DEL HAVEN – Just because the tourist season is over doesn’t mean Cape May County is not seeing new visitors.
On the morning of Sept. 29, some local birders spotted a Kirtland’s warbler, which breeds in jack pine and red pine forests in Michigan and parts of Wisconsin.
Local ornithologist and birder Tom Johnson had just assembled with some friends to do a little birding at Cape May County Park-South on Bayshore Road in Del Haven, and they were having coffee when the Kirtland’s warbler landed nearby and started calling.
“George Armistead and I looked at the same time and recognized what it was,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, the sighting was rare, but not completely unexpected.
“In the fall, there is often a stream of birds that fly there along the Delaware shore,” he said.
Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is described as a fairly large, stout warbler with a wingspan of around 8.5 inches. The bird is steel gray with a yellow belly. The males have a dark mark in front of their eyes. The females look rather similar but are described as grayish with a light-yellow belly.
Johnson said it was the first sighting of a Kirtland’s warbler in New Jersey. Just hours later, there was another Kirtland’s Warbler at the Garrett Family Preserve in Cape May reported by birder Jesse Amesbury.
Many types of birds end up at the southernmost tip of New Jersey. The NJ Audubon website describes the narrow peninsula at Cape May as a kind of “bird funnel.” Birds heading to or from migratory locations often follow the Atlantic coastline, as well as the Delaware River and Bay, which meet at Cape May Point.
The NJ Audubon site says, on a good day at Higbee Beach you might see 20 species of warblers. Johnson said the Kirtland’s warbler they saw was probably on its way to its winter nesting grounds in the Bahamas.
The Kirtland’s warbler had been threatened due to forestry rotations and predation, according to allaboutbirds.org.
“The species has been expanding in certain years. Most of them pass south and west of New Jersey during their spring and fall migrations,” Johnson said. “I felt like it was just a matter of time before seeing these in New Jersey. People have been looking for it.”
Johnson has been living on and off in Court House for the last six years, and permanently for two and a half. He grew in Pennsylvania and went to Cornell for his undergraduate degree and worked in the prominent Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.
After college, he moved to Cape May County to do some research for the Cape May Bird Observatory. He currently works for a company called Field Guides, out of Austin, Texas, that runs birding tours around the world.
Johnson said he was in Cape May County for the snowy owl sightings that happened in 2013 to 2014, and which went on for a few years. He said the bald eagle population has been increasing locally, and the hawk watch at the Cape May Point State Park recently recorded a new one-day record for bald eagles.
Asked about his favorite bird sighting, Johnson said, “At the moment, it is the Kirkland’s warbler.”
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