Fall Migration

September is when fall migration really kicks in around here. Migration occurs all year long in one form or another, but in September the southward impulse becomes obvious.

When I’m volunteering at the Cape May Bird Observatory, one of the common questions I’m asked is “when is the best time to see migrating birds?” I usually tell the questioner that the very best time is the day after a cold front has moved through the area, as birds tend to follow them, riding the north winds to make their journey easier. So it’s frustrating when, as happened this past Friday, I was down in Cape May early for a walk and saw not a single migrant bird because a front was due to come through on Saturday morning. The winds were from the southeast, absolutely the worst direction.

Today, Sunday, I had some free time, though, so I decided to migrate a bit south myself and went back down to Cape May to see what I could see. This is the other most common fall migration: human birders to the Hawk Watch Platform at the Cape May Point State Park. Here it is:

Hawkwatch Platform

The official hawk count has been run by the New Jersey Audubon Society since the mid 1970s. In the early years it was Pete Dunne on a life guard chair. When I first came to Cape May in 1986, there was a much smaller platform than this, really just a home-sized deck, but a few years ago the state park, in partnership with others, built this very large and attractive multi-level platform that works very well even on crowded migration days.


Here are some of those human migrants, with binoculars and spotting scopes in full regalia. I recognized my fellows and joined in. It was not a great migration day, the wind being from the northeast. The best winds are from the northwest, as they push migrating hawks and other birds toward the coast of New Jersey. Then when the birds see the ocean, they veer south and end up over the Hawk Watch, where they encounter the tip of the state bounded on the west side by the Delaware Bay. This is what’s called a migrant trap, and the majority of the birds that end up in it are first-year birds, not yet familiar with the route, just going south on instinct. Eventually they find rising warm air thermals, gain miles of altitude by circling in them, and then stream off across the bay toward Delaware and points south. What did we see?

Bald Eagles

Well, the best thing in the brief time I spent there today were these two adult Bald Eagles, who soared fairly close overhead, and even did a brief bit of courtship display, “shaking hands” by locking talons with each other for a moment. There were also many Sharp-shinned Hawks, a few Cooper’s Hawks, a few Broad-Winged Hawks and a few Northern Harriers while I watched. I fairly good showing for an hour’s view, but one constant among the human migrants is the cry of “you should have been here when…” Apparently I missed a group of FIVE Bald Eagles that were there an hour earlier. And yesterday’s total hawk count was impressive, over 700.

I went for a walk on one of the state park trails as well, where I got this shot of another common fall migrant, the Monarch Butterfly.

Monarch butterfly

There were dozens of them feeding on the many flowers in the park. These fragile insects are moving south on their way to Mexico for the winter. Not all will make it, but a surprising amount do, and they are champion flyers. One year Ellen and I were on the ferry from Cape May to Lewes Delaware on the day of a massive Monarch migration, and the entire way across the 11 miles of water, the air around us was filled with Monarchs. We must have seen at least ten thousand in an hour. Quite a sight.

Sadly, none of the other migrating birds were close enough to get even a poor picture of, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I had to settle for a nice shot of the lighthouse, always a winning image. It’s just across the parking lot from the Hawk Watch.

Cape May Lighthouse

After I got home, I got a phone call from Ellen, on her way back from her weekly ice skating lessons in Wilmington — she was watching two Bald Eagles where she was, too. I never saw one when I was growing up in New Jersey, but they’ve made a great comeback here, and we now have many in migration, and quite a few nesting pairs in the state as well, two within a fifteen minute drive of our house, in fact. There are so many sad stories in the natural world these days, it’s always nice to have a happy one to think about now and again.

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