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Sunday, June 16, 2024


Sharing the Sands – Meet Cape May’s Nesting Birds

Photo Credit: Emil Lundahl
Piping plovers feed and nest on coastal sands across North American shores.

By Brett Ewald, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory

As the summer season heats up and more and more of us are enjoying the crashing waves and soft sand of Cape May’s world-class beaches, please take time to notice others that are sharing the beach with you—beach nesting birds! Renowned as a top birding destination in the world, Cape May is fortunate to host several amazing and endangered bird species during the breeding season. Most notable are Least Tern, Black Skimmer, Piping Plover, and American Oystercatcher.

A Least Tern spotted on Poverty Beach, a section of beach on Cape Island. Photo Credit: Jesse Amesbury

The Least Tern is the smallest of the tern species, with a wingspan of only 20”, and endangered as a breeder in NJ. In its breeding plumage, it is marked by a yellow bill, a white forehead, and a black cap. Nesting in colonies to take advantage of safety in numbers, it is most often found breeding on the beaches at The Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows Preserve—hopefully within the fenced exclosures to keep out disturbances from off-leash dogs and predators, such as foxes and coyotes—and active along the beaches of Cape May State Park and Cape May Point and offshore, as well as Stone Harbor Point. While their quick wingbeats, shrill calls, and squeaks are often what first attract notice, their beautiful plumage and courtship behaviors will keep your attention.

Black Skimmers are a large species closely related to terns. Black above and white below, their most prominent feature is a long orange bill with a black tip—with a lower mandible that is much longer than the upper mandible. This unique bill enables the feeding behavior that gave the species its name—skimming for small fish with the lower mandible dragging through the water. Despite being endangered, a breeding colony at Stone Harbor Point is responsible for many of the sightings in the area, with a post-breeding gathering occurring annually on the beaches of Cape May in late summer into fall, with numbers sometimes reaching into the hundreds.

A Black Skimmer skimming for food. Photo Credit: Erik Bruhnke

The Piping Plover, a globally threatened and endangered species, is a very rare breeder on beaches in NJ, with only 100+ pairs present. Appropriately considered adorable, their orange bill with a black tip and black collar are distinguishing features, while the pale coloration of their wings and back help them to blend in with the sand. Solitary nesters, they are most often reported from Stone Harbor Point and the Two Mile Beach Unit of the Cape May NWR, and you should consider yourself lucky whenever you see one.

While the Piping Plover’s beauty is subtle, the American Oystercatcher’s is bold. Dressed in stark black and white, their long red-orange bill and eye-ring are unmistakable. Also noticeable is their penchant for making loud whistled calls when flying over the beach. While not endangered, the American Oystercatcher has scattered solitary nests, often right in the middle of an open beach. They are regular on the beaches around Cape May Point, Two Mile Beach, and Stone Harbor Point.

Each of these amazing species requires space and needs to be free of disturbance to survive in today’s busy world. As our beaches become more crowded, please be mindful of their needs and make an effort to appreciate and protect their lives as you enjoy summer in Cape May.

To learn more about birds, visit the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Northwood Center, (701 East Lake Dr., Cape May Point), the Nature Center of Cape May (1600 Delaware Ave., Cape May) or go to and check out our full calendar of upcoming programs.

An American Oystercatcher. Photo Credit: M. Ewald
Founded in 1897, the New Jersey Audubon is one of the oldest independent Audubon societies in the nation. Visit them at

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