Hawks and Butterflies


This morning was warm for the season, but foggy. By 11 AM, the sun broke through and blue skies widened, as I’d been hoping. I wanted to go down to the Cape May Point State Park and spend some time on the Hawk Watch Platform. The winds were predicted to be from the west, and with sunny skies, it should be a fine day for it. After an early lunch I drove down, and was amazed to find the State Park lot completely full. I had to park in a residential street outside and walk in. “The popularity of birding is getting out of hand,” I thought. But once inside I realized that there was another event going on, a sort of animal fair hosted by the park, and geared for kids, with live animals to touch, dogs doing tricks, pony rides, and like that.


On the other side of the parking lot, the Platform was also crowded, and there were hawks and other raptors in the skies everywhere one chose to put ones binoculars, a banner migration day. The fog had kept them all perched, and now they were moving, circling to find thermals, rising on them in kettles, and then streaming southwest over the Delaware Bay.


Here’s the tally board showing yesterday’s and the season’s totals — not very good yesterday, except for the 81 Peregrine Falcons. Today would add many more, perhaps over a thousand. I know I saw several hundred raptors in the three hours I was there.


Pete Dunne was busy with his clickers, tallying, while the associate naturalists talked to the crowds, or pointed out birds. “Over the trees at 11 o’clock, at the edge of the cloud line, an immature bald eagle!” would be the kind of call heard every minute or so. And the binoculars would crane to the area in unison. There were enough birds together that some of them would swoop and chase each other (hawks and falcons are flying predators and often aggressive) causing the kind of reaction from the delighted crowd one might hear at a fireworks display.


Many of the birds came close enough for great views through binoculars, and a few were in my camera’s range, if I was quick enough, which I seldom was. This Peregrine Falcon was one of my better shots…


…and this Osprey, being a large target, was another. There were lots of Sharp-Shinned, Cooper’s and Broad-Winged Hawks, lots of Peregrine Falcons, small numbers of Ospreys, Bald Eagles, Merlins, Turkey Vultures, one Black Vulture, one American Kestrel, one Red-Tailed Hawk. And that’s just what I saw, there were plenty I missed, I’m sure.


There were plenty of migrating Monarch Butterflies, too, and at 2PM there was a Monarch talk and tagging demo by Louise Zemaitis and Dick Walton, with Claire Iseton, this year’s intern. Walton started the project here, counting and tagging Monarchs, helping to learn more about their life cycle and movements. Several Monarchs tagged here have been found in the wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico, quite a journey for such a small creature.


Here’s Louise working on a Monarch tagging, with all her gear: rolls of tags, note pad and pen for data, and a ruler to measure wing length, which she’s doing here.


Louise has prepped this female Monarch by gently scraping away a small section of orange scales from an area of the wing just below her thumb, revealing the clear wing surface below (similar to a dragonfly wing).


Here’s the monarch tagged, and ready to be released, which it was moments later by one of the observers. One might think the tag would weigh them down, but they’re very light, only a fraction of an ounce, and not a serious burden to the insect. After 22 years of collecting data from the few tagged Monarchs found, much has been learned.

Soon I was migrating toward home myself, having enjoyed a rare afternoon with the spectacle of fall migration at one of the best places for it in our nation. And feeling lucky to have been there on such a good day.

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