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It’s not really spying – it’s appreciating our fine feathered friends
By Tom Adkinson
April 23, 2021

(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of travel stories spotlighting destinations and activities to consider in a time of coronavirus and to inspire safe outings elsewhere.)

cape may osprey
Here’s a Cape May trifecta – a nesting osprey, a boat on the water and the Nature Center of Cape May in the background. Image by New Jersey Audubon.

CAPE MAY, New Jersey – Anytime is a good time to grab some binoculars, find your local Audubon Society chapter or call your local nature center and get introduced to birding, but spring and fall are especially good birding times at Cape May on the far southern tip of New Jersey.

Cape May is on the Atlantic Flyway for migratory birds, and it effectively is the bottom of a funnel. In marathon runner terms, think of it as a hydration and nutrition station in the middle of a race.

Multiple habitats – Atlantic coast, Delaware Bay, marshes, meadows – appeal to a variety of species, and the number of individual birds is in the millions over a matter of weeks.

“That’s why you’ll often see Cape May on Top 10 lists of birding locations in the U.S., or even the world,” said Gretchen Whitman, director of the Nature Center of Cape May, one of several New Jersey Audubon facilities.

cape may shorebird
Shorebirds, such as this lesser yellowlegs, are a major attraction for springtime birders at Cape May. Image by New Jersey Audubon.

Whitman says that experienced birders might count 200 species on a spring day, while no experience is necessary to begin birding and to enjoy the activity.

“The appeal is that it can be done anytime and anywhere. It is an easy way to connect with nature, and it provides reasons to explore new places,” she said.

Just don’t call it bird watching. That implies a passive activity. Birding, however, is a true activity. It calls for learning about birds, identifying their plumage, listening for their songs and understanding their habits and habitats.

That’s the joy of birding. It’s easy to do, it has a low cost of entry (walking shoes, a notebook, a starter pair of binoculars, if you want) and there are plenty of experts, both professional and amateur, who are more than willing to get you hooked.

cape may semipalmated plover
Shorebirds can blend in with the environment and still present themselves beautifully. Image by New Jersey Audubon.

Whitman’s blue-roofed Nature Center of Cape May offers a solid introduction to birding in a community that’s much farther south than you might imagine. It’s true that New York City is only about 200 miles north, but Cape May is basically on the same latitude as Washington, D.C., and Louisville, Kentucky.

Exhibits at the center are informative, and staffers can tell you what you’re likely to see just by stepping outdoors or driving short distances to prime viewing locations. Among them is the Hawk View Platform at Cape May Point State Park, which overlooks ponds, meadows and the beach. It provides you with perspectives on various habitats.

cape may bald eagles
This regal pair of bald eagles was photographed down the coast from Cape May at Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Image by Royce Ball.

Highlights of spring migration include shorebirds such as red knots (a threatened species), semipalmated sandpipers and ruddy turnstones, along with common songbirds such as warblers and robins that almost everyone can identify. In fall, birds of prey such as eagles, hawks and ospreys command much attention.

“There’s a related bonus in Cape May in September when monarch butterflies pass through headed south, and everyone loves butterflies,” Whitman said.

cape may victorian buildings
Cape May, which calls itself America’s first seaside resort, is famous for its preserved Victorian architecture. Image by Cape May Chamber of Commerce.

Cape May itself is a popular destination and bills itself as America’s first seaside resort. It is famous for its Victorian architecture (structures built after a massive fire in the 1870s and now preserved), and part of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places.

As popular as Cape May is with human visitors, the overwhelming majority of its visitors – those of the feathered type – don’t really care as long as they have plenty of places to take a break on their long journeys.

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(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

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