Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Few Days in Cape May County

This past week, I spent several days visiting family in Cape May County. (Thus my absence from the internet.) This was my first time in Cape May since I started birding. However, several previous visits there in the late 1990s helped spark my interest in birds. Seeing glossy ibises, American oystercatchers, and laughing gulls for the first time made me realize that it was possible to see a lot more bird species than what I was used to in Central Jersey. (It still took a few more years before I started actively seeking out birds.) Though last week's trip was not primarily a birding expedition, there were still opportunities to observe the midsummer avian diversity at the cape's habitats.

Hereford Inlet has a growing sandbar that is now home to oystercatchers and other beach-nesting birds. I do not remember it being there the last time I visited (about ten years ago). On Monday evening, we had repeated looks at black skimmers foraging there in their unique style.

At the southern end of the Wildwoods, Cape May NWR's Two Mile Beach Unit offers access to beach and dune habitats. Several sections of the beach are closed during spring and summer months to protect nesting shorebirds. When we stopped there on Tuesday morning, piping plover and least tern nests were not apparent, but several oystercatcher pairs guarded nests in the northernmost enclosure. Other highlights included a flyby brown pelican, black-crowned night herons on the Cape May Inlet jetties, and a multitude of ospreys. Ghost crabs were skittering all over the beach. A few engaged in territorial battles, and I witnessed one crab kill and eat a slightly smaller one.

On Tuesday afternoon, we spent a few hours at Villas WMA, a former golf course that has been converted into grasslands habitat. Villas is a bit off the beaten track for visiting birders, perhaps because it only opened to the public in 2006. The birds were more or less what one would expect for meadow/edge habitats – indigo buntings, eastern kingbirds, chipping sparrows, purple martins, and the like. The dragonflying, however, was excellent. Former golf course water features have become weedy ponds, perfect for dragonflies to hunt and breed. I noted nine species of dragonflies, and there were more that I could not identify. The possibilities for finding butterflies look good, too, though the site lacked enough wildflowers for a true butterfly meadow.

Wednesday morning was spent at South Cape May Meadows, a.k.a. Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge. The refuge consists of a large marsh and narrow beach managed by the Nature Conservancy. In summer, the refuge provides nesting habitat for federally-endangered piping plovers and state-endangered least terns. Both species were present last week. Piping plover chicks looked really cute. Least terns were diving and scolding at any visitors who walked along the refuge path near one of the nests. The highlight of the visit to the Meadows, though, was a life bird – two gull-billed terns. These terns have very distinctive bills, though the bills are a bit smaller than I had expected. This refuge is one that I would definitely like to visit again in other seasons, as the habitat seems very productive.

One shorebird on the refuge beach, a sandpiper of the Calidris genus, gave me some trouble. Its plumage resembled that of a semipalmated sandpiper, except that its primaries projected well beyond the tip of the tail. This would seem to indicate a Baird's sandpiper, but I am hesitant to claim a life bird based on this field mark alone. So for now, it will remain a Calidris-sp.

Wednesday afternoon included a brief walk at Cape May Point State Park, which wrapped up the birding walks for the trip. We missed birding at a few prominent sites such as Higbee Beach and Stone Harbor, along with some less-prominent ones like Hidden Valley or Rea Farm. The Hawkwatch lacked migrating hawks to watch, and the CMBO's outpost at Cape May Point was closed for the week. (The one in Goshen is a bit out of the way.)

Overall, it was a good trip, and we covered most of the county's habitat types. I am hoping to return to Cape May at some point for more birding. I understand that migration there is spectacular.

(I have edited the year list to include my most recent sightings from Cape May County.)