A Cape May Spring Cornucopia of Birds

common loon
Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted March 2010
by Clay and Pat Sutton

While the calendar confirms it, a walk outdoors anywhere around Cape May simply shouts it – spring is here. Nature’s renewal is underway “big time.”

It’s not just a spring potpourri of opportunities for the naturalist, it’s more of a spring cornucopia.

Cornucopias are usually symbols of the fall harvest, but right now there is a huge spring crop of birding and natural history opportunities to take advantage of. There are so many possibilities that one doesn’t know where to turn to next.

Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

New birds, northbound migrants, are returning to the Cape every single day. The first Osprey are back and have already set up housekeeping on local nests. Laughing Gulls are back – always an iconic harbinger of spring. At first it’s just a few birds, like vacationers trying to get a jump on the season (prime locations, fresh seafood, . . .), but soon spring mornings will be filled with the musical “laughter” of the Laughing Gull’s distinctive long calls, a hallmark of the breeding season.

American Oystercatchers are surging north, seen everyday now at Cape May and on mudflats behind the barrier islands. The first Piping Plover have returned to the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge and Stone Harbor Point. Purple Martins and Tree Swallows just arrived. And by the time you read this, the first Willet will no doubt be reported too. And if spring is a sight for sore eyes, it is great for deprived ears as well, as the urgent piping calls of all these shorebirds become a comfortable chorus on days afield on the beaches and salt marshes.

As songbirds return, the forests rapidly fill too. New species are reported daily. Last week Eastern Phoebes and Pine Warblers, next week we can expect Yellow-throated Warblers and Louisiana Waterthrushes. Then it’s just a blink of the eye until Prothonotary Warblers, Black and White Warblers, and Northern Parulas show up. To say it’s a busy time for naturalists and bird watchers is a gross understatement. The flood of spring birds is truly that, and it’s hard to keep up. Despite enjoying nearly forty bird-filled springs here at Cape May, we are always amazed at how quickly and overwhelmingly spring migration occurs. So many birds, so little time.

The cornucopia is in part overflowing because so many of our “winter” birds are still here. Red-throated Loons have been here all winter, but their numbers surge in early spring as they “stage” at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, around Cape May and Cape May Point, before heading to far northern Arctic breeding grounds.

Often dozens or even several hundred Red-throated Loons can be seen in the Delaware Bay waters near the Concrete Ship at the end of Sunset Boulevard. So too Common Loons linger about the Cape prior to heading for their northern forest breeding lakes. Many will soon be sporting their dramatic black and white breeding plumage.

Northbound waterfowl migration is at full speed. Thousands of seaducks are in the offshore waters off Cape May now. Surf Scoters and Black Scoters gather in huge numbers in the Cape May “Rips.” Their spirited courtship chases and soulful whistling calls are constant companions during birding forays around Cape May Point. Long-tailed Ducks are still abundant, and now their springtime courtship clamor, the trademark “south-southerly” calls that once gave them their local moniker, is constant on quiet days as they call from just beyond the surf line. Some are molting into their dramatic dark breeding plumage – always a treat.

One decidedly spring treat is the presence of Canvasbacks. They are admittedly rare here, but in early spring small flocks are often found at Heislerville, sometimes at Reeds Beach, and most often in the bay adjacent to the Forsythe NWR auto tour route. “Puddle Ducks” abound too. While their numbers are diminishing daily as they head to northern breeding areas, they are still easy to find and enjoy. Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and teal are still abundant, sporting spring finery and gracing Cape May ponds and waterways.

And so the cornucopia is overflowing. The springtime harvest at Cape May is an abundant one. The wealth comes from the overlapping seasons. Many, in fact most, winter bird species are still here, yet to depart for northern regions where spring lays far behind Cape May’s timetable. But as the vernal renewal occurs, new birds arrive daily from the south. Many will stay to breed on the Cape. Others are “just passing through” on their way to boreal and arctic breeding ranges.

For naturalists and birders, all this presents tremendous opportunity. But the excitement can lead to dilemmas and a frenetic pace. Where to go? What to do? Cape May Point State Park? Belleplain State Forest? Stone Harbor Point? Don’t worry, though. The beauty of spring is that there are no wrong answers or bad choices. With the spring harvest in full swing, birds are everywhere.

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


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