October 8th, 2010

29 10 2010

After birding Cape May for four consecutive springs, I was convinced that I needed to visit the peninsula during autumn migration.  The week started off with lots of rain and wind, and while there were a few days of decent raptor movement, nothing was blowing my socks off.  The weather got a bit nicer as the week progressed, but the mornings at Higbee Beach and afternoons at the hawk watch still weren’t delivering the mind-blowing bird migration I had concocted in my mind after reading Season at the Point and listening to autumn testimonials from close friends.

On Thursday, David La Puma of http://www.woodcreeper.com/ convinced me that tomorrow morning would have something big in store.  We looked over the weather and his radar images, and things looked promising.  The next day, Friday, October 8th, we rendezvoused at the top of the Higbee dike just as the sun was beginning to announce the arrival of morning.

Morning flight at Higbee Beach WMA

I was already late for the show.  Word had spread fast, and the morning flight deck was filled to the brim with birders.  Those brave enough to climb up the muddy slope to the top of the dike were afforded an incredible 360 degree view.  Birds weaved between the bodies and binoculars, landing at our feet in the vegetation.  Kinglets, warblers, and sparrows were literally an arm’s reach away in the bushes.  An early junco perched for a moment before taking off again.  A curious Brown Creeper kept emerging from the woods for a few seconds before heading back into hiding.

Looking out across the horizon, the sun was beginning to reveal an endless sea of birds moving in unison through the sky.  I adjusted my binocular focus and found even more birds – clouds upon clouds.  People started calling out notable species – Chesnut-Sided Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Connecticut Warbler, Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark, Purple Finch, and on and on.  I stared straight up into the sky and found that there were still more birds, almost imperceptible specks moving across my field of view.

Swamp Sparrow at Higbee Beach WMA

Oh, and there were a few Yellow-Rumped Warblers around as well.  By a few, I mean approximately 16,000 individuals.  Not to mention an additional 16,000 unidentified warblers, many of which were “butter butts”.  These are only the birds counted in the morning from Higbee, a single location.  Cape May certainly had far more Yellow-Rumped Warblers (and other birds, of course) taking up residence for the day.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

After a very quick breakfast at Dock Mike’s (there were more birds to see, darn it!), we headed to Cape May Point State Park.  The hawk watch platform was already filled, and I decided to do a quick loop on the boardwalk trails to see what would turn up.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Northern Parula

Not yet on the trail for two minutes, I found myself standing in the same place, mesmerized by the amount of avian activity.  Yellow-Rumped Warblers were literally dripping from the trees.  If I had swung my binoculars around randomly, chances are each time I paused there would be a Yellow-Rumped Warbler in view.  A lone Pine Warbler showed up, along with a few Northern Parulas and a Magnolia Warbler.

As I chatted with a fellow birder, a Yellow-Billed Cuckoo flew into the tree and perched directly above us, only 10-15 feet away.  After it departed, a Cooper’s Hawk took its place in the tree, waiting for the right time to attack the breakfast buffet that had arrived overnight.  In the bush next to us, a Red-Eyed Vireo swooped in with a Green Darner in its beak.  It slowly ate the dragonfly, and at one point actually decapitated the insect (if you look carefully at the photograph below, you can see the Green Darner’s head in the vireo’s beak).

Red-Eyed Vireo eating Green Darner

Did I mention there were a lot of Yellow-Rumped Warblers around?

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

Eventually I made my way back up to the hawk watch, where the spectacle had already begun. A steady stream of Sharp-Shinned Hawks made its way over the platform. Peregrine Falcons cruised over the dunes, coming in off of the bay. Merlins whipped past the pond in front of us, and Northern Harriers methodically worked the marsh looking for lunch.

Peregrine Falcon

When all was said and done, more than 1,100 Accipiters (Sharp-Shinned and Cooper’s Hawks) had been counted, along with more than 200 falcons (Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, and American Kestrels). 49 Northern Harriers (my personal favorite) were counted. Rounding out the list were Red-Tailed Hawks, Broad-Winged Hawks, both vultures (Turkey and Black), Osprey, and the crowd-pleasing Bald Eagle. Twenty-two national symbols had flown over – some distant specks, other soaring directly over the platform to a chorus of “ooohs” and “aaaahs”.

Bald Eagle

Birds and birders weren’t the only wildlife moving about on this gorgeous autumn day. Dolphins passed by the point, turtles were found sunning in the state park’s waters, and I even spotted this Gray Tree Frog hanging out on one of the park’s directional arrows (see below).

Gray Tree Frog

Tree Swallows

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

Cape May is always an incredible place to observe the natural world, but I had never experienced anything like the migration that took place on October 8th, 2010. Local birders told me that it was the best day they’ve had in years. Maybe half of a decade.

Butterflies preparing for migration

The butterfly migration was truly incredible as well. Monarchs and Common Buckeyes filled every last inch of Goldenrod, and various other species (Red Admirals, Question Marks, American Ladies, skippers, and more) made their presence known.

Autumn is a fantastic time to be outdoors in New Jersey. Whether you’re watching birds and butterflies migrate, enjoying the changing leaves, or simply spending an evening around a campfire with some hot chocolate or hot cider, there’s no shortage of things to do. Enjoy it while you can!

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One response

31 10 2010
Melissa Morris

Beautiful!

I especially like the Yellow-Rumped Warbler!

~Melissa

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