Spotters on the Cape May Bird Observatory Hawk Watch Platform cfe
Actually, it’s more like “Cape May For Two Days”! And yes, it was MORE than worth it.
Those two days centered upon the Cape May Bird Observatory [CMBO] Hawk Watch Platform.
After stopping at CMBO to renew my membership, and pick up a super-comfortable strap for my binoculars, I headed for the lighthouse and the Platform, even before checking into my motel room.
Helpful Cape May Bird Observatory Personnel on Hawk Watch Platform, cfe
CMBO maintains “counters”, “spotters” — professionals of highest caliber, who spot and count birds zooming past in autumn migration. The Platform fronts upon a pond. always graced by swans and frequently dive-bombed by peregrines.
Sunset Swan, Brenda Jones
I immediately recognized the silhouette and mellifluous voice of Pete Dunne, head of CMBO, author of wit, wisdom and experience, and yes, bon vivant. Also, natural teacher. So many facets of my birding knowledge have been inserted or polished by this man, over the years, at sunrise and sunset, and sometimes at 20 degrees with 20-mph-winds. I was overjoyed to reconnect, after my year plus of hurt-hip-induced absence. Pete, watching me walk, exulted, “We live in remarkable times.”
He went on to prove it by mentioning, “I was informed by phone about the nighthawks.”
Here and there, spotting scopes were trained on the skies.
But these pros of the Platform don’t need optics. A black spot miles away can be differentiated, as in Cooper’s or Sharp-Shinned Hawk, and they’ll even tell you how they can tell. Something to do with frequency of flapping. Pete: “It it were a Sharp-shinned, it would’ve flapped by now.”
Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Brenda Jones
But I say, these spotters, these CMBO mentors, are attached to birds by senses which have not even been defined, let alone located. Senses which go beyond eyes and even beyond Swarovskis.
Brilliance is a big part of being on the Platform. And fellowship. I hadn’t realized that (this concentration of) birders are family; that I had missed them to such a high degree.
There’s always humor, and even humility. At one point, Pete said, with a shrug in his voice, “Haven’t a clue….” There was a pregnant pause, followed by, “… bird.”
At the same time, in my two visits that day, early and latest, I was part of a bald-eagle count approaching 30. Even more importantly, –as I learned at early light the next day–, a 268- kestrel day.
There was a bare tree set among cedars, as studded with kestrels as a Christmas tree with ornaments. Every one vivid. Every one fluttering. These raptors swooped out, over and over, –not unlike flycatchers–, in quest of insects, one after another. And kestrels can hover — I never knew that. So vivid that they seemed iridescent, even spangled. What a privilege to be surrounded by them.
American kestrels have been ‘fewing and fewing’ in recent years. Their sacred edge habitat has been increasingly devoured by what others deem progress. I forgot to ask Pete, why there were/are so many right now. But this is one time when why doesn’t matter. Only beauty, power, rarity and presence.
Among the other numbers on Monday (departure day) morning were 109 osprey. Osprey were everywhere Sunday evening, often ‘packing a lunch’ - fish in talons, aerodynamically situated so as not to interfere with flight. 17 sharp-shins. 10 Coopers. 30 Merlin. 5 Peregrine Falcons. and so forth…
I even spotted a tern I didn’t recognize, which Erin-of-CMBO eagerly identified as a Forster’s. She trained the Swarovski scope on this single bird at the end of a wooden dock-like structure to our right. “Only Forster’s terns have that black eye patch now. They’re really fun to identify in autumn.” As David Allen Sibley puts it, “Black eye patch of non-breeding plumage distinctive.” This Platform is where Sibley ‘earned his wings’, with Pete and Clay Sutton, his co-authors of Hawks In Flight, about to be re-issued. All three will be at the Cape May Birding Weekend, to talk and sign this re-issue of Sibley’s first book, before his NYT best-sellers, The Sibley Guide to Birds, and The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.
Usually, white shrubs and vines surrounding the Swarovski-sponsored Platform are filled with monarch butterflies this time of year. There were fewer than I’ve ever encountered of these orange-and-black long-distance fliers. Even so, I was welcomed to the Platform by one which nearly landed on the bridge of my nose.
Icy yellow, with a tinge of chartreuse, or key-lime pie, the cloudless sulphur butterflies seemed more in evidence here and among the bayberried dunes of Higbee Beach.
One of the butterfly magnet shrubs has the lovely name of High Tide Plant. Elder is another name for it. I’m sipping St. Germain liqueur, late this night, as I bring Cape May back to memory and to life. Pretending I’m a butterfly, nectaring on the elder plant from whose flowers this French specialty is crafted.
I hear Pete observe, “That eagle looks like he’s about to leave for Delaware.”
American Bald Eagle, Brenda Jones
Delaware is very near, here where our River meets the ocean, and the Cape May Lewes ferry carries cars, birders, bicyclists, hikers and just plain tourists from one state to another. The ferry is a grand place for seeking out seabirds who “come to land only when nesting.” (Sibley)
I reluctantly leave the Platform because it’s time to walk The Point. Newly crafted ‘boardwalks’ (they’re not real board) lift birders off the marsh-scape, into the realm of warblers and other treasures. Somehow, they’ve conquered phragmites to an enormous degree, those towering invasive rushes that drive out all the native plants the birds need, not only in migration. In the place of reeds is a meadow or a prairie of New Jersey wildflowers. The air is fragrant with (the invasive) autumn clematis, tiny white starflowers spun along tangles of vines. It’s more interesting than honeysuckle, with mimosa ‘notes’.
Colors on all sides of me include a pinkish bronze (wool grass, which is really a sedge); purple asters; white asters; seaside goldenrod, white ‘rose’ mallows, white boneset, pink marsh mallow, white dotted smartweed, mistflower, wild ageratum, purple gerardia, etc. etc. etc.
I don’t know all these plants - a fine naturalist, the plant equivalent of Pete Dunne, was sitting on a bench and eager to teach me every single species, in English and in Latin. Carl Anderson. He explained that the bayberry-like plants were wax myrtle and hybrids of wax myrtle and bayberry — the leaves on the latter are broader and darker, and bayberries were definitely in the minority. Bayberries are essential fat/fuel to migrant birds. I felt like Alice In Wonderland, having drunk whatever and shrunk to be smaller than most of these flowers.
Birds were few, because it was mid-day. Fish crows ringed the beige lighthouse like a crown of thorns. A single egret minced about the edge of a pond. A sound I never knew, or maybe ever heard, turned out to be a single kestrel in a naked tree just above my head. The closest I’ve ever been to a kestrel.
Kestrel at the Pole Farm, Brenda Jones
Morning dawned with a beach walk among black skimmers beyond counting, followed by another couple of hours on the Hawk Watch Platform.
Black Skimmers in Flight, Brenda Jones
Sky Full of Skimmers, the Jetty, Cape May cfe
From ten to twelve thirty, Monday, I floated on the boat, The Skimmer, among Cape May marshes. We were in quest of rare birds there, too. What I best remember is a series of large turtle heads in Turtle Creek, and a very rare Tri-colored Heron before we turned back to the dock.
Leaving for home was almost unbearable.
All the way north on the Parkway, I would hear those Platform phrases, “Over the cedars.” “Really soaring.” “Got ‘im!”
The line I’ll remember most is Pete Dunne’s description of yesterday, to a fellow ’spotter’ who also writes a blog: “Here’s the first line for your blog, Mike. If you weren’t here yesterday, slay yourself now.”
2 Comments posted on "REPORT ON CAPE MAY FOR ONE NIGHT"
Steve Klaber on September 16th, 2012 at 8:05 am #
Who do I contact at Cape May to find out about Phragmites control? Worldwide, we’re desperate!
Carolyn Foote Edelmann on September 17th, 2012 at 5:52 am #
Cape May Bird Observatory personnel would know who managed the phragmites removal — as I recall, it took more than one season
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