Cape May Spring Weekend Trip (May 16-18, 2003)

On May 16th, 17th and 18th The New Jersey Audubon Society (NJAS) and the Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) hosted a "Spring Weekend". The Susoeffs attended the three-day conference, which featured workshops, videos, boat trips, lectures and guided field outings.

Cape May is a birding hotspot and a popular destination for many 3RBC members. It was our first trip, and in spite of a nor’easter, we had such a great time birding we thought we’d share our experience. Those of you who have not been to Cape May might be inspired to give it a try!

Taking the PA turnpike (which we do under protest) and in spite of the Schuylkill Expressway, we got to Cape May by car in a mere seven hours. It is delightful to know we are a day’s drive from such a wonderful destination.

Rain, high temperatures in the low 50s and winds gusting to 30 miles per hour didn’t dissuade us from the first field trip, scheduled for 7:30 a.m. on Friday. A small group of us huddled around a rain-soaked sign waiting to take the shuttle bus from the Lighthouse parking lot to one of three locations: Higbee Beach, Rhea Farm (The Beanery) or the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (AKA "The Meadows.) One could also explore the adjacent 153 acres of Cape May State Park or bird the beaches in the vicinity.

We opted for the Meadows at the recommendation of the Field Marshall. The theory was that the hard winds might have blown some interesting shorebirds into the preserve to rest. The Nature Conservancy owns the 200 acres of shoreline, dunes, meadows, freshwater coastal ponds and cedars. Years ago the Meadows were grazing lands for local cattle. This was back when South Cape May actually was a town, sitting on property that is now largely under water. This prime beachfront location was to become a campground in the mid 1970s. At the eleventh hour, the Nature Conservancy acquired the property and created the refuge.

Lo and behold, we found ourselves led by Pete Dunne, one of the 'celebrities' of the weekend. Pete is the Vice President of the New Jersey Audubon Society, the Director of the CMBO and author of many books and articles about birding. Not surprisingly he is an extremely knowledgeable guide and we learned a lot about the area’s history and birds.

Luckily, the rain subsided during the walk. We saw numerous Red-winged Blackbirds, heard a Marsh Wren calling, noted Mute Swans and Canadian Geese, a Green Heron, Forster’s Terns, Common Terns, Northern Gannet, Willet, Common Loon, Cormorants, Snowy Egret, Mallard, Green-winged and Blue-winged teals, Sanderlings, Great Black-backed gulls, Purple Martins, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Catbirds and Mockingbirds. The highlight of this outing for us was the Piping Plover, an endangered shorebird that nests in the area.

From the Meadows we moved on to Rea’s Farm, called "The Beanery" by the locals in reference to the lima beans grown there. The Beanery is one of the last working farms in the Lower Peninsula and a great example of cooperation between a conservation group and a private landowner. The NJAS has leased 80 acres of land for bird watching here, and has right of first refusal should the owner decide to sell the land. The Farm has a variety of fields, forest, ponds and meadows. Pete led us along the edge of a plowed field, above which Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows swooped. We were hunting for warblers, and with his pishing, a male Northern Parula popped out. Other finds included Yellow-rumped and Black & White warblers, a Common Yellowthroat and a Redstart.

Incidentally, Pete describes his pishing technique in his book, "On Bird Watching". He first utilizes the alarm call of the titmouse. Next he mimics the call of the Screech Owl or Saw-whet Owl (or other predator, depending on his location). Finally, he ‘kisses’ his first two fingers to imitate the sound of a bird in distress. He cautions against overusing this practice in the book, a point well taken.

The next field trip began at 10:00 a.m. We opted for Higbee Beach, a 940 acre Wildlife Management Area, offering the birder a wonderful variety of habitats. The last natural dune forest along the Delaware Bayshore is here. Unfortunately, the rain became torrential shortly after arriving. Other than a flock of sodden Eastern Kingbirds, we saw little.. We vowed to return when the weather improved.

After being soaked to the skin during the morning, we decided to miss the afternoon field outings in favor of some touring by car. We drove to Stone Harbor Point and through the beach towns north of Cape May. We loved the kitschy, 1950s feel of Wildwood’s motor inns!

By evening the rain had stopped, and we returned to The Meadows on our own in hopes of an American Bittern. While we didn’t see one, we enjoyed the beauty of the area and added Black Ducks, Osprey and Ring-billed Gulls to our list.

Saturday dawned cold and windy, but mercifully dry. Our plan was to drive to Reed’s Beach on the Delaware Bay, and a relatively short drive north and west from Cape May. The site is famous for its strategic role in shorebird migration. There, in front of a myriad of small beach houses perched on stilts, the horseshoe crabs climb out of the ocean to lay their eggs. This happens in mid-May, usually after the full moon. The male hooks onto the female, who then drags him to the beach. She digs several shallow holes at the high-tide mark and lays approximately 80,000 eggs, which the male then fertilizes. They then struggle to return to the water. Many don’t make it, and become food for gulls.

In the meantime, endangered species such as the Red Knot have been flying for as much as 60 hours from as far as South America. They make one stop, Delaware Bay, for the sole purpose of gobbling up protein-rich crab eggs. It is critical that they significantly increase their body weight during this one stop before they resume their migration to their Arctic tundra breeding grounds.

Because of beach erosion and over-harvesting of crab eggs for bait, Red Knots have declined precipitously, from 95,000 in 1989 to just 32,000 in 2002. Steps are being taken by the Environmental Protection Agency to create more beachfront. In addition, New Jersey’s Fish and Wildlife Commission has restricted beach access and banned the harvest of eggs during this critical period. When we arrived, scores of Laughing Gulls and Ruddy Turnstones and an occasional Red Knot were on the shore. We were a bit late in the day to see really large flocks; we heard that at high tide around 8:00 a.m. the sand was virtually covered by shorebirds. We didn’t mind; even what we saw was impressive. At a nearby marsh we spotted an American Oystercatcher and Black-bellied Plover.

That afternoon, we birded some of the local beaches on our own. At the end of Beach Avenue is a little gazebo that is popular with brides for weddings and pictures. The procession of brides almost matched the number of struggling seabirds. Both were very cold and very wet! But we were happy to list a Skimmer hunkered down against the wind.

Rumor had it that a Red-Necked Phalarope had been seen at the Meadows. So back we went again, and got to see the bird for a split second before it disappeared behind some grasses growing out of a spit of sand in the eastern pool. This was another life bird for us, but the American Bittern still eluded us.

Sunday brought better weather- the winds died down and the rain was mostly sporadic. Some sunshine even broke through the clouds. That brought us back to Higbee Beach and The Beanery, and what a difference! At The Beanery, a Summer Tanager was hanging around the beehives, picking off the insects at his leisure. Around the leeward side of a grove of willows, we saw several warblers: Black & White, Prothonotary, Wilsons, Yellow, Black-Throated Blue, Parula and Yellow-rumped. They were starving from the days of rain and wind, and were frantically eating the insects that were swarming them (and us). A thermal brought several Turkey Vultures, a Red-Tailed and two Broadwing Hawks. At Higbee Beach we hoped for the Blue Grosbeak, Mississippi Kite and Yellow-breasted Chat, but instead listed Indigo Bunting, Great Blue Heron, Killdeer, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Magnolia Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Goldfinches and many of the same warblers we had already listed at the Farm.

All too soon it was time to pack the car and head home. There were so many places we missed: Belleplain State Forest, Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, 2-Mile Beach, Jakes Landing… all would have to wait for another trip.

At the end of October, NJAS holds a Fall Weekend, featuring the hawk migration. We’re told that hawks pour over Cape May like a river. Sounds like another road trip for us!

List from Cape May Trip: 77 species
Common Loon Piping Plover Blue Jay Prairie Warbler
Northern Gannet Killdeer American Crow Black-and-white Warbler
Double-crested Cormorant American Oystercatcher Fish Crow American Redstart
Great Blue Heron Willet Purple Martin Prothonotary Warbler
Snowy Egret Ruddy Turnstone No. Rough-winged Swallow Common Yellowthroat
Green Heron Red Knot Barn Swallow Wilson’s Warbler
Glossy Ibis Sanderling Tufted Titmouse Summer Tanager
Turkey Vulture Least Sandpiper Carolina Wren Song Sparrow
Canada Goose Red-necked Phalarope Marsh Wren Savannah Sparrow
Mute Swan Laughing Gull Ruby-crowned Kinglet Northern Cardinal
Gadwall Ring-billed Gull Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Indigo Bunting
American Black Duck Great Black-backed Gull American Robin Red-winged Blackbird
Mallard Common Tern Gray Catbird Common Grackle
Blue-winged Teal Forster's Tern Northern Mockingbird Boat-tailed Grackle
Green-winged Teal Rock Dove European Starling Brown-headed Cowbird
Osprey Mourning Dove Cedar Waxwing American Goldinch
Broad-winged Hawk Red-bellied Woodpecker Northern Parula House Sparrow
Red-tailed Hawk Northern Flicker Yellow Warbler  
Black-belied Plover Eastern Wood-Pewee Black-Throated Blue Warbler  
Semipalmated Plover Eastern Kingbird Yellow-rumped Warbler  

— By Joanne and Patrick Susoeff

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