October 17-19, 2008
By Priscilla Wood
Photos by Joyce and Ray Koontz
Pick Ups & Greetings:
Jim D, faithful EcoTraveler and volunteer and I headed out in our stylish EcoTravel vans in a timely fashion from the Essex office at 7:15am. With us were Millie and George and Don. We headed to Branford to pick up Meg, to Stratford for Charlotte and Linda and our final stop at the CT Audubon Birdcraft Museum in Fairfield. Here we were greeted by a large flock of Monk Parakeets as well as trip leader Ken Elkins and our remaining travelers Judith, Ray and Joyce. Once we introduced ourselves we took time to take a rest break at the Museum and a couple of us were given a quick tour of the exhibit space by Birdcraft Director Nelson North.
Some folks had traveled together before and more than half of the group was taking their first trip to Cape May which always makes for an exciting trip. We were lucky enough to have Ken Elkins who is the former CT Audubon Statewide Educator, leading us to a location that he knew well. We thank the National Audubon, Ken’s new employer, for allowing Ken to lead this trip, giving a number of people, including me, a chance to travel with Ken for the first time.
For a Friday afternoon on I-95, The New Jersey Turnpike and The Garden State Parkway, we made pretty good time. We made a 15 minutes stop at one of the Turnpike’s most elaborate rest areas. Restrooms, multiple take-out spots even a Sunglass Hut. We chose to eat on the road so we could make better time.
We arrived to Cape May area around 1:30pm or so stopping first at the Avalon Seawatch.
Weather was proving to be a quite cool and windy with hopes that the wind would shift overnight to bring in some of migrating birds from the North.
At the Seawatch we were able to meet a couple of staff from the New Jersey Audubon who were set up to watch the migrating sea birds for the weekend. From across the bay you could see a hazy view of Atlantic City. We were able to see numerous flocks of Surf and Black Scoter, small flock of Northern Gannet and Brant Geese. A Caspian Tern was spotted upon our arrival and we were also greeted by Herring, Ring-billed and an immature Laughing Gull.
After a quick rest stop we headed to the Wetlands Institute where we spent just under an hour walking a short marsh path and spotting Greater and Lesser Yellow Legs, a sleeping Hudsonian Godwit, Belted Kingfisher, Chipping, Song, and Savannah Sparrow, Short and Long-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin and Osprey with a fish in tow.
As we continued down the path we spotted a couple of Yellow-crowned Night Heron off in the distance perched on a pine branch. On our way back to the vans we checked out the garden space next to the Institute to see Red-winged Blackbird, White-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, and multiple “Butter Butts”.
Our next stops were Nummy’s Island and the Concrete Ship where we watched the Ruddy Turnstone climb around the precarious wreckage of the concrete ship and Double-crested and an immature Great Cormorant perched as well. We certainly didn’t need a historical text panel to tell us that concrete ships were determined not a good idea. I think common sense could have told us that.
We headed to the Capri Motor Lodge which proved to be a big improvement over past trips there. Our rooms were all on the 3rd floor with a nice view of the ocean across the street. The rooms were simple, but clean and each had a small kitchenette. After check-in and about 30 minutes to freshen up we headed to The Cape Oriente Restaurant for our Welcome Dinner. Although we had made reservations, it would be hard pressed to say that the staff, in particular our waiter, were happy to see us. Despite the impatient and at times rude waiter, travelers seemed to enjoy their first meal together and most reported the food was quite good.
Ken debriefed the group on what to expect in the morning. While Priscilla and most of the group headed back to the hotel, Ken and George went off on a much needed shopping trip as George had left his luggage behind at home. With a great sense of humor and a “don’t sweat the small stuff” attitude George and Millie made light of the forgotten luggage and certainly gave us something to giggle about throughout our weekend.
We headed off to our rooms around 8:30-9:00pm for well deserved nights rest.
Sat. Oct. 18th:
Both Leaders Ken and Priscilla took our 8 early-risers to the Morning Flight at Higbee’s.
We arrived just at sunrise and listened closely as migrant birds flew in to the area. We climbed the platform and met a Interpretive Naturalist who helped us point out various species of Sparrow as well as Dark-eyed Junco on the ground and flocks of Morning Dove, Eastern Starlings, Common Crackle and Red-winged Black Bird. Ken led us up a steep slope of the dredge spoils from the canal, where the official Morning Flight counter stands and where we would be right in the “line of flight” of hundreds of warblers, nuthatch, junco, sparrow, kinglet, and goldfinch. We stood in awe of the vast number of birds that flew by so quickly that it was almost dizzying. Using our binoculars proved at times to be more of a burden as it seemed to work best to simply take in the natural aviary of birds around us with the naked eye.
Being up high on the impoundment gave us the great advantage of looking down upon berry and scrub bushes where birds were ducking in to get out of the wind. Gray Catbird, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Pipit, Yellow-rumped, Pine, Palm and Blackpoll Warblers, American Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Towhee. Jim headed down the slope first to get a closer look and nearly got clipped on the head by a Pine Siskin. Although we had to head back to the hotel by 8:00am to pick up the rest of the group, we were hesitant to leave. We made another stop on our way back to the van and got a good, close-up look at multiple sparrow species and a Hemit Thrush.
Ken and I dropped off the early bird travelers at a Bella Vida for breakfast while we went back to the hotel to retrieve the second van and the rest of our group. I headed quickly back to the small, friendly breakfast nook with an incredibly patient, and capable waitress. A huge improvement over last evening’s waiter. Breakfast and service were excellent.
With our entire entourage present we headed to the Hawk Watch at Cape May State Park but not without first stopping on the side of the road to spot a Merlin perched atop the electric poles. Those of us not knowing what to expect at the Hawk watch were excited for the morning ahead despite the wind and chill in the air. There was quite a crowd assembling on the large, raised platform and for good reason. The hawk numbers were huge. There was Coopers Hawk in large numbers, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk. We also spotted Bald Eagles, a Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, Broad winged hawk, Peregrine Falcon and even a Swainson’s Hawk.
The group enjoyed a Raptor demonstration as a researcher held and described a first year male and first year female Cooper’s Hawk, an American Kestrel, a Red-tailed Hawk and an adult Coopers Hawk. Although the demonstrator seemed soft spoken, he was clearly shaky as these beautiful yet fierce looking birds of prey made it clear to him that they were not happy at being held by their talons to be on display. The bander described the banding process, specific raptor behavior and the audience reveled in the portion of the demonstration when he would let each raptor go as they swiftly and skillfully maneuvered through the cedar grove behind us.
After taking lunch orders Priscilla, George and Millie drove off to the near-by deli to pick up grinders to bring back to the group. Millie and I headed into the deli in a quiet part of town while George waited in the van. When we returned to the van the once quiet neighborhood was swarmed with emergency vehicles, flashing lights, sirens and emergency personnel directing traffic. Apparently we missed all the excitement, but George got to see all the action unfold in front of him. Incident was not identified but did not appear to be much of an emergency.
During our absence the remainder of the group went on a short hike. Walking among the cedar grove, we ran into more feeding flocks of kinglets, Yellow-rumped warblers, and our first Carolina Chickadees. We met them back at the picnic area for an excellent lunch. Most people chose warm grinders to heat us up a bit. The hoagies were tasty and huge and a good deli to remember for next time.
After lunch and our fill of hawk sightings we headed to the New Jersey Audubon Center. We had a chance for some light shopping (George finally got his bird clock) and enjoyed soaking up the sun that was starting to appear more often. We found a delightful British man who was willing to take a group picture of us. His dry British humor was amusing and it was a pleasure to run into him. We spotted adult, full plumaged Bald Eagles flying overhead and Carolina Chickadee in the cedars below.
We headed to the South Cape May Meadows where we took a long walk through the marsh, down to the beach and back through the opposite side of the marsh. Ken told us the history of the area which included a very intensive project to remove the invasive Phragmites and rechannel some of the waterways. Here we spotted American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Green-winged Teal, and Ring – necked Duck, Red-Breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Turkey and Black Vulture.
While on the beach we spotted a Parasitic Jaeger just off shore bobbing in and out of the surf. We also saw a wedding party under the gazebo nearby. The bride and groom were out on the rock jetty trying to get pictures taken in the wind.
On our way back to the van we took a dry trail flanked by Russian olive and grape vine which were busy with Swamp, Song and Savannah Sparrow. We excitedly spotted a Vesper Sparrow on the trail about 10 feet ahead of us and as we admired him we heard Don point out that a Cooper’s Hawk was approaching down the trail headed for the Vesper who quickly ducked into the grass, just in time!
Ken dropped off Priscilla and half the group at the Capri Motor Lodge as the other half headed out for 1 more hour of bird watching. The winds had increased significantly as the afternoon progressed, so quick stops at the Cape May Harbor and Two Mile Landing were quite unproductive. A walk on the beach at the Two Mile Landing Unit of the Cape May NWR yielded a large group of Sanderlings, and very long skeins of Scoters passing by.
Our somewhat weary but hungry group headed out for dinner to the Mad Batter. Ken and I dropped the group off at the restaurant and attempted to find parking spots which were few and far between. We decided to divide and conquer and both ended up at the restaurant 10-15 minutes after everyone else. The Mad Batter had excellent food and service and the conversation at the table was light and jovial. We went around the table with each person reporting the highlight of the trip so far. Some were bird related and well…..ahem…..some were not. Remember…what happens it Cape May, stays in Cape May right?
After a somewhat time consuming settlement of the bill, Priscilla ordered a much deserved, high-sugar dessert to bring back to her room in attempts to stay up to watch Saturday Night Live featuring Sarah Palin. The dessert did the trick but was not worth the loss of sleep. Cape May being such a colorful place even had “hot-pink” McCain/Palin lawn signage. Interesting choice of color. Interesting noises and comments always came from the van as we passed by them.
Sun. Oct 19th
We all met at the vans at 7am with luggage packed and ready to go. A well organized group! We stopped at Uncle Bills Pancake House for a tasty and hearty breakfast. Some chose large stacks of pancakes, saturated in syrup, some stuck with muffins and fruit, buckwheat pancakes or tiny silver dollar pancakes. The food and service was good and the kind waitress agreed to check us out individually. (Definitely a plus)
We got out of the van for a last look at the beach before getting on the road and found a large flock of Black Skimmers resting in the sand with a solitary Royal Tern off to the right of the flock. We found a spot where someone from the night before had spelled out “I LOVE YOU” with beach shells. A sweet farewell from Cape May indeed.
After about an hour’s drive we stopped at the Ed Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Brigantine. Thanks to Judith’s Golden Eagle passport, we were able to get in for free, yet, of course, we made a donation. The refuge consisted of a 8-mile driving loop surrounded by tidal marsh and grasses and a large number of shore and marsh birds. The day was very windy at times with stinging sand keeping our “out of van” birding to a minimum.
We did manage to get in some great sighting despite the weather: Western Sandpiper, flocks of Snow Geese, Willet, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sanderlings, and a large, adult Bald Eagle swooping over the road just as our 8-mile loop came to an end.
We decided to hit the highway, stopping for a fast food stop on the way home and arrived in Fairfield about 5:30 bidding farewell to our first group of travelers and our splendid leader Ken.
After a couple of more stops the vans made it back safe and sound to Essex. We bid farewell to Don and George and Millie who had just a quick drive around the block to spend the night at the Griswold Inn.
Although Cape May is only a 3.5-4 hour drive away there is a certain ginger-bread, Victorian charm that is much different from typical New England. The multiple colored homes and ornate- porched cottages made for a charming part of New Jersey that many of us had never seen before.
Despite the wind whipped weather, our travelers seemed certainly pleased with the multiple species of birds, the great camaraderie, comic relief and TLC.
Ken and I greatly appreciate your positive attitudes and are very thankful you could join us on this trip to beautiful Cape May. We thank you for your support of CT Audubon Society and hope to see you traveling with us again soon. Cape May when the birds are in spring plumage and singing away could make for an entirely different trip to. Perhaps you can join us again.
CT Audubon Society EcoTravel