Sunday morning, with hope in our hearts and an excellent breakfast in our stomachs, we walked the few blocks from our bed and breakfast to the beach. The day was, as promised, a bit windy and threatening rain, but there was nothing in the sky that could dissuade us from our purpose: we would walk down the beach to the lighthouse, explore the park, and then circle the point to the legendary Concrete Ship. The Concrete Ship, I had read, was a common gathering place for Red-throated Loons in March. Why someone should choose to erect a concrete statue of a ship, as I fondly imagined it to be, in the water was a bit obscure, but it wasn’t any weirder than Jersey City’s highly stylized statue of a Polish Army officer with a disembodied bayonet sticking out of his back. People in a memorial-erecting mood can get weird. Anyway, that wasn’t the point. The point was birds.
The Northern Gannets were almost embarrassingly easy. Several winged over the water as we went down the boardwalk; their stiff flight and stark black-and-white pattern made them easy to pick out.
We came to the end of the boardwalk and had barely struck out a few yards into the sand when I noticed another couple with binoculars scanning the waves. The gentlemen said that they had something out there diving “like an Anhinga.”
Floridians. We backed away carefully. Towards the bird, of course.
I was expecting, from the description, a Cormorant – maybe if I was lucky a Great. Instead, I got an eyeful of a sooty grey back and white underparts. The white extended up the throat and over the eye. A slender, upturned bill sealed the deal – I had my Red-throated Loon. We’d been out for less than an hour, and I’d already gotten both my target species. What more might the day hold?
For the next little bit it held a lot of gulls. And a lot of shells, a bit of sea glass, some wrack, a skate’s egg case; all the joys of a not (for the moment) overcrowded beach. We reached the lighthouse in good order, although we were cold enough to happily take shelter in the Nature Center’s museum, which featured a lot of really neat live snakes but only a few stuffed birds. It also featured the true story of the Concrete Ship – yep, it was a ship built of concrete, because of wartime steel shortages. And yep, it floated. Not forever, though. When it stopped floating, its owners left it where it lay.
In the parking lot, I encountered my year Killdeer and my much-anticipated first Warbler of 2008; unsurprisingly, a Yellow-rumped. Also a great many Song Sparrows, Robins, a single Cedar Waxwing, and a vigorously singing Carolina Wren. Also, low and fast along a row of trees, a Sharp-shinned Hawk. It was hard to even leave the parking lot.
After enjoying the Nature Center’s facilities to their fullest extent, we proceeded around the point. There were a series of rock jetties extending into the ocean from this stretch of beach, covered in gulls and green weed. As the Inimitable Todd scrambled out onto one to get a better shot of the ocean, a small, very pale shorebird took off and winged down the beach.
“Gosh darn it!” I said (not an exact quote), and scrambled after. I knew that Piping Plovers had been turning up over the past week in Cape May, but this seemed like a whiter shade of pale. I’d gotten a long enough look at the bird’s retreat to note the black-and-white pattern of the wings, but without other wings to judge it against I didn’t feel like I was able to judge species on the width of the pale stripe alone.
By the time we had arrived at the next jetty, the bird had elected to make a U-turn and head back.
While we pondered this conundrum, the IT once again decided to pursue his strange jetty-crawling ways. This time, instead of flushing a bird from the jetty, he was fortunate enough to be in the path of a flock that flew to the jetty – and they didn’t let the foolish human balancing precariously on the slimy, wave-washed rocks dissuade them from going about their birdy business.
As you can see, some of them were Ruddy Turnstones.
Some of them were Purple Sandpipers – looking, I must admit, purpler and prouder than previous.
And some of them – the ones that flushed soonest, of course – were the mystery white ‘Plovers’.
What were they? Clearly not Piping Plovers. Snowy Plovers had black at the shoulder, but not like that, and anyway, that was silly talk. It was only when the ‘Plovers’ got sick of playing taunt-the-dopey-mammal and started running back and forth on the sand that I recognized them for what every reader has undoubtedly figured out by now – Sanderlings.
In my defense, I’d never seen any before. Nor had I seen any Ruddy Turnstones, so I was now up three lifers for the day.
We circled through a gift shop and thawed out again, and headed up yet another windy stretch of beach. There was a small knot of people gathered around something on the sand, and after the rather grim cautions in the museum about what happens to plastic at sea, I was afraid that it was a beached and dying marine mammal.
It was a marine mammal; not dead, however, but sleeping! According to the helpful Animal Control officer who’d been dispatched to stand guard, it’s not unheard of for seals (and such it was – a Gray Seal specifically) to just pull up on the sand at Cape May for a little nap, especially in heavy weather, and especially when the seal in question is young. This one had been examined by a vet on the spot and pronounced fit, healthy, and about six to eight months old; old enough to have separated from hir mother, but not yet fully mature. It’s a dicey time in the life of a seal (as it is in the life of a hawk or a human) but the seal in question seemed downright relaxed. We snapped some more photos and wished hir, and the nice Animal Control dude, good luck.
We had only a little further up the beach to go before we encountered the one, the only, the legend, the Concrete Ship. Sure enough, it did indeed have Red-throated Loons around it (though none of the promised Scoters) and I’m not so jaded that I wasn’t excited to see them. In the distance, the ferry (sometimes called a ‘poor man’s pelagic’, such rich waters does it run through) was coming in.
You can kind of see the Loons, but not really.
The weather continued cold and drizzly. There was a hot tea waiting for us at the b&b, but we weren’t going to get it unless we trekked back; and like all good explorers we had no intention of merely retracing our steps. We walked through the village, talking about real estate and the like, and encountered the CMBO building; an unprepossessing little blue-sided house with a message board out front covered in assorted, mostly unhelpful notices. On the other side of the street, though, there was a pond with a great many Coots and a pair of American Wigeons, and another singing Carolina Wren on shore.
We looped, still talking about which of the houses we would buy in an absurd universe where we could afford a house in Cape May. Soon enough – it’s not a big point, that’s part of its virtue – we were back at the lighthouse. This time, instead of the beach, we followed a boardwalk into the scrubby woody marshy thing that was just over the dunes from the sea, the scrubby woody marshy thing that at times is so dripping with migrants as to make Cape May the birding shrine of the American East. It had some migrants today. Not the crowding-each-other-off-branches migrants of a fal day with a wind from the south, but some – including my second warbler of the year, the equally-unsurprising Pine Warbler. It also contained a pair of bird photographers who mentioned that a Barnacle Goose had been spotted up in the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. But that would have to wait until after tea – and a few more Sanderlings.
Tea was delicious. Afterward, hot drinks in bellies and rental car in hand, we headed to Higbee. We found alpacas. We found Eastern Phoebes. We even found geese – but Canada Geese. Alas, the Barnacle Goose was not to be mine.
Instead we watched the sun set over the ocean, and then went out to dinner. And then we got kind of inebriated, and ran into this rules girl from Soho and her fiance, and she started yelling at IT for not marrying me, and I may or may not have stolen her hat… but that’s another story, and doesn’t involve any birds.
Of note: as of the end of this trip, my life list now stands at 250 species, which is about half of where I would like it to be.
Fish Crow Corvus ossifragus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Northern Gannet Sula bassanus
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata *LL
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottus
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler Dendroica coronata
Golden-crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Brant Branta bernicla
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres *LL
Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima
Sanderling Calidris alba *LL
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker Colaptes auratus
American Coot Fulica atra
American Wigeon Anas americana
Pine Warbler Dendroica pinus
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe