Spectacular Spring Migration Birding in Cape May

As daylight began to creep across the coast of Cape May, the raucous cackling calls of the Laughing Gulls outside my room let me know that I was truly on the eastern shore and about to embark on a three-day whirlwind spring migration birding adventure.

Shortly after six, as I began my trek to the Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) Research and Education Center, rain was still falling lightly, but it didn’t deter the birds. As I drove, Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds searched for breakfast. An occasional Northern Cardinal would pop out next to the highway.

Pete Dunne, leader of the Center’s Shorebirds and Southern Breeders Workshop, greeted each of us and introduced Tom Reed, his assistant from New Jersey Audubon, who would be accompanying our group of five.

After checking out the birds around the Center, we caravanned to the Belleplain State Park Headquarters. As I tried to maintain the posted speed limit, other vehicles in a hurry to get to work sped around me, and soon I lost sight of the other cars. As has happened in the past, my sense of direction gets turned around on the east coast, and by time I arrived, the rest of the group had been birding behind the Visitor Center for fifteen minutes. As Pete greeted me, he began pointing out birds, “Yellow-billed Cuckcoo, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Red-eyed Vireo.”

We wandered behind the Visitor Center and joined the rest of the group for about five more minutes, and then we caravanned down the road to a different type of habitat.

“Be sure and not brush up against the bushes,” Pete cautioned. “This is tick country.”

“Great-crested Flycatcher,” Pete pointed out when we heard a loud wheep call. Then the large myarchus flycatcher came into view.

It was followed by the emphatic whistle of an Acadian Flycatcher that stayed nestled in the bushes bordering a small stream.

“How high should we look?” I inquired.

“It stays at mid-level,” Pete answered as the empidonax flycatcher sang again, but remained elusive.

I really wanted to be able to see this eastern flycatcher, but it stayed hidden in the forest.

A Worm-eating Warbler sang from the woods, then moved into view across the road. I was able to follow its movement until I saw its black-striped head. I had only seen one once before when it showed up in the fall ten years ago at the Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque.

Common Yellowthroat and Gray Catbird sang from the understory.

When we returned to the Visitor Center, Pete pointed out a pair of Carolina Chickadees that appeared to be going in and out of a nest hole.

After one more stop, we headed to Heislerville Wildlife Management Area along Delaware Bay.  We parked alongside a large inlet where shorebirds were foraging actively in the mudflat. A cacophony of chattering and whistling filled the sodden air.

Chunky Semi-palmated Plovers were scattered near the shoreline.

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Semi-palmated Plover

“Notice how they run, then stop, scan and then peck at their prey,” Pete explained the feeding behavior of plovers.

“Just like robins do,” I clarified for one of the group who was an inexperienced birder.

Next to the plovers was a group of Semi-palmated Sandpipers. They only rarely migrate through New Mexico – and usually in the fall when they are much more difficult to distinguish from Western Sandpipers. I was grateful for the opportunity to study them up close and notice their much shorter bill than the Western.

“White-rumped Sandpiper,” Pete called. “Tom quickly set up the scope so we could all get a good look – a life bird for me. Through the scope I was able to see the long wings and fine streaking on the flanks that distinguished it from a nearby Semi-palmated.

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White-rumped (l) and Semi-palmated (r) Sandpipers

Foraging alone, a Black-bellied Plover seemed regal with its erect posture and striking black throat and belly.

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Black-bellied Plover

What a difference three months make from non-breeding plumage I observed in Oakland, CA in February.

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Resting on the mudflat were a large group of various shorebirds, including Short-billed Dowitchers and Dunlin.

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As we drove out, we noticed a large rookery.

Tom, who lives nearby, told us that it used to be a heron rookery, but the dead trees had now been taken over by Double Crested Cormorants.

“There’s one more place we should go before we break for lunch,” Pete said as we headed for a nearby lighthouse within the Heislerville WMA.

I first noticed a row of pilings with a variety of gulls perched on each one, along with a group of Ruddy Turnstones. Most of the times I have seen Ruddy Turnstones they have been in non-breeding plumage, and I had forgotten how striking they are in breeding plumage.

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Black-backed Gull, Laughing Gull, Ruddy Turnstones

At the base of the pilings was a cluster of Ruddy Turnstones and Red Knots.

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Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones

It was the Red Knots that was my motivation for flying all the way from New Mexico to enjoy spring migration in late May in New Jersey. They seemed content to rest in the shelter of a rock – until an enthusiastic gull skimmed overhead too close and sent them swirling into the air before landing again.

“Come over here,” Pete beckoned, “so you can see the Horseshoe Crabs.  Big hard-shelled lumps were piled along the shore. A few had been turned over by the surf and their legs waved frantically.

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Horseshoe Crabs

“And this is what the shorebirds eat.” Pete put out his hand so we could see the tiny dots that were the horseshoe crab eggs scattered in the beach debris.

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Horseshoe Crab eggs

The crabs, which pre-date dinosaurs, need a gently sloped beach with low wave action. Conservation groups and state regulations have increased horseshoe crab protection in recent years; however, they have not completely rebounded. It’s a long-term process. They need to survive for nine years before they are ready to reproduce when the water temperature is 52 F.

Red Knots spend the winter along the southern tip of Argentina and make the long journey to the Arctic to breed, timing their migration to correspond with the mating and egg-laying of the horseshoe crabs. When they arrive in Delaware Bay after flying nonstop for four days – about 5,000 miles, from their last refueling stop, they have lost a lot of body weight and are starving. They need to double their weight before they can continue their journey. After feasting on crab eggs for a week or so, they complete their journey to the Canadian Arctic.

What a thrill it was to witness part of this epic event.

After lunch we returned to Delaware Bay at Cook’s Beach. After parking our cars along the undulating tall grass of the salt marsh, Tom immediately set up the scope. A Seaside Sparrow was perched precariously on a blade of grass singing its buzzy song. It reminded me of the Savannah Sparrows in the wet meadow grasses at the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. It was faced away from us. While it looked drab through my binoculars, through the scope I could see the pale spot in front of its eye when it turned its head. Another life bird!

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Seaside Sparrow

As we approached the beach I noticed a poncho-clad group that appeared to be having a picnic on the beach. However, as we got closer, I realized that they were not picnicking, but banding and radio-tagging shorebirds! They are part of the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project that is gathering information on Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones. The population of these two species has declined steadily as a result of harvesting of the horseshoe crabs and according to the project’s website, the Red Knots are “teetering on the brink of extinction.”

I really wanted to see a Red Knot up close. The small banding groups I chatted with were finishing up with turnstones.

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Ruddy Turnstone being banded

“Come over here,” a local workshop participant beckoned me. “They have Red Knots over here.” She knew I was really keen on having a close look and I was grateful for her persistence.

The apprehensive black eye of a Red Knot peeked at me while it was nestled in the bander’s hand. It was measured, and then fitted with a radio transmitter. Researchers will be able to use the radio transmitter on its back to track its route to the Arctic.

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Red Knot having radio transmitter attached

Afterwards the bander stood up, walked over to the edge of the surf, and placed the knot on the sand. After shaking its feathers, it looked around anxiously, then scampered over to the protection of some rocks. A short time later it flew to join the other shorebirds still feeding.

Signs drawn by children tell about the importance of turning Horseshoe Crabs over.

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After reviewing the day back at the Research and Education Center, I was not ready to stop birding and drove to the Cape May Point State Park. Purple Martins perched on platforms singing.

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Purple Martins

From the CMBO Hawkwatch platform, I noticed several Mute Swans in a nearby lagoon,

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Mute Swan

and chuckled as a Laughing Gull playing stole food from another one.

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Laughing Gulls

After returning to my room, I set out to find a casual restaurant where I could eat seafood and was surprised that many of the eating establishments were not yet open for the season. Several blocks down Beach Avenue, I found a small restaurant and enjoyed fresh crab cakes.

The following morning, the workshop group gathered at the Nature Conservancy-managed South Cape Bay Meadows near the southern tip of the Cape May peninsula. Purple Martins gathered excitedly around the multi-level nesting houses in the parking area and an Indigo Bunting sang brightly from deep in some trees.

As we started out along the gravel path, it was misting lightly. We were greeted by the familiar song of a Common Yellowthroat and sweet, sweet, sweet weetaweet song of a pair of Yellow Warblers.

As we emerged into the wetlands, a pair of Mallards foraged in a rain-soaked puddle and we began to see shorebirds – a couple of Least Sandpipers, a Solitary Sandpiper, and a Spotted Sandpiper. Barn and Tree Swallows swooped low. A pair of Chimney Swifts soared overhead. As we crossed a small bridge we noticed Cliff Swallows. A Green Heron called as it flew deeper into the wetland bushes.

We began to see groups of shorebirds streaming in over the dunes – Willets and Short-billed Dowitchers.

As we walked up the dune path,

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House Sparrows and a Song Sparrow sang from the hillside bushes. A small flock of normally-solitary Eastern Kingbirds flew across the path in front of us.

The area of either side of the path was roped off to protect Piping Plover nesting habitat.

“The increasing prevalence of Fish Crows has threatened the plovers,” Tom explained. “They are so smart that when wildlife managers placed wire mesh cones over the nest holes to protect them, the crows kept watch, and when the chicks emerged, they were ready to snatch them.”

We only saw one Piping Plover on our walk.

Along the edge of the rope that bordered the beach were two pair of American Oystercatchers. After appearing to squabble about who reserved that spot first, one pair wandered off.

We walked along the beach and Pete pointed out the Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Forster’s, Least and one Common Tern as they flapped over the surf.

“Look,” Pete pointed to a line of 12 Great Blue Herons winging their way north over the ocean. “They are usually solitary, so the storm must be driving them north.”

More shorebirds streamed in from the ocean – Dowitchers, Dunlins, plovers, and turnstones.

We returned to the wetlands where a pair of terns and Dowitchers rested in the water.

By time we returned to the car, I had put 51 species on my eBird list.

“Let’s head over to Northwood (one of the Cape May Bird Observatory sites) down the road,” Pete suggested. Folks have been observing a warbler fall-out this morning.”

Groups of birders were gathered along the edges of the circular street gazing into the trees and checking their field guides.

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We positioned ourselves where there was a lot of activity. Busily feeding warblers began to pop into view – and then quickly disappear into the foliage – Black and White Warbler, Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler, both male and female Blackpoll Warblers, American Redstarts.

“Did you see the Magnolia Warblers?” Bo asked, knowing it was one of my sought-after species.

“Not well enough to be able to put it on my list,” I responded.

Fortunately, I later got an excellent view.

Michele MAWA

Magnolia Warbler – photo by Michele Weisz at Magee Marsh

We walked up to the nest level and made our way around to the back of the building where I was able to get good looks at another sought-after warbler – Bay Breasted. It was a female so the colors were more muted.

I drove to a nearby deli to purchase a sandwich for lunch, then stopped at the state park to use the restroom before returning to the Northwood Center. As I was parking my car, I noticed the guide from another group jog down from the dunes to a woman who was photographing the Purple Martins. He pointed to the sky and I also focused my binoculars through the front windshield – the Magnificent Frigatebird that had strayed into the area came into view!

Tom had told us that it had been reported and was glad to learn later that he had used the lunch break to see it. I quickly got out of my car and headed up the trail to the dune viewing area where a group of birders were gathered around a scope The Frigatebird had flown out over the ocean. I wasn’t able to locate it with my binoculars, but the guide found it in his scope and let me get a good look. I had only seen one in the U.S. twice before, so it was a thrill to see it again.

When I returned to the Center, I decided to eat in the car where I could watch warblers out of the car window. It was a good choice – a Canada Warbler graced me with its presence.

Michele CAWA

Canada Warbler – Photo by Michele Weisz in Magee Marsh

After lunch we checked out the back of the Center again where everyone was very excited to see a Wilson’s Warbler – rare for the east coast.

“I get them in my yard during migration,” I laughingly told the group.

Our final stop was The Beanery/Rea Farm, open to members of the Cape May Birding Observatory through a cooperative agreement to provide a revenue stream for the farm in exchange for preserving the habitat. A Black and a Turkey Vulture together flew across the area – the first ones we had seen now that the rain had subsided.

We set out across a grassy path.

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Common Yellowthroats and Carolina Wrens were calling from the nearby trees.

We stopped in a swampy area where we hoped to see a Prothonotary Warbler. “They prefer swampy woods,” Pete explained. “They are cavity nesters, although I don’t know whether they use the nest box,” he continued pointing. While Tom later heard one singing from deep within woods, we were not able to see one.

As we emerged, we focused on a pair of Yellowlegs in a nearby puddle – one of each. “It’s a good comparison of the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs,” Tom pointed out.

“There’s a White-eyed Vireo singing,” Pete stated. It was hopping around in the trees. Finally, everyone was able to get a good look.

“This is where the Barred Owl nested,” Pete explained as we stopped in a more open area. A group that was leaving as we arrived reported seeing it fly from its perch.

Like most owls, the Barred Owl blends into its habitat very well. I had looked for them so many times when birding along the east coast, with no luck. “Someone should have one staked out,” my friend Barbara advised before I left. I was hoping that this would be my lucky time, but Pete could not find it.

Another group arrived and inquired about the owl and we reported that we had not found it.

When we returned to the parking area and were discussing whether to return to the Northwood Center to summarize the day, the other group returned sporting pictures of the owl. They told me exactly where they saw it – at the back of the spot where we had stopped

“I’m going back to find it,” I reported. “You’re welcome to join me if you wish.”  No one responded, so I set back across the meadow with a deliberate cadence. I was determined to find the owl.

At first I didn’t spot it, but after searching, I saw it way back in the forest half-hidden in the trees – success!

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Barred Owl

Near the parking lot, a Black Vulture hovered on the top of a power pole.

When I returned to the car it was still only 4 pm, so I returned to The Meadows – this time with my camera to document some of our earlier sightings.

The American Oystercatchers were still on the dunes.

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American Oystercatcher

The gulls were resting in a group further down the beach.

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It was a delightful way to end the afternoon.

As predicted, the rain was coming down in sheets the following morning. I had planned to visit some areas along the shore before heading back to Philadelphia and had pictured myself standing on the shore soaking up the sights and smells of the seashore. However, I now expected that most of my birding that day would have to be from the car.

After stopping at the New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Nature Center and perusing their exhibits and buying a set of Barred Owl earrings, I set out towards Wildwoods Beach area. When I stopped along the road, a soggy Osprey was hoping to find a meal.

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Osprey in rain

The rain continued to fall in sheets and the wind was blowing. Somehow when I got on the highway heading north, I turned west instead of east at the village of Cape May Court House, and wasted some time, but eventually found my way back to the Stone Harbor highway. The parking area for Stone Harbor Point was deserted and I decided not to set out alone down the dune trail, even though the rain had let up some. Instead, I followed Dunne Drive north towards the Avalon Sea Watch.

While it was not raining as hard, the wind was whipping fiercely and I had a difficult time getting out of my car. I noticed a man with a scope heading up the dune trail, so I decided to follow. The wind was blowing so strongly that I had to step behind a small building to zip up my rain jacket, tie my hood and document the wave action with my cell phone camera.

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Avalon Sea Watch site

When I rounded the path onto the beach I didn’t see anyone with a scope, only a man with a fishing pole. I continued trudging against the wind – and then I spotted him tucked into a beach shelter and walked over to see what he was seeing. Much to our mutual surprise it was Tom Reed and a friend.

“Have you seen any Purple Sandpipers?” I inquired.

“Yes, not long ago,” they replied.

“Help me find one,” I pleaded.

“Did you find the owl?” Tom asked as he started scanning the rocks with his scope.

“Yes – you guys didn’t try very hard,” I responded.

So they tried hard to help me see a Purple Sandpiper.

“There’s one,” the woman pointed as it flew across in front of us at the base of the rocks. Its behavior was similar to that of Wandering Tattlers I had observed along Southern California’s rocky shoreline in the winter. Its dark plumage almost blended in with the blackish rocks of the sea barrier.

It was the perfect ending to my trip. It was starting to rain harder and it was time to head back to Philadelphia.

Spring migration along the Atlantic flyway in southern New Jersey had been as spectacular as I had hoped it would be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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