Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Magic of Cape May

Recently, through the glamorous life of travel, I returned to Florida from Newark, NJ. The interesting thing was this was following the annual Cape May Bird Observatory (NJ Audubon) fall bird show. So with a left side window I was able to enjoy the scenery as a southbound hawk might see it (even though I was considerably higher)!

The first landmark I recognized was the north pointing peninsula, Sandy Hook. A fair hawk watching spot in its own right. North bound spring migrants use this spit of land to get halfway across to Long Island and other points north.

New Jersey has always gotten a bad rap for the human congestion in the northern portion of the state, but heading south from Sandy Hook, most of the coast is a giant system of contiguous salt marshes and waterways! If you blow this image up you can just make out the only real heavy human congestion in this whole area. Note the skyscrapers of Atlantic City near the center of the image on the coast.

Continuing south from here was that magical south facing peninsula itself. Like a giant avian funnel the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean conspire to offer birders unimagineable concentrations of all types of migrant birds at the very southern tip of this land mass.

famed Cape May lighthouse and convent photographed D-Lux 4 camera, Oct 2009
This magical spot is of course, Cape May, New Jersey. A mecca for birders worldwide who descend on this community by the thousands each weekend in September & October. One of the crowned jewels of this fabled town sits literally in the shadow of the Cape May Point lighthouse in the state park here. The Cape May Hawk Watch has been run every year for... well... err.. a long time. I hate to stop and do the math actually because when I do, it reminds me of just how much further from young I get every day. It was actually 22 years ago when I first conducted this hawkwatch. Every day from sunise to sundown beginning in mid August and wrapping up near early December, I'd sit on a smaller platform that sat on this very site and count each and every hawk I saw.

But the Cape May Hawk Watch had already been a staple in the birding community long before I was invited to take the prestigious post and earn my official membership to "National Brotherhood of Professional Hawkwatchers". I'd guess the official hawkwatch dated back at least 12 years before this, and the stories of shooters lining the streets to hunt hawks here are infamous dating well back toward the turn of the century. The famed father of American birding hiself, Roger Tory Peterson, hitch hiked to Cape May as a very young man to witness the amazing migration spectacle here and was taken in by a local family. For dinner they served (what else?!?...) Sharp-shinned Hawk. Later in life at a talk I remember Roger recalling this and suggesting that it actually tasted a lot like chicken!

On some days, particularly in late October as the migration tapers off a bit, the platform can be a bit slow...

but when the winds turn to from the NorthWest people and hawks will come out of the woodwork. On these days it is nothing to see thousands of hawks and if you don't want to work to hard at it, never fear there will always be nice close views. Often Shrp-shinned & Cooper's Hawks will swing by at or below eye level hugging the contours of the brush as Accipiters are prone to do. Falcons like Peregrines, Merlins, and Kestrels will buzz low overhead offering fabulous views, while Northern Harriers (or Hen Harriers to our friends on the other side of the Atlantic) will course low over the marshes just in front of the watch. The official hawk counter is responsible for trying to spot and count them all but the rest of us (including the helpful interns looking the wrong way above) are free to just enjoy the views of the closer birds if we choose.
On Friday night during the festival a cold front passed and the winds turned Northwest at 10-20 mph! Knowing every birder in the point would make their way to the hawkwatch I set up my extra binoculars and spotting scopes on the hawkwatch and was sharing these with any who cared to borrow a pair to view the fantastic natural phenomenon that was unfolding right above our heads. There were hawks migrating everywhere and the views were phenomenal!

As the crowds broke in the evening I put my extra binoculars away but stayed on long after everyone else had left. I continued scanning even though the birds had mostly settled in and the flight was done for the day. I was hoping perhaps for a Short-eared Owl or some other late surprise and candidly feeling a bit nostalgic as I stood alone on the platform with my thoughts. As the final rays of light faded, an American Bittern flapped purposefully across the marsh out front and dissappeared behind a thick section of reeds. I spotted a Peregrine Falcon as it labored across the cloud-strewn sky, coming from offshore carrying some unidentified prey that had made the ultimate sacrifice on this treacherous journey south.
After surrendering the Peregrine to the darkening sky, I hoisted my scope & tripod and slowly retired for the evening. Still enjoying the rush from the spectacle I'd enjoyed!


  1. Sounds like you had a great trip. I love visiting Cape May and go a few times a year. Everyone was flocking there this past week to see the Ivory Gull at the marina.

  2. Yeah I love it up there, would have loved to have seen their recent guest celebrity bird, but couldn't swing it.