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Cape May Bird Observatory
Sea Watch
The Coastal Migration

Many birds migrate along the Atlantic coast. Land birds fly over the beaches, dunes, fields, and forests near the shore. Water birds move over the ocean itself. Geography brings many water birds close to shore along the coast of southern New Jersey. Spring migration is often excellent; fall migration is always spectacular, as nearly a million birds are counted flying south over the ocean here.

The Avalon Sea Watch

Since 1993, Cape May Bird Observatory’s Avalon Sea Watch has tallied the coastal migration of many southbound water birds: loons, grebes, cormorants, gannets, pelicans, ducks, geese, herons, egrets, swans, gulls, terns, jaegers, and alcids.

The average fall count is almost 800,000 birds, but in some years it approaches one million. More remarkable yet is that 70 percent of the migration, which includes over 75 species, occurs during a five week period (about October 7 to November 14). Double-crested Cormorant, Surf and Black Scoter, Red-throated Loon, and Northern Gannet, are the most abundant species, accounting for nearly 80% of the total flight.

Surprises come every year. The Sea Watch rarities list includes Atlantic Puffin, Long-billed Curlew, Wood Stork, Pacific Loon, California Gull, and Sandhill Crane. Pomarine Jaeger, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Eider, King Eider and Razorbill are seen every year with a few exceptions.

Pioneering Research

In 1978 Dave Ward, an Avalon resident, discovered this spectacular migration event and began a part-time watch that monitored most peak fall flights through 1992. Through the volunteer efforts of Dave, Clay Sutton, Fred Mears, and others, CMBO’s Avalon Sea Watch became the East Coast’s first full-season sea watch in 1993.

Currently, we use the count data to assess changes in Atlantic Flyway water bird populations, and to understand how large-scale weather systems and ocean temperatures affect water bird migration.

Where and When

Sea watching requires incredible skill and perseverance. The Sea Watch is conducted at the north end of Avalon, where 7th Street meets the sea wall. This location is ideal because the northern tip of Avalon extends a mile farther out into the ocean than the coastline to the north. Southbound seabirds following the coastline pass very close to this beachfront. Birds are counted seven days a week, dawn to dusk, from Sept. 22 through Dec. 22.