Center of the Bird Watching Universe

One of the great things about living on a planet whose outer shell brims with life is diversity.
 
Everywhere you turn, there are things to ignite our senses. One of the bad things about living on such an opportunity-rich planet is a feeling of frustration.
 
Were you to set off, right now, to experience all of the world’s natural treasures, you’d end up with an experience-filled life but still be about a 100,000 life-times short of seeing it all. So consider specializing.
 
Since you are here or at least contemplating that possibility, why not set time aside to savor the great natural wonders nearby? Why not go on a bird walk organized by the Cape May Bird Observatory? A bird walk? Sure! A leisurely two-hour treasure hunt, led by local experts, at the planet’s most celebrated bird watching location.
 
You’ll never find a better time. You’ll also never find a more bird-rich place. The Center of the Birding Universe — The numbers don’t lie, but maybe you’re skeptical. Cape May? The center of the bird watching universe? Believe it.
 
Whether your standard of measurement is popular acclaim, species diversity, great natural spectacle, birder visitation or international reputation, you’ll find precious few locations that can stand on the same stage as Cape May, New Jersey. Add the element of visitor amenities and Cape May stands alone.
 
Consider this, since records began being kept, more than 430 species of birds have been recorded in Cape May County. That’s more than half the number of species found in all of North America! These records go back to the early 19th century.
 
So, not only does Cape May have one of the highest bird totals in North America, it has one of the most enduring ornithological traditions.
 
Back to numbers. An avid Cape May birder can tally more than 325 species in a single year here! That is more bird species than can be found in all of Alaska in a year.
 
On any given weekend in May or October, more than 200 species may be found — in fact, one World Series of Birding team tallied 201 species in a single day. Two hundred species in a single day? In Cape May? Yes!
 
If you really want to appreciate the merit of Cape May, consider how many different species a person can tally from just a single location in a 24-hour period. The world “Big Sit” record of 146 bird species was set in October in Cape May, beating the previous world record of 145.
 
That record was also set in Cape May, but in May, not October. Two months, two seasons apart, both equal when it comes to enjoying great species diversity. But How About When I’m Visiting? There is no such thing as a bad time to watch birds in Cape May.
 
Season only determines which species will be around. The weather determines not whether there are birds, but where. In winter, the ocean and bay host thousands of wintering ducks as well as loons, gulls and Northern Gannet.
 
What’s a gannet? It’s a large seabird with a six-foot wingspan that dives for fish and is classed within a bird group called the “boobies.” If you go to the Galapagos, you’ll find boobies. If you go to Cape May, in winter, you’ll find boobies, too.
 
The marshes of the Atlantic Coast and especially Delaware Bay host numbers of wintering birds of prey and thousands of snow geese. Bald eagles are now common along the bay side of the peninsula.
 
Stand at any strategic location, pass your binocular along the horizon and it's almost impossible not to see a hunting harrier or perched eagle or maybe a cruising Short-eared Owl. Of course you don’t know where these strategic locations are.
 
That’s why you need to stop by the Cape May Bird Observatory and pick up a free birding map. It goes along with the free checklist to Cape May’s birds. One helps you find birds and one helps you keep score.
 
In summer, those same marshes host thousands of breeding herons, egrets, terns, and migrating shorebirds. Spring migration begins in March and runs into July. Fall migration begins in June and runs into February. There is really not a day in the year when migration is not occurring.
 
So no matter when you visit you can look forward to birds coming, birds going and birds just standing around waiting to be introduced into your life. Me? A Bird Watcher? Why not? You might not think of yourself as a bird watcher, but you do, in fact, watch birds.
 
When you walk on the beach, don’t you enjoy seeing those busy, wind-up-toy-like birds that play tag with the waves? They’re called Sanderlings. They’re one of many species of shorebird that breed in the Arctic and winter here.
 
The only month the birds are not found on our beaches is in June, when they are way up in Arctic Canada. If you are visiting in winter, would a walk down the beach be complete without the keening cry of a Herring Gull?
 
If you are here in summer, listening to the sound of waves coming in through the open window at night, doesn’t the squawk of a Night Heron make you smile and the terrier-like yap of Black Skimmer make you laugh? A hundred years ago, herons and skimmers were not found in New Jersey.
 
They and other common shorebirds had been slaughtered for their feathers. Now, after a century of good conservation-mindedness, the species have recovered. We are living in the best time to enjoy birds, so take advantage of it! Spreading Your Wings.
 
The easiest way to try birding is to show up at a Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) bird walk. Just head over to the CMBO, the place for all your nature needs. CMBO, which is open year round, is located at 701 E. Lake Dr. overlooking Lake Lily in Cape May Point, 609-884-2736.
 
While you're there, pick up a free map, schedule of daily walks and programs for the season and a birding checklist. Take a look at the sighting sheets, check the view of Lake Lily from our scope set up.
 
CMBO also has the region’s finest selection of binoculars, spotting scopes and bird books, including optics and field guides for beginners. No pre-registration for walks is needed. They are open to everyone and offered year round.
 
You bring the ambition, we supply the optics and expertise, Mother Nature supplies the birds. How many birds? It depends upon the location and the time of year. In winter, in a woodland area, walk totals might be 20-30 species. In spring or fall, it’s possible to see more than 70 different bird species on a single two-hour walk.
 
Imagine: you can go from having a Life List of 0 birds to having a Life List of 70 species or about 15 percent of all the bird species found in North America in just two hours. It will take the rest of your life to get the rest. But that’s not the bad news. That’s the good news.
 
Because the fun and challenge of bird watching just keeps getting better. It will also keep you coming back to Cape May. If you can’t make it in person, you can also visit us online www.birdcapemay.org – where birding Cape May is only a click away!
 
There are other places in North America and the world where you can see great bird diversity. But there are few (and maybe none) that offer as many massed natural spectacles as Cape May.
 
In spring, the beaches of Delaware Bay host the planet’s greatest concentration of breeding horseshoe crabs and hosts the shorebirds that feast upon their eggs. In August, in the marshes of the nearby Maurice River, more than 50,000 Purple Martins gather each evening to roost.
 
At sunset the birds gather into dark, writhing tornadoes that funnel into the marsh. In September, the trees of Cape May Point welcome thousands of migrating monarch butterflies en route to Mexico. Numbers differ year to year. Some years mere thousands migrate through.
 
Other years, more than a million monarch butterflies may festoon the town. One of the planet’s greatest hawk migrations threads the Cape May Peninsula. September through November. You can go to the hawk watch platform at Cape May Point State Park and feast your eyes upon the river of raptors.
 
At Avalon, more than a million migrating sea birds cut the corner on the north east corner of this seaside town. There have been days when close to 100,000 migrating sea ducks have been counted.
 
In winter, the marshes north of Atlantic City and the Delaware Bay marshes from Cape May County to Cumberland County host tens of thousands of wintering snow geese. And every spring and fall, the forests of Cape May support millions of migrating songbirds.
 
Millions in a season? Certainly. But sometimes, when the winds are right, millions in a day. That’s why Cape May is world famous. Now it’s up to you to experience it. For more information about birds and birding in Cape May, go to our website www.birdcapemay.org or e-mail birdcapemay@njaudubon.org or call 609-884-2736.
 
We look forward to welcoming you to the world of birding - and Cape May! Pete Dunne, who authored this article, is the Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and Chief Communications Officer for New Jersey Audubon. He uses his talents and energy to make the natural world real for others.
 
Author of several books on and about nature (available at CMBO) he weaves information, insight and even fantasy into a net that captures minds and hearts. He has written for virtually every birding publication and for the New York Times.

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