Connecticut Warbler is regular in late September at Cape May. Photo: Chris Wood
There’s no other way to put it: Cape May, New Jersey, is the place to watch the autumn migration in eastern North America. At regular intervals, the weather both induces birds to migrate and drives them to the coast, where geography funnels them to the very tip of this narrow sandy peninsula, often followed by impressive numbers of Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Cape May’s marshes, beaches, and mudflats can attract dazzling numbers of egrets and waders, while gulls, terns, and the occasional skua or pelican patrol the nearshore waters of the Atlantic.
Apart from our first and last nights in Philadelphia, we’ll be based in a single hotel in Cape May, letting us keep our day-to-day schedule as flexible as possible so that we can take advantage of changing weather conditions — and the unexpected rarities that can show up at any time.
Day 1: The tour begins at 6:00 pm with an introductory meeting in our Philadelphia airport-area hotel, followed by dinner. Night in Philadelphia.
Day 2: We’ll leave Philadelphia after an early breakfast for the two-hour drive to Cape May. If the weather seems good for a passerine flight, we’ll drive straight through; otherwise, we’ll make a few stops along the Delaware Bayshore to look for migrants. Once in Cape May, we’ll walk the trails through the weedy fields of Higbee Beach and Hidden Valley to see what may have dropped in overnights. We’ll spend the afternoon at Cape May Point State Park, walking the beach for gulls and terns, checking the ponds for shorebirds — and constantly, obsessively looking up: Bald Eagles are frequent fly-bys this time of year, and up to a dozen species of raptor can occur in numbers. Night in Cape May.
Days 3-4: Even more than the rest of Cape May, Higbee Beach at dawn is charged with all the mystery and excitement of migration. As the sun rises over the ocean, and assuming there has been a good nocturnal migration, the morning flight of Northern Flickers, vireos, warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, and Bobolinks peaks as birds continuing on from night migration encounter the barrier of Delaware Bay and swing north along the bayshore and right over Higbee Beach. The most numerous warblers are likely to be Northern Parula, Black-and-white, and Blackpoll, but on a good flight day, more than 20 species are possible, including such uncommon birds as the Connecticut Warbler, an autumn speciality here. After watching the dawn flight and checking the fields for overnight arrivals, we’ll take a walk around the Rea Farm, one of the best places in Cape May to watch Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks leaving the roost. Later risers than the falcons and accipiters, Black and Turkey Vultures also spend the night in the area, their lumpy dark forms simultaneously eerie and comical as they crowd the trees.
We’ll tear ourselves away to drive just down the road to The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows. The freshwater ponds and marsh here, protected from the ocean by high dunes, are a great place to watch roosting waterfowl, shorebirds, and terns at close range. In the afternoon we’ll drive north along the Atlantic coast to Stone Harbor Point, a long sandy spit at the end of a barrier island that serves as a regular hang-out for American Oystercatchers, Piping Plovers, Black Skimmers, and roosting terns including Caspian, Common, Forster’s, Royal, and occasionally Sandwich. The nearby saltmarsh of Nummy Island is famous for the Tricolored and Little Blue Herons that feed daintily in the grassy salt pans. Nights in Cape May.
Day 5: We’ll let last night’s weather determine our pre-dawn destination, whether it’s back to Higbee Beach or the Meadows or the tree-lined neighbourhoods around the Point. After breakfast, we’ll make the hour’s drive north to the Brigantine unit of Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Brig is the best place around to look for Hudsonian Godwits, and we should find White-rumped and Western Sandpipers among the thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers. American Golden-Plover is also a possibility here - as is just about any shorebird ever recorded in eastern North America. Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows and Boat-tailed Grackle can be common, and Nelson’s Sparrow is possible along the eight-mile wildlife drive. Night in Cape May.
Day 6: This morning we’ll follow the birds across the mouth of Delaware Bay, taking a large, stable car ferry seventeen miles from Cape May to Lewes, Delaware. Along the way we’ll lookout for Brown Pelicans, Northern Gannets, and Arctic Skuas which regularly harass the flocks of Common and Forster’s Terns feeding offshore. Once in Delaware, we’ll bird Cape Henlopen State Park to look for Brown-headed Nuthatches and migrants, then - depending on recent reports - continue south to the Indian River inlet for seabirds or move north to Prime Hook for shorebirds. We’ll have dinner in the First State, then board the ferry for the return trip to Cape May. Night in Cape May.
Day 7: For our final full day in Cape May, we’ll start again at either Higbees or at Cape May Point with the weather as our guide. After this songbird inventory, we’ll spend some time working up the Delaware Bay shore of the peninsula, stopping in saltmarshes and woodlots in hopes of additional migrants, many being birds that have already looped around the point pre-dawn and are settling in for the day before crossing south over the water at night. And, if we haven’t seen them yet, Clapper Rails, and Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows are also present in these marshes. We also won’t be more than an hour from Cape May Point, so we’ll have plenty of time if we want to bird there in the afternoon before our final dinner and night. Night in Cape May.
Day 8: We return to Philadelphia airport where the tour ends at midday.
Updated: 17 November 2020