Cape May's Spring "Smorgasbird" of Birds


Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted April 2011
by Clay and Pat Sutton

Spring is a most anticipated time for anyone who loves the outdoors, but for naturalists and birders who gravitate to the Jersey Cape, it’s one of the most exciting events of the year, akin to Christmas morning.

As days lengthen and temperatures soar, so do the hearts of birders, for everyday brings new gifts, fresh bounty – both variety and numbers – to our fields, woodlands, and wetlands.

Every outing brings new birds for the year or “first of season,” “FOS” in birder jargon, newly arriving migrants from the south. In mid-March it was Tree Swallows, Great Egrets, Pine Warblers, and the very first Purple Martins of the new season.


Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Osprey and Laughing Gulls, perhaps our two best known harbingers of spring, increase in number every day through late March and early April. By mid-April the laughing long call of the gulls, the whistling of displaying Osprey, and the incessant piping of American Oystercatcher are a background chorus for every walk along the Cape May Shore.

A surging warm front in April brings new birds every day. Last weekend the first Glossy Ibis, yesterday Yellow-throated Warblers, today Gray Catbirds and Eastern Towhee, tomorrow maybe the first Indigo Buntings and, well, who knows? What is important is that every effort be made to find out!

Spring can be a frenetic time for the naturalist. First there are gardens to be planted and tidied up, whether vegetable or wildlife gardens. Plantings, cuttings carefully nurtured in bay windows all winter, need to be planted outdoors. The ponds need to be watched for the first frogs and dragonflies; hummingbird feeders need to be hung. Local populations of Swamp Pink need to be checked – how did they fare with winter blowdowns? And, yes, we need to look for Blueberry Azures and the various elfins, right now, if we hope to see the brief single brood of these early season butterflies.

So much to do and so little time. The pace is hectic for the spring naturalist who wants to see it all.

We have always been intrigued by the explosive nature of spring migration and how it differs from fall movements. Fall migration is more protracted. Shorebirds come early, mostly in July and August; Warblers come mid-August through September; hawks come mainly in October; and waterbirds come in November – in very broad, general terms. But in spring, everything seems to happen at once, shorebirds and herons and hawks and songbirds and warblers and terns and skimmers. They all surge north at the same time, returning home.

The mixing of seasons adds even more excitement. Returning birds overlap with lingering winter birds, such as Brant, scoters, and diving ducks – lingering because the Arctic and far northern forests where they breed are still ice-choked and snow covered. Yes, waterfowl are departing daily, but loons are peaking, and even a casual scan of the Delaware Bay will pick up dozens, if not hundreds of Northern Gannets – brilliant white adults – either moving through or feeding, plunge-diving on schools of herring and menhaden.

It is no coincidence that the now famous World Series of Birding is hosted at Cape May in May, for that is the season when the most species overlap, when you can see the maximum number of species in a single day. And whether you are a serious lister or a more casual birder – one who lingers to enjoy bird song, behavior, and beauty – the opportunities are maximized at this season.

The active birder has a very full plate. The fact is, it’s hard to keep up when you just don’t want to miss a thing. The Cape offers a full smorgasbord of opportunity in spring, and one that will last until the last of the Brant and Delaware Bay shorebirds depart north around Memorial Day weekend. Call it a smorgasbird, an avian pageant of color, beauty, and pure opportunity.

Few places (and certainly no other time) offer the bird bounty of spring on the Jersey Cape. From Cape May to Forsythe NWR and up the Delaware Bay through neighboring Cumberland County, there is much to see and do. Sometimes the exhausted birder, having been out for rails, Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-widow, and having hit Belleplain State Forest for the dawn songbird chorus, Heislerville for shorebirds, and even more, might at times feel that there is too much to do.

But like any smorgasbord, we can pick and choose our delights. Some of us cherry pick, some feast more heavily, and yes, some even gorge. Choices can be tough, and it takes stamina, but it’s all available, and the time is now!

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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