|Cape May Fall Migration - 9/10/2011|
When one plans a trip way in advance, it is a gamble as to the conditions for migration. Planning to go to Cape May in early September has the potential for being spectacular, with a magnificent migration and birds dropping out of the sky. The conditions need to be a crisp clear day after a cold front passes through, where a strong northwest wind blows through the night. Arriving in Cape May the Friday night before this year’s trip, the weather was trapped in a stationary front with southwest or light variable winds. It had been stuck in this pattern for days on end, and the weather station predicted no change. Sitting outside in the evening, we felt the winds swing lightly to the northwest, and we heard a few birds passing overhead, their thin, light chip notes drifting down out of the dark sky. Could it possibly be a good day? Before dawn, as we made the drive to Higbee’s Beach were we where to meet the other participants, the air was still, humid, and foggy—a bad sign. At 6:30 AM, the rest of the group (a total of ten of us) arrived; some had spent the night nearby, while others made the trip that morning. As we stood in the parking lot, nothing moved.
The day started out slowly with a couple birds. They were milling about, feeding, but they really were not migrating. In anticipation of an opportunity to migrate in the next couple days, they were refueling. It became our advantage, as it gave participants a slightly better chance to actually observe the birds. The exploration pattern I used involved moving a short distance down the trail, stopping and finding birds until no new species appeared. Then we would drift farther down the trail, slowly adding bird species, sorting out the species already seen from the new ones, and working to get as many participants to see each species. Throughout the morning, the list slowly grew—some interesting birds, but nothing spectacular. Occasionally, we would trip upon a cluster of birds and, before long, a cluster of birders would gather, people singing out the names of the various species they were seeing. “I’ve got a thrush; it is a Swainson’s Thrush.” Someone else would be saying, “I have a Black-and-white Warbler.” Observers’ heads were swiveling from location to location trying to compute the location of the named species by the position of the watcher’s head and eyes. If you were not there, you cannot imagine how often one would hear, “Where?” “On that branch.” “Did it just fly away?” “Yes.” And the hunt would start over. There were some good finds at Higbee’s Beach, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a flock of Baltimore Orioles, a reasonable collection of warblers, and an occasional hawk. There were some bad moments, missed birds and voracious mosquitoes that had participants lathered up in layers of clothing and gobs of bug repellant. Throughout the morning, the most common movement was hands swishing mosquitoes from around the face and ears and the most common sound—a hand slap. Yet, it seemed that every stop produced at least one new bird species, and the list grew. The views were generally good and satisfying. We dawdled at Higbee’s Beach until 10 AM.
The next stop—the Cape May State Park, the Hawk Watch station and a bathroom. On a good migration day, crowds of birders jam the hawk watch platform. Not this day. So, we strolled along the path choosing the short loop. There seemed to be an abundance of Osprey soaring overhead. Every time we looked up, a hawk of one sort passed by—not in huge numbers like a great migration day, but always something in the air. Once, we watched a couple Bald Eagles swirling around in a rising circle as they caught the warming air on their stiff wings and rose higher and higher. First there were three and then another joined them and another. As the first birds disappeared into the clouds, their forms blinking on and off as they passed through the lower gauzy edge, we could see a total of eight Bald Eagles in one binocular view. Thirty years ago, this species was in dangered of going extinct! What an environmental success story!
After lunch, we stopped at The Meadows, a piece of land owned by The Nature Conservancy and a great birding location. Here we added additional species. Once, while everyone was peering off in one direction looking for something, Butch turned and spotted four birds that looked different. He called our attention to the Black Terns, a bird that usually is very rare, but seems to be more frequent this year. By now the group could feel a buzz. We had slowly added species after species, and participants could feel that our species count was going to be high. Some started speculating about breaking the century mark—100 plus species.
From there, we went to Nummy’s Island, where Western Willets and Marbled Godwits were new and unexpected birds. Moving on, we visited the Wetland Institute in Stone Harbor adding still more species, this was the last stop before heading out to dinner.
A trip tradition is to tally up the number of species seen by all the trip participants combined. We go bird by bird through the list with participants mentioning if they saw that species. No one could possibly see every species seen, so it is called a group list. Then each person takes a guess as to the total. Invariably, we all underestimate, and I hold out until everyone makes a guess before revealing the final count. As a teaser I said, “How many birds do you think we had? We did break a hundred.” After everyone guessed, I revealed the total count for the day was 118 species. We also reviewed the “easy” birds we missed—Tufted Titmouse, Semipalmated Plover, etc.
All the signs pointed to a bad day, and it turned out to be fabulous despite or maybe because of the absence of migratory movement.
Four of the participants joined us back at Higbee’s Beach at 6:30 AM on Sunday to try again, and, remarkably we added a number of birds missed the day before. By the end of Sunday, the count had risen to 128 species. The list is below. Those marked with an “s” were seen only Sunday. See more of TerriLynn VanKirk's pictures down further on the page!