Bill's Birds: Cape May - A Birder's Paradise!
All photos by Bill Lynch
By Bill Lynch
In this second story by New Jersey birder and Rutgers ecologist Bill Lynch, he explores the birding bounties of Cape May, truly the Garden State's own "Mecca of Birding."
If you travel south on the Garden State Parkway, you will eventually reach the southernmost point in New Jersey: Cape May. Cape May is not only known in NJ or in America, but around the globe as one of the most spectacular birding sites in the world. It is generally believed that New Jersey’s geographic position and shape is responsible for Cape May’s rich birdlife. Birds migrating south for the winter follow the coast (a “leading line”) until they’re funneled to Cape May Point and forced to either rest for the night or cross the water between us and Delaware. In spring, nocturnal migrants may be surprised at dawn when they find themselves flying over the bay or out over the Atlantic. A narrow stretch of land in a vast expanse of water draws them in as a potentially life-saving refuge.
Similar locations along the Atlantic coast don’t mirror the bird numbers Cape May seems to draw in, so the reason can’t be solely related to geography and structure. Certainly weather and available habitat are also factors, but there’s still gaping holes in the explanations comparing Cape May to other similar peninsulas.
Regardless of the reasons, Cape May is a birder’s paradise. In the fall, thousands upon thousands of migrating raptors pour overhead. Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, Northern Goshawks, and even Golden Eagles can be seen from the now world-famous hawk-watch platform. Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain, perhaps the most well known hawk-watching site in the world, sees far fewer raptors than the Cape May watchers observe.
Thanks to its shape, the Cape May peninsula overflows with birds every autumn. If you want sheer numbers, book a room for mid-October, and don’t forget your binoculars.
Due to the unfortunate need to work most of the year, I’ve been forced to choose between spring and fall for my Cape May birding trips. So far, I’ve chosen spring four years in a row.
The birds are colorful and in bright, vibrant breeding plumages. Males pose confidently at the ends of branches and sing their little hearts out in the hopes of attracting a mate. The number of interesting behaviors among hundreds of species is seemingly infinite.
A pair of male Orchard Orioles battling for territory
Barn Swallows collect bits of vegetation, dip them in mud, and cement them to their nests.
Male Forster’s Terns hunt for small fish to bring to the female they’re courting. As the female calls cacophonously, the male hovers above her and places the fish in her beak. If he does this often enough, and if the fish are tasty enough, he just might get lucky.
As he sings and whistles, the male Yellow-Breasted Chat flies back-and-forth between the tops of trees, hovering for a moment to let out a deep croak.
Yellow-Breasted Chat flying between trees at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area
Thirty-six species of warblers. Twenty-seven raptors, including eight different species of owl. Sparrows, tanager, grosbeaks, cuckoos, flycatchers, huge numbers of shorebirds and gulls…the list could go on and on. Cape May also happens to be (thanks again to its shape and location) one of the best places on the eastern seaboard to see rarities. That includes birds from across the Atlantic Ocean as well as birds that usually stay well below the Mason-Dixon line, residents of places like Florida and the Caribbean.
The protected beaches of Cape May are also one of the last places in NJ to see the endangered Piping Plover and Least Tern, as well the American Oystercatcher, a species of concern in the state.
As barrier islands and shorefront property up and down the east coast are piled up with condos and strip malls, these birds (and plenty of other plant and wildlife) lose valuable habitat. The plight of the Red Knot (another Cape May highlight) has been well documented, and many birds are sadly following in its footsteps.
Regardless of the season, you can bet there’s something wonderful happening bird-wise in Cape May. Even in winter, colorful ducks and rarely seen pelagic birds grace the peninsula with their presence. Snowy Owls even make a rare appearance.
Spring and fall migration are really the time to hit Cape May, though. So whether you’re a curious novice or a seasoned veteran visiting the Garden State for the first time, make sure to put Cape May on your list of “must visit” places. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll see you there!
For other Cape May birding stories follow these links:
- WNJ Exclusive: Interview with David Sibley as 63rd annual Cape May Autumn Weekend gets underway
- Cape May Times: Ivory Gull - the Bird of the Decade
- Atlantic City Press: Birders promote Cape May as "planet's greatest ecotourism destination"
This is the second installment of a new column on WildNewJersey.tv by birding expert Bill Lynch. Bill runs the blog New Jersey Outdoors New Jersey Outdoors and has some great wildlife pictures on Flickr.