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Wednesday, May 22, 2024


May is Nature’s Kaleidoscope

Tom Reed
A Blue Grosbeak.

By Tom Reed, Migration Count Coordinator with New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory

All of us have those certain times of year that we truly look forward to. For naturalists, one such time is the month of May. Yes, all of it – start to finish. Few other pages on the calendar feature as much abundance, variety, or beauty in the natural world as can be witnessed during these 31 days, and it is a challenge to find a more ideal place to enjoy it all than right here in Cape May County.

A Snowy Egret. Photo Credit: Roger L. Horn

In the county’s north, Belleplain State Forest is known to many of us as a great place to take the dog for a long walk or spend a weekend camping; but did you know that this vast swath of protected land is also a vital space for thousands of both nesting and migrating songbirds? Most of these winged jewels, many no larger than a candy bar, are just arriving in early May from their winter homes that may span from the Caribbean, to Mexico, to even South America.

In Belleplain State Forest, where Atlantic White Cedar swamps intersect with rich, mixed stands of oaks and pines, the golden yellow of a territorial Prothonotary Warbler meets the shocking black and orange of a Canada-bound Blackburnian Warbler, Summer and Scarlet tanagers seem to sear holes through the forest canopy, and more subdued yet still vibrant hues of olive and sage green drape White-eyed Vireos and Worm-eating Warblers as they skulk through the Mountain Laurel.

A short jog over to the barrier islands will yield some of the region’s liveliest (and easiest to enjoy!) wading bird colonies, as egrets, herons, and ibis all settle into another nesting season next to the Ocean City Welcome Center. May is the perfect time to watch the activity level ramp up here. A photographer’s dream, the raucous and colorful scene is also one we can be particularly grateful for, as once upon a time, many of these birds were slaughtered during the breeding season for their plumes. Protections granted during the early 20th century helped to reverse this damage and today we can enjoy these, and many of our other coastal waterbirds, once again.

An adult Little Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Roger L. Horn

Zigzagging back west across the peninsula, the small but vital beaches of the Delaware Bay host one of the most celebrated spring spectacles anywhere: the annual spawning of Horseshoe Crabs and vast masses of attendant sandpipers that benefit from feasting on the crabs’ eggs. Several species, most notably the Red Knot – which is on its way from southernmost South America to the Arctic tundra – rely on this food source for a few weeks each year, helping regain weight lost on the first part of their journey, while also fueling up for the final leg.

Of course, no day in May is complete without a visit to Cape Island, where the season’s migration magic is always on full display. More than 175 species of birds can be found here during the very best spring days, a true kaleidoscope made possible by the Cape’s unique geography and by the mosaic of protected lands that span the landscape here.

Grab the binoculars on your next May outing and enjoy the colors, the sounds, and the spectacles yourself! It only comes once a year.

A flock of Glossy Ibis. Photo Credit: Tom Reed

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