This trip's for the birds

Two species - avian and human - find enjoyment on the shores of Cape May, N.J.

Two clichs: Travel broadens, and birds of a feather flock together.

Linked, they represent one of the hottest trends in the travel industry - small groups of bird-watchers making one- to five-day trips.

Americans have taken to birding like migrating geese in the autumn sky - 54 million people actively bird-watch according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. And these people aren't just pitching popcorn to pigeons in the park. What has been building over the past decade is a flocking together of novice and experienced bird-watchers under the auspices of local Audubon societies.

Naturalist-led outings range from $25 day trips to expensive treks to such exotic places as Iceland and the Galapagos Islands. But the overwhelming majority of overnight birding trips are regional, within a two- or three-state radius of birders' homes.

On the trail of migratory birds

It's 7:30 on an unseasonably warm morning in May. Sixteen two-legged, featherless aficionados, up long before the birds, are loading gear into two vans at Massachusetts Audubon's Stony Brook Sanctuary in Norfolk, Mass.

Our sights are set for New Jersey's Cape May and four days of glorious birding at the Mecca of North American bird-watching - where 402 species of birds have been recorded. In seven hours we will be tramping through coastal marshlands, taking in migrating shore birds, nesting ospreys, and skittering plovers plunging their scissor-like beaks into tidal muck for food.

Cape May occupies a spit of land midway up the East Coast, plop in the middle of the densely populated Boston-Washington corridor. The peninsula's climate, habitat, and protected woodlands are a strategic stopover on the migratory route for millions of birds from South and Central America heading to breeding grounds along Canada's Hudson Bay.

Cape May is both the name of a town and a county. The town's public beach offers summer day-trippers and weekenders cool sea breezes and the largest collection of original (and impeccably preserved) Victorian homes on the East Coast. The town is the nation's only entire municipality designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Its 5,000 annual residents swell to 80,000 on summer weekends. Evening strolls through the town just before dusk offer architectural "oohs and aahs."

Learn from the experts

But for me, spotting birds is the greatest thrill. We see 148 species of birds in four days, from ibis nesting in coastal estuaries to lengthy views in tall marsh grasses of the almost totally camouflaged American bittern.

Our trip is a traveling seminar. It is an absolute delight learning about bird behaviors, life cycles, and habitats, as well as environmental concerns that affect them.

For beginning birders, the leaders are the difference between an enjoyable walk in the woods and the epiphany of seeing, studying, and learning about some of the planet's most delightful and inspiring creatures.

Think of having your own private tutor for four days about a subject you enjoy and want to learn more about.

There is no way to put a price on the teaching and insights shared by our group leaders, Jack Lash and Michelle Grezenda. They, the birds, and the companionship with other birders make the trip.

Jack and Michelle love what they are doing and share their knowledge like parent birds urging worms down the gullets of their chicks.

Hear them before you see them

Jack has taken at least one group per year to Cape May for the last 21 years, be it to spot nesting spring songbirds or migrating fall raptors. There are times on our trip I wonder if he has a secret nest where he goes and sleeps at night, he is so familiar with the terrain and habitat.

When it comes to actually seeing nesting and feeding songbirds in dense forest coverage, Jack hears and identifies a bird, points to where to look in the leafy treetops long before anyone's eye catches the telltale flash of color. Michelle is an education naturalist. Want to know the life cycle of that caterpillar scurrying away before some bird feeds on it? Michelle has forgotten more about these crawling fuzzy critters than most of us will ever know.

By way of preparation for each day's birding, I walk along the beach in the predawn light, watching dolphins just offshore. The quiet time is wonderful prelude for the forthcoming day's forays.

But one of the most spectacular events of the trip takes place at noon one day - watching thousands of birds feast on natural "fast food," millions of eggs laid by horseshoe crabs.

Some two weeks before and after - but peaking at - the full moon in May, horseshoe crabs - a 350-million-year evolutionary success story - crawl out of the sea onto sandy beaches up and down the East Coast to lay their eggs.

Horseshoe eggs are a major food source for tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds, and the New Jersey beaches are the major refueling station on their way to northern nesting grounds. A female horseshoe crab lays some 50,000 water- droplet-size eggs, globules of protein.

We saw terns by the thousands feed on the eggs laid by these living fossils. Viewing takes place amid the squawking cacophony of birds circling, landing, and feeding only meters above our heads. The birds double their weight in two weeks.

Prior to visiting Cape May, my only connection with horseshoe crabs was seeing the abandoned hulk of a shell littering the beach - looking like the battered helmet of a defeated Klingon warrior.

This pre-Jurassic experience was the highlight of the trip. It reconnected me to the vastness and rhythms of our teeming, blue-water planet.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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