cape may birds

Cape May Birds by the Month: July

Black Skimmer and chick on nest by Doyle Dowdell

by Paul Kerlinger

While early July isn’t exactly migration season, from late July through August, migrants arrive and build to a crescendo later in August that is the best time of the year for some species.

Nesting Birds

Some of the easiest and laid back birding can be done while walking on the beach. July is the time for nesting and nestling beach birds. Try the end of Stone Harbor Point for a long walk on the sand. Throughout your walk you are likely to see lots of Black Skimmers, Least (and other) Terns, oystercatchers, and you will also their young.  It’s a great place to see birds in their different plumages because they often just sit there.  If they aren’t sitting and looking good they are begging and screaming to be fed or trying to steal food from each other.  There may even be some Piping Plovers running about, leading their young to feeding places.  You will need a beach tag unless you are there very early or in the evening.

Behind the barrier beaches, you are likely to see herons and egrets out on the marsh and along the tidal creeks.  For a closer look at these birds, along with nestling Ospreys attempting their first flight or simply exercising their wings, take a slow cruise on The Skimmer, or The Osprey to get closer to the tern and Laughing Gull colonies, as well as the herons and egrets than any other way possible.  Bring a camera and keep your eyes peeled for Clapper Rails skulking along the sodbanks and in the tall grass.

Shorebirds Arriving

Shorebirds will be arriving throughout July and will reach peak numbers in mid-late August.  These can be seen virtually anywhere that mudflats or sandy/muddy flats are exposed by the tide or where pools dry up from week to week.  Some can be seen in the Nature Conservancy Preserve along Sunset Avenue.  Also around these freshwater pools are Least Bitterns and Virginia Rails.  Both skulk along the grassy edges and are difficult to see.  Be patient and you might get a view of a Virginia Rail with three or four chicks.  About a decade ago, Black Rails nested in the Nature Conservancy South Cape May Meadows and you neve know when they might reappear.

Good numbers of shorebirds are always present during low tide on the sandbars behind Stone Harbor Point.  Just walk farther around the end of the point and look for hundreds of spots on the sand.  Watch the tide or you might get stuck out there.  Other places to go are Nummy Island and Stone Harbor Blvd. (near the Wetlands Institute). 

A somewhat secret, but potentially excellent place for shorebirds, is the dredge spoil impoundments found along the Cape May Canal.   Access is problematic, but you can walk to almost any of them (through Higbee Beach near the anglers parking lot) and between the Cape May Harbor and Seashore Road.  Sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, yellowlegs, and others gather on these mudflats to probe for invertebrates.  Ironically, these artificial habitats provide some of the best shorebirding opportunities anywhere.  Be extremely careful and do not walk on the dredge spoil – it is soft and you could drown if you sink too deeply!!!!!

Early Hawk Migration

Northern Harrier by Jerry Ligouri

By the last ten days of August, hawk migration has even commenced.  The first hawks to be seen are Bald Eagles, American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, and a few Broad-winged Hawks.  

There won’t be many people on the hawk watch, but there will be a few hawks to get your blood pumping before the big autumn flights.  The conditions will be the same that bring other migrants; a cool front with westerly or northwesterly breezes.  If it feels a bit dry and cool, go birding.

These same conditions will also herald major flights of warblers, tanagers, and other neotropical migrants.  While a few birds come through before the second half of the month, the last two weeks of August are some of the best for autumn songbird migration.  The earlier season migrants include Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-wing Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrush, and orioles (both species).  Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area and the Beanery are two great places to go.  Some migrants usually drop into the trees around the Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May Point.

While it may be hot and sticky away from the beach, July and August birding can be excellent.  Most people don’t think of these months as migration time, but they are  -- and they offer some of the best summer birding because the nesting birds are mixed with the migrants. 

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