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Godwit Going Left


by Clay Sutton

Yesterday had been gray, blustery, bordering on cold, but now the Indian Summer sun warmed the fresh-turned, winter wheat-ready farm fields and
the red and yellow-brown fading forests. As the land warmed, thermals built along the length of the peninsula, cumulus billowing high into the
mid-morning Cape May autumn skies.  These clouds are signposts for soaring, thermal-loving, migrating hawks (think of thermals as elevators in the sky), and they soon followed them to land's end, at Cape May
Point, as inexorably as autos follow the interstates.

Over Cape May Point, the raptors pause, circling together.  Where in yesterday's northwest gale it was to gain the courage, the conviction, in today's gentle wind they circle to gain simple altitude--altitude
which will be converted to distance.  Distance, for now, is just a small portion of their full fall migration, the 13 miles across the daunting Delaware Bay to Cape Henlopen. 

The raptors build, the "kettle" growing until the higher hawks peel off, like fighter planes suddenly vectored to a distant target, heading for Delaware.  Here 20 Broadwings, there a half-dozen Redtails, all
surrounded by a retinue of Sharpshins.  A Merlin cleaves the rising thermal, uniquely needless of its assistance.  Higher up, a string (yes, a string!) of six, no, seven-- wait, there's another--EIGHT Osprey, all
in a row, line-astern, stream over.  An unkempt, sloppy, wavy line of cormorants crosses the kettle.  As we look at them, we pick up sparkling white on glorious blue, a stratospheric "vee" of Snow Geese. A
crossbow-shaped Peregrine completes the picture, or so we thought, until someone on the Hawkwatch Platform shouts out "Godwit going left"!

All eyes turn to where the watcher is pointing, and we find the striking Hudsonian Godwit, leading a string of dowitcher, angling away, heading out on a journey which will end in Argentina.  It is a brief sighting,
yet one which punctuates the day, maybe the fall, a mystical view of a bird that connects the continents, the high arctic to Tierra del Fuego.

Years later, the image is still vivid, in no small part due to David Sibley's masterful drawing of the moment.  "Godwit Going Left" hangs in our hallway.  David captured the moment in his poster art for the annual
New Jersey Audubon Society Cape May Autumn Weekend, way back in 1987.

We have the poster, not the original.  THAT hangs in Marleen Murgitroyde's living room -- she got to David Sibley's booth before I did at last year's "The Bird Show" event here in Cape May.  Darn....

As a naturalist and tour/field trip leader, I'm often asked "When should I visit Cape May?"  The answer truly is "any time you can", because we host excellent birding year-round.  But if I'm pressed to name when the peak occurs, when is the absolute BEST time to come, I always answer:
Any time in the first two (or even three) weeks of October.  That is the unarguable autumn zenith, when "Godwit going left," or "Sandhill Crane soaring over the Meadows," "Pomarine Jaeger by the Bunker," or even
"WHEATEAR ON THE LAWN BY THE LIGHTHOUSE!" might be heard, in some permutation, daily.

Yes, admittedly, peak species diversity may come in September, and the best raptor diversity and heaviest seabird flights may be in November, but early October will always embody the fall migration for me.  Now,
open windows at night call for a blanket, maybe two, and the musical sounds of Canada Geese trickle down through the clear crystal night (arctic geese, "real" geese, not the golf course variety....).

In October, not only are the thickets full of birds, sparrows and yellow-rumps, flickers and phoebes, but the skies are full too. Even before the raptor flocks form in the morning, the air is filled with Tree Swallows, sometimes thousands, like confetti over the cedars, like
aerial plankton washing back and forth above. And not only is the air filled with birds, it's filled with expectancy too, for some even desire.    

So now is the hour. It's here, it's now.  It is the peak of the fall.

This is when I don't want to be anywhere else on the planet.  Drop everything. Come. Please join us here at the Cape.  We'd love to have your company on the Hawkwatch, at Higbee's, at Stone Harbor Point.  The
more eyes, the better.  Who knows what we'll see, what the skies, the cumulus, may bring?   

But hurry.  Don't delay.  We don't want to miss the "Godwit Going Left"


Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.

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