8 September 2023
Trip Leader: Declan O’Neil
On Friday evening, September 8th, I met with six intrepid birders in the parking lot of South Cape May Meadows Preserve, or “The Meadows” for short. It was a little warm and a little humid, but pleasantly breezy with no bugs to speak of, so we couldn’t complain.
Already, in the parking lot, we were amazed by the amount of Eastern Kingbirds flying over. When I first spotted the large flock of small birds, I assumed that they were Tree Swallows, like the flocks I had seen at the Point earlier in the day. But, upon closer inspection, no! They truly were all Eastern Kingbirds! Over 30 in that flock alone!
We continued to see these large flocks as we headed down the path, with our overall estimate rising to 60 by the time we walked out to the shore.
The beach was fairly quiet, although we were treated to a close Osprey fly-by and some Royal and Forster’s Terns over the ocean. Additionally, a small flock of Sanderlings was a delightful sight, as they always are.
On our way back down the path, we stopped to check out the amazing new interpretive displays that have been installed at the viewing blind. From there, we had a great view of some of the Eastern Kingbirds we’d seen earlier coming in for a landing in the trees over the marsh.
“What a great view of those kingbirds,” I thought. “I’m going to get them in the scope for people.”
And yet, I aimed my scope a tad off to the left and instead of my view being filled with half a dozen Eastern Kingbirds squabbling over one treetop, it was filled instead with…
And then, just as I was hammering off a few documentation shots and scrambling to get everyone on the bird, the kingbirds all scattered.
A Merlin had taken one! And, in the chaos, none of us knew whether or not it was the Western!
We watched, helpless and amazed, as the Merlin circled over the marsh a few times with its unlucky dinner, before disappearing, the drama done at last.
Some unfazed Lesser Yellowlegs helped to break the tension.
Unfortunately, only about half the group had managed to see the Western before the Merlin interrupted our viewing, but the kingbird flock remained in hiding, so all we could do was continue our walk and hope for a second chance.
We headed up to the viewing platform where Baird’s Sandpipers had been seen in previous days and, although we had no luck with them, we did manage to see some Semipalmated Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, as well as a few Snowy Egrets.
As the sun began to set, it seemed that our kingbird hopes might be dashed. But, just then, the sharp-eyed Ellie re-found him!
He was back in the treetops with his Eastern Kingbird friends and, this time, posed nicely, allowing everyone in the group nice long looks and comparisons between the two kingbird species.
One last highlight of our platform viewing was a loose flock of warblers that passed through the reeds and bushes below us. It was mainly made up of some western-type Palm Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes so, needless to say, there was a lot of tail-bobbing going on!
It was a fantastic evening and ended appropriately with a fantastic meal with fantastic people at The Lucky Bones Backwater Grille!
The next morning, we began again at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area.
Warbler activity was not terribly high, but we did manage to rustle up a Magnolia Warbler, a Northern Parula, some Redstarts, Black-and-whites, and Northern Waterthrushes, as well as a Yellow-throated Warbler briefly glimpsed by some.
We were also lucky enough to see and hear some Veery, which are always a treat! Their cute little faces and “VEER!” calls are endlessly charming.
Our next stop was the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Northwood Center. Since the temperature was rising rapidly, it felt good to grab some air conditioning while checking out the interpretive displays and gift shop, but the heat didn’t stop us from walking the trails behind the center as well. This yielded little in the way of birds though, so we resolved to move on to Coral Avenue.
Here, we ran into a birding group we had seen at Higbee earlier led by Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis. Listening to their interpretation was great fun, as was the raptor show we viewed from the platform. Both flavors of vulture, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, a Kestrel, a Merlin, and three Sharp-shinned Hawks flew over while we were there.
On the beach, we also had the awesome sightings of three American Oystercatchers and four types of gull including the uncommon Lesser Black-backed Gull!
After this, we headed over to the Grille at Sunset for lunch by the Concrete Ship. As we discovered through some on-site google-searching, this was a decommissioned World War I ship that was intended to become Cape May’s first ferry. Unfortunately, it broke loose during a storm and wrecked at Sunset Beach, where it lies to this day. Over the years, it has been the location of many rare bird sightings such as King Eider and Brown Booby, so at least it’s still good for something.
Our last stop of the trip was the Hawk Watch Platform at Cape May Point State Park. Some more Ospreys and Eagles and a close fly-by Cooper’s Hawk were highlights here, as were the new life-size model hawks that the Interpretive Naturalists have been furnished with!
Overall, it was an excellent trip. Thanks so much to everyone who joined me!
Next year, this trip will be at least a week later and we’ll hope for some cooler weather and better winds. Any winds that blow in a Western Kingbird can’t be all bad though!
Cape May Trip participant photo by Mary Braun.