Cape May: Phenomenal Fall Migration

This is a birding tour, which has been designed to try and see as many species as possible. However, it is a physically easy trip to do.

For details of how Tropical Birding will be operating this tour, here are our guidelines and tour practices: Safety Tour Regulations and Policy.

There are many North American migration locales that vie for superiority in spring, but few can stand alongside the peninsula of Cape May in the fall, when it is widely regarded as the epicenter of fall migration during its dramatic peak, during late September and October. More than 400 bird species have been recorded in fall seasons, and the sheer numbers of birds on the move are so eye-catching that it has led to the slogan of the New Jersey Audubon: “So. Many. Birds.” This could not have been stated any better. This is exactly what this tour is about, seeing an extraordinary diversity of migrant birds, while they course through the region in phenomenal numbers, as they head off to their wintering grounds. The feeling of migration happening right in front of your eyes is palpable. “Marquee” groups that feature during this time, include a bounty of warblers in the bushes and in the air, seabirds and sea ducks just off the Jersey Shore, shorebirds on the Jersey Shore, and hawks on the wing above the legendary Cape May Point State Park Hawk Watch Platform. Cape May is also dubbed the “Raptor Capital of North America”, and the numbers quickly illustrate why; an average of 30,000 individual raptors pass through there each fall, consisting of some 15 or species, and daily counts often exceeding 2,000 birds! Cape May is studded with a high diversity of birding sites too, and this tour will visit some iconic ones, like Higbee Beach, Brigantine, and the hawk watch of course, but also visit wherever the bird action is happening on any given day. Thus, we will be based at one central location in access to many birding locales, with each day’s plan unfolding once local weather conditions and bird news filters in. One base, with masses of birds, and warblers and hawks at the core of this action all within short drives away….if that excites you, please read on?!

Day 1: Arrival in Philadelphia; transfer to Cape May. After meeting as a group at 2pm at the arrival hall in Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), we will drive straight to Cape May, our base for all 6 nights of the tour. Following a local weather-check, and detailed scouring of the local bird news, we will hatch our plan over our welcome dinner for the next morning. Night in Cape May.

Red-breasted Mergansers on the move
Red-breasted Mergansers on the move (Ken Behrens)

NOTE: On Each day and night, we will make plans based on developing bird scenarios, and weather conditions. Certain sites and types of birding work well during specific conditions (e.g. northwest winds for hawk migration), and we will react to this instantly. Therefore, the exact order that we visit sites, and the full list of sites we will cover in the Cape May area will be governed by conditions and news at the time of the tour. This flexibility will afford us the greatest level of success.

Days 2-6: Cape May. The exact order and selection of sites will be governed by local birding conditions at the time (i.e. weather, where is hot for birds, etc.) Here is a summary of just some of the most famous hotspots…

Over 30 species of warbler are recorded each fall in Cape May (Northern Parula)
Over 30 species of warbler are recorded each fall in Cape May (Northern Parula) (Phil Chaon)

Higbee Beach: Bordering Delaware Bay, it is not usually the beach that is the focus for fall birders, but the fields, bushes and brushland, surrounded by water on all sides that attracts migrating songbirds en masse. This is a traditional dawn time site, where we will position ourselves on the dike to take in the warbler flights at sunrise, and seek the ones that drop in along the forest trails and field-side tracks. The beauty of the dyke is eye level views of some of the migrants. It is said that 250,000 birds fly over this dyke each fall!
Among the birds we will be looking for, will naturally be those most addictive “fluffballs” of migration, warblers. Each year over 30 species come through this site, including Connecticut, Cape May, Blackburnian, Northern Parula, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, and Canada Warblers. Accompanying this A-list band will be a wealth of other songbirds, like nuthatches, vireos, orioles, flycatchers, thrushes, sparrows. 15 species of sparrow are recorded annually, including Clay-colored and Field Sparrows, and 6 swallows species are regularly in the air at one time during fall. Located on the edge of Delaware Bay, also means that seabirds, ducks, and other waterbirds are often airborne too, meaning it is often difficult to know where to look on the heady days. This is the “down” side of Cape May. Migration is often happening at 360 degrees!

Northern Pintails frequent South Cape May Meadows
Northern Pintails frequent South Cape May Meadows (Ken Behrens)

Cape May Point State Park and Hawkwatch: This is arguably the centerpiece attraction at Cape May. A spacious wooden platform is the base for not only meeting with the local hawk counters and birding community, but also to experience raptor migration up close, and in spectacular fashion, in peak season. While hawk watching can be envisioned as a painful task, picking out small dots in the sky, and indeed it can be. However, at many times, birds like Broad-winged, Cooper’s, Sharp-shinned, Red-shouldered, and Red-tailed Hawks glide gently, and low overhead, just begging to be photographed as they drift over the peninsula on their way south for the winter. At other times, kettles of raptors gather in the sky, making for quite the exhibition, as mixed species groups come together on a shared thermal of warm air. Fifteen raptor species come through regularly each year, and thousands come through on some single fall days. We will time our visits for the best wind conditions and light, to get us a front seat at the “Annual Cape May Raptor Spectacle”, an experience every birder should get at least once in their lives.

Avalon: This is THE spot on the Cape May Peninsula for seawatching in the fall, and where official counts take place. Each year, hundreds of thousands of birds pass by this very spot! We visit a little earlier than the October-November peak (to ensure we do not miss the other migration pulses through the region of hawks, shorebirds and songbirds for example), we are still likely to pick up sea ducks (scoters and mergansers), seabirds (terns and gulls), loons and gannets in decent numbers.

Northern Gannets are regular offshore
Northern Gannets are regular offshore (Ken Behrens)

Stone Harbor Point: At the end of Seven Mile Island, this Atlantic coast barrier island shifts the interest to shorebirds, which like warblers, other songbirds, hawks, and seabirds, also pass by Cape May in epic numbers during the fall. This area of tidal flats and beach provides easy walking with huge numbers of shorebirds to cover on the appropriate tide. In late September, 25 species of shorebirds are often present, including American Oystercatcher, Red Knot, White-rumped Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, and Piping Plover, to name a few. Terns and gulls are always represented here well too, with 16 species possible in this month, among them, Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls, and Caspian, Common, Forster’s, Royal and Sandwich Terns. Congregations of thousands of shorebirds also bring in their attendant predators, and so Merlins and Peregrine Falcons are also beach regulars during this time too.

Stone Harbor Point is a shorebird hotspot
Stone Harbor Point is a shorebird hotspot (Ken Behrens)

South Cape May Meadows: This Nature Conservancy site protects important wetlands and bushland near the tip of the peninsula, and is a major birding attraction in the area. Trails traverse the area, allowing scouring of the wetlands for ducks, bitterns, egrets, herons, rails, shorebirds, ibises, raptors, terns, gulls, kingfishers, kingbirds and wrens, among others! Some of the species on offer include an assortment of raptors, like Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle and Osprey. Among others are Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and sometimes Eurasian Wigeon too. Virginia Rails, Least Bitterns, Marsh Wrens, and Swamp Sparrow lurk among the swampy vegetation. Little Blue, Green and Tricolored Herons, and Glossy Ibis may be seen working the muddy edges, while Belted Kingfishers and Eastern Kingbirds look on. This is a really enjoyable site to slowly walk around, pick up migrants on the wing, on the water, or on the ground.

Other legendary sites could include Nummy Point for Nelson’s Sharptail and Seaside Sparrows, and Clapper Rails, and the extensive, rail-riddled saltmarshes of Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (formerly Brigantine).

We will still plenty of birds perched, but the skies are often filled with migrants in this season
We will still plenty of birds perched, but the skies are often filled with migrants in this season (Ken Behrens)

Day 7: Cape May to Philadelphia for DEPARTURES. After some brief final local birding in the morning, we shall head back to the airport as a group. The tour leader will drop off everyone at Philadelphia International Airport at the same time (between noon and 1pm), in time for mid-afternoon departures or later.

A Marbled Godwit, one of thousands of shorebirds that descend on Cape May in the fall
A Marbled Godwit, one of thousands of shorebirds that descend on Cape May in the fall (Ken Behrens)

Fall in Cape May means warblers, lots and lots of warblers (Magnolia Warbler)
Fall in Cape May means warblers, lots and lots of warblers (Magnolia Warbler) (Phil Chaon)

Cape May is a Mega Warbler Hotspot! (Black-throated Green Warbler)
Cape May is a Mega Warbler Hotspot! (Black-throated Green Warbler) (Phil Chaon)

____________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy. This is not a physically-demanding tour (see Physical Difficulty section below), but the days will be pretty long. Sunrise at this time of year is around 6:45am, so we will generally eat breakfast around 6:00am and depart the hotel at 6:30am. Sunsets around 6pm, so we will be back at the hotel by then, with a break before dinner. Participants can expect to make multiple birding stops throughout the day. Some of the lunches may be field lunches to avoid restaurants and crowds, or will be taken at outside dining areas.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. All of our birding stops will require light to moderate walking, but we’ll rarely cover more than a mile at a stretch. The pace will be very mellow, and the footing should be level everywhere we go. There won’t be steep hikes on rocky trails, and anyone in average walking shape will do just fine on this tour. The only long drives on this tour are to and from Philadelphia, a journey of around 2 hours. All of the other sites are within an hour of our base. It is a coastal-based, and so there are no elevation issues!

CLIMATE: New Jersey in the fall is a season of change and so be prepared for all weathers, wind, rain, cold, and warm,. We could experience all of this in one day in the fall! Rain gear is essential, and good walking shoes, preferably waterproof, are suggested. The average monthly high/lows at this time of year are a comfortable 61-77F (16-25C), with comfortable humidity of around 15% at this time too. The months of September and October average about 6 days of rain per month in Cape May.

ACCOMMODATION: We will be using one single hotel for the entire 6 nights of the tour. This will be a modern hotel, with full time hot water, full-time electricity and wireless Internet. Importantly, and because of COVID-19 concerns, we have deliberately selected smaller hotels where the rooms are accessed externally. This will minimize time in communal spaces like lobbies and hallways. All lodgings are high-quality with an emphasis on customer service.

WHEN TO GO: Cape May is an important site for migration in spring and fall, with the highest numbers of birds encountered during the fall period between September and November. Later tours in that period are better for numbers of seabirds. This tour has been timed to hit the main peak of migration, with an excellent selection of warblers and other songbirds, shorebirds, hawks and other raptors, and the start of the seabird migration all covered during this tour. We can easily arrange custom tours either side of these set dates, if these specific dates do not work. A week either side of this would still be very productive indeed.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, with the focus being on trying to sample a good cross section of the migrants pulsing through the region at this time. However, birders with cameras are welcome on this tour, and there are sure to be “on-the-fly” photos to present themselves. As we are always local, we do not need to rush around between sites, so there will be time to take photos on this birding tour. However, there are no targeted photos sites, with feeders for example.

GEAR: Binoculars are essential items, and cameras are very welcome too. The tour leader will carry a good quality spotting scope for group use, but if you wish to bring your own too, it will not be wasted. Particularly, when shorebirding and seawatching, scopes can be very useful on this trip, but are not an essential item.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. For all foreign citizens, please check the ever-changing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. Tropical Birding cannot be responsible for changes in entrance policy or restriction levied by the US government. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure. Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodations from the night of day 1 through the night of day 6; meals from the night of day 1 through to breakfast on day 7; all park fees to sites stated in the itinerary; one airport transfer for the group (the guide will meet the group at the tour start at a given time, and also drop the group off at a stated time at the tour end, negating the need for extra vehicle use and shuttles) at the start and end of the tour; Tropical Birding tour leader from the night of day 1 to lunchtime of day 7; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from days 1 to 7 in a modern, rental van with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver for the entire tour. Printed checklist for each participant; these will be distributed on the first night of the tour. Electronic copies can be sent by email in advance if required.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any extra nights you wish to stay in the area; any flights; optional tips to the tour leader; tips to any baggage handlers if used anywhere; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; any drinks other than drinkable water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.