Spring Shorebirds in Cape May

Lesser Yellowlegs by Doyle Dowdell

Posted 4/20/07
by Paul Kerlinger
Outdoors Editor

Cape May, NJ - It’s late April and my wife and I are taking our usual walk along New England Road in Cape May. There, in a wet farm field, we stumble upon eight slender Yellowlegs. Their long, yellow legs give them away as they dance and probe for invertebrates.

Where did these skittish birds come from? Although we can never be sure about a single individual, we do know that most of the yellowlegs we see in Cape May spend the winter as far south as Central and South America.

Heading North

Like a great wave, most shorebirds move northward through the southern United States in April, arriving in Cape May about the first or second week of May.

They stay in the Cape May area for only a few days, or in the case of some individuals, a few weeks to a month. Their goal is to fatten up on the local fare, before flying on toward their nesting grounds in the boreal forest of Canada.

Yellowlegs are one of more than 20 species of shorebirds that are likely to be seen in Cape May in spring. There are also another 10 species that are uncommon, scarce or rare during that season.

The list includes plovers, sandpipers, yellowlegs, dowitchers, willet, Whimbrel, Oystercatcher, and somes. They provide great opportunities to birders visiting Cape May during May.

Ruddy Turnstones by Doyle Dowdell

Shorebirds and Horseshoe Crabs

The horseshoe crab-shorebird phenomenon is the best known shorebird happening in Cape May. Actually, four species of shorebirds gather along the Delaware Bayshore from Norbury’s Landing all the way up to Fortescue.

Red Knot, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Ruddy Turnstones by the thousands can sometimes be seen as they root through the sand in search of tiny green eggs. Those eggs, buried about an inch or so in the sand at the tideline, have been left by horseshoe crabs in an effort to continue their population.

Numbers Declining

In years past, the numbers of Red Knots and other horseshoe crab eating shorebirds exceeded 200-500,000 in mid-May. Today, those numbers have declined and Red Knots are actually becoming rather rare.

They have even been proposed for listing as an endangered or threatened species. Some of the best viewing for shorebirds and horseshoe crabs is at Reed’s Beach near Goshen along Route 47. There are platforms for viewing and parking is available.

Although the horseshoe crab-shorebird phenomenon along the Delaware Bay can provide some of the best shorebirding, it is only the tip of the shorebird iceberg.

Other Shorebird Locations

Other locations that offer great opportunities include the pools on Nummy Island (between Stone Harbor and North Wildwood), the mudflats along Ocean Drive between Cape May and Wildwood Crest, any of the mudflats in the many marshes of the Delaware Bayshore, The Wetlands Institute, Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, and the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (Sunset Blvd.).

Look for these birds along the muddy edges of tidal creeks, marsh grass, wet farm fields, freshwater ponds, and on the beach. Stone Harbor Point is one of the better places for seeing large aggregations of shorebirds in the evening. These birds use this sandy spit as a resting place. Portions of Stone Harbor Point are closed off during the spring shorebird season, however, so access is, in part, limited (but still good for birding).

Planning a Visit

You only have a window of about 4 to 6 weeks to see the great wave of shorebirds moving through Cape May in the spring. If you are planning a trip, try to come after about May 8-10 and before June 25.

If you come earlier or later, you will still see shorebirds, but you may not see as many. Bring a spotting scope so that you may study individual birds, and bring a field guide.

Birding Guides

To learn more about how to identify shorebirds, three Cape May authors, Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson, have written the ultimate guide: The Shorebird Guide. Houghton Mifflin.

For more about the shorebird migration seasons and places to see birds around Cape May, take a look at Clay and Pat Sutton's Birds and Birding at Cape May. What to see, When and Where to Go. Stackpole Books.




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