It was dark, we were stood on a raised bank overlooking a long peninsula of land alongside a wide coastal river, the air was full of thousands of calling night migrants moving overhead in the darkness. A low pressure system had swept in from the north, temperatures has plummeted overnight and a big avian response was predicted.
Figures began appeared out of the blackness and before long the 'dyke' was full of birders, all chattering nervously. Eves dropping, we heard the words "Black-throated blue, Magnolia and Yellow-rumped". To the Brits on a first trip to North America, the anticipation at this moment was all consuming. This was the holy grail of visible migration, we had planned it to be this way, even from our first email conversations with Marlene and Sheila - the skilled New Jersey Audubon organisers on this particular journey.
Suddenly it was light and the calls did come from birds ! It was like a sci-fi crazed arcade game and quoting Top Gun "they were all over us!". The sky was full of birds, literally thousands of birds, all heading NW at various heights including around our ankles and through our tripod legs ! Wave after wave.......
Panic, I needed to identify them, it soon became apparent it was not easy ! Overall the birds were blue with yellow, yellow with er ... blue, black and white, red and white, all yellow, all green, all red, some ticked, some tzeeped, some were silent... some were big, some were small, some had undulating flight, some had swerving flight and some simply landed in the bushes ! It was quite obvious that a wide range of all the migrational birds in North American were over flying us this morning.
Of course, this could only be the famous Higbee Beach at Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey, USA. Let us say now, if you are a migration buff then go, if not... then still go !
The total of that mornings migration was over 100, 000 birds of around 40 species. It took us a few days to get our "eyes in" but soon we had 21 species of American wood warblers in the bag.
But why in September are birds moving NW you should be asking... ? Well these are night migrants, they move vast distances at night often ahead of weather fronts, whose associated falling temperatures are natural triggers for mass movements. Migrants which have left more northern states heading south the previous evening, find themselves over Cape May around dawn when they suddenly realise that the peninsula they have been following is taking them out into the Atlantic Ocean. Evolution has programmed them to realise that this is not a good strategy to safely reach their wintering quarters, so one by one and in mixed species flocks, all the 'traffic' U-turns back north, on the western side of the peninsula which takes them directly over Higbee Beach and the raised observation bank known as the dyke. These birds are thought to then carry on NW until they cross the Delaware River at a narrower point before once more heading south. As if this isn't enough, they are joined on their journey by migrating Monarch butterfly's in the thousands.
The Cape May Bird Observatory is run superbly by the New Jersey Audubon Society, whose staff will help you make the most out of your visit. But Cape May isn't just about Higbee Beach, it has some superb habitats, great seawatching and a real life birding community. Oh yes, there is also the world famous Hawk migration... (Hawk pronounced like 'auk'). Only in American can you stand on a massive raised gantry in a car park, next to a lighthouse and witness a massive bird of prey migration interpretted live by several official 'hawk counters' ! "Hey folks, here comes a 2nd calendar year Northern Harrier followed by a Sharpy" !
Cape May has some quality birders including Richard Crossley, a Yorkshireman (although he is sadly from Leeds !) who after so many seasonal visits decided to move to CM permanently. Richard is one dedicated and focused birder, so it was no surprise when we arrived at his beautiful house to find out that he had built it himself and chosen the exact spot as it was the best point on the entire peninsula for observing migration ! His entire family including his two young daughters are also bird nuts, so it was again no surprise when they joined us early each morning after Richard had invited us to do some banding (ringing) in his garden. Richards words spoken in a strange American- Leeds drawl went something like this "You guys, I've gotta go out on business, open the garage and ya'll find chain-saws and some stuff like that to make some net rides, don't catch owt good but if ya do then call me - I need Black Rail!"
Well, we had a ball ! On one morning we had to close the nets as we could not cope with the 150,000 Yellow-rumped Warblers that had arrived in Cape May overnight ! Thanks Richard !
Lastly, the birding community at Cape May is fantastic, there is an exhaustive events programme for all ages including guided walks and tutorials from leading experts.
In autumn 2003, when we visited we were fortunate that our friend Andy Wraithmell was employed as the seabird counter and so this enabled us a VIP pass. We had a great time, met some fantastic people and enjoyed migration at its best... go on, do it !
Try these links for more details -