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Getaways: Cape May, America’s Bird-Watching Capital

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july11homespunweb.jpgBy Diane Stoneback

RISMEDIA, July 11, 2008-(MCT)-Cape May’s wide and gently sloping beaches, its gingerbread-laden Victorian homes and its landmark lighthouse are the main draws for tourists flocking to the town at the southern tip of New Jersey.

But visitors who divide their time between baking on the beach, shopping and dining will miss one of the town’s key attractions.

Even Cape May enthusiasts who think they know its special pleasures, from watching the setting sun at Sunset Beach to surf fishing in Delaware Bay, may not realize the full significance of the birds on the beach, flying overhead and nesting in all sorts of places.

Cape May has been called the birding capital of North America … a must-visit place for bird-watchers, or “birders,” before they die. And a place for everyone else to start appreciating the natural world.

“Cape May might be the single best birding spot on the continent-80,000 hawks, a million seabirds and a million-and-a-half shore birds funnel through the peninsula every year, and no one even knows how to count how many songbirds come through, though during migration, a quarter of a million a day is a fair guess,” notes Scott Weidensaul, author of “Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding” (Harcourt, 358 pp).

“We draw birders from around the world, because this is one of the best places in the world to see a very large number of bird species in a limited time and on a limited budget,” says Pete Dunne, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society for Natural History Information.

“Cape May is to bird-watchers what the Taj Mahal is to students of architecture,” adds Dunne, who also has authored numerous bird-watching books.

Even if you’ve never considered bird-watching as an activity during your Jersey Shore vacation, take a minute to watch the birds while you’re there soaking up the sun and sand.

“You might only see two species on the beach-the gulls circling overhead, to stalk and steal French fries, and the sandpipers playing tag with the waves. But at least 35 more species will also fly by,” says Dunne.

If you go to Cape May Point State Park for a lighthouse tour, stop at the hawk-viewing platform that’s to the rear of the massive parking lot. Sit quietly on that platform and listen for just a few minutes. You’ll be amazed by the different bird calls you’ll hear.

If you’re vacationing elsewhere in South Jersey, taking a day trip to Cape May for a little bird-watching will be worth your time-just 57 minutes from Atlantic City, 45 minutes from Ocean City, 26 minutes from Stone Harbor and 17 minutes from Wildwood.

You won’t need much to test the waters of this Cape May pastime.

No matter where and when you look, you’ll see birds in Cape May. All told, about 420 species can be found here within a year’s time.

“An active birder will see about 300 kinds of birds in a year, without really trying very hard,” says Don Freiday, the bird observatory’s program director.

Even novice bird-watchers can make sure they get off to a good start by signing up for one of the bird observatory’s two-hour walks ($10). Often, they’ll see 40 to 75 species during the time they’re on the walk.

“We actually guarantee that people who take our Thursday ‘Birds of Cape May: A Bird Walk for All People’ will see at least 20 species of birds or the walk is free. We’ve never had to return anyone’s money,” says Freiday.

Don’t have binoculars? Don’t worry. You can borrow some for use on an observatory bird walk.
For a sampling of the walks, see page F2 or go to www.birdcapemay.org for a full schedule and updates. Although it’s not necessary to make an advance reservation for a walk, it is a good idea to call ahead if you want to borrow binoculars.

If you’re not a “group” kind of person, head for the two prime viewing points during the summer season-Cape May Point State Park or the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge-and just look around you. Or look into hiring a personal guide from the bird observatory.

But you don’t have to hire a guide or even take a walk to benefit from the expertise of staffers and collect reams of information at group’s two locations-the Center for Research and Education at Goshen and the Northwood Center at Cape May Point.

Ask staffers at the two centers for their tips on bird-watching and the scoop on what birds have been spotted recently. You also can purchase birdhouses, field guides and other bird books, as well as get sound advice on buying binoculars and scopes.

Warns Dunne, “Nine out of 10 times, people will buy the wrong binoculars and wind up using them for doorstops. Just because binoculars magnify, doesn’t mean they’ll work for the bird-watcher who is buying them.”

In addition to all the advice you want on walks and equipment, pick up copies of the Cape May Birding & Butterflying Map and a Checklist of the Birds of Cape May County New Jersey. Both are free and helpful.

Another easy and no-cost way to test bird-watching as a pastime is to pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it while watching birds from the deck at the Research and Education Center. Before leaving, also walk through the adjacent butterfly garden that is designed to attract birds, too.

In August, the Research and Education Center becomes such a popular hummingbird hangout that the airspace around the building gets saturated with ruby-throated hummingbirds. From 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Aug. 9, 16 and 23, bird observatory naturalists will offer free programs about their habits, life history and the ways to attract them to your yard.

The Northwood Center, near Cape May Point, also offers a pleasing habitat for both birds and people who like watching them. Just sit on one of the benches overlooking the wooded lot in front of the building and you’ll see birds fly in for breakfast, lunch or late-afternoon snacks at the feeders.

Taking one of the two-hour birding trips on Capt. David Githens’ pontoon boat (birdingbyboat.com) adds still more to a birder’s experiences in Cape May. You’ll pass otherwise inaccessible tidal salt marshes as well as open water to get looks at nesting areas, including a heron rookery and a section of what is the world’s largest nesting colony of laughing gulls, and to observe osprey, both on and off their nests.

The boat trip also is a good way for people with limited mobility to see and learn about dozens of birds without having to walk to where the birds are.

“Watching the birds will draw you away from that whole artificial existence we lead in front of computer screens or adrift in a DVD-player world,” says Freiday.

As you become involved in the pastime and meet other birders, you’ll also realize those images of little old ladies (who look as eccentric as the birds they’re watching in their binoculars) are outdated. You’ll see people of all ages on the walks or scanning the sky for birds from the Hawk Watch Platform.

“Looking at the birds and listening to them is something real, exciting and fun. It’s also a pastime you can enjoy by yourself, with a partner or with your family,” adds Freiday.

“Everyone who comes to the shore is an ecotourist,” adds Dunn, “but if they limit themselves to the beach’s sand, water and sun, they’re experiencing a very narrow band of the natural spectrum. It’s mostly tactile.

“But watching the birds offers you visual, auditory and mental stimuli. It’ll turn on all of your senses,” he says.

In summer, some of the birds to be spotted on walks or boat rides include American Oystercatchers, willets, sanderlings, piping plovers, red knots, terns, gulls, egrets, black skimmers and osprey. More than 110 bird species nest and raise their young in the many habitats afforded by Cape May.

Fall is the best time of all for bird-watchers because it’s when the southbound migration of shorebirds and songbirds is in full swing and thousands of birds that nested in the Arctic and sub-Arctic are moving to warmer climes as far south as Central and South America. The Cape May peninsula is like one giant rest stop where the birds can rest and fatten up to have enough energy to continue their journeys.

In spring, many birds heading north to their nesting grounds pause again in Cape May, filling bird-watchers’ binoculars with more great views.

Even in winter, Cape May plays host to a long list of birds that winter over or live there year-round. Among those you’ll find are water fowl, including loons and snow geese, as well as golden and bald eagles and other birds of prey.

But why is Cape May such a haven along the migratory “main line?” As the birds follow the Atlantic coast, they’re funneled onto the Cape May peninsula by the winds and the Delaware Bay to the west, as well as the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

But there’s even more to it than Cape May’s prime location.

“When birders stand on a high dune at Cape May Point, they can see ocean, beach, dune, fresh water pond, fresh water marsh, scrub/shrub and forest habitats. That speaks volumes about why Cape May is so popular with birds and birders,” Freiday says.

© 2008, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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