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The Cape May Hawkwatch


Photo: Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted September 15, 2008
by Clay and Pat Sutton

At the Cape May Hawkwatch, the birds come to you.

Arguably, more species of birds have been seen from the Cape May Hawkwatch platform than any other single spot in North America.

It's the epicenter of fall at the Cape.

About 45,000 hawks per year on average are counted at the Cape May Hawkwatch.

Although some hawks migrate from the beginning of August through the end of December, the official hawkatch count is conducted from September 1 through November 30.

Location Location Location

Looming both literally and figuratively over the Cape May birding scene, the Hawkwatch Platform overlooks both the skyline of the Cape May Point and Bunker Pond. It's located right off the parking lot of Cape May Point State Park.

The venerable hawkwatch is without question the most impressive of all of North America’s hawkwatch structures.

It's built in three tiers of redwood and ably hosts hundreds of watchers, affording all an exceptional view.

Hawkwatch History

The current platform is not the first.

When the Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) began the modern era hawkwatch in 1976, the “platform” was a mere lifeguard stand hastily requisitioned by Pete Dunne for an elevated view above the reed grass.

Today’s platform is actually the third such structure to stand at the location. The first two rapidly became obsolete – too small as Cape May’s avian fame and fortune grew.

The Hawkwatch as a Gathering Place

But the hawkwatch is so much more than just a structure. It's a veritable shrine to the world of migration at Cape May.

Not only is it the single best place to view migratory hawks, but it's also a place to share the wonders of migration with others.

It is lively, comfortable, a place to feel at home, to greet old friends and new. After a day or two, it is the place where everybody knows your name.

That the Cape May hawkwatch is among the most welcoming in all of North America is in large part thanks to the Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) education interns - happy, outgoing, eager to teach, eager to share. They are the ambassadors of Cape May's storied migration.

The interns offer daily help, and their ID Mini-Workshop programs are presented every Friday (10:30AM. to 12:30PM), Saturday (8 to 10AM in September and 10:30AM to 12:30PM in October), and Sunday (10:30AM to 12:30PM), through October 31. (except October 3, 4, 5, & 24).

Any and all questions are eagerly answered.

All Seaasons Platform

Although the hawk migration winds down in late November, the hawkwatch platform offers excellent birding at any time of the year.

In winter, the expansive Bunker Pond in front of the watch site is excellent for waterfowl.

In spring, watch for birds coming in off Delaware Bay, heading north.

In summer, gulls, terns, and black skimmers populate the beach and ponds. If water levels are low, shorebirds will be present spring and fall (in other words, April through October, with only a lull in June).

More than Hawks

And in fall, even though hawks enjoy top billing, the entire spectrum of migration can be enjoyed from the Hawkwatch.

“Morning flight” warblers and passerines pass overhead. Ducks, geese, tundra swans, and more all herald the fall. Cormorants and loons pass over the beach and ocean.

Until the waters cool, the harsh yet somehow soothing calls of Royal Terns are a constant background at the hawkwatch.

The migration is not limited to birds. Red bats and others pass at dawn and dusk. Monarchs often fill the sky, and swarms of dragonflies numbering in the millions at times actually obscure high flying hawks.

In spring and fall, bottlenosed dolphin migrate beyond the surf line. Northern gannet, jaegers, and scoters – it’s all happening at the Cape May Hawkwatch! It happens year round, but fall is absolutely the best.

As the boardwalk hucksters used to say, “Come on Down.” Now through November, you'll find friendly, like-minded folks with their scopes and binoculars scanning the skies and the sea. Who knows - a Golden Eagle could be just over the horizon.


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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