High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

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 http://www.njaudubon.org/NatureNotes/endanger.html.

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.