Bombay Hook/Cape May Trip (October 5-9, 2002)

Saturday, October 5:

    Most of us arrived at our hotels in Dover, DE late on Friday evening, enjoyed a late dinner, and went to bed early, anticipating our first day of this first ever Delaware/New Jersey trip of the Three Rivers Birding Club. Thousands of Snow Geese at Bombay Hook, DE. After an adequate continental breakfast at the Comfort Suites in Dover, most of the group headed out early for Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. We stopped in the farm fields along Route 9 just outside Leipsic to investigate some birds spotted in the freshly plowed fields. The birds included the first of many Black-bellied Plovers to be seen on this trip, along with the trips only Horned Larks. Flyovers included Caspian Terns, Double-crested Cormorants, Laughing Gulls, and lots of Snow Geese. Some distant Snow Geese in the fields turned out to be decoys. As we watched, a flock of Snow Geese flew in to the decoy flock. Shots rang out and at least one goose fell.

    We were still early for meeting the rest of the group, so we started the car loop and stopped at Raymond Pool, where there were thousands of Snow Geese and shorebirds. We soon had identified hundreds of Dunlin, 400-500 American Avocet, Short-billed Dowitchers, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and both species of yellowlegs. While the group continued to watch Raymond Pool, Jim drove back to the headquarters building to pick up the others. The entire group of 16 birders now included Jim Valimont, Mike Fialkovich, Bob Machesney, Mike Leahy, Paul Hess, Sam Sinderson, Linda Sporrer, Mary Stefanacci, Pat and Sherron Lynch, Randi and Sarah Gerrish, Janet and Warren Marvin, Julia Pahountis-Opacic, and a friend of Linda's from Wilmington, DE. Shorebird study was frequently interrupted by the stoops of Peregrine Falcons, which we saw multiple times this day. Watching Black-bellied Plover at sunrise in Leipsic, DE. As a flock of several hundred Dunlin flew by to avoid a Peregrine, they parted in the middle as they passed on either side of our group, and we could hear the rush of their wings as they flew past. Careful examination of the massive flocks of the Snow Geese revealed a Ross's Goose that was debated as a hybrid for a while. When we finally decided it was indeed a Ross's Goose, we found another just ten feet away! Moving on to other pools, Northern Pintail was the dominant duck, but we also located both Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, American Black Duck, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, and Northern Shoveler. Ospreys , Bald Eagles, Northern Harrier, and Red-tailed Hawks were seen in various locations. Boat-tailed Grackles, Caspian Terns, Swamp and Savannah Sparrows, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and a Black-crowned Night-heron at the end of Bear Swamp Pool added variety to the mornings sightings.

    We broke for lunch in Leipsic and returned to the refuge as the tide went out, exposing vast mudflats in the salt marsh. The heat really got to us in the afternoon, but good birds spurred us on. We soon added more shorebirds, including Willet, Semipalmated Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Lesser Golden Plover. A single injured Ruddy Duck floundered in the mud, struggling to make it to cover. We also located a very strange Greater Yellowlegs, with a long down-turned bill! We checked several different field guides before concluding that we just had an aberrant Greater Yellowlegs.

    If you have never seen it before, there is nothing that can prepare you for the sight and sound of thousands of Snow Geese taking off, flying overhead, or descending into the pools!

Sunday, October 6:

    Mike Leahy blazing a trail to get a better view of the birds at Port Mahon, DE. We got an early start, drove to Port Mahon, and walked the dike trail. We added Forster's Tern but not much else. Back at the parking lot, we found a nice mixed flock of birds that included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, and Northern Mockingbird. We walked a row of evergreen trees lining a road into the refuge, not seeing much as we walked in. On the way out, Mike Leahy tried a Barred Owl call to see what we could stir up. Two owls flushed from one of the trees, but these were Barn Owls! Unfortunately, the view of these birds was very brief and unsatisfying for most of the group, but still quite exciting!

    A drive further down the road to the boat harbor produced Palm Warblers, Royal, Common, and Forster's Terns. A return trip from the harbor parking lot forced us to drive through shallow water on the road from the rising tide.

    The afternoon was spent at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Around the refuge headquarters and trails, we added very little new except Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Downy Woodpecker, and American Redstart. Butterflies in the flower gardens included Common Buckeyes and Common Checkered Skippers. We drove to a different area of the refuge to walk a trail through a mixed pine and hardwood forest. Here, we had only walked a short distance before we found Pine and Blackpoll Warblers and Golden-crowned Kinglets. On our drive out of Prime Hook, a nice flock of Wild Turkeys fed leisurely in the adjacent field and crossed the road in front of us.

    Next stop was Cape Henlopen State Park. We drove directly to the beach where we quickly spotted three Surf Scoters, but not much else close enough to identify. However, we talked to another Pennsylvania birder who told us we might find Brown-headed Nuthatches behind the nature center. As we walked through the mature pine forest, we saw and heard very little. As we came to a more open scrub and sand dune area, we decided to turn back into the mature pine forest where the nuthatch would be more likely to be found. But before we could get the entire group back into the pine forest, Mike Fialkovich rushed up to the lead part of the group to tell of the discovery of an Eastern Hog-nosed Snake! Sam Sinderson had spotted it and Mike Leahy had caught it for the observation of the entire group. A hog-nosed snake distracted us while we were looking for Brown-headed Nuthatches at Cape Henlopen, DE Mike Fialkovich demonstrated how the snake flattens out its neck like a cobra to intimidate enemies. We left the snake to continue on its way as we reentered the pine woods. We soon spotted a flock of feeding warblers that included several male Black-throated Blue Warblers , Blackpoll, Black-throated Green, and Yellow-rumped, along with Brown Creepers and Chipping Sparrows, and finally, Brown-headed Nuthatches, who really do sound like a squeaking rubber ducky! It took a while but everyone finally got good looks at the elusive nuthatches. We decided to call it a day and added Carolina Chickadees to the days list on the way back to the cars.

Monday, October 7:

    Our ferry to Cape May did not leave until 8:40 AM so several of the group returned to Cape Henlopen and drove to the farthest southern bunker overlook. Bob Machesney immediately spotted a male Black Scoter in the surf. Sanderlings and a Ruddy Turnstone added to our shorebird totals. We watched a dramatic struggle as two Peregrines dived onto the shorebirds, picked out a single bird, and made repeated passes at it. The shorebird kept climbing and dodging until the Peregrines tired and flew off. What a dramatic struggle for life! Several flocks of cormorants and a small flock of wigeon came by when Jim spotted a large distant bird coming towards shore. It was a juvenile Northern Gannet and it flew incredibly close to shore directly in front of us, giving us all great views!

    Only a few birds showed up during our calm ferry ride from Lewes, DE to Cape May, NJ Time was short, so we drove to the ferry dock, where we added Fish Crow. This was a brand new ferry, with four decks available for passenger access. A flock of Brown Pelicans flew across the bay as we left Lewes. On the ferry, we only got very distant views of Gannets, a quick flyby of a Surf Scoter, and a string of Brant that I had written off as cormorants until they had flown past! On the Cape May side, we proceeded directly to Cape May Meadows. Lots of hawks were flying, mostly Sharpies, Kestrels, and Peregrines. On the beach, we found another Gannet fairly close that everyone got to see along with a distant flock of Black Skimmers. The walk out of the meadows yielded Mute Swan, great views of two incredibly tame Northern Shovelers, a Solitary Sandpiper, and Black Vultures overhead, spotted by Linda Sporrer.

    We broke for lunch to meet again at Sunset Point. There was little to observe at the point so we headed for the hawk watch. At the hawk watch platform, we stayed for about 30 minutes and observed incredible numbers of Peregrines, along with Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks, Kestrels, and Ospreys. A walk along the trail netted Palm Warbler, Song, Savannah, and Field Sparrows for the day. We then drove to the circle garden to look for butterflies. We found a tagged Monarch, American Painted Lady, a Cloudless Sulphur, Common Buckeyes, and Fiery Skippers.

    Receiving instructions from leaders Jim Valimont and Mike Fialkovich at The Meadows in Cape May, NJ We stopped at the Cape May Bird Observatory to give everyone a chance to shop and to check up on the rare bird sightings. As we left, we had barely driven a block when we spotted a dark bird in a large tree. Although first impression was of a blackbird, Mike Fialkovich called out " Merlin !" The bird patiently sat still while we all got our scopes. Lily Lake contained little but two tame Snow Geese and some Killdeer, so we began checking the Cape May Point jetties for the Common Eiders reported there earlier in the week. We found no eiders, but at the last jetty, we all got out of the cars to scan the sea. We found two pods of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins, frolicking close to shore. We got to see them poke their heads completely out of the water and do some tail slapping. It seemed as if there were several males trying to mate with a female while she protected her calf. We also saw a flock of at least 200 Sanderlings, and small numbers of Ruddy Turnstones on the jetties.

    To finish off the day appropriately, we then found a Merlin perched in a small dead tree and watched several Peregrines fly over.

    Late that night, a group of us took a walk and listened for flight calls of birds flying overhead. When the wind was calm enough, we could hear lots of calls. Birds were moving, boding well for the next day at Higbee Beach.

    (On this one day, I'm sure that I saw more Peregrines than I had seen previously in my entire life. Cape May had recorded a record flight on Saturday with over 250 Peregrines! – Jim Valimont)

Tuesday, October 8:

    The now famous, at least in southern New Jersey, Mike Fialkovich who found the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper After an early morning breakfast at the Captain's Cove Restaurant in Cape May (about the only place open at 6:00 AM), we headed to Higbee Beach. After the cold front that passed, we had hoped that this would be one of those memorable Cape May fallouts that we had never really witnessed before. It wasn't to be. It was breezy and very cool. At first, virtually nothing was moving, but then flock after flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers began to show. Sharp-shinned Hawks were always present, it seemed. Most were just flying over, but a few were found perched and some were actively hunting (making the songbirds even more difficult to find). We saw hundreds in the few hours we were there. Literally, you could look up at almost any time and find a Sharpie. Among the Yellow-rumps, we did find a few new species for the trip, including Bobolink, American Pipit, Northen Parula, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Jim remembered from a previous trip here that Mike had identified an orchid somewhere in these fields. Jim couldn't remember what it was, but we soon found it again, Nodding Ladies-Tresses. At about 10:00 AM, we decided to leave Higbee Beach and go to the Wetlands Institute near Stone Harbor.

    Upon arrival, we found the parking lot quite crowded. There were also lots of school children here taking classes from the Wetlands Institute staff, which involved wading in the tidal marshes off the boardwalk. We quickly added two new species for the trip in Green Heron and Tricolored Heron. Jim was dwelling on a Willet that had just landed when Mike ran off to get a closer look at an unusual shorebird. Out on that same boardwalk where the children were wading, he was frantically waving for the rest of us to come quickly! There was a lot of excitement and tension when Mike said he thought he had a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper! It was high tide and the bird was resting on some floating vegetation near a clump of tall marsh grass. We all got our scopes on the bird and started studying the details of the bird and making notes. Some went back for their cameras. We studied the bird and compared it for every detail mentioned in the field guides. It was a juvenile bird with beautiful fresh feathers. When we were totally satisfied, we decided that we had to let someone know. Paul Hess and Sherron Lynch went into the Wetlands Institute and brought out one of their biologists, who brought his cell phone. Mike Leahy called the Cape May Bird Observatory and reported the sighting. The biologist on the cell phone was overheard to say, "It looks good!", which set off the New Jersey bird community. Within minutes, a group of birders who just happened to arrive came out first. The boardwalk at The Wetlands Institute before all of the New Jersey birders arrived to see the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper With all of our scopes and all of theirs, we made sure that everyone present got to look at the bird as long as he wanted. First to arrive from the cell phone network was an English birder, who commented to Mike, " Nice find, Mate!" Other birders came running out with scopes and camera equipment as the minutes passed. But the tide was now going out and the bird was getting more difficult to observe. Within 15 minutes, the bird disappeared into the grass, disappointing newly arrived birders. It was observed flying out into the salt marsh later by Paul Lehman (former editor of Birding). As far as we know, that was the last time that this bird was seen by anybody.

    The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is a Eurasian species that breeds in Siberia and winters in the South Pacific near Australia. It is described in the National Geographic Guide as "rare but regular in fall migration along the entire Pacific Coast," with most sightings being juveniles. One was found in August of this year in Delaware at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, however, that bird was an adult. The bird that Mike Fialkovich found this day probably represents New Jersey's first documented sighting! Enough people saw and photographed this bird that it is sure to be accepted. Our group made sure that everyone who asked understood that it was Mike that found the bird!

    After about three hours here, the group reluctantly moved on without Linda Sporrer and Mary Stefanacci, who had to depart for home. We drove into Stone Harbor, drove to the southern end and parked at the beach. From here, we had quite a bit of shorebird activity. Western Sandpipers were quite plentiful on the beach with the Sanderlings. Mike was able to pick out a Red Knot among the throngs of shorebirds that also included Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones. Mike Leahy picked out another Gannet, flying fairly close to shore, and later, a Bald Eagle.

    Our next stop was Nummy Island. As soon as we crossed the first bridge, we stopped to observe the thousands of birds on the tidal flats. There were hundreds of Brant here, along with lots of American Oystercatchers and a pair of Marbled Godwits, good birds for many of the trip participants.

    We drove to the other end of Nummy Island and parked just short of the toll bridge. Just as we got out of the car, Paul Hess cried out "Gull-billed Tern!" Everyone quickly got on the flying tern and got great looks as it flew on into the salt marsh. Again, we scanned the tidal flats carefully for birds. Sherron Lynch asked Jim to look at a bird in her scope that Pat had found. Jim recalls, "I looked and saw a large brown shorebird with a long downcurved bill. My first thought was Whimbrel, but when it turned and I saw the length of the bill, I cried out " Long-billed Curlew!"

    Here we go again! Get everyone on the bird, make sure everyone agrees with the identification, get out the cell phone and call the Cape May Bird Observatory, and again, the rush of local birders coming to see this bird! This time, we left with the bird still in sight and it remained until at least 6:00 PM for a lot of other birders to get a good look, although it flew into a much more distant part of the marsh.

    The Long-billed Curlew is listed as accidental in Boyle’s guide to birding in New Jersey, which means that it is spotted about once every 25 years. There had been a report of one flying by the Avalon Sea Watch about a week earlier and this was probably the same bird. Two outstanding rarities within a few hours! Not bad for a group of birders from Western Pennsylvania!

    THE BIRD — the first documented Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 
                      in New Jersey From Nummy Island, we drove through Wildwood and stopped along Ocean Drive to view the marshes of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge. As soon as Jim got out of the car, he saw a large brown bird flying away from us into the tall grass. He yelled out "Bittern!" but only a few of the group got a quick look at the bird as it disappeared into the tall grass. This bird never reappeared, but later we saw another American Bittern flying over the marsh that everyone got to see. To our surprise, Clapper Rails started calling here. Mike Fialkovich and Paul Hess got to see one briefly before it retreated into the marsh grass. Another quick stop produced a very late Yellow Warbler, possibly a late record for the bird this year. Another search of the jetties in Cape May Point failed again to produce the reported eiders, so we called it a day and planned for our final days trip to the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, or, Brigantine as everyone calls it.

Wednesday, October 9:

    After breakfast and a drive to Brigantine, we were stunned to find that the refuge was closed for hunting! (Is it just me or is there something wrong with allowing hunting in a national wildlife "refuge?") A quick check of Boyle's guide and a decision was made to go to Tuckerton Marsh (official name is Tuckahoe National Wildlife Area), a few miles up the coast. As we returned to Route 9 and started up the coast, our "short trip" became a trek, as we had an extensive detour to avoid bridge construction. Finally, we arrived at the marsh. The Tuckerton Marsh consists of a single narrow road that goes several miles out into the salt marsh. Vast expanses of salt marsh are visible on both sides of the road at any place you stop. We stopped at several locations without adding any new species until we finally reached the end of the road and a parking lot. A short path led out to the shore. However, the shrubs along the path were alive with warblers! Most were Yellow-rumped but we added American Redstart and a Pine Warbler to our list for the trip, along with a flock of White-throated Sparrows. A very tame Downy Woodpecker seemed to follow us up the path to the shore.

    At the beach, Brant were flying past in large flocks along with a single Common Loon. Randi Gerrish spotted a Peregrine perched on a nearby radio tower. An obviously sick juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron did not move as the tide came in and water slowly rose to cover his legs, tail, and belly. We were about to leave when Sam Sinderson said he had a Sharp-tailed Sparrow in his scope. We all got our scopes and soon were looking at Seaside Sparrow, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow , and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow , all less than 50 feet away! For both Mike and Jim, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow was a life bird, as it was for most of the group. It was a fitting way to end the trip, spending over an hour studying these three sparrows in incredible detail with our scopes! On the drive out of the marsh, some of the group spotted Dark-eyed Juncos, which our group of four missed.

    In total, we found 144 species on the trip, including two life birds each for the leaders! We had a memorable and historic day in New Jersey with two outstanding rarities within hours, setting off a wild scramble for the New Jersey birding community. (At Nummy Island, we ran into a group of birders who were on the hawk watch platform at Cape May earlier. When someone announced the sighting of the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper on the platform, there was a wild scramble as birders packed up their gear and dashed for their cars!) The weather cooperated with us, providing comfortable temperatures every day, except for perhaps the long hot afternoon at Bombay Hook. We saw birds that we never expected to see, but when you have a group of people all searching, you find things that no person or small group would normally find by themselves. We'll never forget this trip, not only for the birds, but also for the chance to be with such wonderful friends. We can hardly wait for the next trip!

Some comments from the trip participants:

    Sarah and Randi Gerrish:The most memorable moment of the trip was watching hundreds of Snow Geese coming in and taking off. It was a thrill to see the huge vees overhead and then landing. What a treat to see the largest flock of American Avocets that we have ever encountered on our birding trips. It was also a privilege to observe the details of the numerous Peregrine Falcons, Merlins and American Kestrels as well as Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks soaring overhead on a bright and sunny day.

    Of course the opportunity for studying such a rare bird as the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was quite a thrill. The Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow and the Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow were also life birds for both of us. We also enjoyed the camaraderie of such a nice group of birding friends both old and new.

    Paul Hess: I think the people even more than the birds are what I’ll remember longest about this trip: Jim patiently scanning hundreds of Snow Geese then shouting "Ross’s Goose!" when he found what he’d been looking for … Mike’s urgency in motioning me to look at his Sharp-tailed Sandpiper because at any instant it might fly away ... Linda, the only one who looked up from the meadow while the rest of us looked down, calling out "There’s a Black Vulture" … Bob excitedly pointing us toward scope-filling views of a Seaside and two different Sharp-tailed Sparrow species not 20 feet away … the whole group craning necks, edging in all directions, circling the trees trying to get a decent look at those treetop elves, the Brown-headed Nuthatches … everyone’s awed silence watching a Peregrine dive-bombing a terrified flock of Dunlin. I don’t know what the club can do for an encore, but I sure recommend signing up for whatever long-distance tour comes next.

    Mike Leahy: With a total of 22 life species, a New Jersey first-ever Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and a Long-billed Curlew to top things off, the Three Rivers Birding Club trip to the eastern shore was truly a "trip of a lifetime" for me. Jim Valimont and Mike Fialkovich were very knowledgeable about locations to bird and bird identification. The weather was great, and the other participants were a joy.

    One of the best parts of the trip for me was the totally chance discovery of the Nelson’s, Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows we found on the last day of the trip. We had perfect views of all three species, sometimes all in the scope at the same time. I had been trying for these three species for several years, and to find them all three at the same place at the same time was just unbelievable.

    Pat and Sherron Lynch: Jim and Mike provided excellent leadership. We enjoyed the furor created by Mike's finding of the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Not only was it a great bird to see--a New Jersey state record, but we also saw excited birders hoping out of cars and racing as quickly as they could carry their scopes to see the bird. We had the chance to talk briefly with the noted bird photographer, Kevin Karlson, who had a massive camera lens and hurried to photograph the sandpiper.

    Jim showed his adaptability when he found that Brigantine (Forsythe) was closed for goose hunting. Jim led us to Tuckerton where we were able to observe leisurely and in detail three special sparrows: Seaside, Nelson's Sharp-tailed, and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed.

    Watching gulls drop clams on the road to break the shells and then swoop down to gobble up the clams was a behavior that we had heard of, but seeing it in person greatly increased our appreciation of the gull's cleverness.

    Appropriately, the Three Rivers Birding Club saw large numbers of Peregrines throughout the trip in Delaware and New Jersey. Sarah and Randi Gerrish spotted one watching us from a tall communication tower at our last stop.

    After returning home it was fun to check the New Jersey Birding news and to follow some of the people as they desperately tried to track down the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and the Long-billed Curlew. A note on the evening of October 8 from Sandra Keller of Barrington, NJ said, "How long is that group from Pittsburgh (sic) staying?!" With two rarities in about four hours, the Three Rivers Birding Club sure left its mark on the New Jersey birding community.

    Warren Marvin: It was a fabulous trip from start to finish – one exciting thing after another. I’m a beginner, and I appreciate how helpful everyone in the group was. My favorite birds? I’ll never forget the morning we went to Higbee Beach, where seeing so many Sharpies was simply jaw-dropping to me. It was a sight to behold. I wasn’t prepared to expect such rarities as the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and the number of people who gathered to see it was impressive. People came to me in high excitement asking where it was, did I see it, and was it still there? The experience was remarkable.

    Julia Pahountis-Opacic: Mosquitos, Mosquitos, Mosquitos. But Saturday turned out to be a such great day by all measures with temperatures in the low 80's and clear skies and birds — those mosquitos didn't even exist! I was quite impressed with the shorebird identification skills of the group (something that has troubled me for quite a few years that I had to purchase books that focus only on gulls and shorebirds).

    Sam Sinderson: The barn owls we flushed on Sunday would have been the highlight of the trip if not for what occurred later. The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, of course, was the bird of the trip: so much so that it overshadowed the Long-billed Curlew, which overshadowed the Gull-billed Tern, which overshadowed the many Peregrine Falcons at Cape May on Monday. How many highlights can one have on one trip?

    Linda Sporrer: I keep my souvenir mug from the Cape May Bird Observatory in a place of honor on my desk at work. I can look at it any time and immediately rekindle some of the afterglow and excitement from this special trip. Every day produced something unforgettable. In particular I remember the thousands of Snow Geese unexpectedly lifting off the water en masse with the very last remnants of the sunset behind them that first night at Bombay Hook – what an auditory and visual experience! There were the pair of Barn Owls that we flushed to the amazement of all the next day. And just before boarding the ferry to Cape May was the duel between a pair of Peregrine Falcons and a pint-sized Ruddy Turnstone that left oohs and aahs and hearts pounding (the Ruddy Turnstone was the victor!). And on the last morning (for me) there was the finale of the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at the Wetlands Institute just minutes before I had to leave to return home ahead of the rest of the group. The icing on the cake was the wonderful camaraderie of the group that was present throughout. I had the time of my life. Thanks Mike and Jim!

    Report by — Jim Valimont

    Thanks to Pat and Sherron Lynch for taking the photographs. Photos were taken at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge Area in Delaware and Cape May, NJ outing from October 5-8, 2002.

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Mission of 3RBC

To gather in friendship, to enjoy the wonders of nature and to share our passion for birds!