Top Ten Spots for Spring Birding

East: Grand Central for Winged Wayfarers: Cape May Peninsula, New Jersey

Many a wag has poked fun at New Jersey's dense web of superhighways—built, they contend, just to hurry the better classes in and out of the "Garden State" as fast and painlessly as possible. But I've rambled around New Jersey enough to know that away from the turnpikes is a diverse, sometimes wildly surprising big outdoors. And one of those surprises is that the biggest superhighway of them all isn't about of cars and concrete at all—it's about wind, wings, and crucial habitat.

The Cape May Peninsula, an icicle of land dangling off the southern end of New Jersey into Delaware Bay, is dead center in the middle of a migratory pathway followed every spring and fall by millions of raptors, songbirds, seabirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl. After a tiring flight over open water, the peninsula's meadows, tangled forests, beaches, and wetlands must look better than McDonald's does to a busload of kids coming off a limited-access freeway—during migration, Cape May is without question one of the best places in the world to have a good pair of binoculars. If you're lucky enough to be at Higbee Beach on a late-April or May morn after a strong cold front has passed through, you may be treated to a "fallout" of thousands upon thousands of songbirds, with dozens of warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, orioles, and tanagers singing, feeding, flitting about the branches of every tree. On such days it's not uncommon for birders to record an amazing 30 species of warblers, and single-species counts can range into the thousands. From mid-May through the first week of June, the peninsula's beaches along Delaware Bay are the stage for one of North America's truly dramatic wildlife spectacles. Masses of shorebirds—mostly ruddy turnstones, red knots, semipalmated sandpipers, and sanderlings—drop from the sky exhausted after a nonstop flight from the distant reaches of South America and find exactly what they need: a feast of the protein-rich eggs laid by the millions of horseshoe crabs that climb from the depths of the Atlantic every year to breed.

Just the Facts

Birding Hot Spots: For landbirds, Belleplain State Forest, Higbee Beach, Cape May Meadows, Cape May NWR. For shorebirds, Reed's Beach and Jake's Landing, and Moore's Beach and Thompson's Beach up near the Maurice River. For wading birds and waterfowl, the expansive marshes between the mainland and Stone Harbor (home of the world's largest breeding colony of laughing gulls).

More Cape May Outdoors: A fine campground and South Jersey's best hiking and mountain-biking trails can be found at Belleplain State Forest. Cape May is also a noted departure point for whale-watching trips, and from the tip of the peninsula north to Ocean City, there are a number of opportunities for scenic, albeit flat, cycling routes that loop from the coast into the interior pine forests and back.


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