Bird watchers flock to New Jersey -- yes, New Jersey

Cape May, on the southern end of the state, is an ideal spot for a migratory bird refuge. Birders are gearing up for the Cape May Autumn Weekend.

By Perry Crowe, Reporting from Cape May, N.J.
12:30 PM PDT, October 01, 2009

The early bird gets the worm, but who gets the early bird? That would be the people who get into Cape May, N.J., before sunrise. I found myself in that category one Monday early in August when Pete Dunne of the New Jersey Audubon Society invited me along on a field trip he was leading at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge.

A migratory bird refuge in New Jersey might sound a little weird. But this is Cape May, three hours south of Manhattan, 45 minutes from Atlantic City and a little more than 90 minutes from Philadelphia, dangling from the southern end of the state. The peninsula divides the Delaware Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, making New Jersey an ideal place for a migratory bird refuge.

Most birds migrate at night, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures, stable air and fewer predators that come with darkness. Many also follow the coastline, and on the East Coast that tapers to a blunted point in Cape May.

So the rising sun has greeted countless migrating birds with the uninviting prospect of finishing their night's flight with 17 more miles over open water before reaching Delaware. Naturally, the hard-traveling birds descend on Cape May for some R&R before the next leg of the journey.

Birds aren't the only ones who unwind in Cape May. Most of the birding is done near the tip of the peninsula, around Cape May Point -- including salt marshes, beaches, forests and a beanery. But just north is the town of Cape May, the nation's original seaside resort.

Booming in the mid- to late 1800s and then lying fallow for decades, the town has received National Historic Landmark status, thanks to its huge cache of surviving Victorian architecture.

So if you want to get the early bird in Cape May, you can ease into the dawn's early light from a staggering number of gingerbread B&Bs, many of which cater to birders with early breakfast to go.

Many of those birders will likely be carrying copies of "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds," the illustrated bird guide endorsed by the National Audubon Society. Artist and writer David Sibley spent seven years working on the guide from his home in Cape May Point during the 1990s.

"Cape May was really a great place to be while I was working on the book," Sibley explained, "because if I had any questions or wanted to refresh my memory on some species, either that species or a close relative was likely to be within a mile of my house."

With conditions just right, the trees drip with birds. On Sept. 14 of this year, the hawk watch in Cape May set a single-day record for bald eagles with 46. (The previous was 38.) My day birding in Cape May came early in the fall migration and without ideal conditions. But still, from the parking lot of the migratory bird refuge, I saw something I hadn't seen before: four cedar waxwings -- sort of sleek, tan cardinals -- perched atop a line of trees.

"That is a designer bird," Dunne told the group as a handful of "interpretive naturalists" -- volunteer birders with really nice gear -- set up spotting scopes for us to take turns sneaking up-close peeks.

They set up the scopes again and again as we encountered purple martins, ospreys, egrets, oystercatchers, yellowlegs, catbirds, laughing gulls, chimney swifts, black skimmers, sandwich and royal terns, tree swallows and the New Jersey state bird, the goldfinch. Dunne summed up the area's migratory role: "Cape May is a running stream. You put your hand into it again in two weeks, you'll get an entirely new set of birds."

A prime opportunity to put your hand in Cape May would be Oct. 23 to 25 for the 63rd Cape May Autumn Weekend. What began as the New Jersey Audubon Society's annual meeting has grown into the preeminent birding festival in North America (other than the World Series of Birding -- also held in Cape May). The event offers three days of field trips, workshops and programs, including Saturday night's keynote address by Sibley.

One fall morning in particular has stayed with Sibley from seasons past and demonstrates the great potential of the area. Rising before the sun, Sibley could hear endless deep, croaking calls peppering the darkness, and when dawn finally broke, it revealed more than 1,000 great blue herons, uncharacteristically flying in V formation flocks, stacked layer upon layer every 300 feet up into the sky.

"It was just an incredible gathering of great blue herons, this sort of once-in-a-lifetime event," Sibley said. "And things like that happen in Cape May."

What: Cape May Autumn Weekend

Where: Various locations around Cape May, N.J.

When: Oct. 23 to 25; registration deadline is Oct. 5

Cost: From $632 per person for complete weekend package (includes accommodations) to $129 per person for single-day pass.

More info: (609) 861-0700, www.birdcapemay.org

Where am I?

Toto, we're not in Egypt anymore. But we are standing before a sphinx, surrounded by thousands of fascinating old graves.


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