Winter Rarities at Cape May Point SP

It isn’t much of a secret that Cape May Point State Park, at the southern tip of New Jersey, is one of the country’s top birding locations and rarity traps. Every winter something interesting turns up at the park and stays for a few days, weeks, or maybe even over-winters there. This winter, however, is totally off the charts! Besides the Western Grebe hanging out in Cape May Harbor, the Western Tanager at Cape May Court House, the wandering Crested Caracara, the Miami Beach Black-headed Gull, and the immature male King Eider floating off Cape May Point, there is a nice collection of winter warblers and other interesting birds spending their time at Cape May Point State Park.

Between the time my friends and I spent birding Cape May Point on January 2nd and 3rd, and then again on the 19th through 21st, we found a total of 91 species! It would be easy to spend an entire day birding just Cape May Point between the dune crossings, the state park, the meadows, Lily Lake, the concrete ship, and especially the state park. The park has a nice variety of habitat, ranging from small cedar groves to cattail marshes to beach to forest brambles. Up until the past few days, it has also been quite warm in southern Jersey and that has surely added to the diversity of bird life.

Five of at least nine Red Crossbills that fly back and forth between the pines at the state park and the pines at the dune crossings. All appear to be Type 10's. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Five of at least nine Red Crossbills that fly back and forth between the pines at the state park and the pines at the dune crossings. All appear to be Type 10′s. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

This past weekend, my friend Josh Lefever and I planned to spend quite a bit of time wandering around the state park during the morning hours and search for some of the cool birds around. There are multiple small flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers that wander around the state park and most of the particularly special birds mix in with them. The female Townsend’s Warbler that Glen Davis discovered in his yard at Cape May Point back in December wanders over to the state park during the day and it still being seen regularly. There is also at least 4 Orange-crowned Warblers, a stunning White-eyed Vireo, at least one Nashville Warbler, one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a ‘Western’ Palm Warbler in addition to wandering flocks of Red and White-winged Crossbills, at least 22 waterfowl species, Eurasian-collared Doves, shorebirds, gulls, sparrows, and a bunch of other really fun winter birds.

Over the course of the weekend, we managed to see most of the birds mentioned above and actually ran in to a few of them on multiple occasions. Eurasian-collared Doves were our biggest miss though. On every trip I have taken to Cape May in recent years, there have always been 2 collared-doves that hang out at Cape May Point and if you drive through the area you can pretty much count on seeing them. However, on this trip we looked for them at least 6 times and never came across them. The local birders think the doves are trying to be a little less conspicuous since there have been so many more Northern Goshawks around this year than normal. We also never managed to find the gnatcatcher, although we did really well with pretty much everything else.

Perhaps the easiest to find of the uncommon species were the Orange-crowned Warblers. Like I mentioned, there seem to be at least 4 individuals according to local birders. I would say that Josh and I came across two during the weekend. I rarely see Orange-crowned Warblers in the eastern states and I always have trouble getting a decent photo of them – this weekend was no different. Although we managed to see the Orange-crowns at least a handful of times, I was never able to get a really nice photo – only distant and mostly blurry shots like the one below.

I really shouldn't complain, since we did see Orange-crowned Warblers out in the open and actively foraging on multiple occasions over the weekend, but I was just never able to get close enough for the kind of photos I really wanted of this species....one of my favorite warblers. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

I really shouldn’t complain, since we did see Orange-crowned Warblers out in the open and actively foraging on multiple occasions over the weekend, but I was just never able to get close enough for the kind of photos I really wanted of this species….one of my favorite warblers. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Luckily, many of the other species were very cooperative for photos. By far the most accomodating of the bunch was the White-eyed Vireo. We first saw the bird on January 19th and ended up running in to it a few more times throughout the weekend. On the 19th, when we were leaving the state park we heard it from along the entrance/exit road and quickly pulled over to get better looks. The vireo was foraging in the brush and cedars along the road and offered stunning views as it plucked stinkbugs and hopped around in the sunlight.

The continuing White-eyed Vireo was very cooperative for photos, showing off to us by plucking green stinkbugs and hopping around in the sunlight. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The continuing White-eyed Vireo was very cooperative for photos, showing off to us by plucking green stinkbugs and hopping around in the sunlight. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

There are possibly two Nashville Warblers hanging around the state park, one of which we were able to catch up with after getting a tip from local birder Sam Galick. The warbler was mixed in with a loose flock of chickadees and titmice at the back end of the state park and although I tried my best, I was only able to snap off one decent photo of the bird and unfortunately its head was turned the wrong direction….

The Nashville Warbler giving me the cold shoulder. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The Nashville Warbler giving me the cold shoulder. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

When Mark Mizak, Josh Lefever, and I visited Cape May back during the first few days of 2013 we did see the female Townsend’s Warbler in Glen Davis’ front yard. However, last weekend Josh and I had a bit of trouble finding it at the state park. On one morning, while birding with Sam Galick we heard the bird chipping as it flew over but there was no hope for getting a photo. Luckily on our last visit to the state park for the weekend, we had an incredible encounter with the Townsend’s as it sat out in the open momentarily, and at eye level!

Sure there are a few unfortunately-placed shadows on the bird, but it's still a stunning (and rare) Townsend's Warbler! (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Sure there are a few unfortunately-placed shadows on the bird, but it’s still a stunning (and rare) Townsend’s Warbler! (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Just on the north side of the state park is the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, also known as “the meadows”. We took a stroll through there on January 21st and managed to find 43 species in a little over an hour! There was a similar collection of waterfowl, raptors, and gulls (including a Lesser Black-backed), but the highlight of our time there was seeing both local, wintering subspecies of Savannah Sparrow! We were able to find 3 ‘Ipswich’ Savannah Sparrows foraging in the dunes. Two of the birds perched up nicely together in the early-morning sunlight for a nice photo opportunity.

Two 'Ipswich' Savannah Sparrows at the meadows. This pale subspecies breeds on Sable Island, Nova Scotia and then winters along the coastal dunes of the east coast. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Two ‘Ipswich’ Savannah Sparrows at the meadows. This pale subspecies breeds on Sable Island, Nova Scotia and then winters along the coastal dunes of the east coast. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Many of the more common bird species at Cape May Point also wanted to make sure they got our attention. Surely the most dramatic scene was when we were walking along a trail and heard birds scuffling around in the brush nearby. Soon we spotted a Rock Pigeon crawling around on the ground, and then an adult Cooper’s Hawk launched up out of the brush only to quickly drop back down to the ground and run down the pigeon on foot, grabbing and swiftly killing the pigeon. The Cooper’s huddled over its meal and was free to eat it in peace, being covered safely by all the thick and tangled brush. I wasn’t able to get any photos of the hawk but below is a small gallery of a few other, more common species we saw around the point.

Rare and interesting winter birds weren’t the only animals making Cape May Point so special – the weather last weekend also provided enough warmth to get a handful of butterfly species active. We ran in to numerous Red Admirals and there were also Mourning Cloaks, Common Buckeyes, and a few other species reported by birders. Certainly the most exciting find was New Jersey’s first January record of an American Lady. More information on the butterflies being seen in Cape May as well as a photo of the American Lady can be found at this link.

A worn, ratty, bird-bitten Red Admiral tries to warm up on a cool January morning. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

A worn, ratty, bird-bitten Red Admiral tries to warm up on a cool January morning. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

We really had a great time visiting Cape May Point, especially the state park. If you live anywhere near southern New Jersey and are really longing to see some cool winter birds and a nice collection of rarities, I would recommend taking a weekend trip! Good luck if you do and feel free to ask for any tips on finding some of these birds, in the comments of this post!