One Day Cape May Birding Guide
by Paul Kerlinger
Cape May, NJ - As temperatures drop and fall truly sets in, the fall migration changes dramatically. With the Neotropical songbird migration being pretty much over, the larger birds take center stage. Late fall birding in Cape May, from mid-October to mid December, is a mixed bag. You are likely to see songbirds that mostly winter North of the Mexican border, larger raptors, waterfowl, seabirds, some late shorebirds, and owls.
Dawn: Avalon Sea Watch
Surf Scoter by Doyle Dowdell
Start your day at the Avalon Sea Watch. Be on site thirty minutes before the sun rises. You will likely see skeins of hundreds of scoters skimming the wave tops, dozens of loons, gannets, gulls, and other seabirds. More than 100,000 scoters and 1,000 loons have been seen from the sea watch in a single day, making for exciting possibilities. The large numbers of birds makes it tough to appreciate the beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean. The sea watch is located at Townsend’s Inlet at the north end of the Avalon Beach. Watch from the sidewalk and seawall located at the east end of 7th Ave. Don’t worry about being able to identify your seabirds and loons. There will be a seabird counter and other birders present on most days, to help you identify what is flying by. In addition to seabirds, watch for migrating songbirds and hawks. Peregrines are not uncommon here.
- Time: 2-2.5 hours (depending on how good it is)
- Hint: Bring a spotting scope to see birds way offshore as well as to see seaducks and loons that swim in the waters of Corson’s Inlet. (See page 309 of Clay and Pat Sutton’s, Birds and Birding at Cape May for more detailed about the sea watch)
- Highlights: Red-throated and Common Loons, scoters (mostly Surf and Black), Northern Gannet, Double-crested Cormorant (with occasional Great Cormorant mixed in), various terns (watch for Caspian, Royal, etc.), seaducks (Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Green-winged Teal, etc.), Tundra Swans, various gulls, jaegers (mostly Parasitic), and even some migrating hawks (Peregrines, Ospreys, etc.), and even some songbirds (Snow Bunting, Horned Lark, etc.).
Mid Morning: Cape May Hawk Watch
Sharp-shinned Hawk by Doyle Dowdell
If you can tear yourself away from the sea watch, travel quickly to the Cape May Hawk Watch, located in the Cape May Point State Park. After mid-October, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Bald Eagle, and occasional Golden Eagles can be seen, along with the continuous procession of Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, and a smattering of Peregrines, Merlins, and some of the rarer species. Cool, clear days with north to west winds are best for watching hawk migration.
A bonus of the Cape May Hawk Watch is the presence of several ponds immediately in front of the hawk watch and along the Park trails, as well as forested areas. From the hawk watch look for American Bittern at the pond edge (rare), waterfowl on the pond, late herons and egrets, and even some shorebirds at the pond edges. For watching hawks, the dozens of other birders will help you find them in the sky. One of the best parts about the Cape May Hawk Watch is that the elevated platform comes complete with fairly comfortable seating from which you can sit and watch migrants.
If you aren’t an expert at identifying hawks, stay near the hawk counter and the interns who will be identify hawks and other birds as they pass the raised observation platform. If the hawks aren’t cooperating (or before you leave), don’t forget to look out over the ocean for passing scoters, loons, gannets, and other seabirds.
- Time: 2-2.5 hours
- Hint: A spotting scope will help, especially for waterbirds and raptors that perch on the dead trees nearby. The scope will also help if you watch the ocean. On your way to or from the Hawk Watch, check out Lily Lake in Cape May Point for waterfowl, which are always on the lake in late autumn.
- Highlights: Any and all raptors, American Wigeon, etc. Note that many other migrants pass by the hawkwatch platform.
Mid Afternoon: Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area, Hidden Valley Area
White-throated Sparrow by Doyle Dowdell
For a completely different type of birding, head to the Hidden Valley section of Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. The parking lot is located along New England Road, midway between Bayshore Road and the main Higbee Beach parking lot. After parking, start walking down the trail along the left side of the field. Watch both the forested edge and the weedy fields. This field can be loaded with sparrows, bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and other species. You will likely see some hawks hunting, possibly including Sharp-shinned, Coopers, and Red-tailed Hawks, and even Northern Harriers. Take your time and walk into the adjacent fields. Those trails will be obvious. Also, try some of the trails that lead into the adjacent forests. The fields will be more productive. Finish your walk along the loop trail that leads back to the parking lot.
While looking for birds in the fields and adjacent forest, be sure to look skyward. Hawks, Great Blue Herons, and various other birds fly over Hidden Valley regularly. Also, the Hidden Valley fields have attracted some rare sparrows and other birds over the years, so be sure to carefully watch for anything out of the ordinary.
- Time: 1-1.5 hours
- Hint: You will only need binoculars here. Have good walking shoes or boots.
- Highlights: Eastern Bluebird, Northern Harrier and other hawks, White-throated and several other sparrows (Field, Chipping, Song, etc.), Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Phoebe, kinglets, Hermit Thrush, American Goldfinch, Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers.
Late Afternoon : Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge
Northern Gannet by Doyle Dowdell
Walk the main trail of the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, located on the ocean side of Sunset Blvd, toward the beach, watching for migrating and hunting hawks, sparrows in the fields, and waterbirds on the large ponds. Take your time. During the last hour of daylight, the Meadows is fine for looking for waterfowl, gulls, hunting hawks, terns, songbirds, huge swarms of swallows (mostly Tree Swallows, but also Cave Swallows occur regularly). In addition, bitterns, egrets, and ducks of various species are often present. Simply walk the trail from the parking lot to the beach and come back on the trail that comes back from the beach (200 yards toward Cape May City). Bird along the edges of the restored marsh and ponds.
From the beach or top of the dune, scan the ocean for gannets, loons, scoters, and other seabirds.
You may be asked to pay an entry fee. The land is owned by The Nature Conservancy as a migratory bird refuge.
- Time: 1-1.5 hours
- Hint: Bring a scope so that you may scan the pools and ocean for waterbirds.
- Highlights: Hunting Northern Harrier and other raptors, waterfowl (many species), American Bittern, herons, gulls, and terns.
Sunset: Cape May Point State Park – Hawk Watch
Although you should go to the hawk watch for sunset, you won’t be looking for migrating hawks. If you stand on the hawk watch from sunset until it is dark, you have a good chance of seeing Long-eared and Short-eared Owls as they migrate out of the forest and brush nearby. The hawk watch platform provides an elevated perch from which you should scan just above the vegetation. Be alert, because you can easily miss an owl. When an owl is seen at low altitude, you may see it circle up to hundreds of feet before heading across Delaware Bay. There are few places in North America where you can, with any regularity, see migrating owls take off and this is one of the best.
- Hint: Use binoculars and naked eye. No scopes.
- Time: 1 hour
Note: One indispensable resource to take along is Clay and Pat Sutton's Birds and Birding in Cape May.
Yellow-rumped Warbler by Doyle Dowdell