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The Timeless Cape May Meadows

by Clay Sutton

The Meadows are at their peak, now, and the Meadows at their peak are about as good as it gets. The heat, drought, and lack of recent rain have taken their toll, but in this case, the benefits have outweighed the costs.

In the Meadows, lack of rain means low water levels, and in August, low water means mudflats, and mudflats mean shorebirds. Lots of them – numbers and variety both.

We’re at the peak of southbound shorebird migration now, and Cape May’s wetlands and mudflats are filling with these long-distance-flyer Arctic refugees.

While there are in fact tens of thousands of shorebirds on our coastal mudflats now, they can be hard to see there – distant dots swimming in heat waves through your spotting scope.

At the Meadows, they are up close, pointblank, at your feet in many cases as they work the grassy edges of the ponds.

A walk through the Meadows now is a study in shorebirds – Yellowlegs, Dowitchers, Stilt Sandpipers, “Peeps” and Plovers. Fifteen species in a one-hour walk. Add in lots of roosting Terns, dozens of Egrets and Ibis, families of Mallards and Gadwall, and the bubbling of Marsh Wrens – well, you get the picture.

The Meadows today recall the Meadows of yesterday, yesteryear actually, when hey were always full of birds. Indeed, a walk through the Meadows today has a timeless quality to it.

What has not been timeless about the Meadows are their name. Some of you know them as “South Cape May,” or “the South Cape May Meadows.”

Many newcomers know them as “The Refuge” or more properly “The Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge.” Most properly, they are the William C. and Jane D. Blair Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge” reflecting the full title of this, The Nature Conservancy Preserve. We’ve heard “The TNC Property” and a few old-timers will still refer to the “cow-pasture,” as did Witmer Stone in the 1930s.

What’s fun is that the different names reflect the history of the place.

South Cape May was actually a town, now eroded away, the final few houses lost forever in the 1950 hurricane. The cow pasture refers to the many years that it was a true meadow, and a pasture for first a herd of dairy cattle (The Rutherford Dairy Farm) and finally the home for a herd of Les Rea’s (Proprietor of the farm market and birder friendly owner of “The Beanery”) beef cattle.

There was a time you couldn’t bird the Meadows for one very mean bull. More than one birder learned to climb, or vault, a fence much more quickly than he or she imagined possible.

The final names, reflecting The Nature Conservancy’s ownership, also reflect one of the greatest conservation victories on the Jersey Cape, when The Nature Conservancy bought the Meadows in the eleventh hour, to prevent a campground proposed for the site. In doing so, they protected their first-ever New Jersey Preserve, a landmark victory, in 1974, I believe it was.

But the Meadows are timeless even if their name hasn’t been. Oh, they’ve changed over the years. When it was pastureland, with cattle present, they were open, wide open, with none of the dense cedars and foliage of today. Shorebirds were abundant then, including regular Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper, rarities (there) today.

With grazing gone, the Meadows grew, and vistas have suffered, along with shorebird-use. Water is really the problem, or more specifically, water levels. Too much water (rainfall) and you have only waterfowl there; too little water and you have no birds at all – the Meadows can and has completely dried up. It seems that someone is always complaining about the water at the Meadows, too much, too little, whatever.

But right now the water levels are just right, perfect.

Shorebirds flock in everyday, an American Avocet last week, a Black-necked Stilt tomorrow. Two days ago a White Ibis graced the flock of Glossys. In short, the Meadows are great, superb.

Along with complaints on the water level, you often hear that the Meadows aren’t what they used to be, aren’t nearly as good for birds as they once were. I think sometimes that “the good old days” often weren’t quite so good at the time, that we only remember the good times, not the bad.

There were some bad times for the Meadows. Once they were private property – no one could bird there. I’ve mentioned the bull but the cows too brought problems. Many remember water so polluted that there was little aquatic life, and at times the water was so stagnant that the Meadows were sprayed for mosquitoes daily.

Times change. Where pasture stood twenty years ago, dense red cedars are found today – cedars that will fill with migratory song birds in a few weeks. One time a birder told me how much he hated how the Meadows had grown up, but then glowingly told me of a Long-eared Owl he had just seen in the cedars.

Once, as I stood in the Meadows and listened to a litany of complaints about the water levels, Sedge Wren and Black Rail were calling in the background. Yes, the Meadows have changed, but well — they are still the Meadows, and one of the best places to bird at Cape May or anywhere.

The Meadows are at their peak now. Bobolinks call from the grasses, Least Terns plunge for tiny fish. A sea of blooming Marsh Mallows greets the viewer on the observation platform, and “pinks” line the path. The first mistflower is out and fleabane blooms.

Yes, there are problems with the Meadows, water control structures are needed. But somehow, today, on this hazy summer morning, none of that was apropos. None of that seemed to matter. Today the meadows seemed timeless.

As shorebirds tilted and dappled the shallow ponds, in the background an older man in a straw hat sat on a bench, far away across the pond. Indistinct in the morning mist, and backed by Cape May’s Victorian skyline, it was not hard to imagine the gentleman was Witmer Stone himself, enjoying one of his favorite haunts in Old Cape May.

Only the Meadows can lead both the eye and the mind to such visions. Alive with birds and color, the Meadows are timeless, by any name.

Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.


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