Pacific coast birding down, Atlantic coast yet to go

Cape May lighthouse

The Cape May lighthouse marks the location of the Cape May Bird Observatory hawk watching platform.

Published Sept. 30, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pacific coast down, Atlantic coast yet to go.”

2014 Update: I’ve been fortunate to travel to Cape May in the fall two more times since, but never quite at the peak.

By Barb Gorges

By the time you read this I’ll be back from the East Coast.

Only once before have I made it ocean to ocean in one year. That year I started out in spring as a naturalist-in-training on Staten Island, N.Y., then spent the summer in Wyoming as a soils tech in Rock Springs, and when the field season finished, drove up to Seattle to visit my aunt and uncle.

These same relatives now live in Philadelphia, the destination of this latest trip. My sister and I had asked our mother where we could take her to celebrate her 70th birthday and she chose her brother’s.

Since I travel these days with an eye for the birds, it didn’t take long for the realization (perhaps it was with help from Aunt Pat) that Cape May, N.J., is only two hours south of Philly. Don’t you just love the miniature geography back east? People measure travel by hours rather than miles because of the traffic congestion. If the East Coast had Wyoming’s unimpeded highways, most of it would be within a day’s drive of Philadelphia.

Cape May is a Mecca for observing migration. Located on the southern tip of New Jersey, it is a natural stopping place for birds during both spring and fall. Capitalizing on this, the Cape May Bird Observatory was established in 1975 to count the birds. In addition to research and conservation projects, it has extensive education and recreational birding programs.

Judging by the CMBO’s advertising in birding magazines for its seasonal festivals, I would gather the height of spring migration is mid-May and in the fall it’s Oct. 29-31. Rats.

Our trip to Sitka, Alaska, in August was on the late side of migration up there, and September at Cape May will be on the early side. Someday I may be lucky enough to travel to bird and slip in visits to nearby relatives, rather than the other way around.

As far as I’m concerned, except for Cape May, the itinerary is totally up to Mom. From the looks of my Internet search, the 16 antique stores should provide her plenty of entertainment anyway.

Cape May is apparently full of quaint Victorian-era architecture and is preserved intact as a National Historic Landmark City. Of course local businesses capitalize on the fact. In addition, the local entrepreneurs have always encouraged their reputation as a seaside resort—for the last couple hundred years.

Though Southeast Alaska has been a destination for adventurous vacationers since the late 19th century, it seems only since the closing of its pulp mill over 10 years ago has Sitka gotten more serious about the tourism industry.

When we visited the Alaska Raptor Center, we were astounded by the $12 per person entrance fee, and the new million-dollar visitor-office-rehabilitation facility with permanent staff of five and hundreds of volunteers. It’s a far cry from Lois and Frank Layton’s new but just as effective pole building flight barn outside Casper.

By the way, congratulations to Lois and Frank for being in the first group, including Curt Gowdy and Olaus and Mardy Murie, inducted into the Wildlife Heritage Foundation of Wyoming’s Outdoor Hall of Fame earlier this month. The Laytons were honored for their 45-year commitment to bird rehabilitation.

At the ARC we joined a group of 50 or 60 cruise ship passengers bused in for a tour of the facility and a presentation with a resident, permanently injured, bald eagle. Then we were shepherded towards the gift shop.

Busload after busload all summer long gives the place a commercial air. At least the entrance fees help pay for the grand facility to accommodate so many visitors as well as public education and rehab of birds.

For a family like ours, familiar with facilities in Cheyenne, Casper, Laramie and Ft. Collins, it seemed like overkill. But perhaps for the majority of the visitors, it was their first exposure. One should never discount the influence of 30 minute tours on the future welfare of wildlife.

The Cape May Bird Observatory, conveniently located in another tourist destination, may be similar. Operated by New Jersey Audubon (not affiliated with and predating establishment of the National Audubon Society), it does have a gift shop, according to the Web site I just hope that at the end of the summer season they still have t-shirts my size.

In the next column you’ll find out if I did actually get to Cape May—after all, it is hurricane season. However, Philadelphia itself has a good reputation for bird watching.

I don’t expect to add a lot of birds to my life list as I did in Alaska. The birds of my Midwestern youth are pretty much the same species as in the east, except for the seabirds that might overfly the cape, though I still may pick up species I wasn’t paying attention to 30 years ago.

Checking out the Cape May Rare Bird Alert Web site, I was surprised to see some familiar, but normally western, birds listed—American white pelican, American avocet and lark sparrow. Just visiting, like me. Just a long way from home for a short while.

CMBO hawk watching platform

Cape May Bird Observatory hawk watching platform. Photo by Barb Gorges.