I had planned doing this since the summer, and would have even if Paul wasn't in Texas. Note, this wasn't just birding in Cape May, but was a program I signed up for with the Cape May Bird Observatory to "Kick off your year list" (as it is officially called). Was it as awesome as I thought it would be? (Spoiler alert: oh Hell yes!)
I had a nice nap the day before and went to bed relatively earlier the night before (I didn't get to see the ball drop and the New Year roll in, but that isn't something I give a big deal to) so I would be well rested. Since I had to drive there (staying home in the Philly region and all) and since I wanted to get a good jump on things, I got up at 5:00 am, showered, ate, and headed out the door to make the 1.5-2 hour drive.
It was quiet and dark outside, and I hurried to the car and kept the windows rolled up because I did NOT want my first bird of the year to be a House Sparrow or Starling. In fact, it was about an hour into my drive (still pretty dark) when I saw my first bird of the year: Wild Turkeys on the side of the road in South Jersey. Yeah, I'll take that as my first bird! I also picked up a Cooper's Hawk standing in a store's parking lot in Cape May before I got to Cape May point.
|Cape May Point on a beautiful New Years Day, 2014|
I got there at 8:00 am and had two hours by myself to explore and go birding before the group convened. Well, "to myself" isn't quite right, since there were already a dozen or so people there birding. In fact, the whole island seemed to be crawling with people carrying binoculars and scopes. It was like being out at Halloween, only with adults and avians as treats.
I went down to the beach and immediately picked up both loons and saw a Merlin perched on the pilings in the water. I then walked around hoping to find the stray warblers (only got the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped), and fattened my list up on a close group of ducks on the pond (I would get 10 species of ducks just in this pre-game count). After jumping my total to 33 for the year, I headed over to meet with the Kick off your year group at 10 am.
Our group was about 40 people, including close to a dozen CMBO folks; lots of good eyes and knowledge of the area. I know I've mentioned it before, but CMBO is truly full of great people, and the walks are always a joy to be on (trust me, I've been with birders that aren't fun at all). This group was definitely a good group.
We started to head out and go through the Cape May Point State Park when a text alert buzzed through the crowd: a rare bird in Cape May! Could it be that they re-found the Ash-throated Flycatcher or Western Kingbirds? Nope, even better than that. An unexpected Painted Bunting was just found right nearby (literally, walking distance) by someone who was looking for the continuing White-winged Dove.
So we quickly trotted over to the dunes on the other side of the neighborhood and found a beautifully green and (on its belly) yellow Painted Bunting out for everyone to see. I, being a tall guy, sifted to the back to let others have a look after I was done, and started scanning the ocean behind us along with a couple other people. We picked up some good birds, like Common Eider, Black Scoter, and Ruddy Turnstone, when I saw a large gull start flying by. No, wait, that wasn't flying at all like a gull. Holy crap, a Northern Gannet was flying by, close enough to the shore to see its features with the naked eye. Those of us who saw it announced it, but most people were still on the bunting (and looking in the opposite direction) and didn't hear us. A shame, because that was the only Gannet our group saw that day.
After everyone got their fill of the Painted Bunting, we went around the neighborhood and (besides picking up the normal neighborhood birds) found the White-winged Dove and the oddly winter resident Rufous Hummingbird (sadly, a couple days later we got that arctic cold front come in and the hummingbird likely didn't survive, as it wasn't seen again). We then got back to the State Park, looked at the pond for Redheads, Scaups, and almost a dozen other waterfowl, and concluded for lunch.
We were to meet a couple hours later at another location, but I brought my lunch (I was birding without my kids around, no way I'm taking a long break from it) and ate some of it before heading out with others to find the Ash-throated Flycatcher and odd warblers in the park. Sadly we did not see them, but I picked up a few more birds and, I have to say, it was a pleasure just walking around in the cold and crisp, yet pleasant and sunny day. Most people there were there for the same reason I was, and everyone was happy and friendly and excited. Not even a grandmother berating her grandkids (they weren't birders) could spoil the festival-like atmosphere.
After I finished eating my lunch, I headed over to our next meeting spot at Two Mile Beach a little early so I could find a plug and charge my phone as I ate. It was noon on New Year, my list was already at 62, and we had a few more places to go with a few more rare birds to find.
(Mike Crewe, who was the lead on the CMBO Kick off your year group wrote up the entire day on the CMBO View from the Cape blog, and the bird list for the day is written up on the CMBO Field Trip Report blog. Note, the list will differ from mine because I started earlier and sometimes didn't see things that others did (damn White-winged Scoters!) and I don't think any of the leaders saw the Gannet).