Cape May Birding Places: Belleplain State Forest
By Paul Kerlinger
One of the real treats of spring birding in Cape May is a trip to Belleplain State Forest to see nesting birds. Located on the border of Cape May and Cumberland County, Belleplain is a large forest consisting of oak, maple, and pine. There are small streams and ponds, along with large woodlands and even some cut over areas that offer a diversity of nesting warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles, and other songbirds. Belleplain has some of the best and most easily accessed birding habitat in southern New Jersey. Elements of both southern and northern nesting bird communities are present.
To get to Belleplain, drive north on Route 47, past Dennisville and past Jake's Landing Road. Where you see the sign to Woodbine and Route 550, turn left. After a few hundred yards, there is a road to the left (Pine Swamp Road). Follow this road for a couple of miles. There are generally three to five places you can stop to bird.
The first places to bird are along Pine Swamp Road before you get to Sunset Road. Watch for nice forest and opportunities to pull off the road. Along this road look for the usual forest nesting songbirds, Wild Turkey, snakes in the road, and even a Ruffed Grouse if you are lucky.
Once you get to Sunset Road (crossroads), turn left and go about a mile or more. You will see a road off to the right and some places to park your car. Walk another 100 yards on Sunset and after that road there will be a little bridge. That bridge crosses a small brook. Bird anywhere along this strip (100 yards on either side of the bridge). From the bridge and along the roads nearby, you are likely to hear Wood Thrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Acadian Flycatcher, Scarlet Tanager, Hooded Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, etc. In the pines you may hear Yellow-throated Warbler. In some years you may find Brown Creeper, but you will have to look for it.
From the bridge, you may hear Prothonotary Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrush. Also nearby will be Eastern Phoebe. Both nest along the creek and are sometimes close enough to the bridge to see or hear. The creek also passes under the road along the road where the car park area is located.
After you finish at the bridge, proceed to the right, along the road where you parked. The road will cross the stream again and you can try this location if you haven’t found all the birds you were looking for at the stream on Sunset. Go farther and you will then go right at the next intersection. Park where there is space to pull off and simply walk the roads. Go several hundred yards, even ¼ mile in either direction and start looking.
Along this road, you may find Orchard Oriole, Summer Tanager, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-eyed Vireo, towhee, titmice, chickadees, and other forest nesting birds. Woodpeckers are common throughout with Downy being most common and Hairy also being present. Pileated Woodpecker has been increasing in this area, so be alert for these huge woodpeckers. These forests were cut over about 20 years ago and are now getting more mature.
Farther along on this road you will come to a New Jersey Parks and Forests campground and a headquarters. There is a lake near the campground that can be birded. The headquarters has restrooms.
Look skyward on occasion, there are nesting Broad-winged Hawks nearby, along with the occasional Bald Eagle (also nesting in the vicinity). Black and Turkey Vultures are also regularly observed overhead. Rarities that have been found in Belleplain include Barred and Saw-whet owl, although finding the latter is a most difficult task. Night birding can yield both Chuck-wills-widow and Whip-poor-will.
Belleplain is definitely a place for slow walking and listening. You will be amazed by how quiet the forest is, except for the singing birds. If you catch it right, the dawn chorus will be well worth the drive from Cape May.
When to Go: Go to Sunset Road bridge at dawn and bird Belleplain until about 10 a.m. From the last week or two of April into the first week or two of May the birding gets better. Peak nesting birds can be found from May 10-15 through mid-June when it starts to get too hot to bird. In May, migrant songbirds are a bonus, so birding can be spectacular if you get a combination of nesters and spring migrants. Winter and fall birding aren’t quite so spectacular, but the forest is always a great place to take a walk and look for birds.
Note: Stay on the road if you don’t want to get ticks and, or poison ivy. There is generally very little traffic along these roads, but still watch for cars. You will only binoculars, so don’t bother to use a scope. - Combine your trip to Belleplain with a stop at Jake’s Landing Road, in Dennisville, along Route 47, south of Belleplain.
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