Friday, May 6, 2016

Why is Cape May so full of birds?

That's the question on everyone's mind. Yes, Cape May is mecca for birds and birders, but spring in Cape May is typically fast and furious for songbirds, with new waves coming on the heels of the last and fallout conditions not nearly as common as those in fall. So what's going on this year, where birds are both diverse and absolutely abundant throughout the Cape May region? Over 30 species of warbler have been seen during the last three days, oodles of Grosbeaks, Tanagers, Orioles, Buntings, and Sparrows are flushing from underfoot for anyone willing to brave to wet cool conditions at Higbee Beach WMA. The streets of Cape May Point have been host to over five species of thrush with the most numerous being Veery and Wood Thrush, aside from our ubiquitous Turdus migratorious (the glorious American Robin). So, what do we attribute this all-out-fall-out of spring migrants? The weather, of course. It all started on the evening of May 1, when strong southwesterly flow over Virginia and the Carolinas shunted the leading edge of a major migration to the east coast, specifically the Delmarva and Cape May Peninsulas. The Delmarva received the lion's share of the birds, but Cape May has the added benefit of being a small bit of land in comparison, which magnifies the impact of a wave of new arrivals proportionally. Here is the radar from May 1 to May 2nd, showing the strong flow of birds from the southwest to northeast.

Base Reflectivity night of May 1st to morning of May 2nd

Base Velocity, showing direction and speed, from night of May 1st to morning of May 2nd

So from the videos above show strong southwesterly flow pushing the birds over the Delmarva and up to Cape May. What you can't see is the absolutely massive migration of birds from the south, over Virginia and the carolinas, that are feeding this wave of birds.

Below is the radar from the next night into the following morning (May 2nd to 3rd) where more of the birds from the south were again pushed up into the Delmarva, and more of the Delmarva birds moved up into New Jersey. 

Base Reflectivity showing the density of birds (covered by precipitation) moving from WSW->ENE 

Radial Velocity showing the direction and speed of precipitation and birds (underneath the precip) moving initially SW->NE, but later WSW->ENE 

The videos above show another wave of migrants hitting the east coast, mixed with some heavy precipitation which both limited the distance (although density remained very high under the precipitation) of bird migration, resulting in more concentration at Cape May and little birds leaving the region. The next two nights we saw little to no migration over our region resulting in only local movements of birds into better habitat. The result on the ground has been excellent birding at all the hotspots, especially the Higbee Beach WMA, The Rea Farm (Beanery), Cox Hall Creek WMA, and The Nature Conservancy's Cape May Meadows. The woods around the Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center has been absolutely flooded with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (up to 12 at once), a number of Blue Grosbeaks, dozens of Indigo Buntings, and a smattering of warblers and vireos. 

One of the most unexpected finds, though, was this stunning Snow Bunting originally found by Rod MacKenzie  in the afternoon of May 4th, and still showing very well at Cape May Point State Park as of this afternoon! Here is a photo by local ornithologist Michael Lanzone. Mike also noted that a Snow Bunting looking very much like the same individual was sighted at the south end of Cape Hatteras on May 2nd!

Snow Bunting © Mike Lanzone 2016

So, what does the future hold? Well, if you believe the weather forecast (which this author does!) it's looking like we should see more birds coming to Cape May over the next week! Over the weekend the weather should keep most of these birds around, but early next week we will see the arrival of another low pressure system with a nice southwesterly flow to our south, and west/northwest flow to our north. That combination makes for great birding in Cape May, and is actually more the exception than the rule in a typical spring...but this is no typical spring!

We've got a few big things coming up over the next few weeks you should be aware of. First is the 33rd Annual World Series of Birding ( a 24-hour bird-a-thon fundraiser where over 200 species are routinely tallied each year across New Jersey. Cape Island alone usually sports a cumulative list of over 200 species and I expect given the way this spring is going, this will be a year for the record books! 

Almost immediately following the World Series of Birding is our Cape May Spring Festival - SO.MANY.BIRDS! where you can join three hundred of your best birding friends on everything from guided bird walks, small-group van trips, excellent workshops, hear wonderful keynote speakers, partake in shorebird banding demonstrations, and take a moonlight walk to witness the arrival and spawning of the prehistoric Horseshoe Crab! It's going to be a bird-filled extravaganza! You can get more information about the festival here:

And of course you can find out everything going on here in Cape May within the pages of our Kestrel Express quarterly publication, downloadable by clicking here.

So from all of us at CMBO, we hope to see you here soon!

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