Cape May Birds by the Month: August
by Paul Kerlinger
Black-and-white Warbler by Doyle Dowdell
Feeling a slight, cool breeze on my neck, I realized that the first signs of autumn had arrived. Standing on the dike platform at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management area one past mid-August day amidst some of America’s greatest birding talent, I was watching a very respectable migration of warblers, gnatcatchers, orioles, and some other species. The cool front that cleared the previous evening brought northwesterly winds and clear skies, the optimal conditions for a southbound migration of songbirds – one of the first major flights of the autumn. I was delighted to see Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and I even heard someone utter the words Louisiana Waterthrush, but I never saw it.
It may not feel like autumn, but August is an excellent month for bird migration in Cape May. The songbird migration begins in earnest by the 10th and is in full swing by the 20th of the month. The key is to time your birding to coincide with a cool front. Be at Higbee Beach at dawn and you may see 10 or perhaps 500 songbirds flying north toward the Cape May Ferry Terminal. Yes, NORTH! These are birds that migrated the previous night and are looking for safe and productive places feed, rest, and avoid predators. Look for them from first light until about 2 hours after sunrise.
Songbird migrants of mid-August, often are often difficult to see after the end of the month. These birds migrate earlier than other species that do not appear until late in August or in September. (Hint to finding these birds: Look for the birders wearing knee-high rubber boots. They will know where the good spots are!)
Least Sandpiper by Doyle Dowdell
Even if you don’t feel a cool west or north breeze, the birding is still hot in August. To some birders, August is the best month of the year for shorebirds. This is the time when millions of young shorebirds pour out of the arctic. They stop in our marshes, mud flats, and sand bars to stock up on invertebrates that they convert to fat. Any of the marshes can be excellent, as can sandbars like those behind Stone Harbor Point.
One of the best places is the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge where you can bird along the 7 mile dike road, looking at both freshwater and saltwater marshes and flats. One of the fun parts about August shorebirding is the rarities that sometimes show up. For example, you may see Curlew Sandpiper amongst the Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and yellowlegs.
August also offers a potpourri of other species as well. In the marshes, you may see the spectacle of 100 or more egrets (Snowy and Great, mixed with Tricolored and Little Blue herons) feeding on minnows in a shrinking tide pool. Look for the white patches on the marsh and you may see this feeding frenzy. Caught by a quickly dropping tide, thousands of small fish are trapped in shallow, small ponds. They become easy pickings for egrets and herons, not to mention terns and gulls. The Skimmer, an ecotourism pontoon boat that ventures into the marshes daily, can get you close to these and other birds.
Terns and more Terns
Common Tern by Jerry Liguori
The back bays and inlets are filled at this time of year with terns of several species. Least, Common, Forster’s, and a few Royal Terns. Also look for these birds along the beach front, feeding just beyond or even in the surf. August can also bring rare terns, like the Whiskered Tern (an African species) that showed up in the summer of 1993. That bird made the front page of the Sunday, New York Times!
Brown Pelicans start showing up in bigger numbers in August. If you watch the tidepools and channels along Ocean Drive, between Cape May and Wildwood Crest, or the tidepools along Stone Harbor Blvd., you should also see good numbers of Black Skimmers and Oystercatchers. You may hear the latter species before you see them.
Osprey leaving nest
If the jet skis and boats aren’t present, you should also see Osprey diving for fish from 20-100 feet above the water. The young birds are plentiful and don’t catch as many fish as adults. If you see one capture a fish, watch the way it holds it head first and also try to determine if it is a bunker (menhaden), mullet, weakfish, snapper bluefish, or other small fish. They offer a great show when you find them.
In August, the migration of hawks has commenced. Watch for Bald Eagles, Broad-winged Hawks, American Kestrels, and Northern Harriers. All have started to move by mid-August and the numbers pick up dramatically by the end of the month. Try an hour or two from 9 a.m. through noon at the Cape May Point State Park hawk watch for these birds.
Don’t wait for the blustery cold fronts of autumn to bird in Cape May. August birding can be as hot as the weather. Birding in August is also compatible with a beach vacation. Go birding early in the morning and in the evening, so you can hit the beach at midday.