As cool northwest winds drive migrating birds southward through New Jersey’s beaches, woods, and marshes, tens of thousands of humans fan out in search of a natural spectacle that has few equals in the Northeast.
It’s the fall migration, an influx of southbound birds that draws birders to hotspots around the state where they hope to see birds in quantity and quality that is hard to match elsewhere in the region or the country.
Apparently oblivious to Jersey’s dense population, overdeveloped shoreline, and traffic-choked highways, raptors drift over Garret Mountain in Passaic County; shorebirds gather on the mudflats of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Ocean County; and warblers shelter in the woods around Cape May Point, waiting for the weather that will help them to move toward wintering grounds in the southern states or central or South America.
The number and variety of birds draws people to Jersey’s birding meccas at all times of year but never more so than in the fall when birders positioned in the right places have the best chance of seeing dazzling numbers or rare individuals passing through.
For experts and novices alike, here is NJ Spotlight’s selection of the 10 best birding locations in the Garden State at what may be the pinnacle of the birding year:
By general agreement, Cape May is the place where Jersey birders are most likely to see the largest numbers and the best selection of southbound birds. The peninsula between Goshen on the Delaware Bay; Avalon on the Atlantic, and Cape May Point at the state’s southern tip is a globally renowned birding mecca, known especially for its fall migration.
The peninsula is such a magnet for birds because it’s on the eastern flyway migratory route, and is bounded by the ocean and the bay, which “funnel” a large number of birds into a small strip of land where they are relatively easy to see, said David La Puma, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory.
The peninsula’s woods, marshes, bays, and beaches offer a variety of habitat and shelter where southbound birds -- which may have bred in the Arctic or Canada’s boreal forests -- can rest and feed before heading across the Delaware Bay to resume their migration. Cape May offers a more inviting stopover than nearby barrier islands that have been largely stripped of trees and developed to the point at which they offer little food or shelter for migrating birds, La Puma said.
“We get these three distinct groups: raptors, landbirds/songbirds, and waterbirds, and they all congregate and concentrate here at the southernmost tip of New Jersey,” he said.
For the many birds that migrate at night, Cape May offers food and shelter where they can recuperate during the day before flying south again. Some can even be seen flying north in the early morning in search of a place to rest after setting out to cross the Bay during the night but then turning around, in what’s known as “redirected migration,” La Puma said. Those birds will head south again when conditions are right, he said.
He said a recent morning flight of about 2,000 birds included a selection of raptors such as sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, merlins, American kestrels and peregrines, and, notably, a late-migrating blue-winged warbler.
The number was modest by Cape May standards, and was dwarfed by a record 57,164 birds on September 14. That was the largest flight on any September day in the 15-year history of counting the migration at Cape May, and a record high for many individual species, La Puma said. Later in the fall, it’s not uncommon for watchers at Cape May to see 8,000 or 10,000 birds in a day, he said.
Just as significant is the number of humans who come to see the birds at Cape May. The Bird Observatory’s two visitor centers attract some 33,000 visitors a year, while the hawk watch at Cape May Point sees around 100,000 people during the fall migration.
Scott Barnes, bird programs director for New Jersey Audubon, said what distinguishes Cape May as a birding hotspot is its small area, and hence great concentration of birds that can be seen at virtually any time of the year.
After having led birding tours in 22 other states, Barnes said Cape May is unique in its size and location. “There are many other places in the country that have very good birding but not in such a small area,” he said.
The concentration of birds into a small area also applies to New Jersey as a whole, and explains the annual World Series of Birding, a team competition to the see the most species anywhere in the state over a 24-hour period each May.
This preserve, on 47,000 acres in Galloway Township north of Atlantic City is good for birds at any time of year, naturalists say. Its Brigantine section offers extensive views over mudflats and salt marshes -- and Atlantic City’s skyscrapers -- from an 8-mile drive that has plenty of stopping places. Visitors in the late fall are likely to see increasing numbers of waterfowl, including snow geese, as well as peregrine falcons and even golden eagles.
The quality and quantity of birds visible at Forsythe at any time of year means it is intensively watched. “A lot of birders go there so it’s easy to find the interesting birds,” Barnes said.
This vies with Forsythe as the second-best place in New Jersey to see birds, according to Barnes. Year-round, some 350 species of birds have been seen there, while the fall usually offers migrating hawks, warblers, sparrows, and bluebirds, among other species. In summer, the beaches host breeding piping plovers, a federally endangered species, while the site attracts loons and several species of waterfowl during the winter.
Best known for their springtime migration of shorebirds, beaches such as Reed’s, Cook’s, and Kimble’s host a concentration of migrants that is known as one of the world’s great natural spectacles. The birds include the red knot, a species that has been classified as threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Pete Dunne, the former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and now a birding “ambassador at large” for New Jersey Audubon, said the number of birds moving through the Delaware Bay for a few weeks in May each year -- though much smaller than in the past -- makes it equivalent to major natural phenomena anywhere in the world.
“It’s a little bit like the Grand Canyon in our own back yard, and it moves here of its own volition,” he said.
Dunne also selected a seawatch platform run by the CMBO at Avalon, north of Stone Harbor, as a place where visitors can get close-up views of birds that are migrating south along the coast, and which are forced close in to land because the point juts out into the ocean. In the winter, it’s a great place to see sea ducks and pelagic species, he said.
On the Delaware River opposite northeast Philadelphia, this location attracts migrating species such as thrushes, warblers, and flycatchers during the fall, and draws some wetland birds such as herons, egrets, and loons, Barnes said. Birds are attracted there because of its status as a small patch of nature amid an intensely urban environment, he noted.
Experts highlight the springtime songbird migration that can be seen from locations within the park including Old Mine Road and the adjoining High Point State Park. The spring visitors include the cerulean warbler. In the fall, nearby Raccoon Ridge is a good place to watch the hawk migration.
Amid suburban Morris County, the 12-square-mile refuge is only 26 miles from New York City’s Times Square and is known for its migrating waterfowl, including northern pintail and gadwall.
An unlikely location in a heavily developed area close to Paterson and Route 80 which is nevertheless a powerful draw for birders wanting to see migrating song birds in the spring, and migrating hawks in the fall, experts say.
An area of wetlands bordering New York City that might be overlooked by non-birders, it is known for attracting birds such as northern harriers, which can be seen hunting low over the reeds, and drew snowy owls during the influx of the Arctic birds two winters ago.