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Cape May Close Calls

Photo courtesy Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted May 2008
by Clay and Pat Sutton

As we walked the beach at Cape May Point, a Merlin raced over the dunes and headed out over the Delaware Bay.  Our first Merlin of the season, it seemed to be a migrant, but it was heading south and the date was late April.

Merlin vs. songbird

As the Merlin’s pace quickened, we realized something was up – the small falcon was on a hunting mission.  The hawk rose higher, and just before it nearly disappeared into the fog over the cold bay waters, it stooped into a flock of small birds. 

The Merlin made several passes at a tiny songbird.  The misses were by inches, but the songbird eluded the Merlin – each time diving out of the way at the last millisecond.

We watched the prey rather than the predator, and the traumatized and tired small bird finally gained the safety of land.  It dashed by us, inches over the sand, and plunged into the thick dune vegetation behind the beach. 

It had been a close call, but the bird had survived one of the most dangerous parts of its journey – crossing the wide waters of the Delaware Bay.

Migration Close Calls

Migration is undoubtedly the most perilous time in the intricate life cycle of many birds. Close calls are a part of the spectacle of migration.  Many perils - structures, feral cats, cars - are not as dramatic as a Merlin, but can be every bit as lethal. 

Dangerous too are adverse weather and the challenge of finding “stopover habitat” for necessary food and fuel along the way. 

There are often few opportunities to see the drama and danger birds face during their twice annual migration journey. Some of the Cape May “close calls” we have witnessed are memorable examples of those largely unseen, everyday dangers. 

Peregrine vs. Razorbill

At Stone Harbor we were watching a late fall Razorbill diving for food in the back bay waters. 

As Pat watched the Razorbill, Clay noticed a circling Peregrine Falcon.  As Pat said “The Razorbill is flying ... heading right,”

Clay watched the Peregrine roll into a dive.  The objects of our attention soon collided – or almost so. 

The Razorbill flew straight into the water as the Peregrine missed it by inches – the splash soaking the Peregrine.  A close call for the Razorbill, but all the Peregrine got was wet.

Golden Eagle versus Black Duck

We remember a similar experience with a Golden Eagle and a Black Duck.  This time there was contact – the diving eagle hit the duck and it plummeted to the marsh. 

But once again it was only a very close call – the duck bounced off the marsh like an errant football.  It came up flying and hightailed it out of there, leaving a frustrated eagle no doubt thinking about “the one that got away.”

Cormorant versus Herring

It’s not only birds that can have miraculous escapes. 

At Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area in northern Cape May County, we recently watched a Double-crested Cormorant surface with a huge fish – a “spring run” Herring. 

As the cormorant sought to subdue the struggling fish (which was as large as a cormorant could ever hope to swallow), the Herring escaped several times, but the bird caught it again it each time in the shallow water.  Finally the fish got away, but only for moments. 

Herring versus Osprey

A hovering Osprey had been watching the entire time and now dove on the Herring.  It missed, made a hurried second dive, and scored!  The Osprey rose out of the water with the Herring and struggled to gain altitude. 

The fish wiggled violently and finally broke free of the Osprey’s talons.  It fell back into the water just inches from dry ground.  We felt we had just seen the world’s luckiest Herring – one that survived several close calls.

At least this Osprey only had to worry about the one that got away. 

Osprey versus Needlefish

Another Osprey a few days later probably wished that the fish had gotten away. 

Near the Wetlands Institute, we saw an Osprey plunge into the water and come up with a fish.  As it came nearer, heading to its nest, we could see the prey was a Needlefish about two feet long. 

About one quarter of a Needlefish’s length is made up of jaws, jaws with hundreds of long, needle-sharp teeth (anglers hate to catch Needlefish for just that reason).

As the Osprey flew by, the fish was snapping at any and all parts of the Osprey and soon closed down on its leg.  The Osprey let out an audible yelp. 

The Osprey tried to adjust its hold only to have the Needlefish clamp down on its tail.  This was less painful, but it created a major aerodynamic problem for the Osprey as the Needlefish pulled the bird’s tail down toward its feet.

As the Osprey headed erratically for its nearby nest we weren’t sure of the outcome, but could only marvel how, at times, it is the predator that has the close call and not the prey. 

May Migration

These daily dramas will happen all over the Cape as spring migrants flood north during May. Birds big and small wiill have to face a maze of close calls before getting to their nesting grounds. Keep an eye out for these instant match ups.

As our recent Cape May Point beach walk came to an end, we crested the dune at the Stites Avenue boardwalk crossover.

The Merlin was nowhere to be seen, but we heard the distinct wheezy calls of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher come from deep in the dune thicket.

The little songbird was singing, perhaps celebrating its harrowing Cape May close call.

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

Click to read more about Clay and Pat Sutton's Cape May birding book!


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