As a contrast to Washington, The City of the Dead, I headed to a point that is directly east, as the fish crow flies, from our Nation’s capital: Cape May, New Jersey. This town is recognized as the oldest beach resort in the United States but I was not here in October for the beaches, unless they contained American oystercatchers or black skimmers, or the hundreds of beautiful Victorian homes that populated the city. Cape May is really for the birds. And that’s what makes a man rent a car, and drive three hours to the end of the Garden State.
Cape May is the mecca for American birding. It is called “the Known Center of the Birding Universe” by Pete Dunne (more about him later). Unlike other migration sites that are surrounded on three sides by water, thus channeling birds, dragonflies, and butterflies to one point, Cape May is flat. The lack of hills or mountains means that you have clear 360 degree views of the migrations happening all around you. At one point you can see monarch butterflies, merlins, Cooper’s hawks, and cormorants and waterfowl in a tight Vs. Every bush and tree seems loaded with warblers, mainly yellow-rumps aka butter butts.
The epicenter of Cape May birding is Cape May Point State Park with it’s own exclamation point: the 157 foot Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859. It does seems to be a beacon to migrating birds and birders alike.
Everywhere you walk in the state park, the lighthouse is always in view. It is the reference point for ships and for birding land migration ( and it also helps you find your way back to the parking lot).
Birding With a Birding Legend
Every Monday in the fall there is a birding walk sponsored by New Jersey Audubon. The meet up time is 7:30 AM in the parking lot of the birding hotspot know as “The Meadows”. It was not hard to location the leader of the walk, he was the white haired guy in a camo jacket that everyone was standing around. He loudly announced to the crowd: “It’s another good day to be a birder!” This man is Pete Dunne. This man is a bonafided birding legend.
Dunne is credited with putting Cape May on the birding map. Clay and Pat Sutton write in Birds and Birding at Cape May, “Pete Dunne is eponymous with modern birding, and he has helped change bird-watching forever, both at Cape May and elsewhere.” Not only has Dunne done so much for birding, he’s one hell of a birder, the best I’ve ever birded with. Dunne has spent years in the field, looking at birds; telling the difference between a distant green-wing teal from a wood duck from a American black duck flock. This was like the equivalent of kicking the ball around with Pele, sketching with Picasso, or playing guitar with Django.
He is also not the stuffy, social idiot, that keeps his bird knowledge safely locked neath his multi patched bird-nerd vest that you sometimes encounter in the birding community. He is one funny guy willing to share his vast knowledge with everyone within earshot.
We had a grand day out, birding the marshes, trails and beach. A huge mass of ducks took to the air and Dunne directed us to search the skies above for a raptor. I soon spotted a large raptor heading south above the water. “Eagle!” I shouted. The bird turned, took a dive into the ocean ( returned empty taloned), and headed towards us. It was an adult bald eagle!
Later in the day I caught up with Dunne in the Cape May Bird Observatory. He signed two books for me (he’s written over twenty books). Then he said, “Your a damn-good birder.” Wow, I can only hope I can live up to his blessing!
On the my last day in Cape May before driving back to Washington DC, I birded Cape Map Point one last time. My last bird was the best sighting of the trip. I was on the boardwalk and rounded the corner as Lighthouse Pond came into view. Just above me, 25 yards away was an adult bald eagle, fighting a mean headwind. I got great looks as the eagle seemed to still in the air, finally peeling off to my right to give a group of birders a show. A fitting final bird for a trip to Washington DC.