A Perfect Morning at Higbee

Higbee Parking Lot

May is my favorite time for birdwatching, and on Friday mornings in May, weather and workload permitting, I go birding in Cape May early, then do my volunteer time at the Cape May Bird Observatory after that.

Up today at 5:15 AM, showered and dressed, fed the cats, and had a quick breakfast of juice and cold cereal. Ellen was sleeping in this morning, more on that in a later post. Gathered my gear and left the house at 6:20. The sun was already up, but just, and I arrived at one of my favorite birding spots at 6:50 — Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area, in the northwest corner of Cape Island, the southermost tip of New Jersey, defined on the north side by the Cape May Canal, separating the “Island” from the mainland, but just by a short distance, a canal’s width. The parking lot, above, was already filling up with birder cars, and birders. The legendary Pete Dunne would be here a little later to lead a field trip, but I was going out solo, not with the group.

Gray Catbird

The weather prediction hadn’t been great for today: clouds, chance of showers, cool. But the Cape May weather gods were doing their thing today, as often happens, giving the tip of the state completely different weather than the rest of it. The sun was out, no wind, already getting pleasantly warm, a perfect morning for birding here. There weren’t tons of birds, but the ones present were mostly easy to see and cooperative, not always the case! Many of the birds I saw were too distant or too small or too active for my camera, but this Gray Catbird was obliging. You can even see the rusty brown patch under his tail, the only color on him other than gray and a black cap.

Orchard Oriole

Some of the other birds I enjoyed were Black-throated Green Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Blue-headed Vireo, Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole (photo above, not great but identifiable), all of those providing good looks, and many while singing. The Nashville, in particular, was great to see, as I don’t see that one often, and don’t know the song well. Maybe I’ll remember it next time. Others were seen briefly or only heard: Common Loon (first time I’ve ever heard one call!), Black and White Warbler, Northern Parula, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Field Sparrow. More, I’m sure. And those are just the migrants, year-round residents were also there in abundance, like Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice.

Higbee Woods

The best birding at Higbee is along the field edges, but I also like to take this trail through the woods at the bottom of the third field. This is dune forest, what many New Jersey beach areas once looked like, and almost none still do.

Higbee Dune

The trail climbs a high dune, and then opens to a view of the Delaware Bay. Beach Plum bushes are in bloom. Later in the year they’ll yield edible fruit (some make jam from it).

Cape May Ferry

Looking more to the north, here’s the Cape May-Lewes Ferry heading across the bay to Delaware.


Returning through the woods to the fields I met the Guerrards, Jason on the left, his wife Laura on the right, with some friends. Jason is the bookstore manager at CMBO, my boss when I’m there, and Laura is the website manager. Both are also avid birders, and are in a World Series of Birding team that won an award last year, so they’re scouting for this year’s event.

Higbee Group

I tagged along with them for a while, and then we met up with the CMBO field trip group being led by Pete Dunne. He’s in there somewhere! He’s also scouting, no doubt, preparing to take the field for the 25th year in the event that he thought up in 1983. By the way, I always wondered how it got the name “World Series.” In an article in the most recent PEREGRINE OBSERVER, the magazine of CMBO, Pete tells it: his name for the event was The Biggest Day, and that’s what it was called the first year. That year Pete’s team won. Now, Pete’s a great birder, and it’s only just he won in his own event, but he did have a little help on his team: Roger Tory Peterson, the father of birding, and another young man you might have heard of: David Sibley, current heir to Peterson. Three of the best, all on one team! Must have been discouraging for the competition. Anyway, Peterson lobbied for the name “World Series of Birding,” thought it would give the event gravitas and importance. Pete listened, and it’s been called that ever since.

Higbee Pond

Heading off on my own again, I went next to the small pond at the bottom of the fifth field. That’s where I’d heard the loon call coming from, but when I got there I found only these Canada Geese.


It was time for me to leave Higbee, much as I hated to. Days like this here are rare, and worth savoring, but I had other commitments. I did stop on the way back to see and photograph this wildflower, the Mayapple, which true to form blooms in May, and always in one spot I know just off the path by some wet woods.

Ocean View Diner

Back to my car, and a short drive to the beach in Cape May and the Ocean View Family Restaurant, which is really a diner, and a good one, for that fine Hobbit tradition: second breakfast. Two eggs over, sausage, home fries and ketchup, English muffin with jelly, orange juice and hot tea. Yum! On bad birding days this is the highlight of my Fridays in May. Today it was just a fine capper.

CMBO entrance

Then it was 9:30 and time to go to CMBO, the Cape May Bird Observatory. I had a particular task to accomplish today: putting together the signs for the finish line at the World Series of Birding on May 10th. Sheila and Marleen run the event, and Marleen asks me to do this every year. I’m happy to oblige. Marleen prints out all the text on her printer, and I assemble four large signs on corrugated poster board.

Sign in progress

Here’s the first one in progress, the Level 1 teams, the main contenders. There are 68 teams competing this year, possibly a new record. Marleen got them all on there so they’d fit, though.

WSB Teams sign

Here’s the finished sign. These will be at the official finish line, and as teams come in, or call in their results, their total species found number will be entered on the board. My team, the CMBO Century Run, is on this board, though we’re not really competitive, and usually come in somewhere just below the middle of the pack with about 140 species found. Top teams will generally find over 220 species in the 24 hours of competition in New Jersey. Some teams will compete in one county only for a separate prize. Prizes are also awarded for highest count within Cape Island, the one Jason and Laura’s team won last year.

Youth Teams sign

In their own competition are the youth teams, on this sign. They compete hard for their own trophy. And, of course, everyone is really there to raise money for conservation organizations of their choice. Some of the team names are funny and creative. Long-time Level 1 team names I like are the “Not Too Swifts”, “The Marshketeers”, and the “Wicked Witcheties”. The last, like many, is a birder inside joke: the call of the common yellowthroat sounds like “witchety-witchety.” One new youth team name made me laugh this year. You have to read it out loud for the best effect, though. Ready?

“Duck Duck Duck Duck BRANT!”

That’s the team name, also no doubt what one of the members said while looking through a group of waterfowl and finding a rare Brant goose among them. (Rare at this time of year, anyway.)

All right, enough birding humor. I finished up the last two signs, one for the non-competing teams, and one for “important sightings” (unusual and rare species), and helped at the front desk a while until it was time to go home. Then it was back to work, but with the glow of a perfect morning at Higbee.

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