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clay sutton

Cape May's Autumn Energy

by Clay Sutton

The street was full of cars, hardly anywhere to park. At the seashore cottage, the porch was full, and some people stood on the steps, even in the yard. Inside there was a din of noise as the revelers celebrated.

Yes, the party was in Cape May, but it was not your typical summer-at-the-shore festivities.

The time was a late September early evening, and the celebrants were birders. Instead of music, the background was the weather channel, and everyone at some point would sneak a peak at the cold fronts marching across the country. Weather is a key to migration at the Cape, and these folks wanted the latest update. They needed to know!

One group talked of the bounty of birds which Hurricane Isabel had recently dropped on Cape May, others recalled the recent rarity, the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and wondered if anyone had checked the sod farm where it was recently found.

In another corner, there was some serious “tertial talk,” something about the primary extension of flycatchers, yet in the kitchen, one knot of naturalists bubbled about all the uncommon southern butterflies beginning to show up.

The site will vary, but the excitement is a constant. This is Cape May in the fall, and this is the Cape May bird community: birders, banders, leaders, interns, staff, and friends from hither and yon -- often all over the country. They are naturalists all.

The energy level and the excitement of birding at the Cape can be seen virtually anywhere you bird on the peninsula - Higbee Beach at dawn, the Rea Farm, the Meadows (Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge) at dusk, here as folks gather to watch the “evening flight” of outbound migrants against the panorama of the setting sun over Delaware Bay.

Perhaps the best place to feel the palpable energy of Cape May is at the Hawkwatch in Cape May Point State Park.

It’s generally packed with people, at least during the peak of the season, and there’s always something to see (or hear), from Bobolinks “blinking” from overhead soon after sunup, to terns feeding just off the beach, or “Merlin madness” in late afternoon.

As often as not lately, a young Peregrine has been sitting on the bunker waiting for the local pigeons to forget he is there.

But no matter what the birds are, there is always excitement at the Hawkwatch, eager anticipation, discussion and learning. There are tales of birds past, what’s about at present, and dreams of the future.

Even if you are a newcomer, there is sharing, caring. It’s important that everybody see the birds, and that all share in the excitement and energy of Cape May.

A big part of this sharing are the Cape May Bird Observatory Education Interns. The intern program can be likened to almost none other -- there are interns on duty at the Hawkwatch, Avalon Seawatch, and the Higbee Beach songbird “morning flight” observation platform.

They educate, teach, and share, sometimes in formal scheduled programs, but most often in friendly, informal question and answer mode. They are part of the energy and, just as electrical energy is passed on and distributed along power grids, they share it with one and all.

“Intern” sometimes implies a beginner in a field, or at least an entry-level position. CMBO’s interns may be young, but they are good. All are already veteran naturalists and birders, most have been birding all their conscious lives. At Cape May, they hit the ground running - because that’s all they know, and they know it well. Get to know them, ask them questions, learn from them. Moreover, share their excitement, be rejuvenated by their energy. It’s a unique opportunity, and certainly a learning level found in few other birding locations.

With the excitement of Cape May so available, so readily seen and felt in so many places, I recently found it somewhat strange that it really struck me so hard, not in the field, but at an evening gathering, at a party.

But the nearly fifty folks present, birders and naturalists all, every one just bursting with ........ well, ornithological energy, made me realize that there are few if any places anywhere that can match the passion, the emotion, the comradery, of Cape May at the peak of the fall.

Perhaps nowhere else on earth are so many passionate naturalists gathered in one place at one time. The gathered fifty were the tip of the iceberg - it may have been the biggest “party,” but at the same moment visiting birders too were gathered all over town - in hotels, restaurants, campgrounds -- and all celebrating the migration of birds.

The animation of Cape May and the inspiration it can give is unmatched, something that must be experienced first-hand. They may all be birders, but at Cape May you have teachers, educators, interns, scientists, researchers, banders. They come together at this time and place as inexorably as the birds themselves are drawn to Cape May.

This cadre of naturalists migrates to Cape May each season, and are concentrated here like nowhere else. It is a form of critical mass. The birds and birding at Cape May are very special, but at times to me, the most amazing part of Cape May is the focused, infectious energy of its people. Come and share the moment. Let’s get together. Come to the party tonight!

Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.



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