Last week we ended our narrative with the Nature Conservancy’s Cape May Meadows preserve. The Meadows abuts our next site, the 244-acre Cape May Point State Park. To enter the main hub of activity and take advantage of parking you will want to drive down Sunset Boulevard and make a left on Lighthouse Avenue to the main entrance (driving distance eight-tenths of a mile). At this point it is appropriate to mention that when the road becomes Sunset Boulevard, you are on the Bayshore Heritage Byway, a State and Federal Scenic Byway known for its historic and natural intrinsic qualities.
According to birders you have just arrived at the Raptor Capital of North America. If you want to interact with knowledgeable birders there is no better place than New Jersey Audubon’s Hawk Watch, located at the northern end of the Park’s parking lot. Cape May’s typical raptor sightings include accipiters like the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and northern goshawk; buteos like red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, rough-legged hawk, and Swainson’s hawk; and falcons like the peregrine, merlin, and American kestrel. Also seen regularly are osprey, northern harrier, bald eagle, golden eagle, as well as turkey vulture and black vulture. Each season offers natural history opportunities, with dolphins in summer, ducks in winter, and—the most celebrated events—the fall bird and monarch butterfly migrations.
Clearly the most prominent feature is the imposing Cape May Lighthouse. It was built by the Coast Guard in 1859 and rises more than 157 feet, making it one of three “tall towers” along the New Jersey coast. Restored and opened to the public in the 1980s, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can climb the 199 steps for a spectacular panoramic view of the peninsula.
There are also remnants and visitor interpretations of two military features. One is the gun emplacement—Battery 223. Built in 1942, it was originally 900 feet inland. It was covered by soil and grasses, making it look like a hill to disguise the gunnery in the event of invasion. Today it is exposed on the beachfront due to rising waters coupled with land subsidence.
The Park has a nature center/office, some picnic shelters—one with great beachfront views—and wonderful birdwatching impoundments with connecting trails. These allow you to access a variety of habitats; whether it be the Atlantic Ocean beach, sand dunes, pondside or woodlands, flora and fauna abound.
The Park offers excellent opportunities to view migrating monarch butterflies from the last week of September to the first week of October. We also recommend adjacent areas for good monarch viewing. Strolling along Leigh, Harvard, Ocean, and Lincoln avenues, you may glimpse monarchs clinging to red cedars and seaside shrubs while they await favorable conditions to cross the Delaware Bay. In good years people describe them as “dripping from the trees.”
A number of homeowners have embraced wildlife-friendly space on their properties, where you may spot butterflies and birds. Triangle Park across from the State Park has an abundance of native plants that attract butterflies and other pollinators. Remember that buckeye butterflies are also migrants and provide additional opportunities to learn and marvel at nature’s beauty.
While you’re in this section of the Point stop by the NJ Audubon Northwood Center for books, optics, and visitor opportunities. If you have not invested in a good pair of binoculars, a telescope, or wish to upgrade your equipment, the knowledgeable staff can assist you in meeting your needs and budget.
Behind the Northwood Center is a garden and small trail that offers property owners an example of how you might create a wildlife-friendly space in a small backyard. There are feeding stations, a wildlife viewing blind, a pond, and other water features.
While we are highlighting NJ Audubon, here’s a good tip: During 2022 they will be hosting the 76th Cape May Fall Festival from October 13 to 16. They offer field trips to many of the places mentioned here, plus speakers and lots of workshops for beginners as well as longtime nature enthusiasts. You can register for the activities online, but know that activities fill up fast and people will be registering already.
We suggest crossing over to the bayside of the Point to explore the 1,100-acre Higbee Wildlife Management area at the end of New England Road. Here there are viewing platforms and trails that traverse multiple habitats—forest, old fields, hardwood swamps, coastal dunes, scrub/thickets, and a mile of bayfront beach. There is a vast amount of mast here for songbirds. Raptors that pursue them are especially attracted to the area as well. NJ Fish and Wildlife biologists also suggest monarch watching in the fall, while the spring and summer are good for a bayside glimpse of dolphins.
You will want to return for the spring songbird migration at all of these sites. Each has an outstanding showing of a variety and abundance of birds, including the birder’s greatest challenge, the famed warblers.
In previous stories we discussed taking the Cape May Ferry to Lewes, Delaware and back to view gannets. March is when you may wish to bundle up to see hundreds or even thousands of them on the Bay. November and December are good times to view southbound gannets from the shore at the Avalon Seawatch.
The Point offers many more opportunities to watch wildlife, like Sunset Beach and the Rea Farm Beanery. We hope you enjoy your adventures.
For any of the suggested locations, check websites for fall and winter hours. You may wish to call in advance to verify.
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CU Maurice River has interpretative opportunities around southern NJ including some trips to the Cape May Peninsula.
Some Great Sources
Where to Watch Wildlife, New Jersey Wildlife Viewing Guide, by Laurie Pettigrew and Sharon Mallman
NJ Audubon, Delaware Bayshore, Birding & Wildlife Trails -hardcopy or internet version.