Okay, I admit it, I wasn’t that convinced that I would have a great natural history vacation in New Jersey. I had heard of the wilds of the Pine Barrens, but knew little of the rest of the state except what Jon Stewart and the southerners I grew up around joke about. I do know several folks from NJ (one even met up with me for this trip) and they love the outdoors like I do so maybe…Then I started reading The Freiday Bird Blog by Don Freiday about all of the great bird sightings around Cape May, NJ, so I decided to give it a try. The Garden State did not disappoint.
The first stop was Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge along the shores of southern New Jersey. Forsythe totals about 47,000 acres of mainly salt marsh wetlands and tidal coves and bays managed for waterfowl (especially Black Ducks and Atlantic Brant), migrating shorebirds and song birds, and other wildlife. The refuge has also created a series of fresh and brackish water impoundments to create a diversity of wildlife habitats.
The easiest way to see wildlife is the popular 8-mile one way auto loop called Wildlife Drive. The loop passes by a series of impoundments in the middle with salt marshes along the outside and then finishes by passing through some forested habitats. Last week was about peak numbers for the migrating shorebirds so there were great views of many species such as Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Black-bellied Plovers.
A highlight was watching a pair of Black Slimmers feeding in the canal next to the road. Their strange bill, unusual feeding behavior, and striking colors make them one of my favorite coastal birds to watch. They drag the knife-like lower mandible of their bill through the water as they fly back and forth in search of prey. When the mandible touches a fish, the upper bill snaps down instantly to catch it. This bill is their most unusual feature – it is the only North American bird where the lower mandible is longer than the upper. At hatching, the two mandibles are equal in length, but by fledging, the lower mandible is longer than the upper.
Next stop was Heislerville Wildlife Management Area which is renowned for its migrating shorebirds. Driving down the rutted dirt road it did not look promising, but up ahead a good sign – a group of people with spotting scopes. It was a Nature Conservancy outing scoping the tens of thousands of shorebirds for some unusual species. The vast majority were Semipalmated Sandpipers along with fair numbers of Dunlin and Short-billed Dowitchers.
But the target of the day for the birders was a rare Curlew Sandpiper. This is a Eurasian species which nests on the tundra in northern Russia and winters in southern Asia, Australia, and Africa. But almost every year, a few end up somewhere along the coast of North America. The Curlew Sandpiper had just gotten lost amongst the thousands of other shorebirds when we arrived. But on a second pass later that afternoon, a knowledgeable birder (turned out to be Don Freiday whose blog I follow) kindly pointed it out. Luckily, it was in its brick red breeding plumage so it stood out in the afternoon light even at a great distance through the scope.
The second impoundment at Heislerville also contained thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers and the low angle light made for some great photographs as the birds fed, preened, and rested. The Semipalmated Sandpiper gets its common name from the short webs between its toes (“palmated” means webbed). This species is by far the most abundant shorebird during migration in these parts – they spend the winter in South America and are now migrating the thousands of miles back to their Arctic nesting grounds.
Adjacent to one of the shorebird impoundments at Heislerville was a small island containing a rookery of what seemed to be hundreds of nests of Double-crested Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, and Black-crowned Night Herons. The guttural squawks and other non-stop sounds made me appreciate my quiet neighbors back home. When viewed through the scope, I was amazed at the striking bright blue color of the throats of the Double-crested Cormorants.
After a long day, I spent the night in the beautiful beach-side town of Cape May. The next morning was overcast and time was limited (had reservations on the ferry to Delaware in early afternoon) so I made several stops at local hot spots including Belleplain State Forest, Cape May NWR, and Cape May Point State Park.
I’m sure it is different once the summer beach season gets rolling, but during migration, Cape May is like Disney World for birders. Everywhere you look there are people with binoculars and vanity license plates with some bird-related moniker. It should be no surprise that the World Series of Birding is held here every May.
There were plenty of song birds in evidence although I think I missed the peak of warbler migration by a couple of weeks. The most common warblers seen were the beautiful Yellow Warblers. They were feeding in the shrub thickets at almost every stop and offered good views as they sang and foraged. Cape May is indeed a birder’s paradise in spring. And they say the Fall migration is even more spectacular as thousands of song birds, raptors, and monarch butterflies gather at the point before heading across Delaware Bay on their way south. I guess I will venture to the Garden State again this Fall and see what all the fuss is about.