cape may birds

Cape May Birds by the Month: January

Purple Sandpiper by Doyle Dowdell

by Paul Kerlinger

It was a blizzard, but the “snowflakes” weren’t falling from the sky.  Instead, they were rising up from the marsh, swirling and milling in a rough semi-circle before moving off.  More than 10,000 Snow Geese had just blasted off from the salt marshes of Forsythe (formerly Brigantine) National Wildlife Refuge (near Absecon in Atlantic County).  The reason for this spectacle was a single, adult Bald Eagle that had taken off from the trees a half-mile away and flew slowly toward the geese.  That eagle was looking for a meal; perhaps a sick or injured goosed or even a dead one.  With more than a half-million Snow Geese in South Jersey during the winter, the pickings are generally easy.

Blizzards of birds at Forsythe

Snow Geese were not the only birds scattered by the eagle.  More than 100 Black Ducks, Shovelers, and Green-winged Teal got up from the water as well.  Even some Dunlin and a Great Blue Heron rose from the flats inside the impoundment.  I hadn’t realized so many birds were there.  By the time I’d finished driving the 7+ mile loop, I’d seen lots of birds and had some great views.  Because of the cold, I was really glad that I could watch the action from the warmth of my vehicle.

Snowy Owls have been observed at Forsythe NWR, and these birds may visit the refuge at any time during the winter.  Other raptors that can be seen at Forsythe in January include Peregrine Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, and Short-eared Owl.  Each winter all of these species are seen at the Refuge, but they are not a daily occurrence.  You will see raptors, but you will probably have to work to see a Short-ear or a Rough-leg.

The wild melee of wings described above is a regular January occurrence in South Jersey.  It is repeated almost daily at places like Forsythe NWR.  However, there are other great places for seeing the mid-winter waterfowl and eagle spectacle. 

Delaware Bayshore Winter Birds

At the Delaware Bayshore, not far from the Cape May Bird Observatory – Goshen center – are places like Jakes’ Landing and other landings that permit expansive views of the Delaware Bay salt marshes. Each of these landings provides a means of comfortably seeing waterfowl and raptors.  If you are really adventurous, try Dividing Creek and Turkey Point in Cumberland County, or the Maurice River from Mauricetown upstream to Millville.  There are decent roads and observation platforms from which you can get great views, especially along the Bayshore.  The river is more problematic, but it is worth the looking.  The Delaware Bayshore and Maurice River are wonderful for winter eagles and waterfowl.

Cape May Jetties

Ruddy Turnstone on an icy jetty.

The lower portion of the Cape May Peninsula also provides fine January birding.  The jetties and nearshore waters around Cape May and Cape May Point usually host Purple Sandpipers, as well as some Sanderling and maybe Ruddy Turnstones.  Out in the water, scan for Red-throated (or maybe Common) Loons as they dive, seeking fish and even the occasional crab dinner.

If you are good at identifying gulls or wish to learn to identify them better, you should check the Cape May Ferry docks.  Don’t look far from the boats.  Look right where the “prop wash” occurs at the back of the boat.  As the boat’s propeller turns, it stirs up the water, bringing bits of food to waiting gulls.  Ring-billed, Bonaparte’s, as well as Little and Black-headed gulls can be found in winter.  The rarer species are not always there, but keep trying.

Another good spot for winter gulls is the area near Two Mile Landing and the fish/clam docks along Ocean Drive (on the way to Wildwood Crest).  Lesser Black-backed Gulls are there frequently and white-winged (Iceland and Glaucous) gulls have been known to make an appearance. 

Winter Waterfowl

Long-tailed Duck by Doyle Dowdell

On your way to Two Mile Landing and in the marshes around this area, stop and check for waterfowl.  Bufflehead, Long-tailed Ducks, Great Cormorant, and other interesting waterbirds will be in the harbor.  The harbor can also be viewed from the end of docks located north of Pittsburgh and Texas Avenues, as well as the road into the Coast Guard Station off Pittsburgh Ave.

Just because it is cold, dreary, and January, don’t miss some wonderful birding.  Dress warmly, go to the right spots, and you are likely to get great views of species you normally wouldn’t see.

Winter Birding Tip:  If you do go to Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge you should definitely bring a scope.  A tripod is necessary, or a window mount for your scope can be helpful.  These can be found at the Cape May Bird Observatory shop or at one of the other birding stores in the area.  The window mount permits you to use the scope while seated in your car, providing comfort while not spooking nearby birds.

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