How to Know the Birds: No. 79, Cape May!

by Ted Floyd

  • What: Cape May Warbler, Setophaga tigrina
  • When: Sunday, October 1, 2023
  • Where: Cape May Lighthouse, Cape May County, New Jersey

We rounded the bend and came upon yet another flock of migrants. Of course we did. Because it was one of those sorts of days when migrating birds were everywhere. On the streets and sidewalks. In tangles of shrubbery and in the sky overhead. And, in this particular instance, in the little grove of pines directly ahead. One of migrants was this one:

Photo by © Hannah Floyd.

How wonderful! A Cape May warbler. At Cape May. Not only at Cape May, but practically under the shadow of the iconic Cape May Lighthouse. Can we be honest about something?—Cape May is the most iconic birding hotspot in the ABA Area, perhaps the planet. As icons go, Cape May is right up there with Carnegie Hall and Yankee Stadium and the Owl Bar & Cafe.

Cape May lighthouse and (inset) Sharp-shinned Hawk. Photos by © Ted Floyd.

And that’s really all I got for this installment of “How to Know the Birds.” Nothing deep, nothing philosophical. Just a simple, heartfelt tribute to the birding Granddaddy of Them All, the one and only, Cape May, inimitable and incomparable.

We literally hadn’t even gotten out of the car and had already seen several sharp-shinned hawks above the lighthouse. Scarcely an hour after arriving, I was able to inform the official hawk counter that I had seen more “sharpies” that day than I’d ever before seen in a single day. The hawk counter said it was the same for him.

Because that’s how it is at Cape May. You go there on a fine day in autumn (and, to be fair, we were there on a particularly fine day), and you basically expect to see some phenomenon so superlative that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

One goes to Cape May in search of lifers. I got several there in the 1980s when I lived in the region. And I got a few during my most recent visit. Not life birds. I’ve been birding too much and for too long in the ABA Area.

But I got some splendid iNat lifers. Especially right out along the beach just beyond the lighthouse: a fleet-footed eastern box turtle, Terrapene carolina; a bewitching Atlantic ghost crab, Ocypode quadrata; and, please don’t laugh at me, a spotted lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula. Cut me some slack, we don’t get lanternflies in Colorado. (Not yet.) They’re inarguably beautiful.


L.–r.: Eastern box turtle, Atlantic ghost crab, spotted lanternfly. Photos by © Ted Floyd.

There’re birds and wildlife everywhere at Cape May. I once heard David Sibley say at a book signing that Cape May is his favorite place on Earth because it’s impossible not to see birds there, everywhere you go. He told the story of being in a supermarket in Cape May, and seeing a marsh wren bopping around the produce. Well, how ’bout this?—

Photo by © Ted Floyd.

We found a plastic Canada goose in a Wawa! A plastic goose, but still. If you’re a Gen Xer like me, you surely remember those Brooke Shields TV commercials from the 1980s: “New Jersey and You—Perfect Together!” As to a plastic Canada goose rearing up from a sea of Cheetos and Doritos (perfect together!), I don’t know what could be more perfectly emblematic of the experience of South Jersey. Sharon Stiteler, in her recent book North American Birdwatching for Beginners has this to say about the species:

RANGE: Everywhere. They could be inside your house right now.

Indeed.

One goes to Cape May for all the good birds (and box turtles and ghost crabs and lanternflies and Wa runs), but one also goes there, if one so chooses, for deep learning. From my earliest days as a birder, way back in the days of those old Brooke Shields TV commercials, I was drawn to Witmer Stone’s Bird Studies at Old Cape May (1937). When I lived in New Jersey in the late 1980s, I was enthralled by the research being done there on nocturnal flight calls. And, more recently, there have been advances in our understanding of seabird flights just offshore, the “morning flight” of migrant landbirds, and the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out what the heck is meant by the “Cape May School” (of bird ID). I’ll get it, eventually, one of these days, perhaps.

Deep learning about birds, yes, but also about other wildlife. While I was at the hawk watch platform, someone showed me a phone app that tells you when an individual monarch butterfly, tagged with a tiny solar-powered tracker, is migrating past. Wow. And how about this?—

Temperature 22 degrees Celsius. Sound spectrogram by © Ted Floyd.

It’s a sound spectrogram of a coastal scissors grinder cicada, Neotibicen latifasciatus, we audio-recorded just beyond the lighthouse. I have three things to say about that. First: Lifer! I think it’s a recent split? Second: Is that an awesome name or what? Coastal. Scissors grinder. Cicada. Third: Srsly, how cool is it that you can point your phone at a sound in the pines and get diagnostic output like that?

A final thought. It’s impossible to go to Cape May on a fine fall morning and not bump into several hundred or so of your best birding buds. There is an undeniable, and felicitous, human aspect to the experience of Cape May. (I think it’s funny, and telling, that I somehow got Brooke Shields, Sharon Stiteler, and Witmer Stone into one quite small stretch of text, above.) Anyhow, we ran into birding buds, Hannah F. and I, everywhere we went: Aidan P., the official hawk counter for the fall 2023 season; Martina N. and Andrew M. providing natural history instruction for visitors at the hawk watch platform; college seniors Kojo B. and David D. shepherding a group of underclassperson birders; Dave M. catching up with me on, oh, 25+ years of Philly region lore; and Laura G. and Harlan G. just out for a beautiful early afternoon at one of the birdiest places on Earth.


   
L.–r.: Laura Guerard (left) and Hannah Floyd (right); Ted Floyd (relegated) and Aidan Place (elevated); Hannah Floyd points out a bird or gall or arthropod or slime mold because . . . Cape May!

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Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.