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The Cape May Rips

by Clay Sutton

The Rips is an odd name, a strange title for a natural landmark - unless you're a fisherman or a birder.

For veteran Cape May birders, The Rips is an electrifying name, signifying one of the best birding spots not only in Cape May, but on the entire east coast.

The Rips are at land’s end, at the very tip of New Jersey and the Cape May peninsula. It is where land meets the sea, and more specifically, where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.

The Tides

The Delaware Estuary is big, and a lot of water moves in and out of the Bay on the twice-a-day tides. Shoals, or sandbars, characterize the rips - sand deposited by the enormous tidal forces scouring the beaches and bay. The Rips is a series of powerful tidal currents.

On a calm day, from the Cape May Lewes Ferry, or even from land at Cape May Point State Park, you can see the “tide lines”, the energized moving waters meeting with less powerful, calmer eddies and backwaters.

Even on the calmest days, if the wind is against the tide, high standing waves form where deep waters hit shallows as current dumps water first up the slope, then down into the deep holes behind the shoals.

Fishing the Rips

“Where land meets the sea” is apropos in more ways than one. Fisherman respectfully joke that they’re not fishing “close enough” to catch fish if they’re not bumping bottom once in a while, as the water goes from twenty feet deep to two in the length of a small boat.

It is a rippled sea bottom, with extensive series of holes and sandbars, and sometimes striped bass are packed in the holes like cordwood. Once in a while, fisherman get too close, and a high breaking wave fills the boat. Every season more than one boat "turns turtle" in The Rips - overturning sometimes, sadly, with disastrous results.

Fisherman love The Rips. It is a world-famous fishing spot, nearly year-round, as the strong currents sweep baitfish into the turmoil. Baitfish in turn attract gamefish - stripers, bluefish, weakfish (sea trout) and more. And most importantly for the naturalist, the baitfish bounty attracts predators beyond the bigger fish.

Bottle-nosed Dolphin feed daily in The Rips spring through fall. They play in the huge waves too, both surfing them and leaping them for fun, and every year a few Hump-backed Whales feed in The Rips, spotted by whale-watching boats and even sometimes from shore.

Birding the Rips

But The Rips are as famous for birding as they are for fishing. On almost any given day, throughout the seasons, there are birds feeding in The Rips (“bird-play” in the parlance of fisherman), birds actively diving and chasing bait either driven to the surface by game fish or tumbling in the turmoil of the waves.

In winter The Rips produce mainly large gulls, but also Bonaparte’s Gulls and the odd kittiwake or two.

Spring is exciting, with Roseate and Black Terns seen sometimes daily among the abundant Laughing Gulls.

Brown Pelicans and even Wilson’s Storm-petrel frequent The Rips in summer.

Late summer and early fall are best, with a true cornucopia of gulls, terns, and the ever-attendant jaegers (mostly Parasitic - sometimes in good numbers). The pirates of the bird world, Parasitic Jaegers are seen daily over The Rips in fall, boldly chasing down hapless gulls and terns to steal their catch.

Northern Gannets are seen daily in mid to late fall (and again in spring), sometimes numbering in the hundreds, and often quite close to shore.

After a Storm

The Rips are often at their best in a storm - sometimes hot in what can be the worst birding conditions - strong east winds and rain. Fog and rain can actually be your ally when birding The Rips; it often seems like the best birds, the true pelagic species, show up in the worst conditions. Possibly they are storm-driven but maybe show up because, with the rain and fog, they just don't see the land at Cape May Point until they are right upon it - and in the binoculars of waiting birders.

The bigger the storm the better. In a birding adventure akin to tornado chasing, birders converge on The Rips during hurricanes to await the bounty from far at sea and far away.

In conditions where you nearly need to be “lashed to the mast,” Cape May birders have seen flocks of Sooty and Bridled Terns, Band-rumped Storm-petrel and even Black-capped Petrel from Cape May Point lookouts following the passage of a hurricane.

Unpredictable Sightings

You never know what will turn up in The Rips, or when. In recent years, mid-winter has produced Razorbills and even Northern Fulmar. This past summer, Sooty, Cory’s and Greater Shearwaters were for a time seen daily.

One of our rarest birds ever, the first for all of North America, a Whiskered Tern (from the far-off Mediterranean region), was first found after it came in from The Rips to rest on the beach on July 12, 1993.

Way back in the 1960's, the legendary Harold Axtell saw not one but two Black-browed Albatross over the storm-tossed Rips. Yet not all rarity records are ancient - a wayward Brown Booby graced the near-shore Rips for a few fortunate birders this very July.

How to bird the Rips

Not only are The Rips one of Cape May’s best bird spots, they are one of the most easily birded spots. Simply set up your spotting scope on the beach at Cape May Point State Park and look south.

The Rips are the boiling waters right in front of you, sometimes close and sometimes (depending on the wind and tide) a ways out. On calm summer days they can look somewhat benign, but on windy days, the towering and crashing waves on the outer Rips are sometimes mistaken for breaching whales by first-time visitors.

Other good spots to view The Rips are the dune walkovers and beaches anywhere in Cape May Point, or even the Second Avenue jetty in Cape May City.

Also excellent is watching from the decks of the local whale-watch boats, which often pursue dolphins (and birds) in the area of The Rips.

But the State Park will usually be your best vantage point, with the added attraction of the pavilion on the beach there offering all-weather viewing capability - out of the rain and much of the wind.

You won’t have any trouble finding the spot - it’s where you’ll usually find local birders huddled over their scopes in the early morning (often the best time but not always), and particularly in foul weather. Maybe, for The Rips, we should better call it “fowl weather.” And you won’t have trouble finding The Rips offshore - that will be where the clouds of gulls, terns, and gannets are diving - pounding the water to partake in the repast of the incomparable and mighty Cape May Rips.


Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.

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