Birdwatching in Cape May, New Jersey

Bruce McCall

On the lookout for downy woodpeckers, snowy egrets, warblers of all kinds—and the charms of a traditional town.

Exit Zero sounds like an existential destination in a film noir, the wormhole into darkness, mayhem and marshy graves, but in fact it’s the last marker on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, delivering visitors into the ever-lovin’ arms of Cape May, whose only haunting spirits are remnants of its Victorian past preserved in collections of ghost stories that wouldn’t scare a church mouse. Small scale without being a cloying miniature or living museum, the town is a classic resort getaway with a sweeping beach and promenade and marina, bed-and-breakfasts in historic Victorian houses, a bandstand in the park, superb restaurants­ (like the Ebbitt­ Room and the Black Duck), the snap of banners­ in the breeze, gull cries, sun salutations from yoga classes bowing to the ocean, the whole schmear. Cape May perennially seems to be on the verge of becoming “hot”—as if just one more travel feature might do the trick—without ever coming to a trendy boil. It lacks the snob appeal and social cachet to entice summering New Yorkers to forgo the privilege of crawling in traffic for hours to the monied Hamptons, and it’s never boasted a beer-chug party scene appealing to the young revelers seeking to reenact the fall of the Roman­ Empire. Its values are more nautical and traditional.

Cape May lies on the southernmost tip of the Jersey shore, and the tip of the peninsular tip is Cape May Point, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay join waters and the American flag is lowered at sunset to the rousing sound of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” as the concrete hulk of a shipwreck (a local landmark) darkens into a jagged silhouette against the horizon. Then, as twilight deepens, the lamp of the Cape May Lighthouse sweeps along the Atlantic coast and across the Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows—the Meadows, for short, hallowed be its name, a nature preserve of dunes, ponds, trails and viewing platforms that at night slumbers with its secrets. Cape May Point is where my wife, Laura Jacobs, and I spent our honeymoon, a November honeymoon when the red-roofed nun’s retreat across the street from our rental cottage, St. Mary’s by the Sea, was boarded up until spring, the beach deserted, the light Nordic gray. Packing our cats into their carrier bags and hitting the road, we hardy New York workaholics would spend our sole vacation every year at the Point, the last stretch of the drive down Sunset Boulevard a kind of haze-hung homecoming that offered sanctuary from whatever worries had been shadowing us in the rearview mirror.

That sense of sanctuary drew from a deep source. It wasn’t postcard attractions or the quaint trappings of yesteryear that kept us heading back to Exit Zero. The twitch upon the thread that kept tugging us back began with a morning bird walk led by a guide from the Cape May Bird Observatory through Hidden Valley, whose name sounds like a mystical location in a Hardy Boys novel. Part of the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area (Higbee’s, in local parlance), Hidden Valley’s trail winds through fields animated with grasshoppers practicing their long jumps and skirted by woods, offering a panorama of warblers, sparrows and hawks patrolling overhead on peak activity days. This wasn’t one of them. I don’t recall that we saw any birds of celebrity renown that groggy morning, but shuffling like a thin platoon along the path, scanning the skies and trees for darting movement, was an initiation into a contemplative order. Noise and distraction sheered away, opening perceptual space like an oasis after decades of honking urban racket. Novice birders learn the value of gratitude early because every bird that isn’t an LBJ (little brown job) seems like a gift, a visitation. Even sparrows that one used to take for ho-hum granted reveal upon closer inspection, once you get a bead on them, crowns and bills and wing bars that set them apart. One of them might be a special guest star like the Eurasian tree sparrow that visited Cape May this March!

Getting a bead, though, that’s the tricky part. Birdwatching requires a pair of decent binoculars at the ready (see “How I Find Buzzy,” at the end of this article), a bird guide or two tucked handily close, a dose of caffeination to charge the neurons (Wawa coffee being the beverage of choice for many birders) and a bifocal attention: a wide-screen scan alert to every shadowy, furtive movement (with the ability to differentiate winged darting from leaf flicker) and a zoomy eye for “gizz” (general shape and size) and telltale markings to make the ID.

Such Zen reflexes of smooth, transitioning receptivity and rapid zeroing in become second nature to practiced birders but can elude even many longtime squinters because their minds are too busily cluttered by much thinking and, frankly, too much yakking. Some sociable types treat regular bird walks as movable kaffeeklatsches, raising their bins a half beat too late to get on the warbler that decided to split the scene. I am at best a beta birder, better at spotting a bird (recon) than making quick, assured ID (recog), but I can state for the jury that I have never been a chatterbox desecrating nature’s sylvan hush. Deaf in one ear, I lack stereophonic audio reception and must be extra quiet—extra absorbent­—during bird surveilling, which has the paradoxical effect of making others think I’m spacey, lost in my own little unicorn world, as if, left unsupervised, I might wander off somewhere.

Although it may seem like the perfect pastime for slow-footed mammals, a leisurely plod interspersed with standing, sitting and peering through spotting scopes at an informal convening of shorebirds along the lapping tide, birdwatching, especially in Cape May, is shot through with the zeal of excitement that greets news bulletins of a notable avian arrival. A bird alert about a rare species sighted at nearby Stone Harbor or Nummy Island will get everyone racing to their Batmobiles. Sometimes staying put is a bold proposition.

When Hurricane Bertha came knocking in July 1996, I saw a small band of extreme birders take turns in deck chairs on the beach, practically strapping themselves in like sailors lashed to the masts, to scan the windy, rain-racked skies for a possible high-altitude sighting of a jaeger or storm petrel blown off course, lustily calling out sooty terns in the far reaches of the clouds that even through binoculars were barely flecks.

Geography is destiny, and Cape May’s optimal placement on the peninsula makes it the premier landing strip on the East Coast on the migratory route, the rest stop for birds before they push across Delaware Bay on their annual exodus southward. With its varied habitat and preserved parks and wetlands, it is one of the few vantage points in the States from which you can study warblers, raptors, shorebirds and Monarch butterflies aplenty within an easily drivable, bikeable, walkable vest pocket. “Cape May birder” is an aspirational title, a major-league designation, and “bird cred” (credibility in ID’ing a bird correctly) is a blue-chip asset. Cape May is home and haven to many of the presiding alpha birders in the country— all-stars such as the prolific columnist, author and birding evangelist Pete Dunne, who retired in June as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory after 37 years with New Jersey Audubon; Richard Crossley, whose Crossley ID birding guides are the most audaciously innovative of the digital age; Megan and Mike Crewe, Clay and Pat Sutton, Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis, Vince Elia, Bill Glaser and similar gods—and host to the annual World Series of Birding, a 24-hour competition attract­ing teams from all over the country and of all levels of age, experience, mobility and sponsorship who fan out and count as many species as possible by eye or ear to raise money for conservation and other environmental causes.

As I write this, from our back porch command post just off of Delaware Bay, Laura is preparing to take part in this year’s World Series with her team, the Seaside Sparrows, who in 2013 tallied a respectable 106 species in weather conditions that could only be poetically described as crummy. (Her team spotted 113 this year.)

Me myself, I’m not a numbers guy when it comes to birding. I don’t keep a life list, though I should, if only as a memory-jogger to remind me when and where I saw my first black-throated blue warbler, say. I’m just not a bucket lister when it comes to birds or anything else, checking off species and pursuing rare exotics. My favorite birds are fond familiars (for others see “A Few More Favorites”)—I get a dependable kick out of red-bellied woodpeckers; the song of the Carolina wren evokes the pure melodics of Karen Carpenter; the scarlet tanager is always a mood-brightener—and the memories that matter for me and endure are the everyday ones that prove epiphanic. An amazing morning at Higbee’s when the warblers seemed to be popping out of the trees like Christmas ornaments. An afternoon at the bleachers of the hawk platform at Cape May Point (during raptor season, the place to be), when I witnessed aerial combat between a strafing merlin and its targeted prey above the concrete World War II bunker that squats on the beach like a brooding, postapocalyptic relic. An evening on another viewing platform, in the Meadows, when Laura and I watched an owl in dusky silhouette swoop in the distance like mortality’s messenger.

But the bird to which I feel the closest bond is the one that has come nearest. I was sitting at the very picnic table that I’m sitting at now when I glanced up and there, at eye level, separated by a pane of glass, was a hovering ruby-throated hummingbird beating its merry wings. I looked at it. It looked at me. A pause, then it shot off, exiting stage left. Only to return the next day, and the day after, and nearly every sunny day for the remainder of the summer, making the rounds of our butterfly garden.

My afternoon wasn’t complete unless Buzzy (as I had named it) dropped by. Then one September day—zip—Buzzy took off for points south, and it wasn’t until a year later that I glanced up and there it was again. “Buzzy’s back,” I announced. Our garden had become its annual migration pit stop. This year I will again await the hummingbird’s return, and if I don’t glance up someday and see Buzzy staring back, I’m going to be dashed. Scoff, call me sentimental, but if anthropomorphizing is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

How I Find Buzzy

A quality pair of binoculars is essential for birding, and fortunately we live in a glorious era of lens technology and binocular design when even modest, mid-priced bins are superior to previous generations, and the high-end models can produce spectacular results. My usual optical necklace is the discontinued rubber-armored Zeiss 7 x 42 classic, which revolutionized warbler viewing. My special weapon is the Canon 10 x 42 L Image Stabilized binoculars, ($2,000), which are heavy, costly (I bought mine refurbished) and a real handful, but they’re worth it for the premium glass and the image stabilization—with a press of a button, hand-shake is minimized and the image swims into perfect focus, enabling you to see every detail unblurred. They also double as terrific handheld astronomy binoculars—seeing Saturn’s rings on a summer night beats everything.