Cape May and Brigantine – New Jersey Hotspots

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.

NJ

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.

Atlantic City

Atlantic Cit

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.

Dunlin

Dunlin

Whimbrel

Whimbrel1

Willet

Willet

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

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.

Black Skimmers

Black Skimmers

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern

Gull Billed Terns

Gull Billed Terns1

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull1

Great Black Backed Gull

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.

Osprey

Osprey1

Fish Crow

Fish Crow

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow2

Common Yellowthroat (1 of only 4 Warbler Species)

Common Yellowthroat

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.

Tom Reed

Tom Reed

Northern Gannet

Northern Gannet Adult1

Purple Martin

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

White Eyed Vireo

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher1

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting Singing

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

Cape May Warbler3

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler1

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.

Least Tern

Least Tern Pooping

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

Cape May

Cape May Homes

Scallop Roll – Yummy

scallop-roll.jpg

I had no trouble getting on the earlier ferry the next morning – but that begins another story…

 

How Not to Gamble in Las Vegas…

What was a birder doing in Las Vegas – Sin City – the Gambling Capital of the U.S.?  At least in reference to me on May 27, 2019, the answer was easy – looking for 50 species in a day in a State for the 38th time.

Sin City

My original thinking had been to include Northeast Nevada in an upcoming Mountain States foray probably squeezed in between Idaho and Utah.   I would try for the Himalayan Snowcock and hopefully be able to either find another 49 species somehow that day or add another day in a more bird rich location.  The details were not working out though.  The Snowcock was more readily found later in June or even later in the summer or the fall.  And making the attempt would add a number of days to a schedule already getting longer because of miles to travel and non-birding plans along the way.  And there was no guarantee of finding the Snowcock, so I would be gambling in Nevada.

With the help of Alaska Airlines, I came up with another plan – return to Seattle from Boston via Las Vegas.  No Snowcock, but I have mixed feelings about that species anyhow.  So Plan B would remove one gamble.  Was it still a gamble for 50 species?  I would only have one day as I would be arriving very late the night before the counting day and really did not want to extend the visit for a second day beyond that.  Thanks to Las Vegas Audubon, I removed that gamble as well.  Researching through their website I had come up with names of some local birders who might be able to help me.  One name was Douglas Chang.  Easy contact. Receptive.  Definitely capable.  Available.  Done.  I had a birding companion for my trip.  Let’s do it.

Based on my early research and then discussions with Doug, the area west and northwest of Vegas seemed like our target area.  I had been using Hotels.com to find lodging and tried for a place in the area.  No familiar names but I came up with Arizona’s Charlies Hotel and Casino on Decatur street.  What the heck.  I try to get some local color on my trips.  The reviews were good.  The rooms looked ok online.  The price was right and so was the location.  Had I paid more attention I might have realized that the place should be named Arizona Charlies Hotel and CASINO!!  You go through the casino to get to the registration desk (inhaling smoke along the way) and then through more of the casino to get to the single small elevator that takes you to the 6 floors of rooms.  And even at midnight which is about when I arrived the parking lot was full and the casino floor was busy – automatons at the machines.  Not a pretty sight – to me.

Arizona Charlies Hotel and CASINO!!

Arizona Charlies

Smoke aside it was an ok place.  The room was large, basic and quiet.  Actually I wondered if the gamblers who stayed overnight did most of their staying downstairs at the machines.  The place seemed still half full when I left for my birding early the next morning.  That was gambling that was easy to resist – for me – not them.  Of course maybe it wasn’t really morning.  There was no light coming in to the casino, so you couldn’t tell that way.  And my body certainly had no clue.  It was midnight local time when I got to my room which meant it was 3:00 a.m. for my body – still on East Coast time.  Doug was going to pick me up at 6:30 a.m.  No free breakfast at this place, so it would be fast food down the street.  I set my alarm for 5:15 a.m. local time and woke up without it at 4:00 – as I said my body had no clue what time it was.  I gave up trying to sleep, got clean, went out for a McSomething breakfast and was waiting for Doug in front of the Casino/Hotel at 6:30 a.m.  My first bird for the trip was a Rock Pigeon as I waited.

Doug was accompanied by birding friend Paul Rodriquez.  Both were eager to go and had a plan.  It was the beginning of a really fun and successful day.  We started at a large park on Tule Springs Road.  The mix of ponds, brush, trees and scrub provided a good mixed habitat with lots of birds.  After all of the forest birding in the East it was nice to be dealing with less and lower vegetation.  We spent more than two hours and walked almost 3 miles.  The weather could not have been better – cool and clear.  The mixed habitat meant a good mix of birds, too.  Around and in the ponds we had ducks, grebes and herons and a Neotropic Cormorant.

Green Heron

Green Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe

Neotropic Cormorant

neotropic-cormorant1.jpg

Great Tailed Grackles were plentiful giving me the Grackle Trifecta after my Boat Tailed Grackles and Common Grackles in the East.

Great Tailed Grackle

Great Tailed Grackle

In the shrubby areas we had several Verdin , Phainopepla, Abert’s Towhee, Lesser Goldfinch, and my favorite – the relatively drab Lucy’s Warbler.  Photos of the latter even captured the red feathers on the top of the head.

Verdin

Verdin

Abert’s Towhee

Abert's Towhee

Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch

Lucy’s Warbler

Lucy's Warbler2

Lucy's Warbler

Doug knew of a Burrowing Owl’s nest in the park.  It was not the easiest bird to see even though it was out of its burrow.  It was just well camouflaged in the terrain.   Amazingly it was only the second owl (species and individual) that I had seen in my month of birding.

There were also several flycatchers at the park – Olive Sided, Hammond’s, Willow plus Western Wood Pewees.

Olive Sided Flycatcher

Olive Sided Flycatcher

Western Wood Pewee

Western Wood Pewee

We left the park with 40 species seen and headed up into the mountains with our first stop at the Corn Creek Field Station in the Desert NWR.  There we had some of the same scrub birds we had before but added Blue and Black Headed Grosbeaks, Ash Throated Flycatcher, Blue Gray and Black Tailed Gnatcatchers, Cedar Waxwing, Black Chinned Hummingbird, Western Tanager, Bewick’s Wren and some warblers – 11 new species at all – so 50 species in a day was accomplished already.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Ash Throated Flycatcher

Ash Throated Flycatcher1

Black Chinned Hummingbird

Black Chinned Hummingbird2

Black Headed Grosbeak

Black Headed Grosbeak at Feeder

Doug and Paul were both excellent at finding the birds and knowing the area.  They were also great guys and we had far ranging discussion about their paths to Vegas, birding in the area, Paul’s work on web design and Doug career at Proctor and Gamble before he retired and moved west.  They asked if I was interested in a Black Chinned Sparrow…definitely.  We found one quickly at a very specific location – Step Ladder Trail – the kind of place I never would have found on my own.  We also had a Woodhouse’s Scrubjay.

Black Chinned Sparrow

Black Chinned Sparrow

Woodhouse’s Scrubjay

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay

We continued up the road towards Charleston Mountain – a very beautiful trip.  There was no snow now but there had been quite a bit in the winter when even 4 Wheel Drive is insufficient and chains are required.  At some feeders we saw some Broad Tailed Hummingbirds and a Hooded Oriole.  As had been the case with many birds seen that day they were new for the day, my month long adventure and for the year.

Broad Tailed Hummingbird

Broad Tailed Hummingbird at Feeder

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole

Even though it was Memorial Day the traffic wasn’t bad and despite the appeal of being in the mountains, it was not crowded.  Thoroughly enjoyable – and although it was not quite noon, we had 60 species for the day.  We had one more stop to make – a place Paul knew was good for Gray Vireo.  We had at lest two respond to our playback but could not draw them in for a look or photo.  It had been a great day.  I had hoped for a Roadrunner but they seem to be somewhat of a nemesis bird for me.  Paul and Doug were surprised we had not seen a Bell’s Sparrow and a couple of other regular birds, but we all know that is the nature of birding.  Demonstrating how different this birding habitat was, more than 25% of the species seen were new for my year despite many days of birding.  Last year with much birding in Arizona and Southern California, none would have been new.

There would be one more treat.  As I drove in to my hotel the night before I had noticed an odd little building with an even odder sign.  It was “Pop’s Philly Steaks” – open 24 hours.  I guess that was further proof that Las Vegas is a 24 hour city and those all night gamblers need sustenance.  This is where they suggested we go for lunch.  It was a great choice – as long as calories don’t matter.  It may have seemed out of place, but that was my sense of ll of Las Vegas – especially after my trip later to the Miracle Mile and the mega-casinos “downtown”.

Pop’s Philly Steaks with Doug Chang and Paul Rodriquez

Philly Cheesesteak

 

The lunch was the close to another fun day and I could celebrate having 50 species now in 38 states.  Doug and Paul had made it efficient, fun and memorable.  Here were regular guys who shared my love for birds and birding.  They had given up a holiday day to take a complete stranger around their town.  I would do this for them or any other visiting birder on a mission.  It is part of being in the vast community of birders.  Thank you Doug.  Thank you Paul.  I have invited you to Washington.  I hope you visit some day.

I hope I can say this the right way.  Doug is of Asian ancestry and Paul has a Hispanic background.  My forebears were Eastern European Jews.  None of that made any difference on this day of birding; but in our in our everyday world, too often it does  – how nonsensical that is.  Around the world there are birders everywhere of every race, color, belief, background, nationality, age, sex and orientation.  We share a love of birds. birding and usually of each other.  While there are definitely other Pauls and Dougs and Blairs out there, if I reflect on birding in my home state of Washington and my experiences during this past month on the road, most of the birders I have seen have been white and older.  Younger faces here and there and skins of different colors here and there as well.  Hopefully there will be more.  I have often said that the birds could care less about such things about the people that watch them.  How nice if it worked that way with people as well.