The Morning Flight at Cape May

To put it simply, I don't know how they do it. Imagine having to start your work day and being immediately inundated with phone calls, a non-stop video conference and pesky co-w0rkers who all had something really "important" they needed to confer with you about. No time to leisurely check a few e-mails while that first cup of coffee works its magic on the cobwebs that accumulate around one's senses overnight. You hit the dike and you must be "on," with all pistons firing. Counting the morning flight of passerines at the "dike" at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area in Cape May, New Jersey requires a rare combination of birding skill and focus. 

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Cape May Bird Observatory's 2010 Morning Flight Counter Tom Johnson on the job at the "dike" on 13 October 2010. Note the clicker in his hand. These are used to record individual birds as they fly past. Photo by Dave Irons

Five mornings a week over the last two months (September 1-October 31 2010), this season's morning flight counter, Tom Johnson, has scrambled up the face of the 60-foot dike at dawn to record the amazing northbound flights that occur here in fall.

You are likely asking yourself, "northbound, I thought this was fall migration?" Yes folks, birds still migrate south in fall, but at Cape May geography and weather combine to produce a rare northbound morning flight. During fall, the best flights occur on the heels of overnight cold fronts with winds out of the northwest.

Songbirds are, for the most part, nocturnal migrants and northwesterly winds push them towards the Mid-Atlantic coast in a broad front. If they hit the southeastern tip of Cape May at dawn, all they see in front of them is water. Opting to continue south across open water during daylight would leave them too vulnerable to predation by raptors, so instead, the birds turn west and then north following the Delaware Bay coastline, many flying along just above the tree tops. Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area is perfectly situated in this transition zone. The dike, the top of which is just above tree top level, is the ideal vantage point to witness this ornithological spectacle. 

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Here is a map of Cape May. The "Morning Flight" platform is in the upper left hand corner just below the mouth of the Intracoastal Waterway. (Map sourced from http://www.birdcapemay.org)

Some days are comparatively pedestrian, but on those rare occasions when the overnight weather patterns are just right, over 100,000 individual birds have been recorded from the dike in a single morning (http://www.birdcapemay.org). For the counters, it's hard enough to lay eyes on each individual bird that flies over and harder still to pick up enough pattern and detail in the subdued post-dawn light to actually identify birds to species by sight. In addition to sight IDs, Tom and others who do the counting, make many individual identifications by noting the subtle differences in size and shape, plus the calls the birds utter as they fly over. These birds are not singing full songs or giving the somewhat more familiar call notes that they offer while on the ground. The calls one hears from flying songbirds are very high-pitched, not very loud, and to the untrained ear (if you can hear them to begin with), nearly identical from species to species. "Was that a 'tseep' or a 'zzeep'?"

Making this job more challenging is that there are always lots of unofficial counters about. On a typical fall morning, dozens of other birders come and go from the dike. The locals in this vibrant birding community know not to ask Tom and his fellow counters questions as they work. But first-timers don't know the protocols. For this reason, there is a lower viewing platform with an interpretative naturalist who is there to explain the flight to visitors, allowing the official counter to operate with minimal distractions.

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The Essentials: Here are the tools of the trade for counting the morning flight. Each of the four-letter codes across the top of this counter represents a species. There are several of these counters, plus a number of individual hand clickers (see photo below) employed to record the counts.

In the midst of a big flight there is no time to look away or to record data by writing it down, so the counters use an array of hand clickers to count individuals. More common species, like Yellow-rumped Warbler and American Robin have a dedicated hand-held clicker. When it is really happening, Tom and the "swing counter" who relieves him on the two days a week he gets to sleep in, adorn their hands with multiple shiny metal clickers. This data collection is spearheaded by New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory, which has been "officially" running these counts since 2003.

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Here's a close-up shot of one of the hand clickers. "AMRO" represents American Robin. These four-letter codes were developed by bird banders. Photo by Dave Irons

Addendum: As I write this piece on 29 October 2010, Cape May is experiencing one of those magical days that occurs only a few times in lifetime. We subscribe to a pager alert network ("KEEKEEKERR") set up by the Cape May locals to share rare sightings quickly. This morning, we awoke to a slew of new KEEKEEKERR messages. Here is a sampling of the excitement, with the locals telling the story. 

OCT 28 Evening:

9:44 PM      Doug Gochfeld:  Excellent night listening/watching @ the Convention Center. 30 birds a minute.

10:04 PM    Scott Whittle: make that 60/minute seen

10:48 PM    Michael O'Brien:  Pace of flight over convention center increasing significantly

11:02 PM    Glen Davis: in o.c. (Ocean City?)- just slowed down a lot from 60+/min an hour ago

11:10 PM    Scott Whittle: just clicked 300/min visual at convention center / Michael O'Brien says best flight since 1999

11:17 PM    Richard Crossley: simply amazing. Get out of bed. Once in a lifetime at the convention centre

OCT 29 Morning:

5:49 AM    Scott Whittle:  dozens of birds on street and low flying Beach Ave and Cape May Mall - call in sick!

6:27 AM    David LaPuma:  Birds all over the villas. Sparrows and Hermit Thrush sitting on rd

6:29 AM    Sheila/Marleen: It's like Xmas morning

6:30 AM    Richard Crossley:  lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers overhead. Lots Hermit Thrushes, sparrows, Northern Flickers, etc. Roads and doorways jammed.

6:33 AM    Mike Crewe: just for balance: not a single bird seen or heard here yet

6:41 AM    Mike Crewe: American Woodcock streaming over now

6:48 AM    Don Freiday:  American Woodcock streaming by Hidden Valley lot too, over 100 seen in 5 minutes

6:57 AM    T. Kersten:  Dunes DRIPPING with sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, juncos, robins

7:07 AM    Richard Crossley: trying to drive to the point through clouds of sparrows that are increasing by the minute. Wild.

7:19 AM    Tom Johnson:  Cave Swallow Hawk Watch

7:53 AM    Michael O'Brien:  Dead Le Conte's Sparrow in my pocket; picked up on Cape May Point.

8:54 AM    David LaPuma: Bayshore lousy w/ birds. Yumps, sparrows, flickers, etc.

9:09 AM    B. Brown: Black-throated Blue Warbler Blackburnian Warbler, Hermit Thrush at Cape May State Park

9:35 AM    Bob Fogg: Grasshopper Sparrow: 320 Alexander Ave.

9:48 AM   Don Freiday: Just got a very interesting description of Golden-crowned Sparrow Higbees near lot

10:21 AM  Tony Leukering: Lincoln's Sparrow putting on good show at Hawk Watch

11:51 AM   Bob Fogg: Clay-colored Sparrow at 613 Seagrove Ave.

Editor's note: The nature of individual texts was casual and unedited. Abbreviations were spelled out and some other editing was done for clarity. We thank all of those who posted to KEEKEEKERR for allowing us to vicariously share their joy. Having just returned from my first trip to Cape May, the landscape is fresh in my mind and I am hopelessly trying to imagine the scene being described in the messages above. What I wouldn't have given to be there last night and this morning.

1

Wow, Thanks for this column about the flight at Cape May! It is informative about the process of the flight and of trying to document it as well as catches the excitement of watching the phenomenon as well. Nice!

2

I grew in the ’70s birding in South Jersey. Cape May was and is a great spot. I have mental images of waves of birds migrating along the shore.

3

likewise, I see this Brian Ross regarding GRUNDELEMENTER accounts that there’s the “Harry Reid” who killed a crowd of young children not too long ago.
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