Trip Report: Cape May, Autumn 2007
by Robert Vaughan, Dublin
Cape May is one of America's best known migration hotspots, famous for its autumn flights of raptors and passerines. Situated on the East Coast, roughly a 3 hour drive South of New York on the southern tip of New Jersey. During periods of westerly winds migrating birds are pushed east and as they continue south they are funneled along with the Atlantic Coast on one side and the Delaware Bay on the other.
I flew into JFK, return flights working out at just over 500 Euro's. I then traveled down to Cape May by bus, the return ticket costing around 60 dollars. I stayed at the Higbee Beach Campsite, a fantastic base and a great birding location.
The main locations of Cape May are the Higbee dike and the Hawkwatch platform, both of which are within a couple of miles of the Cape May town centre. Both locations are manned with counters and interpreters from September through to the end of October, with the counters staying on until the end of November.
There are many great areas to bird around Cape May and in New Jersey, but below I have just highlighted a few in the Cape May Island.
The morning flight at Higbee is best at first light as birds that have landed at the point overnight spread out, passing overhead. It is incredible to see birders identifying the huge selection on the briefest of flight views and calls. Although it can be overwhelming and difficult to get good views of the birds, careful scanning of the trees in front usually produces good views of all the species present. On the dyke there is a scattering of small pools that hold good numbers of ducks and waders, and these are worth a daily check. The fields around Higbee can be fantastic, as birds that are not moving over the dyke tend to show well in the mosaic of fields and hedgerows. This area tends to quieten down in the afternoon but can be worth a look again in the evenings.
The Hawkwatch platform is a great location for sitting back and enjoying your birding! A large raised platform below the lighthouse overlooks several pools and gives a fantastic 360 degree view, perfect for scanning for birds of prey. From here I have seen Bald Eagles stealing fish from Ospreys, Demoiselle Cranes, and on one great day in September 2006, over 4000 birds of prey of many species migrating. The pools also host good numbers of Waders and Herons, Belted Kingfishers, Gulls and hunting raptors always present including Northern Harrier, Osprey, Merlin, American Kestrel, Peregrine, Coopers and Sharp Shinned Hawks.
The small copses of trees in this area can host huge numbers of Warblers, Thrushes and Passerines, with the trees either side of the platform supporting a great variety of birds in the evening sunshine.
The bird observatory garden can also be a great location with a lily pond infront, and large trees overhead, it provides a great shade from the midday sun. The garden provides water and food and is always worth a look. The lake holds good numbers of American Wigeon, Green Winged and Blue Winged Teal, with Gadwall, Pied Billed Grebes, Pintail, Black Duck and Belted Kingfishers also regularly spotted. It is also a great spot for early Geese.
The campsite can be an excellent location, its shady cover and quiet lawns attract Thrushes, with 4 species regularly seen. Small, overgrown ditches provide cover for a host of Warblers and the tall trees at the entrance can hold Pine Warbler and Owls. At nighttime Eastern Screech Owls, Great Horned Owls and Whipoorwills can be heard, as well as Coyotees.
The 2nd avenue jetty is located at the southern end of the town and it is where the Terns and Black Skimmers gather in the evening. It is always worth a look as the sheer numbers of birds often attract in scarce birds, with American Black Terns regularly seen in the evenings.
The Beanery is a large area of woodland in between Higbee and the Hawkwatch and when things are quiet at Higbees this area is often worth a look. It holds birds better than the other two locations and can be quieter too. Very few people tend to bird this area so at the weekends it can be nice to get away from the crowds.
I arrived in Cape May just before dark on the 25th of September and had already amassed an impressive list from the bus down. During a brief stop in Atlantic City I was able to scan the surrounding marsh and got several hundred Double Crested Cormorants, a few Belted Kingfishers and a good selection of Gulls and Terns, including 1 juv. Caspian. Back on the road again and I had a couple of Night Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets as well as large numbers of Red Tailed Hawks.
While meeting some friends the 1st night we heard several migrating Thrushes, Warblers and the loud 'BOK' calls of Night Herons.
I had just missed a fall of migrants the day before but there was still a lot to be seen. At the morning flight there was a good passage with over 400 birds passing in 2 hours. I managed to see a total of 17 species of Warblers on the 1st day, the highlight being a good selection in the observatory garden, with 2-3 Blackburnian, 2 Cape May, a Tennessee, a Chestnut Sided and a couple of Black and White Warblers showing really well. Red Breasted Nuthatches were everywhere and having spent 4 weeks here last year and not seen one, I quickly let a few people back in Ireland know this could be the year! They were everywhere!!
I had been told the night before of an adult Laughing Gull which had been seen catching and eating Least Sandpipers whole over consecutive days and I wasn't to be disappointed! I watched on in amazement as the Laughing Gull casually strolled through a group of feeding Least Sandpipers before turning on one individual, drowning it then swallowing it whole! Other highlights included about 5 Bald Eagles and a couple of Northern Harriers showing well around the Hawkwatch platform. There were large numbers of Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral, Stilt, Least, Semi-palmated Sandpipers and a couple of Short Billed Dowitchers.
On Saturday 22nd I traveled up to Brigantine, a large wetland area near Atlantic city and about an hour north of Cape May. Immediately on arriving I had several Chipping Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Black Capped Chickadees and American Redstarts. From the 1st observation tower we had a single Marbled Godwit and Caspian Tern. Scanning the area produced large numbers of Northern Harriers, Great Egrets and Forsters Terns. Moving around the area we were rewarded with fantastic views of a family of Sora Rails, 2-3 Clapper Rails, a juvenile Yellow Crowned Night Heron and a pair of American Avocet. Unfortunately we didn't connect with the two local rarities, a Roseate Spoonbill from the south and a Black Necked Grebe from the north. We stayed late in the evening hoping that the Spoonbill would come into roost and had several dozen Great Egrets coming in to the trees near the 1st tower. As light faded, dozens of Black Crowned Night Herons flew out all around us calling constantly.
Sunday 23rd, was a quiet day and I spent the morning around Higbee searching for passerines. I had a good selection of Warblers with large numbers of Magnolias dominating. An Ovenbird feeding at the side of the path gave fantastic views, with a couple of Swainsons and Grey Cheeked Thrushes also showing well in the same area. At the Dyke, a nice American Pipit landed in briefly among the large selection of Waders. At the Hawkwatch, a single Western Sandpiper was among 20 or so Semi Palmateds. A Northern Harrier landed in briefly giving stunning close views and the evening ended with fantastic views of a Solitary Sandpiper.
Monday morning started with a stunning Common Nighthawk sitting along a branch in the Higbee carpark. Unfortunately while watching this I missed a Prothonatary Warbler (one of America's most stunning Warblers) and a Cerulean Warbler. There had been a large overnight passage and this was obvious with the huge numbers of Warblers in every tree. Constant 'bink' calls were heard overhead as large numbers of Bobolink passed by. Huge numbers of both Coopers and Sharp Shinned Hawks passed over, often chasing the similarly large numbers of Northern Flickers. A single Yellow Bellied Sapsucker showed well in the carpark while watching the Night Hawk. At the observatory garden a Yellow Billed Cuckoo showed really well, unfortunately a calling Rose Breasted Grosbeak wasn't so showy. A second Sapsucker showed briefly feeding in the overhanging branches. At the Hawkwatch platform a second Yellow Billed Cuckoo showed well in the surrounding trees, with a single Yellow Rumped Warbler in the same area. In the bunker pools I had a single White Rumped Sandpiper with the Semi Palmated Sandpipers. A couple of Semi Palmated Plovers showed well infront of the Hawkwatch platform.
Tuesday again started well with a smaller but still impressive passage of passerines moving through. Highlights and the morning flight included a few Baltimore Orioles, Tanagers and a Rose Breasted Grosbeak. A pair of Dunlin showed well on the Dyke with over 80 Lesser Yellowlegs, 30 Pectoral and 25 Semipalmated Sandpipers, with smaller numbers of Least and Stilt Sandpipers. The adult Laughing Gull took another Least Sandpiper infront of us and shortly afterwards a juvenile tried the same thing! Large numbers of Pectoral Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs were infront of the Hawkwatch platform with a single Short-Billed Dowitcher. On the way back to the campsite a Sora flew across the road infront of me.
Wednesday morning started well with at least 3 Artic Skuas and a single Black Scoter seen from the Higbee Dyke. A Spotted Sandpiper showed well on the dyke and the number of Blue Winged Teals had doubled overnight. We managed to rescue a juv Least Sandpiper from the mud after the Laughing Gull pushed it down causing it to get stuck. It was incredible to see just how tiny these birds were close up, we then tried to wash it before it was released. Undeterred, the Laughing Gull again took a Least Sandpiper infront of us! At the bunker pond I had a juvenile Green Heron and my only perched Wilsons Snipe of the trip. An adult White Rumped Sandpiper was a different bird to the one that had been present the previous days. A Buff Breasted Sandpiper was present on the mud infront of the Hawkwatch platform, but unfortunately it disappeared any time I was around!
Thursday morning started quietly with an almost non-existent morning flight and below average numbers of waders around the dyke. But an easy walk around the fields at Higbee produced some nice views of Swainsons and Grey-cheeked Thrushes, Magnolia, Black Throated Blue Warblers and several Parulas moving around in small parties. Migration seemed quiet everywhere with a few Ospreys, Northern Harriers and a couple of Merlins loafing around the Hawkwatch. On the pools infront 3 Solitary Sandpipers gave stunningly close views and a pair of Belted Kingfishers chased each other around. The evening ended with a dozen or more Wood Duck landing into the bunker pool among the many American Wigeon and Green Winged Teals.
If Thursday was quiet, Friday was dead. Small numbers of waders remained on the dyke, 10 Least Sands, 1 Semi Palmated and a single Greater Yellowlegs. The surrounding fields were even quieter with a Black and White Warbler being the highlight. The day was so slow I ended up sketching a Canada Goose! I spent the rest of the day watching the common species such as American Wigeon, Kildeer and Snowy Egrets, hoping that they will be just as obvious when I got home!
We had been watching the weather all week and it had been predicted that the weekend would be good. A few days of rain further north combined with some westerly winds overnight produced a fantastic morning flight with almost 4000 Warblers counted. Despite missing a few warblers species seen by others during the day, I managed an impressive 22 species. The highlights being single Wilsons and Pine, plus large numbers of Black Throated Green and Blues. Large numbers of Baltimore Orioles, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks and Tanagers passed over throughout the morning with Bobolinks constantly heard with their distinctive 'bink bink' calls. Another Solitary Sandpiper was also new in on the pool in the Higbee fields. The highlights came in the afternoon around the Hawkwatch platform. A stunning Black Billed Cuckoo showed fanatically in the bushes by the platform, with a Bay-Breasted Warbler and Ovenbird feeding in the same area. The Cuckoo attracted quite a crowd and as I moved to the next small wood I was blown away by the sheer number of birds. In a small area I had over 40 species including 14 Warblers, 4 Thrushes, 3 Woodpeckers and a selection of Blue and Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Tanager and Orioles. In one small bush containing berries, I watched 1 Swainsons, Veery, Wood and 2 Grey Cheeked Thrushes feeding together with an Ovenbird and Black Throated Blue Warbler in the leaf litter beside. I made my way up to the second avenue after hearing a juvenile Black Tern had been spending the evening with the large numbers of Terns and Skimmers in recent days. Unfortunately I didn't connect with the Black Tern, but there were large numbers of Black Scoters off-shore, a single Great Northern Diver just off the beach, a single Common Tern and almost 600 Skimmers on the beach. I made my way back towards the Hawkwatch through the meadows and had a single Skimmer, 5 Bobolinks and several Savannah Sparrows. Back at the Hawkwatch a stunning 1st winter Chestnut Sided Warbler fed quietly in the pines, before dozing off infront of a gathering group of admirers and photographers. Chestnut Sided is easily my favourite American Warbler and this just finished off a stunning day.
After the excitement of the previous day, we knew Sunday would be quieter but we were still hoping for a good selection of migrants. The morning started well with good numbers of Orioles and Tanagers moving through, with huge numbers of Flickers and increasing numbers of Sapsuckers constantly overheard. In the Higbee fields, huge numbers of Common Yellow Throats were flying out from under my feet with almost ever step. Although there wasn't the variety that was present yesterday, there were good numbers of Red Eyed Vireos, Black and White Warblers, Black Throated Blue and Magnolia Warblers. At the Hawkwatch the Baybreasted Warbler was still on show, with Ovenbird, Swainsons Thrush, Black and White, Parula and Yellow Rumped Warblers. Numbers of Pectoral Sandpipers had increased dramatically with over 20 present with a group of more than 80 Lesser Yellowlegs, a single Greater, 2 Short Billed Dowithchers and a couple of Semi Palmates.
Monday morning started quietly but there were large numbers of Yellow Rumped Warblers present in small groups scattered around Higbee. There was also an increase in Cedar Waxwing numbers, with groups constantly calling overhead. In the campsite an American Robin showed well, numbers of Robins seemed to be down quite a bit on last year. In the Lily Pond there were over 200 American Wigeon, 2 Pied Billed Grebes, 2 Belted Kingfishers and a couple of Gadwall. Infront of the Hawkwatch platform a female Belted Kingfisher showed well, a little too well to a passing Peregrine, which came very close to lunch! The Kingfisher resorted to diving into the water as the Peregrine made a final dive after a short chase! The Short Billed Dowitchers remained on show. At the 2nd avenue jetty, there were large numbers of Skimmers, Royal Terns, Forsters Terns and again a single Common tern.
Tuesday started slow, but a stunning male Pine Warbler showed really well in the Higbee fields with a selection of Common Warblers and Red Eyed Vireos also showing well. At the Dyke, the numbers of Waders had increased, an adult Lesser Yellowlegs and a Pectoral Sandpipers being a nice surprise. A group of 8 Semi Palmated Plovers landed in with 2 Dunlin and a single Western Sandpiper before being chased off by a Coopers Hawk. Walking through the fields near the campsite produced a single Eastern Meadow Lark and some nice views of American Kestrels. I made my way to a large area of reeds just off Sunset Boulevard in the afternoon for raptors and a bit of a change. Unfortunately 2 helicopters circling the area kept the numbers low. A pair of Pied Billed Grebes and a feeding Osprey were the highlights. Although there is a Harrier roost here, the presence of the helicopters kept them away. I ended the day at the lighthouse pool hoping for some Rails or Bittern, but a Collared Dove on the wires with Mourning Doves was a welcome surprise. Although a rarity in Cape May, they have been increasing in recent years.
Wednesday morning was another slow day, only a handful of Least Sands were on show at the Dyke with a single female Pintail, a welcome surprise at this location. At the campsite there were good numbers of Yellow Rumped Warblers and a very showy Grey Cheeked Thrush that sat in the open for 10 minutes as it preened. On the bunker ponds infront of the Hawkwatch, another Pied Billed Grebe was new in, with Palm Warblers all along the dunes. I found several groups of Savannah Sparrows around the pools also, with a Dickchissel feeding with House Sparrows infront of the Hawkwatch. We heard news of an American Golden Plover a few miles north of Cape May so I was able to get a lift from Chris, one of the hawk counters, to twitch it. The bird showed well down to 20 feet or less in the evening light as several Short and at least 1 Long Billed Dowitcher flew overhead. A fantastic end to the day.
I had to leave around lunchtime to travel up and meet relatives in New York but was eager to make the most of my remaining time. Unfortunately it was an extremely foggy morning with visibility down to 30 yards in some areas. I spent most of my time at the Hawkwatch platform, with a stunning male Cape May Warbler feeding voraciously in the bushes beside us. Just before I left, a strange call overhead left us scratching ours but as it returned over it turned out to be just an odd sounding American Golden Plover, possibly the same bird we saw last night.
Although I hadn't planned to spend any time birding in New York, I managed a few hours in Central Park. A casual walk around with bins produced two much wanted lifers, 2 Hermit Thrushes and a handful of White Crowned Sparrows among the several flocks of White Throated Sparrows. A White Breasted Nuthatch was new for the trip list and a Green Heron was also a nice surprise. A Red Tailed Hawk circling over head against the odd back drop of skyscrapers was a nice sight as I left.