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Nesting Season:
One Day Cape May Birding Guide

Nesting Least Tern by Doyle Dowdell

by Paul Kerlinger

Cape May, NJ - More than a hundred species of birds make thier nests in the Cape May area each year. Most nesting happens between late May and mid July. If you have time, be sure to take one of the birding boat trips of the back bay. If you have just a day to spare and want to stay on dry land, here's the plan:

Dawn: Belleplain State Forest

Prairie Warbler by Doyle Dowdell

Belleplain State Forest in Dennis Township is a large, almost primeval forest with hardwood, pine, brushland, and even cedar swamp forest that offers great opportunities for forest nesting birds. Start your birding as the sun rises along Pine Swamp Road in the forest. Stop and listen for warblers and other species, and then turn left onto Sunset Road. A picturesque little bridge along Sunset Road, about 50 yards from the turnoff, is one of the best places to find forest nesting birds in New Jersey.

Park in the pull off at the intersection of Sunset and Dean's Bridge Road. The area closest to the stream has been a good spot to hear or see both Louisiana Waterthrush and Prothonotary Warbler. Near the intersection check the pines for Pine Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler. If the wind is relatively calm, you will hear lots and lots and lots of interesting bird songs.

Also drive up Dean's Branch Road and then Meisle or other roads to explore other habitats. Drive slowly, leaving the windows open so you can hear the birds singing. Park in several places along the road and do most of your birding from the road. Also watch for Broad-winged Hawk soaring overhead and Bald Eagles that nest nearby.

  • Time: 2-2.5 hours.
  • Hint: Belleplain is loaded with ticks. The good thing is that you can do almost all of your birding from the road and never have to walk through the leaf litter where the ticks lie in wait. Take precautions and check yourself for ticks after you go to Belleplain, whether you go in the woods or not.Take care to avoid the poison ivy and ticks.
  • Highlights: Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Hooded Warbler, etc.
  • More info on Belleplain State Forest

Late Morning - Jake's Landing (Dennis Creek Wildlife Management Area)

Clapper Rail by Ed Solan

Back down Route 47 is Jake's Landing Road. Turn right, toward the bay. Without leaving the road, listen for Pine and Yellow-throated Warblers, as well as Scarlet Tanager and others that may be singing. At the end of the road is a parking lot surrounded by a vast sea of marsh grass. Take in the panoramic views and start listening and looking for marsh birds.

The first bird you are likely to hear will be Red-winged Blackbird. Skulking in the tall reeds at the edges of the parking lot will be Marsh Wren, which you may see if you're patient.

Farther out, look for a dull bird that sings from the salt grass. This buzzy sounding bird is a Saltmarsh Seaside Sparrow. More difficult to see, but easy to hear is Clapper Rail. These marsh birds will be heard "kekking" on a regular basis. If you are lucky, you may see them with small chicks!

Watch for Northern Harrier. They nest in the area and often hunt low over the marsh. Scan the dead trees at the marsh edge for Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk. You might need a scope.

  • Time: 30-45 minutes
  • Highlights: Seaside Sparrow, Clapper Rail, Northern Harrier, Marsh Wren, Yellow-throated Warbler in pines along road, Northern Harrier.
  • More info on Jake's Landing

Mid-Day/Early Afternoon: Stone Harbor Point

Skimmer and Chicks by Doyle Dowdell

Take the half mile walk from the parking lot at the southern end of Stone Harbor to the Point. On the way, look for the tern, skimmer, and plover colony that is sometimes located behind a rope-line near the middle of the peninsula. Bring your spotting scope.

In some years, most of the terns, skimmers, and plovers nest on Champagne Island, which is off the tip of Stone Harbor Point. Even so, many individuals will be roosting and feeding around Stone Harbor Point and Nummy Island.

As you walk toward the tip of the Point, look for them perched on the sand or flying out over the water. There are thousands of birds altogether, so you will see some of these species.

Look around the pools that form at low tide for terns and other birds roosting.

  • Time: 1+ hours
  • Highlights: Piping Plover, Least Tern, Forster's Tern, Royal Tern, Black Skimmer, Brown Pelican, Oystercatcher.
  • More info on Stone Harbor Point

Early/Mid Afternoon: Nummy Island

Willet by Ed Solan

The island between Stone Harbor and North Wildwood (on Route 619), called Nummy Island, is one of the best places to see herons and egrets during the nesting season. You can see these graceful tall birds right from the side of the road.

The center of the island is a good viewing spot for Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, not to mention Snowy and Great Egrets. You'll also see Osprey nests, often with young. The latter may be seen flapping at the edge of the nest while learning how to fly. Oystercatchers should be fairly easy to find. Their raucous screaming usually gives them away. Clapper Rails are also present in big numbers on Nummy, although seeing them takes extreme patience. Salt Marsh Seaside and Sharp-tailed Sparrows both nest on the island. Willet frequent the island as well.

Many of the birds that nest on Champagne Island or Stone Harbor Point forage and roost on Nummy Island, so you will also see some of these species. A spotting scope is a must for viewing birds on these marshes.

  • Time: 30+ minutes
  • Hint: Traffic moves quickly on Nummy Island, so pull your car well off the road and exercise extreme caution when getting in and out of your car, as well as crossing the road.
  • Highlights: Osprey, Oystercatcher, Snowy and Great Egret, Night-Herons, Salt Sparrows, Clapper Rail, Willet.
  • More info on Nummy island

Mid-Late Afternoon:Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area

Great Crested Flycatcher by Ed Solan

Higbee Beach is at the end of New England Road near Cape May. Several trails lead from the parking lot along the edges of the larger fields.

Blue Grosbeak, Common Yellowthroat, and Field Sparrows should be easy to find in the brushy areas in the fields. Indigo Bunting and Great Flycatcher will be singing in the trees at the edges of the fields, along with Yellow Warbler.

Keep moving around the edges of the fields, stopping to listen and look as you proceed. If you take the long trail back to the little pond at the back of one of the fields, you may also see Green Heron, which nests locally. Red-tailed Hawk also nests nearby. Higbee offers some of the best old field and forest edge birding in South Jersey. You won't need a scope here.

  • Time: 1.5 hours
  • Highlights: Blue Grosbeak, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Indigo Bunting, Great-crested Flycatcher, American Goldfinch, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and many more.
  • More info on Higbee Beach

Late Afternoon/Evening: Cape May Migratory Bird Sanctuary (South Cape May Meadows)

Piping Plover Chick by Doyle Dowdell

Located on Sunset Boulevard between Cape May and Cape May Point, the "Meadows" was formerly a cow pasture. Start at the parking lot and start walking toward the ocean. As you approach the ponds, watch for Rough-winged and other swallows, as well as Purple Martins and Chimney Swifts hawking insects over the fields and ponds. Once you get to the ponds, start looking for terns (Forster's, Common, and Least), ducks, herons and egrets, Glossy Ibis, among others. There will usually be gulls and even some shorebirds roosting on the islands in the ponds.

Over the dunes swallows and martins will be hawking insects. Once you cross the dune you will see the ocean and the enclosures where Least Terns and Piping Plovers nest. Start looking (using a scope) for terns and plovers on nests, or roosting on the sand. Least Terns will often be flying wildly over the colony, often carrying fish for their mates or young. Usually, Piping Plover nests will be found within cages, called exclosures, which protect nests, young, and adults from predators.

Walk to your left (toward Cape May) around the roped in tern and plover area until you see the trail that leads back toward Sunset Boulevard.

  • Time: 1.0-1.5 Hours
  • Hint: There are other great places for birding during the nesting season that you may wish to investigate. A great place to start your research is Clay and Pat Sutton's book "Birds and Birding at Cape May, What to See, When and Where to Go." This book will provide you with the details you will need to see some of the lesser known, but excellent birding locations in Cape May and along the Delaware Bayshore.
  • Highlights: Least Tern, Piping Plover, Purple Martin, egrets, Gadwall, herons and egrets, ibis.

Note: One indispensable resource to take along is Clay and Pat Sutton's Birds and Birding in Cape May.

Piping Plover by Doyle Dowdell


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