13 November 2013

Birding Cape May - Chasing yanks in USA (pt 2/2)

Yanks and Sibes are words that will raise the pulse of any European birder. Maybe it is cheating, but after growing up with Alstrøm, Colston and Lewingtons ´Rare Birds in Europe´ book, I have always dreamt of seeing more of those exotic birds from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. To inform the non-birding reader of this post: Sibes and Yanks refer to rare birds found in Europe originating form Siberia and USA. When found as rare birds in Europe you know that these are birds that have travelled great distances and then being observed by a birder. It is the birder equivalent of finding the needle in a haystack. Like birders have a habit of doing, since they actually look for them. So going to USA to be flooded in Yanks is perhaps cheating a bit. But then again birders migrate too and Cape May seemed like a great place to visit, considering they run a very nice bird festival, there are loads of great sites to visit, good people to meet and Yanks everywhere! This is Cape May part 2 of 2 (check out 1/2)

American Robin: one of three species that featured on the cover of the legendary ´Rare Birds Guide´. Present in Cape May in thousands, a mega rarity in Europe. A very cool bird where ever you see it. 

Palm Warbler - the American wood warblers are an amazing group of birds. Often spectacularly colored and with amazing patterns. In autumn less striking but still very cool.

Aerial view over Cape May. Recognized by birders all over USA as one of the finest birding destinations in North America. 

Welcome birders

In 2012 the Biotope office visited Cape May and a few other birding destinations in North America. In addition to a seeing loads of new and exciting bird species we also met a lot of great birders. In Cape May we got to know many of the good people that make the local birding community so active, from the local bird observatory to the Audubon Society. We went north to learn more about the great work that is being done at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. At Long Point in Canada we got to see the amazing work done by the birders at Long Point Bird Observatory

This year we headed back for a concentrated Cape May birding experience! Their annual bird festival was our main reason to go. This was the 67th! As birders all over the world will recognize: the birding community is not simply a meeting for salesmen. It is a meeting place for dedicated and passionate birders and nature enthusiasts. We had filled our bags with material from our home destination, Varanger, eager to promote a place we love for its unique birdlife. However when visiting places birders like to contribute to the exploring. We decided to stay for almost three weeks. As birder architects our passion is all about understanding a birding destination, not only seeing great birds. For the Cape May experience we brought our Quadrocopter / camera setup. We also had enough time to get to know the sites, the birders and the birds. We hope that the following article will give you a wider perspective of a very cool US birding destination and even inspire you to visit it. We enjoyed it a lot! 

Welcome birders & welcome birdies: In Cape May you will find birds and birders everywhere. The sites are made easily accessible by paths, and chances are good you will meet birders with which you can share info on latest sightings, etc. In photo above: Our Norway-birder friend Anders, Guides from New Jersey Audubon talking birds, bird counting at Highbee, Owl birding with Richard Crossley, CMBO HQ and the very nice ex-golf course now bird site Cox Hall.

Varanger visiting Cape May - Thanks to our good supporters in Varanger we had the opportunity to bring an exhibition with us, showcasing Varanger - the worlds finest and easiest accessible birding destination! No less. Some North American birders may disagree here. But given that flights from New York to Oslo can cost as little as 400$ (including return!), then Oslo to and from Kirkenes from 150$. And in Varanger you will find decent priced car rentals, a wide variety of accomodation, restaurants, shops, gas stations, and pretty much everything you would not expect to find in the Arctic! And like we showed in the exhibition and in our leaflets: you can bird both tundra, taiga and arctic coast within a day. Easy. Cool. Nuff said.

The bird festival is perhaps not the biggest, but birders migrate too, and it is a great place to meet new and old birder friends! Like with Rutland Birdfair I am certain that most non-birders would be surprised to see the level of expertise and variety in the birding scene. There are a wide range of bird enterprises! 
In the above photo, from top left to lower right (a couple of our favorites from the convention centre): 
-In Cape May it seemed like the New Jersey Audubon did good with the sales (judging by the empty boxes piling up). 
-It was also great to meet our birder friend Matt Young from the pioneering Cornell Lab (running ebird and other cutting edge projects). 
-There are always several bird tour companies present at any bird festival. I enjoyed meeting Mike Watson from Birdquest (by the way they already run tours to Varanger!). 
-Several publishers do bird books, and Princeton are one of them (thanks for the books Robert!). They are also about to publish my next favorite bird book: the Ian Lewington illustrated `Rare Birds of North America` bird guide. I know it will be my next favourite bird book since I have already seen several of the plates in this coming visual masterpiece. 
-Meeting Michael O'Brien and Louise Zemaitis was also great (thanks for telling us about the Black-throated Blue Warbler outside the Convention Centre! Top bird.). I suspect that the company they guide for will run tours to Varanger in the future... 
-And as with all bird festivals the birder bling producers are present. Here is Swarovski showing off their finest glass. No doubt on top of any birders wish list.

Biotope aerials from Cape May

Seeing bird sites from a birds perspective is great for understanding a destination. This is why we brought our Quadcopter-Camera setup. An amazing tool for a birder architect. We did a series of aerials over Cape May. Below are a few of the sites seen from above. 

Stone Harbour aerial panorama: view north from above Nummys Island. This is only 15 minutes drive north of Cape May town. The surrounding areas are saltwater marshes and an amazing tidal landscape with a very rich birdlife. Even the Stone Harbour town centre has its own bird sanctuary. This is the green space in the town centre, a mixed habitat site and the perfect resting and feeding ground for migrating passerines.

This aerial panorama is taken on the same flight as the above. Below is Nummys Island, looking south towards Wildwood town. Cape May is the next and final place on the New Jersey peninsula.

The south end of Cape May, the concentration point for massive amounts of birds migrating south every autumn. This wetland is known as the Meadows, one of the top bird sites in Cape May. In the upper left corner is Cape May Point and the lighthouse.

Aerial view over Cape May point, taken from above the lighthouse. The small lake in the centre of the photo is Lily Lake. The CMBO (Cape May Bird Observatory) is hidden by trees near the edge of Lily Lake. If you are in Cape May be sure to visit. Pro bird architects should also visit the Cape May Point, perhaps not so much for the houses (although they are many and often interesting in themselves), but for their gardens. Architects too often have a desire to over design, in the sense that very little is left to chance, random or indecisiveness. The result is maybe sophistication in a building, but nature itself is almost allways left in a worse condition then necessary. The wild growing gardens in Cape May Point are beautifully managed, meaning much space is left to manage itself whilst only parts of the gardens are trimmed. We have previously written about how green is not always good nature. These gardens work very well, and a birder can easily spend a couple of weeks exploring the rich birdlife in the Cape May Point gardens. This is good green! 

The Hawk Watch and more birder architecture

This is the in-the-field HQ for birders visiting Cape May. This is where info is shared, birders meet and migrating birds are counted and admired. The Hawk Watch platform is probably one of the worlds biggest bird towers. Perhaps not very advanced in its form or function, but it can cater to the needs of more then a hundred birders at the time! The needs being a good elevated viewpoint. The rest is detail. This is the place to visit at least once a day when in Cape May. At the south end of the Cape this is where impressive amounts of Hawks, vultures, falcons and passerines can be seen most concentrated. On a good migration day hundred thousands of birds pass this point, and surely it is one of the top sites in the world to experience the natural wonder of bird migration. 

Red-tailed Hawk over Cape May. One of the most common raptors. 

The Hawk Watch - also with a lot of yanks, with an aerial to better see the size.

The nature reserves (or wildlife refuges in US speak) are almost always impressively available through networks of nature trails, and even drive through trails (!). The birding architecture however is not as impressive. Again we see that the bird hides have not been given too much consideration. The standard is the plattform and the occasional box hide. ranging in quality from solid to shed. Still basic is endlessly better then nothing. With the network of nature trails this makes nature experiences available, even if you sometimes scare away the ducks closest to the hides. 

The birds

 A Cape May birding experience can not possibly be described in a few words and photos. It is a world class destination. Movement of birds can be massive. Passerines in hundred thousands, seaducks off the shore in ten thousands, and everything with a wide variety of species. We are a bit surprised to only meet a hand full of European birders in Cape May (Perhaps they are on Corvo chasing yanks never before seen in WP!). Being a Varanger birder, the highlight is seeing the wide variety of passerines - in trees! The below photos are merely a brief taste of Cape May birds... 

The little brown jobs (all the sparrow species you can see). In the beginning they can be quite confusing, but after a couple of weeks in Cape May you will learn to identify them. Should one ever find its way to Europe and in front of my binoculars I feel fairly well prepared to ID it. Above a Chipping Sparrow.

Blue-headed Vireo. We usually found one or two of these every day. Often high in the trees, and very difficult to photograph. 

Another Euro-rarity: the Green Heron (at Cox Hall, 10 min north of Cape May town) 

Vesper Sparrow. The best photo I managed of this semi-rare sparrow. This is some of the excitement of birding: getting those glimpses of bird and see if you can still identify it. The eye ring is a key character.

Calliope Hummingbird! A very rare bird in Cape May (5th bird ever). Luckily we met a couple of birders who told us the whereabouts of this one. Found in the lush gardens of Cape May Point! Now this is exotic for an arctic birder. 

When not soaring the skies in big numbers, the occasional vulture can be seen in Cape May woods. Here a Turkey Vulture.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A very common bird. Impressively small. To think that some of these have made it across the Atlantic Ocean on its own is simply beyond amazing. After all we sit in plane for 8 hours traveling at 1000 kilometers per hour to do the same. Now imagine being a couple centimeters long, weighing 5 grams and with own muscle power you do the same journey. Of course birds are great!

Another kinglet species: the Golden-crowned Kinglet, chasing yank insects..

Magnolia Warbler. The American wood warblers are possibly the coolest group of birds in North America. Amazingly varied in colours and patterns. If you find one in Europe it is likely to be one of the highlights in your birding career! I found one on the Scilly Isles in 2007 with Elin, a high light indeed! It got crowded with birders in an instant.

The ever present Yellow-rumped Warbler. The most common bird in North America? We had up to 50 000 migrate past the Cape in one day. 

Another little-brown-job, the Song Sparrow. 

Grey Catbird

Pine Warbler. This photo was taken from the Hawk Watch platform.  

This must be one of the bird species highest on many European birders wish list: the Black-and-white Warbler. Some people like Zebras in the Serengeti, this the Zebra of the birding world. Seeing nature in monochrome is actually quite spectacular. We saw a few of these stunning little birds, and this is the best photos I managed. They typically like to stay hidden in dense bushes. Seeing Black-and-white Warbler was a trip highlight, in addition to more spectacular wood warblers like Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Pine Warbler, Tennesee Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler

Sunset over Cape May

On behalf of the Biotope office, with yours truly, Elin Taranger, Alonza Garbett and our co-birder in Cape May, Anders Mæland we wish to thank all the great people we met on our stay in our favorite US birding destination! Grand thanks to the makers of Cape May Autumn Birding Festival: thanks Marlene, Sheila and the CMBO folks, thanks to New Jersey Audubon and all of their great volunteer bird guides, grand thanks to Mike Crewe for continuously posting great info on the View From the Cape blog (check it out!), Thanks Emily & Emily (especially from Lila) and the good people at the Hawkwatch, thanks to Richard Crossley for sharing stories of birding in Cape May and for helping us find those extra nice birding hotspots. Thanks to Amy and Tom for great company. Big thanks to Susan and the Cape May Point State Park People for setting up our talk. Thanks all Cape May birders!

Also back home in Varanger we would like to thank our partners and supporters in the making of Varanger as a birding destination. I know there are those in Varanger who did not expect that Varanger would be a part of a US bird festival. The adventure will continue. The world of birding is full of passionate people, and we are privileged to be a part of it and to contribute as birder architects. 

Thank you Cape May - We will be back. In the meantime feel free to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Tormod A. / Biotope