Cape May Birding Places: The Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge

By Paul Kerlinger
Outdoors Columnist

The Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge - known as the Cape May Meadows - used to be a cow pasture at the edge of the dunes. The shallow, freshwater ponds and mudflats are one of the neatest shorebird stopover locations along the East Coast.

Rare shorebirds are not the exception but the rule. Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Arctic Tern, Roseate Tern, Whiskered Tern, Wilson’s Phalarope, Black Rail, King Rail, Hudsonian Godwit, and Black-necked Stilt are among the rarities recorded from the Meadows.

Habitat in the Meadows has changed over the years. The pastures and cows have succeeded to brush and early succession forest. Despite these changes, the Meadows still offers great birding and is a must visit for birders coming to Cape May.

Beach Nesting

Beach nesting species include Piping Plover and Least Tern in most years. They can be found in the roped off areas. Watch for feeding plovers, including their young, at the edge of the surf and feeding Least Terns in the ponds or just beyond the surf line.

Courtship behavior of the terns can be fun to watch, unless gulls show up to steal the terns’ fishy offerings. Later in the summer and into fall, look for Black Skimmer skimming in the shallows just off the beach or, at times, in the Meadow’s ponds.

Wading Birds

Herons and egrets frequent the ponds from April through and it isn’t unusual to see a Black-crowned Night-heron feeding in the shady edge of the phragmites. Gadwall and other ducks nest. Common Moorhen nest at the edges of the ponds and are most often seen east of the east path.

Least Bittern and Virginia Rails are relatively common in the Meadows, although seeing them takes patience. Least Bitterns can best be seen along the east path by simply waiting and watching for motion a foot inside the phramites. If you are lucky they will come out for a few seconds.

Virginia Rails may be seen running or feeding – again if you are patient – at the edges of the ponds. Marsh Wren and Common Yellowthroat abound in the phragmites and brush at the edges of the ponds.

In late summer, shorebirds show up in larger numbers, offering great opportunities to study different plumages. By August, their numbers are peaking and waterfowl begin to arrive. Blue-winged Teal and other ducks add to the diversity, and are present in modest numbers.

Fall Migration

Fall migration in the Meadows is nothing short of spectacular. Many of the hawks counted at the Cape May Hawkwatch pass directly over the Meadows or hunt in it. Peregrines, Cooper’s Hawks, and Merlins can put on a spectacular show from mid-September through late October, along with scads of harriers, Sharp-shins, and even the occasional Bald Eagle circling overhead.

In late October through November, hawks continue, and are joined by waterfowl, rails, sparrows, etc. Loons (both Red-throated and Common) pass by regularly with some stopping to feed off the beach. At this time also look for jaegers and gannets in the distance. A steady procession of scoters can be seen, mostly well offshore, but sometimes they are just beyond the surfline.

From mid to late fall and into early winter lots of songbirds arrive including Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers, bluebirds, waxwings, and, of course, plenty of sparrows and finches. Blizzards of Tree Swallows can sometimes be seen in fall, and earlier in the fall and during spring migration all species of swallows are present.

Dusk at the platform along the main trail can payoff bigtime if you are lucky. American Bitterns, Long-eared Owls, Short-eared Owls, and some other species can sometimes be seen taking off and moving toward the Lighthouse and Delaware as they circle up against into the descending darkness.

Each year, hundreds (maybe thousands) of Saw-whet Owls move through the Meadows unseen, along with zillions of robins, woodcock, rails and others.

Winter is a bit slower in the Meadows, although waterfowl frequent the ponds, American Bitterns can be at the edges of the phramites, and hardier songbirds are plentiful. Loons, mostly Common, often can be seen foraging just off the beach.

In whatever season, the Meadows offer fine birding opportunities. Because of its closeness to town and other birding locations, it doesn’t take long to get to and bird this site. Two hours of hard birding is usually enough, although you may be lured into staying longer in hopes of seeing one of those rarities.

Read Clay Sutton's column on the The Cape May Meadows at the peak of shorebird migration.


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