Cape May Birds by the Month: March
Laughing Gulls by Doyle Dowdell
by Paul Kerlinger
The wind is cold. The ocean is even colder. The trees still don't have leaves. March ushers out the remnants of winter and marks the real beginning of spring birding. Although a few hardy species have already started to migrate through Cape May during February, many more species show up this month, including some birds passing through and other birds returning to nest.
Loons, loons and more loons
One of the wonders of the birding world occurs in Cape May in March. Actually, the Cape May loon phenomenon can extend from late February through mid-April, depending on water temperature and weather. At times, hundreds of Red-throated Loons can be viewed. Common Loons can also be seen, but they are not as dependable and may be found anywhere.
Watch from the Cape May Point State Park or from the beach anywhere between the Park and the Concrete Ship. These coldwater birds will be seen floating backwards in long lines. They face into the current and dive repeatedly searching for fish or, on occasion, crabs. You may hear them calling if the weather is calm and if the birds are close to shore.
There are lots of waterbirds to observe. The back bays and inlets host Brant, Bufflehead, Black Ducks, Oldsquaw, and mergansers, among other waterfowl.. From the outer beaches, like Cape May Point, Northern Gannets will appear from time to time.
Get on a boat
If the mackerel appear offshore, you may want to jump on a party boat to get out to the pelagic birds. Northern Gannet, gulls, loons, along with the rarer species (Black-legged Kittiwake and Razorbill) may be seen on these trips. They are attracted to the feeding of mackerel and fishing boats, which can make for a spectacular experience.
During the first half of March, a visit to the Cape May Ferry terminal may reveal one of the rarer gulls such as Little Gull or Black-headed Gull. Viewed from the picnic area just to the west of the terminal, birders can see several species of gulls feeding in the prop-wash of the ferries. Small gulls may turn out to be the first Laughing Gulls of the year, which normally appears in the first week of the month. Traditionally, the person who sees and reports the first Laughing Gull of the year gets the LAGU award.
A round-trip ferry ride from Cape May to Lewes and back will be rewarded with loon, gannet, and waterfowl sightings, not to mention the ever present gulls. You will probably also see Great Cormorant around the jetties on the Lewes side of the Bay. Pick a calm, clear day and dress warmly if you want to stay on deck for the trip.
Osprey: Ed Solan
In early March, the last hawks of winter can be seen along with the newly arriving northbound migrants. Bald Eagles will still be present along the Maurice River and Delaware Bayshore early in the month and nesting is well underway for the resident eagles.
The first Ospreys generally appear by the tenth of March, with larger numbers arriving late in the month. Look for them fishing the calm waters of the back bays or even Lily Lake or the State Park ponds in Cape May Point. The shallower waters are warmer and attract more fish. They are also protected from the wind and make it easier for Osprey to see fish prior to diving for them.
Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and American Kestrels will be scattered throughout area during the month. They can be seen feeding in local fields.
Egrets and herons will be appearing this month, mostly from mid-month on. These birds can be seen feeding in the shallow marsh pools and tidal creeks on sunny days. Great Egret, Black-crowned Night-herons, and others will be seen lurking the marshes or on the edges of forest patches adjacent to the marshes.
Try looking for these birds on Nummy Island, behind Stone Harbor, or the marshes along the road from Cape May to Wildwood Crest. Great Blue Herons are rather common throughout in the month.
Other birds to watch for include the return of migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers, various sparrows, and even an early shorebird or two. Try the fields of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area, or The Beanery for American Woodcock displays. They can be seen and heard (making a repeated, buzzy "peent") before and as they spiral upward to attract a mate.
It is still early for many species, but March birding can provide an interesting mix of wintering birds and spring migrants.