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Cape May Summer Treats

Photo: Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted August 2008
by Clay and Pat Sutton

Once thought to be a relatively “slow” birdinig season and simply “the time between the migrations,” summer is now a highly anticipated season here at the Cape.

We now know that migration never really ends here, and that some birds are moving every month and indeed every day of the year. It is a great time to be afield – maybe not with any particular goal or bird in mind, but just a time to be open to amazing possibilities.

Early Merlin

On a recent shorebird outing, at the end of a day spent immersed in the ID of a myriad of southbound sandpipers, a sudden flush and clamor from a flock of Tree Swallows and Purple Martins alerted us that something wasn’t right, that a predator had been spotted by the always-wary birds.

And indeed, what to our wondering eyes should appear, but a Merlin cleaving the flock of swallows. The small falcon raced by us, seemingly a migrant heading south. To say that it was “out of season” is an understatement, since the nearest nesting Merlins are in Maine and our first migrants don’t usually appear until after Labor Day.

To our knowledge this is the first Merlin record ever for the month of July. A failed nester maybe, or a non-breeding “floater,” it was truly an unexpected summer birding treat at the Cape.

Crossing Paths with Crossbills

Similarly, a birder at Cape May Point State Park recently heard a familiar call from overhead. It was a well-known signature call, but the time and place were not!

The call was confirmed when two Red Crossbills dropped into the pines to feed on pine cones. These would be rare birds even in late fall or winter, and are the rarest of the rare in mid-Summer.

The crossbills are a tad more explainable than the Merlin; they are known for their mid-season irruptions from their core range, and New England is beginning to report a crossbill movement. Be alert for the “kip-kip” call of crossbills over Cape May Point – there will be more.

Terns and Skimmers

Summer birders visiting (by boat) the booming tern and Black Skimmer colony on Hereford Inlet’s Champagne Island recently enjoyed watching Royal Terns feeding their rapidly growing chicks when unexpectedly both an adult and a very recently-fledged Sandwich Tern sat down at the edge of the group.

Last year Champagne Island attracted the first Royal Tern nesting colony ever for New Jersey, and this year the same colony has apparently produced New Jersey’s first nesting record for Sandwich Tern!

Yes, for the naturalist out and about, there can be some truly unexpected pleasures in late summer.

Unusual Sightings

Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge produced a Yellow Rail, and an American White Pelican and a Glaucous Gull continue there – an amazing conjunction of out-of-range and out-of-season travelers. More predictable, it appears that this is an “invasion year” for White Ibis from the south.

About once every ten years, or so, a bumper crop of White Ibis in the Carolinas and beyond leads to a major dispersal to the north. White Ibis have already appeared at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, Forsythe NWR, and in Cumberland County (and many in Delaware), so keep a lookout (most will be in immature plumage). A flock of White Ibis coming in off Delaware Bay or feeding in a pond along Ocean Drive would be an exceptional, unexpected delight for any Cape May birder.

End of Summer Surprises

It could be any of the birds mentioned above, or perhaps a huge pre-frontal swarm of dragonflies in the skies above. It might be the first noticeable trickle of Monarchs beginning their long journey south.

Maybe a Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Or maybe a Magnificent Frigatebird high over the Cape May Promenade.

Late July through August is a time to keep your mind open to the many possible fortunes of summer at the Jersey Shore.

Remember the words of the late Ernie Choate, one of Cape May’s preeminent ornithologists, “Anything is possible at Cape May.”

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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