Early Fall :
One Day Cape May Birding Guide
Sharp-shinned Hawk by Doyle Dowdell
by Paul Kerlinger
Cape May, NJ - An explosion of birds migrate through Cape May in early fall. If you have just one day to go birding from early September through mid October, you can still see plenty of migrating birds. Here's how:
Dawn: Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area
Plan to be at the Higbee Beach Parking lot (at the end of New England Road) about 30 minutes before the sun breaks the horizon. Start birding at the lot or walk the dirt road at the entrance to the lot that goes off to the north (on your right as you drive in). Walk until you arrive at a platform, which is across from a large hill, called “the dike.” Just before until 1 or more hours after sunrise migrants often stream by at treetop level.. going northward. Flights of more than 10,000 birds have been recorded. The best places to view them include the top of the tower or at the top of the dyke. It is difficult to identify all the warblers, orioles, and other songbirds that migrate by the dike, but some land briefly and can be identified.
Red-eyed Vireo by Doyle Dowdell
After morning flight, bird your way along the dirt road back to the parking lot. Make sure you check the trees and brush around the lot because this site is always quite birdy. Proceed along any of the trails that run through the edges of the fields. Some of the best birding will be at the forest edges where the morning sun illuminates the trees. Walking along the trails at the field edges is the most productive means of seeing birds. Also take some of the trails into the woods to see those species that are rarely seen along the edges.
Always watch for hawks such as Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk chasing songbirds, as well as swallows and swifts passing overhead. These chases can occur anytime, so stay alert.
- Time: 2+ hours
- Hint: Only binoculars are needed. Comfortable walking shoes and insect repellent may be needed. Dog ticks are not uncommon and poison ivy can be avoided by not leaving the paths. Don’t be shy about asking other birders (the people with binoculars) what they are seeing. Sharing of or asking for information can be very helpful.
- Highlights: The morning(s) after a cold front (west to north winds) will produce the best flights of night migrating songbirds (warblers, vireos, flycatchers thrushes, orioles, and some others). '
Mid-morning: Cape May Hawk Watch/Cape May Point State Park
Sharp-shinned Hawk by Doyle Dowdell
From Higbee go directly to the hawk watch platform adjacent to the parking lot of the Cape May Point State Park. From about the 15th of September through mid-October, hawk migration is fairly consistent, although before mid-September there will be fewer hawks. Choose a comfortable place on the hawkwatch and start scanning. With dozens of good birders present, you will have no problem spotting raptors. On good days, expect hundreds of hawks flying just above eye level, affording unparalleled views of these migrating predators.
Don’t forget to check out the pond in front of the hawk watch and near the lighthouse, as well as the ponds that are located only a few minutes walk along the road/trail that extends along the back of the dunes toward Cape May. Shorebirds and waterfowl are always present. Masses of swallows in the thousands are not unusual.
- Time: 2-3 hours
- Hint: You won’t need a scope for hawkwatching, although if you wish to look at hawks that perch or ducks in the pond bring the scope. A hawkwatcher and some interns will help you to spot and identify hawks. The benches on the hawk watch platform make for a comfortable morning.
- Highlights: Merlin, Peregrine, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Harrier, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk and other hawks.
Midday: South Cape May Migratory Bird Sanctuary (The Meadows)
Lesser Yellowlegs by Doyle Dowdell
From the parking lot along Sunset Blvd. start walking toward the beach. The ponds are where the real action begins, although look skyward for swallows and swifts. At the ponds, look for early migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as terns (watch for Least, Royal, Gull-billed, etc.), swallows, hawks, and others. Continue walking to the dune and beach. Look out over the ocean for terns, gulls, and some other waterbirds. Sanderling and some other shorebirds will be working the wash between waves. You may also see Piping Plover foraging near the water line.
Turn left at the ocean and walk about 150 yards then turn left again to walk back over the dunes along a wide, marked path. You will see lots of swans in the ponds. Stop at the platforms and use your scope to find shorebirds and waterfowl foraging on the flats and on the open water.
Note that many hawks hunt the Meadows, so keep an eye open for Merlins and Peregrines streaking in low as they try to catch shorebirds, songbirds, and even ducks. Sharp-shinned Hawks also will constantly chase songbirds near the edges of the Meadows.
- Time: 1.5-2 hr
- Hint: Bring a scope as many birds aren’t close enough to see well with binoculars.
- Highlights: Nothing in particular. The great diversity of terns, shorebirds, waterfowl, hawks, and other birds is what makes the Meadows a great birding place.
Afternoon: Nummy Island
Tri-colored Heron by Doyle Dowdell
Nummy Island is a marsh grass island that is barely above sea level at high tide. The causeway across Nummy Island can be one of the better spots to see shorebirds during fall migration. Though their plumages are not as pretty as in the spring, they are fun to watch as they probe the mud for invertebrates. Drive across the island, stopping several times to scan for birds. Get out of traffic before you look!!!
While on Nummy Island, watch for Northern Harriers hunting the marsh, as well as Peregrines and Merlins that come to hunt shorebirds. Herons and egrets will still be abundant as they feed on the marsh, feeding on fish and crabs. Virtually all species of herons and egrets that nest in South Jersey may be present.
- Time: 0.5 hr
- Hint: Using a spotting scope, scan the tidal pools, including those that are close to the road, for shorebirds foraging along the Spartina edges. Stay well off the road as traffic moves quickly between Stone Harbor and North Wildwood. High tide is best for shorebirds.
- Highlights: Tri- colored Heron, Little Blue Heron, dowitcher, Oystercatcher, harrier, Yellow-crowned Night-heron, plus Osprey and Seaside Sparrow.
Late Afternoon: Stone Harbor Point and Hereford Inlet
Semi-palmated Plover by Doyle Dowdell
Walk south along the gravel and sand “road” from the southernmost parking lot in Stone Harbor. To your right will be acres of beach plum and bayberry bushes, which sometimes harbor warblers and other migrants. On some days, monarch butterflies or swallows can be present by the thousands. Once you get down to the beach start looking for flocks of shorebirds that rest on the point and feed in the surf. As you walk to the end of the Point, keep looking offshore for interesting waterbirds such as Brown Pelican. Also look up toward the dunes for Oystercatcher, Peregrine, and other birds that may perch on posts or right on the sand.
As you walk around the Point and start looking into the Inlet, you may see Brown Pelicans roosting on tidal islands. Terns such as Royal, Common, and Black are regular visitors to Stone Harbor Point during early fall migration. They roost on the beaches in flocks of several hundred, so you will have to scan through them to pick out the rarities. Even Roseate and Sandwich Terns have been there on occasion. Tidal flats on the inland side of the Point also offer good opportunities to see shorebirds foraging.
Merlin and Peregrines hunt shorebirds over the Point regularly, so if lots of shorebirds takeoff and bunch up, look for a raptor near them.
- Hint: Bring a scope and be prepared for a long walk. Low tide is best, although at high tide, terns and other birds can be packed into a smaller area.
- Time: 1+ hr
- Highlights: Brown Pelican, Oystercatcher, Peregrine Falcon, Black Skimmer, flocks of shorebirds.
Note: One indispensable resource to take along is Clay and Pat Sutton's Birds and Birding in Cape May.
Tri-colored Heron by Doyle Dowdell