Skimmers on Cape May’s Beach

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Cape May, NJ – One of my favorite fall birding spectacles in Cape May is when the Black Skimmers come to roost on Cape May beaches. They usually can be seen at the south end of Cape May, near the 2nd Ave. pavilion and life guard stations.

You can tell the Skimmers apart from the gulls and terns.
They are black and white birds, and have enormous orange and black beaks. The beak is curiously large and made for skimming minnows out of the top layer of the ocean.

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Skimmers are an endangered species in New Jersey, nesting only on isolated beaches. Most often they choose islands where their eggs and young cannot be eaten by gulls, coyotes, foxes and cats and where they won’t be disturbed by people.
Usually, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection biologists rope off those beaches during the nesting season to protect the birds from being disturbed.

When you see the skimmers on the beachfront in Cape May, they have finished raising their young and are getting ready to migrate south.

They “stage” in flocks of several dozen to more than 100 birds prior to moving toward the Carolinas and southward for the winter. Their staging on Cape May’s beach gives the birds time to rest, feed, and gain strength for the long trip south.  Black Skimmers generally stay around Cape May from September through early November, before departing.

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Although beach walkers and skimmers can coexist, it is good to remember that when you walk the beach give these birds some space.  The birds tend to be skittish if you try to walk too close.

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Some people recognize these rare birds and try not to disturb them. These observers showed proper beach etiquette, while still getting great views.

If you’re in Cape May in the fall, consider yourself lucky if you get to see a hundred skimmers, en masse.
Just give them a little room.

About Paul Kerlinger

Paul Kerlinger, Ph.D. is a scientist, author and nationally known expert on bird migration. He's done extensive studies on hawks, Snowy Owls and neotropical song birds. Kerlinger is the former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, His books include How Birds Migrate and Flight Strategies of Migrating Hawks. He's an ardent fly fisherman and organic vegetable gardener.