Cool morning temperatures and crisp organic scents saturate the forest floor while lush blankets of red, yellow and gold adorn the treetops; autumn has fallen across North America. The chaos and excitement of breeding season is over. Young birds are learning the ins and outs of functioning on their own while their parents adjust to being empty nesters once again. The days grow shorter and the air crisper while migratory birds scramble to fill their fat reserves in preparation for their long journeys ahead. The first of many cold fronts to come passes over, creating favorable winds and triggering ancient instincts in our beloved modern day dinosaurs that urge them to head south for the winter. Hearts pounding and wings beating, birds of all shapes and sizes take off on amazing journeys that will test their endurance, fitness, navigation, and hazard evasion skills. With any luck they will find enough food and resting sites along the way to sufficiently refuel themselves and will arrive safely at their destination. Along the way, some of the birds on the Atlantic Flyway will pass through Cape May, NJ. In fact, so many birds show up in Cape May each year that it has become one of the best places in the New World to witness the exciting and breathtaking spectacle of fall migration.
Cape May is truly and unequivocally a magical place for birders and nature-lovers alike thanks to its location on a peninsula along the north Atlantic Coast. As birds in the Atlantic Flyway start to move south, northwest winds that follow cold fronts push them towards the coast, which they then continue to follow southward. Since Cape May is bordered by the Delaware Bay to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, it acts as a natural funnel, shuttling the birds to the tip of the peninsula. Many species (except mainly falcons and waterbirds) shy away from traveling over large bodies of water due to the lack of resting spots – and strong winds. This means that once birds get to Cape May they have to make a decision – either cross the Delaware Bay to continue down the coastline, or turn back north to where the bay is narrower and less perilous to traverse. Lucky for them (and us!), Cape May has a very diverse landscape with a multitude of habitats; offering migrants a fantastic place to rest and refuel so they can successfully navigate the bay and continue on their merry way.
Birders who have visited Cape May during fall migration have described their experiences as being: magical, awe-inspiring, marvelous, spellbinding, incredible, unbelievable…the list goes on. But these words are merely a summary of an ideal day in Cape May and simply do not sufficiently describe the whole experience. To give you a much better sense of exactly what it is like to witness mass migration, let’s take a journey through a single day in mid-late October. Buckle your seatbelts because you are about to be blown away.
Your alarm goes off in the pre-dawn hour. Northwest winds have been blowing gently all night, bringing nocturnal migrants down the funnel into Cape May. Dressing in layers to be ready for anything the day may bring, you head out to the dike at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area (locally known as simply Higbee’s) where New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) conducts their Morning Flight (follow the link for real-time migration updates!) count each morning from August 15 – October 31, and have been doing so since 2003. As the sun begins to rise, giving way to the day, birds begin to descend onto land, coming in off the bay, or leaving the Cape May canal area and heading north. This phenomenon of birds moving north at dawn has yet to be fully explained, although a few theories have been suggested. We suspect that many of these birds have been migrating overnight, overshot the shoreline, and are now heading back (north) a short distance to refuel in Cape May before continuing the nonstop flight south across Delaware Bay. Nevertheless, the spectacle is not one to be missed. This is a place where individual bird identification often gets thrown out the window in order to truly enjoy the frenzy of thousands of songbirds zinging through the air at eye level, knee level, waist level, just overhead, far off in the distance, and yes, sometimes even perching on your shoes for a split second. Raising your binoculars to look at a single bird may mean that you will miss a hundred other birds. Have you ever seen 4000+ American Redstarts, 600+ Black-and-white Warblers, 670+ Northern Parulas, and almost 300 Cedar Waxwings, along with a plethora of 89 other species in a 3.5 hour period? This scenario is a real event that occurred earlier this Fall, and it only gets better from here…
After morning flight, big decisions are to be made. You could take a stroll around Higbee’s or any of the other fantastic songbird habitats around Cape May in pursuit of the small feathered flashes you just saw at Morning Flight, or you could head to the Cape May Hawkwatch Platform (follow the link for real-time migration updates!) at Cape May Point State Park. With northwest winds persisting, the Hawkwatch is a must-see. CMBO has been conducting a raptor count here since 1976. From Sept. 1 to Nov. 30, 7 days a week, a hawk counter is present at the platform. Additionally, in the months of Sept. and Oct. the Hawkwatch is also staffed with talented interpretive naturalists who are available to help with identification and any other questions about the birds of Cape May.
Although by late October many of the huge raptor flights have already hit their peak, this is the time of year when the site experiences the greatest species diversity, with 11-14 species possible on any given day. Golden Eagles and Northern Goshawks are just two of the many charismatic species that are possible at this time. In the late morning, as the sun warms the earth and thermals begin to form, raptors can often be seen lifting up out of the treetops, rising high above their nighttime roosts and gliding south. This is one of the best times to view the birds up close as they hunt for breakfast or begin the next leg of their journey. In the middle of the day when the raptors are migrating high, and riding thermals like lazy roller coasters, there are plenty of other creatures around to hold your attention and help you to relax your hawkwatching neck muscles.
Directly in front of the hawkwatch lies a freshwater body called Bunker Pond, which almost always hosts a captivating array of waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, terns, herons, and egrets. Beautiful dragonflies and butterflies also migrate through Cape May and abound in the state park, along the dunes, and in yards all over Cape May Point. In fact, CMBO has been conducting a highly successful Monarch Monitoring Project since 1991 with Monarch tagging demonstrations a few days a week.
As the afternoon wears on, the raptors will descend from the heavens as the thermals collapse and they start looking for an evening meal. This is often an exciting time of day, as close encounters are bound to occur. Merlins come shooting out of the sky, aiming to cause some drama on Bunker Pond as Cooper’s Hawks dive into shrubs hoping to catch just one of the 10,000 Tree Swallows that are gorging themselves on bayberries in preparation for their own migration. If you are very lucky, a Northern Goshawk might come tearing down the dunes at eye-level, causing mass chaos as every bird either ducks out of sight or takes to the sky, and all the enthusiastic hawkwatchers scramble to get their binoculars or scopes on the bird.
If the winds shifts to the Northeast, this is not game over in Cape May, it’s simply time to switch gears. Falcons, unlike most other raptors are fast and strong enough to not be fazed by migrating over water and will often do so just offshore. Thus, Northeast winds will push these birds onto the shoreline giving the hawkwatch quite the falcon show.
However, if falcons aren’t your thing, or the flight isn’t as big as you were hoping, it might be time to take a trip up to Avalon, NJ where CMBO has been conducting a Seawatch (follow the link for real-time migration updates!) count since 1993. Here, just off the coast, waterbirds of over 75 species can be seen as they head south. Like many other migratory birds, these species also follow the coastline, but over the ocean rather than over land. As the birds follow the Atlantic Coast, they are often forced to pass by the northernmost end of Avalon – quite closely – as it sticks out into the ocean a mile farther than points to the north. Rarities show up here on an annual basis and include species such as Black-legged Kittiwake, Atlantic Puffin, Pacific Loon, Razorbill, Pomarine Jaeger, Common Eider, and King Eider. However, the real show is the million or so birds that stream by the seawatch every year. Line after line after line of ducks (dabblers and divers), loons, grebes, cormorants, gulls, and gannets are mind-boggling. Just like at morning flight, sometimes it is better to relax and enjoy the spectacle at first before delving into identification of individual species.
One to two hours before sunset is a perfect time to visit the South Cape May Meadows Nature Preserve for an evening stroll. This Nature Conservancy property has an astonishing array of habitats packed around an easy, level walking path. Freshwater wetlands and ponds are the main focus here, but the dunes, meadow area, and beach can host a wide variety of species. In the evening light, shorebirds take on a beautiful glow, rails can be seen stalking through the vegetation, and raptors such as Northern Harriers can be seen teetering lazily over the meadows looking for dinner. This is the perfect ending to a truly magical day.
To get the most out of a visit to Cape May in the fall, I highly suggest attending the Cape May Fall Festival , which will be held this year from Thursday, October 22, 2015 – Sunday, October 25, 2015. Not only is this the time of year when the greatest diversity of migrating birds can be seen (the weekend species list can easily hit 200), but the master ID classes, van trips, walks, keynote speakers, vendors, and demonstrations will keep you busy even in the event of a rainy or “slow” day. The slogan of this festival is “So. Many. Birds.” which really is an understatement. If this description of an ideal day in Cape May didn’t convince you of the magical nature of the place, then go see for yourself. We’ll see you at the morning flight!
Alyssia Church was born and raised in Pennsylvania where she spent many hours exploring every inch of her yard with various field guides in hand. She later followed her passion for the natural sciences by earning both a B.S. and M.S. degree in Geography from The Pennsylvania State University. Her Master’s project sent her to the Schoodic region of coastal Maine where she conducted wildlife surveys and habitat assessments for a wildlife corridor placement project. After graduate school Alyssia took a position with the Cape May Bird Observatory as an Interpretive Naturalist on the Cape May Hawk Watch, which was the defining moment in her career path. The next few years became a blur as Alyssia worked on various avian research projects in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and returned to Cape May for 2 more consecutive fall seasons as a hawk banding intern with the Cape May Raptor Banding Project and later as the George Myers Field Naturalist. She now works as the Spatial Database Manager for the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Alyssia is also active in her local birding community, leading field trips and acting as Vice President of Programs for the State College Bird Club. When she is not talking about birds, reading about birds, traveling to see birds, working, or out birding, Alyssia thoroughly enjoys rock climbing and ballroom dancing.
Raymond VanBuskirk Leica Birding Product Specialist, Former President of Central New Mexico Audubon Society, ABA Young Birder Camp Counselor & Owner and Guide at BRANT (Birding Research and Nature Tours). Raymond’s interest in birds was sparked at age seven, but it wasn’t until a few years later that birding completely ruled his life; All it took was a curious male Western Tanager to push him over the edge. Alongside his best friend Ryan, Raymond started what is known as the Sandia Rosy-Finch Project, a rosy-finch banding project that has since received recognition in National Audubon Magazine, Birders World Magazine and with birders all over the nation. Raymond has an impressive resume conducting bird research all over the western United States, notably, a breeding ecology study of Gray Vireos in central New Mexico and a similar project investigating the little-known breeding habits of the Arizona Grasshopper Sparrow. Other highlights include: stints with the USFWS in the Arctic Ocean, and USGS in desert-grasslands of Arizona; guiding all over the world from Alaska to Ecuador with his ecotourism company Birding Research And Nature Tours (BRANT); serving as the youngest National Audubon Society chapter President in history; and being one of the most interesting and charming individuals you’ll ever meet!