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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Jersey: Cape May

2023 Narrative

I must admit, I was nervous about this tour; showing up in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Idalia was not the most ideal of conditions for a migration tour. The forecast was a never-ending week of east winds, peppered with rain. But I should have remembered, there is ALWAYS something amazing to look at in Cape May! And boy did we start off with a bang too! I don’t quite share some birders’ love of storm birding, as more often than not, it just leaves you wet and birdless, but from time-to-time storms do drop in some great birds. With the day-long rain, I felt a better use of our time would be to bird the extensive wildlife drive at Forysthe National Wildlife Refuge. This place never disappoints, but today with the storm, I was particularly impressed with the fallout of shorebirds – lots of yellowlegs and dowitchers, but unprecedented numbers of Pectoral Sandpipers. As always, there were lots of egrets, Forster’s Terns, and lots of dabbling ducks present. We played hide-and-seek with some Clapper Rails, but a pair of Seaside Sparrows gave great looks for all! Another storm waif was a Black Tern that flew right over the van; normally these birds are way out on the ocean during migration, quite the change in scene from their summer haunts of farmland marshes in the Midwest!

We left the refuge after hours of successful birding; I think everyone was a little dazed that it was only the first day and we had already seen so much. We went and checked into our hotel in Cape May and off to an early dinner. This was a great plan on two accounts, one, we had skipped lunch due to a late breakfast, and two, it allowed for some after-dinner birding. This is where Cape May really rolled out the welcome mat for us…as we were dining, a Brown Booby had flown in not too far from our restaurant to start roosting with some cormorants! We finished up our dinner and drove over to the beach where the booby was quite content to sit and let us soak it in and enjoy it! What a great opening day for a tour!

For our second day at Cape May, we stuck pretty close to the ranch. Unfortunately, there just were no favorable winds to bring migrants to Cape May. Now that being said, we were treated to a couple Prairie Warblers, a local breeding species that normally migrates out of the Cape May area by the time the tour runs. Another special get was a Mourning Warbler, a bird that not only was a new first-ever for this tour, but my first-ever for New Jersey! Another surprise: some Purple Martins, which like the Prairie Warblers are often long gone by this time of year. A fun pair of birds we got this morning were both Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos.  And of course, no trip to Cape May is complete until we’ve had some time with a Cape May Warbler, which of course we did on a few occasions.

The next day, we took our annual boat cruise into the salt marshes of Cape May, always a highlight of this tour! This is a great chance to get up close and personal with the marshes in a flat-bottomed boat with some expert local naturalists who know these waterways well. With the constant east winds, we experienced quite the high tide, subsequently we enjoyed great concentrations of shorebirds, as many of them were forced to spend time in the remaining bits of higher ground in the coastal marshes. We had point-blank looks at American Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones, and even were able to get quite the study on tern ID with Common, Royal and Caspian Terns among the plentiful Forster’s Terns. After the boat trip was over, we headed up to a heron rookery where we saw several Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, and stopped by the Wetlands Institute where birds were taking shelter from another wave of the bad weather. Here we had our only Willets of the tour, and our first Tricolored Herons of the trip.

The next morning was surprisingly birdy considering how stormy it was overnight, but the calm and beautiful morning had birds crawling out of their hiding spots. The big flights of scoters that Cape May is renowned for hadn’t really kicked into overdrive yet, but we did have a couple close passes of a few Surf and Black Scoters from the seaside deck where we set up shop for the morning. We had some Bald Eagles passing overhead, and quite a few Palm Warblers hopping in the dunes. Very exciting was when a Blue Grosbeak teed up in a pine tree next to us, allowing for a good look!

For our afternoon, we spent some time on the hawk deck. Again, as with most species of land migrants, east winds aren’t the best for most species of hawks. We did have a trickle of Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, but the buteos were conspicuously absent. Ospreys of course were omnipresent, but the one group of raptors we did well on, and they certainly didn’t mind an east wind, were falcons. We had a few American Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons and were treated to an amazing Merlin migration. Merlin after Merlin whipped by, sometimes brushing over our heads, while others made swipes through the huge flock of foraging Tree Swallows, with more success capturing them on the wing than you might expect!

For our penultimate day, we took our big field trip to Delaware. We got up early to board the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. The sail across was decently birdy with pelicans and terns frequently observed and for a couple of us, a Parasitic Jaeger showed well. Once we made landfall in Lewes, we headed to Cape Henlopen State Park to the coastal pine forest. We took a hike, but the woods were a bit on the quiet side. No sooner than we had loaded back up in the van that I heard the familiar squeaky sounds of our quarry, Brown-headed Nuthatches! We rolled out of the car as quick as can be, but thankfully the nuthatches were cooperative and stuck around giving us a good show. Several Pine Warblers were present, as well as a family of Eastern Bluebirds and a surprise final Prairie Warbler and Blue Grosbeak. We then drove up to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, which, like Forysthe, has a first-rate auto drive. There was a huge flock of Green-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers present, but the real stars of the show were the multitudes of shorebirds. Hundreds of American Avocets delighted us as they foraged in the shallow waters of the marsh. Hundreds of dowitchers and yellowlegs were present, and even more peeps surrounded them – a veritable horde of Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers. There were numerous Stilt and White-rumped Sandpipers among them, and we even were able to spot both Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits. Every so often the flock was buzzed by a Peregrine Falcon, and they would fly at once, making for a fantastic spectacle, wheeling about over the marshes!

So, in retrospect I shouldn’t have doubted – even in predicted bad weather, there are few places that can beat Cape May as a birding hotpot in the Fall!  We ended the tour with 142 species of birds and enjoyed some great dining in the charming resort town that is Cape May. Thank you to all the participants who made this such a wonderful trip!

- Skye Haas

Created: 25 October 2023