My New Jersey Big Year got a big boost last weekend. A good friend loaned my wife and me the use of her condo, so we took a much needed break and enjoyed three days of winter-time relaxation in Cape May.
Now, my wife is not a birder. Not even a little bit. But she loves competition and looking for new, interesting things. And she saw the movie The Big Year and thought the idea of going out to look for as many birds as possible, in one year, sounded cool. Well, cool by birding standards, anyway.
We took off work a little early Thursday to get a head start on the traffic. Our plan for an early start was almost thwarted, though, by an amazing report. Two amazing bird species, Barnacle Goose and Pink-footed Goose, had been spotted hanging out with a small flock of Canada Geese in a pond that took use only slightly out of our way. The hazard, of course, was that we could spend hours looking for birds that might never show up.
The risk was worth the reward – we headed for Assunpink Wildlife Management Area. On our arrival, we noticed several other birders lined up along the shore of a small lake, eyes firmly peering through their spotting scopes. To our surprise, and relief, both birds could be easily seen in the same field of view! Two great birds and our weekend hadn’t even started! Five minutes later, we were back on the road and arrived in time to enjoy an early dinner.
After reviewing several web sites, we selected Goodnight Irene’s Brew Pub in Wildwood. Our somewhat random selection turned out to be a great little place that offered an amazing selection of craft beer and good pub food. My wife enjoyed steamed little neck clams while I devoured an out-of-this-world mushroom burger. We shared a plate of Old Bay seasoned fries served with Goodnight Irene’s special cheese dipping sauce. Honestly, if they sold that cheese sauce in gallon buckets, I would buy it!
Arriving back at the condo, I spent several minutes reviewing rare bird alerts provided by Cornell University’s eBird site. Now, several months ago, a large tropical falcon that looks a lot like a vulture inexplicably showed up in a large field in East Windsor, NJ. Known as a Crested Caracara, these birds rarely make it farther north than Texas or Florida. The bird stayed around for about a week and then, one day, it simply wasn’t there anymore.
As I clicked through the rare bird alerts I could hardly believe my eyes – a Crested Caracara had arrived in Cape May early in the day. Somehow this bird, which had not been seen or heard for nearly 4 months, had decided to show up on a bridge overlooking the Cape May canal on the same day I arrived to continue my big year birding adventure.
As the sun rose on Friday morning, we were standing on the bridge scanning the canal through our binoculars. No luck. I was about to drive to a new location when the Crested Caracara swooped overhead and landed on a distant telephone pole. I took several photos in the early morning light – none were much better than the one include in this post. But if you look closely, you’ll see the unique bird’s color pattern.
We birded through the remainder of the morning and into the early afternoon, finding birds both common and rare. Finally, hunger overtook us and we stopped for a quick lunch. As we talked over our sandwiches and chips, we decided it was time for a little change of pace. The birding had been fun, but it was time for something different.
In addition to excellent birding, Cape May is increasingly becoming known as an area which produces fine wines. Our first stop was Hawk Haven Vineyard (notice I managed to stick with the birding theme). For a small fee, we sampled their many excellent wines and chatted up our host, who suggested stops at some of the other local vineyards.
We spent the next few hours traveling from vineyard to vineyard, sampling wines and learning a little more about Cape May and the surrounding area. Around nightfall, we returned to birding in time to hear the enchanting calls of Great Horned Owls. This is nesting season for these large owls, and we listened as they called to each other over the distance of several large open fields.
Tired and happy, we returned to the condo for a relaxing evening and to begin planning our route for the following day. There were still plenty of birds on our list and the following day promised to be a busy one.
Next time – shore birds, hawks, and birding on street corners!
Until then – good birding!