When first planning my East Coast Marathon, there were several places that were absolute musts and the rest of the trip would be built around visits to them. The must bird places were Cape May in New Jersey, Magee Marsh in Ohio, Kirtland’s Warbler Country in Michigan and Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware. As I added details some more places became essentials – Heinz NWR at Tinicum outside of Philadelphia and Prospect Park and Jamaica Bay in New York. I had never been to any of them and visiting them was in keeping with one of the major objectives of my 50/50/50 Adventure – having my passion for birding take me to places of special interest – scenic, historical or birding.
Of all these places, Cape May, N.J. turned out to be the one that least matched my uninformed conception. At the southeastern tip of New Jersey, Cape May does include a National Wildlife Refuge and a Wildlife Management area, but some of the best birding is in the town itself – a mostly uncommercialized resort on the coast with beaches, lovely homes, and lots of great habitat. It is probably best known for spectacular migration in the Fall but there is great birding in the Spring as well. A place that was more like my conception of such places and which had not been on my radar at all in the trip planning stage was Brigantine NWR about 50 miles north of Cape May and along my way from Brooklyn where I had been birding and visiting my son the previous two days.
I planned for my 50 species day to be at Cape May and had arranged to spend the morning of May 8th with Tom Reed who is a scientist/naturalist/guide out of the Cape May Bird Observatory and then do more birding on my own later in the day. As was often the case on this trip I had underestimated the birdiness of the areas I was visiting and overly cautious in projecting my ability to find the magical species in a day. Some of this was due to concerns about weather, but I led a charmed life for most of the trip and had few weather challenges.
My first actual birding in New Jersey was as I was coming in to Atlantic City. I had been there once before – probably at least 60 years ago as a kid on a brief, as in one day, vacation with my family. I remembered it as “schlocky” – also defined as “exciting” to a kid with a carnival like boardwalk. No longer so – or at least not visibly so as I drove by mega hotels and casinos. Or maybe schlocky in a different way. In any event, by the time I finished the drive and headed north to Brigantine, I had 19 species including a couple hundred Brant in the ocean and even more Semipalmated Plovers on the beach.
I continued on to the Brigantine Unit of the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR arriving before 9:00 a.m. Any concerns about a 50 species day were soon dispelled. It was a beautiful day and birds were abundant highlighted by 13 shorebird species. Most numerous beyond a large number of undifferentiated peeps were 150 Dunlin, 78 Whimbrels, 38 Willets, and 35 Semipalmated Plovers. There were smaller numbers of both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Black Bellied Plovers, Short Billed Dowitchers, White Rumped Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers and American Oystercatchers.
Lots of gulls and terns as well with a large flock of Black Skimmers, numerous Forster’s Terns, a couple of Common Terns and 4 Gull Billed Terns which I had not expected. The gulls were Bonaparte’s, Herring, Laughing and Great Black Backed.
Gull Billed Terns
Great Black Backed Gull
Altogether the “water” birds accounted for 29 species. Thirty-three “non-water birds” brought the count to 62 species – not bad for a place I had not originally considered. So I easily had my 50+ species after just over 3 hours of birding and it was just past noon.
Common Yellowthroat (1 of only 4 Warbler Species)
After lunch on the way to Cape May and my hotel, I saw a couple of Glossy Ibis in a field but I couldn’t stop for a better view or a try for a photo. I had been going strong for more than a week and was tired. I had over 70 species for the day so since my room was ready, I checked in early and got a little sleep. A seafood dinner and then since it was still light, I made a quick trip to the Cape May Point State Park – where I would be meeting Tom Reed the next morning. I added a few species and called it a day – an excellent one with 74 species and some nice photos.
In the 15 minutes driving from my hotel to meet Tom Reed, I picked up 11 species and in just 30 minutes at Cape May Point State Park with Tom we had 18 including 5 new ones for New Jersey: Northern Gannet, American Bittern, Merlin, Least Tern, and Common Loon. I also got a lovely photo of a very purple Purple Martin.
It was clear that Tom knew every nook and cranny at Cape May. He was a wealth of information about migration, bird counts, songs and everything else avian. He next took me to Higbee Wildlife Management Area near Cape May Point. There we added several new passerine species including Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Eastern Kingbird, White Eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting among others.
White Eyed Vireo
Great Crested Flycatcher
There were only two warbler species, but one was a lovely Black Throated Blue that flew off just as I got it in focus – so sadly no photo of this very lovely bird. Our next stop at Cape Island was also excellent – this time with 5 warbler species including one that was essential for this trip – a Cape May Warbler at Cape May.
Cape May Warbler
Our penultimate stop was at another Cape May Hotspot – “The Beanery/Rea Farm”. Tom had planned the morning to sample different habitats and this one was different from the others and gave us a few new species including Prothonotary, Black and White and Northern Parula Warblers. They brought our species total to over 50 for the morning and our warbler count to 9 species. Fewer than I expected but consistent with Tom’s assessment that it had not been a good few days of migration. We made a last stop at the Cape May Hawkwatch Station. Not much going on there but definitely the place to be in Autumn for the hawk migration. I wish I had been able to time my visit here to take in that spectacle as the stories are astounding. In many respects my 50/50/50 trips are exploratory runs to identify places I would like to return. There are many and this is definitely one.
I thanked Tom and headed off for some more birding on my own. I added some new birds for the day but only two new ones for New Jersey – Gadwall and American Wigeon. I also saw numerous Least Terns which are always special. Look closely and you will see why I chose this photo out of the many of this species.
I ended this day with 68 species and had over 100 for the two days of birding. I am sure I could have added at least a dozen more if I had continued to bird. The plan had been to bird all day this day, bird less the day before and bird hard the next morning before taking the ferry to Delaware. If there had been more migrants, I probably would have continued on that course. But after two days of good birding I was satisfied and planned to try for an earlier ferry the next morning. For the rest of the afternoon, I just drove around the town soaking in the architecture and flavor of Cape May – a place I think girlfriend Cindy would very much enjoy and then celebrated another state with 50 species – the 29th – with a scallops roll dinner – a favorite.
Cape May Scenes
Scallop Roll – Yummy
I had no trouble getting on the earlier ferry the next morning – but that begins another story…