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The Royal Watch

Photo: Doyle Dowdell

by Clay and Pat Sutton

We’re watching for the Royals here at Cape May this season. No, not the Queen, or even Prince Harry, but for the first time ever Cape May does have its own royalty this summer: the stately and beautiful Royal Terns.

Royal Terns are nesting here for the first time in history and this is an event that simply needs to be watched!

Up to 135 Royal Terns have been seen around Hereford Inlet, the large body of water between Wildwood and Stone Harbor in recent weeks, and a number have been enjoyed by birders on the beach at Cape May Point State Park and at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge as well.

These are numbers more expected in the fall – September and October – when post-breeding Royal Terns head north from nesting colonies in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Birders thought something might be up, since courtship activities were being seen daily.

And indeed, in late June, it was confirmed by New Jersey State endangered species biologists that up to 50 Royal Terns are nesting, with at least 15 nests – birds on eggs, in the Black Skimmer colony on Champagne Island in Hereford Inlet. The Royals are constantly seen carrying food to the colony – to supply the mate dutifully sitting on the eggs.

The excitement is that Royal Terns have never before bred in Cape May, and except for one or two scattered nests in Barnegat Bay over the past decade, have never bred anywhere in New Jersey either. Historically, the Royal Tern was a very rare bird – the eminent ornithologist Witmer Stone never saw one at Cape May (as can be learned in his classic Bird Studies at Old Cape May, published in 1937). By the 1960s they were regular in fall – local fishermen called them “Bluefish Birds” because they showed up just as the fall run of bluefish began. In the past few years, many hundreds could easily be found in late summer and fall.

Royals have been extending their range north. In the past couple of years they have nested as close as Chincoteague – but never in Cape May.

Photo: Doyle Dowdell

Until now. The appearance of royalty – this large, bold and loud tern – requires a Royal Watch. Go to enjoy their raucous calls, daring dives for food as large as Menhaden and mullet, and most importantly, their spectacular courtship flights over the colony beaches and inlet. Royal Tern courtship flights are thrilling – lengthy, synchronized, fast formation flying. They zoom about the sky on set wings, calling all-the-while. It is not to be missed.

Watch for the Royals on the beach at Stone Harbor Point, or along the beach and seawall overlooking Hereford Inlet on the north end of North Wildwood. Champagne Island is the large sandbar in Hereford Inlet, and with a spotting scope the island and its birds can be reasonably viewed from the North Wildwood seawall.

The Royal Watch will continue throughout the summer. There is so much to be learned. How many are on eggs? When will they hatch? How many young will fledge from this first-ever Cape May County colony?

Enjoy the Black Skimmers too, royalty in their own right, and look for Gull-billed Terns (up to 6 have been spotted at Stone Harbor Point) and Sandwich Terns among the Common, Forster’s, and Least Terns. But as the sleek and regal Royal Terns flash by, heading for our first-ever nesting colony, realize that you are watching a truly royal event. Fanfare is in order.

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

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