What’s All the Hoopla? Autumn in Cape May
The Cape May Peninsula is world-renowned for its autumn bird migrations. Ornithologists have been visiting the Cape since the time of John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson (who both made numerous trips to the region), but the area’s rise to birding fame has been prolific since the 1970s, when Pete Dunne conducted his first counts of migrating hawks at Cape May Point. Cape May has put itself on the map as the place to witness fall migration. Millions of birds make their way through the area each fall, and believe it or not, southward migration can occur on any day between the end of June (early shorebirds and songbirds) and the end of December (hawks, sea ducks). However, the highest numbers of migrants occur between September and November and not surprisingly, thousands of birders from all over the world also flock to the area during this same time period. This guide has been designed to help you and your family explore the diverse components of the Cape May fall flight, and to enjoy the Cape May “fall experience” as a whole.Cape May Fall Migration Principles
To fully enjoy Cape May in the fall, it’s important to understand the factors that make migration happen here. Fall migration at Cape May is spectacular because of two main ingredients:
1) The northwest winds associated with autumn cold fronts, which help “push” migrants east and south along the coast to Cape May.
2) The “funneling” effect of the peninsula, which squeezes migrants together into a strip of land no more than six or seven miles wide, at the widest point.
Upon reaching the southern tip at Cape May, many birds hesitate to make the risky 13- mile water crossing of Delaware Bay.
The main exception to these rules are select species of ducks and seabirds which migrate over the open ocean and are not impacted as much by cold fronts or water crossings. However, these birds are often more visible on days with easterly winds, which push them closer to shore than they’d be otherwise.
Be sure to check the weather forecast before planning your birding at Cape May.What to Expect & How to Prepare
Autumn weather in Cape May can be quite variable. Always bring a few layers of clothing with you (as well as some form of raingear), whether its September or November. It’s always better to have layers to take off if you‘re warm than to have none to put on if you‘re cold! Rain generally doesn’t last too long, but coastal storms or stalled cold fronts can occasionally bring several days of damp, wet conditions. Temperatures often break 80 degrees in September and sometimes in October- bring your sunscreen and always wear a brimmed hat! Cape May also tends to be fairly breezy in the fall- drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and bring along some chapstick for those lips! It is always to your advantage to keep an eye on the latest weather forecast; the weather can change quickly here. Check out the weather for Cape May here.Accommodations:
Many area motels, hotels and inns remain open through the fall season, in large part due to the large number of birders who visit the area during this time. A number of these businesses support the Cape May Bird Observatory. Please see our guide to “Places to Eat, Shop, Stay and Play
” for a list of accommodations.Biting Insects/Ticks:
Mosquitoes and gnats are abundant here, especially on warm, calm mornings and evenings through early autumn. Ticks are also numerous in the area until subfreezing weather sets in, and several species occur here, including the tiny Deer Tick, which is a main carrier of Lyme Disease. Even if walking through short grass, perform a “tick check” periodically. Chiggers can also be a problem locally during August and September.
A light-weight pair of pants tucked into light-colored socks or tall boots and a long-sleeved light-weight top can help to keep your skin covered and not exposed to insect bites.Birding Etiquette:
While in Cape May, you’ll likely come across hundreds of other birders, as well as numerous non-birders. Cape May attracts music & art lovers, Victorian enthusiasts, and general vacationers, in addition to birders! Always be courteous to everyone you meet.
You never want to become a traffic hazard while looking at a bird so always make sure your car is completely pulled off to the side of a road. Be careful of fast-moving traffic. Especially near residential areas, try to refrain from making too much noise before 9am, and never trespass on private property. Likewise, if you’re around other birders, try not to disturb a bird someone else is viewing, and always be mindful of the interests of other birders around you. Set a good example for young birders everywhere.Additional Cape May Pointers:
- Make sure that you or your driver follows all posted speed limits in the Cape May area. Local police strictly enforce speed limits on the Cape Island.
- Remember that you need to either pay the entrance fee or purchase a pass from The Nature Conservancy to access its South Cape May Meadows/Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge.
- To access the Rea Farm (known to locals as The Beanery) you must have a Beanery sticker to gain access. NJ Audubon has leased the “birding rights” to this private property, in what is a unique partnership between the agricultural and birding communities in Cape May. Current members of New Jersey Audubon and/or the Cape May Bird Observatory can obtain a “Beanery sticker” as one of the benefits of membership. Non-members can purchase a temporary pass or become a member. "Beanery stickers” and passes are available at either CMBO center.