This is the last part of the 4 part series on Cape May. We finish up our trip with a morning at Avalon Beach, on the eastern shore of New Jersey, just a short drive north of Cape May. A popular site for vacation homes with beautiful beaches, today we were looking for birds. The long boat for the lifeguards is at the ready but fortunately not in use.
In the afternoon we take a tour boat to the Rips, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay. The currents and resulting shoals attract fish and the birds that eat them.
Black-backed Gulls, Great and Lesser
Great Black-backed Gull, salt marsh.
We saw the Great Black-backed gull above on the salt marsh tour (Part 2), and here at Avalon we see them again, but at the shoreline.
We get the help of our guide, Andy Jones, whose voice you can hear over the surf in the short video below. The Great Black-backs are standing at the water's edge picking at a small shark when a Lesser Black-backed Gull walks in front of the group.
The Great Black-backed is the largest species of gull in the world. They have stout bodies, thick necks, broad wings, and a heavy slight bulbous bill. The Lesser Black-backed gull is smaller, with a grayish back as noted by Andy in the video, with legs closer to yellow, in contrast to the Great Black-back's pink legs. (Reference: The Cornell Lab All About Birds)
In the images below we see the Great Black-backed Gull picking at the shark.
The image below is a Lesser Black-backed in flight. The yellow legs are evident.
Forester's Tern Redux
In Part 2 we saw this tern on the salt marsh boat tour (picture above), and I promised another round of terns at Avalon Beach, images below, in flight over the surf.
Another Bald Eagle, Juvenile this time . . .
We saw a mature Bald Eagle steal a fish from an Osprey at the Hawk Watch in Part 1. Here we spot a juvenile in the air over the beach. Juveniles have mottled brown wings and tail. It will take up to 5 years for a juvenile to reach adult plumage, and the birds may not begin to mate until 6 years of age. Bald Eagles live between 15 and 30 years, with the oldest recorded at 38 years. (Ref: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
What is a trip to "the Rips"?
The Rips are the area of shoals off off of the southern tip of Cape May where the water of the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The Rips is an area of shoals where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay, not far from the ferry line, as shown above. The mixing of currents creates the shoals, basically large sandbars. The shoals in turn create large waves or swells. Fish will concentrate in this area, making it a good place for fishermen, be they two legged in fiberglass boats, or two winged with feathers. And of course, if there are birds, there are birders!
The water can be treacherous, especially in the fall. We were on a solid steel vessel with a skilled skipper. Nevertheless, it was a rough ride at times.
Below, a view of the southern tip of Cape May, with a view of the convention center, and the line of hotels, including ours, on the beach.
The Cape May Lighthouse, not far from the Hawk Watch Platform.
We have seen the Double-crested Cormorant, perched in Post 2 and in flight in Post 3. Here we see another species, the Great Cormorant, perched on navigational hardware adjacent to the channel.
The Great Cormorant is larger than the Double-crested Cormorant, and sports a white throat and yellow chin. The Double-crested Cormorant has a dark throat and orange chin. The Great Cormorant above is likely a juvenile, with mottled breast. The bird below looks darker, and is likely older.
Double-crested Cormorants, in flight
Double-crested Cormorants will travel in large flocks, seen here over the beach at Avalon on the morning of the 17th.
And, they like to fly next to boats . . . .
The trip to the Rips was great, but the number of photo-ops was limited due to the distances involved (the birds were really far away) combined with the movement of the boat. Imagine holding your camera and a 500 mm zoom lens steady while balancing on a bongo-board!
However, there was a great opportunity to "fly" in tandem with a Double-crested Cormorant who was following the boat. Above and below we see the bird working hard to get into the air, my guess is trying match the boat speed which was less than full flight speed. This bird was hopping on the water for quite some time and distance.
We get good views of the wing and feathers as well as the use of the feet and tail.
In the images that follow, our companion is airborne . . . .
Below he decides to hit the water again. Perhaps he has seen some fish, and wants to come back down. Feet and tail come down, then the tail flairs to increase drag and decrease speed.
Tail drags above, with landing below.
We have reached the end of the day. time to head back to port.
The sun is setting to the west, and we are followed by a congregation of shorebirds looking for food.
Well, that's a wrap for Cape May! A birding hotspot almost any time of year. I hope you have enjoyed these posts.
Best wishes for 2022! More to come in January: winter birding in SE Arizona!
Brown-headed Nuthatch, Henlopen State Part, October 16, 2021.
In the last 2 posts we have been in Cape May, New Jersey; this post covers our one day excursion to Lewes (pronounced lew-es) Delaware, to explore Cape Henlopen State Park and Fort Miles.
In the photo below, shot with my trusty iPhone, a sharp eye can see that we are lined up for the ferry at 6:40 am, after a breakfast stop at Wawa. The sun was rising as we made the crossing to Lewes.
The map below comes from Lightroom, and shows the location for most of the images I captured in this 4 part series on Cape May. Cape Henlopen is almost due south of Cape May, with Delaware Bay to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.
The ferry has a lot of room at 7 am, pick any deck chair you want!
I was struck by the early morning cloud formation above. It Looks a bit like the pelicans in flight we will see on our way back.
Double-crested Cormorant in flight
Birds like to follow boats underway likely looking for food. If you have a camera with a long lens, riding a ferry is a great chance to capture birds in flight. They often move at about the same speed as the ferry, depending on the species. Shooting from an upper deck will likely put you eye to eye with your subject. And, as always, light is so important, and the sun at 8 am on this Saturday was cooperating.
In Part 2 of this series, we saw Double-crested Cormorants perched on pilings in the salt marsh. In flight they retain the slight curvature to the neck, which we see here.
Cape Henlopen State Park
We landed at the Lewes Ferry Terminal, and drove into the park at the north side. The park runs north to south along the beach from the northern tip of the cape to Gordon's Pond to the south seen at the bottom right of the map above. The northern part of the park has walking paths with great trees and understory and the Fort Miles Historical Area. On busy weekends watch out for bicyclists and skateboarders.
Brown-headed Nuthatches live year round in the SE U.S. from eastern Texas south to Florida and as far north as Cape Henlopen. This bird was tough to spot and photograph, hopping in the understory, managing to always keep leaves and branches between himself and my lens. Here are two of my best shots.
Brown-headed Nuthatches favor pine forests, present at Cape Henlopen. Note that many of these trees are invasive Japanese Black Pines planted by the Army in WW II to camouflage the military installation. There is an active program to remove them and allow native plant species to recover, restoring the ecosystem to its prior self. In the interim this nuthatch is enjoying the insects that live on the trees.
For more on the nuthatches we see in Arizona (Pygmy, White-breasted and Red-breasted), see this post from The Meadow Trail on the top of Mt Lemmon, September 25, 2021.
In the image below we see one of the many walkways in the northern end of the park, with a view between the trees across the beach and toward the Atlantic. The trees shown here are likely the invasive Japanese Black Pine, slated for removal.
Golden-crowned Kinglets breed throughout southern Canada and winter in the U.S., with some year round presence in the western states. The range map puts them in Arizona, but mostly north of Tucson and SE Arizona. They favor the upper reaches of firs and spruces making them hard to spot. They eat mainly insects present under conifer bark and in the tips and tufts of the needles.
At the southern end of the park is Gordon's Pond, with excellent pathways and viewing platforms. From the platform, shown below, we got a good look at the pond and the beach to the east.
If you look across the pond to the beach, you will see two cement watch towers facing the Atlantic, close up below.
These towers were built at the beginning of WW II, from 1939 to 1942 to spot Nazi warships, especially U-boats off the U.S coast. A series of towers could phone in data on enemy positions to the massive gun emplacements along the coast, including Ft. Miles, and help direct shells to their targets. Designed to last 20 years, the towers are still standing, and some are being restored. Below is a photograph of the graphic the park has displayed on the trail. For more on the towers, and historic preservation projects, see this link.
Juvenile Peregrine Falcon in flight
We saw a Peregrine Falcon with prey in Part 2. Here we see a juvenile Peregrine in flight. Note the long wings with long pointed primary feathers and long tail. Peregrines average 25-34 mph in traveling flight, up to 69 mph in direct pursuit of prey. They can dive from a height of over 1/2 mile, reaching maximal speeds of 200 mph. The television program NOVA produced a recent episode on how Peregrines, once endangered by DDT, now thrive in Chicago, where they dive from skyscrapers for prey.
Ferry back to Cape May
We headed back to Cape May late in the day, as the sun was setting, and as a storm was rolling in from the west. Again, we found birds accompanying us back to New Jersey.
Brown Pelican in flight
Brown Pelicans are another species almost eliminated by DDT. They have made an excellent comeback, now living in coastal areas from the Pacific Northwest down to South America in the west, and New England down to the Caribbean in the east. They cruise in squadrons above the surf, plunge-diving from high up, with a slight leftward twist to the neck to protect their esophagus and trachea which lay to the right. They use the force of impact to stun fish before scooping them up in their pouch.
This bird cruised next to us for some time, likely looking for a handout. This is likely a non-breeding adult. A juvenile would have a grayer bill.
And, an approaching storm . . . .
We expected rain to come in on Saturday night, and right on time, a front from the west began to move east as we left Delaware. The panoramic view above shows the storm to the right, and below we can see the bottom of storm cells to the west and north.
We beat the storm to the harbor, the rain arriving just as we landed at Cape May
That's all for now. Stay tuned for Part 4, a trip to Avalon Beach, just north of Cape May, and a rock'n roll boat trip to the Rips!
Norther Flicker, yellow-shafted, over Higbee Beach during the sunrise bird count, October 15, 2021.
For Part 2, we are still in Cape May, New Jersey, this time catching the sunrise bird count at Higbee Beach, where there is a two story viewing platform and a raised berm between the beach and the inland understory. After a midday visit to the annual Audubon Festival, we tour the salt marsh in the afternoon.
[Full disclosure: We really toured the salt march on Thursday the 14th, and the morning watch on the 15th, but I have applied some "literary license" to keep a sunrise to sunset theme, and get the high points of the trip into 4 posts.]
Sunrise at Higbee Beach
The rising sun caught this Sharp-shinned Hawk cruising overhead at 7:13 am. For those of us from SE Arizona, the "Sharpie" is an unusual sighting, we see more Cooper's on the prowl. However, at Cape May, Sharp-shinned Hawks are very common.
The images above and below show some key characteristics of the Sharp-shinned that distinguish it from the Cooper's. The Sharp-shinned has a squared off tail, clearly evident here, where the tail of the Cooper's is rounded. Second, the Sharp-shinned will often fly with the leading edge of the wing at or in front of the head, a characteristic not seen during flight of the Cooper's Hawk.
This trip confirmed what every wildlife photographer knows, that the best images are captured in early morning or late afternoon light. The time window is narrow. It does not take long for the sun to get high in the sky. In addition, as every birder knows, activity is higher is the morning. In our case, night time migrants are scrambling for land as the sun rises, and looking for breakfast.
This Yellow-billed Cuckoo was sitting on as branch waaaay in the distance in the understory, but I was able to catch a few good images. Here is the best.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo's are members of the family Cuculidae, the sole family in the order Cuculiformes. Among the cuckoo species, residents of SE Arizona are most familiar with the Roadrunner. The Yellow-billed Cuckoo breeds in the eastern U.S. and parts of Mexico and winters in South America. My guess is that this bird is migrating south. They have long slender tails with bold white spots, seen here, and are commonly perched in deciduous woodlands looking for caterpillars. We were lucky to spot this bird perched in the morning light at 8:15 am.
The Common Yellowthroat is one of our most abundant warblers, breeding throughout the U.S., living year round in the southeast U.S., and breeding in Mexico and Central America. Cape May is right at the edge of their year round territory, so this bird could be migrating, or a local catching all the fuss of the Audubon Festival and getting some breakfast to boot!
Northern Flicker, Yellow-shafted
Northern Flickers are large woodpeckers who spend most of their time on the ground eating ants and beetles. In the west we see the red-shafted subspecies, and in the east, the yellow shafted as shown in the portrait above.
It is hard to catch them in flight, but at 8:30 am I caught the bird below in flight, showing his feathers. You will see flashes of yellow, the color of the feather shaft, and a white rump. The red nape is characteristic of the male.
In this series of images we see a good example of intermittent flight an energy saving strategy. Small to medium sized birds will employ flap-bounding, consisting of active flapping to gain altitude followed by brief "bounds" when the wings are flexed against the body.
Mathematical models suggest that flap-bounding offers savings in energy expenditure during fast flight at maximum range speed or faster. The wings when flexed will maintain some lift. Flap-bounding becomes less efficient as the bird's body mass increases, hence we see it more commonly in small to medium sized birds. The alternative strategy is Flap-gliding which is more efficient at slow to intermediate speeds. (Reference: Lovett and Fitzpatrick, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology, Third Edition, 2016, pp. 161-162).
This bird was in a hurry to get somewhere, and calling at the same time.
The yellow feather shafts and white rump are quite evident in this series.
The bird in the images that follow are likely a different Northern Flicker flying toward me, in the direction of the Delaware Bay, employing the Flap-bound strategy. The "bound" looks like he is riding a boogie board in the air!
For the photo geeks: October 14, 2021, 8:45 am. Canon R5 with RF 100-500 lens at 500 mm., f/7.1, 1/2000 second (faster would have been better), ISO 1000, shot at + 1 1/3 stops to the right (1 1/3 EV) to compensate for the bright milky sky.
In the first post of this series, we saw an Osprey do battle with a Bald Eagle over a fish. The eagle got the fish, no big surprise. Here we see another Osprey carrying a fish in typical head first position, likely a preference to reduce drag in flight.
Ospreys are widespread throughout North America, breeding in the Pacific Northwest, sections of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana as well as sections of the east coast. Cape May is one of their prime breeding spots. They winter in the southern U.S. coastal areas, as well as coastal Mexico and Central America.
They are unique among North American raptors for their diet of live fish and the ability to dive into the water as far as 3 feet deep to catch them.
Swamp Sparrows breed in central and eastern Canada and winter in the U.S. south of the Middle Atlantic states and east of the Mississippi River. They have a year round presence in New Jersey, so our bird here could be a migrant or a local. They live in bogs, swamps, marshes, and wet brushy meadows, making Cape May an ideal habitat.
Note: most of the images above were captured from the top of the two story observation tower, which puts puts observers at the height of the upper understory, and provides a good view of the sky and horizon.
Our week in Cape May coincided with New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Fall Festival, October 14th-17th. This year the festival was back in person after a hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic. We attended a talk on sparrow identification, and perused the exhibits, with the various vendors being back in force. Next year the festival will be October 13-16, 2022. More information will be available in summer of 2022.
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About