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Is November the new October??

Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

by Clay and Pat Sutton

In early November, with waves of waterbirds passing by the Avalon Seawatch as relentlessly as the waves break on the beach, with “kettles” of hawks circling over the Hawkwatch at Cape May Point, and with sparrows at Higbee Beach seeming as numerous as the falling leaves, it was clear there was a lot of autumn migration yet to come.

It wasn’t all that many years ago that this wasn’t the case. In the not too distant memory of many Cape May birders, early November spelled the end of the classic fall migration. The geese and many of the ducks had passed; the hawk flight was nearly over save for late season Red-tailed Hawks; and the seabird flights were winding down as water temperatures plummeted with the on-set of cold weather.

By November, thoughts once turned to winter finches, winter waterfowl at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, and the coming Christmas Bird Counts.

Not so today! November today resembles “early fall” more than the bare-leaved, northwest gale harbinger of winter that November represented not so many years ago.

Cape May birders for over a decade have been seeing the real-world effects of climate change.

For a number of years now, November has hosted ocean temperatures in the high 50s to mid 60s – with the associated schools of fish and attendant feeding flocks of gulls, terns, gannets, and jaegers. In the recent past, this was a phenomenon usually associated with October.

Fall hawk migration too, at least for many species, is more related to weather and temperature than to the day length of the changing season.

If the weather remains warm and prey items are plentiful -- be it fish for Ospreys, lingering songbirds for accipiters, insects and rodents for American Kestrels and Red-tails or reptiles and amphibians that support Red-shouldered Hawks -- many hawks delay their migration too.

We do have some hard local evidence that climate change is impacting local bird migration.

Waterfowl hunters, as well as waterfowl biologists, will readily attest that the ducks and geese that winter here are arriving much later than in the past.

The recent CMBO official hawk counts have been well below the long term 30-year seasonal averages, and peak flights are coming later in the season than in the early years of the count.

Most telling, last year at CMBO’s Avalon Seawatch, the peak counts of two of the principal species, Northern Gannet and Red-throated Loon, occurred the day before the count ended on December 22. Just fifteen years ago, the official count period was established to record virtually the entire flight – fully bracketing peaks that were expected in October and early November.

So “the times they are a’ changing.” While virtually all agree that climate change and associated sea level rise will bring many serious problems for our coastline, in the meantime there are some real benefits to birders.

The autumn migration season is now far more protracted. Most true neotropical migrants will always move on an established timetable, prompted by diminishing day length in fall. But for those birds that respond more to weather, air temperature, and water temperatures, the fall lingers even into December.

Nowadays, November may be the peak of the fall.

Birders can witness continuing hawk flights, including the “big buteos” such as Red-tails and Red-shouldered Hawks, the barrage of waterbirds moving south along our coasts, sparrows moving in waves ahead of you at spots like Higbee Beach or Hidden Valley, or chase hardy lingering species of songbirds attracted and nurtured by the warm weather and abundant insect life.

And, as in the past, November is still the best month at Cape May to encounter rarities (uncommon birds from all points of the compass) as well as migrant owls.

The warmer than normal fall has bought us both birds, and time. If the trend continues, you'll be spending Thanksgiving in Cape May next year.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and authors.

Click to read more about Clay and Pat Sutton's new book!


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