Cape May Birding Places: Cape May Point State Park
By Paul Kerlinger
There is no finer place in North America to watch migrating hawk than the Cape May Point State Park. Not only are the diversity and numbers of hawks great, but the viewing is unparalleled.
More than 45,000 hawks were counted from the hawkwatch platform in 2003 and more probably passed unseen. Although smaller numbers of Northern Harriers, Bald Eagles, and American Kestrels start passing in mid-August, the real numbers of hawks don’t appear until the second one-half of September.
A good day in late September or the first week of October can be marked by the passing of 2-3,000 Sharp-shinned Hawks, hundreds of Northern Harriers, and dozens of Peregrine Falcons. More than 1,000 Ospreys have been counted in a given day. Look for the passing of a cold front with northwest, west, or north winds, then be on the hawkwatch bright and early the next day. The best part about the hawk migration at the Park is that the birds are often at eye level. Peregrines chasing Northern Flickers or gulls isn’t uncommon. Merlins chasing everything, including each other is always fun to watch and sometimes they will be within a few feet of the hawkwatch.
Don’t forget to look for Tree Swallows in late September. On some days thousands will pass, looking like pepper flakes in the sky. As the hawk migration winds down in early to mid-November, American Bitterns, owls, freshwater ducks, seaducks, and many other species persist. Hawk migration can start a bit later in the morning in November, but on days following the passage of a cold front, birders can see good flights of Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned, harriers, and even a few Peregrines can still be seen, along with a Golden Eagle or two.
Scoters of all three species can be seen passing offshore November and early December, along with Red-throated Loons and smaller numbers of Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and many other species. Gannets are usually easy to see at this time and sometimes thousands will work the rips off Cape May Point, diving for whatever fish are present. Late fall can also be great for the hardier songbirds. Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers almost drip from the trees, along with White-throated Sparrows and others.
Winter is slower, although the ponds (in front of the hawkwatch and along the trails) and ocean will usually offer up various species of ducks, loons, and even a few gannets. In some winters, rafts of ducks can be seen feeding off the Point. In winter 2003-2004, a flock of scoters estimated at more than 100,000 birds was observed feeding off the point for more than one month. Alcids have been seen on occasion, along with eiders. One of the best viewpoints is the pavilion at the other end of the parking lot from the hawkwatch platform. Don’t forget to look for Purple Sandpipers on the jetty and Sanderlings feeding in the surf.
Spring activity in the Park commences in late March or early April as the Purple Martins arrive. The nest boxes in the Park and adjacent Cape May Point provide homes for hundreds of martins which will be seen until about mid-August, when they take off for the tropics. In May and through the summer, look for Rough-winged Swallows, which nest in structures in and around the Park. Common songbirds can always be found along the wooded trails.
In April and May, scads of migrants appear in the Park. May is the time for Neotropical songbirds. They can be seen at the edges of the forest and along the trails that wind through the east side of the Park. The outer parking lot and trees surrounding the nearby Cape May Bird Observatory can host warblers, vireos, grosbeaks, and other Neotropical songbirds if there is a fallout.
Summer brings a mixed bag. Common and Forster’s terns are always present resting and feeding in the ponds and surf. Look offshore for large feeding flocks of terns, Laughing Gulls, and other birds. Although most are common species, Cory’s and Sooty Shearwaters are sometimes present. Looking well offshore, look for Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, which will be dabbling its feet in the water. You’ll need a scope!
Cape May Point State Park always offers great birding opportunities year round. It is an easy location to bird and you will usually find other birders. Birding is also comfortable because there is shelter from the rain and seats to rest your back.
Where else can you see so many species, so close, and be so comfortable. Remember to bring your scope.
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