Hawk watches that conduct daily counts during fall migration are, dare I say, relatively common these days. Sea watches, on the other hand, are few and far between. But once again, due to the unique location of Cape May County, New Jersey, we have one. A really big one.
From September 22 to December 22, New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory conducts an annual count of birds that conduct their year-end migration over the ocean instead of along mountain ridges or overland along coastlines.
Because the north end of Seven Mile Beach juts out into the ocean well beyond the barrier islands to the north, Townsends Inlet provides an ideal spot for counting the seabirds that stream by unintentionally closer to land than they had originally planned as they head south to warmer waters.
It's a thankless job. "Cooler by a Mile" (Avalon's motto) is a wonderful concept in the depths of a hazy, hot and humid August but during a nasty autumn gale, full exposure to the entire northeast quarter of the compass is not such a good thing. Even on a beautiful, sunny, early November day optics and automotive paint are at risk of a soaking in salt water.
Keeping two eyes on a horizon filled with rolling seas for eight hours a day (more or less) surely has to be the best way to suffer mal de mer while standing on dry (or at least firm) ground.
But then there are the birds. Lots of birds. (Yes, scoters are sometimes counted by the tens and hundreds.) Birds of surprising variety and scope. Birds that must be counted and categorized to make the effort scientifically worthwhile. Surf scoters, black scoters, and double-crested cormorants--diving ducks that feed in ocean waters--compromise the bulk of the migrants, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The total count of all birds has surpassed a million in one season.
But it isn't all about a mere three sea ducks; other "waterbirds" are also tallied. White-winged scoters, the odd great cormorant thrown in to make sure one is paying attention, northern gannet, brown pelican, northern pintail, long-tailed duck, green-winged teal, mallard, American black duck, wood duck, common loon, red-throated loon, brant, snow goose, tundra swan, widgeon, common eider, laughing gull, horned grebe… And those are merely the species that have been given dedicated clickers. Counters have seen many an odd thing, much weirder than a wood duck over open water, come in off the ocean over the past eighteen or so years of the count. Like warblers. Owls. Cuckoos. (Cuckoos?!)
But on a good day, SeaWatch is well worth a visit by the curious. The prospect is lovely in good weather (high tides and rough seas aside). The birds can be numerous enough that an hour or two of watching can give you a good start on learning to tell one species from another. The company, as with any gathering of people who like to watch birds, is always enjoyable. (Even to the herring gulls that have come to expect handouts over the years.)
Event: Avalon Seawatch.
Dates: September 22 through December 22.
Location: 7th Street and the seawall, Avalon, New Jersey. Free parking available.
Duration: Sun up to sun down.
Accoutrements: Layers and layers of clothing. Tight-fitting hat. Gloves. As high-powered optics as you can put your hands on (a spotting scope gives you the best magnification for well-offshore flights), although when the birds are relatively close 8x binoculars will work.
Hot food and hot beverages welcome.