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clay sutton

Early Birds

by Clay Sutton

Despite the previous day's scorching sun and high temperature, the air was cool as we crested the dune walkover and began our walk down the
beach. The breeze was fresh.

Over the Atlantic, low, moisture-laden tropical appearing clouds scudded across the sun. Scanning the beach and water's edge, we noticed only two people, beach walkers too, about a mile away to the south.

A wonderful, deserted beach, the perfect place for a morning walk, offering beachcombing, birding, and more importantly, solitude.
The humid air and empty beach may have suggested a tropical locale -- maybe the deserted Baja coast, or perhaps the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, or possibly Costa Rica -- those wonderful places nature enthusiasts and
beach-lovers are known to go to enjoy the solitude of vast empty beaches.

But, no, we were closer, much closer to home. We were in Cape May County, at Stone Harbor Point to be exact (although the scene could easily have been South Cape May, or Higbees or a myriad of spots on our local beaches), and it was late July. Even though it was midsummer, "summer-at-the-shore," the beach was empty because we were . . . "early."

We had risen predawn and reached the beach just before the sun came over the far eastern horizon. We were greeted by a magnificent sunrise and many hundreds of Common Terns and Black Skimmers in the thriving nesting colony at Stone Harbor Point. Osprey resolutely hovered
offshore, searching for "breakfast" for themselves and rapidly growing chicks.

Two parent American Oystercatchers with two fuzzy chicks in tow eyed us warily. Sanderling, fall migrants already back from the high Arctic, frenetically pursued every retreating wave.

Somehow, when you're out early, it always seems that all, or at least most is right with the world. We greatly enjoyed all we saw, but rather than birds, our main purpose had simply been to be "early."

Early is an oft-overlooked instrument or methodology in the naturalist's toolbox. It is one that can often be far more important
than the latest field guide or newest binoculars. Early can fill up a checklist, and steep you with visions and memories far better than most
tools available to us.

Birders have long-known that birding requires an early start, particularly in the spring when we seek the dawn-chorus of songbirds. And, admittedly, early is tougher in summer when the long days mean that it's barely six hours between the least glow of dusk and the first hint of coming dawn. But even now, as seasonal singing is dying down, early gives us a distinct advantage, an edge. In the Cape's woodlands, even after young birds are raised, there is still a short songbird chorus just at dawn.

On beaches and bays, birds are most active in the cool of morning, and least active in the heat of midday. Most heron and egret "commuting,"
from nesting areas to feeding areas, occurs at dawn and dusk, filling the blue Cape May skies with brilliant white undulating lines of birds.
Sometimes it is hard to tell early from late. Some of the best rail choruses, sequential cacophonies which roll back and forth across the marsh are given well before first light, often at two in the morning.

At Cape May Point, Purple Martin music falls gently from high overhead long before any hint of daylight can be imagined. Yes, early brings a
vast world of possibilities, opportunities, and we only need to reset our own biological clock to enjoy nature at this, its best time, its
finest hour.

To experience true early, we only need to get to bed, well, early, and put ourselves on nature's schedule. The early bird may get the worm, and you can too. The rewards are great, indeed much greater, for those out early.We enjoyed the empty beach for a couple of hours, and in that time we only saw a half dozen beach walkers and one other birder. It was
hard to believe that within the hour, the beach would be filled with people instead of the wonderful birds before us.

As we headed back, we encountered two bonus Piping Plover at the edge of the water, trying to blend in with the Semipalmated Plover. As
we reclimbed the stairs to the parking lot, a last scan seaward rewarded us with four Brown Pelicans, gliding low over the water, back-lit and
silhouetted against the glittering surf.

When we reached our car, several other cars were now entering the parking lot. They parked and disgorged coolers, umbrellas, blankets and
the salt smell of surf was replaced by the unmistakable odor of sun block.

It was getting late by our standards. Early was over and it was time to go. These late arrivals would enjoy sun, surf, and clean, clear
water. But they would miss early and the wonder and solitude, the restorative nature, of a deserted ocean beach.

Let's not tell them about it. I like to share nature with others, have made a career of it. But some things are best kept a secret . . . just between you and me. The shore is a far different place when you're early and, let's face it, if the whole world finds out, early won't be early any more.

Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.


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