cape may birds

Cape May Birds by the Month: May

Chestnut-sided Warbler by Doyle Dowdell

by Paul Kerlinger

To some, May is the best month for birding Cape May.  It is certainly the most colorful month, with most species being in their freshest and most colorful plumage. 

It is not a mistake that the World Series of Birding is held in May as birding is superb and the birds are more dependable in May than in any other month.  May is also the best time to learn the songs of many species.

Other than the predictability of finding so many species, May is also a seasonal crossroads in Cape May.  Migrants pour through all month and those species that nest here are right where they belong. 

Shorebird Heaven

By May 1, thousands of shorebirds including Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitcher, Whimbrel, Black-bellied Plover, are here, along with lingering Purple Sandpipers, which have spent the winter.  There are other shorebirds as well, and by mid-May, an avalanche of shorebirds arrives. 

More than a million shorebirds pass through the area during this month, with the most interesting spectacle being the smorgasbord on the Delaware Bayshore. Red Knot, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, and Semi-palmated Sandpiper stopover to eat horseshoe crab eggs.  When and where else can you see these species in their best plumages?

The pristine coloration of these birds makes this event one of the wonders of the bird world.  To see this, simply go to the Delaware Bayshore from Norbury’s Landing northward to Thompson’s Beach or even Fortescue.  Not all will be excellent, but you should have an adventure.  The marshes on the way out to the beaches can be also productive, so don’t drive by the better birding places.

Forest Birds

Summer Tanager: Ed Solan

Only a few hundred yards from the Bayshore are some of the most diverse forests along the east coast, all of which are productive songbirds sites.  Any time in May can be excellent for nesting forest songbirds, including Orchard and Baltimore orioles, Wood Thrush, Scarlet and Summer tanagers, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and dozens more. 

If you are adventurous and work hard, you might find a Swainson’s Warbler which may nest in these large forests. 

For easy birding, simply walk the roads at Jake’s Landing or Belleplain State Forest and listen.  You may also see a Wild Turkey walking across the road, a Broad-winged Hawk sitting on a telephone wire, or a Bald Eagle soaring overhead.  Don’t go off the road or you will be covered with ticks.  Look along streams and cutover areas and walk the roads quietly.

Beach Nesters

Piping Plover: Doyle Dowdell

Beach nesting birds are a sure bet in May.  Places like Stone Harbor Point and the Nature Conservancy Beach in Cape May Point can produce Piping Plovers and Least Terns. 

At the former site you will also see Black Skimmer and Oystercatcher, not to mention a few Brant waiting to return to their arctic nesting sites. 

The sandbars and nesting habitat at Stone Harbor Point change annually, so watch the signs and do not disturb nesting and resting birds.  If you see flocks of shorebirds (possibly Red Knots and others), leave them plenty of room.  They need peace before they fly another 1500 or 2000 miles to their arctic nesting sites.


The marshes and pools on Nummy Island shouldn’t be overlooked.  In addition to shorebirds feeding in the pools, you will see most of the herons and egrets including Tri-colored and Little Blue herons.  Clapper Rails can be heard in the background, with salt sparrows mixed in.  Cars move quickly across this island, so exercise extreme caution when crossing the road with your scope or standing next to your car.

The Nature Conservancy meadows and beach in Cape May Point are fine places to see waterfowl, terns, swallows, and rails as well.  Sora may visit during migration and Virginia Rails nest along the edges of the pools and ponds, as did Least Bitterns before the restoration project.  To see these birds, stop and take a long look.  Slight movement will give these cryptic and reclusive species away.  They may be a foot or two back in the reeds, but occasionally will emerge for a fleeting glimpse.

For a somewhat different birding experience you may wish to venture into the marshes to listen for night sounds.  Clapper Rail, Black Rail, shorebirds, and even some songbirds like Yellow-breasted Chat, Marsh Wren, and salt sparrows will sing on warm, calm nights.  As with most birding, patience, patience, patience --- and bug spray – will be rewarded.

Look for Rarities

May is also a month for rarities.  Species like Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Mississippi Kite show up almost every year.  As many as 4 to 7 Mississippi Kites have been seen at the Beanery at one time.  Ask other birders what they’ve seen.  News travels fast among birders and the camaraderie helps to get the word out when a rarity shows up.

By month’s end, song and shorebird migration are winding down.  Virtually all migrants will be gone by the first week of June, so don’t miss your chance.

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