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Winter Birding in Cape May


by Clay Sutton
marsh in winter

It’s mid-winter now, the days agonizingly short, the welcome sun tracking all too briefly across the southern sky. It’s an old-fashioned winter too, earlier with frequent nor’easter winter storms and snow, and lately with cold-front after cold-front tracking fast across the continent.

It would be all too easy to brand these times “the dead of winter” and remain inside by the fire, so to speak, dreaming of spring.

The person who coined the term “the dead of winter” obviously wasn’t a naturalist. Nothing could be farther from the truth for a birder on the Jersey Cape. Yes, sure, it’s winter and winter birding is different. You need to maintain an intimate relationship with LL Bean or Cabelas, dress warmly, and to some degree you need to choose your days.

But for those who venture outdoors, the birding can be every bit as good and rewarding as the more popular seasons of spring and fall.

"It may be the dead of winter, but it is a time for feeling alive."

The birds are here. An old-fashioned cold winter may have fewer lingering birds than a mild winter (such as we had last year), but cold weather, frozen waters, and snow cover far to the north are the conditions that send boreal birds south.

Rough-legged Hawks show up here in numbers only when the upstate New York region is inundated with snow; Red-necked Grebes only “invade” when the Great Lakes freeze.

Yes, your daily list, the number of bird species seen will be far smaller in winter, but I for one would rather see one saucy Razorbill on a winter outing than several species of lingering, desperate warblers.

Best Place for Winter Birds

The Cape May area is arguably the best place in the mid-Atlantic to see birds in winter, and you might say we have the facts to prove it. The nationwide Christmas Bird Counts serve as a real barometer of bird diversity and abundance, and last year, the Cape May Count recorded the highest total of species (167) on the east coast north of Florida!

Birding Potpourri

This year the Cape May Christmas Bird Count recorded about 160 species, certainly destined to be one of the best totals in the northeast or mid-Atlantic. True, this number includes a number of lingerers, birds remaining north of their normal winter range.

brant in cape may harbor

Cape May is surrounded by water, which not only concentrates late migratory birds, but the moderate temperatures (compared to inland areas,) moderated by the ocean temperature, ensure their survival, at least for a time.

Mix the lingerers, such as Laughing Gull,Yellow-breasted Chat, and even Ruby-throated Hummingbird, with rarities like Painted Bunting, Western Kingbird, Western Tanager, and Long-billed Curlew, and finally true winter birds such as Snow Bunting, Iceland Gull, Kittiwake, and Goshawk, and you have an avian potpourri.

And as proven by the CBC results, it is a mixture seen in few if any other places.

Enjoy the Serenity

Perhaps best of all, the crowds of summer and fall are gone. Some would argue that birding is best in winter, due to the solitude and relaxed atmosphere.

Not only will you have the winter beach to yourself, but you won’t be worrying if you made the wrong choice. The urgency and stress of “Maybe I should have gone to Higbees...." or, "maybe the Meadows are best on this wind”, or even "I've got to check for the Ash-throated" is pleasantly replaced by not worrying about chasing the latest rarities, or of frantically checking sightings sheets and hotlines.

The frenzied pace of fall migration birding is replaced by the peace and serenity of a winter walk to Two Mile Beach, just to enjoy the healthy walk, to watch the winter light reflecting off the crisp wind-topped waves, to marvel at sandpiper tracks in the sand, and to relaxedly wonder just what you might see.

The Thrill of Discovery

One bonus of winter is the simple thrill of discovery. There are few other birders afield, and you may or may not find a Dovekie, but if you do, chances are you will find it yourself, rather than be told by four other birders, “There’s a Dovekie along the jetty, by the pointed rock just past the sign.” And in winter, that’s the way it should be.

Simply put, for many, this is the joy of winter birding. You have it to yourself, and it automatically becomes a time for exploring, discovering, savoring, and yes, reflection and introspection too.

cape may beach

The winter beaches, or maybe the stark expanses of the Delaware Bay marshes, or perhaps the deserted trails of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, all have a way of evoking warm feelings despite your cold feet or frozen nose. It may be the dead of winter, but it is a time for feeling alive.

Enjoy, but don’t delay. I saw Red-tails courting yesterday, and Pintail numbers are beginning to grow, the first hint of the spring waterfowl build-up.

And yes, the days are getting longer, slowly but surely. The wondrous dead of winter will end all too soon.

I’ll sign off here. I need to take a winter walk, maybe at Reed’s Beach, or maybe it'll be Jake's Landing. I wonder what’s out there? Maybe little, maybe lots. I don’t know..... and that’s the best part.


Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

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