Cape May: A Birding Workshop Sep 18—24, 2016

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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Bird migration is driven by food and weather. Birds move from one abundant food source to another. Weather patterns and events can help or hinder them on their journeys. Our 2016 Cape May fall migration workshop studied birds and other wildlife in different habitats, experienced some interesting weather, and sampled some wonderful food along the way.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel— Photo: Michael O’Brien


The weather prediction for our first day in the field was for cloudy skies with periods of rain. Though Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge may not have been officially included on our itinerary, it was our best option for seeing birds (while staying relatively dry and happy). Our morning in the refuge did not disappoint. We were delighted to find a large covey of Northern Bobwhites and enjoyed scope views of Bobolinks along the entrance road to the refuge. Within the refuge, Raymond and Shearness pools were bustling with activity. Feeding American Avocets swooshed their recurved bills, dowitchers probed like sewing machines, and plovers walked and stopped. Michael, author of The Shorebird Guide, patiently provided concise instruction and narrative in-between raindrops. Other morning highlights included a shrub filled with Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats, a couple of flyover Wilson’s Snipe, and a handsome male Ring-necked Pheasant. After a lunch at Sambo’s, known for their crab cakes, we took the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to Cape May where a Brown Pelican greeted us from the jetty.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat— Photo: Michael O’Brien


Our second day in the field was spent exploring Cape May’s Atlantic coast. We began in the heart of Cape May with a visit to a wonderful flock of several hundred roosting Black Skimmers. This flock is a local favorite of birders and non-birders alike with their clown-like appearance and barking calls, periodically flying and settling back down on the beach. Working our way north, we stopped at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge’s Two Mile Beach Unit, where we were wowed by a swirling flock of Tree Swallows feeding on bayberries, and a Peregrine Falcon on the hunt. An Eastern Towhee, usually shy, allowed us lengthy views. Getting to Stone Harbor, we explored Nummy Island at high tide. With little dry land to be found, shorebirds were flighty, but the number of long-legged herons and egrets was exceptional. Seaside Sparrows peeked out of the marsh grasses just long enough for us to train our scopes on them. After lunch we spent a glorious afternoon on the beach at Stone Harbor Point, a fantastic outdoor classroom for shorebird and gull comparisons. We discussed micro and macro differences between Western and Semipalmated sandpipers; Black-bellied, Semipalmated, and Piping plovers; and Great Black-backed, Herring, and Lesser Black-backed gulls.

Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Plover

Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Plover— Photo: Michael O’Brien


With winds more favorable for passerine migration, we spent the next morning at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. Higbee’s combination of open field, hedgerow, and native dune forest provides both excellent habitat for birds and viewing opportunities for birders. Here we witnessed a taste of songbird morning flight. Pulses of migrant waxwings, warblers, and Bobolinks passed overhead. In the fields, we enjoyed wonderful views of Rose-breasted and Blue grosbeaks, White-eyed Vireo, Eastern Phoebe, and Cedar Waxwings. A couple of non-feathered critters threatened to steal the show, however, when we got close-up and personal views of Rough Green Snake and Southern Gray Treefrog, both of which were indescribable shades of green.

Cape May Bird Observatory, in removing invasive and managing native plants on their property, has created a wonderful habitat for songbirds. We found a nice variety of warblers, including Pine and Black-and-white and a stunning male American Redstart. The most exciting find of the morning though, was an uncommon Philadelphia Vireo. After lunch we enjoyed a leisurely backbay boat tour on the Osprey with Captain Bob Lubberman and Vince Elia. It is amazing how approachable birds can be by boat. From this new perspective in the saltmarsh, we studied a big flock of American Oystercatchers on Cold Spring Jetty, shorebirds in the saltpans, and a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron feasting on Blue Crabs.

Hawkwatching at Cape May Point

Hawkwatching at Cape May Point— Photo: Michael O’Brien


Over the next couple of days our group explored the lower cape and its diverse habitats. We spent one morning strolling at Cox Hall Creek WMA where paved paths, overgrown fairways, mature trees, and ponds of this fallow golf course provide exceptional birding. It was here that we found our largest warbler flock of the trip. We also watched a Bald Eagle chase an Osprey! On Cape Island, we birded Cape May Point State Park and spent time at its famous hawkwatch (celebrating its 40th anniversary this year), seawatched from the Coral and Alexander Avenue dune crossings, and revisited CMBO Northwood and Lily Lake for more warblers. What made our birding on the Point even more special was the honor of sharing it with Michael, Bob, and Dick as they celebrated the 40th anniversary of their first journey to Cape May. Watching hawks fill the skies over Pavilion Circle on our last afternoon must have brought back some nice memories. Here’s to future generations, sharing Cape May and the joy of migration for many years to come!