundance of Horseshoe Crab eggs. It was only a few years ago that this ancient species was on the brink of extirpation, but thanks to local and national conservation efforts restricting the harvest of adult crabs, numbers are starting to increase. We celebrated the occasion with a fine meal for ourselves at Green Cuisine in Stone Harbor. Heading north to Avalon, we stopped at 8th Street Jetty (known best as the site of Cape May’s fall Seawatch). Wintering Purple Sandpipers have expanded their range south to take advantage of the excellent habitat that rock jetties provide, and these high-arctic nesters typically linger into mid-May. We were treated to fine scope views of eight individuals. 

The last stop of our tour, at the Ocean City Welcome Center, was one of the most popular. The small marsh and shrub island where the welcome center is located is also home to an active night-heron colony. Our elevated perspective gave us wonderful scope views of many Black and Yellow-crowned night-herons sitting on their nests, while the sounds of Willets, Clapper Rails, and Boat-tailed Grackles filled the marsh. There was no better way to bid farewell to our magical time in Cape May!