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Cape May's Back Bay Birding

winter birder

by Clay Sutton

Cape May's "back bays" are somewhat of a conundrum. In one case, the term is descriptive, aptly explaining that the bays are in back of the extensive barrier island system in Cape May County, stretching from Cape May Harbor to Ocean City. On the other hand, "back bays" is a dry term, and certainly one that doesn't hint at their amazing birding potential.

First a bit about the back bays:

  • There are numerous and vast open bays, an integral part of the estuary system. Mostly shallow, they show extensive mud flats at low tide.
  • There are also dredged channels, most of which are part of the "inland waterway," the expansive inter coastal waterway route from Maine to Florida.
  • Finally, there are the sheltered coves which are part of the barrier island communities, all created by the once common but now mostly illegal dredging and filling of wetlands.

Locals here grew up calling these man-made coves "basins," and many today refer to them as lagoons. Surrounded by houses, private property, the coves don't exactly jump to mind as we enumerate our favorite birding sites. But in the dead of winter, on dull, cold, leaden days those days you just may want to bird from your car the basins and back bays can be red hot for birds.

Birds and Ice

In an old fashioned winter, like this one and the last, by January ice clogs much of the bays and lagoons. And while, yes, the cold and ice does drive some birds farther south, most of our waterfowl are hardy types, and it almost seems as if they relish the cold.

The very ice makes the birding easier, because it serves to concentrate the remaining birds into the ice free stretches. The worse the weather, the more ice; the more ice, the more concentrated the ducks. I remember one brutal winter when all of Barnegat Bay froze, that literally all the birds of Barnegat Bay were concentrated in the inlet at Barnegat Light. So too was the Gyrfalcon strafing the ducks but that's another story for another day....

A recent outing started at the "northern fringes" of Cape May birding at Strathmere. Here in the back bay at Corson's Inlet State Park, Long tailed Ducks, in from the inlet, cavorted as if it were balmy, despite the temperature being barely into the teens.

At Townsend's Inlet, there was little ice, but the 8th Street jetty held a huge flock of scoters all three species and Horned Grebes, Red breasted Mergansers, and more Long tails. These saucy ducks dove right next to the car at 7th Street. Purple Sandpipers rooted around on the lower rocks of the jetty, and a few Bonies (Bonaparte's Gulls) bounded over the outer bar.


Where to go

ducks in lily lake

The neat thing about back bay birding, at least in very cold weather, is that you don't have to search for birds all you need to do is look for open water.

Cruise Ocean Drive, and back streets, until you find an ice free channel or basin. They don't freeze uniformly currents and wind virtually always keep some water open and free from ice, and this changes daily due to tide and wind direction. Access can be a bit of a problem, but you almost always can find public street ends or even municipal piers from which to view.

hooded mergansers in avalon

21st Street in Avalon is an example. Simply go west at the stoplight, heading for the bay. Here, during our outing, street ends conveniently gave great views of a few ice free areas, and they were packed with scaup, Ruddy Ducks, Red breasted Mergansers, and hundreds of handsome Hooded Mergansers. Oblivious to the cold and wind, many were displaying a pleasant reminder that yes, spring will finally, eventually come.

Surprises

Back bay birding always provides a surprise or two. One year it was a Razorbill in the bay behind Stone Harbor, nearly picked off by a Peregrine (that's another story too....). Today's surprise was a young Goshawk, perched on a no wake zone sign, hungrily eyeing a nearby group of mergansers. It was as if it were just a vision....close but brief. It was an excellent look with the bins but when I reached for the scope and then looked back, it was gone a fleeting and tantalizing back bay ghost.

brant in stone harbor

One of the fun parts of back bay birding is ballfield Brant. Check all municipal parks and soccer fields, whatever, for herds of grazing Brant. It's common in winter for Brant to leave the frozen bays to feed on the green grass of ballfields, allowing exceptional views. Often, at high tide, a few Dunlin and Black bellied Plover join them too, awaiting their low tide flats to reappear. Another hint is to always check the numerous municipal water towers - all are favored Peregrine perches and roosts in winter, and on very rare occasions will host a Snowy Owl.

The best bonanza recently was Stone Harbor, where an ice free pocket at 104th Street held four or five hundred Scaup (both Lesser and Greater what a chance for comparison), and several hundred Hooded Mergansers.

The real prize was a stunning drake Redhead certainly a hot line rarity any more in New Jersey. The best part was that these birds were all viewed, point blank, from the warmth of the car at a street end overlook. Often it's best not to get out and risk flushing the always wary ducks.

The final stop was Hereford Inlet, viewed from the North Wildwood side. Here there are a number of back bay and inlet overlooks. Lingering American Oystercatchers entertained, and a number of Great Cormorants sat on the inlet sandbars.

Gazing out over the vast sandbars and channels of Hereford Inlet, I was struck by the wildness of the scene despite the now closed condos, motels, restaurants, and taverns behind my back.

It may not be wilderness, but Hereford Inlet is big, wide, and a wondrous natural area. You couldn't identify all the distant birds on the low-tide flats but that was OK, it was important to know they were there, and even to think about what mysteries, what maybe rare or unusual birds Hereford Inlet would not give up that day.

This recent excursion ended there, but Wildwood Crest and Cape May Harbor offer similar opportunities and experiences.

brant in avalon

Give back bay birding a try in winter. It's hard to imagine that those same lagoons that are so crowded with boats and swimmers in summer could provide such birding bounty in winter. And not only is it good birding, on ice choked gray and bitter winter days, as hundreds of ducks bob in open leads in the ice, oblivious to the cold, it is some of the best birding possible. I predict that amidst a back bay bonanza, you too will forget the cold.

Author's Note: The day after the above was penned, the same route produced Canvasback, a number of Common Goldeneye, a couple of Common Merganser ( uncommon in the back bays ), and an amazing thirteen Redheads! I think I'll try again tomorrow.... I hope it stays cold! cold.


 

Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.

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