If you are wondering whether fall will ever come, just take a look at the birds!
At the Jersey shore, you may have noticed tiny sandpipers known as sanderlings pecking and scurrying along the water’s edge. They just spent their summer breeding in the Canadian arctic. Some are now following New Jersey’s coastline on their way to South America, while others will stay at the Jersey coast all winter.
If you were at a Labor Day picnic, you may have spotted common nighthawks in the early evening. They’re also heading south. In the next couple of weeks, many raptors – especially hawks, falcons and eagles – will pass through New Jersey on their southward migration. They conserve energy as they follow our state’s mountain ridges and coastline, taking advantage of thermals, wind currents and updrafts.
And this is just the beginning! New Jersey’s fall bird migration is an amazing spectacle that runs through November. The eastern flyway migration route follows the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian mountain range, giving Garden State residents a front-row seat as hundreds of species head south for the winter.
Experience the autumn bird migration for yourself! Here are some top spots:
Cape May – The Cape May peninsula produces both an incredible variety and staggering quantity of migrating birds during the fall. Many birds follow the Delaware bayshore and Atlantic coast. All routes converge at Cape May Point, funneling birds onto a narrow strip that’s a world-famous birding hotspot.
Cape May Point is especially good for watching hawks, eagles, and falcons. Check out the Cape May State Park Hawk Watch platform, where experts from Cape May Bird Observatory count migrants as they make their way across the bay to Delaware and points further south. The hawk watch has been going for more than 40 years, and on a day with the right conditions you can see two or three thousand migrating raptors.
The Cape May peninsula’s varied habitats include many preserved parks and wildlife refuges. Shorebirds, warblers, sparrows, and many other birds use the beaches, marshes, forests, and fields as important stopover habitat to fuel up for the rest of their journey.
Avalon Sea Watch – The “point” at Avalon, along Cape May County’s barrier island, juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, offering up-close views of migrating birds. Later in the season, it’s an incredible place to see gannets, loons, scoters, terns, and gulls. The Avalon Sea Watch platform is also operated by Cape May Bird Observatory.
Palmyra Cove – The Palmyra Cove Nature Park, located along the Delaware River just north of Camden and Philadelphia, is an oasis for tired birds. Migrants are attracted by this small area of rich habitat in the middle of an otherwise urban landscape. Built on dredge spoils, the 250-acre park attracts thrushes, warblers, and flycatchers during the fall. Herons, egrets, and loons use the park’s wetlands.
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge – In Morris and Somerset counties, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is a 7,700-acre birding oasis located less than 30 miles from downtown Manhattan. The Great Swamp is known for migrating and overwintering waterfowl, including gadwall, northern pintail and more.
Sandy Hook – The Sandy Hook section of Gateway National Recreation Area is a prime birding spot for migrating hawks, warblers and sparrows, plus shorebirds, waterfowl, and birds that favor open waters. Good viewing locations include Plum Island, the Spermaceti Cove boardwalk, the Horseshoe Cove Salt marsh, North Pond and the fields at Fort Hancock.
Hawk watches – Cape May isn’t the only place for great hawk watching. New Jersey has more than a dozen “hawk watch” locations, most of them along mountain ridges. Top hawk watch spots include Palisades Interstate Park in Bergen County, Wildcat Ridge in Morris County, Sunrise Mountain in Sussex County, Raccoon Ridge in Warren County, Chimney Rock in Somerset County, and the Montclair Hawk Lookout in Essex County. Falcons and smaller hawks can be seen in September and October, soon to be joined by larger raptors. By late November, you may be lucky enough to see golden eagles and northern goshawks if conditions are right.
Looking for an organized fall bird walk or event?
The autumn mecca for birders is the annual Cape May Fall Festival, sponsored by New Jersey Audubon. The festival runs from Thursday, Oct. 18, through Sunday, Oct. 21, with an enormous selection of bird walks, speakers and educational programs. For information, go tohttps://njaudubon.org/nja-even ts/cape-may-fall-festival/.
If you’re not making the trip to Cape May, check local event calendars for bird walks in your area.
New Jersey Conservation Foundation will hold a series of fall migration bird walks on Oct. 10 and Oct. 17 at the Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center in Chester Township, Morris County. For more information, go to www.njconservation.org/coffeea ndconservation.htm.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.