During the twelfth Muslim lunar month of Dhu al-Hijjah, around 3 million Muslims complete a pilgrimage to Mecca in order to fulfill a holy obligation. On this strand, New Jersey helps form a sort of migratory tributary during avian migration season. Cape May, one of several active stopover points within this tributary, accomodates around 200 neotropical pilgrims pausing to recharge (some shorebirds travel a total of 10,000 miles one way to their final destination!). So, after spending the early morning tracing the NJ Turnpike to its southern most point, gathering place for uncountable feathered pilgrims, Barry and I reached Mecca.The Rea farm, or as its known colloquially in the birding community, the beanery, is known for its nesting Prothonotary Warblers and the occasional, ruby eyed, Mississippi Kite. What a special place indeed! That particular morning it was a cold and windy 55o, which was surprising considering how late in May it was. We both hoped that the birds would not stay grounded to much! But, since neither one of us had been on a guided walk before, we were in for a treat regardless of wind speed.
We began our morning by learning that the Rea farm was once used to process lima beans, hence its nickname “the beanery”. It has since diversified into other practices, but maintains a tight relationship with NJ Audubon by allowing the Cape May chapter to lease birding rights.
Not ten steps later a pair of Eastern Kingbirds alighted upon the bushes ahead to enjoy the sunlight and stave away the lingering chill of the morning. After observing from a distance we couldn’t help but disturb them as they were right in the path. They appeared reluctant to take to the wing, considering the heavy wind, but did so anyway.
While the group headed on, Barry and I used the opportunity to get some shots. At this point we were a little ways behind, but good thing because we were pleasantly surprised by another bunting! What a treat. Good spot Barry!
It wasn’t long before the group identified both a juvenile and adult Black-crowned Night Heron! While we were limited to the range of our lenses, it was a real delight to be able to observe the birds through the couple spotting scopes toted by the guides.
The next half an hour or so we delighted in the company of Barn Swallows, House Finches, Cedar Waxwings, buntings, wrens, American Goldfinches, and Northern Rough winged Swallows. A quick look up afforded us a view of one of the BCNH fighting the wind.
After peering into a silent swampy area in the hopes of seeing one of two species of cavity nesting warblers, the Prothonotary, we walked along the fenced delineation between the beanery and a relatively new winery (former location of a grassy meadow and its lark inhabitants…). The vine posts were said to often provide a great view of roosting birds.
I was busy scanning the posts when…“MISSISSIPI KITES”, someone shouted! There, contrasted against the blue sky, only small dots to begin with, a stooping of seven small gray shapes rapidly came into view. One of the more experienced birders among us exclaimed with pure exhilaration that he had never seen so many at once! The wind propelled the brood at a great pace making it difficult to get a clear shot. It wasn’t long before the string passed us by and disappeared over the tree line at the far side of the winery. Just when we thought the excitement was over an 8th quickly flew over trying to catch up with the kettle that had just passed overhead. Add one to the life list!
The rest of the walk was not nearly as thrilling as the moments surrounding the kites, but despite the relative silence we were treated to a brief Purple Martin farewell.
After saying our goodbyes and getting a few directions, Barry and I decided to head to the Meadows. The Meadows, a preserve run by the Nature Conservancy, is one of the best places to see Piping Plovers. Vanishing habitat has made times difficult for this small creature. Now federally endangered, their population sits at less than 15% of its pre-1940’s levels. Not far up the loop, Barry and I caught a glimpse of an American beaver. Its refreshing to see other members of Class Mammalia.
Up on the beach the wind was powerful. Many of the birds were determined to stay grounded and behind natural (or unnatural) barriers. Barry and I were lucky enough to capture some of these moments.
Our next stop was the famous Cape May Point. Not 30 seconds after getting out of the car, beneath the gaze of the lighthouse, a large dark shadow passed through the parking lot. I looked up with my lens just fast enough to get a blurry shot of a juvenile Bald Eagle! Neither of us had ever seen a juvenile before, so it was a great start to our self guided tour of the point.
The birding community is such a positive one. Not far up the path, we came upon a bird blind. After quietly approaching, we exchanged greetings with a fellow birder named Duffy. We spent the next few minutes enjoying laughs, listening to stories of prior trips, and learning from him. We were surprised to here that he had spotted a STFL back at the Meadows where we had just come from! He then told us that he had been watching a couple of Gadwalls and let us look through his monocular to see them. What camouflage! After Duffy departed, Barry and I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that he had a strange likeness to my uncle. Hopeful for surprises, Barry and I continued on.
What a peaceful place. After making it down the boardwalk, and onto the dirt trail, we found ourselves alone with a myriad of birds. The two of us could not help but marvel at the multiple habitat types we had just walked through! What a hotspot! The sun was high, the birds were quiet, and our stomachs were grumbling. So, we headed for lunch.
After lunch Barry and I decided to make one last stop before returning to the parkway and ending our pilgrimage.
Higbee Beach WMA was the final stop of the day. From the parking lot, you could smell the bay. Instead of walking towards it, we both decided it was better to walk further inland. The habitat diversity once again surprised us. I felt as though I was deep in some countryside of SC again. The Zee Zee Zee Zee of Prairie Warblers defending their territories only strengthened my nostalgia. And while we did not see any of these tiny birds, listening to them was enough to make the two of us smile.
For me, I had found Eden. And although it seemed only Prairie Warblers and Song Sparrows were awake enough to greet us, the smell of fresh growth and sound of crunching footsteps were enough. Though we did not see or hear the warbler hordes of fable, Cape May still maintained its natural enchantment.
The Cape is so often romanticized about that its hard not to feel as though you are walking through some story of Tolkien’s. Sometimes it can feel and look as ordinary as numerous other landscapes walked, but then you remember. You remember where you are and what month it is. You recall stories of fallout and thrush song. Untold possibilities begin to unfold in your mind. It dawns on you. This is Cape May, this is Mecca.
(All images included in this and other entries on this site were taken by and belong to me)
All Images © 2013 Brian Lang
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