Cape May, New Jersey May 07 - 12th 2008
Earlier this year i happened to read online that there would be a "24 hour Digi-day" competition at the World Series of Birding event at Cape May (on the east coast) and it would be the 25th anniversary of this event.
I immediately started formulating a plan in my head.
It had something to do with putting together a digiscoping team from the west coast to have a go at it.
Looking through the forms and regulations i realized that we would not be able to compete without a 3rd person.
The word was put out but even i didn't think there would be that many takers, and it turns out there were none.
Just as well, "competing" wasn't the real reason we wanted to go east - it was the birds of course.
We had bought plane tickets for ourselves early on and were committed regardless so decided to just go and have fun, photographing as many species as we could.
The digital life list was getting hungry and the hope was to get as many eastern specialties as we could in the 4 actual birding days we had between travel time.
Since becoming birders Audy and myself have dedicated pretty much all our free time towards getting out and indulging in our passion of bird photography; her with DSLR and me with digiscope setup.
Holidays now are always looked at in terms of "what birds can we see?" and "what birds do we need?" so when the chance to get some eastern birds in the historically important (in birding terms) Cape May, New Jersey there was no question in either of our minds that this was the right choice.
Telling other people we were heading to New Jersey for the World Series of Birding always got a bemused and slightly perplexed look however.
With our flight leaving at 6:15am from YVR we got up at 3:15, a bit early but our excitement woke us up fast.
We flew with United, transferring at San Francisco for eventual arrival in Philadelphia later that evening. smooth sailing and eventually the rental car was secured and we we were rolling, in a PT Cruiser down towards Atlantic City and on to Cape May (one of America's oldest beach resorts).
We were tired when we finally got into town around 9:30pm and were hungry as well, crackers on the flight just didn't cut it.
Found a restaurant with over-priced food after checking in at the Montreal Inn (along the beach) but at that point, it was all good and we slept well that night.
Up early with cameras and scope setup and loaded we decided to check it out finally.
It was a beautiful morning and the warm windy air, smell of the salty ocean and Victorian style of all the houses made for a unique experience in our
minds. When i had first started planning this mini-trip i got a lot of my info from various websites a as well from a bible sized book called "Birds and
Birding at Cape May - What to see When and Where to go" by Clay & Pat Sutton so i did know quite a lot about the various locations around town already.
With this in mind we drove out to Higbee Beach.
Wandering around the long beach and into the dune forest was pretty cool, right off the bat we were introduced to the magnificent Laughing Gulls (in their black hoods) along with Horseshoe crabs.
They would become the unofficial bird of Cape May in our minds as they were everywhere.
As the grey clouds started to envelop us (where did they come from all of a sudden?) our first Lifer of the day was a Prairie Warbler followed by Eastern Towhee, Gray Catbird and very red Northern Cardinal.
The rest of the time was spent swatting off the voracious mosquitoes that swarmed us, hungry for our west coast blood.
The neat thing about Cape May Island (not really island but mainland divided by canal) was the variety of birding choices all in a small area.
It was easy to get around and our next stop was the landmark lighthouse and State park next to it.
Being a weekday there were still many people about and a few school groups out on field trips but it never felt crowded.
Lighthouse park yielded us Mourning Dove, Spotted Sandpiper, House Wren, Eastern Kingbird, Common Tern, Least Tern (so small!), Canada Goose, Dunlin, Great Black-backed Gull, and Great Egret.
Afterwards we checked out The Cape May Bird Observatory store/house nearby and were amazed by the variety of merchandise, books and clothing for sale.
It was birder's heaven and together Audy and i stocked up on our birding wardrobe, and were encouraged by staff to sign up for the Digi-day anyways by entering the "non-competitive category".
We were there to have fun but i think we both knew we would have done a big-day list anyways, so doing it "officially" only seemed to make sense.
As well, by joining the New Jersey Audubon society we got a Charlie Harper poster for free and were given a pass to the Beanery (otherwise known as the Rea farm), a private property with access to members only.
Started off really rainy, very wet and our plans of heading out early were shelved for a bit. After a leisurely breakfast it was decided to just drive around checking stuff out and waiting for breaks in the weather.
One of our first spots was a little harborside park at the end of a street. There was a small gazebo there and i thought it would make a good break from the drizzle.
Once i walked out towards it i saw a group of Semipalmated Plovers and proceeded to try and get some decent shots of these great birds.
At around that time another car pulled up and two guys in their 30's hopped out, scopes in hand, to check out the harbor scene.
Up to that point the only interaction we had had with anyone else was at the CMBO store, the fact that we had come from Vancouver Canada brought
interest, although others had come from farther away.
There was a team from Spain at the competition and a couple from England, who were doing an around-the-world year-long "Big Twitch".
Anyways, i struck up birder talk with the two guys and found that they were from New York and were indeed competing in the event.
They were pre-scouting and happened to think the gazebo would make a convenient spot for lunch.
I blurted out that there was a "group of Ringed Plovers over there" and i don't think they even raised an eyebrow at my mis-ID. Cool of them.
Of course i knew they were Semipalmated, it just slipped my mind at the time..
I wished them luck and proceeded to get distracted by a Spotted Sandpiper hopping about along the waters edge.
Digiscoped Northern Mockingbird later in the rain and it was a good time all in all, as some decent shots resulted, and we became acquainted with some
Since we could, we did go to the Beanery (Rea Farm) and braved the rain, wind and grey skies, not to mention psycho mosquitoes but were rewarded
when we spotted and old friend (well, from last spring anyways) in a handsome Indigo Bunting, singing away in the trees, much like the one at Colony Farm last year.
I think i was able to better my previous efforts although better light would have been preferable.
After Beanery i wanted to go have a look at the Meadows, a protected wildlife area. There was a vending machine up at the front gate and we plunked in our money and were rewarded with pin-on badges giving us access.
We never made it out of the parking lot however when the rain came down harder and the decision to think about the cameras for change came up, we would come back tomorrow morning anyways.
Still, i spotted Eastern Meadowlark and was able to add it to the Life list.
We wrapped up for the day and had dinner and walked around the Victorian seaside town, snapping wide-angle shots of the houses and such.
Very peaceful place although i imagine things pick up in the prime summer season. For us though, it was like drivng through Mayberry, and that was alright.
May 10 (Big Digi-Day)
We got up before 6am and were greeted with heavy rain and grey conditions.
The wind had picked up quite a bit as well, today would be a challenge.
By the way, that "non-competitive" thing we were supposed to be doing? Forgot all about that, this was our time to go forth!
The Meadows was our first stop of the morning and the large group of cars coming and going from the entrance signaled that the show had begun.
Right off the bat was to get everything we saw. Easier said than done.
We proceed to get shots of Red-winged Blackbird, Canada Goose, Common Yellowthroat, Mute Swan, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover, Song
Sparrow, Mourning Dove, Gray Catbird, American Oystercatcher, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Tern, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary
Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Cardinal.
While at the Meadows, we ran into the two guys again, this time as part of a 4 person team and we said our hello's. You wouldn't find anybody talking
about what birds they had seen today but people were still friendly.
We realized also, that some teams were taking it really seriously, with walkie-talkies and determined looks in their eyes.
They had everything planned down to the minute, if you couldn't find the target bird in the alloted time it was time to move on and hope to see it later. It pretty much had to be to get max birds though, we had originally thought to limit our birding to Cape Island (everything south of canal) and had originally started off the morning that way.
I soon realized that we ran the risk of missing some important birds if we
limited ourselves, we wanted to see those birds so decided to expand our driving range somewhat but we could no longer claim a "Cape Island only" designation. So be it.
Lighthouse Park was just a hop and a skip from the Meadows and we made it our next stop. It had been quite productive for us the other day, we hoped it would be again today as we were somewhat disappointed not to find the Eastern Meadowlark at the meadows today.
Such is the fickle nature of birding.
Lighthouse Park yielded some good birds, among them; Purple Martin, European Starling, American Robin, House Sparrow, Common Grackle, Eastern Kingbird, Yellow-breasted Chat (a great warbler!), American Goldfinch, Indigo Bunting, Pine Warbler, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Blue Grosbeak female, Carolina Chickadee, Great Egret, The endangered Least Tern (it was so windy on the beach that in order to get any chance of a shot i had to hold my scope down with one hand to keep it from shaking), Rock Pigeon and Barn Swallow.
After all that something wonderful happened when i spotted a pale-
looking little plover running on the sand.
This finally was a Piping Plover, an endangered species that nests every spring on sandy beaches like those in Cape May.
Here was one running in front of me, and no one else around. I got off a few quick shots before it flew off further down the beach.
After all that Audy and i were feeling the wet rain but kept it going and tried our hardest to keep our equipment from getting too wet, a real danger in
this weather and relentless pursuit.
We drove over to the concrete ship wreck just off shore and i added Double-crested Cormorant to the list.
Audy was noticing that her camera was starting to malfunction every now and then, that and the fact that she was wet and cold it was decided she
would sit out the next location, Higbee Beach.
I was wet too but the desire to get the birds ran through me as well and i would keep going no matter what.
I went out solo and while i saw other teams i was pretty much alone.
I walked down to the beach and was instantly rewarded with a Surf Scoter of all birds. Just one at that.
My camera took a bit of coaxing to turn on just then but it did and i got off a shaky shot, enough to ID.
All thoughts of artistic shots had pretty much fallen by the wayside anyways.
I walked back towards the forest and was surprised by a little Kinglet-like bird with pale white eyes.
It was so pretty and it slowly fluttered from branch to branch in front of me, begging for me to take it's picture. I tried to do just that but started to get tense when the camera wouldn't turn on.
Nope, no doing, that water had finally called the camera's day.
I missed out on the White-eyed Vireo because of that, it would have been a great shot too i know it.
Dejected, i walked back to the car to find Audy snoozing.
I told her of my malfunction and we rushed back to the hotel then to switch camera's.
Thankfully i had brought along my spare P5000 in case anything happened to my main-stay P5100.
I was able to keep going but we lost precious time then.
We didn't exactly slow down then but i admit that our resolve had wavered somewhat. Still, i drove back to Higbee Beach to finish what i had started. Again, Audy decided to hang back by the car but would bird a bit if anything came up.
I went back towards the beach to look for the white eyed bird but it was gone.
I trudged back towards the forest and bush-whacked my way through there in hopes of finding my way back to the dune forest where the Prairie Warbler was last seen.
We also needed a Eastern Towhee and they were not as numerous as the Towhee's are around here.
At some point i came face to face with a Prairie Warbler but as luck would have it, i just couldn't secure the shot.
Fatigue was setting in, that and hunger.
I still wanted to walk as much of Higbee as i could though and continued on. the going was tough, the soft sand slowed me down greatly, and with bins around my neck and scope and tripod in hand i was feeling it.
Slog slog slog, i continued.
Suddenly, there was the Eastern Towhee, but yet again, i missed the shot.
I did however pick up Tufted Titmouse.
After Higbee Beach we decided to drive up to the CMBO house and bird their front yard. Feeders were set up and while i usually avoid feeder situations i knew this was the only spot we had seen a few crucial species and we couldn't afford to pass it up. For some reason this was the only spot we saw Blue Jay and it truly is a marvelous bird.
We also picked up Fish Crow, Gray Catbird and Carolina Wren.
Lunch was decided on then as a way of re-fueling us and we went to the hotel restaurant to eat.
After all, they had a huge "Welcome Birders" banner hanging out front, although i think we were the only birders staying there.
We downloaded our memory cards to the Epson P3000 Picture viewer and
planned our afternoon attack.
One of the birds i was really hoping to see was the endangered Red Knot. They came here to breed in Late May but i wasn't sure if we were too early for them.
While at the CMBO store earlier i spied a strange board on the wall outside. It was a Rare Bird List for the WSB and would have been a good thing to know about earlier.
All good though, from what i saw Red Knot had been spotted at Reed's beach (up the coast a bit) and that would be our next stop.
I followed the site map (very helpful) and turned down a road towards what i thought was Reed's Beach.
It wasn't, actually it was Cook's Beach, just south of Reed's.
We were glad to come upon this by accident because we got great looks at Ruddy Turnstone, and flocks of Laughing Gulls, feeding along the waters edge on the beach.
If we had been on a strict time-table we would have gone over because the temptation to stay and nail the shot in regards to these super-close Ruddy T's was too much and we hung out.
It was cool, there was no one else there, and we hadn't seen this species at any of the previous locations.
Reed's beach was soon found just up the road and there were signs pointing the way to the bird viewing decks. access to the beaches were strictly off-
limits due to the need for these birds to feed and not be disturbed.
The harvesting of Horseshoe crabs had been suspended as well when it was found that declining stocks of Horseshoe crabs were having an adverse
affect on the birds that relied on the eggs laid on the beaches by the crabs.
along the way to those viewing platforms we got House Finch, Willet and Northern Mockingbird.
At the end of the road there was a gathering of scopes and birders and this was a hot spot for sure.
We walked to the platform closest to the feeding frenzy on the beach and i scoped my first Red Knot. It was pretty wild seeing these birds in amongst
the multitude of Laughing Gulls and flipped over Horseshoe crabs scattered along the beach like land mines.
After viewing The Red Knots for a while i happened to overhear a woman telling another about the Red-headed Woodpecker her group had seen earlier that day.
The other person didn't seen quite as interested as i was because later on i just had to ask where exactly the "Villas" were. I found out that it was an old golf course that had been converted to park land and the woodpecker had been seen by a small wooden bridge and a electrical box of some sort. We were cautioned that we might not see it but the chance to see a woodpecker was too great.
We hadn't seen any yet, not even a yellow-shafted (which i really wanted to see).
So, we said goodbye to the Red Knots and drove off in search of the Villas and a Red-headed Woodpecker.
Eventually we found our way (thanks to a helpful local who pointed us in the right direction) to the old golf course and went in search of the wooden bridge. Sure enough, we soon found the bridge and Audy's razor-sharp eyes picked the bird out of a tree right away. It was amazing, there was the bird we had been searching for. It flew off right away though but not before we had gotten our quick and dirty shots off.
We took note of where it flew off and we spent some time trying to better our efforts and were rewarded in the end. Quite a spectacular bird, really glad we saw it.
Nummy Island was next, it held special meaning to me because i recalled reading a story by Roger Tory Peterson where he talked of birding the spot.
Cool to look out at the same views that he did years earlier.
As soon as we found our way there we saw Brant out in the water and a small group of scopes and birders focused on them, and the many shore birds around them on shore.
We stopped too and got shots of Short-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin along with Brant.
Later on up the road we came across a group of Brant that were quite close to the road. We were able to get some decent shots off.
The sun was starting it's decent as the evening grew long and everything was beginning to glow with that late afternoon glow, so pretty, but hard to
photograph in sometimes.
We picked up our only Great Blue Heron there along with Osprey and Black-bellied Plover.
Well worth ending our day there as the light was fading fast. We had done the best that the two of us could, and still had fun. At least the rain finally let up in the afternoon as well.
We drove back to the hotel and proceeded down to the hotel restaurant again for dinner. No one wanted to think, we just wanted to eat, and download pictures, and drink a beer or two.
I found east coast brewery Yuengling Lager to be quite excellent, especially after a Big Digi-Day.
Funny thing is, we never figured we would have to worry about time but it was already 11:30pm and we were still going through the shots.
I guess, in retrospect we should have ticked off our species as we got them but i decided to do it all at once at the end. It was near 12am and we frantically checked off our list.
There were a few birds we couldn't list because we couldn't confirm ID at that point but counted off 60 species and felt pretty good about that.
Oh No, it's midnight, where's the finish line?
I'm not kidding, i didn't actually know where it was, i had overhead someone at the store mention the finish line was on Broadway but that was all i knew.
I guess i figured it would be on the street or something, like the finish line in a marathon but i drove around in the quite and dark, and saw no one.
I figured, worst case scenario, i'll just stuff it in the mail slot at the store if i had to, we had done too much to not have it recognized now.
We drove down Broadway and suddenly i saw some small signs on a front yard that said World Series of Birding but in my exhausted mind, that wasn't enough to satisfy me, i thought it was a fire hall, and all the cars were there because they had to be, or something.
That, and a police cruiser parked in the street in front spooked me and i drove on.
Audy finally spoke up and said that it must have been the place back there and we should turn around and finally i did, and we drove back to the place. It was funny, as i drove up i saw two obvious birders walk by and i asked them "hey, do you know where the finish line is?"
they looked at me like i was crazy, and pointed behind them at the lit hall full of hundreds of people, and cameras etc. oh, there it is..
So, we finally made it, over 20 minutes late, crumpled check list in hand, two worn out birders, existing on fumes at that moment.
The people at the counter looked at us, and then at each other and asked "what time is it anyways?" I said it didn't really matter though did it?, as we
were non-competitive category anyways and it was for fun.
One of the guys smiled and said "and did you have fun?"
to which i replied, "yes, yes i did".
He proceeded to count our list and found only 59.
He counted it again a couple of times and we didn't care anyways and were happy with that even.
he then asked us for our cd but we never brought Audy's laptop down with us (since we didn't plan to compete in the first place) and couldn't burn anything.
We showed him our picture viewer but he didn't need to see them, it was all good, especially after we mentioned that we had come all the way from Vancouver Canada for this event.
I found a big board where "non-competitors" could write down their score for the day and i went up proudly and wrote Revs&Audy (DSLR / Digi) 59
That was that, we bought some official t shirts, grabbed some swag and looked around a bit not knowing anyone.
Well, i did run into one of the guys again and it was cool to talk to him one last time, comparing notes etc.
Audy and I left soon after, ready for a good nights sleep.
We didn't have time for awards ceremonies and brunch/breakfasts and wanted nothing more to get out there again the next morning.
One place i had wanted to check out earlier was Bellplain State Forest, about an hour northwest of the cape. Since, we were in no hurry, we drove up and checked it out.
It was pretty cool, we had no idea where the birders went so just drove around, looking for restrooms campsites and garbage dumps as we always found bird activity around them.
We grabbed 4 lifers in Eastern Phoebe, Ovenbird, Wood Thrush and Chipping Sparrow plus good looks at Tufted Titmouse.
On the way back down to Cape we checked out The CMBO / New Jersey Audobon Model Backyard Habitat, which turned out to be great for Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Orchard Oriole.
It was so windy though that it was hard to get any decent shots.
The wind continued to pick up as the evening wore on and our last night on the east coast turned into a stormy one.
I have never experienced the winds that ripped through the Cape that night, it was incredible, a howling angry wind that tossed up the waves and
shredded flags on flagpoles and even threw plastic lawn chairs from one side of the veranda to the other.
The whole time i was kind of digging it but it scared Audy a bit.
What scared me though was what affect this extreme weather (40+ mile hour winds) would have on our flight back home tomorrow.
Best not to think about that.
We checked out early that morning into the ferocious wind and rain and headed out in the PT Cruiser for the trip back up to Philadelphia.
The rain was coming down really hard and the driving was challenging but we made it back up no problem. Finding the rental car drop off was a bit more challenging however but even that was readily navigated.
We proceeded to the airport and checked in.
Perfect, a couple of hours early but better safe than sorry.
We went through security and some guard decided for whatever reason that poor little Audy would be subjected to special treatment, maybe because of her Thai passport (she became a Canadian citizen mere days before we left on our trip).
Anyways, somehow Audy thought the guard had lost her Canadian Citizenship card but luckily i found it after frantically searching through her handbag.
After all that, we never found out what the guard wanted as they never asked any questions or searched her.
They just seemed to lose interest in us.
Anyways. We found our gate later and were crushed to find my worst fears confirmed, that which i had dared not mention for fear of jinxing had come true after all - flight delayed up to 3 hours at that.
We would miss our connecting flight home in Chicago, causing our baggage to remain in Chicago as we were herded onto a later flight.
We did arrive back home, later than we thought, and lighter in baggage (it would be sent to us later the next night), but wiser in eastern birds, with memories to last a lifetime, perhaps.
I recently finished up the final photo count for our big day, including birds we missed first time round or were able to subsequently ID.
Final total - 62 species (May 10 2008).
We came back with 26 digital Lifers as well.