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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
Curlew is listed as accidental in Boyles 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
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.