Cape May in springtime! ... There is something wonderful about watching bird migration, not just the thrill of seeing birds large and small that have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles (and with more to go), but also a hint of the world beyond and the time-scale over which they have evolved the practise of moving north and south during the seasons. Situated at the southernmost tip of the state of New Jersey, Cape May is rightly famous as a fantastic centre to study bird migration - and in spring it offers the chance to observe the passage of many fabulous species of bird, alongside others that have chosen to breed there.
Our spring birding tour to Cape May is based at a single seafront hotel - within easy distance of the surrounding woods, fields, beaches and marshes, and perfect for enjoying the amazing variety of birds that stream northwards through Cape May each spring. Many of northern US and Canadian songbirds pass this way, alongside raptors and waders, whilst most breeding species will be settled by mid-May and in full plumage.
Spring actually begins at Cape May in late winter and early March, when the continent’s ducks and divers begin to move - but it’s in May that things really begin to hot up! In May, the passage of a warm front can produce pulses of migrants, when the tree-lined streets can be filled with gaudy warblers and dainty song. Taking our time, we will explore some of the special sites in the area, not just for birds but local plants, butterflies and dragonflies.
Our Cape May days might well begin with a visit to Higbee Beach. Famous for the autumn movement of birds, ‘Higbees’ on an early spring morning can also be excellent. If the weather conditions are right, on a good day, when the oaks are in full bloom and attractive to many insects, a fall of brightly coloured spring warblers, grosbeaks and buntings can make the trees sparkle like Christmas trees! As well as the immense Bald Eagles that are becoming a feature of the Cape May landscape, we can dream of perhaps striking lucky with wandering Mississippi or Swallow-tailed Kites – as we have done before! Breeding Prothonotary Warblers, with their amazing ‘egg yolk’ yellow heads, can also be found in the area, and the movement of migrants often brings Yellow-billed Cuckoos, too.
Slightly further afield, the stands of large oaks at Cox Hall Creek can hold many warblers, with sizeable mixed flocks possible, plus the chance of the stunning Red-headed Woodpecker. Within 30 miles, a visit (or two!) to the Belleplain State Forest should reward us with an array of breeding woodland birds, including Louisiana Waterthrush, while Yellow-throated, Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers declare their territories with their distinctive songs. Flocks of Carolina Chickadees, “Disneyesque” Tufted Titmice and other small birds can abound here.
A spring visit to Cape May is not all about passerines, however. The shores of Delaware Bay are world famous for the congregations of shorebirds that arrive here to ‘participate’ in the spawning of the breeding Horseshoe Crabs in May. Red Knot are currently threatened by rapidly declining numbers, but there are many Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers and Semipalmated Sandpipers to enjoy – the latter three species can number in thousands. In the nearby creeks and saltmarsh we may find breeding Marsh Wrens, Boat-tailed Grackles and Seaside Sparrows, whilst Northern Harriers float across the swathes of green.
Rarely driving more than 25 miles in a day, our spring birdwatching tour to Cape May offers the chance to explore the wonderful and varied habitats of the region, as well as to witness and enjoy the migration of some really special and colourful eastern North American birds. And if our spring 2017 tour proves to be anywhere near as good as our May 2016 visit, you will not be disappointed!
Guide Mike Crewe recently returned to the Limosa fold after six years living in Cape May and working at the bird observatory there. Join him for the inside track and a week of great birding at one of North America's premier migration hotspots.