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Fall: The Best Seats in the House
by Clay Sutton
And now, Ladies and Gentleman, it's time for the main event. We're done with all the preliminaries, the supporting acts, the warm-up events. After a long wait, now it's Showtime--- the real deal, "The fall they named the fall," as Robert Frost once aptly put it (albeit not about Cape May....). It is time for autumn migration at the Cape.
Cape May of course is today known for much more than autumn migration. Cape May is, naturally, a place for all seasons. For the birder, spring migration can compete with the fall. The northbound waterfowl in March, April's daily new arrivals, and the warblers of May entertain and enthrall. And, the Delaware Bay in May, teeming with Horseshoe Crabs and shorebirds, may even vie with the autumn as the peak Cape May phenomenon. The summer just past, though fleeting, was filled with the wonders of breeding birds, from the Prothonotary Warblers of Belleplain to the terns of Stone Harbor Point. So too, the winter is exciting for Cape May birders. Maybe our best-kept secret is the hot birding during cold weather---when marshes fill with Brant, Snow Geese, hawks and eagles, and the ocean and bays host vast rafts of ducks.
But for all of that, Cape May is best known, and always will be, for its autumn migration. Ornithologists from Alexander Wilson to Witmer Stone to Paul Kerlinger (not to mention somebody named Dunne....) have indelibly put Cape May on the map as one of the very top destinations to view fall migration, not only in this country, but in the world. Attesting to this, and as a quiz, see if you can identify all of the languages you hear on the hawkwatch platform this fall, as birders from all over the world flock here!
"The Fall They Named the Fall." It's here, it's Now. True, southbound migration has been going on for over two months now. Astounding for beginners, the first southbound shorebirds, usually yellowlegs, generally appear here on the coast during the last week of June. Migrant shorebirds actually peak in late July, and by the last week of August, several species of birds are already mostly gone---Eastern Kingbirds, Orchard Orioles, and Willet will very soon be hard to find. Indeed, in some years, the best warbler flights are in late August, long before most of us are searching for them.
Now's the Time
But don't despair---the best days are yet ahead! While "fall" migration may be protracted, from the last days of June through January (when the last of the southbound waterbirds pass), the real fall is just before us. But don't delay! Each cold front is now crucial---every front bringing waves of songbirds to Higbee Beach and Hidden Valley. The official hawkwatch started on September 1, and the very first days bring Osprey, Kestrel, Broadwings and Bald Eagles. Even though the Seawatch doesn't start until late September, every beachfront morning now greets numbers of terns and cormorants migrating by.
Bird wherever you are
Yes, folks, we're on the verge of the main event, the fall they named the fall. It is the autumn migration proper, when and the where the name Cape May is synonymous with bird migration. Don't waste a minute! I'm at the Cape May County Airport, writing on my laptop (for those who know me, no, I haven't gone high-tech---my "laptop" is my trusty yellow pad I hold on my lap), waiting for an arrival, but the first thing I did was scan the airfield. A small flock of Killdeer circled in from on high, landed, and then circled up and out---heading south. A sprinkling of American Kestrel graced the navigation lights. A distant probable Upland Sandpiper was unresolvable in the afternoon heat haze. From overhead, the tinkling notes of migrating Bobolink drifted down, and scanning for them revealed, instead, a high Osprey, wings set, heading resolutely south.
The plane is due, so I'd better do another, hurried, quick scan before its arrival. Why, it's nearly time for Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and there's always an early Lark Sparrow or two. Gosh wouldn't this be a great spot for a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher?
You can't waste a minute this time of year. You need to use every opportunity to bird now, even while waiting for a plane. So many birds, so little time. Yes, it's here---the big one, the main event, Fall! The curtain is rising, and the band is about to begin. And wow, here at Cape May, we've got the best seats in the house!