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Category: Nature and Wildlife

Blame it on Mother Nature

DSC_0512sm“Blame it on Mother Nature.”

According to City Manager Bruce MacLeod the sudden disappearance of the Cove beach is the direct result of “astronomical [literally] extreme high tides” over the last month and particularly during the full moon July 7. MacLeod said the Cove was never part of the state and federal Beach Replenishment program which has been pumping sand back into the beaches of Cape May since 1991. He said the sand was only pumped up to the jetty at what is commonly referred to as Third Avenue. The Cove is considered part of Cape Meadows. The fact that the Cove beach expanded to the point where city officials in 1995 felt compelled to put a lifeguard stand in has all been part of a natural evolution. And, it seems, what Mother Nature giveth, she has decided to take back. City officials are also worried about a mass of salt water that invaded the Mt. Vernon section of the beach and headed into the South Meadows. MacLeod said a swab of salt water some “30 to 40 feet wide” found its way into the Meadows last Thursday. MacLeod said representatives from the Army Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of Coastal Management are coming to Cape May in the next few days to inspect that site.

DSC_0524smLocals say the Cove is just going back to the way it was 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, MacLeod said longtime Cape May Beach Patrol lifeguard Lt. Harry Back predicted city officials would start seeing another jetty by the Mt. Vernon beach entrance reappear. “Sure enough, after the weekend, we spotted it,” said MacLeod.

According to MacLeod, Cove beachgoers will have to check the tide charts and make sure their bathing is at low tide until Mother Nature again decides to shine down on the little strip of beach at the end of Cape May. Don’t forget, at one time that area was the site of another borough, known as South Cape May. There’s a reason why it isn’t there anymore – Mother Nature.

Aerial view of the Cove beach in 2006

Aerial view of the Cove beach in 2006

Learn more about beach replenishment and erosion in Cape May

Rebuilding a Beach
Nature Meets Nurture at Saint Mary by the Sea
Cape May Beach Replenishment Project
What happened to South Cape May?


Hot Dogs & Soda for Cape May Point

Hot dogs, sodas and bicycles are coming to Cape May Point State Park this summer. For the first time in itscmp-hotdogs 38 year history, Cape May Point State Park is advertising for vendors – one for a mobile food concession and another for bicycle rental.

Communications coordinator for the NJ Division of Parks and Forestry, Dana Loschiavo, confirmed that a notice was placed on the New Jersey Parks’ newly launched website, www.njparksandforests.org Wednesday, March 25 seeking “new business opportunities” for two venues – a mobile food cart and bicycle rental – for Cape May Point State Park.

Although other state parks do have concessionaires, up until now Cape May Point State Park has been vendor free. Loschiavo conceded that economics was part of the decision, but the move was also motivated “basically, by word-of-mouth” from visitors and reports from park superintendents who are frequently asked where they can buy a drink or a snack. “It’s not that the park is remote,” said Loschiavo, “but there is not a lot of food or restaurants unless go you into the towns of Cape May cmp-deckor West Cape May and many also said, ‘I don’t feel like walking or riding a bike all the way to the Point from Cape May.’ ”

A press release issued from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) states that the DEP is offering opportunities for businesses to operate concessions in many of New Jersey’s state parks, forests and recreation areas. Acting Commissioner Mark N. Mauriello is quoted as saying, “There’s no better time than right now to embrace these opportunities to become a concessionaire. Not only is it a chance to launch a rewarding and lucrative business, concessions add something extra special to the experiences millions enjoy in New Jersey’s parks and other recreation areas,” Commissioner Mauriello said. “What’s more, we’re always cmp-beachinterested in exploring new ideas for business opportunities and partnerships.”

According to the press release, the DEP’s State Park Service is seeking proposals from private and nonprofit sectors to operate 23 concessions throughout the state parks, forests, recreation areas and marinas, beginning Memorial Day weekend. Business opportunities range from food services to boat and bicycle rentals.

Concession opportunities are available through a public bidding process. Bids will be accepted until April 29 at 10 a.m. Businesses or individuals interested in submitting bids must first pre-qualify. Prequalification applications must be received by April 17 at 11 a.m.

The State Park Service currently manages some 40 seasonal concessions that generate $1.3 million annually. Cape May Point State Park encompasses 190 acres of the state’s most renowned migration habitats.

cmp-governor

Governor Jon Corzine

In an exclusive Cape May Magazine interview, Governor Jon Corzine was asked about the effect the new concessionaire policy would have on the environment  at the migratory park. “It depends,” said the governor, “on the specifics of the concession that they’re doing. I don’t want to speak to it until I know the facts. If you’re going to be putting neon signs outside next to a trailer selling hot dogs, [that’s a problem]. I think there is a way of having concessions that are very unobtrusive that are really supportive of a visit to one of our open spaces and beaches.”

When asked if this new policy is a reflection of proposed budget cuts, Governor Corzine said, “We’re trying to do everything we can to maintain our parks. It’s tight budgets. We’re not putting any more money in and there are been some increases in fees to allow us to have resources. By the way, that seems reasonable since they have not stayed up with inflation over the years. On the other hand, we’re trying to make them affordable so that people can use our parks and beaches. As you know we have this beach badge controversy up and down the Jersey shore which is really a local issue [Cape May charges for in-season beach access. Wildwood, for example, does not.] as opposed to a state issue. cmp-telescopeEveryone is pressed for resources. You can’t fill a $7 billion hole without making some tough choices.”

Loschiavo said the continuation of the vendors or the addition of more “novelty” vendors will be reevaluated on a yearly basis.

Asked to comment on the new additions, Don Feriday, director of birding programs for the New Jersey Audubon Society, said “We really have no comment. It is something that is done in other state parks and as long as the additions have no negative ecological impact, and I don’t see that happening with what they propose to do with Cape May Point State Park, we really don’t have any reason to comment on it.”

He added that, from a birder’s perspective, “biking is a great way to go birding and has far less carbon imprint than driving around Cape May Point in a car.”


Rebuilding a Beach


Manmade beaches in Cape May have been a fact of life for 20 years this year. This article first ran as Beach Replenishment – A Blessing or a Curse in Cape May Magazine, June 2007. Replenishment photos appear courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

You are lying on the beach on Cape Island. The breezes plant salty kisses. The sun caresses your skin.  The ocean water tickles your toes. The sound of the sea lulls you into oblivion.

The Island’s beautiful tide-washed strand creates a place for the very best of natural experiences, but can you believe most of this seascape is man-made?

Cape May's evolving shoreline. The borough of South Cape May once stood in the gap marked by the 1879 line.

The reality is that engineers have been altering the tip of New Jersey for 100 years.

They dug the current 500-acre Cape May Harbor with mammoth dredges starting in 1903, spreading the dredge spoils over 3,600 acres of wetlands and oyster beds to create the new East Cape May development.

The Cape May Inlet jetties (formerly called Cold Spring jetties), were completed in 1911, their long arms reaching 4,500 feet into the Atlantic, at the mouth of the harbor. These inlet jetties are devils in the struggle against beach erosion.

During World War II, with German submarines torpedoing ships off Cape May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a wartime emergency act, sliced across the peninsula from the Coast Guard base to Delaware Bay, digging a three-mile canal to protect U.S. military maneuvers.

Now fast-forward to the 1980s. It is sad to see that Cape Island beaches are mere slivers of what they were when the Lenni Lenape Indians, the Unalachtigo, (meaning people who live by the ocean) fished and hunted the high dunes and broad beaches.

Cape May Point after a storm in 1991. Note the bunker standing in the water

The fast-eroding seashore had become a major political-economic issue. Energetic young visionaries all around Cape May were restoring Victorian structures, converting them into comfy B&Bs. The city was enjoying its new-found halo as a National Historic Landmark. Positive publicity went nation-wide. Yet the buzz in the tourist industry produced a big negative: Cape May is a pretty town. Great architecture, nice gardens, good restaurants. But the beaches are lousy. “You had to plan your vacation around the tide table and move your blanket inland every five minutes,” says Vicki Clark, executive director of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.

Pressure was put on the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps finally admitted a big mistake had been made in anticipating the negative aspects of cutting through the canal 45 years earlier. The Corps agreed that the design of the canal, with the extended older jetties, had a devastating effect on Cape Island beaches.

“It’s obvious from aerial photographs that the north jetty creates a severe offset that interferes with the river of sand that flows offshore,” says Army Corps Project Engineer Dwight Pakan. “The sand gets trapped at the north jetty and impedes the natural drift southward toward beaches in Cape May City, the Cove, the Meadows, the Lighthouse beach and Cape May Point.”

It took an act of Congress to decide that what the government had mistakenly taken away, it must return to Cape Island. The Army Corps of Engineers got the assignment in the late 1970s to design a beach replenishment project that would dramatically change the landscape and life of locals and vacationers.

 

Poverty Beach before (top) and after replenishment in the late 90s. Note the Christian Admiral still standing in both pictures.

First evidence of new sand from Poverty Beach to Pittsburgh Avenue appeared during the winter of 1991. Giant mountains of sand were pumped in from a dredge offshore, then sculpted and graded. The monster sand-moving equipment appeared in the mist and fog like dinosaurs hulking against the sea.

“There was no beach at all,” says Pakan. There were the massive concrete and boulder seawall and groins reaching into the ocean that had been constructed in the 1940s to protect beach front properties. “We buried them with sand to shape the new beach.” It stretched from the Coast Guard base south past the deteriorating 1908 Christian Admiral Hotel, a mere shell of its former self, the once-grand centerpiece of the East Cape May Real Estate Company development.

Since 1989, the cost of rebuilding and replenishing Cape Island beaches has topped $50 million with estimates of more than $100 million to continue replenishing in the future. More than 33 million cubic yards of sand have been redeposited from offshore to create 5.7 miles of expanded beach from the Coast Guard base to Cape May Point. This new seascape today remains very political, experimental, controversial and one of the most expensive manufactured beaches in the world.

Depending on which side of the blanket you are sitting, beach replenishment is considered a blessing – or a curse.

Taxpayers from all over America foot the multi-million dollar bill to build the beaches. And taxpayers, through Congress, have promised to continue paying for replenishment for 50 years after the initial projects are completed.

Despite the commitment, every year is a struggle to secure the money.   “It’s a forever challenge to convince midwest and mountain representatives that beach replenishment is not about a sun tan, but bread and butter issues,” says Congressman Frank LoBiondo “If there’s no beach, there are no tourists, no businesses, no jobs, the ripple effects are devastating. Likewise, the beaches and dunes protect lives and property. Without this system in place we would suffer the consequences of a storm direct hit. Remember Katrina?”

There is no debating that beaches are the lifeblood of the economy. The lust for the sea experience generates billions in vacation dollars and real estate fortunes. Many blessings, indeed.

But there is danger lurking along man-made beaches where high surf breaks closer to the beach and there are sudden drop-offs and step-offs in the ocean where the imported sand has not stabilized to form a gentle slope found on natural beaches. There are invisible cavities near stone groins, aging steel and wooden piers that have been blanketed with sand.

 

Cape May Point before (above) and after beach replenishment in 2004-5. The lighthouse and St. Mary's by the Sea are visible.

Veteran beach lovers in Cape May Point were angry the first summer after the 2004 winter beach replenishment. They were vocal about dangerous holes and drop-offs, new rip currents and rough imported sand. They were accustomed to narrow tide-cooled sloping beaches of the finest sand in the world.

Former Mayor Malcolm Fraser, an engineer, told the upset beachgoers, “Patience. We need to wait for nature to take its course stabilizing the new beach. The tides will wash over it, hardening the beach in place. Natural sands will drift in, and begin to collect as is to happen with successful beach replenishment.”

Patience and stubbornness are Fraser traits that have been fundamental to building the 2.7 miles of new beach from the 3rd Avenue Cove in Cape May to Cape May Point.

The nuns at St. Mary By-the-Sea prayed for a miracle when they realized their massive picturesque summer retreat house at the Point was threatening to fall into the sea. (Cape May Magazine, Fall 2006) You could say it’s a miracle that Mayor Fraser was able to use an obscure executive order signed by President George Bush in 1991 allowing the Army Corps a loophole to protect threatened, but critical wildlife habitats. In this case, it is Cape May’s Migratory Refuge.

 

The view looking north after the army fill in 2003.

Mayor Fraser’s motivation? Without success his little town of 240 cottage dwellers might wash away in major storms as neighboring South Cape May did a century ago. The World War II bunker where he proposed marriage to his wife in 1953 now stood on pilings in the surf. The wetlands, known as the Lower Cape Meadows, home to the Migratory Bird Refuge at Cape May Point State Park, near the Lighthouse, were inundated with salt water when Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985 and broke dunes. Storms in 1991 breached rebuilt dunes a half dozen times and contaminated the fresh water.

Sometimes it seemed a losing proposition, but Mayor Fraser never gave up. “I promised my bride 53 years ago she would always live in Cape May Point,” he says. “It was a pre-nuptial agreement.”

A decade of studying, politicking with Congress and planning with the Army Corps of Engineers resulted in the 2004 project that pumped in 1.7 million cubic yards of sand at the cost of 15 million dollars. High dunes were constructed over massive cores of gravel and clay. Where there once was sea and the ghosts of South Cape May, a wide expanse of beach stretched toward the Atlantic. The Lighthouse beaches quadrupled in size. Dunes now protect the nuns’ 150-year-old St. Mary’s and Point cottages. And the Army bunker where Mayor Fraser proposed marriage has sand around its feet.

After the army fill, looking toward Cape May Point

The most dramatic change in the landscape is in East Cape May where developers went bankrupt at the turn of the century. Once the new beaches were built in 1991, the neighborhood flooding that happened with every fierce nor’easter and hurricane became a bad memory. When the Christian Admiral was torn down in 1996, the monopoly game began in earnest.

Called the Admiral Beach Estates, the site of the old hotel was subdivided into 26 lots. Beachfront lots sold for more than $400,000.  Now, 10 years later, there are a couple dozen new multi-million dollar mansions, and one beachfront lot remaining. It was listed recently at more than $3.5 million! Some of the lots have been flipped several times, fortunes being made. Residents were living on highly escalated land, but they lost their private tiny beaches hidden by the seawall.

As this story is written, a mean nor’easter is battering Cape Island. It’s dusk at Cape May Point. Malcolm Fraser pulls on his slicker and boots, a slight figure, bracing against 55 mph winds at a beach look-out. Into the darkness he sees his beaches are holding. He returns to his cottage on Lake Lily. “We survived another one,” he says to his wife.

Beach Replenishment Update

That rolling thunder heard in Cape May this winter brings promise of more sand on the beaches next summer. As many as 360 triple-axel trucks, loaded with sand, are tooling down Delaware Avenue each day to the Coast Guard base until 126,000 cubic yards, or 151,640 tons of sand is dumped there. The truck cavalcade is expected to be in action 30 to 40 days, depending on weather.

The sand is being deposited on an old air strip, then moved and spread on “feeder” beaches at the Coast Guard base. The idea is to let nature take its course, and allow the tides to move the sand down the public beaches from Poverty Beach west to the Cove and on down to the bird sanctuary in Lower Township.

Originally the Army Corps of Engineers plan called for 360,000 cubic yards of sand for this phase of Cape May beach replenishment. It was to have been accomplished, as it has in the past, but piping sand from the ocean onto the beaches. However, the cost became cost prohibitive, much more so than the government had estimated. That’s why it was decided to truck in the sand at a cost of $2.3 million.

The Army Corps has been replenishing Cape May beaches since 1989, when the original reconstruction began, plus eight refilling projects about every two years.

The fact that there is less sand available this year is viewed by some as positive since less sand produces a more gradual slope, creating safer beaches for swimmers and surfers. In the past, large sand deposits have resulted in tides digging out sudden steep step-offs which have been blamed for recreational accidents.

There has been some concern voiced about the quality of sand trucked in from sandpits. According to Project Manager Dwight Pakan, the contractor Albrecht and Heun will supply clean sand from its pits at Cape May Court House that meet specifications and will mix with existing sand on the beaches. “The sand should be no different than what is now on the beach,” says Pakan. “In 2000, we placed trucked-in quarry sand on Cape May Point beaches with no problems.”

Some of Cape May Point’s beaches that are protected by offshore breakwaters have become so stabilized, they are now uneven with the beaches washed by ocean tides. These stabilized beaches stretch 20-30 feet further into the water, and cause uneven footing for swimmers.

Cape May Point officials have asked the Army Corps to remove some of that sand and place it on the Meadows (bird sanctuary) beaches. That contract was awarded December 10th. Bulldozers and haulers are expected to complete the project by March 2009.


Monarch Butterflies in Cape May

butterflyhdrConsider the Monarch Butterfly. It begins life as a caterpillar living underneath the leaves of the milkweed plant for a couple of weeks. Then, it forms a letter J and hangs out under a sheltered area forming a big green glob for about 10 days, after which, it emerges as a breathtakingly beautiful orange and black butterfly. Next mission? Go to Mexico. The Monarch travels more than 2000 miles beginning in late August to reach its winter home in butterflies1Florida, Texas and Mexico. The great Mecca of Monarchs is El Rosario, Mexico where they hibernate clustering together with other Monarchs in groves of oyamel fir trees that are 10,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level until March. With the advent of spring comes the mating season. The Monarch flies back to North America- the land of the more plentiful milkweed plant. Few survive the trip but those that do lay their eggs, thus insuring the species survives. Some non-migratory Monarchs stay in the more tropical climates but as many as 10 million choose migration.

The average life span of a butterfly is one month, maybe six weeks. The Migratory Monarch however, by virtue of the fact that it takes the risk of traveling so far south, extends its life by four more months. It lives just long enough to find the closest milkweed, mate, lay its eggs and then perish. Once the Monarch offspring reach more northern climates like Cape May, they reproduce two or three more generations before autumn arrives and their southerly migration begins again.

Just like the raptors and other birds, the Monarch finds Cape May and Cape May Point an attractive stopping off point to rest, regroup, and wait for the right winds to carry it forward on its amazing journey.

butterflies2The Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) at Cape May Point has been charting the Monarch’s path for the past 14 years. This year has been particularly disappointing for people like Paige Cunningham and Louise Zemaitis, field coordinators for the project. A standard census count is made three times daily between September 1 and October 31. Thousands of Monarch Butterflies are tagged each year in Cape May. In southern Cape May County an average of more than 75 butterflies have been tagged per hour. The best year was in 1999 when 328.56 monarchs were registered in one hour. The worst year was in 1992 when 10.41 were counted per hour.

Thus far this year, the average is 7.16 per hour.

The reasons for the drop in numbers are still an unknown according to Senior CMBO Naturalist Mark Garland. It could be the result of a severe frost in Mexico two years ago killing thousands of wintering Monarchs. It could be the result of a severe hurricane season or loss of habitat or an unusually wet and cold summer season but Garland says it will take a few more years of tracking the Monarch before any real conclusions can be made.

holdingbutterflyThe census takers count, tag and weigh each Monarch. Census takers travel a five-mile route each day, three times a day from Higbee Beach, up New England Road, down Bayshore Road to Sunset Blvd. and ending at Alexander Avenue.

Seaside Goldenrod is the Monarch’s number one nectar source and thanks to anti-beach erosion techniques plenty of it is now growing in the dunes of Cape May and Cape May Point but Zemaitis and Cunningham encourage residents to keep planting those butterfly bushes and help in the count either by calling in data found on butterflies in their yard and/or adopting a butterfly. For $25 you can adopt a tagged Monarch. In exchange, you receive a certificate with the tagging details of the Monarch you adopted. If the Monarch is found and identified along the way to Mexico, the adoptive parent receives another certificate chronicling its journey.

Paige Cunningham

Paige Cunningham

On a cloudy day in October, two weeks before the census was to end, CapeMay.com took a trip to the picnic pavilion at Cape May Point State Park where Zemaitis and Cunningham are holding a Monarch tagging demo. The demonstrations are held Friday through Monday and Wednesday, September 25 through October 20 at 2 p.m.

It’s a hands-on demonstration which even on this cold, bleak day is fairly well attended. Zemaitis and Cunningham are good at bringing an urgency to the Monarch’s story. As they remove the delicate butterfly from its envelope and it begins to flutter the two women show us the difference between a male and a female. They ask us to touch its abdomen and let its legs touch our hand.

“It’s sticky,” said one man.

“The original Velcro,” said Zemaitis.

butterfliesgroupNow it’s time for the Adopt A Butterfly portion of the program. But hello, it seems one adoptee doesn’t want to fly away. Can’t blame her. It’s cold and windy but she better fly away soon because it’s going to get even colder in the coming weeks. With a little help from her friends, she warms to the task and fly away she does.

As we stand watching her flutter away, turn toward the bay, and then say no – not today – and turn back toward the trees – you can’t help but say a little prayer in the hope she makes it all the way to Mexico.


To dephrag or not dephrag?

phagmiteslighthouseThat is the question currently being posed by residents of Cape May Point as well as the New Jersey Environmental Federation, the City of Cape May, and the New Jersey Audubon Society (NJAS) as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moves forward with a plan to spray the glyphosate-based herbicide Rodeo on 57 acres of reeds or Phragmites at South Cape May Meadow in September 7. The Corps will then begin burning dead stalks during the winter and plant marsh vegetation determined to be beneficial to the area in the springtime. It is slated to be a two-year program. Another 43 acres would be sprayed in September 2005.

However, Jane Nogaki, the Pesticide Program Coordinator for the NJ Environmental Federation, disagrees with the Army Corps of Engineers’ approach to the invasive problem of phragmites.. The Environmental Federation is a non-profit citizen-based organization fighting to protect natural resources and clean up pollution in New Jersey. NJEF is the New Jersey chapter of Clean Water Action, a 30-year-old national organization based in Washington, DC. The group opposes the use of Rodeo or “glyphosates in wetland restoration projects such as Cape May Point because there are too many hazards associated with the pesticide.”

phagmitesontrails1Additionally, the group feels the drift caused by a burn planned for winter could “pose risks of drift and fire hazards to the surrounding neighbors.”

phagmitesontrails2Finally, Nogaki points out that the use of pesticides and the burning of stalks has proved ineffective in the past in controlling Phragmites. Similar techniques were used on the Delaware Bay in Salem and Cumberland counties. The spraying of glyphosate-based herbicides has been used there since 1996 and the reeds still survive.

“There are two results of using pesticides,” said Nogaki in a recent telephone interview, “One is that the pesticide is so successful it wipes out all vegetation for two years. There are many birds and butterflies that feed in that area. Where do they go? Secondly, the project is only partially successful in which case they will be forced to repeat the process, 2,3,4,5 years, and the habitat will be pummeled with pesticides.”

Again, she cites the Delaware Bay in Salem and Cumberland counties. The restoration project there was planned for one year. It began in 1996 and is still on going and expected to continue until 2112.

phagmitesontrails3NJEF instead, recommends mowing, which they acknowledge may be more labor intensive but far more effective in that other plant life is allowed to grow.

Another government agency – the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, or WHIP, has provided one local resident with funding to explore alternative methods to the use of herbicides. According to an article that appeared in The Press of Atlantic City, August 21, WHIP provided Middle Township property owner Dr. Russell Down with a grant of $2,500 to mow seven acres of Phragmites for five years. Dr. Russell uses an old walk-behind mower with a single whirling blade powered by an 8-horsepower engine to keep his 49-acre Bayside property in check.

Dr. Down’s idea is that mowing the thick reeds allows other species a chance to root, thereby permitting a more natural diversity of plant life. Down started cutting the Phragmites down in 1999 and has been able to control three quarters of the seven acres.

phagmitesontrails4One thing all parties agreed on is the fact that Phragmites are invasive and if allowed to go unchecked will alter the biodiversity of the area. They create a “monoculture” in which no other plants can survive.

At a recent presentation by the Army Corps of Engineers held at West Cape May Borough Hall, the use of herbicides and the burning of stalks received the stamp of approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as The Nature Conservancy, Cape May Point State Park, and the State Department of Environmental Protection.

A representative of the Nature Conservancy Jay Laubengeyer was quoted in an article that appeared in The Press of Atlantic City on August 17 in support of the Army Corps of Engineers’ project. Laubengeyer noted that the Conservancy, which owns the land trust, has taken over 10 years to analyze the project and concluded that “It’s either support the project or watch the biodiversity go downhill.”

NJAS’ Department of Conservation, however, seems to take another approach. Eric Stiles, vice president for conservation and stewardship for NJAS e-mailed CapeMay.com with a summary of the NJAS’s position on the proposed Phragmite treatment plan. It concludes: “This project could potentially create a significant amount of valuable habitat in an area that is critically important to wildlife. However, the proposed management strategies may negatively affect significant populations of wildlife, including endangered species and rare plants.

“NJAS believes that additional attention should be given to expected impacts on wildlife and human visitors, timing of the herbicide application and strategies for replanting and restoring the area after phragmites removal. Absent this additional information, New Jersey Audubon has serious reservations and concerns about the Phragmites removal project as planned.”

phagmiteslake3Local resident Barbara Skinner calls the Army Corps of Engineers’ project “asinine” and is anxiously trying to organize concerned citizens who are interested in learning more about the September 7 project. She can be contacted at 609-884-3951.

“The timing of this,” she said, “couldn’t be worse. They’re going to start spraying right after Labor Day and the burn is scheduled right before the fall migration. This could affect the migration of the monarch butterfly as well as fish” and other species which make the Lower Cape May Meadows their home.

On Aug. 3, Cape May City Council passed a resolution urging the Army Corps of Engineers to use mechanical means to remove the phragmites instead of spraying them. The resolution states that spraying “might pose a risk to humans and non-targeted species.”

The area in question is approximately 350 acres and contains Cape May Point State Park and the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge. The first area to be targeted for spraying is near the concrete bunker in the park. The other area is further east near the Cove beach. An additional 27 acres will be sprayed using a truck. Approximately one acre will be hand-sprayed by workers.

A contractor will conduct the aerial spraying and the New Jersey Forest Fire Service will conduct the burn. Both projects are expected to take several hours to complete.

Project Manager for the Army Corps of Engineers J. Bailey Smith said recently in a telephone interview that “spraying is not unsafe. The herbicides are absorbed more effectively” by the phragmites’ rhizomes or root system which moves horizontally and spreads quickly. The plan is to dispense the herbicides by helicopter with an aerial spray in September and use “hand application methods” in 2005.

“When we use the term aerial spray, it’s really not spraying. They’re droplets” as opposed to a spraying mist and will be dropped by the helicopters hovering only a few feet off the ground, for better control and concentration.

“The herbicide will be applied in such a manner,” said Smith, “as to not affect other natural vegetation.” Smith further attests that the herbicide has “no effect on living organisms” such as humans, butterflies and birds which are prone to make Cape May Point and the lower meadows their home or respite.

Nogaki disagrees and said NJEF is looking at “every avenue” available to them to stop the September 7th spraying.


On Assignment: Searching for Whales in Cape May

whaleheader2Call me Ishmael. No, no. Call me S. Tischler.

whalewatcherfrontofboatSome days ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I might hop a ride on the Whale Watcher II, aka, “The Big One.” The ocean is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a simply gorgeous day and I can abide my office no more; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping onto the Washington Street Mall and methodically knocking people’s hat’s off – that is when I think I’ll take the three hour cruise and search for the elusive whale Slammer.

With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the Whale Watcher II.

The day is beautiful and the waters are going to be, according to Captain Miles, “very calm.”

I board the vessel at shortly after the noon bell and immediately go astern (toward the back of the boat) to climb the short set of stairs to the top deck.

whalewatcherleavingI’m looking over the side of 90-foot aluminum boat when I see Captain Paul, who is second in command of this seaworthy vessel, standing in the wheelhouse. The naturalist and tour guide on board, Christina, is also on hand. She said there were nurseries of dolphins along the shoreline. Care I about cute little dolphins? Nah. It is the Slammer I seek. She seems to be speaking in soft tones the way you would speak to a child. She tells me that other boats in the area are also looking out for whales and would alert the Whale Watcher II if they spotted any.

Captain Paul is leading us out of the dock and into the canal with Captain Miles as his guide. We are advised not to feed the seagulls so they don’t eat a bunch of blueberries and poop all over the poop deck.

whalewatchwtching“Aye aye, sir.”

He looks at me askance and turns his binoculars to the open waters.

The skies are clear blue. The only swell in the water is the one the boat makes. And it is a day of inspiration for other seafaring folk as well. There are many boats on the water this day – sailboats, fishing boats, commercial fisherman, dinghies, and sport fishing boats. As we pass the U. S. Coast Guard Base and round the shoreline at Wildwood Crest, Christina gives us a “thar she blows.”

whalewatchfinI turn toward the bow (the front of the boat), my camera in hand; thinking this is the moment. Now I shall see “The Big One” and capture it on my lens for all the world to see. Aye but mates it is but a nursery of dolphins that has been spotted. And the poor guide Christina is forced to use landlubber language. The dolphins aren’t at the port, the bow, or starboard – they are at 12 o’clock, six o’clock and nine o’clock.

It’s very crowded at 12 o’clock – Capt. Miles must be thinking of making his crew walk the plank – oh I see. The passengers are crowding the bow to get a closer look at the baby dolphins. The waters are warmer this summer, says Christina, so the mommy’s and nannies are keeping the wee ones closer to shore and away from predatory sharks.

Suddenly I see the fin.

“Aye, breach your last to the sun Slammer! Thy hour and thy camera are at hand. Down! Down all of ye, but one man at the fore. The boats! – Stand by!” I yell at the top my lungs.

Ah. Nevermind mateys.

whalewatchmomandbabyChristina tells me it is a dolphin not a whale. Dolphins, actually. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins swim in pairs or in pods. There must be 50 of them. For a few moments I am distracted from my mission and I watch these sea creatures. When they do their synchronized swimming routine, they look like a chorus line of dancers. Christina has names for them – There’s Tippy, who’s been summering in Cape May for 16 years and is the queen mother, and Nubby, Quasi Motto, and Camel who are also regulars to the Cape May seashore.

I keep trying to get their picture when they come out of the water and I’m never fast enough – I’m so busy running back and forth underneath the stairwell that I nearly crash my head into it. Maybe I should just stay still. So I do. Stay still that is. By this time I can see the Wildwood roller coasters in the distance. Finally I get a shot of them. The teen dolphins are plunging in and out of the water. The baby dolphins stay a little closer to their elders.

Suddenly, I’m all worried about them. What happens when they swim under the boat? Are they going to get hurt? What about fishing nets and fast moving sport boats? Are they really safe from the sharks? What happens when the summer is over and they have to go home? Yikes! Being a parent can be very stressful.

whaletalebyLeoKulinskiJrGet a hold of yourself mate. I say. You must not be dissuaded from your appointed task. You have an appointment with destiny in the form of the Humpback Whale. The captain agrees because we are venturing forth into the deepest parts of the ocean.

Other poets have warbled praises of the soft eye of the doe, and the lovely plumage of the Eagle; less celestial, I celebrate the tail.

Each Humpback tail is different. Scientists have identified individual whales in Tonga by photographing their tails. And the Humpback Whale can be spotted by their actions like jumping and tail slapping. When courting, they are known for their detailed love songs, which are sung by males. They usually hang vertically in the water as they sing. They are, on average, 45 feet long and have a life span of 77 years.

Dissect him how I may, then, I but go skin deep; I know him not and never will. But the picture is the thing. If I only have one shot let me make it a tail shot.

I’ve worked up quite a thirst and I think I’ll drop into Harpoon Hanna’s for a cold one. Whoops! No money. I have my camera. I have my notebook. I even have a pen, two in fact – but I have no money in my purse. The woman behind the counter is serving a nice, tall Coca-Cola with sweat forming on the side of the cup to the many customers in front of her. The fragrant aroma of frozen pizza fills the air and I lift my nose up to breathe in fully the smell as though it will satisfy my hunger.

whalewatchwatcherWell, it’s for the best. Drink and food will spoil my senses, dull them, leaving me vapid and languishing. I think I’ll go topside and continue my search. The excitement of the dolphins has worn off and the other passengers are settling in for the next adventure. When I look about me, I can no longer see the shoreline and Christina is pointing out some of the pelagic birds that follow the whales. Whales, she tells us, have lousy breath. How she knows this is beyond me but I’m thinking I won’t be asking that question – some things are best left a mystery.

I think about joining the crew in the wheelhouse. Instead I sit down and lean against the railing and wait for Slammer to appear.

It’s so quiet. All the passengers are sitting back and enjoying the beautiful day. As I look down at the deck below, couples are also leaning against rail, content to watch the sea as we move further out in search of the illusive Slammer.

The water is so calm, so soothing, so tranquil, so….

Whoops! Nodded off there for a minute and I suspect a few others on the boat have too.

Well, hard as Christina, Jenn (the other naturalist) and the rest of the crew look for whales, it does appear as though there will be no Slammer sighting today because The Whale Watcher II is heading into shore.

The ship tore on; leaving such a furrow in the sea as when a cannon ball, missent, becomes a ploughshare and turns up a level field.

whalewatchfishingboatBut the thing to notice, are the sights that we forget about so often. Cape May is more than beaches. Commercial fishing boats are also making their way home. We pass the Wildlife Bird Sanctuary, the U.S. Coast Guard Training Base (the only one in the country), and the wetlands, seemingly springing from nothing.

The drama is done and even though I did not see the Slammer, an afternoon spent at sea is an afternoon well spent.

Editor’s Note: Many thank to the crew and captain of the Whale Watcher II. The Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center is located at Wilson Drive and plays host to several island cruises a day.

Also many thanks to the obscure English author Herman Melville for his able assistance in writing this piece.


Training Day

EnglishbirdersonbikesDon’t bother me, please. I’m in training and I’m very busy.

After all, the World Series is only a few weeks away. No, not that World Series – the World Series of Birding (WSB). It’s hosted by the New Jersey Audubon Society and this year will be held on May 15th. So I must pump up, not to mention practice staying up.

In the WSB the games begin in the dark – at midnight- and conclude at midnight of the next day; in other words – it’s a 24-hour event in which individuals as team participants are expected to count as many species as possible.

In addition to power walking every morning, no matter the weather, I also practice quick-draw binocular techniques, as suggested by my personal birding trainer Mark Garland, senior naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO), Cape May Point.  OK, he’s not really my personal trainer, but I like to think that he is.

CapeMayWarblerMark’s first suggestion for preparing for a birding event as a novice birder is to practice becoming adept with the binoculars. You know, something like this: you eyeball a bird in the sky, at say 12 o’clock (you really have to get that clock thing down, first and foremost) as fast as you can, and without strangling yourself with the binocular cord, grab the binoculars and fire away at 12 o’clock. See, you already have to be in focus and your binoculars adjusted to the proper setting or you lose, cause it’s not like the birdy’s hangin’ around waiting for you to focus.

wsbI practiced these very techniques on a recent outing at The Beanery, as we locals call it. For the rest of you it’s Rea’s Farm on Bayshore Road. The meadows and wet woods on this working farm are great, according to Garland for spotting spring’s earliest migrants.

First problem on that windy, cold-in-the-shade afternoon?  I forgot the *#*#! binoculars. I tried to cover up my faux pas by pretending the zoom lens of my camera would serve as my binoculars but Mark, who continually proves to be the kindest man in the entire birding universe, generously offered me a pair of very fine, already adjusted, binoculars. So, off we go, eight of us in total, including Mark, Tom Parsons, a field trip leader and associate naturalist, and R.E. Heinly, the author of Beach Chair Birding, a column which appears weekly in the Cape May Star and Wave during the summer months. There were a couple of novices and newly-joined New Jersey Audubon Society members, but I suspect I was the real “Ms New” of the bunch.

Mark didn’t do the clock thing. He announced the spotted bird by landmarks, i.e.; “See the tallest tree in the cluster? Now look a little to the right.”
Ahhh. Directions for which I don’t need a compass to figure out.

Before long, I become very adept at spotting the Turkey Vulture – certainly there were many other birdies spotted that afternoon, among them – the Sharp-shinned Hawk, the Red-Shoulder Hawk, the Killdeer, a 4-year-old Bald Eagle, but mostly there were Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures.

circlingturkeyvultures“Vultures, vultures, vultures,” I say to myself.

Things went along swimmingly for the two hour walk but I found myself constantly out of step with my companions until we turned the corner of a  meadow. Mark Garland spotted a Red-tailed Hawk (or maybe it was a Northern Harrier – I’m not sure) but for the first time my borrowed binoculars caught the same thing everyone else did… at the same time they did.

Victory is mine at last! But then Garland explained in detail the distinctions of the raptor and I didn’t see them, even though we were both looking at the same bird.

circlingturkeyvultures3With just the teeniest bit of hysteria in my voice, I dropped my binoculars and said, just a bit too shrilly; “How can you see all that?” (the color and shape of the head, the color of the tail and underbelly) “I don’t see any of those things. How do you know that’s a Red Tail not a Red Shoulder in nanoseconds?” (The obvious had obviously escaped my attention.)

Again proving how incredibly patient he is, Garland thought about it for a while and then explained. Obviously experience lends a great hand. “Really,” he said, quoting another birder, “it’s the first 10,000 Hawks (for example) that are difficult to spot. After that, it becomes a whole lot easier.” But, he said, there are many other factors that come into play : The habitat, meaning in this instance, the thickness of the trees or the brush; the time of year (Tom Parsons explained that birds know its Spring by the hours of sunlight); the “gizz” which is birdie talk -meaning the gist of a bird- its sound, its standing pose, its profile while in flight; and the geography. In other words – you have to do your homework and practice, practice, practice.

So, I may not be ready for the Worlds Series of Birding (WSB), but I’m moving forward as though I am. Denial is a beautiful thing. Fortunately, the WSB is set up for all levels of competition.

wsbteam2Yes, this is a competition, as well as a major fund raising event that benefits ornithological clubs, organizations and causes. All the money raised by a team goes to the cause of their choice. It has drawn participants from all over the U.S and other parts of our world… and raised over $8 million for bird conservation.

There are four levels of competition:
Level I: Competitive – this is for the big boys and corporate sponsors. It is strictly a team competition
Level II is for people like me individuals or non-competing teams;
Level III: Youth teams
Level IV: Senior teams

wsbtrophy2A WSB dream team is comprised of three to four registered members, not including the designated driver. The geographical area covered varies from “The Big Sit,” in which the team picks a spot, like the Hawk Watch platform at Cape May Point State Park, and sits there for 24 hours – to the LGA (Limited Geographic Area), a county-wide competition which works on a par value system (think golf ) to the state-wide competition.  Unless a team is privileged enough to get corporate sponsorship, teams raise money by gathering pledges based on the number of birds they see during the World Series.  Over $500,00 is raised every year by all the participants.

Pete Dunne, founder of the WSB, offers a game plan booklet on the njaudubon.org website with loads of tips, birding ethics, rules about foul (not fowl) play, and a blueprint for participation.

The binoculars are getting heavy and I’m tired. Time for a nap for this newbie but I hope to glimpse you out there in the dark, in the dawn, in the dusk and at the finish.
Hey wait!  Was that a Cape May Warbler??


Waiting for Isabel in Cape May…

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

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Cape May City loads would-be flying benches to be taken to a secure place.

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Gulls gather to squawk about their plans at Second Street Beach.

September 17

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Sunny, windy, warm- no visable signs of a storm at 2pm, except the surf.

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There’s a clue: Henry’s is closed.

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Wind is starting to swing signs against a sunny sky.

prestormColumbia

But it’s not windy enough to discourage the start of a major repainting of the Columbia House.

September 18- 9am

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Waves are starting to get bigger at Broadway.

walkers

Despite the wind kicking up stinging sand, people are still walking the beach at the Cove.

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Beach boxes are being removed.

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Steger’s Beach- empty and very windy.

boardingup

Many homes and businesses along the beach front have been boarded up.

September 18- Surfers…Crazy!

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September 18

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waves

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birds

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September 19 – Day After Isabel

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On Safari…the Cape May Way

skimmerhdr3The other night, I took a sunset Salt Marsh Safari on “The Skimmer,” a 40 ft. pontoon which skims the waterways just like the bird it was named for. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have thought to go on it if I hadn’t been an assignment. Why, you ask? Because birding is a huge component of the safari and birders intimidate me.

First, as I have said before, it’s about the equipment. Birders always have the tools at their disposal to see the birds. I do not have the tools. I do not have a pair of powerful Leika or Swarovski binoculars. So, already I’m out of the loop. Also, they know what to look for when someone yells “Hey, American Oyster Catcher at 11 o’clock.” Where, I say to myself. Where’s the clock? What lookclock? Wait, I see it’s an imaginary clock. OK. So, 11 o’clock is what right or left? I imagine hundreds of clocks. All of them digital. I follow the body language of veteran birders just like any stranger in a strange land who doesn’t understand the language, but to no avail. By the time I figure out where I’m supposed to be looking, the elusive bird has taken flight. While everyone else is ooing and aahing, I’m groaning and moaning.

Well, I have to say that Captain Bob Carlough and his able assistant and wife Linda Carlough put me at ease immediately. How? They bring equipment. I had, for the two hours we were skimming the wetlands,  my very own powerful set of powerful binoculars. They even have kid size binoculars. Secondly, they explained the o’clock thing by pointing. The front of the boat is 12 o’clock. The back of the boat is 6 o’clock. Each side is…well you get it I’m sure. Also note they didn’t do that boater’s thing either because had they said the bow or the stern of the boat my head would still be swimming around like something out of The Exorcist movie. Pointing is good. I can start breathing again. wetlandsLike any good teacher, Captain Bob is a strong believer in show and tell. The South Jersey  wetlands are, he says, “more fertile than the Amazon.” It is the beginning of the food chain, he says, and by way of example he has a basin filled with food sources for birds and the ecosystem in general. He pulls out tiny little glass (its body is transparent) or grass shrimp, a beautiful thumb-sized crab called the Savory Swimmer with wee paddles for back legs. He has a sample of an equally small walking crab.

Once The Skimmer is out of the dock and winding its way through the canal toward the Coast Guard Base, the bird watch alert is up. The sightings are plentiful.

heron“Heron at 11 o’clock,” says Linda Carlough. OK. I’m still a little slow with the o’clock thing but I’m able to follow everyone else and thank the gods these birds are big and white. Even I spot the Heron, as well as the Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black Skimmer, and the Great Blue Heron. Ahhh. At last I can sit back and relax. My next source of anxiety is that I’ve traded by binoculars for my Nikon digital camera, so you, my faithful readers can see what I see. This, however, was definitely a time for the 35 mm Nikon with the zoom lens because guess what? You have to be pretty quick on the trigger to get a really nice picture of a bird in flight, or when it’s getting ready to pounce on something. Another problem is that my digital zoom is not zoomyflying enough to close-in (especially while the boat is in motion) on the green eyes of the Carmorans. So, guess what? I put the camera away for a while and go back to the binoculars which are fabulous. So, no I don’t have any really good bird pictures, you’ll just have to take the cruise and see them for yourself.

Captain Bob points to an Osprey nest with three chicks in it. He is very excited about seeing the nest because he said the harsh winter ice took its toll on the wetlands’ grasses and there haven’t been as many successful nests this summer. However, because of the passage of the Clean Water Act as well as the Wetlands Restoration Acts, and similar ecologically friendly legislation, life in the back bays has seen quite a transformation. There were, he said, only 50 Osprey pairs in 1972. Last year 340 were cited. Captain Bob is not shy about his unease with the present administration which, he said seems headed in a direction directly opposite that of environmental responsibility.

Meanwhile, the Skimmer pulls up to a long blanket of green algae floating on the water. The boat comes to a stop so we can get a closer look at this wonder of nature.

algaeWe step out onto what I call the front porch of the pontoon which is level with the patch. Captain Bob skims a seaweed called Mermaid Hair from the water. Linda explains that it is called Mermaid Hair because it looks like someone’s head of hair when it floats in the water. Before we leave we see blood worms and many
birds. This patch is like feeding trough for birds. A Semi-Palmated Plover, a Black-Bellied Plover, and a Ruddy Turnstone were having their evening repast, not to mention the American Oyster Catcher.

As the boat swings around, we don’t go very far before we are in the thick of the Salt Marsh. I can see Wildwood Crest at 3 o’clock and a thick colony of long, green reed-like growth.

“The Salt Marsh,” said Captain Bob, “Is the most bio-productive ecosystem in thepeat world.” Because of the way everything works back here – the reeds separating the salt from the ocean water and crystallizing it – the peat that forms the land mass on which the reeds can grow – and the rich fertile environment which results – all these components come together to create “the beginning of the food chain of the ocean.” And to prove his point, Captain Bob grabs a chunk of peat to show us not only the richness of the soil but the millions of microorganisms which live in it. “Life,” he says, “begins back here with the microorganisms that life here.” The peat acts like a sponge for them and absorbs them.

I am struck by how beautiful the grasses are. They are a deep, lush green. They are thick and majestic. I want to run my hand through them just to a get a sense of what they feel like. As though reading my mind, Captain Bob encourages us to touch them. In other years, they can be broken off  like stalks of salt, he says, but again the odd weather of the past couple of seasons makes them feel like softer atreesnd more pliable.

The Skimmer pulls around to what looks like an island on which a mad scientist would live on. Tall gangly trees have grown there and it is thick with greenery and very weird. It is a heron rookery. I can’t believe it! Hundreds of  giant birds -Blue Herons, Osprey, Egrets are checking in for the night. This is their hotel. Captain Bob says some 600 birds (just a guess he admits) will spend the night there. He says they fly in squadrons of 10-12 until it gets dark. Right now, he estimates there are only about 75 great birds.sunset

And on top of the trees, above the herons and egrets whose plumage forms pockets of snowy white against a darkening sky and mossy green growth are hundreds of black crows menacingly perched looking as though waiting for any sign of weakness so they can pounce. Captain Bob says they coexist pretty well with the other birds. Maybe the herons have hired them as sentinels, placed there to guard them while they sleep. It is just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

Well, the sun really is setting now and The Skimmer begins its journey back to the Miss Chris Marina but there are still things to see in between the 150 pictures of the sunset that I compulsively keep taking. Listen, if I can’t give you good birdie pictures, the least I can do is share the sunset with you.

boatThere are a couple of fisherman out in their boats still trying to get the catch of the day. They look so peaceful against the night sky and I think of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea – not that they were that old but the waters have turned suddenly cold and they look so small and vulnerable in comparison with the large fishing boats docked behind them.

As we pass under the Cape May bridge, Linda Carlough reminds us that we and our children (and by the way I highly recommend this voyage for children, particularly those say 8 and up) are the caretakers of the land and  “I hope,” she says, “we will have the wisdom that it takes to make us good stewards” and to continue to protect nature’s precious gift to us.save

The Salt Marsh Safari is truly something different for you to do with your family or even by yourself while you’re vacationing in Cape May. Hey, even if you live here this is not the usual tourist tripe (not that there’s anything wrong with tripe. Tripe is a good thing turned snoozer when you’ve seen it or done it a hundred times.)

The Skimmer leaves from the Miss Chris Marina on 2nd Avenue & Wilson Drive.  There’s a Morning Refuge Cruise at 10 a.m. An afternoon Osprey Odyssey at 1:30 p.m. and the Sunset on the Marsh cruise at 6 p.m. The sunset cruise runs Sunday through Thursday but check out their web site at www.skimmer.com first for reservations and schedule changes.


27th Annual Hawk Watch

hwkheaderhawkwatch6Some sit patiently waiting. Some stand — their bodies pivot, arms upraised, binoculars in hand. They speak in quiet tones like people waiting for a golfer to hit a crucial shot. It’s easy to tell the serious hawk watchers from the everyday tourist or curious spectator. For one, they have equipment. Serious equipment. Binoculars are slung around their necks. High-powered binoculars rest on adjustable tripods with high-powered names like Swarovski, the official sponsor of the Hawk Watch, Nikon and Leica.

Chris Vogel

Chris Vogel

The official bird counter, on this day Chris Vogel, whom colleagues described as an “ornithological gypsy,” stands at the top of the observation deck calling out the names of birds he spots: “Sharpie (Sharp-shinned Hawk) swooping down next to a Cooper’s Hawk over by the lake.” “Where are the Balds?” Eagles, that is — Bald Eagles.

It is a good day for Hawk watching. A cold front has moved in along with strong northwesterly winds providing optimum conditions for the migrating raptors.

This is the 27th Hawk Watch. Cape May Point, is a funnel for hawks, Monarch butterflies, and other migratory birds. From September 1st through November, Cape May Point is their stop-off  before they cross the 14-mile stretch of the Delaware Bay to land, then continue to points further south on the other side.

hawkwatchplat2As Mark Garland, senior naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory and author of Watching Nature, puts it “They come here to stop, rest and refuel. I equate it with telling a someone, ‘you have a 14 -mile run and if you stop before the 14 miles have elapsed you’re dead.’  These are not water fowl. They cannot land on water. If they do, they die.”

Cape May Point State Park is the spot they pick for their hiatus, and the hawk count begins just as they take flight over the bay. Official tallies have range from over 88,000 hawks to as few as 22,000 hawks per year, with an average of 55,000. Some watches are more spectacular than others. Garland noted that in a recent Hawk Watch, “we counted 19,000 hawks in one day.” Last year, however, the count plummeted to 28,849 total sightings. Unusually warm weather the past two years has been blamed for the decrease in numbers.

hawkwatch5In warmer weather, Garland explained, the winds are generally unfavorable coming not from the west or northwest, which also ushers in a cold front, but rather from a more southerly direction.

“We don’t know if this weather pattern is going to be a trend or not, but that is the point of the Hawk Watch to collect data in a consistent way in this and other Hawk watches so that it serves as a good census for long term trends of what’s happening. It’s difficult when the wildlife is dispersed to tell what the trends are.” That’s the importance, he said, of the Hawk Watch particularly in Cape May where so many birds congregate in such a small area.

hawkwatch1Data collected serves as a barometer for what is happening in the whole of nature and in mankind. Garland cites as an example the noted decrease in population of the American Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon back in the 50s. The decline was attributed to the use of DDT as a pesticide. Later, similar negative findings were found in the breast milk of women, also attributed to the use of DDT.

The possible extinction of the two species, as well as the problems the human species faces as a result of pesticide use, found a voice in Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which triggered the environmental movement of the 60s. “The research,” Garland said, “that made those discoveries possible started with bird watchers.”

Conversely, the banning of the use of DDT has brought about a surge in population of the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine and the Osprey.

An observation deck in Cape May Point State Park has been built with the Hawk Watch in mind. It is very unlike the first observation deck. When Pete Dunne, author of The Feather Quest and Tales of A Low Rent Birder, climbed up on a lifeguard stand 27 years ago and became Cape May Point’s first official Hawk Watch counter, he was completely unprepared for what lie ahead.

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Hired by  Bill Clark, a member of the New Jersey Audubon Society to make the fall count for the newly formed Cape May Bird Observatory, Dunne said, “Up to that point, I counted for mostly for myself. I’d participated in a spring bird count but that amounted to maybe 3,000 birds.” In fact, he counted 21,800 birds of prey that first day.

The official count for fall, 1976 was 48,245. “And I missed two of the best days,” he said. “I couldn’t come in. Those were the best days of the watch. I’m sure I would have counted 80,000 total for that year had I not missed them.”

birders2Dunne describes the observation site in 1976 not as a pristine wilderness waiting to be cultivated but a wasteland filled with discarded concrete, old utility lines, and debris from years of military construction. There was no parking lot and no roof over the pavilion. In fact, he says there wasn’t even any vegetation. The Cedars and greenery which currently surround the site have all been planted since that first Hawk Watch.

What Dunne nor any of the founding members of the Cape May Bird Observatory could predict 27 years ago was the explosion in popularity birding watching would take and the growing importance the Cape May Hawk Watch would assume. Its reputation has made it a Mecca for bird watchers.

hawkwatch2“People don’t have to turn to Antarctica or the Equator to see a great spectacle of nature,” said Dunne. “It’s right here in their own back yard. As we become more estranged from nature, there is more and more a need to integrate with nature. Here, on this observation deck, we can provide the mechanisms to bring people and nature together without the not-so-serious birder becoming intimidated.”

Dunne scanned the observation deck and pointed out those people who were seasoned birders (again that equipment thing) and those there for possibly the first time. “Everyone can enjoy this and maybe someone coming here for the first time will go back and buy a book on birding and become a little more curious.”

That is why, according to Mark Garland, the Observatory makes sure they always have two staff people in addition to the counter on hand to answer any questions.

As an example of what can await the patient observer, October 5th brought birders the chance to see 298 Peregrine Falcons cross the Delaware Bay. The Peregrine is the darling of bird watchers. Its species numbered between 30 and 40 back in the 60s because of the use of DDT.

birdboardAnd the Peregrine for thousands of years was considered the “sport of kings.” It is a powerful bird and one of the fastest in world. When stalking prey, it folds itself up like a bullet and swoops down on a flock of birds to attack traveling 150-miles an hour. The Peregrines threatened extinction became the symbol for environmentalists, not only as a sign of the environmental problems which caused its decline but also a sign that solutions are possible.

“Long term consistent data is so crucial,” said Garland. “Decision-makers need data.  In order to collect that data, we need  to save the habitat so the birds have a place to rest and refuel. Development is inevitable and we need to understand which areas are more critical for wildlife and keep those areas safe and protected. We need advocates  and that’s our purpose. We identify the problem and act a solution.”

As morning slips into the noon hour, Chris Vogel jumps off his observation perch moving swiftly across the deck. “Look. To the right of the cedars — a Red Shouldered Hawk.” Like an event out of synchronized birding, 150 bodies, arms upraised with binoculars in perfect eye-gazing position, simultaneously swing in the direction he is pointing to view the raptor. Almost apologetically, he looks back at the non-binocular people, “This is a good day.”