Cape May, in southern New Jersey, is one of the most exciting migration hotspot in the eastern United States, with some 300 species of North American birds passing through each spring and autumn. Late September is one of the best times of the year for variety, be it a “fallout” of warblers and other migrants, a movement of hawks overhead or high numbers of shorebirds, gulls and terns at the waterside. Dragonfly and butterfly migration can present great excitement too; in short, we never know what we might find! During our 8-night stay in Cape May we will enjoy all aspects of the area’s varied natural history, along with excellent, 4* accommodation and friendly American hospitality … all at a leisurely Go Slow pace.
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25th Sep 2020 - 5th Oct 2020 - 4518€
After an overnight in a comfortable hotel in Philadelphia close to the airport, we spend the rest of our stay in the comfortable Ocean Club Hotel, a boutique hotel with outdoor pool, poolside bar and spacious sundeck, situated directly across from Cape May’s beach and promenade. All rooms have ocean views (some have full ocean views, some have side-on ocean views), balcony, free Wi-Fi, mini fridge, coffee maker, hair dryers and air-con / heating.
All food is included in the price of the tour. We will usually take picnics or pick up sandwiches to keep us going during the day, and eat at a selection of local restaurants in the evenings.
Please note that the itinerary below offers our planned programme of excursions. However, adverse weather & other local considerations can necessitate some re-ordering of the programme during the course of the tour, though this will always be done to maximise best use of the time and weather conditions available.
Day 1 Fly Phoenix
We depart London Heathrow on a direct British Airways flight to Philadelphia, arriving in the mid to late afternoon. On arrival in Philadelphia we will transfer a short distance to a convenient hotel for the night. For anyone that wishes to stretch their legs after the flight, there will be the option of visiting John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, very close to our hotel, for an early evening bird walk.
This reserve is one of the most popular birding spots in Pennsylvania for good reason: it is a fantastic spot to find migrant waterfowl, shorebirds, herons and songbirds. The refuge includes the only remaining freshwater tidal marsh in the state and provides vital habitat for several wetland bird species not easily found elsewhere in the region, such as Marsh Wren and Least Bittern.
Days 2 – 9 Cape May
After breakfast this morning, we’ll drive the 1.5 to 2 hours to Cape May, where we will be staying in a comfortable hotel for the next 8 nights. If it has been a good night for migration we’ll drive straight there; otherwise we’ll break the drive up with a stop at a reserve on the way. We will have the rest of today, plus 4½ more days, to enjoy the Cape May area to the full. On the remaining two days, we will take day trips a little further afield to Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and across Delaware Bay to Cape Henlopen State Park and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Excursions around Cape May
Since bird migration is very weather-dependent, our daily activities around Cape May will be planned to take best advantage of local conditions. If winds are from the northwest, we will likely begin by seeking migrant land birds in the woods near Higbee’s Beach first thing in the morning. Late September is the season of peak migrant diversity and a cold front should produce a long list of woodpeckers, buntings, cuckoos, tanagers, swallows, sparrows, and flycatchers. Incredibly, Tree Swallows can form enormous flocks here numbering in the hundreds of thousands of birds! Over 20 species of American warblers are regularly seen during the autumn migration, and we could see Black-throated Green, Black-and-white, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Prairie and Nashville Warblers, Northern Parula, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, and over dozen more! Since the movement of birds is virtually constant in the Cape May area, we’ll be sure to visit multiple other migration hotspots in the immediate area, potentially including The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape Migratory Bird Refuge, The Beanery, Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area, and many others.
Once morning activity is calming down, we will have the option to either return to our hotel to relax, or to head over to Cape May Point, the prime vantage point for observing the passage of southbound raptors. Here, birds heading south find themselves surrounded by water on three sides as they hit the shores of Delaware Bay. Some continue across the Bay, but many stop to assess whether to make the 20-mile crossing or not. In September and early October, Sharp-shinned Hawk (“Sharpie’s) predominate with thousands passing overhead. A good flight consists of several hundred to several thousand of these bird eaters … and many of these small wonders pass at eyelevel and come within a few yards of the hawk watch! Along with “Sharpies” there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, and American Kestrel. Peregrine Falcon, Merlin and Osprey occur in numbers larger than just about anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, and maybe the world. Bald Eagle can also be seen, along with an occasional Swainson’s Hawk and good numbers of vultures.
We’ll spend one afternoon visiting nearby Stone Harbor. In addition to being an exceptional place to see up to 7 or more species of herons, including Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Stone Harbor Point may be one of the best places in North America to see terns. We’ll be looking for Common, Black, Arctic, Gull-billed, and Sandwich terns, along with Roseate and Royal as they fly out over the ocean from their roosting islands to feed on bait fish in the inlet. We’ll be on the lookout for any disturbances within the flocks, perhaps revealing the presence of Arctic Skua chasing the terns and gulls, attempting to steal their food. From here we’ll also look for early waterbird migrants such as loons (divers), scoters, mergansers, gannets, and others as they migrate along the oceanfront. Huge numbers of waders gather on the mudflats and sandflats near the inlet, and we may see flocks of Sanderling, Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, Willet, Semi-palmated, Western and White-rumped Sandpipers. We’ll also keep a keen eye out for the few endangered Piping Plover that may still be here in late September; they will be hiding in plain sight on the sandflats, blending right in with their sandy gray backs! On another day, a back-bay cruise aboard the “Osprey” will give us an up-close look at a variety of shorebirds, herons, and other marsh birds.
As well as brilliant birding, autumn is also the best time of year to witness butterfly and dragonfly migration. The most famous of these is the Monarch butterfly, unique among butterflies in making incredible transcontinental migrations from Canada and the United States to wintering grounds in Mexico. Monarchs become concentrated in Cape May before crossing the Delaware Bay, allowing for census counts and tagging individual butterflies in order to provide a better understanding of their movements. The Monarch Monitoring Project is a research and education program run through New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory that collects data on the hundreds of thousands of Monarchs moving through Cape May each Sept. and Oct. While in Cape May, we will attend a Monarch Monitoring Project tagging demonstration to learn more about the life cycle and migration of Monarchs. And, not to be outdone, Cape May is a fantastic place for the dragonfly and damselfly enthusiast. As well as a good number of resident breeding species, a number of large and impressive species also migrate through the area during autumn. We’ll keep an eye out for Clubtails and Sanddragons, Spiketails and Cruisers, Emeralds, Baskettails, Skimmers & Corporals, Meadowhawks, Saddlebags, Gliders, Pennants, and up to ten species of Darners, especially Green and Swamp Darners which migrate in impressive numbers through Cape May.
Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
On one day during our stay, we will travel a little further afield to enjoy one of the best-known birding locations on the Atlantic Coast. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is sensational during autumn migration, and located less than an hour’s drive north of Cape May. More than threequarters of the area’s 47,000 acres is salt marsh, creating a perfect habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. We will spend our time driving around the eight-mile wildlife drive, which passes alongside diked impoundments where water level is managed to benefit birds. Well over 300 species have been seen on this route alone, testifying to the richness of these wetland habitats and the refuge’s location along the shore on the eastern flyway. More than 30 species of geese, swans, and ducks have been recorded here, along with 16 species of herons, egrets, ibises, and even Roseate Spoonbill. Secretive Clapper Rail are found in the marsh grasses, along with the highly adapted Saltmarsh and Seaside sparrows.
Despite all this, it may in fact be the waders that are the refuge’s main attraction. With more than 40 species on its list, Forsythe is one of the best places in eastern North America to view migrating shorebirds. Dozens of species put down in and adjacent to the refuge to rest and feed, and anytime that you see a mudflat or exposed creek bottom or tidal area, you will likely see shorebirds. Both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, various peeps (small sandpipers like Least, Semi-palmated, Western, Baird’s, etc.), Semi-palmated and Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, Dowitchers, Godwits, Buff-breasted and Solitary Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and many, many more gather here. Rare shorebirds occasionally drop in, so we’ll look carefully for any rarities.
If this wasn’t enough, waterfowl are extremely abundant at Forsythe. You really can’t drive without seeing many, many ducks and geese. Black Duck, Pintail, Shoveler, American Wigeon, both Bluewinged and Green-Winged Teal, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, mergansers (Hooded and Redbreasted), Long-tailed Duck, Snow Goose, and others are all common.
Cape Henlopen State Park and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware
For our second day trip, we will travel across the waters of Delaware Bay by ferry to visit two exceptional reserves, looking for scoters, gulls, cormorants and pelicans along the way. First, we will visit the thin peninsula at Cape Henlopen State Park. We will search for a variety of waterfowl, songbirds, and shorebirds at this fantastic migration hotspot. Raptors wing by after crossing the bay from Cape May, about 12 miles away. We will make a special effort to walk among the pine forest to search for roving bands of Brown-headed Nuthatch, among the northernmost places where this species is found.
Later, we will visit one of the most famous national wildlife refuges in the eastern United States, Prime Hook. This 10,000-acre refuge beside Delaware Bay is a marvelous birding hotspot that combines beaches, saltmarshes, and scrub pine forest. It hosts impressive numbers of waterfowl, waders, marsh birds, shorebirds, gulls, terns, and many more. After a thorough exploration of this remarkable reserve we will catch the ferry back to Cape May.
Transfer Philadelphia and depart
Our last morning in America will be spent exploring hotspots around Cape May, looking for migrants that may have arrived overnight. After freshening up back at our hotel and lunch in Cape May, we will drive north to Philadelphia in time to check in for our overnight flight home.
We will arrive back into London this morning.