Cape May – Jan. 2nd

To start my Big Year, I made may (almost) annual pilgrimage to Cape May to get a lot of the more common winter species. The plan was to start there and work my way up the coast to some key spots along the way. Then at my first stop, I pulled out my camera to discover … no battery. No battery = no photos. I was pissed.

So, my long coast trip became a long day in Cape May – which is never a bad thing!

I started in Higbee Beach before dawn, hoping to catch signs of some owls. I struck out on the owls, but it was still a nice morning with Eastern Towhee and Hermit Thrush being some nice birds.

I heard a familiar call in the early morning light and was surprise by a handsome Brown Thrasher calling just above me – and as I brought up the camera, that’s when I made my battery discovery – I had left my battery in the charger at home. I was steaming at my idiocy when I made it to the beach with just my binoculars, and the walk on the beach cleared my mind as looked at the sea birds floating in the rough seas of the bay. Large numbers of Black Scoter rode the waves, coming in closer and beeping at each other. I though at one point that I saw a White-winged Scoter but it was just an immature Black Scoter. But they were joined by a few Red-breasted Mergansers who warily watched me as I crossed the sands, while a pair of Sanderling paced my walk, peeping and calling as they dodged the incoming surf.

After coming back from the beach, the hunters were rolling in so it was time to move on.

Cape May Meadows

It was still gray and cold when I got out of the car at one of my favorite spots in Cape May. I was greeted at the entrance by a group of Carolina Wrens and a pair of Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers, and saw large numbers and variety of waterfowl and wading birds – Great Blue Heron, Great Egrets were joined by a raft of Gadwall, a small group of Northern Pintail and a pair of American Black Duck in the small ponds. The Canada Goose and mallard were plentiful, but I was more interested in the “cool” birds.

A trio of Greater Yellowlegs flew out of the marsh, calling their distinctive 3-part call. As I walked along the path, birds flitted in and out of view – some common and some less so. Startled ducks took off in panic, while house finches ignored me and carried on with their own business. An American Coot swam under the bridge with only a slight notice of my presence.

Heading to the beach, I was disappointed to see that the access was cut off and I could only look over the dunes to see the shoreline from a distance. A number of Black Scoter swam in the surf, while other, distant birds flew out of recognizable range of my binoculars. Turning toward the bunker ponds treated me to a number of waterfowl species – Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Mute Swans, American Wigeon and the ever-present Canada Geese. I sat and watched the multi-species groups mix and swim, dive and argue for a bit before moving on.

The backside of the park gave me a great chance to see a few species close up that were normally pretty sketchy, courtesy of the new blind that was installed. Going to the end, the birds were unaware of me and went about their business. It gave me the pleasure of watching a group of male Hooded Mergansers as they courted the seemingly uninterested females. It was a behavior I hadn’t had the opportunity to experience before, as the males would rock their heads back and forth several times, then rear back and let loose a rattling call as they ratcheted their heads forward. At first I wasn’t sure what was happening but I realized as several of the birds repeated the behavior what I was seeing.

After watching for a short while, I moved on – I had more places to go. The last bridge before the road offered up an uncommon Blue-winged Teal, while a Brown Thrasher (my second of the day) gave me the raucous goodbye as I left.

Sunset Beach & CMBO

As always, I next shot down to Sunset Beach and the Concrete Ship, where often distant pelagics sometimes come in to visit. Sadly, it was pretty quiet save for a pair of Northern Gannet that came in close enough to give me nice binocular views.

Cape May Bird Observatory

A trip to Cape May isn’t complete without a trip to the CMBO, especially when you need to renew your membership. Plus, there had been some rarities seen nearby and I was hoping to get some advice on where to go. But I got there before they opened so I went around back to their feeding stations – and I wasn’t disappointed. Within seconds, I was greeted by a number of cool birds at their many feeders: Carolina Wrens, a Pine Siskin, a lone Fox Sparrow and a trio of Purple Finch – a bird I’d hoped for but wasn’t really expecting to see.

Crappy cell phone photo of a male Purple Finch

Stevens Street

Then I got the alert I was waiting for – EVENING GROSBEAK seen at a house not a mile away from the CMBO! I got into my car and raced there. The house was easy to find – there was a group of birders already there waiting.

“Have you seen them,” I asked?

“You just missed them,” came the reply, “but they’ve been back several times over the last half-hour.”

So I parked and got my binoculars ready while the owners of the house did their best to welcome all visitors and pointed out when the birds came to their many feeders. There were Rusty Blackbirds and Purple Finches, Northern Cardinals, American Goldfinch and many others. All close and all unphotographed because I had forgotten my camera battery.

And then they came. At first it was a pair of female Evening Grosbeak. They were subtle and still beautiful. And like that, an 11-year quest to see this species was over – I finally saw one. Then they flew away. 20 minutes later, they were back and there were 4 of them this time, including a beautiful male. And they flew off to the trees where I was able to get nice looks.

I waited and waited, and I’m glad I did. The motherlode arrived – an incredible 14 Evening Grosbeak landed on the feeders at one time – 6 males and 8 females in their beauty. Anther photographer was kind enough to lend me his camera battery so I could get a few pictures of this beautiful lifer.

Nemesis Bird Down!

Cape May Point State Park / Coral Ave. Dune Crossing

The Cape May Point State Park is a great winter place to see common species, and there are always a few uncommon birds there to enjoy. And it’s not just the park itself – the environs around are often chock full of good birds, especially the notable Coral Avenue Dune Crossing. This was the location where others had been seeing the rare irruption species, Red Crossbill. I pulled up to the dune crossing and was immediately greeted by another irruption species, Red-breasted Nuthatch – a good find and fun bird to watch but nowhere near as rare as the crossbill which only come to NJ a couple of times each decade. But I didn’t have to wait long as a small group them flew over me, chittering in their distinctive flight call. A group of females and a couple of males flew over, quickly identified but never seen again despite a half-hour of searching.

Within the park itself, the birding was a little quiet. The main lake was full of birds – American Coot, swans, ducks of all sorts. But a few standouts awaited in the distant expanses – a single Pied-billed Grebe floated with the coots, Lesser Scaup, wigeons and ring-necked duck. But despite a walk around the park, my numbers weren’t increasing. Time to move on.

The Beanery

The Beanery would end up being one of the more interesting places on my trip. The place has a strong history of pulling in rarities, although not many had been seen there recently. Still, it’s a good walk and I figured I would enjoy it before leaving town. I wasn’t disappointed.

Getting out of the car brought me a seasonally-rate Gray Catbird calling from the brambles. Nearby, an Eastern Phoebe – another uncommon winter resident – alighted on a branch right by the entrance. And it wasn’t more than 5 minutes before a Red-shouldered Hawk – once a rarity in the area, but becoming increasingly more common (even breeding) – flew over my head hunting for the voles the frequented the harvested fields.

The day had warmed up significantly, making the perimeter walk a pleasant outing. Song sparrows were racing the Northern Mockingbirds along the hedgerow, while a Field Sparrow sang an out-of-season call before disappearing into the brush. A single empidonax flycatcher hung by the corner of the swamp, but stayed just out of identifiable view.

Heading out nearer to the farm area, the ticks crept up quickly as a bunch of field birds came out to enjoy the sunshine: Eastern Bluebirds, a single Killdeer and a pair of Palm Warbler, their tails bobbing as they responded to my pishing. One was bright, with the yellow highlights standing out against the sun while the other was a paler specimen.

Avalon – 8th St. Jetty

Heading home, I wanted to make one last stop and see if I could pull in some of the sea birds that don’t often make it to the places in Cape May where I was investigating. It was my first time there but it was a pretty cool place with a solid jetty that jutted out into the ocean.

The winds were howling at this point, adding to the chill. Huddled near the rocks were a small raft of Common Eider, surfing the waves coming in against the rocks. Along the jetty, a number of Long-tailed Ducks ducked under the water while I approached; the loons (Common Loon and Red-throated Loon) both ignored me to get their dinner. On the rocks themselves, Sanderling were running ahead of me while a group of Purple Sandpiper were more hunkered down in the rocks. As the wind finally sent me back to the car, I caught a couple of gannet catching the winds to end their day even as I was ending mine.

As a bonus, I caught a large group of Wild Turkey along the roadside as I drove home, an added bonus for my day. 2 days in, and I was sitting at 84 species.

New Year Birds underlined

1Northern Cardinal
2Eastern Towhee
3Song Sparrow
4White-throated Sparrow
5American Robin
6Hermit Thrush
7Northern Mockingbird
8Brown Thrasher
9Carolina Wren
10Carolina Chickadee
11American Crow
12Northern Flicker
13Herring Gull
14Ring-billed Gull
16Red-breasted Merganser
17Black Scoter
18Yellow-rumped Warbler
19Common Grackle
20House Sparrow
21European Starling
22Great Egret
23Great Blue Heron
24Red-throated Loon
25Great Black-backed Gull
26Greater Yellowlegs
27American Coot
28Mourning Dove
29Hooded Merganser
31Ring-necked Duck
32Green-winged Teal
33Northern Pintail
34American Black Duck
36American Wigeon
38Northern Shoveler
39Blue-winged Teal
40Mute Swan
41Canada Goose
42Northern Gannet
43Fox Sparrow
44American Goldfinch
45Pine Siskin
46Purple Finch
47House Finch
48White-breasted Nuthatch
49Tufted Titmouse
50Blue Jay
51Red-bellied Woodpecker
52Red Crossbill*
53Rusty Blackbird
54Brown-headed Cowbird
55Red-winged Blackbird
56Dark-eyed Junco
57Evening Grosbeak*
58Downy Woodpecker
59Red-tailed Hawk
60Cooper’s Hawk
61Turkey Vulture
62Ruby-throated Hummingbird
63Snow Goose
64Red-breasted Nuthatch
65Ruby-crowned Kinglet
66Pied-billed Grebe
67Lesser Scaup
68Tundra Swan
69Palm Warbler
70Field Sparrow
71Eastern Bluebird
72Gray Catbird
73Eastern Phoebe
74Hairy Woodpecker
75Red-shouldered Hawk
76Black Vulture
78Common Loon
79Purple Sandpiper
80Rock Pigeon
81Long-tailed Duck
82Common Eider
84Wild Turkey

Leave a Reply