The Raptor Capital of North America
Cape May is a peninsula, an extension of the New Jersey coastal plain bordered on the west by Delaware Bay and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean. This makes Cape May a natural funnel, catching and directing southbound birds to the peninsula’s terminus at Cape May Point.
It is a fundamental tenet of the natural world that predators remain less common than their prey. A hopeful observer could spend hours in prime Cooper’s Hawk or Merlin territory and never catch a glimpse. Only during migration, when birds of prey are concentrated at key geographic locations are they readily seen. Cape May, New Jersey is without a doubt, the finest vantage point in North America
Stars still dominated the Western sky as I made my way toward the Hawkwatch but already there were hawks aloft over Cape May Point State Park. It was October 4, 1977 and the fourth consecutive day of northwest winds—a magic time and a magic condition, but no one living in that age of DDT-diminished expectations could have guessed how much magic would be brought to bear on Cape May that day.
By sunrise there was a steady stream of Sharp-shinneds moving down the tree line north of the platform. By 8:00, the stream had become a river and then the river overflowed its banks, flooding the park with birds. An hour later, the day’s Broad-winged Hawks began to join the Sharp-shinned hawks spiraling aloft and by 10:00, the air over Cape May Point was black with migrating birds of prey—a condition that did not wane until late in the afternoon.
There were 21,800 hawks counted that day in Cape May Point—9,400 Broad-wingeds; 11,000 Sharp-shinneds and a host of other species. It was the flight that earned Cape May the nickname “The Raptor Capital of North America.” A title that this narrow finger of sand has earned many times over.
– Pete Dunne
Things To Know
The Species Lineup
Cape May’s regular raptors include Accipiters like the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Northern Goshawk; Buteos like Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk and Swainson’s Hawk; Falcons like the Peregrine, Merlin and American Kestrel. Also seen regularly are Osprey, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, as well as Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture (technically storks, but honorary raptors).
Some of these species (like Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Red- tailed Hawk) are common, even abundant, and their migration period is long. Observers can expect to see these species almost every day. Other species like the Swainson’s Hawk and Rough-legged Hawk are locally uncommon, seen only a few times a season, or have a migration period that is very restricted. What species you will see depends upon the time of your visit and the weather conditions you experience.
Weather and Migration
Unlike many other hawk migration sites, hawks are almost always visible from the Hawkwatch Platform during the count period (September – November). But what hawk watchers live for, are those days when weather conditions cause hawks to move in great numbers. These “flights” are caused by the passage of a cold front—a high pressure cell moving into the region from the north or west. The falling temperatures stimulate birds to migrate and the associated north to northwest winds ferry birds to the Atlantic Coast. Being reluctant to cross open water, many hawks concentrate along the coast, following its contours, south and west, until they reach Cape May.
In general, the smaller hawks, like the Kestrel and Sharp-shinned Hawk, are most common on the first day following the passage of a cold front. The larger, soaring birds, like the Eagles and Buteos, are more abundant on the second (or third) day of sustained north to northwest winds.
Northeast winds can also produce large flights, particularly falcons (which are not shy about crossing water and prone to migrate offshore). Southerly or southwesterly winds make for business-as-usual migrations, which means only several hundred birds a day during the peak of the migratory period, instead of several thousand birds.
Characteristics of the Flight
The migratory period differs species to species. Northern Harriers, American Kestrels and Bald Eagles have very protracted migrations, August through December. Peregrine Falcons are more restricted. About 90% of any season’s Peregrines will pass between September 26 and October 12. In general, the Accipiters and Falcons are most abundant from mid-September through mid-October; Buteos most abundant mid-October on. Osprey peak between mid-September and mid-October. Golden Eagles are most common in the last week of October. Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawks and vultures are October/November migrants. In terms of overall numbers, the greatest flights (involving thousands of birds) occur in late-September to mid-October. The greatest species diversity, involving 11 to 14 species per day, occurs from late-October to mid-November (with average daily totals of 500 birds.
Daily Activity Pattern
Birds of prey are often on the wing at first light, skimming low over the marsh or through the trees. As the day warms, thermal production increases and flights gain altitude, often exceeding the limits of the unaided eye to see high flying birds. By mid-afternoon, as thermal strength wanes, birds respond by flying lower (and many start hunting seriously). But birds of prey can be seen at any time of day: hunting, feeding, perching, or just soaring over the peninsula. Accipiters are most active in the morning; Falcons in the afternoon; Buteos are most easily viewed from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
Aids to Hawk Watching
Good binoculars are a must; spotting scopes useful. Field guides that deal specifically with the identification of hawks in flight are invaluable. CMBO’s two nature stores (in Cape May Point and in Goshen) offer the state’s finest selection of birding optics and a wide assortment of books that focus on birds of prey—many of which are written by reknowned naturalists, who call Cape May home. Other useful items include sunglasses, a brimmed hat (to cut down on sun glare), sun screen and a bottle of water.
Where to Watch
For most species, under most wind conditions, the Hawkwatch at Cape May Point State Park offers the best perspective. The platform is located just east of the parking lot. An official Hawk Counter is on duty from September 1 – November 30. The count is conducted by the Cape May Bird Observatory in cooperation with New Jersey Forest and Parks and with funding this year from Swarovski Optik. Interpretive Interns are on hand from mid-September through October to help visitors with identification and answer questions relating to birds of prey. The platform also serves as the social hub for local and visiting birders alike, a place to share information.