Blackpoll overhead (shot from cannons) and identified with precision by skilled observers like Tom Johnson (Photo by Tom Johnson)

The charrette ended on Friday and the next chapter of my adventure began. I stood on the corner of Broad and Pine for about thirty minutes (the humanity that passes a busy street corner of a huge city is quite interesting to one who spends most of his time in a small room in front of a computer or out in the field at first light) waiting for David Soll to scoop me up for a trip to Cape May. If I have known Rick for decades, my time with David amounted to a few hours at a conference three years ago. David is an environmental historian who is currently teaching at Lafayette University in  Easton, PA, about 50 miles from Philly, but will be starting a tenure track position at the University of Wisconsin (Eau Claire) next fall.

There are some places where the roadside signs of solicitation promote gambling, gentlemen’s clubs, and fireworks. A drive through Cape May yields information on birding tours. It surely ranks as one of the continent’s great destinations for birders- it has both the birds, vast numbers of birders, and bird identification being conducted at the very highest level. And this visit even coincided with Cape May’s annual Lima Bean Festival: where else can you sample the pureed legume sweetened, heavily spiced with nutmeg, and served in a pie crust.

Saturday morning we headed out to Higbee Beach towards the end of Cape May. The bird flight was weak but Tom Johnson was counting what there was of it. Tom is a joy: highly personable, he is one of those amazing young birders whose skill level epitomizes Cape May. He was identifying warblers flying overhead including Connecticut (long yellow undertail coverts), blackpoll, and parula. (Of such performances, Rich Horwitz joked they leave the rest of us wondering what we have been doing the past forty plus years) The ability to know the subtle differences, process that information and to actually discern how they apply to the bird under observation during a mere speck of time is remarkable. Sometimes the identifications are aided by chip notes, and some birds are not possible to nail down with certainty. And I have not the slightest doubt that Tom is scrupulous. Digital photography, samples of which Tom generously shared, allow confirmation and study. It was an honor to witness this.

Higbee Beach lookout seen from dike across the road.

Now, unfortunately, for those who actually want to see birds well, the dike that morning did not provide a lot of opportunities. So David and I visited several other locations including a fruitless search for what would have been a lifer, a salt marsh sparrow. With the all the details required to make this trip work, I plumb forgot about this bird whose split into speciesdom occurred after my last visit to the east coast. Tom gave us a place to look but we failed to find it.

Salt marsh sparrow habitat that failed to yield its prize but was still interesting with swarms of crabs on the exposed mud.

The area around the hawk watch  was next on our agenda. First, we went in search of a long-time local hawkwatching friend Liza Gray. She and a group, who call themselves the Riff-Raff, scan the skies just behind the official observation platform. The day before she had observed a white pelican, a noteworthy bird on the east coast. There they were, and indeed it was one of her cohorts who provided samples of the lima bean pie. Hawks were not gushing overhead but birds were milling about constantly. Sharp-shins and red-tails were always in view. We also saw Coopers, a few broad-wings, merlins, peregrines, black vultures, and bald eagles. A delightful array of raptors without feeling overwhelmed by endless torrents.

Sunday we rejoined Tom for a brief period and then headed back to Philly where David was going to drop me off at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. Tinicum has been a place on my radar since the early 1970s when Ted Parker used to tell stories of birding there. Rich agreed to meet us there and I was once again in his hands (I  imagine him feeling like the custodian of an unwanted third cousin). We took a three mile hike around the site, with the highlight being my first black-throated blue warbler of the year. Rich also pointed out some fruiting wild rice which I have never seen before.

He dropped me off at the airport in plenty of time.

David Soll, my birding companion at Cape May and soon to be Midwesterner.

Connecticut warbler providing leisurely views (Tom Johnson)

An eastern meadowlark: give praise for the larger passerines that flyover- it gives the rest of us a chance. (Tom Johnson)

This is the season for yellow-rumps. (Tom Johnson)

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