Cape May Hawkwatch – September 1st to 9th

Hello, NJ Audubon blog readers! This is Jesse Amesbury, returning for my third season as the official counter at the Cape May Hawkwatch, sponsored by Swarovski Optik. They say third time’s a charm, so I’m crossing my fingers for some record breaking totals this season! The anticipation at the beginning of every season is always so exciting because you absolutely never know what you will see in Cape May. I’m thinking maybe a Swallow-tailed Kite or a Ferruginous Hawk?!?! Stranger things have happened before! Regardless of how the season unfolds, I know it will be a fun one.

The count officially tipped off on September 1st where the first bird counted of the season was a Merlin. Hopefully, a good omen for some big falcon flights this autumn. Predictably, the weather during this count period was a mixed bag. Some days felt like the middle of summer, with little to no migration, and some days gave us a taste of fall weather with cool NW breezes and pulses of raptor migration. September 2nd was the first day that felt like fall, and like clockwork, brought us the first rarity, a Mississippi Kite. Typically, we observe the adult/immature age class in Cape May, but surprisingly, the bird seen this year was a juvenile (hatched this summer) which may be the first juvenile ever counted in the fall. This is almost certainly due to the expanding breeding range of this species, which is now north of New Jersey.

Not going to win any awards, but this photo of the juvenile Mississippi Kite still shows its unique silhouette. Note the long pointed wings, striped tail, and light gray overall color.

September 2nd ended up being the biggest raptor flight this week with 244 tallied. The vast majority of those migrants were Osprey which is not surprising given September is the peak of their migration. A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk was also counted, a species typically not observed in Cape May until the middle of the month. The following days were warm and muggy, preventing any migration from occurring. It wasn’t until September 7th that we got our next pulse of migration with 136 birds counted, including a season high of 12 Broad-winged Hawks. With each passing day, we get closer to the heart of migration and the numbers should skyrocket so check back to see how the season is progressing!

A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk was a real surprise this week, with not 1 but 3 individuals counted. They can be separated from the similarly-plumaged Broad-winged Hawk by the pale “crescent” of translucent feathers on the wing tips, the four exposed “fingers” aka feathers on the wing tip (vs 3 on a Broad-winged), and the thrusted forward wings giving the appearance of the hawk about to give you a hug.

I can’t forget about the notable non-raptors seen this week from the hawkwatch platform. September 1st produced a Baird’s Sandpiper and a Wilson’s Storm Petrel. An American Bittern flew over Bunker Pond on September 6th. September 7th hosted a Marbled Godwit and a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Seldom seen, a close-up flyby of an American Bittern was a real crowd pleaser to all the birders on the hawkwatch platform.

Hope to see some familiar faces on the hawkwatch platform this year, so stop on by and say hi!

Jesse Amesbury