Birds By the Sea

Osprey Cam at South Cape May Meadows. (The Nature Conservancy)

The Jersey Shore is a Mecca for Birdwatchers

By Anne Levin

In an Osprey nest perched above South Cape May Meadows nature preserve this past spring, an ongoing drama kept birdwatchers glued to their screens. A camera focused on the nest revealed two pairs of the fish-eating birds of prey, fighting a territorial battle.

The war began when the pair that ruled the roost last year returned to find another couple had taken up residency. “There was a bit of a squabble,” said Bob Allen, assistant state director at The Nature Conservancy, which features the nest, live, on its webcam. “Just as that got settled, a Great Horned Owl started showing up at night. And they eat babies.”

The original pair eventually reclaimed the nest. But the drama was addictive while it lasted. “It’s like a soap opera,” said Allen. “We get emails from people who watch the camera all the time. It’s amazing what they see and how connected they get to the birds. It’s like reality TV.”

Birdwatchers with binoculars, cameras, and field guides at the beach searching for shorebirds in Cape May during the peak of spring migration.

Keeping up with the Ospreys is just one of the reasons birdwatchers, or “birders,” flock to the Jersey Shore. With over 465 species to boast, New Jersey is a major seasonal migration path for birds and waterfowl. South Cape May Meadows is an internationally known birders’ paradise. The five-mile barrier beach of Sandy Hook is another prime spot. And just above Atlantic City, the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is a major draw, with an eight-mile, one-way loop that can be navigated by car with a good pair of binoculars, or “binos,” as birders often call them.

Shore birds migration at Cape May. (By Roman Canas/Shutterstock.com)

To nitpick a little, there are birdwatchers, and there are birders. The difference, according to ornithology.com, can be a matter of degree.

“Birders are more intense, more dedicated, more serious about the hobby and are sometimes offended by being called a birdwatcher, even though that’s what they really are,” reads an explanation on the website. “While birdwatchers own a cheap pair of binoculars and a beat-up bird field guide, birders tend to have several pairs of binoculars, including a very expensive one, plus a spotting scope. Birdwatchers may keep a list of the birds they have seen, but are not very diligent about it. Birders are obsessive about keeping a life list, and often maintain country lists, state lists, county lists, and even zoo and TV lists of the birds they have seen. Birdwatchers might spend a few hours in the field on a birdwatching day, while birders arise before dawn, bird all day, and look for owls at night. Every person who watches birds has his or her own style and dedication to the hobby.”

People often get hooked unexpectedly. For Allen, who grew up in Hopewell, the birding habit began when he was an undergraduate at Rutgers University. “I was a biology major, and I needed to take some biology classes, so I signed up for this thing called ornithology,” he said. “I almost didn’t, because it met too early in the morning. But I did, and I fell in love with it, and have actually ended up doing it as a career.”

Least Tern and chick. (By Harry Collins Photography/Shutterstock.com)

Mike Elfassy, whose intricate photographs of birds appear on the website of Gateway National Park, where Sandy Hook is located, wrote, “Bird watching draws people in for a wide range of reasons: From science and conservation to art or just passing interest. The parts that I enjoy the most are the elements of discovery, connection, and sharing my experiences. When watching birds in their daily and annual cycles you start to recognize their individual behaviors and notice seasonality at play in the broader ecosystem.”

Birds are everywhere, said Allen. “Once you start to pay attention, you’re let into this whole world happening around you that you may not have noticed. It’s fascinating, beautiful-sounding, and colorful. It can be in your backyard, or places like the Jersey Shore. It takes me to places I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise.”

That can be somewhere beautiful — or not. “When I was in Texas once, we went to the Brownsville city dump to see a rare Mexican Crow,” Allen said. “It was the only place it would show up. We saw it almost immediately.”

A Herring Gull calmly prepares to have a crab lunch on the beach at Holgate. (By CWieders/Shutterstock.com)

Bob Allen, assistant state director at The Nature Conservancy.

South Cape May Meadows is considered one of the best places in New Jersey to scout out birds. The 200-acre Nature Conservancy preserve is located in between the town of Cape May and Cape May Point, and borders Cape May Point State Park. The site has a surprising history. From the mid-to-late 1800s to the 1940s, it was a vacation town with houses, hotels, tourist attractions including a three-story wooden elephant, and a railroad. That all came to an end after years of storms eroded the land.

“It was getting hit by too many flooding events,” said Allen. “By 1944, it was abandoned. A couple of the houses got moved to Cape May. There are pictures of people pulling them with horses. It was a cow pasture for a long time, and there were plans to develop it into a campground. But in the late 1980s, The Nature Conservancy purchased it and protected it, and then opened it to the public. We’ve improved the habitat and made it a lot more friendly to walk around. What’s neat is that the main trails were actually streets — 6th and 9th avenues.”

Birders and birdwatchers who look along the shore are likely to see Herons, Egrets, and lots of Ducks. “Then there are birds, like the Red-Winged Blackbird,” said Allen. “Among my favorites that are more unusual are the Osprey, which almost went extinct in New Jersey during the time of [the pesticide] DDT. The fact that they are here should make everyone happy, because it’s a sign of things getting better.”

An American Oystercatcher pokes at a horseshoe crab on Sandy Hook beach. (By Dawn J Benko/Shutterstock.com)

What is out there to see, and hear, depends on the time of year and the time of day. “In spring, I would start out early because you want to hear all the birds that are singing in the forest and the woods. They sing for first hour or two of the day and then get quieter,” said Allen. “Then from there, I would probably go to various wetlands along the Jersey coast. There are great freshwater wetlands, and great salt marshes. It’s good to be there in the middle of the day, because the birds are active — Egrets, Great Blue Herons, etc. That’s where I take people who are just beginning You can keep going, of course, and as it gets closer to dark, they start to sing again.”

Looking and listening for birds along the Jersey Shore is unique. “It’s a mixture of lots of different kinds of habitats, and there are different kinds of birds in very close proximity,” said Allen. “And the location is key, especially in the spring and fall migrations of birds. They end up concentrated there, so you get to see lots of species, and lots of individuals of those species as well. There are so many more things to see.”

The hawk watch platform at Cape May Point State Park.