Fall in Cape May: When Going to the Beach Is For the Birds
Even if you can't tell a cardinal from a blue jay, this season is a great time to visit this birding haven.
Cape May is a beach town, but there’s so much more to do than just hit the sand and surf. Fall is a fantastic time to visit this New Jersey gem: with the swimsuits and flip-flops in storage, breathtaking birds become the star attraction.
For more than 70 years, the New Jersey Audubon Society has hosted the Cape May Fall Festival, which provides unique birding opportunities for the whole family. This year, it’s happening from October 18 to 21, featuring Dr. Merlin Tuttle, scientist and founder of Bat Conservation International, as the Keynote speaker on Saturday night for The Incredible World of Bats. Take the family to celebrate with the Cape May Bird Observatory and the Cape May Hawkwatch, and enjoy this year-round community known for its lacy 19th century Victorian houses after you’ve put down your binoculars.
The Perfect Storm
Each fall, millions of birds migrate through Cape May. It’s the perfect pit stop for the long trip birds are hard-wired to make every year.
“Because of Cape May’s placement on the southern terminus of New Jersey and the prevailing weather pattern, that pushes birds not only south, but to the East Coast,” said David A. La Puma, Ph.D., the director of the Cape May Bird Observatory. “We get this major funneling of birds from the eastern Great Lakes all the way to eastern Canada down to Cape May.”
The Fall Festival occurs in late October to take advantage of this massive spectacle of migration in one place, where visitors can see 50,000 to 70,000 yellow ruffled warblers migrating in one day. The festival’s goal is to connect as many people to nature, and Cape May is the perfect canvas, LaPuma said.
The Hawkwatch began in 1976, started by hawk-bander Bill Clark. He’s a birder who felt the hawks passing through Cape May needed to be counted and banded because so many were dying from exposure to the pesticide DDT. He stood on a table at Cape May Point State Park and counted the hawks, La Puma said. Because of his counts, New Jersey Audubon has been able to monitor increases or decreases in a variety of migratory birds stopping in Cape May, not just hawks.
Some 35,000 people come to Cape May Point State Park to learn about what’s going on, La Puma said. “Cape May is a phenomenal place to be year-round,” he said. “But the fall migration is phenomenal.”
Jonathan Woods, founder and president of the Raptor Project, captivates audiences of all ages with his raptor rehabilitation demonstration. Visitors can see magnificent birds of prey — like snowy owls, bald eagles, and hawks — up close.
Other activities include exclusive walking and trolley trips, live music, osprey boat tours, and trips to the Cape May Rips.
Even if nobody in your family can tell a cardinal from a blue jay, you’ll have birders by the end of the trip – and a quick drive home.
Tools of the Trade
The beauty of birding is its simplicity, La Puma said.
With these simple suggestions, make a fun first-time expedition with kids fabulous.
Binoculars. Although they’re not necessary the first time out, the wide field a low-power (6 to 8 power) pair offers can make it easier to spot birds (and kids love gear). Look for pairs for small hands and a small distance between their pupils. We like the Opticron Savannah WP 6×30, $139.
Bird Books. Kids want to put a name to the bird. Choosing a regional bird guide makes it easier to find local birds. La Puma’s choice: Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard, by Annette LeBlanc Cate.
A full national guide gives young minds the chance to see everything that is possible in the country. Try this: The Younger Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, by Bill Thompson III.
Where to Nest on Your Beach Birding Trip
The Fall Festival could be an easy day trip, but why not make a weekend of it? Here are some fun and convenient restaurants and hotels.
Tucked away in the New Jersey pines and minutes from the Cape May Bird Observatory, they offer two-and three-bedroom cottages, deluxe and rustic cabins, and general accommodations for RVs. ; 116 Swainton-Goshen Road, Cape May Courthouse; 888-886-2477.
This premier accommodation offers a large open space for winding down after a day of birding (think cocktails for adults, games and movies for little ones) and is close to the beach and other attractions. 1035 New Jersey Ave., Cape May; 609-220-5688.
131 N. Broadway, Cape May
A short drive or bike ride to the Cape May Bird Observatory, nature trails, the Lighthouse, and Sunset Beach.
19 Jackson St., Cape May
Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This place was named “Best Kid-Friendly” restaurant in the 2015 Best of Cape May contest, and your kids will love snacking on the front porch.
600 Park Blvd., West Cape May
Specializing in 100 percent organic vegetarian, vegan, fish, and gluten-free options for lunch and dinner. Cash only.
319 Beach Ave., Rear Jackson at Beach Street, Cape May
For a fun twist on lunch or dinner sure to get everyone smiling, indulge in a “Wonderful Weiner” at this hole-in-the-wall joint.
Photographs by Craig Terry and courtesy of Cape May County Tourism.