Cape May Birding Places: Avalon Sea watch
By Paul Kerlinger
There is no better place on the eastern coast of North America to watch migrating loons, scoters, and other waterbirds than the Avalon Seawatch.
Among these waterbirds are loons, seaducks and other ducks, gannets, cormorants, gulls and terns, shorebirds, herons and egrets, jaegers, and even some alcids. The variety and sheer numbers usually makes for exciting birding, if you're there at the right time. Where else can you see 1,000 loons or 3,000 gannets in a single day.
The Seawatch on the north end of Avalon juts out into the Atlantic Ocean farther than almost any other point of land along the South Jersey shore. Waterbirds must fly around this point of land and in doing so come closer to shore.
Thousands of birds
Birds you will likely see at the Seawatch include Double-crested Cormorant (200,000 per year), Red-throated Loon (50,000 per year), scoter (100,000-200,000 per year; mostly Black and Surf), Northern Gannet (50,000 per year) and uncountable numbers of gulls.
A good day for scoters can amount to 20,000 birds. There is also a steady flow of Common Loons, terns of various species, Green-winged Teal, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Black Duck, scaup, and many other species.
Terns pass by regularly with six to eight species being seen each fall. Less common, but still notable are the flocks of Great Blue Herons, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and shorebirds of various species.
Later in the season, usually in late November to early January, the lucky birder may also see Razorbills flying by. This is rare, but it happens regularly enough to keep the regular birders coming back.
Also during the late season, watch for Great Cormorant. They sometimes fly with Double-crested and can be picked out with relative ease. However, if you doubt your skills, stay close to the counting site because the counter or others will call out these rarities to whomever is present.
One of the most spectacular things to see at the seawatch is gannets diving on fish. When schools of bluefish or striped bass drive herring, bunker, or other small baitfish to the surface, birds of all sorts feed furiously.
From 30-100 feet above the water, gannets dive into the water, as they attempt to catch fish. With a wingspan of almost 6 feet, these white and black birds fold back their wings and make a spectacular splash as they hit the water. Seeing 100 or more gannets doing this over and over again is a memorable site.
When gulls, terns, and gannets create a commotion as they forage near shore, Parasitic Jaegers can sometimes be seen. Athough they are generally rare dozens per year are seen at Avalon. Look for the gull-like bird that is chasing gulls with fish. That bird is likely to be a Parasitic Jaeger. Pomarine Jaegers have also been seen, but they are much more rare.
Late Fall Migration
Although cormorants and some other waterbirds stream by before October 15, the real parade of waterbirds comes after that date. The peak of the scoter, loon and gannet season is generally the last week of October right through November.
It is likely that the loon and seaduck migration, as well as some other migration starts at least one-half hour before the sun rises. And, the sunrises at Avalon are spectacular.
Although you will generally be watching for seabirds offshore, don’t forget to check out the jetty and rocky shoreline near the Seawatch. Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlin may be foraging at your feet while you are straining your eyes to see a faraway loon.
The Seawatch is a veritable smorgasbord of wildlife watching opportunities. Bonus birds at the Seawatch include some migrating hawks (Peregrine, Merlin and Osprey) and songbirds, along with the occasional vagrant rarity. There is even a small migration of Tundra Swans, Wood Duck, along with landbirds such as Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, and others.
Access, Parking, and Hours
Located at the east end of 7th Avenue in Avalon, the Seawatch overlooks Townsend’s Inlet and the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Parking is easy.
Starting time for watching at the Seawatch is dawn or just as it gets light enough to see.
From sunrise to late afternoon, a waterbird counter and other devotees will help you see and identify the birds as they pass.
No facilities. Some restaurants are nearby.
You may wish to bring your own scope to see faraway flocks of loons or seaducks diving to catch mollusks nearby. Dress warmly as this site can be cold and damp, not to mention windy.
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