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Cape May, Naturally

Winter Birding is a Joy – Here’s How to Get Started

Tony Klock
An American Woodcock spotted in Cape May County. You too can learn to spot birds in the winter; it isn’t as hard as you might think!

By Lillian Armstrong, Special Events Director, New Jersey Audubon/Cape May Bird Observatory

Learning about birds can seem overwhelming. You pick up your first bird identification book with hundreds of pages of images and explanations, and you might think, “How will I ever learn all these birds?”

Here’s a hot tip. It’s easier to find and look at birds when there are no leaves on the trees. Winter is a wonderful time to venture out in search of birds. They are actively foraging for food, and oftentimes when you find one bird, you’ll find a whole lot more nearby.

In southern New Jersey, scanning tree lines and the tops of electric poles is a great place to start. Perched raptors, including Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, Coopers Hawks, and Bald Eagles, may sit for long periods of time while resting and/or monitoring activity on the ground. While our summertime friends, the Osprey, have left for warmer climates, during this time of year, you can be confident that a large bird sitting upright is worth another look.

Horned Larks are a winter specialty in the open fields of Southern New Jersey. Photo Credit: Tony Klock

Bare trees also hold the promise of nests – both abandoned and inhabited. Small clumps of tightly woven twigs and grass were once home to this year’s hatch of American Robins, sparrows or warblers.

Larger clumps could be Coopers Hawk or Red-shouldered Hawk nests. The very largest “clumps,” usually in the crotch of a sturdy tree, are likely to be nests for Great-horned Owls or Bald Eagles. In fact, they are the first to mate and lay eggs after the new year, and a lucky birder might see the fuzzy heads of owlets as early as mid-February, and eaglets in mid-March. When the young have left, the nests may be put to use by a different bird species later in spring.

Every year, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife publishes a report on the state’s population of nesting Bald Eagles. In 2022, there were 250 active nests in the state, up from just four in 1990. 335 young Bald Eagles emerged from those nests. Cumberland County holds the highest density of Bald Eagle nests, with around 60 in 2020. Cape May County had a dozen nests.

Bald Eagles are so reliable in Cumberland County that there is a festival in their honor. On Saturday, February 3, 2024 you can attend the Cumberland County Winter Eagle Festival, a lovely little event centered at the Mauricetown Fire Hall in historic Mauricetown. It’s only $10 per adult and $5 per child to visit the vendors in the Fire Hall, where you’ll typically find some fun kids’ activities, great crafts, and a displays of living birds from the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Sanctuary.

Most importantly, you’ll receive a map that will point you to five discreet viewing locations, where you will be met by friendly and capable volunteer naturalists. They’ll point out the wildlife that’s within view. Mark my words, you will see a Bald Eagle in the wild. You’ll most likely see many.

To the question, “What is your favorite bird?” a wise birder once responded, “The one I’m looking at.” So choose a crisp, clear winter day for looks you simply won’t get any other time of year.

A Northern Cardinal spotted in South Jersey. Photo Credit: Tony Klock
Founded in 1897, the New Jersey Audubon is one of the oldest independent Audubon societies in the nation.

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