I grew up in New York—Tarrytown, to be exact, about 30 miles north of the city, along the Hudson River—and as a New Yorker, I shared the long-held belief that New Jersey, just across the river to the south, was a dump. Outside of grave necessity, no self-respecting New Yorker would ever set foot there: It was the pits, and had nothing to offer the rest of the nation except industrial waste and a means of access to points south. This was received knowledge to all who lived in the Empire State, handed down from one generation to the next. We didn’t even question it: that was the story, and we stuck to it.
Well, we were wrong. In the years since my youth, as I’ve grown more aware and observant, New Jersey has become one of my favorite places in the world. This may sound crazy to anyone who’s only experienced the state from inside a moving vehicle on his or her way somewhere else, but get off the Turnpike or Garden State, and a different world begins to emerge. It’s here, in the salt marshes and shorelines, on the waterways and refuges, where the Garden State comes to life. When you really begin paying attention, you’ll discover that, far from an industrial wasteland, New Jersey is a treasure-trove of natural beauty, offering its rewards up to those willing to step off the road more traveled and explore. And if you happen to be a birder, the rewards are considerable.
In a state rich in birding hotspots, Cape May is New Jersey’s crown jewel. Its status among birders is legendary, regularly filling the top slot on lists of the best places to bird—and it’s easy to see why. Cape May sits squarely along the Atlantic Americas flyway—which spans the East Coast from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego—and every year it serves as a critical stopover for countless numbers of migrants, representing hundreds of bird species. Warblers, raptors, ducks, geese, waders, shorebirds, songbirds, swallows, all descend on the area to rest and feed—a frenzied, feathered flood. With them come the birders, flocking here by the tens of thousands to take in the splendor of the regular avian cast, and with luck encounter something rare, a vagrant carried from distant lands on the winds of a storm and dropped fortuitously, if unceremoniously, onto Cape May. Like the birders themselves, they hail from across the globe: Fulvous Whistling Ducks and Zone-tailed Hawks from the southwestern US; from Europe, a Northern Lapwing; a White-tailed Tropicbird from Bermuda and Black-capped Petrel from the Caribbean; Puffins from the icy North Atlantic; Barnacle Geese from Greenland and a South Polar Skua from Antarctica; from the western US, a Black-throated Gray Warbler; and in the span of seven months in 2014, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Europe), Fork-tailed Flycatcher (South America), Western Tanager and Vermillion Flycatcher (western US), and contending for the record for most far-flung visitor, a Whiskered Tern from the African coast.
Along with Cape May’s customary procession of bird life, magnificent in its own right, every trip holds the promise of the unexpected. And as anyone who’s been there more than once knows, the unexpected shows up in Cape May with astonishing regularity. We’ve been venturing down from western Massachusetts every year since 2009 (though I first visited some 35 years ago, during which time a Northern Wheatear dropped in out of nowhere), and every year Cape May’s held true to its reputation as a magnet for the unusual. That first year—at nine years old, my son’s inaugural excursion—we watched a quartet of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, far from their southwestern home, enjoying the bounty of the bird observatory’s duck pond. The following fall, it was a Eurasian Wigeon on the duck pond, a European Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach, and a Brown Booby from the Caribbean cruising the bay for fish. The year after that found a highly secretive Connecticut Warbler skulking in the understory. And so on, each year offering encounters with the wondrous and rare.
But Cape May is more than just a haven for the seldom-seen. Common birds abound here as well, in numbers that often stagger the imagination. During a typical migration season, raptors and songbirds come through by the tens of thousands (this year, a single October morning saw a flight of more than 56,000 warblers). Seawatching can be even more astounding: by mid November, observers logged more than half a million birds—most of them gulls, terns, and mixed waterfowl—streaming past the Avalon seawatch site. And during our most recent visit this fall, flocks of Tree Swallows, each several thousand strong, swarmed over us in waves, a press of life unlike anything I’d yet seen, a primal avian flame fueled by a bounty of bayberry and bugs. We usually time our visits to take in the fall raptor migration—something for which Cape May is justifiably renowned—but this year we arrived at the peak movement of these incredible swallows. They’re amazing birds, the paragon of aerial agility, and we always delight in their return to our northeastern skies. But this was a sight beyond measure, the familiar in a context decidedly not so: acrobatic clouds catching dinner on the wing or descending en masse to pick meals from the bushes. We even managed to catch a few in rare moments of repose, sitting motionless on the paths before us.
Waterfowl also arrive with the turning of the leaves, and alongside the usual crew of dabblers and divers, there are always a few surprises. The late-September appearance of a Black Swan caused more than a little stir, and even though it was almost certainly not a wild bird (native to Australia, Black Swans are also staples of zoos and private waterfowl collections; this one likely escaped or was intentionally released), it was still thrilling to see this beautiful bird in a natural setting. Joining the swan was a drake Eurasian Wigeon, his striking red head standing out from the green crowns of his American cousins. Though this Old World duck has become a fall fixture in Cape May, they never show up in large numbers and are always a special treat. Somewhat more surprising was the female Redhead we encountered swimming with the Blue-winged Teals and American Black Ducks at the Meadows. Typically found along the Gulf Coast in fall and winter, this one strayed a bit and ended up in birding Mecca—to the delight of the throngs of birders who happened upon her.
But the biggest surprise for us came in the form of an unassuming little songbird from the southwest. Jacob Drucker, a good friend, recent Hampshire College grad, and CMBO volunteer, brought it to our attention as we were about to stake out space on the hawkwatch platform and scan the skies for a long-shot Golden Eagle. He didn’t even return my greeting—there was no time for that (when presented with a rarity, an excited birder’s priority is to share it with others; the usual pleasantries of friendly reconnection can come later)—he simply said, “Did you chase the Bell’s Vireo?” and then gave me directions to find it (essentially, “go here and look for the other birders”—also typical). And so we chased.
Now to be fair, in the long and storied history of tracking down rare birds, this wasn’t much of a chase. The first lucky birders spotted it along the edge of a meadow not 15 minutes from where we were. We burned another five minutes walking from the car to the meadow—and directly into a knot of people festooned with binoculars and cameras, all gazing expectantly in the same direction. Short of hanging a sign that read “rare bird this way,” there was no clearer indication that something extraordinary was about. We planted ourselves in the crowd; the vireo returned less than 10 minutes later and spent the next half hour feeding in the thicket a dozen feet from where we stood. It was spellbinding, and we remarked upon it in reverent tones, careful not to disturb the bird. And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. Obeying some signal discernable to it alone, the vireo disappeared deep into the woods. The crowd slowly dispersed and we all went our separate ways, taking with us the memory of our collective experience. I felt refreshed and inspired, my appreciation for the boundlessness of the possible restored by the serendipitous appearance of this little bird.
Cape May does that to you. It presents you with a panoply of the sublime and then dares you to not be moved by it. Trips here take on the flavor of religious pilgrimages, wanderers coming from near and far to stand in the presence of the mystical and holy. We receive spiritual renewal and salvation through the grace and beauty of these spectacular, wondrous creatures, the feathered heralds of Nature herself—and we are reminded that even humanity’s greatest accomplishments are nothing compared to the simple perfection of a tiny bird.