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Day 1: Sat 21 September 2024 - UK – Philadelphia - Cape May
We take the morning flight to Philadelphia, board our vehicle and travel towards the birding hotspot of Cape May. Arriving at our accommodation late-afternoon, an evening stroll may be offered especially if we hear it's been a good day for migration!
Days 2 & 3: Sun 22 & Mon 23 September - The Cape May Peninsula
With a range of birding options and sites in close proximity to our base, our itinerary will be especially flexible. The daily options are given only as a rough guide and we are likely to visit the most productive sites several times. If migration is slower around the Point itself we can branch out a short distance to explore other great birding locations. Early morning visits to the fields, scrub and coastal woodlands of Higbee Beach, Hidden Valley Ranch and the South Cape Meadows are likely to be the most productive for migrant passerines. Our time will always be well spent in these areas, searching for and identify dozens of warblers, vireos, thrushes, flickers, kingbirds, tanagers, orioles and more. No two days are the same and there is always something new to see – that’s why local birders love Cape May!
Over twenty species of American Wood-warbler are possible on this tour. Likely are Pine, Blackpoll, Magnolia, Myrtle, Black and White, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Parula, American Redstart and Common Yellowthroat. Just about any of the others are also possible, and exactly which of the scarcer species make landfall is down to luck and the weather. Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, American Yellow, Prairie, Connecticut, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Tennessee and Cape May Warbler are but a few. The latter is an appropriate species to have on our checklists, but not always easy to see at Cape May!
Other dream species high on the agenda for UK rarity seekers include Black and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Mourning Dove, Cedar and Bohemian Waxwing, Grey Catbird, American Robin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Bobolink and Scarlet Tanager. The Catharus thrushes (Swainson’s, Hermit, Grey-cheeked, Wood or Veery) tend to pass later but we may see one or two. We should also see Red-eyed, White-eyed and Philadelphia Vireo, Eastern Pheobe, Brown Thrasher, Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglet. Migrant flocks of Tree Swallow draw our attention away from the vegetation, and we may also be faced with the surreal sight of a Northern Flicker or Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flying out over the sea! There are so many possibilities, and often it can be the sheer number of ‘fall’ migrants which amaze rather than the variety!
If the excitement in the bushes isn’t enough, as the air temperature rises we find ourselves drawn more and more to the skies. The Cape May Hawkwatch platform is legendary, and we plan to join the counting team several times during the tour. Recent season totals may be viewed here, and while the variety isn’t huge, Cape May is dubbed the raptor capital of North America for one reason - the sheer numbers! In the right conditions, literally hundreds of birds may fill the skies at one time and we brush up our identification skills for Coopers, Sharp-shinned, Broad-winged, and Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Osprey, Turkey and American Black Vulture, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine.
Day 4: Tue 24 September - Stone Harbor Wetlands and Avalon Point
In a change of scenery, we have the option to head north along the coast to explore the Wetlands Management Zone at Stone Harbor or perhaps continuing to Ludlam Bay beyond. Surrounded by mudflats and rich estuarine habitat, roosting waders can number into the thousands with a range of species possible. These include Semi-palmated and Grey Plover, Pectoral, Western, White-rumped, Semi-palmated and Least Sandpiper, Willet, Marbled Godwit, (Hudsonian) Whimbrel, Short and Long-billed Dowitcher, and American Oystercatcher. On the beaches a few post-breeding Piping Plovers may still be present, and the saltmarsh creeks around Nummy Island and Thorofore can be good for American Avocet, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary and Spotted Sandpiper. Also attracted may be Tricolored, Little Blue, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned and Yellow Crowned Night Heron, Great White and Snowy Egret.
We also plan to sea-watch from Avalon Point and your guide will be on the lookout for favourable onshore winds which can push birds closer to land. Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, there is no better place on the eastern seaboard for observing migrant seabirds and the Observatory team annually records passage from late-September through to November. Likely species on the move include Canada and Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Surf, Black and White-winged Scoter, Great Northern and Red-throated Diver, Brown Pelican, Double Crested Cormorant, Black Skimmer, Royal, Caspian and Forster’s Tern, Pomarine and Arctic Skua. Offshore we should find Laughing, Ring-billed and American Herring Gull, while rarer storm driven species in recent years have included Cory’s, Great and Manx Shearwater, Brown Booby and American Black Tern. Recent totals can be viewed at here, while a selection of herons, waders, raptors and even migrant passerines may also be seen on the move.
Day 5: Wed 25 September - Cape May Peninsula
Birding around Cape May rarely disappoints and changes daily. Repeated effort in already visited locations nearly always yields newcomers. As well as checking the point, valleys and fields, time today may be devoted to staking out a series of small pools for Sora and Clapper Rail, Green Heron and Belted Kingfisher or searching for local species such as Blue Jay, Carolina and House Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Mockingbird, Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee. Roaming flocks of Swamp, Savannah, Saltmarsh and Chipping Sparrow are also worth checking through for scarcer Song, White-crowned and Field Sparrow.
Day 6: Thu 26 September - Delaware Bay boat trip and Cape Henlopen State Park
We catch the morning ferry across Delaware Bay, from Cape May to Lewes near Delaware. The 18 mile journey across the open water gives new opportunities for close encounters with seabirds, perhaps including Double-crested Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Gannet, Arctic and Pomarine Skua, Royal, Common and Forster’s Tern, perhaps a Wilson’s Storm Petrel or something even rarer. By taking our vehicle, we have the opportunity to visit some of Delware’s excellent reserves too. At Cape Henlopen State Park, walking the Maritime forest trails we seek resident Hairy, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatch, plus a range of migrant wood-warblers, flycatchers, finches and sparrows. We prioritise what we haven't already seen, with other options if time allows including Rehoboth Bay, Great Marsh Preserve or Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge for wetland and coastal birds. We seawatch again from the return ferry back to Cape May. A great day out!
Day 7: Fri 27 September - Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
Another destination is the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, or to use its local name ‘Brigantine’. Located an hour north of Cape May, this vast and sensational site offers great birdwatching any time of year, and large numbers of wildfowl and waders pause here in autumn. American Black Duck, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal may be seen dabbling in the wet meadows with Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser and Greater Scaup joining Pied-billed Grebe in deeper water. Wader numbers and diversity are similar to other coastal sites, though may also include Killdeer and American Golden Plover in the fields. Such an abundance of prey in turn attracts hunting raptors with Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawk, occasional Golden Eagle and Rough-legged Hawk, Peregrine and Merlin (of their respective Nearctic races) possible. Belted Kingfisher fish the creeks and pools with flocks of Boat-tailed Grackle and several species of sparrow frequenting the fields and scrub.
Day 8: Sat 28 September - Cape May Peninsula
Our last full day at Cape May, so we’ll be keen to stake out any Nearctic specialities we haven’t yet seen. Just imagine the celebrations on our final night if a Prothonotary or Chestnut-sided Warbler turned up!
Day 9: Sun 29 September - Final birding and departure
We may have some time for some early-morning birding around the point, before transferring to Philadelphia/Newark for our return, overnight flight to the UK arriving on Mon 30 September.