“This Cape May trip is going to see my getting the real hang of my camera,” said my wife the Beautiful AP. “Bring on the birds!”
I love Cape May, New Jersey. I’ve been going there for over 55 years; first with my parents, then with them and my children; now with my wife the Beautiful AP, the children and the grandkids.
AP and I dedicated a bench on the promenade to my parents. That bench is a much better tribute than a gravesite. Every time we walk the promenade we can say hello and thank my parents who discovered Cape May for us.
We go at least three times a year; in the winter, for our wedding anniversary and during the summer. This trip was from December 21 to December 27 – seven days!
My least favorite time is summer when the Victorian-themed resort is packed with tourists. Summer with my sons, my daughter-in-law and my grandkids is fun, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the swimming, the boat tours, the horse carriage rides, the various sights my daughter-in-law discovers and, of course, the meals and all, but still, without my family, AP and I would relegate time in Cape May to the fall, winter and spring.
This year the Beautiful AP and I discovered something for which Cape May is famous, birding! Yes, Cape May is a haven for those heavenly winged creatures, whether cute songbirds such as the tufted titmouse and the black-capped chickadee to the carrion eaters such as the turkey vultures, and those ferocious predators such as the osprey. Since we have taken up this hobby, we go on weekly treks through various venues on Long Island, New York but this Christmas we went to Cape May for our normal seven-day vacation with our sights on those birds.
On previous trips we discovered some interesting birding spots, the South Cape May Meadows Conservancy, the three Cape May Lighthouse trails, Sunset Beach where the famous (now infamous) concrete ship ran aground, and the beach just a half block from our hotel, the home to the most aggressive gulls I have ever seen. They’ll take the popcorn right out of your bag—the bag in your hand!
In addition to our favorite birding sites, this trip would have us visit two new areas, Higbee Beach and Cape Island Wildlife Management Area.
The weather those first four days was quite nice, daytime temperatures in the 40s. The last three days were brutal with a monstrous cold front enveloping the entire east coast. One town in New York State had over 100 inches of snow. Luckily, we had none.
We went birding only once those last three days—just down the block to the beach—and we stayed outside (freezing!) for a half an hour before hurrying back to the hotel for a hot drink!
When we arrived on December 21, we took a leisurely walk through town, had some cappuccino at Buon Giorno and bought candy at the Original Fudge Kitchen. We stayed at the Virginia Hotel, a boutique bread-and-breakfast, our favorite place to stay in the winter season.
The first birding day, December 22 at Higbee Beach was telling. We only saw a couple of Sanderlings scooting across the sand by the waves. AP was not able to get off a shot (a camera shot, that is!)
Off in the distance was a large flock of something or other; too far for me to tell what kind of birds they were. That was that. No other birds. And for those of you who are interested, no, Higbee Beach is not a nude beach—that is a misnomer as a bunch of people in the past decided to doff their clothes and lounge around the sand showing bodies that should have been covered. Am I the only one who thinks most people look far better in clothes than out of them?
On this winter’s day, the deserted Higbee Beach was a washout. We walked back to the car.
“Let’s go to Sunset Beach,” I said. “There are always birds there.”
“I just want to get one good picture to prove I’ve learned something about this new camera,” she said.
“We will; we will,” I said confidently. “This is just our first day.”
“I don’t want this to be a lost trip…photographically.”
Sunset Beach is at the end of Sunset Road, maybe two miles outside of Cape May proper. Over the decades the wreck of the concrete ship has deteriorated markedly. Only the hull remains and some twisted metal. Still it is a natural for birds, mostly gulls, to cover the wreck with themselves and their poop. The waves smash against the hull, an awesome sight, but I have no idea how many more decades this maritime carcass has left. If you ever get to Cape May, this is a must-see sight.
Of course, we were primarily looking for birds that AP could photograph. And so? Not a single damn gull on the wreck; not one! I have never seen so few gulls –meaning none — whenever we’ve come to this beach.
Thankfully, in a few minutes we saw a variety of birds floating in the water and cavorting on rocks, among them a ruddy turnstone.
The Beautiful AP snapped away. “Nothing, nothing,” she moaned. “I can’t get a clear picture, they are backlit and I don’t know how to compensate for that.”
I should mention that AP is new to photography and that her new twenty-five zillion-dollar camera has yet to be mastered. Part of our birding on this trip was to have her practice getting pictures and, just as important, for her to get used to the camera.
AP walked slowly to me. “This whole thing is a bust so far.”
And then they appeared, turkey vultures, half hawk in their magnificent aerial gliding with a large wing span but with the face of a vulture. Now I am convinced that all vultures look like the sound of the word “vulture.” Their faces are not pretty. They are vulturish, ugly and deserve the name. I love seeing them riding the airwaves.
These creatures can dominate a Cape May sky and suddenly today they did. First one came over a beach cabin….
“AP! AP!” I cried. “Look! Look!” I pointed.
She looked and a second turkey vulture came soaring behind the first one. Then four more came aloft behind those two.
“Get these birds,” I said. “They will make up for a bad day.”
But a half hour later, after some three-hundred photos, the entire birding experience stunk. Nothing worthwhile. Yes, we did get to see our feathery delights but the camera caught nothing but backlit blobs both in the water and in the air and also on the tops of houses and trinket stores and telephone poles.
So much for birding on day one.
On birding day two, December 23, we went to another new area, Cape Island Wildlife Management Area, which is in North Cape May. As we parked, an older man in camouflage with his pit bull was getting ready to take a hike. The pit bull was unleashed and the snarling creature didn’t look friendly. In fact, the old man in camouflage didn’t look friendly either. I wondered if the guy had bodies in barrels in his basement. Perhaps meals for his dog?
“Let’s wait in the car until those two take off,” said the Beautiful AP. I did not disagree.
When the man and beast went into the woods using the path to the left, we took the path on the right.
“With our luck we’ll meet each other midway if this is like a track,” I said. “Or maybe the dog will have eaten someone by then and it will be okay.”
So we started our birding. Occasional songbirds flitted by but we could barely see them; that’s how fast they flit. High above were turkey vultures but they constantly seemed to be in the sun in such a way that they were barely visible.
In the small pond were some ducks. “One thing is guaranteed. The ducks are always on the other side of the pond, making them impossible to photograph. It’s a law of nature,” said AP.
Suddenly all the ducks scooted under the foliage on the other side of the pond, which made them impossible to photograph.
After an hour and a half of trudging through this venue we gave up. The walk was nice; the birding rotten.
Two days; two strikes against us.
Now it was Christmas Eve. We were getting into the car. “What’s your favorite birding place so far in Cape May?” I asked her.
“The lighthouse all the way,” she said.
“I agree,” I said and waited.
“Why don’t we go to the lighthouse?” said AP after some thought.
We drove down Sunset Road, turned left onto Lighthouse Road, and parked at the entrance to the woods. There are three paths in these woods. The longest of which covers the other two paths and is 2.5 miles of forest, streams, lakes, marshes and at the end stretch, the ocean on one side of the path and a long lake on the other side. Towering over the expanse of these woods is the Cape May Lighthouse.
About a quarter of a mile into the woods we saw a couple of songbirds zip by and dive into the bushes. AP laughed; she hadn’t even been able to get the camera up to her eyes. Songbirds are beautiful and totally annoying.
The first mile of the walk was starting to feel as bad as the previous two days. Then we hit our first lake and there were some ducks and, across the lake, was a great blue heron, standing as still as a statue.
AP had her camera click, click, clicking away like mad.
“I swear these birds could be statues put in place by jokers. It is amazing how still they can be,” I said.
Above us were a couple of dozen turkey vultures but they were so high up it was hard to get them into focus. A few gulls would fly by as well. The ducks were flapping in the water, maybe mating, and putting their butts into the air so they could eat whatever was on the bottom of the lake.
“Okay, I took enough,” she said and we then walked on. Shortly after we hit a stream and standing absolutely still on the side was another great blue heron with his neck all the way extended. AP shot many photos of this one but the angles through the brush made clear viewpoints difficult. He took off after a while. These birds look great in the air.
So we walked some more and finally came to the end of the line, the path between the ocean and the lake. This lead us back to the lighthouse.
Then we saw it, in the lake, pure white and slowly walking in the water along the shore, looking for food he could snatch, the great egret. Both AP and I said, “Oh, my God!”
“You should be able to get great pictures of this one,” I said.
“The bushes might be in the way as we walk on this side of the lake,” she said lifting her camera. The bushes were not in our way. The egret was right over there, waiting to be photographed.
So we slowly walked on our side of the lake, AP snapping photos continuously. On his side of the lake, the egret walked and stalked his prey, occasionally shooting his head into the water to catch a fish or frog or other small mammal. Sometimes you could see the food going down his gullet. Instead of standing still as most herons will, this guy just slowly walked the shore area and fed quite a lot.
“I may have gotten some good ones; it could save the whole trip!” joyed AP.
“I am sure you did!” I agreed.
Back at the room, AP went through the over 450 photos she took on our walk. Most were quickly discarded. She had a few decent ones of the first of the great blue herons. Then we got to the great egret.
“Oh, boy, I have some very good photos,” she said.
“Thank God!” I said. “Christmas is saved!”
Yes, indeed it was. AP takes her hobbies seriously and even though she is a complete novice in photography, I just know she wants to buck Ansel Adams for the top spot in photographic history.
We went out the day after Christmas but it was hellishly cold!
Naturally we engaged in all our other favorite Cape May winter activities. We socialized with two friends, Martine and Tom, had great dinners, and went on walks along the promenade and on the beach. We ate. We talked. We napped…and ate some more. Our favorite restaurant is the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia; we are addicted to the Almond-Orange French toast at the Mad Batter.
AP can name a number of special moments we had on this trip to Cape May and one of them is discovering that she got some great shots of the great egret. For me, that was my favorite moment and you can figure out why.
A happy wife—come on, you know the quote—means a happy life.
Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.