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The massive shorebird aggregations along the various coasts of southern New Jersey are a big highlight of this tour. Here, thousands of shorebirds, mostly Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, gather in the impoundment at Heislerville. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
Our spring Cape May tour is typically chock full of great birding experiences, and this year it not only met, but often exceeded, our already high expectations. We started racking up the hits before we even got to the hotel, making a couple of stops en route from the airport. One of these stops netted us part of a family of Barred Owls hooting it up at the Rea Farm (The Beanery).
The week started off with west and southwest winds already covering the region, and we spent the early morning at Cape May Point State Park (CMPSP), having a picnic breakfast and enjoying a constant stream of swallows coursing by, headlined by some Bank Swallows and many Cliff Swallows, and dominated by many, many, Barn Swallows. Cape May Point and The Beanery were our principal morning birding stops, and we added a good mix of both migrants and breeders. Remarkably, the most numerous warbler on this first day was Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler. By this point it would be fairly late for even one here most years, let alone for it to be the most common warbler species. After lunch, we went over to the bayshore, to enjoy the first of our shorebird spectacles. We ended up spending a couple of hours at Heislerville Wildlife Management Area (WMA), taking in the spectacle of over 10,000 shorebirds feeding on the mudflats of the vast impoundment, and periodically taking to the sky in synchronized, seemingly choreographed, flight.
Our planned trip to the Ocean City Welcome Center happened to come on the heels of a night with very strong migration through the region, which provided us with with a bounty of migrants in addition to our primary goal, which was to drink in the Yellow-crowned Night Heron colony in the beautiful morning light while we ate breakfast. We got to watch migrant songbirds moving through the trees of this isolated patch of habitat in the vast saltmarsh as they continued their northbound migration, and we ended up with 12 species of warbler while standing in one place, as well as Eastern Wood-Pewee, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and several Baltimore Orioles. This morning was one of the highlights for many of us, and with good reason!
After we were able to pry ourselves away from the breakfast, displaying Yellow-crowned Night Herons, and migrants, we made our way over to Belleplain State Forest, the richest location for forest-breeding songbirds in Cape May County. A nice morning there featured Hooded, Prothonotary, Yellow-throated, and Pine Warblers, as well as a Broad-winged Hawk near a nest. We then motored over towards the Delaware Bayshore for the shorebird spectacle, but not before making very important stops at Wawa (for sandwiches), and Beaver Swamp WMA (for Sandhill Cranes and Gull-billed Terns). Cooks Beach was our first bay shore stop, and in addition to the great shorebirds feeding on Horseshoe Crab eggs here, we also got our first scope views of a singing Seaside Sparrow. Reeds Beach held even closer shorebirds, including Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, and Sanderlings, as well as actively mating Horseshoe Crabs, and a few Diamondback Terrapin turtles. Several of the shorebirds were sporting colored flags on their legs, including an orange one that was put on a Red Knot on the wintering grounds in Argentina! Our afternoon was spent looking for migrants around Cape May Point again, and after our dinner at the Mad Batter we headed over to the Meadows to take in a wonderful Common Nighthawk show.
Day four started out with breakfast at CMPSP again, and we followed that up with a nice foray to Higbee Beach WMA and then the Stevens Street side of the Beanery for a hawkwatch.
The main event of the morning, though, was our boat trip into the back bays of Cape May County (Jarvis Sound). The boat journey aboard Captain Bob Lubberman’s boat named “The Osprey” was about as fine a trip as you could expect. We had good views of some breeding plumaged shorebirds, encountered singing Seaside Sparrows and calling Clapper Rails, saw hordes of Diamondback Terrapins, and had repeatedly amazing views of Ospreys at various stages of nesting. A big highlight on this trip in the spring is the good number of Whimbrels that we see, and this year was no exception, but there was bonus shorebird in their midst: a Bar-tailed Godwit! This vagrant Godwit from Europe had first been seen the previous week, but had been very tricky to track down, with well less than half the boat trips seeing it. We lucked into seeing it very close to the boat before it flew a bit farther out in the marsh where it then foraged for long enough for us all to get scope views of it (we were tickled pink that we were able to use a telescope aboard a boat, an unusual occurrence to be sure!!).
On our next-to-last full day, we headed north, going into Atlantic County, and visiting Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (Brigantine). We had a great spin around the wildlife drive, seeing hordes of shorebirds, dominated by Dunlin and Semipalmated Sandpipers, but also including standouts such as seven Stilt Sandpipers (rare in the region in spring, and always a treat to see in breeding plumage), and a whopping count of over 60 White-rumped Sandpipers. After a few efforts, we finally got good views of Saltmarsh Sparrow, and we saw a bunch of Clapper Rails running around on the low tide mudflats, and quite a few Gull-billed Terns. Other species of interest here were Wood Duck, Caspian Tern, Brant, and Black Skimmers aplenty.
We then headed back south, and had a brief stop at Stevens Street near the Beanery, where we picked up our first Mississippi Kite of the tour. We were very happy to pick up this species, but little did we know, this individual wouldn’t be nearly the last Mississippi Kite we would see.
Our final full day began with us taking in the dawn chorus at Belleplain as the sun rose over our picnic breakfast. After we finished eating, we were treated to cripplingly good views of an Acadian Flycatcher throwing its head back as its body exploded in song, followed quickly by a singing Ovenbird that perched for good looks for all. After enjoying good looks at other local specialty breeders, such as Hooded Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Wood Thrush, as well as a surprise Ground Skink, we headed out and over to Weatherby Road. in the adjacent Peaslee WMA.
Weatherby Road gave us great views of Blue-winged Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Scarlet Tanager in quick succession, and we retired to the south for lunch just outside the Cape May County Zoo. While eating, we enjoyed a pair of adult Hairy Woodpeckers actively attending a nest with chicks, and when we were done we tracked down a pair of gorgeous adult Red-headed Woodpeckers, and this was punctuated by a Mississippi Kite flying overhead heading south!
We went down to Cape Island, and did another sky watch, this time being rewarded with several Mississippi Kites, including some in a very instructive direct comparison to Broad-winged Hawks sharing the same thermals. After a brief respite, we went up the peninsula to get into some coastal dune and beach habitat that we hadn't spent much time in. The big highlight here was a pair of Piping Plovers courting, with the male (named "Bob Barker" by the local plover biologists) doing a fancy high stepping display to impress its mate. We also got our closest looks at Lesser Black-backed Gulls, saw Least Terns displaying and mating, and had both Black and Surf Scoters. On the way back down to Cape May, we poked our heads into The Wetlands Institute, where there was an in-your-face Tricolored Heron putting on a show.
We spent our final morning in the dunes of legendary Cape May Point, enjoying a modest but noticeable flight of migrant songbirds, and picking up some waterbirds flying by as well. We had singles of Bobolink and Dickcissel, a handful of Blackpoll Warblers and Eastern Kingbirds, several large flocks of Cedar Waxwings, a nice male Rose-breasted Grosbeak which dropped out of the sky and landed next to us, and a Red Fox trotting down the beach. By the time we left, Mississippi Kites were all over the place, and we had likely counted into the double digits of the species, a fitting exclamation point to a splendid week in Cape May!
We were both delighted with the week, from the beautiful breeding birds, to the awe-inspiring shorebird spectacles, but the real pleasure was getting to spend a week birding in Cape May with this fine group of people. Also, a huge thanks to Ruth at Field Guides HQ for putting it all together and making sure that everything ran like a dream. Thank you all for making it such a successful and memorable trip, and we hope to see afield in the future!
-Doug and Tom
KEYS FOR THIS LIST
One of the following keys may be shown in brackets for individual species as appropriate: * = heard only, I = introduced, E = endemic, N = nesting, a = austral migrant, b = boreal migrant
This is a large part of why we see all the shorebirds we see on the Delaware Bayshore of Cape May. Horseshoe Crabs come to shore to spawn every spring, laying millions of eggs that, in addition to perpetuating the existence of the crabs, provide sustenance for tens of thousands of birds on their way north. Photo by participant Leslie Crocker.
Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, and Waterfowl)
BRANT (ATLANTIC) (Branta bernicla hrota)
CANADA GOOSE (Branta canadensis)
MUTE SWAN (Cygnus olor)
WOOD DUCK (Aix sponsa)
GADWALL (Anas strepera)
AMERICAN BLACK DUCK (Anas rubripes)
MALLARD (Anas platyrhynchos)
NORTHERN SHOVELER (Anas clypeata)
We had a couple of encounters with Red Foxes around Cape May Point. They seem to have taken a liking to the dunes and beach over the past year, where they were formerly seldom seen. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
LESSER SCAUP (Aythya affinis)
SURF SCOTER (Melanitta perspicillata)
BLACK SCOTER (Melanitta americana)
RED-BREASTED MERGANSER (Mergus serrator)
RUDDY DUCK (Oxyura jamaicensis)
Odontophoridae (New World Quail)
NORTHERN BOBWHITE (Colinus virginianus)
This Northern Bobwhite called, and called, and called from the edge of the CMPSP parking lot. Finally, some of us were able to find its song perch, and watch it at length! Photo by participant Leslie Crocker.
Phasianidae (Pheasants, Grouse, and Allies)
WILD TURKEY (Meleagris gallopavo)
COMMON LOON (Gavia immer)
HORNED GREBE (Podiceps auritus)
Sulidae (Boobies and Gannets)
NORTHERN GANNET (Morus bassanus)
Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants and Shags)
DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT (Phalacrocorax auritus)
BROWN PELICAN (Pelecanus occidentalis)
These Lady Slipper Orchids drew our attention away from birds for a brief time during one of our stops at Belleplain State Forest. Photo by Leslie Crocker.
Ardeidae (Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns)
GREAT BLUE HERON (Ardea herodias)
GREAT EGRET (Ardea alba)
SNOWY EGRET (Egretta thula)
LITTLE BLUE HERON (Egretta caerulea)
TRICOLORED HERON (Egretta tricolor)
GREEN HERON (Butorides virescens)
The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron breeding colony in Ocean City was one of the biggest highlights of the tour for many of us. In addition to the great wave of songbird migration we saw there, these snazzy resident breeders, which were the primary reason for our visit, were show-stoppers as well. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Nycticorax nycticorax)
YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON (Nyctanassa violacea)
Threskiornithidae (Ibises and Spoonbills)
GLOSSY IBIS (Plegadis falcinellus)
Cathartidae (New World Vultures)
BLACK VULTURE (Coragyps atratus)
TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura)
OSPREY (Pandion haliaetus)
Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)
MISSISSIPPI KITE (Ictinia mississippiensis)
By the end of the week we were almost tired of Mississippi Kites. They really did put on a show for the ages as far as that species is concerned! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
NORTHERN HARRIER (Circus cyaneus)
COOPER'S HAWK (Accipiter cooperii)
BALD EAGLE (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
BROAD-WINGED HAWK (Buteo platypterus)
RED-TAILED HAWK (Buteo jamaicensis)
Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots)
CLAPPER RAIL (Rallus crepitans)
SANDHILL CRANE (Antigone canadensis)
AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER (Haematopus palliatus)
A recently hatched American Oystercatcher chick seeks the shade of its father in the Cape May saltmarsh, while Laughing Gulls, part of the largest breeding concentration of this species in the world, cavort in the background. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
Charadriidae (Plovers and Lapwings)
BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER (Pluvialis squatarola)
SEMIPALMATED PLOVER (Charadrius semipalmatus)
PIPING PLOVER (Charadrius melodus)
KILLDEER (Charadrius vociferus)
Scolopacidae (Sandpipers and Allies)
WHIMBREL (Numenius phaeopus)
BAR-TAILED GODWIT (EUROPEAN) (Limosa lapponica lapponica)
The rarest bird of the trip was this Bar-tailed Godwit that we were most fortunate to see during our boat trip through Jarvis Sound aboard The Osprey. This was of the European subspecies "lapponica", and it was the second record for Cape May County of any variety of Bar-tailed Godwit. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
RUDDY TURNSTONE (Arenaria interpres)
RED KNOT (Calidris canutus)
STILT SANDPIPER (Calidris himantopus)
SANDERLING (Calidris alba)
DUNLIN (Calidris alpina)
LEAST SANDPIPER (Calidris minutilla)
One of more than 60 White-rumped Sandpipers we ran into during our loop around the wildlife drive at Brigantine. We were stunned to find such an incredibly high number, and it allowed for us to get repeated views of the species in direct comparison with its most common congeners: Semipalmated Sandpipers. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER (Calidris fuscicollis)
SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER (Calidris pusilla)
SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER (Limnodromus griseus)
SPOTTED SANDPIPER (Actitis macularius)
SOLITARY SANDPIPER (Tringa solitaria)
GREATER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa melanoleuca)
WILLET (EASTERN) (Tringa semipalmata semipalmata)
Western Willet was also a big surprise on our boat trip through Jarvis Sound. This subspecies is a frequent winterer in the area, but is usually long gone by the time the local Eastern Willets are back on territory and breeding.
WILLET (WESTERN) (Tringa semipalmata inornata)
LESSER YELLOWLEGS (Tringa flavipes)
Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
LAUGHING GULL (Leucophaeus atricilla)
RING-BILLED GULL (Larus delawarensis)
HERRING GULL (Larus argentatus)
LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus fuscus)
GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus marinus)
LEAST TERN (Sternula antillarum)
GULL-BILLED TERN (Gelochelidon nilotica)
This Gull-billed Tern at Beaver Swamp had found a nice juicy frog to its liking. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
CASPIAN TERN (Hydroprogne caspia)
COMMON TERN (Sterna hirundo)
FORSTER'S TERN (Sterna forsteri)
BLACK SKIMMER (Rynchops niger)
Columbidae (Pigeons and Doves)
ROCK PIGEON (Columba livia) [I]
MOURNING DOVE (Zenaida macroura)
YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (Coccyzus americanus)
This vigilant red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl was an unexpected surprise on one of our mornings of birding on Cape Island. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
EASTERN SCREECH-OWL (Megascops asio)
BARRED OWL (Strix varia)
Caprimulgidae (Nightjars and Allies)
COMMON NIGHTHAWK (Chordeiles minor)
CHUCK-WILL'S-WIDOW (Antrostomus carolinensis)
This Common Nighthawk was one of a few that entertained us at the Meadows at the end of an excellent day of birding in Cape May. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
CHIMNEY SWIFT (Chaetura pelagica)
RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD (Archilochus colubris)
BELTED KINGFISHER (Megaceryle alcyon)
RED-HEADED WOODPECKER (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER (Melanerpes carolinus)
DOWNY WOODPECKER (Picoides pubescens)
HAIRY WOODPECKER (Picoides villosus)
NORTHERN FLICKER (Colaptes auratus)
This Red-headed Woodpecker was one of a pair that delighted us near the Cape May County Zoo on our final full day. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Falconidae (Falcons and Caracaras)
MERLIN (Falco columbarius)
PEREGRINE FALCON (Falco peregrinus)
Tyrannidae (Tyrant Flycatchers)
OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER (Contopus cooperi)
EASTERN WOOD-PEWEE (Contopus virens)
ACADIAN FLYCATCHER (Empidonax virescens)
EASTERN PHOEBE (Sayornis phoebe)
GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER (Myiarchus crinitus)
EASTERN KINGBIRD (Tyrannus tyrannus)
The large Purple Martin colony at Cape May Point was one of the highlights of our daily visits there. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
Vireonidae (Vireos, Shrike-Babblers, and Erpornis)
WHITE-EYED VIREO (Vireo griseus)
RED-EYED VIREO (Vireo olivaceus)
Corvidae (Crows, Jays, and Magpies)
BLUE JAY (Cyanocitta cristata)
AMERICAN CROW (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
FISH CROW (Corvus ossifragus)
NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED SWALLOW (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
PURPLE MARTIN (Progne subis)
TREE SWALLOW (Tachycineta bicolor)
BANK SWALLOW (Riparia riparia)
BARN SWALLOW (Hirundo rustica)
CLIFF SWALLOW (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
We ran into a great swallow flight on our first morning in Cape May Point, with Cliff Swallows being the real headliner. The species can be really difficult to see locally in the spring, since they are typically farther to the west! Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Paridae (Tits, Chickadees, and Titmice)
CAROLINA CHICKADEE (Poecile carolinensis)
TUFTED TITMOUSE (Baeolophus bicolor)
HOUSE WREN (Troglodytes aedon)
MARSH WREN (Cistothorus palustris) [*]
CAROLINA WREN (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER (Polioptila caerulea)
We got a reprieve from warbler-neck early on in the tour by finding that we could look down at warblers for a change. Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
Turdidae (Thrushes and Allies)
GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH/BICKNELL'S THRUSH (Catharus minimus/bicknelli)
WOOD THRUSH (Hylocichla mustelina)
AMERICAN ROBIN (Turdus migratorius)
Mimidae (Mockingbirds and Thrashers)
GRAY CATBIRD (Dumetella carolinensis)
BROWN THRASHER (Toxostoma rufum)
NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD (Mimus polyglottos)
EUROPEAN STARLING (Sturnus vulgaris) [I]
CEDAR WAXWING (Bombycilla cedrorum)
Among the smashing lineup of spring warblers which we encountered, it's hard to choose a best, but the great views of Prothonotary Warbler that we had would have to place it near the top of the list! Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
Parulidae (New World Warblers)
OVENBIRD (Seiurus aurocapilla)
WORM-EATING WARBLER (Helmitheros vermivorum)
NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH (Parkesia noveboracensis)
BLUE-WINGED WARBLER (Vermivora cyanoptera)
BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER (Mniotilta varia)
PROTHONOTARY WARBLER (Protonotaria citrea)
Despite its name, Cape May Warbler can be awfully difficult to track down in the spring in Cape May, but we were very fortunate to run into one at the Ocean City Welcome Center during our migrant-tastic morning there! Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
COMMON YELLOWTHROAT (Geothlypis trichas)
HOODED WARBLER (Setophaga citrina)
AMERICAN REDSTART (Setophaga ruticilla)
CAPE MAY WARBLER (Setophaga tigrina)
NORTHERN PARULA (Setophaga americana)
MAGNOLIA WARBLER (Setophaga magnolia)
This Bay-breasted Warbler performed amazingly well for us at Cox Hall Creek. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
BAY-BREASTED WARBLER (Setophaga castanea)
YELLOW WARBLER (Setophaga petechia)
CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER (Setophaga pensylvanica)
BLACKPOLL WARBLER (Setophaga striata)
BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER (Setophaga caerulescens)
PINE WARBLER (Setophaga pinus)
YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (MYRTLE) (Setophaga coronata coronata)
This Canada Warbler was another treat during our sunny afternoon excursion to Cox Hall Creek WMA. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER (Setophaga dominica)
PRAIRIE WARBLER (Setophaga discolor)
BLACK-THROATED GREEN WARBLER (Setophaga virens)
CANADA WARBLER (Cardellina canadensis)
WILSON'S WARBLER (Cardellina pusilla)
YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT (Icteria virens)
We found Magnolia Warbler in a few places on tour, but perhaps our most obliging was this individual in Cape May Point. Photo by guide Tom Johnson.
Emberizidae (Buntings and New World Sparrows)
SALTMARSH SPARROW (Ammodramus caudacutus)
SEASIDE SPARROW (Ammodramus maritimus)
CHIPPING SPARROW (Spizella passerina)
FIELD SPARROW (Spizella pusilla)
SONG SPARROW (Melospiza melodia)
EASTERN TOWHEE (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
Cardinalidae (Cardinals and Allies)
SUMMER TANAGER (Piranga rubra)
SCARLET TANAGER (Piranga olivacea)
NORTHERN CARDINAL (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Is there any more appopriate word for the red of a Scarlet Tanager than "Wow"? It's even better when they hang out down below the canopy so that you can drink in their amazing color without having to crane your neck up towards the heavens, as this one did for us! Photo by guide Doug Gochfeld.
ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK (Pheucticus ludovicianus)
BLUE GROSBEAK (Passerina caerulea)
INDIGO BUNTING (Passerina cyanea)
DICKCISSEL (Spiza americana)
Icteridae (Troupials and Allies)
BOBOLINK (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD (Agelaius phoeniceus)
COMMON GRACKLE (Quiscalus quiscula)
BOAT-TAILED GRACKLE (Quiscalus major)
BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD (Molothrus ater)
ORCHARD ORIOLE (Icterus spurius)
Baltimore Orioles showed very well this year, especially down in Cape May Point, where they are distributed more sparsely in the spring than in much of the rest of the region. Guide Tom Johnson made this one freeze right in mid-air as it tried to sneak over us.
BALTIMORE ORIOLE (Icterus galbula)
Fringillidae (Finches, Euphonias, and Allies)
HOUSE FINCH (Haemorhous mexicanus) [I]
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH (Spinus tristis)
Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)
HOUSE SPARROW (Passer domesticus) [I]
Here's a short compilation of video clips from our Cape May tour, from singing Acadian Flycatcher to dancing Piping Plover. All clips by guide Doug Gochfeld.
SILVER-HAIRED BAT (Lasionycteris noctivagans)
EASTERN COTTONTAIL (Sylvilagus floridanus)
PLAIN EASTERN CHIPMUNK (Tamias striatus)
WOODCHUCK (Marmota monax)
EASTERN GRAY SQUIRREL (Sciurus carolinensis)
MUSKRAT (Ondatra zibethica)
BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN (Tursiops truncatus)
RED FOX (Vulpes vulpes)
WHITE-TAILED DEER (Odocoileus virginianus)
What a merry band of birders we had for this fantastic week in Cape May!
COMMON FIVE-LINED SKINK (Plestiodon fasciatus)
GROUND SKINK (LITTLE BROWN SKINK) (Scincella lateralis)
RED-EARED SLIDER (Trachemys scripta elegans)
DIAMONDBACK TERRAPIN (Malaclemys terrapin)
FOWLER'S TOAD (Anaxyrus fowleri)
Totals for the tour: 169 bird taxa and 9 mammal taxa