Cape May Birding Places: Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area
By Paul Kerlinger
Ask almost any birder in North America to name the best place to see fall migrating warblers and the answer is usually Higbee Beach. This user-friendly wildlife management area is maintained by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife as a stopover site for migrating songbirds and hawks, as well as for some nesting and wintering birds.
Habitat and more Habitat
Don’t let the name fool you. Although Higbee Beach is on the Delaware Bay, the habitat at this wildlife area is a mixture of forest, field, and brushland, with a few ponds and swamp forests, along with some mudflats. This diversity of habitats, combined with the overall size (1,069 acres) and the location near the tip of the Cape May peninsula, provide all the ingredients for spectacular birding. As night migrating songbirds and day migrating hawks move into the Cape May peninsula, they find themselves surrounded by water. Higbee Beach is a haven that provides shelter, food, and a place to rest. For a birder, it provides wonderful opportunities.
During fall (August through early November), start your birding before sunrise at the dike. From one-half hour before sunrise until about 2 hours after sunrise, night migrating warblers, orioles, sparrows, kinglets, and many other songbirds can be seen flying northward or dropping into the trees.
Viewing from the dike or the elevated platform that is along the road to the right of the main parking lot, puts you at eye level with the birds. You are looking into and above the treetops. Some warblers and other birds will be below eye level, landing long enough for you to make a quick identification. Perhaps a quarter million songbirds pass over the dike during autumn.
Once the sun is up, the game is to find the birds feeding along the edges of fields and trails. Walk slowly, looking as you go.
Also watch for other birders, who usually will let you know if there are birds to be seen and direct you to the better places. Where the sun hits the trees in the morning often makes for the best birding. The trails leading to the south (to the left when entering the parking lot) traverse the edges of field and forest and some of the best birding can be within a few hundreds yards of the parking lot.
Hawk migration at Higbee Beach can be as spectacular as the songbird migration. Hawks stopping to catch a meal find it rather easy at Higbee, especially the bird eating hawks - Sharp-shinned and Coopers’ Hawks, along with Merlin, Peregrine, and Northern Harriers. Although it may not be fun for the smaller birds, these hawks can often be seen chasing (and occasionally capturing) prey species. One of the reasons Higbee Beach is so good for raptors is the enormous numbers of songbirds that offer an easy meal to migrating raptors. Like the songbirds, they too must stoke up on calories before they take off to complete their migrations.
Spring birding can also be great for songbirds, but not as great for raptors. Although there are generally fewer birds, they are in breeding plumage, which makes for spectacular viewing of individual birds. Warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, thrushes and other songbirds can pack in from late April through May and even into early June. Sparrows and other early season migrants move through from late March through April and into early May. There doesn’t seem to be a morning flight at the dike, so stick to the same trails as in fall.
During the nesting season, look for Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Yellow Warbler, White-eyed Vireo and many other songbirds that nest in the forests and fields. As during the migration season, simply follow the many paths, stopping regularly to listen and look. American Woodcock and Chuck-Will's-Widow also nest at Higbee. Listen for woodcock (mid-March through April) along the open fields near the parking lots, just as the sun is setting. Slightly later, from the parking lot or the fields nearby, you may also hear Chuck-Will's-Widow calling (May-June).
Winter birding can also be interesting at Higbee Beach. Although not as spectacular, you will likely see a variety of sparrows, some kinglets, Hermit Thrush, as well as hawks that forage in the fields. Owls are found on occasion and are probably more abundant than people realize.
When birding Higbee Beach, don’t forget to look out over the Cape May Canal and the Delaware Bay. Along the beach, jetty, and in the canal, there are always gulls and in some seasons terns, shorebirds, Red-throated Loons, among other birds. Bonaparte’s, Little and Black-headed Gulls, along with Lesser Black-backed Gulls have been sighted along the canal and jetty in winter, so don’t take the gulls for granted.
Higbee Beach is at the very end of New England Road, on the Delaware Bay. Make a left from Bayshore Road and follow to the end. It's about 4 miles from the city of Cape May and about 3 miles from the Hawk Watch platform in Cape May Point.
There are two portions to Higbee Beach. The older section can be accessed from the parking lot at the end of New England Road, where there is a road to the right to the dike and to the fishing jetty. Park in the main lot (or the smaller lot 100 yards back up the road) and commence birding. The parking lot can be spectacular at dawn.
About one-half mile before the end of New England Road, is another access point parking lot. This lot is on the south side of the road (left as you are going toward the west end of New England Road). Trails leading from this parking lot extend back into Hidden Valley Ranch, large fields, swamp and upland forest, and Pond Creek Marsh. Both portions of Higbee have great trails. Stay on the marked trails to avoid harming the sparsely vegetated dunes. Higbee Beach is a treasure to be protected and enjoyed wisely.
Note: Higbee Beach in the past was a nude beach. It is generally safe, with the only worry being the usual ticks and poison ivy. However, it is advised that birders go in groups of 2 or more, as should be done for birding in any remote location.
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