Cape May Birds by the Month: December
by Paul Kerlinger
Surf Scoter by Doyle Dowdell
Seeing gannets diving on bait and humungous numbers of other fish eating birds milling over the white-caps, I realized that it was December. For most northeastern birders, the last days of November normally mark an unofficial ending of good autumn migration and, therefore, the best birding. However, the birds I was looking at were migrants, still headed south or just arriving from the north. What I was seeing was normal for Cape May and a fairly well kept secret.
Whereas the summer and early autumn migrants like the warblers, shorebirds, and hawks that migrate to the tropics have already passed, late season migration in Cape May continues into, and in some years, through December.
The ocean offers some great birding, along with the back bays, creeks, and marshes. The Cape May Bird Observatory seawatch, located at 7th Street in Avalon, continues into December, and waterbirds continue to pass even after the official count period is over. The reason is that thousands of Northern Gannets, scoters (mostly Black and Surf, with small numbers of White-winged), Red-throated Loons, and smaller numbers of diving ducks like Long-tailed continue to migrate well into December.
In some years, migration of these birds can be witnessed in January. Each December small numbers of alcids (mostly Razorbills), jaegers (mostly Parasitic, with the occasional Pomarine), and kittiwakes are seen from the seawatch. If ocean temperatures remain high and baitfish abundant, the fish eating birds will remain throughout the month.
Waterfowl at the Crest
The lake-like areas behind the Coast Guard Base along Ocean Drive in Wildwood Crest sometimes host hundreds of waterfowl that are easy to observe. Buffleheads will endlessly dive, providing a good show, along with Hooded Mergansers and several other species.
While you are looking for ducks in the back bays, don’t forget to scan the marshes for Black-crowned Night-herons and Great Blue Herons. Night-herons become more diurnal in winter and can sometimes be seen at the edge of creeks and marshes waiting for crabs or fish to make them selves easy targets. Great Blue Herons are relatively common throughout the winter.
Watch the weather
Freeze-ups in New York and New England will likely trigger renewed bouts of migration for some waterbirds. Among them will be Buffleheads, Canvasbacks, and some others. Even geese will pick up and continue south with harsh, freezing conditions.
A cold front in the first one-half of December may be colder than in October or November, but it will still bring good birds from the north.
Northern Harrier by Jerry Liguori
The hawks of December are mostly the hardier varieties. Red-tailed Hawks will be the most numerous species, but scrutinize every one of them because you are also likely to find the occasional Red-shouldered Hawk and Northern Goshawk. The numbers of hawks involved can be more than 100-200 in a given day. There will also be small numbers of Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, and Northern Harriers, as well as the occasional Golden and Bald eagle.
Birders who are really interested in seeing owls, along with Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers, should try the Delaware Bayshore. Late afternoon birding at places like Jake’s Landing can be rewarded with great views of Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers as these birds look for voles and mice in the marsh. You may even hear the Short-ears barking, as they swoop low over the marsh grasses. Don’t forget to look at the waterways for the occasional otter and along the banks of Dennis Creek for Clapper Rails that will remain in winter.
Great-horned Owl by Jerry Liguori
For the really intrepid who are in search of owls, try looking through the thick brush, hollies, cedars, and pines along the Bayshore. The road out to Jake’s Landing has been known to host the occasional Great Horned, Long-eared, and other owls. You may have to crawl through some thickets as you look for whitewash, but the reward of finding an owl on your own is worth it. (Ticks may still be active, so take care.)
For those who seek guidance, try signing up for one of the Cape May Bird Observatory owl field trips. Teacher naturalist and coauthor of How to Spot an Owl, Patricia Sutton, leads these trips for the Observatory and has introduced more people to seeing owls in the wild than almost anyone. At the very least, you will see some good birds.
Snowy Owl on Cape May roof
December is also a good month for Snowy Owls. During several winters, Snowy Owls have been seen in Cape May and along the southern New Jersey waterfront. Several times, the owls have perched right on top of a house near the beach in Cape May.
Search for Sparrows
By December first, the songbird migration is all but over. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to find flocks of sparrows, including Fox, White-throated, and sometimes White-crowned. With those flocks you should find the occasional kinglet and in the thicker woods look for Hermit Thrushes. Brown Creepers are also likely to be found as they work up and down the trunks of trees. Try the Beanery or Hidden Valley Trails. As you do, keep an eye out for Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tails, and Harriers that will be hunting the forest edge and open fields.
Don’t give up your birding just because it is December. From Thanksgiving through Christmas, the migration continues. It may not involve as many birds as earlier in the year, but it offers some really high quality experiences.