Flocking to Cape May

Avid bird-watchers know the Jersey Shore town is a great place to spot all manner of species

July 13, 2008|By Diane Stoneback | Diane Stoneback,Morning Call

Cape May's wide and gently sloping beaches, its gingerbread-laden Victorian homes and its landmark lighthouse are the main draws for tourists flocking to the town at the southern tip of New Jersey.

But visitors who divide their time between baking on the beach, shopping and dining will miss one of the town's key attractions.

Even Cape May enthusiasts who think they know the town's special pleasures, from watching the setting sun at Sunset Beach to surf fishing in Delaware Bay, may not realize the full significance of the birds on the beach, flying overhead and nesting in all sorts of places.

Cape May has been called the birding capital of North America - a must-visit place for bird-watchers, or "birders," before they die. And a place for everyone else to start appreciating the natural world.

"Cape May might be the single best birding spot on the continent - 80,000 hawks, a million seabirds and a million-and-a-half shore birds funnel through the peninsula every year, and no one even knows how to count how many songbirds come through, though during migration, a quarter of a million a day is a fair guess," says Scott Weidensaul, author of Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding.

But why is Cape May such a haven along the migratory "main line?" As the birds follow the Atlantic coast, they're funneled onto the Cape May peninsula by the winds and the Delaware Bay to the west, as well as the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

"We draw birders from around the world, because this is one of the best places in the world to see a very large number of bird species in a limited time and on a limited budget," says Pete Dunne, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society for Natural History Information.

"Cape May is to bird-watchers what the Taj Mahal is to students of architecture," adds Dunne, who also has authored numerous bird-watching books.

Even if you've never considered bird-watching as an activity during your Jersey Shore vacation, take a minute to watch the birds while you're there soaking up the sun and sand.

"You might only see two species on the beach - the gulls circling overhead, to stalk and steal french fries, and the sandpipers playing tag with the waves. But at least 35 more species will also fly by," says Dunne.

If you go to Cape May Point State Park for a lighthouse tour, stop at the hawk-viewing platform that's to the rear of the massive parking lot. Sit quietly on that platform and listen for just a few minutes. You'll be amazed by the different bird calls you'll hear.

You won't need much to test the waters of this Cape May pastime. No matter where and when you look, you'll see birds in Cape May. All told, about 420 species can be found here within a year's time.

"An active birder will see about 300 kinds of birds in a year, without really trying very hard," says Don Freiday, the bird observatory's program director.

Even novice bird-watchers can make sure they get off to a good start by signing up for one of the bird observatory's two-hour walks ($10). Often, they'll see 40 to 75 species during the time they're on the walk.

"We actually guarantee that people who take our Thursday 'Birds of Cape May: A Bird Walk for All People' will see at least 20 species of birds or the walk is free. We've never had to return anyone's money," says Freiday.

Don't have binoculars? Don't worry. You can borrow some for use on an observatory bird walk.

If you're not a "group" kind of person, head for the two prime viewing points during the summer season - Cape May Point State Park or the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge - and just look around you. Or look into hiring a personal guide from the bird observatory.

But you don't have to hire a guide or even take a walk to benefit from the expertise of staffers and collect reams of information at the group's two locations - the Center for Research and Education at Goshen and the Northwood Center at Cape May Point.

Ask staffers at the two centers for their tips on bird-watching and the scoop on what birds have been spotted recently. You also can purchase birdhouses, field guides and other bird books, as well as get sound advice on buying binoculars and telescopes.

Says Dunne, "Nine out of 10 times, people will buy the wrong binoculars and wind up using them for doorstops. Just because binoculars magnify, doesn't mean they'll work for the bird-watcher who is buying them."

In addition to all the advice you want on walks and equipment, pick up copies of the Cape May Birding & Butterflying Map and a Checklist of the Birds of Cape May County, New Jersey. Both are free and helpful.

Another easy and no-cost way to test bird-watching as a pastime is to pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it while watching birds from the deck at the Research and Education Center. Before leaving, also walk through the adjacent butterfly garden that is designed to attract birds, too.

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