- Cape May NJ Travel Guide and Vacation Planner Blog

Category: Nature and Wildlife

Cape May Point: Naturally for the Birds


If you asked ten people “What and where is Cape May Point?” you’d probably hear ten completely different answers. For instance:

“It’s a little piece of heaven.”

“The lighthouse is there.”

“That’s where the birds migrate.”

“They have a big lake there, don’t they?”

“We have a very special place. People who live here and people who visit can feel it.”

The last answer, from Cape May Point resident Sally Sachs, perhaps says it best.

Geographically, Cape May Point is the southern-most tip of land on the Jersey Cape, the spot where the Atlantic Ocean mingles with Delaware Bay. This sometimes violent mingling has washed portions of the area, including streets and houses, completely away.

Politically, Cape May Point is a municipality with its own mayor, post office, fire department, one general store and just over two-hundred registered voters in less than one square mile. The summer population swells to four and five thousand. What this town lacks in size it makes up in heart and spirit.

“For our size, we’re a very concentrated bit of energy,” said Sachs, who has served on the Cape May Point Environmental Commission for fifteen years, the last five as chairperson. “We’re all naturally inclined here.”

This natural inclination has resulted in a town that now serves as a model for other communities not only in Cape May County and New Jersey, but throughout the country, especially along the coasts. Zoologist Eric Stiles, who works for the New Jersey Endangered Species Program calls it “a model community in the use of planning to sustain a high quality of life. People lament something once it is gone; Cape May Point is a strong example of what a community can accomplish.”

What has been accomplished seems nothing short of amazing in light of the current real estate frenzy. In spite of skyrocketing land values and booming growth all around it, Cape May Point has managed to hold on to its small town “feel.”

While neighboring Cape May revels in her history and celebrated Victorian architecture, Cape May Point residents quietly cherish their natural wonders. Sachs listed them, “Two kinds of beaches, ocean and bay, a lake, a circle park lovingly landscaped to attract birds and butterflies and the Cape May Bird Observatory, all within a ten minute walk of each other.”
But what makes those features so unique and gives the whole place an extra special feeling is what was done well over a decade ago to protect habitat for migrating birds. Sachs and her husband Walter (who served on the borough council until his untimely death) realized in the mid-1980s that there was very little in the way of planning ordinances on the town’s books. Walter, who had taught city planning at the University of Pennsylvania “had the tools to explain planning and educate the community,” explained Sachs. “He felt he was saving the town. Some people thought he was meddling, but he helped keep it the way it is.”

There were some feelings against the new ordinances, but most of the residents supported them. “The landscaping ordinance came from the people, not the government,” asserted Keith Rice, president of the Cape May Point Taxpayers Association. “We are a very environmentally-conscious community, because we’re a stopover for migratory birds and butterflies. We’re different from most shore towns; we have no stone lawns, no houses five-feet from each other, we wanted to maintain the green look.”

Perhaps the most important ordinance is the dealing with landscaping and vegetation, or naturally growing plants, trees and vines.

“What precipitated it was seeing lots indiscriminately cleared,” Sachs went on. “We said, ‘We’ve got to do something to preserve this.’”

Pat Sutton, Program Director at the Cape May Bird Observatory remembered 1987 when three lots next to the Bird Observatory were “bulldozed flat. It was appalling. The community was appalled. Pebble lawns were going in. The Environmental Commission under Sally and Walter got active. They had a lot of work cut out for themselves.”

Sixty-seven ordinances were passed. One of the new laws set limits on how much floor space a home could contain relative to the size of the lot it sat on. “Walter knew the importance of town planning,” related Malcolm Fraser, mayor of Cape May Point for the past eight years. “Seashore communities were growing topsy-turvy in the 1980s. He was trying to keep Cape May Point from suffering the wall-to-wall building that is in many communities.”

The Bird Observatory was trying to help Cape May understand what they were sitting on, or under, or both. “Cape May is a crossroads of migration,” explained Sutton. “Millions of songbirds, shorebirds, hawks, owls, bats, butterflies, and dragonflies migrate through this area every year.”

Sutton began Operation Flight Path and the Backyard Habitat Program in 1987. “The Atlantic City casinos were going full steam, and a lot of growth was being funneled into Cape May County,” remembered Sutton. Acres of bird habitat were being transformed into manicured lawns. “Rather than be depressed, I thought I’d see what I could do with what I had to work with.”

She put together a handbook describing which trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials are most important to birds for food and cover. All are native species, plants that grow here naturally, rather than Asian ornamentals, and those birds look for to find food and shelter when they arrive here on their long journeys. They include trees like the Red Cedar, American Holly, Crab Apple, and Wild Black Cherry. All are uniquely adapted to weather and soil conditions found in this area.

Her work wasn’t lost on the residents of Cape May Point. “We shared a way of thinking and made information available. They were made aware that this is a really special thing they own. They embraced the idea; it makes sense.”

“Everyone here realizes how important Cape May Point is internationally. We are the last gas station for birds and butterflies,” said Sachs. “If we took it away, where would they be?”

RedWingBBRD430The New Jersey Audubon Society awarded Cape May Point’s Environmental Commission its Conservation Award in 1990 “for leadership in protecting New Jersey habitat for migratory birds.”

Eight years later, the state required each community that draws water from Cape May’s wells to pass a landscape ordinance similar to the one Cape May Point had worked out.

Both Cape May and West Cape May looked to Cape May Point and patterned their ordinances after the Point’s. “Indeed we were ahead of our time,” reflected Sachs. “This community is a very thinking, caring group of people.”

What surrounds Cape May Point besides the ocean and bay contributes to its natural ambiance as well. Its neighbor to the northeast is Cape May Point State Park, which in addition to the famous lighthouse, contains miles of trails through a gorgeous maritime forest and several fresh water ponds. The park, until it was turned over to the state in 1962, was a World War II U.S. Navy coastal artillery unit.

Beyond the park, lie the South Cape May Meadows. Donated to the Nature Conservancy, these acres of open space provide habitat and feeding grounds for the huge numbers of birds that migrate through Cape May each year.

On the other side of the Point is Sunset Beach, a popular spot for visitors to search for Cape May diamonds, bits of quartz which have been polished smooth by the surf. Just past the waves, rest the remains of the Atlantus, a two hundred fifty-foot “concrete” freighter built during World War I.

Intended to serve as a dock for the Cape May -Lewes Ferry, this mass of steel and concrete broke free from its mooring during a storm and became stuck bow first in the sand where it sits today, lapped by gentle waves.

Heading north again is the site of what was once the Northwest Magnesite Plant.

PointpathWb.jpgClosed decades ago, the land has recently been purchased by the state to remain as open space. Ornithologist Witmer Stone studied birds there in the early 1900s, publishing the findings in his Bird Studies of Old Cape May. After his death in 1939, the land became the Witmer Stone Wildlife Refuge, until 1942 when the magnasite plant was built to supply special bricks used in manufacturing steel. One can’t help but imagine that Stone would be pleased to see this land once again dedicated to wildlife. Next to it is Higbee Beach, a State Wildlife Management Area running all the way to the Cape May canal.

Cape May Point and its surroundings have become a popular destination for visitors and locals alike. Many consider a bicycle ride to the Point to enjoy the circle or walk around Lily Lake – an essential part of the Cape May experience. Birding has grown in popularity so much that the state last year quadrupled the size of the hawk watch platform in Cape May Point State Park.

The area continues to attract bird lovers, some eventually buying homes here. Judy Lukens and her husband Karl bought a second home at the Point four years ago made it their permanent home this year after retiring. They now work for the Bird Observatory as volunteer associate naturalists, chosen for their birding skills, and lead five or six birding expeditions every week.

Judy tried, too, to put Cape May Point into words. “I love it here,” she said. “I love the quiet, I love being out seeing migrations in progress everyday. I feel like I’ve been here forever.”

Desalination: Cape May Leads the Northeastern U.S.

“Water, water, everywhere —nor any drop to drink…”*

Cape May’s Desalination Plant’s no Albatross!

*Apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his legendary poem “Ryme of the Ancient Mariner”

desal1There can be no debate, water is the sustenance of life. As the world’s population and demands increase, natural resources deplete. Today’s worldwide water crisis has forced mankind to push nature even further. What would have been impossible just decades ago, is fast becoming the norm — turning salt water into fresh.

It is ironic, the city famous for Victorian tea tours and 19th century gingerbread houses, recently implemented cutting-edge technology with a desalination (also called reverse osmosis) plant and is calling the shots in supplying water to other municipalities. Cape May City now holds the distinction of being the only city in the northeastern United States to possess such a plant. Desalination is the process of removing salt and other minerals from briny water. This reverse osmosis technology has been employed in the southern states including the towns of Nags Head, Newport News, and Key West, all facing similar water shortages.

To understand Cape May’s water woes, one has to probe the ground underneath to the subterranean aquifers where the municipality has drawn its water from for over a century — aquifers which are actually layers of sand and gravel about 50- to 150-feet thick, separated by clay. Water travels through these at 10- to 15-feet per day.

Desal4003ltIn the early 1900s, wells driven in Cape May City to the Cohansey aquifer provided fresh water supply for the town. Through the years, the town prospered and grew and water needs were met. But by the 1960s, wells 1 and 2 had to be abandoned due to salt water intrusion.

Carl Behrens manages the plant

Carl Behrens, Cape May’s desalination plant manager, said as more wells were dug and water drawn, it placed a strain on the underground water supply. Behrens said pumping in wells leaves a cone of depression that gets bigger and as the cone of depression increases, the aquifer level lowers below sea level, and salty water encroaches.

“It’s a matter of pumping more than nature can replenish,” Behrens said.
Wells 3, 4 and 5 were drilled inland to avoid saline contamination. In the late 1960s, well 3 showed signs of contamination and was abandoned. By the 1980s, well 4, too, showed signs of salt water intrusion.

Cape May has a year-round population of 6,800 that mushrooms to 43,000 during the summer. If the city had done nothing, the wells would continue to be tainted by brackish water not fit for human consumption, and residents and tourists would be severely impacted.

Desal400optrIn 1995, Cape May City Mayor Dr. Edward Mahaney was informed by the Southern Cape DESAL Water Advisory Commission, a group studying the city’s water supply problem, that unless something drastic was done, Cape May’s last uncontaminated well would experience salt water intrusion by 1998.The city hired the engineering firm of Metcalf & Eddy Inc. to evaluate and propose a solution to the water supply problem.

The study, finished in April of 1996, proposed six alternatives, one being the construction of a reverse osmosis desalination plant with two new wells dug into the 800-foot Atlantic City Sands Aquifer, the deepest aquifer yet to be penetrated in Cape May County. The water wasn’t wholly pure, more a brackish mix of salt water, but the city believed by reducing the demand on the largely-tapped Cohansey Aquifer, salt water intrusion to Cape May would be slowed.

“The study’s primary and only realistic option to ensure a potable water supply was to build a desal plant,” Mahaney said. The city contacted state legislators and Robert Shinn, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Director.

Mahaney provided testimony at a hearing about the statewide water supply plan. Shinn reviewed Mahaney’s testimony and modified the state plan to incorporate a desalination plant for Cape May, making the city eligible for state and federal loans. Throughout the talks and negotiations with state officials, city council kept the public abreast of the desalination plant’s progress. Mahaney said the public approved of the city’s actions for the plant, a factor which made was the plant’s construction such a large success.

“The public overwhelmingly supported it. The public had heard over 20 years that there was an impending problem, but the way we presented the issue to the public, with experts in the field explaining where the potential water supply was, the public saw we had a plan and were willing to support our effort,” he said.

The city did have a plan. In June of 1996, the city awarded Metcalf & Eddy a contract to design and supervise construction of Cape May’s desalination facility. With the plant dovetailed to the state water plan, grants poured in.

desal2The United States Department of Agriculture provided a $1 million grant and a $2 million 40-year low-interest loan at 4.5 percent. The city also received $250,000 from the governor’s office and $1.7 million through the New Jersey Infrastructure Trust. Total cost for the desal plant: $5 million, the largest capital improvement in Cape May’s history.
“By being very aggressive and securing funding we put a state of the art plant within our economic ability and the rate payers didn’t have to pay for it,” Mahaney said.

In late 1997, the first of two wells were drilled and the plant’s construction began in April in 1998 and started operation in July. Housed in the Cape May Water Works, a brick façade built in 1926, the desalination plant is a towering system of elongated filters and pipes coursing with rushing water. The cavernous water works teems with pipes, pumps and computer wizardry, as water from the city’s wells travels through the reverse osmosis system.
The plant is entirely automated through Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) and probes linked to a computer bank monitor the systems valves and pumps which produce 750,000 gallons of water a day in the off-season and 2 million gallons a day in the summer.

The chemicals antiscalent, sulfuric acid, hydrated lime, sodium and chlorineare used to treat the water. Chlorine, the heady-scented chemical known to every swimming pool owner, is used to treat water and helps eradicate such naturally-forming bacteria and minerals.
“We constantly monitor the quality of our water,” Behrens said. “We’re checking for any kind of contaminant you can imagine. Even though you smell chlorine in the water there’s less chlorine in your water now. “Reverse osmosis is a process where brackish water is forced through a tiny, permeable membrane at 250-pounds per square inch, lessening the salt and solids in the water by as much as 98-percent of salts and solids. The membranes of thin film composites are wrapped in a spiral pattern and stored in massive tubes stacked in arrays.

Twenty pumps of various types and sizes move the water through the plant at 650-gallons per minute. Residue cleansed in the filtration process is flushed out into nearby Cape Island Creek and the effects closely monitored by New Jersey’ Rutgers University.
“A lot of people come and look at this plant,” Behrens added. “I do believe you’ll see reverse osmosis units up and down the coast in the future.” Fifteen graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently toured the facility.

Mahaney said Cape May’s desalination plant effectively provides water not only for year-round residents, but adequately handles the ballooning population of during the summer tourism season. Instead of a temporary short-term fix, the reverse osmosis technology will give the city a potable water supply for decades.

“We’ve assured our autonomy in providing water to our residents. The option council went through to build the desal plant wasn’t ingenious. It was an option to guarantee a water supply for a large period of time,” Mahaney said
Desalination technology was so effective that during the summer of 1999, when a torturous drought plagued the region, Cape May’s subterranean wells and desalination pumping station ran at full capacity.
“I am proud to be part of a solution that will last long past our lifetimes,” Mahaney said. “The desalination plant has moved Cape May to a leadership position statewide and nationally on water supply,” Mahaney said. “We’re in control of our own destiny. If we didn’t have an adequate water supply, it would damage our tourist industry. Now, we’re going to be the model for other towns experiencing similar problems.”

Living on the Bird Way

“Pisscchhh! pssch, pssch, pssch.”

It woke me very early one morning when I was living on Seagrove Avenue, out by Cape May Point. It was a very strange sound.  I got out of bed and looked through the window to find what my sleepy eyes perceived as aliens. Two of them stood in my yard, looking to the sky, holding onto elongated black eyes, making this noise and looking up as if this is where the starship would land to collect them.
A few rubs of my morning eyes and a couple of blinks later proved to clear things up. They weren’t other-worldly after all; they were English birders.

I asked about the sound they made and one of them told me it was called “pisching” (spelled wrong I am sure I will need to look further in to this…). Pisching is like calling a cat but you’re calling a bird instead.

I tried it, no birds came to me. Then it crossed my mind that I might get both cats and birds. Bad idea. So I left the pisching to the experienced birders.

Since that day, I have been listening and learning more and more about birding in Cape May.

And I am certainly not alone. Thousands of people from all over the world  come to Cape May to bird for the simple reason that millions of birds stop here. Cape May has most likely been on the birding highway, the migratory track, long before humans inhabited this land.  Hand’s History of Cape May written in 1895, talks of a “surprising variety” of birds that inhabited what was then Cape Island.  It remains true today.

Variety is the spice of the birding life

All year long Cape May plays host to the broadest range of bird species in North America.  Least Terns, Purple Martins, Pied Billed Grebe, Wilson’s Phalarope… all grace the sky over welcoming wetlands and woods. And you can watch them too, even if you’re not yet a practiced “Birder.”

You can begin with birding classes held by the Cape May Bird Observatory.  The nature trails at the Cape May Point State Park and the Nature Conservancy’s Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge are excellent places to initiate a bird watching adventure. You can widen your birding experience with visits to Higbee’s beach and the Rea’s farm on Bayshore (near the silo, not on Stevens Street near the produce stand). If you have questions while exploring these locations, you are bound to run into experienced birders at some point.  They’re everywhere around Cape May, particularly in the Fall.

Beware the water birds


Mute Swan

While walking through the nature trails at the Cape May Point State Park or strolling along Lake Lily you will surely come across Mute Swans. These graceful aquatic birds are not native to North America. They were introduced in the 19th century by Europeans. Although the swans are very pretty to look at, my own personal experience suggests that you don’t get too close. They have no almost no fear of humans and can go after you if they are distressed.

Everyone’s favorite bird (or at least the most obvious) at the seashore seems to be the Laughing Gull.  You have to look out for these characters too. They’ll spot you from high above, and just as you start to put that French fry into your mouth one of them will swoop in your direction. Before you know it, you’re looking blankly at your fingers where your food used to be; in the distance you’ll hear that “laughing” sound.

Cape May County has one of the largest Laughing Gull colonies in the world. With so many people and so many different tasty foods to swipe, I’d probably hang around Cape May’s beaches too if I were a gull. And though some people think they’re pests, I think they’re quite beautiful, especially in flight when they seem to be painted right on the sky.

Endangered by man… and woman

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Several of the bird species in and around Cape May, including the Least Tern, the Pied Billed Grebe, the Piping Plover, are listed on the endangered or threatened list for birds in New Jersey.  The reason for the decline of the population of the Least Tern, and possibly the Piping Plover, is rooted in fashion. During the Victorian period, as many as 1,200 Least Terns were killed per day so that their skin and feathers could be used to fashion stylish hats.  Thankfully, soon after the plucking spree came the signing of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act which prohibited the sale, purchase, taking or possessing any wild migratory bird. The Least Terns and Piping Plovers began to reappear in large numbers, but were again knocked back by humans. This time it was land development along beaches where they nest that led to another rapid decline.

Today we’re going to great lengths to protect these and many other species of birds. From the cove beach at the end of the promenade in Cape May City to Cape May Point State Park, eight feet of the sand that lies between the dunes and the water is roped off to prevent humans and pets from approaching delicate nesting areas. Signs are posted explaining  to visitors and children why they cannot walk or play on this section of the beach. For the most part people obey these rules. But there are always a few who feel they are being kept from some big secret and step  over the ropes. They discover nothing except that their clumsy behavior  disrupts the habitat. And the nesting birds pay the price.

Not just birds either…

flutterbySeptember is the month that the Monarch Butterflies migrate. In mid-September the sky is alive with activity. Around every corner you can find a butterfly. The Monarchs too stop off in Cape May to rest up. Astoundingly, these delicate creatures attempt an annual journey of 2,000 miles to their winter home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. If you are a Monarch enthusiast Cape May is the place to be this month.

As far as I know, however, no one is pssching in the yards of Cape May Point in search of Monarch butterflies.  Not yet, any way.

For more information on the importance of the Cape May “rest stop on the Birdway,” be sure to visit the Cape May Bird Observatory or the New Jersey Audubon Society website. You may even want to consider extended birding workshops offered by the staff of the CMBO.

To view a complete list of the endangered and threatened birds of New Jersey please visit

Purple Martins are the largest member of the swallow family in North America. Once coupled, Purple Martins are a monogamous pair. They work equally together building the nest and caring for their young. These birds are welcomed by the community.  People often supply the Martin’s with homes for the breeding season, which the Martins have become totally dependant upon. Some  people who have supplied the bird houses did so with the hope that Purple Martins will consume all the mosquitoes around their yards.  Although they do consume their fair share of flying insects,  mosquitoes are not among them.

NOTE:  Now don’t go evicting your Martins yet!  By supplying these birds with homes you are helping to ensure the survival of the species.