If you had to rate birding hotspots or favorite destinations for the eastern United States, Cape May would likely be at the top of the list. This southern-most tip of the New Jersey peninsula was named for Captain Cornelius Jacobese Mey who explored the region in 1623. The generations of fishermen, mariners and whalers have slowly given way to vacationers enjoying the beautiful beaches and myriad Victorian gingerbread houses gracing quaint tree-lined avenues. But I went to Cape May for the birds, who are not there to admire the architecture.
In a relatively small area you’ll find a variety of habitats including woodlands, grassy fields, salt marshes, freshwater ponds, low scrubland, and sandy beaches attracting a large variety of resident and migrating birds. Almost anything is possible during fall migration in Cape May as the northwest winds push the vast Atlantic flyway eastward toward the coast and the birds are funneled southward until they arrive at land’s end and the formidable Delaware Bay and ocean. The smart ones rest and feed for a few days, enjoy the scenery, and create a show to remember for us birders before continuing over the water.
Cape May is one of the only places I know where the birder, dressed in our weird outfits and draped with our equipment, does not draw that quizzical apprehensive stare. You’ll see many birders and guided tour groups daily throughout the town, and may even run into the celebrities, authors, and gurus of our hobby. There are far too many birding sites in the area to discuss here, but one of my favorites is the Hawkwatch platform near the lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park.
Hawks have been watched and counted there for years but the counter became a formal paid position of the New Jersey Audubon in 1976 when they hired 24 year-old Pete Dunne. The stump of an old telephone pole was the first platform, soon replaced by a plywood table built by Dunne himself. Despite these humble beginning he, of course, is now one of our most accomplished birders and authors. The platform itself has also grown to become a large, multi-tiered edifice and famous destination for birders, hosting 20,000 visitors in 2015. It’s in a perfect location halfway between the dunes and beaches to the south, the tree line to the north, and directly faces a shallow saltmarsh to the east. Curiously the migrating kestrels tend to hug the shoreline while the hawks pass east to west over the tree line. Just to the west is the famous lighthouse, restrooms, visitor center, and plenty of free parking.
Think of a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon in autumn. There are different football games playing on multiple large screen TV’s while “experts” multitask, keeping one eye on one game and the other eye elsewhere; at the same time debating over a cold beer on the wisdom of the last play call and the preferred strategy for the next. That’s the hawk-watch platform during autumn migration; just substitute birds for the TV pigskin and bottled water for the beer.
On the top tier of the platform and far to the right you’ll find the official counter. He or she is the one constantly scanning the sky and often calling out the birds while they are still specks in the distance. “Merlin heading to the right between the two fluffy clouds, one binocular field-of-view to the left of the lighthouse!” They amaze with their knowledge of characteristic flight patterns, wing flapping, and silhouettes, but you soon begin to learn their techniques and try your luck. If you’re brave you may even call out a bird sighting yourself, but be prepared to be politely corrected if you blunder.
As in the sports bar you can choose to just sit quietly and enjoy the birding banter. Someone on the right is reliving an amazing count total from the past while someone on the left is describing recent trips to birding hotspots in Arizona and Maine. Another expert is holding forth on the best camera, lens, or field guide while on the lower tier the Swarovski Optik representative (they are the corporate sponsor of the count) is hawking their wonderful scopes and binos. While just sitting there I learned about the distinguishing dark carpal bands on the Common Tern and how to recognize the aggressive flapping flight of a Merlin, the “falcon with attitude”. One made a low flyover right in front of us unsuccessfully chasing a fleeing sandpiper across the pond.
They count more than hawks from the platform with plenty of songbirds, waders, gulls, and shorebirds also called out. My days at the platform were relatively quiet with a warm southern wind blowing in from the bay. However, the day before I arrived they counted 91 American Kestrels and two days earlier had 325 Bobolinks coming in on more favorable NW winds. The most common bird of prey which I saw was the Merlin, coming in seemingly every 10 minutes one mid-morning. Extremely “big days” are possible. Pete Dunne counted 11,096 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 9400 Broad-winged Hawks on 10/4/1977! Oh, to have seen that!
There is no such thing as a bad birding day at Cape May. And if the birds seem scarce just check out the “Hawkwatch Sports Bar” and you’re sure to pick up some tips or meet a celebrity birder. There’s a counter there everyday from dawn to 5PM, September 1 till November 30.