One Day Cape May Birding Guide
Oystercatchers by Ed Solan
by Paul Kerlinger
Cape May, NJ -
Spring in Cape May is a great time to see migrating songbirds, shorebirds, and other species in their most colorful plumages.
If you yearn to experience this spring migration crossroads, but have limited time, don't despair.
Here's a one day itinerary that gets you into some of Cape May's prime spring birding spots. Get your walking shoes on and be ready to go the distance.
Dawn: Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area
Tree Swallows by Ed Solan
Start at the parking lot and look for migrant songbirds lurking in the brush or singing in the treetops. Migrating hawks will frequently be present, sometimes chasing the songbirds or soaring overhead.
Walk the trails that follow the edges of the fields and into the forests. The field edges will be most rewarding because you can see birds in the fields and overhead, as well as in the forest edge. You can walk for a few miles at Higbee. If there are lots of birds present, spend an extra 30 minutes to an hour to take advantage of the opportunities.
Before leaving Higbee, check out the beach and Delaware Bay for gulls, shorebirds, sea ducks, and loons. To reach the beach, proceed to the west from the parking lot along the sandy trail. Don’t spend more than about 10 minutes at the beach. (The most rewarding times will be in April, when there are more gannets, loons, and sea ducks present.)
- Time: 2-2.5 hours.
- Hint: Take care to avoid the poison ivy and ticks.
- Highlights: Songbird migrants, Blue Grosbeak, Prairie Warbler, Sharp-shinned, Cooper, and Red-tailed Hawk. If you go back in the evening in April, you may hear and see American Woodcock engaged in their aerial displays over the open fields. In May, Chuck-will’s-widow can sometimes be heard from the parking area at night.
Mid-Morning: Cape May Point State Park
After parking in the large lot, walk over the dune to the beach. Work your way to the first jetty (to your right). From that vantage point, scan the mouth of Delaware Bay for migrating gannets, loons, sea ducks, ibis, cormorants and other waterbirds. Forsters, Least, and Common terns will likely be foraging just off the beach (after mid-April) and there will be some shorebirds at the edge of the surf (mostly Sanderling). There may be lingering Purple Sandpipers (before May 10-15), as well as Ruddy Turnstones present on the jetty.
Walk back over the dune and proceed along the edge of the ponds in front of the hawk watch platform. There are likely to be some shorebirds foraging along the ponds and some dabbling ducks on the ponds. A scope will help here. Herons and egrets use the ponds as well. These ponds can be followed back toward Cape May all the way to the Cape May Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
To get back to the parking lot, follow one of the trails that lead from the beach into the “forested” wetland areas. These trails can be productive, especially if there has been a good flight of songbirds the previous night. Also, check out the ponds for egrets, herons, waterfowl, and other species as you walk.
Before leaving the park, you should take a quick look at the Purple Martin houses as they will give you great views of these birds. Also, a quick check of Lily Lake (outside of the Park) in early to mid-April, may yield some nice ducks.
- Time: 2.5 hours
- Hint: Bring a spotting scope to better see shorebirds
Early Afternoon: Cape May Migratory Bird Sanctuary (“The Meadows”)
Osprey by Ed Solan
To walk off lunch, park in the lot at the Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Sunset Blvd. and start walking toward the beach. Watch for songbirds in the trees and brush and swallows and swifts overhead. Don’t take too long, the really good birding starts when you get the ponds.
The ponds on both sides of the trail provide opportunities to see terns, waterfowl, herons, egrets, ibis, and even some rails. Virginia Rail and Least Bittern both nested in the “Meadows” before the restoration was done, but these birds may come back. Depending on water level, you may see good numbers of shorebirds, especially in May. Swallows and swifts can be very common at this time of year, depending on how many migrants are passing through Cape May on that day.
Be alert! Always look up while birding around Cape May. You could see a Bald Eagle or even a Mississippi Kite, the latter will be more likely in mid-late May. Northern Harriers, Merlins, and other hawks frequent the “Meadows”, so being alert pays off.
Once you get to the beach, start looking for Piping Plover and Least Tern. Both species nest on this beach. Look within the roped off nesting areas, as well as along the water’s edge for Piping Plover. Least Terns will be easier to see because they are more numerous and because you will likely see males and females involved in courtship behavior. Look for males carrying small fish as they attempt to attract with females. A quick scan of the ocean may yield lingering scoters and loons, or migrating gannets. Terns and gulls should be common.
Walk back to the parking lot along a trail that crosses the dunes closer to Cape May. Look into the ponds and along the edges of the ponds as you walk back to your car.
- Time: 1.5-2.0 hours
- Hint: Spotting scopes are especially helpful.
Mid-Late Afternoon: Wetlands Institute, Nummy Island, and Stone Harbor Point
Clapper Rail by Ed Solan
As the weather warms in spring, the back bay marshes come to life. The arrival of shorebirds, herons, egrets, ibis, rails, Ospreys, and salt marsh sparrows makes birding the salt grass marshes a best bet. Plan to spend three hours exploring this area, at three separate stops:
The Wetlands Institute
The Wetlands Institute is located on Stone Harbor Blvd. (Exit 10 on the Parkway). Turn right at Exit 10 and drive until you see the Institute on your right. After parking, look at the ponds and grass flats immediately to the east of the parking lot (left as you drive in). Depending on the tide, shorebirds may be present in big numbers. Yellow-legs, dowitcher, Least, and other sandpipers and shorebirds sometimes line the edges of these pools.
Walk along the road/path that goes south into the marsh, birding as you go. Allow, at most, 30 minutes at this stop. (Facilties available.)
- Time: 30 minutes
- Highlights: Herons, egrets, shorebirds.
Dunlin by Ed Solan
Next, drive to Nummy Island at the south end of Stone Harbor. Once you get into Stone Harbor, turn right at the first light and keep going until you get to a bridge that crosses to Nummy Island. Nummy is one of the best places to see herons and egrets in South Jersey. These birds forage out on the marshes and sometimes roost in the cedar patch near the bridge.
Stop to look at shorebirds and herons wherever you see them. The traffic going across Nummy can move at 50 mph, so exercise extreme caution!!! Scan the pools near the middle of the island for shorebirds. At high tide, these birds will be packed in and you may see many species there. Use a scope to better see and separate the different species.
Nummy is also loaded with nesting Seaside Sparrows, Clapper Rails and there are a couple of Osprey nests out there as well. In spring, Northern Harrier, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon visit the island regularly.
- Time: 45 minutes
- Highlights: Osprey (on nests), Brant, Little Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron, Black and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, harrier, shorebirds, salt marsh sparrows, rails.
Stone Harbor Point
Now proceed to Stone Harbor Point. Park in the lot at the end of Stone Harbor and walk down the dirt road that is gated. Once out on the sandy beach, you will start seeing terns, Black Skimmers, and Oystercatchers. The roped off area serves to protect these birds’ nests. Stay outside the rope and use your scope to find and get better looks of these birds.
The walk to the inlet is a long one, but it can be worthwhile. Shorebirds will be foraging and roosting on the sand. In mid-May, there are sometimes more than 10,000 shorebirds present. On your way out and back, scan the water for loons, gannets, and other waterbirds.
- Time: 1+ hours
- Highlights: Oystercatcher, Least Tern, Forster’s Tern, Piping Plover, Black Skimmer.
Late Afternoon / Evening: Reeds Beach (after May 10)
If you still have time, you might consider visiting Reed’s Beach to see shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. Reeds Beach is located at the end of Reeds Beach Road off Route 47 on the other side of the Cape May Peninsula from Stone Harbor. Horseshoe crabs generally don’t invade the beaches in large numbers until after May 5-10 and shorebirds are there to eat the crab eggs.
Once you’ve turned onto Reed’s Beach Road, drive to the end and look for the observation platform on your left. Some horseshoe crabs should be present, along with the birds that feed on their eggs. In past years, Red Knot, Sanderling, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, and Ruddy Turnstones were present here by the thousands. More recently, the knot populations have been declining. You may also see grackles, Laughing Gulls, and other birds lined up at the water’s edge as they eat the horseshoe crab eggs.
If the shorebirds and crabs are in, this stop can be really worthwhile. High tide is best. The interpretive signs will help you to understand the phenomenon and how to view the birds.
- Time: 1+ hours
- Highlights: Red Knot, other shorebirds, horseshoe crabs.