The Birding Off Season

skimmer
Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted June 2010
by Clay and Pat Sutton

The Piping Plover, actively feeding just moments before, suddenly “froze,” completely motionless as it cast a wary eye skyward. Overhead a hunting Mississippi Kite arced by on swept back wings. The plover didn’t need to worry about this raptor – the kite was only interested in its favored prey – the myriads of dragonflies over seaside ponds behind the sand dunes.

Nearby, the Least Tern colony was booming – some birds still on eggs and others actively bringing small fish to hungry youngsters. Beyond the surf, an Osprey plunged for a fish near a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphin. Out towards the horizon, several Wilson’s Storm-Petrel dimpled the glassy ocean surface.

With so much to look for, such a surfeit of birds, it was rather hard to believe that we were in the midst of the “off-season” for birding at Cape May.

Or were we? Few would argue that June and July are among the least birded months at Cape May, vying with January and February as the months with, to use one criteria, the fewest posted bird sightings.

Early summer is certainly when birders and naturalists somewhat cede the beaches and waterways to the more classic tourists – bathers and boaters enjoying fun in the sun. Most birding, at least on or near the water, is an early-morning proposition as we yield mid day to crowds and the heat of the sun.

After all, spring migration is over and a misperception has been perpetuated that there are therefore few birds to see. Yes, maybe spring migration ends about June 10 or so as the very last of the northbound migrant shorebirds, the “tail-end Charlies” such as Semipalmated Sandipiper and White-rumped Sandpiper, head for their Canadian Arctic breeding grounds.

Yet it is key to remember that southbound migration (“fall migration”) reliably begins each year by the last week of June. Predictably in the last few days of June, the first southbound Greater Yellowlegs will spiral down to Cape May marshes – having returned from northern breeding grounds.

Most years, by the July 4th weekend, low-tide mudflats will host a number and variety of shorebirds, and shorebird migration will then peak in August. Early migration isn’t just shorebirds either. The first songbirds – Yellow Warblers, Bobolinks, and Orchard Orioles – will be winging their way south by late July. And August is a key month for neotropical songbird migrants through the Cape.

And even in the very few weeks between spring and fall migration, Cape May hosts a wealth of breeding birds. Back-bay boat trips – birding excursions – visit booming heron and egret rookeries. Feeding herons, egrets, and Glossy Ibis fill salt marsh ponds, and it is indeed hard not to notice them on any drive to the shore.

Protected beaches, such as Cape May Point State Park and Stone Harbor Point, host Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher, tern colonies, and in most years Black Skimmers. And even though few visit there in mid-summer, visitors to Belleplain State Forest can enjoy all the breeding songbirds. They are now mostly silent, except at dawn, but usually easily found as they feed fast-growing and demanding broods.


So, is there an “off-season” to birding at Cape May? Spend a few hours afield and we think you will agree that the answer is a resounding “No!”

Mid-summer – from mid-June through July – may be when the fewest birders visit the Cape, but this has little to do with all that is available in summertime. It’s not the lack of birds, just a pause in the schedule as we concede some of our “turf” to beach blankets and water skiers.

We reluctantly left the morning beach – the Piping Plover, the Least Terns, Osprey, and all – as the first sun worshipers arrived. We headed home not by choice, but the shed needs painting, the fence needs repairs, the gutters need cleaning. Even the hardest-core birders have to do chores once in a while.

We’ll have to work fast, because we only have two weeks until fall migration begins. Ah, the pressure of being a birder on the Jersey Cape, where there is never an off season to catch up!

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

Read the Suttons’ Cape May book, Birds and Birding at Cape May.

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