pat and clay sutton



A Winter Walk at Cape May Point

Posted January 2008
by Clay and Pat Sutton

A walk on a winter’s day at Cape May Point can be so much more than a bird walk.

Yes, the birding can be exceptional, usually as good as just about anywhere in the mid-Atlantic region in winter. But combine the variety of birds with the vistas and the specter of the overlapping seasons, and you have the makings of a pleasant and fulfilling day indeed.

On a recent walk, it hardly seemed like winter. Cape May Point, buffered by the surrounding waters of the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, is almost always one of the warmest spots for miles around.

Recalling Past Sightings

Our winter bird walk was a walk both through time and through the seasons. We recalled a Dovekie we saw by one Cape May Point jetty a few years ago. Hey – this is right where we enjoyed the Rock Wren throughout the winter of 1993. Wow, remember the Brown Booby here on the St. Mary’s jetty following Hurricane Hugo? We’ll never forget the Lesser Nighthawk perched right here in these cedars just this past November!

Fond remembrances of good birds past can only evoke thoughts of the future. Will Bohemian Waxwings finally make it to Cape May this winter? Do recent alcid sightings presage more? What avian gifts will the coming spring shorebird migration bring us? What will be the next bird - oft-predicted but rarely correctly forecast - to have its name and fame recorded on the official Cape May checklist?

Winter Sightings

Our Cape May Point winter walk was a walk through the seasons too. We saw the “regular” birds of the winter beach and seaside thickets. Carolina Wrens burbled and White-throated Sparrows were busy in the bushes.

American Goldfinch were abundant, although today we couldn’t find the recently reported flock of Red Crossbills.

The snowbird flock of Snow Buntings graced the beach by the Bunker, and Lily Lake was full of winter waterfowl, including Redhead and Canvasback.

Sea ducks bobbed off the beach too – Black Scoter, Surf Scoter, and elegant Long-tailed Ducks.

The small flock of Common Eider floated just off the Stites Avenue Jetty, and the expected Sanderlings and Purple Sandpipers plied the water’s edge, the Sanderlings on the beach and the Purples on their requisite rocks.

The wintering, ever watchful, young Peregrine took all of this in from the high vantage point of the defunct Magnesite Plant water tower (miraculously now part of Higbee Beach Wildlifwe Management Area.)

Autumn Leftovers

Yet there were signs of both fall and spring in the air too. American Robins were everywhere throughout Cape May Point, feasting on abundant American Holly and Eastern Red Cedar berries. The robins were leftovers from the huge southbound movement that resulted from heavy snows in New York and New England.

The gentle north winds brought hawks too – just like in fall. Not many, but a Northern Harrier, a Red-tail, two Cooper’s Hawks, and a bold, brown, young Goshawk kettled with the many vultures over Cape May Point.

Late migrants or locals? Probably locals – yet a second harrier crossed the Point and headed out over Delaware Bay toward Delaware as directly and resolutely as any fall migrant - southbound - as was the Great Blue Heron that struck out for Delaware a few minutes later.

Early Birds

As we witnessed these last gasps of autumn, we also enjoyed generous hints of spring. It may be winter, but the days are now getting longer and birds are responding.

About fifty Bonaparte’s Gulls fed around the Concrete Ship, awell-known spring phenomenon.

We picked out a number of Red-throated Loons resting and feeding around the ship too; numbers of Red-throateds will build daily through March as they stage in these waters on their way north - in one of the largest gatherings in North America..

A half dozen Forster’s Terns fed in the near-shore Rips, a bird that was absent during the late December Cape May Christmas Bird Count, and about 50 Northern Gannets dove well out in the Delaware Bay, their plunge-diving from on high raising geysers of water.

This was many more Gannets than were here just a couple of weeks ago. A warm winter, warming waters, returning birds. Signs of spring?

Well it’s really all wrapped up together during a winter walk at Cape May Point. Add in the booming Great Horned Owls we heard at dawn a few miles to the north (our earliest nesting bird, and now about to lay eggs), and you really have all four seasons wrapped into one.

Long distance Travelers

We're awed when we contemplate the vast distances many of these birds have traveled to converge on Cape May Point.

The Snow Buntings have journeyed from their Arctic tundra breeding grounds to the Cape May Point State Park beach.

The Red Crossbills hail from northern Boreal forests.

The scoters and Long-tailed Ducks maybe bred in a Labrador tundra pond, or beyond.

On the other hand, the Least Flycatcher lingering to winter in West Cape May may have hailed (as a nestling) from as near as northwestern New Jersey, yet normally winters in the New World tropics.

Likewise, the Ash-throated Flycatcher (sharing the same field with the Least) should also be in the tropics – but in this case the Ash-throated had its origins in the far American West.

All these birds had journeyed far and wide to winter in the warm micro-climate and varied habitats available at Cape May.

In this regard, a winter’s walk around Cape May Point provides a view of birds from all points of the compass, birds that have converged on the amazing peninsula that is Cape May.

A Cape May winter walk can be magical – not only for what you see, but for what it evokes. The wealth of the present helps you warmly remember the past, and the riches of the past can only help you conjure the future - and anticipate the many avian wonders the coming season will bring.

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

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