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Cape May Birding: What A Day!

by Clay Sutton

It has been joked that “a bad day at Cape May is a good day most anywhere else.” That was not said to imply any smugness or ego (pride? Well maybe . . .), but this blithe statement is rooted in fact. Cape May first of all is surrounded by water, the Delaware Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Wetlands and salt marsh meet woodlands and swamps. The variety of habitats host a variety of birds - everyday.

Marbled Godwit, Stone Harbor Point - photo: Karl Lukens

While yesterday admittedly wasn’t typical even by Cape May standards, it was typical of the wonders of the fall, the mystery of migration, and what can happen at the peak of the season when literally hundreds of birders are scouring all of the diverse habitats, looking, hoping, wondering.

For me it started with a phone call on the answering machine as I returned home from an errand. “Sharp-tailed Sandpiper behind the Wetlands Institute, now.” So good is our phone tree alert system that by the time I went out the door, four more Sharp-tailed calls had come in.

I arrived to a veritable traffic jam with dozens and dozens of birders arriving (this rarity had been announced at the hawkwatch, mostly emptying the platform).

To make a long story short, the bird had gone . . . had flown about 20 minutes before my, and most other folks, arrival. It was never relocated, never seen again, but hadn’t disappeared before many documenting photos and notes, and memories, were made for about 20 lucky people – birders in the right place at the right time.

An Asian species, breeding in Siberia, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is rare - really rare, not even annual in eastern North America. It was the first confirmed (fully documented) record for not only Cape May, but all of New Jersey too. Wow. A red-letter day even if somewhat “typical” for what can happen at Cape May.
But the excitement wasn’t over. I wanted to keep looking but returned home, compelled by deadlines and duties. I had only been home 20 minutes before the phone range again, again five times in succession.

“Long-billed Curlew on Nummy’s Island, by the toll bridge” the excited callers related. Once again to the car - this time the scope and camera were already packed within, at the ready. Another short drive retracing my steps to, then past the Wetlands Institute, through Stone Harbor onto Nummy’s Island. The 40 cars lined up on the road shoulder marked the spot.

Where listless, shuffling forms had foretold the absence of the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, now everyone peering intently through their telescopes heralded success. The Long-billed Curlew was there – on the exposed low-tide mudflat, backlit yet still glorious. Only “high-fives” and congratulatory laughter broke the intense study.

The Long-billed Curlew was only the second record for this Great Plains vagrant in over 100 years for Cape May. The four Marbled Godwits on the nearby mudflat hardly drew a glance. In the end, nearly 100 birders added the spectacular Long-billed Curlew to their coveted New Jersey bird list. It was a typical red-letter Cape May day.

Of note is how these birds were found. Most of the Cape May “regulars,” residents and visitors alike, were at “the Point” that day. A good cold front had brought waves of birds – warblers at Higbee Beach, and kettles of hawks over the hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point State Park.

Most everyone had followed the general patterns and logic – Higbee Beach/Hidden Valley early, the hawkwatch, and the Meadows later. And this is good practice – great (if “typical”) birds were found – Mourning and Connecticut Warbler at Higbees, many Peregrines and the season’s first Golden Eagle at the hawkwatch, kettling up with an immature Bald Eagle in the same glorious thermal.

No one was disappointed, at least maybe until “The Call” came – Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at the Wetlands Institute. It took, “the guy from Pittsburgh” -- veteran, yes; astute, good birder, yes -- but nonetheless an out-of-towner, to go against the grain, against established logic, to bird Stone Harbor and Nummy’s instead.

Here, away from the hundreds birding the Point, he made Cape May ornithological history.

It has been aptly said that 95% of the good birds are found by about 5% of the birders. This is true, a testament to focus, skill, dedication and mastery (and love) of the craft. It’s also said that 95% of the birds are found in just 5% of the habitat. True, too. We all bird the best places, the protected spaces, the public open-space where we are welcome, comfortable.... and where most of the birds are usually found.

A third tenet is that if you want to find rare birds yourself, bird where no one else is looking. If you follow the “rules” and bird Higbees after the coldfront, you’ll see lots of birds. You will also be birding with 500 other eager finders. Your chances of finding a rarity, a vagrant, are then about one-in-500.

On the other hand, if you bird instead the dunes in North Wildwood or the cedars at East Point after the front, you will very probably bird by yourself. And here, your chances of finding that “good bird” are very good. It may not be there, but if it is, your chances of seeing it first, of being the finder are 100%.

Always remember that the famous, (in fact world-famous) Cape May phenomenon, the geographical concentration of birds, millions of birds which inevitably, typically, include a number of vagrant rarities, is not confined to Higbees, the Meadows, or the State Park. This geographical bottleneck extends throughout the peninsula and on up the Delaware Bayshore.

Good birds are anywhere, everywhere, yet, understandably, still 95% of us bird only 5% of the possible places. This isn’t a criticism – it’s just human nature and the draw of known-quantity killer birding spots.

But the “guy from Pittsburgh” (I don’t yet know his name) bucked the trend, defied logic and convention, birded on his own, elsewhere, and found both of what will be hard-pressed not to vie with one-another for “bird-of-the-year” honors for the Cape. And amazingly, something like this typically happens every year.

It may not have been quite a normal day at Cape May, but these types of days are characteristic of what makes Cape May such a definitive destination for birders. It typifies the norm here and is indicative of the possibilities.

To steal the words of the sportscaster’s admonition on ESPN, “It could happen, so you’d better watch.” At Cape May, it typically does happen, so you’d better be here, watching, waiting. And to use another sport’s analogy, “on any Sunday” anybody could earn the next amazing bird at Cape May. It could be found by you. You had better get here. The cold front is due tomorrow. So many birds, so much habitat. And, in relation to the habitat, so few birders.

Gotta go. The phone just rang. Fourteen Jaegers in sight at once at the Point, chasing (among others) a Little Gull and three Black-legged Kittiwakes. It is happening, so I gotta watch. See you there.

Clay Sutton is a noted Cape May birder and author.

Read more about Clay Sutton.


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