by Sarah Toner 

“Tweets” from CMBObirds, October 29, 2010

FWD: S. WHittle: 530am dozens of birds on street and low flying beach ave and cape may mall.

FWD: RichardCrossley: lots yrwa overhead. Lots heth,sparrows,nofl etc. Roads and doorways jammed. 

FWD: D La Puma a.k.a. woodcreeper: Birds all over villas. Sparrows and heth sitting on rd. Epic.

“Tweets” from woodcreeper, October 29, 2010

The floodgates are open over the Northeast #bird #migration #CapeMay #NJ #WOW!!! 

100s of birds can be seen migrating in the lights above the Cape May convention centeramazing flight over Cape May still going. At times 300 birds per minute. Numbers have thinned, but it's still epic. #birds #migration

At 6:00 am, my phone buzzed and I checked the twitter message. “Huge fallout going on,” the post said. “Get out there!” I obeyed, pulling on my coat and stepping out of my hotel room in Cape May, New Jersey. It was still dark, but the moon shone and the streetlights illuminated the parking lot. Cheeps and chirps drifted toward me from the marsh behind the hotel, the houses across the street, and the ornamental shrub in front of me. I took another step, leaving the door open behind me, and a Hermit Thrush dashed by on the ground, angling for the door. I stepped forward and it hurried back into the bush. I closed the door, then circled around the shrub, peering into it at two puffy White-throated Sparrows. This was unbelievable.

I stepped back into the hotel room.

“What’s out there?” my Grandpa Bob asked me.

“It’s crazy. There are Hermit Thrushes and sparrows everywhere. I can’t believe it. A fallout at Cape May!” I replied.

It was just an average Friday for most people, but for me it was unforgettable. I had always wanted to go to Cape May. When I finally persuaded my grandfather to take me there, I figured that the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Autumn Weekend would be a great time to visit for the first time. This, however, was beyond even my high expectations. A fallout! An actual fallout was happening!

We revised our plan for the day, going to Higbee Beach first thing, and the Beanery later in the morning. As we drove to Higbee, sparrows and thrushes flew out of the brush on the edge of the road and crossed the street in our headlights by the dozens. As we arrived at the Higbee Beach parking lot, we found 25 Hermit Thrushes clustered around a puddle, surrounded by ogling birders. On a patch of grass in front of the gate was a flock of 50 sparrows, including White-crowned, Savannah, Chipping, Song, and White-throated, mixed in with Yellow-rumped Warblers, Gray Catbirds, and Hermit Thrushes. As we began walking we flushed up at least twenty sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers every six feet. Every quarter of a mile, an Eastern Phoebe pumped its tail in the edge habitat. Northern Flickers flushed up and clung to every dead tree.

IMG_2807Mixed flock, photo by the author.

We were surrounded by birds, overwhelmed by the blackbird flocks and hawks above us, the sparrows below us, and the thrushes and phoebes in front of us. We picked out some unusual birds, but the sheer spectacle of the fallout itself was too amazing to focus on anything else. A thousand Yellow-rumped Warblers crowded Higbee Beach alone. Across the Cape, 200,000-300,000 birds had landed. Don Freiday said, “I’ve lived here for 7 years and been coming here for 20, and this is the biggest fallout I’ve ever seen.”

Later in the morning, we went to the Beanery. As the birds found food and rested, their numbers decreased, but warblers, catbirds, and thrushes were still active and abundant. The decrease in the sheer number of birds allowed us to focus on more diversity, picking out Vesper Sparrows, Nashville Warblers, and a lingering Red-eyed Vireo. We finally took a deep, satisfied breath and looked up to enjoy a modest hawk flight.

The rest of the day was spent in a haze of birding, viewing the spectacle from different places and angles. At the state park, I photographed 50 tired Yellow-rumped warblers beneath a juniper tree, feasting on the fallen berries. I got so close that I had to lie on the ground to photograph the bird’s faces.

IMG_2838Yellow-rumped Warbler with Juniper Berry, photo by the author

On Saturday, the clean up work commenced. We shuttled around, following the reports of rare birds. When a text announced “Henslow’s Sparrow and Ash-throated Flycatcher at Higbee beach,” we were off.

“The Henslow’s Sparrow is right there, beneath that tuft of grass. You can’t see it, though,” a birder at Higbee told me. Finally, after staring at one spot and waiting, we saw it fly into a bush and pose, an individual with very bright olive tones. We fanned out, searching another field for the Ash-throated Flycatcher. I caught a glimpse of a bird with rufous wings that flushed in front of me and I chased after the birders who were leaving, calling them back. The flycatcher flew back into the field and perched for several long minutes, sallying out to catch a bug before landing again. Later in the day, as we settled into a presentation, my phone buzzed with a text. “Common Ground-Dove at the state park!” I waited through the talk and then ran to the state park, only to be told “Sorry, it left two hours ago.” Even without the ground-dove, we ended a day full of rare birds at Sunset Beach, watching the silhouettes of cormorants sitting on the jagged ruin of the Concrete Ship at dusk.


By Sunday, most of the fallout birds had moved on, but some still lingered. At the closing banquet on Sunday night, the species total for the weekend was announced: 206. “The best bird of the weekend,” announced Pete Dunne, “is probably the LeConte’s Sparrow found Friday morning on the side of a road.” The audience looked confused by this new report. “Dead. We’re counting it. It was here at the Point!” We all laughed.

On Monday, I started a post-weekend field trip, “Cape May with Everything on It.” Led by Louise Zemaitis and Michael O’Brien, it was a whirlwind of Cape May birds and birders. Even though the fallout officially ended on Saturday, the birds kept pushing through, this time in the form of a large hawk flight. Tony Leukering tweeted “SUPERB TV @ buteo flight going on; 4 GOEA; GET OUT!” Indeed we did, and the day ended with seven more Golden Eagles, for a total of 11. As we gazed at a kettle of 400 Turkey Vultures right next to the Cape May Lighthouse, someone asked where the Red-shouldered Hawk was. “See the Golden Eagle? Go up and to the right from it,” was the reply. The Red-shouldered Hawk seeker laughed and said, “Who’d have thought we’d be giving directions to a Red-shouldered Hawk from a GOLDEN EAGLE?”

GOEA_2932Golden Eagle, photo by the author

After the phenomenal hawk flight on November first, we parted ways with the birds of the fallout. I had still more memorable moments during the rest of the field trip, such as walking onto a breakwall for a Purple Sandpiper, and other moments when I was kicking myself, such as the time I was just four blocks away from a Razorbill I didn’t know was flying past the seawatch. The Flight of the Millennium lingered with me nonetheless. The best photograph I’ve ever taken, a close Yellow-rumped Warbler in perfect light holding a juniper berry, inspired a poem and a love for the charming Butterbutts. I met and learned from top birding experts in an amazing place for birding, during an even more amazing event. I also got 27 lifers, but as Don Freiday posted after the fallout, “It's not the species count, it's the spectacle factor.” He was right. Cape May, October 29, 2010, was and will always be one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever seen.

6a00e5505da117883401543669f06f970cAbout the author: Sarah Toner, 14, has been birding since she was 8. She lives in southeast Michigan but wants to move to beautiful Whitefish Point, Michigan. She doesn't have one favorite bird, but likes drab, brown northern birds such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and Rough-legged Hawk. She was a member of the 2011 ABA Tropicbirds team in Texas and attended the 2011 Camp Colorado. Sarah also received first place in the 10-13 year-old writing division and third place in the illustration division of the 2010 ABA Young Birder of the Year contest.