Bird Central

Ask a birder for the best spot to spot birds, and the answer will be Cape May, N.J.

The names roll off the tongue like a Jerry Seinfeld skit: the Cornell Lab Sapsuckers, the Smithsonian Woodpeckers, the Green Mountain Goatsuckers, and, from Germany, the Steiners Stokes Stompers.

Ears cocked toward treetops, they come annually to Cape May, N.J., for the World Series - of birding, that is.

More than 60 teams backed by some of the biggest names in conservation and the optics business raise binoculars here each May. Victory goes to the birders who see the most species in a 24-hour period.

The Stony Brook Audubon Society from Norfolk, Mass., my "birding team" - non-competitive, to be sure - traveled to Cape May the week before this year's birding event was held.

It was four days of glorious birding for the 16 of us. We coped with unseasonably hot weather (90-plus degrees F) - more insects, more active birds feeding in the morning, less active in the heat of the day. Collectively, we saw 148 species of birds.

Cape May is the premier birding spot in North America. By any measure - total numbers of birds, individual species, diversity, and sheer "pageantry of natural spectacle" - this spit of land midway up the Eastern Coast of the United States "has the greatest variety of birds" on the whole continent, wrote Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, in 1810. It still does. The ideal climate, geography and migratory routes bring millions of birds here each year; 402 species have been recorded.

In the autumn, migrating birds from the eastern half of the continent follow two aerial highways south: one along the Atlantic Coast, and the other along the Delaware River Valley. The flyways join at Cape May. Hawks are the star attraction this time of the year.

During spring, birds travel north, many from as far as the southern tip of South America, landing for much needed rest and food on this wedge of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay. They chow down on insects, seeds, larvae, and small shore crustaceans. Terns by the tens of thousands feed on tiny eggs laid by pre-Jurassic horseshoe crabs on the shores of Delaware Bay. Migrating birds often double their body weight before continuing on to nesting grounds, some as distant as Hudson Bay in Canada. Warblers get the most binocular time in the spring. White cedar forests attract the greatest number of them. Among the songbirds frequenting stream beds: yellow-throated, pine, prairie, blue-winged, worm eating, black-and-white-hooded, parula, prothonotary, ovenbirds, and Louisiana waterthrushes (the last of which was a "lifebird" or first-time sighting for me).

Cape May is plop in the middle of the BosWash corridor - lest anyone forget, the most densely settled land in the US. The unique habitat has been protected for decades by a who's who of environmental associations, government agencies, and forward-looking wealthy individuals. It is a triumph for the values of conservation and global custodianship.

Tireless and talented, photographer Steve Harris did the heavy lifting for the Monitor on this trip (one single 600 mm lense he carried in marsh, wetland, forest, and underbrush, weighs 35 lbs.). More of the scenes, feathered and human, from this birders' Mecca can be viewed on the Monitor's Web site, csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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