Cape May Birds by the Month: February
by Paul Kerlinger
Red-throated Loon by Doyle Dowdell
Watching dozens or even hundreds of loons drifting with the current just off Cape May Point is, for some of us, the first sign of spring. All facing into the current, these fish eaters drift, sometimes in single file, along with the currents. On the outgoing tide, they face up the Delaware Bay and drift out into the ocean. At the end of their drift, they fly back into the Bay and repeat the process.
The skeins of Red-throated Loons can number in the dozens and a scan of the waters off Cape May Point on a calm day at the end of February can reveal hundreds of these birds.
This spectacle is not seen by many birders. It is the beginning of a spring buildup of Red-throated Loons, staging before they make the long flight back to arctic ponds and lakes. For those who know the phenomenon, it signals the first signs of spring.
Watch for Waterbirds
Waterbirds can be excellent from mid-February on, depending on the water temperature and general weather.
In addition to the loon spectacle, a ferry ride from Cape May to Lewes across the mouth of Delaware Bay can yield several hundred Red-throated Loon, with perhaps a Common Loon, dozens of Long-tailed Ducks (formerly Oldsquaw), Bufflehead, scoters (usually Black and Surf), and even some Red-breasted Merganser.
Make sure you pick a relatively calm day so that you can see these birds on the water. Dress warmly and stand near the bow, moving from side to side to get the best views of the wide expanses.
Cape May Point
You may also see the loons from the end of Cape May Point. Bring a scope and scan. Don’t forget to look for Purple Sandpiper on the jetties. Mixed with the Purples are likely to be Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling.
Waterfowl and loons are not the only waterbirds to be seen. You may also see a Northern Gannet or two and there are usually some Great Cormorants on the rock piles outside the Lewes Harbor. In some years, a dozen or more of these cormorants may be seen sunning themselves on these structures. In years when the waters are warm mackerel appear in the ocean followed by gannets and other seabirds. Puffins and razorbills have both been reported offshore in February.
On the Water
Black-headed Gull by Doyle Dowdell
Jump on a party fishing boat if the weather is good and prepare for a chilly day of scanning the waves.
If you don’t want to take a ferry or boat ride, simply go to the ferry terminal and look at the gulls. In addition to the usual Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed, you may also see Lesser Black-backed, Little, and Black-headed gulls. All make their appearances there.
Hawk Migration Begins
The first hawk migrants also generally appear in late February, especially if there are warm periods. Northern Harriers are one of the first migrant species, particularly males. Even some male American Kestrels commence their migration in late February. These migrations aren’t obvious because they are spread out. Nevertheless, these birds and some Red-tailed Hawks and eagles are on the move buy the last week of the month and you are likely to see one here and one there if you are alert.
Maurice River Eagles
Bald Eagles by Doyle Dowdell
Look skyward and in the trees along the Maurice River for Bald Eagles. The Maurice River has a great winter population of raptors that also includes numerous Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harrier, among others.
Waterfowl also stage in late February along the Maruice River, where they try to avoid being eaten by the eagles. Try the wild rice areas upstream from Mauricetown to Millville. Viewing points along the river are tough to find, but they are there. Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal are regular wintering species and their numbers sometimes increase in late February.
Don't forget Sparrows
Winter sparrows and other songbirds are still a part of the February landscape. Thickets and forests in the Beanery and Hidden Valley host Fox Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, and more. There are also the occasional Golden-crowned Kinglet and Brown Creeper if you are lucky. You may wish to explore the forests of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge along Route 47 near the Goshen offices of the Cape May Bird Observatory. Some of these species visit the feeders at both the Cape May Point and Goshen bird observatory centers.
A treat for the more nocturnally restless would be an evening junket around Higbee. Listen from the road and you may hear Great Horned Owls and coyotes. At least 2 packs are known to be active in this area and howl every night. The owls can also be heard at dusk if you don’t wish to stay out after dark. Screech Owls may also be vocal at this time and it wouldn’t hurt to try to whistle one up.
One of the best parts of February is that there are no crowds. You will find a solitude that is absent for most of the year and you will find some fine birding.