Budget Birding in Cape May

Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted March 19, 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

As the very first hints of the new day almost imperceptibly crept into the eastern sky, our birding day began.

We stepped onto our back porch and a Great Horned Owl greeted the day from the nearby Cape May National Wildlife Refuge woods. It called a few times, then went silent, and, as if on cue, the first Northern Cardinal began its first tentative song.

Going for 100

It was only mid-March, yet we were shooting for 100 species for the day. That's possible only in a very few places in the mid-Atlantic or northeastern states at this early spring date.

Cape May is one of the few.

Last year, on this very same date, we had been in Costa Rica, beginning our day in the mountains at the Bosque de Paz Lodge. There daybreak had been greeted by Black Guans, Buff-fronted Quail-Doves, Orange-bellied Trogans, and Rufous Motmots among many, many others.

We had planned to go back, the calendar was blocked out, but . . .

Birding in Hard Times

Many of us are facing a very big “but” in these uncertain and difficult economic times.

We, like many others, have put a lot on hold, adopting a wait-and-see financial survival attitude. Among other changes, long distance vacation plans have been put on the shelf. It was a sobering moment to erase “Bosque de Paz” from the yearly day planner. We’d have to sit tight. We believe “Staycation” is the popular term.

It was Pat (who, as many of you know, can put a positive spin on the dreariest of days) who said it best and most simply, “Well, if we can’t travel far, I’m sure glad we love where we live.”

And so, among a spring agenda that includes back bay clamming, exploring the new acquisition acreage of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, and planting a “Victory Garden” of vegetables tucked into our butterfly and hummingbird garden, we began a late March “century run” to see if we could find one-hundred species in the Cape May area.

Easy Cape May Budget Birding

There are few better places for budget birding than Cape May.

We are fortunate to live here, but for millions in the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia-New York City corridor, Cape May is less than a half day’s drive away. For most, it’s a single tank of gasoline or less.

Cape May is a crossroads for migration and some migration is occurring every month of the year, if not virtually every day. There is always much to look for and many places to look.

One of the charms of birding at Cape May is how the many birding areas adjoin. You can easily walk or bicycle to all of the Cape May birding hotspots south of the Cape May Canal in a weekend or even a single day.

The Budget Bird 100 Challenge

So our Budget Birding "Century Run" got started.

With the temperature near sixty degrees, the hoped for American Woodcock didn’t disappoint. On whistling wings one landed behind the garden, and then began its lovely if unmelodious “peent” breeding call. Soon it launched on the first of several towering, twittering courtship flights.

As our budget birding day began to unfold, at least for awhile all seemed right with the world.

Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Following the dawn chorus, Sunset Beach (the Concrete Ship) offered exceptional sea watching – Red-throated Loons, Common Loons, Great Cormorants, Purple Sandpipers, and hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls in a flock that included a stunning adult Black-headed Gull.

Lily Lake produced a myriad of waterfowl and Cape May Point State Park hosted Horned Larks, American Pipets, and a variety of marsh birds.

The Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge served up more ducks, songbirds along the trails, our first of the year Blue-winged Teal, and a flyover American Bittern.

We next looked over Cape May Harbor from the Nature Center of Cape May for Long-tailed Ducks, then on to Ocean Drive for shorebirds, gulls, and Brant, and then moved on to Two Mile Beach Unit of Cape May National Wildlife Refuge for beach birds and an early arrival Piping Plover.

Later in the day, the spring big day birder can’t go wrong at Stone Harbor Point, Jake's Landing, or even Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area, all less than an hour from Cape May City.

As spring advances, inimitable Belleplain State Forest is a must for returning songbirds, including Pine Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler.

Finally the budget birder should consider a stop at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on their way to (or from) Cape May to enjoy this jewel of the NWR system.

As the sun set over Delaware Bay, we finished at Jake's Landing with Clapper Rails calling close by and a Short-eared Owl cruising back and forth over the marsh.

A late Bald Eagle headed inland to its nest, and the day finally ended as it had begun with a distant Great Horned Owl booming from deep in the darkening woods.

Not Bad for One Day

It was a pretty darned good day.

Our century day at Cape May hadn’t broken the bank, and we had some good sightings and fine memories to boot.

To be honest, we fell a couple species shy of the century mark, if only because we chose a leisurely, rather than double-time, approach. But this didn’t matter; as the spring advances a mere 100-species day will be in the rear view mirror for a good long time.

Cape May Memories

It wasn’t Costa Rica, but few visions can compare to a bold Bald Eagle circling high overhead, a whistling Osprey just back from the Amazon basin, tens of thousands of scoters in flight over the Cape May rips, a sparkling flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls dancing over the waves off Cape May Point, or the singular beauty of the season’s first Yellow-throated Warbler.

We all like to see new birds, but at times, and especially times like these, it can be comforting to enjoy new looks at old friends, the “common” birds of Cape May.

Here, at land’s end, you can enjoy budget birding at its best.


Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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