Birding trip report Cape May USA 8-14 September 2002
in www.jvanderw.nl 
John  van der Woude, The Netherlands 

See also:
- Photos of sites: directly or via thumbnails
- Species list


Cape May is a bird migration hotspot on the East coast of the USA, and is located on the South tip of the New Jersey peninsula, which is not far South of New York. Especially during and after the passage of a cold front from the Northwest, large numbers of songbirds are passing, and may hang around on this South tip for a while. Added to this is a good hawk migration watch, and some nice sites for coastal birds. 
But added to this are also many tourists, at least till mid September, and increasingly after that too. Cape May town is a historical little town (Victorian) and an expensive tourist resort. 
We chose this second week of September in order to get an interesting mixture of species, including many warblers. We hired a car from Philadelphia airport where we arrived after our trip to Colorado (see report). This was our first visit to the East coast, and we had to get used to the different manners here as compared to Colorado and the southern states we had been in the past. Nevertheless, this is an easy holiday destination, like all of the USA.
Going to Cape May for a week has one big risk - there may not be any NW front passing, and I think that a world birder might get bored towards the end of such a week (unless this would be your first visit to North America). However, we were lucky, and got such a front at the ideal moment: after a few days of reconnaissance of the area. This reconnaissance included two wetland sites nearby (Brigantine and Bombay Hook) and a day trip to Hawk Mountain more inland, slowly crossing Amish country as we like their quilts.
We first stayed two nights in Wilmington near Philadelphia, in order to do Bombay Hook and Hawk Mountain. We had watched the Weather Channel the days before in Colorado so we knew that for Cape May the weather would be too stable for the first days of our week. The remainder of the week we stayed at the birder-friendly Sea Breeze motel in Cape May town (eastern end). Accommodation in Cape May is expensive, and our motel was a bit in between: cheaper than most other accommodations in Cape May, but definitely more expensive than we were used to elsewhere in the USA. The cheapest option in Cape May is the campsite, which is close to the most important birding site (Higbee Beach). Farther away from Cape May (to the North) are some more motels, and I later checked a few - they were a bit cheaper indeed, but the ones we saw were not very attractive but there should be others as well. (In response to this, somebody wrote me that in Wildwood, a seaside town NE of Cape May, you can have better off-season rates than in Cape May; I also learned that in Wildwood there is an internet café, which is lacking in Cape May - I used the public library for this.) In fact, what we missed in Cape May and surroundings is a service area with motels, restaurants and big shops. This is what we normally choose in the USA if available, because its is easy, efficient, and good value for money. But you don't have this here, possibly because it would not harmonize with the Victorian idea of Cape May... As for restaurants, the favorite, easy-going one was the family restaurant Ocean View along the boulevard, at the western end of Cape May town.
Information about birding sites (an excellent free map) and recent sightings is provided at the very welcoming visitor center and shop of Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) in the western part of Cape May town, near the Lighthouse Avenue. We also used the booklet The birds of Cape May by David Sibley (1993). Although for some sites it seems a bit outdated, it is a good one to have, and especially to study beforehand, e.g. to find out which birds are to be expected when (time of year, and weather condtions).

In fact, when we were there, only three sites really mattered:
1. Higbee Beach wildlife management area. This is at the western end of New England road (641), which runs South of the Intracoastal Waterway which cuts off Cape May. An area of woods and small wild pastures, right behind the beach of Delaware Bay. Come here early, also to be sure of a parking place (in the weekend). A special spot here is the "dike" some 200 yards North of the parking place. Here we had a nearly constant flow of warblers right after the front passage, a magnificent phenomenon although the identification of many of these flitting little birds is something for the specialists only. The usual spot for most birders was the track right South of the parking place (go first East for 20 yards), which allows looking into fringe of the woods with the sun in the back. Here we had most of our warbler species (see the list).
2. The Hawk Watch. A large wooden platform with benches next to the lighthouse, with professional birders who are appointed for counting the hawks and telling the audience what they see. A nice place to rest after strolling for hours at Higbee Beach, and meanwhile seeing raptors. These can be very high in the air, but we also had great views of passing Peregrines, Ospreys, etc. nearby.
3. Stone Harbor. This area is about 30 minutes driving NE of Cape May and consists of a good beach (with Snowy Plover), shallows behind the beach, and a marshy area a bit further inland (Nummy's island). We got here the first time by joining a CMBO excursion, which starts at the southern end of Stone Harbor village, at a parking place behind the beach.
Minor sites included The Meadows (has seen better days, is rather overgrown now), and Hidden Valley (near to Higbee, and comparable to that). The Beanery is private property and no one mentioned it anymore when we were in Cape May. The CMBO map shows some more sites, and on the back also gives indications for sites further away. Of these, especially the Brigantine coastal wetland is worthwhile, this is just North of Atlantic City (it is also called Forsythe NWR; mind the little map instructing you how to get there).
All in all, the Higbee Beach area was by far the most important birding site at Cape May. As this can be reached quickly from the main roads entering Cape May from the North, and is actually not very close to Cape May town, you might consider staying in one of the cheaper motels North of Cape May in stead of in town. (And we really didn't like all the tourists there in town, I am sorry; of course this can be different later in the season.) As said above, the campsite is close to Higbee, just a walk of 10 minutes I think, along the New England road. 
Anyway, visit the CMBO as soon as you arrive, in order to get the map and recent information. Recent information can also be had while standing on that track in Higbee, from the many other birders. 
But the most important thing is the passage of a NW cold front, and this just has to happen. One of the ladies at the CMBO told us that they advise people to stay 8 days here, in order to have a reasonable chance of getting such a cold front. Most birders you see here don't live far away and they come just in time. So, for a birding holiday, you have to take a risk concerning the weather - migration birding is just like that. It would be fine to be able to do all sorts of other birding further away, in expectation of the right weather. In this respect, High Island in Texas has a real advantage if you are interested in migrating warblers: there is a larger diversity of habitats not too far away, and you get the warblers there in spring, so in breeding plumage. In fact, with the Weather Channel in your motel room, you could go around in Texas right until the best moment to visit High Island (a northern cold front). Just an idea.