Cape May Blog – September 20-22, 2014 (click here for trip photos)
After a three and a half hour ride down the Garden State Parkway we arrived, in late morning, at our destination – Cape May Point State Park, the southern tip of New Jersey. We came to Cape May to experience fall migration which can be exceptional if conducive weather patterns (winds out of the northwest) combine with the innate geography of the Cape, which, as a south-facing peninsula serves to funnel or concentrate birds. Birding is a big-time business in Cape May infusing more than $300 million into the local economy on an annual basis according to a local study.
We headed to the hawk watch platform adjacent to the parking lot to assess the magnitude of the hawk flight. There was none! Due to the weather – hot and humid with no wind to speak of – there was little in the way of raptor migration.
So what to do in such a case? How about go looking for a Whiskered Tern, a seabird found across Europe and Asia that happened to show up on the beaches of Cape May!
Well look for it we did, where it had been last reported from the beach a stone’s throw from the hawk watch, but we didn’t find it. We did have great looks at a very cooperative, tail-bobbing Palm Warbler however. We headed back to the hawk watch only to learn – through a friend (Sean Duffy, who I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years), that the bird was just seen. So back to the beach we went. We joined the rather long line of scopes that were set up on a large flock of Laughing Gulls and assorted tern species dominated by Forster’s and Common Terns. Unfortunately the birds were facing into the wind and we were downwind of the birds, so we couldn’t see their fronts – our view was limited to their backs and tails. It was the front of the Whiskered Tern we had to see to confirm a positive identification. With the help of several other observers we were able to find the bird, the identification of which had been confirmed a few minutes earlier when it flew in, due to its highly distinctive dark grey breast. But like all the birds in the flock, and birds in general, they continued to face into the wind – leaving us all in the distressing position of knowing the specific tern we were looking at was a life bird and a rarity but we couldn’t confirm it or count it!
The next morning our first stop was to Higbee Beach, a well-known birding hotspot on the Cape May peninsula (and where about a month later a Vermillion Flycatcher showed up!). As luck would have it the weather was still warm, and also overcast. The site was quiet and we saw primarily Northern Flickers and a few Merlins. On the way to the beach participants in one of the cars were treated to a rooftop of roosting Black Vultures - let’s hope the occupants of house weren’t the superstitious type!
After lunch our destination was the Cape May Bird Observatory office where we all indulged in a bit of retail therapy, purchasing birding books, gear, t-shirts and other bird related materials. Then it was back to the hawk watch where CMBO was conducting a monarch butterfly banding demonstration that was both interesting and informative. The Observatory has had a longstanding program of capturing and tagging monarchs as part of a broader continent-wide effort to better understand basic information regarding monarch migration. It was fascinating to learn about how they capture, tag, measure, and release these intriguing and charismatic insects. We stayed at the hawk watch for a while but once again it wasn’t productive due to the general weather conditions so we decided to walk the boardwalk trail that meanders through the woodland and wetlands north of the hawk watch. The highlight here was a very accommodating muskrat feeding alongside the boardwalk in a stream that ran underneath it.
After an early, scrumptious dinner we headed over to Cape May Meadows, a preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy. The preserve encompasses a low-lying area that has shallow pooled wetlands throughout providing ideal habitat for foraging wading birds and shorebirds and thus can provide productive birding. Productive it was with the highlight being nice views of a mixed flock of Lesser Yellowlegs and Stilt Sandpipers from the observation platform. We also saw Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and immature Little Blue Herons. The weather had begun to break – clearer skies and a breeze had sprung up and we saw some accipiters and American Kestrels moving through. Then it was back to our motel in Wildwood.
The first stop on our last day was the Beanery, a farm property located in the middle of the Cape May peninsula. In a unique relationship between the Cape May Bird Observatory and the property owner, CMBO leases “birding rights” from the proprietor for a fee and birders, in turn, pay a fee to CMBO to bird the property, which we did. The compensation CMBO makes to the farm owner provides an economic return to the owner allowing for the property to remain undeveloped – and thus good bird habitat – rather than being sold for development. An innovative approach to conservation if ever there was one!
Unfortunately, there weren’t many migrants to be had there. We saw a few birds-of-prey, great views of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a few Northern Flickers, and I saw a lone Magnolia Warbler. Even with lean pickings, we left the Beanery happy, glad to have birded this property. Let’s hope that the innovative approach entered into by CMBO and the property owner preserves this acreage for many years to come.
We left Cape May and began our trip back to Long Island. Our last stop of the three-day trip was to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in coastal New Jersey, across from Atlantic City. Formerly known as Brigantine NWR or just “Brig”, this refuge encompasses more than 47,000 acres of coastal wetlands and upland forest, and is a great place to see a wide variety of bird species. It did not disappoint!
We began our visit with a walk on the new, elevated boardwalk just beyond the Purple Martin nesting site. Walking to the end of the boardwalk to the platform overlooking the muddy tidal creek we enjoyed good views of hundreds of mud fiddler crabs foraging in the mud, the males with their one huge claw. Several Semipalmated Sandpipers fed in the creek and we had killer views of a lone member of the species in the creek bed in front of the platform. The close view made for a great teaching moment to run through the characteristics that separate this “peep” sandpiper from the others. Suddenly, we saw movement in the creek and a Clapper Rail emerged from the cordgrass and walked across the creek a mere thirty feet from the group – one of the best views I’ve ever had of the species. Scanning down the creek the other way we could make out another rail-like bird along the edge. It moved out just a tiny bit to reveal its identity – an immature Green Heron, which promptly lifted off and flew away from us toward the refuge’s main impoundment.
We headed back toward the cars, piled in, and began a slow, eight-mile ride around the impoundment. Two constants followed us during the ride around – migrating monarch butterflies and egrets abounded everywhere! While this autumn has been a disappointing one for monarch migration, with numbers of migrating butterflies on the low side, we saw a regular stream of monarchs passing over, taking time to nectar up on the seaside goldenrod and other wildflowers and shrubs in bloom. As for the egrets, they were coalesced in certain areas within the large impoundment, presumably where their prey, small baitfish, were concentrated.
As we neared the two-story observation tower I noticed two small birds fly in to a stand of phragmites, perching in the top plumes that were waving pretty wildly in the strong breeze. Their efforts to maintain balance were comical and I wondered why they didn’t just fly to a sturdy perch that wouldn’t be so buffeted by the wind. But they rode out the gust and as I focused on them in order to identify them I became momentarily confused…. what were they? First I thought they might be sparrows – perhaps one of the sharp-tailed sparrows since the two birds had a rich warmth to their plumage? No, it didn’t match up. They looked sparrow-like but didn’t quite fit as sparrows. Suddenly it dawned on me we were looking at a pair of basic plumage Bobolinks, a plumage I’ve never seen in person but looked at many times in various field guides. Even if I didn’t get a new life bird in the form of the Whiskered Tern it was nice to get a life plumaged bird on the trip in the form of a basic-plumaged Bobolink!
We continued along the dirt road on the top of the dike that created the impoundment. Along the way we saw many of the expected birds – Double-crested Cormorants, several tern species, many Laughing Gulls, and oodles of egrets. Not many shorebirds though, unfortunately, due to the inexplicably high water levels in the impoundment. Why the refuge doesn’t draw down the water to make more habitat conducive for shorebirds during fall migration is a mystery. We made the ninety-degree turn and were now headed north along the eastern edge of the impoundment. Many more egrets of both common species were fishing along the tidal creek. A Great Blue Heron, an immature bird, came into view. Hunting from the bank on the far side of the creek we had clear views as it hunted for fish. The behavior it then displayed is something I’ve never seen in nearly half-a-century of birding and is, at first blush, inexplicable from an individual survival perspective. On five occasions in the span of several minutes the heron speared what appeared to be snappers (juvenile bluefish), but rather than swallowing the fish, it dropped them onto the mud and left them there, making no effort to retrieve any of them (the hovering Laughing Gulls who quickly picked up on this behavior polished off the fish). What could explain this? It wasn’t hungry but the instinct to hunt trumped its lack of hunger? Or maybe it was practicing its fishing technique at the expense of the fish? Whatever the reason, it will, for all-time, be only known to the heron.
We continued on, making another ninety-degree turn on the embankment road. After several minutes of scanning we saw a mixed flock of about fifty gulls and terns sitting on a sand bar. A closer look revealed immature and adult Laughing Gulls, Common Terns, Forster’s Terns, both in basic plumage, and two Caspian Terns that were a life bird for several participants. We enjoyed nice views through the scope of these gull-sized terns. Encountering this species, not all that commonly seen here, was a nice way to conclude the trip. We headed through the woodland, back to Route 9 and then got on the Garden State Parkway northbound to head back to Long Island.