Cape Mays and Cape May
The Cape May warbler is named for a specimen collected in Cape May, New Jersey in the early days of American ornithology--around 1811. But the reality is that this species is not very common in and around Cape May. It breeds in the northern boreal forests of the Far North and is a more common migrant inland than along the coast in both spring and fall.
Yesterday morning we had a big wave of Cape Mays coming through the yard. There were drab females and first-year birds, greenish and streaky, and a handful of still-colorful males. These fall migrants got me thinking back to my early birding days.
Back about 1978, when I first had my driver's license, I drove over to Cape May with my younger brother Andy. We went to help as volunteers with the hawk banding being conducted there. There was no well-established Cape May Bird Observatory then, but there was an established cabal of dedicated raptor banders who spent every weekend in the fall capturing and banding hawks and owls.
For Andy and me it was an eye-opening experience, seeing these men (and a few women) who were obviously passionate about birds and were dedicated to studying them. We slept with the other volunteers and official banders above the post office in Cape May Point. We squatted in drafty, cold shacks and watched for curious migrant hawks to get caught in the mist nets (and other traps). We'd untangle them from the traps and place them in tennis-ball cans (sharpies) or Pringles cans (Cooper's) to await weighing, measuring, fat check, data recording, banding, and release. Our mentors were serious, even harsh at times, but we learned a lot about birds, about banding, and about birding in the process. I count those two fall trips (we also went the following year) to Cape May among my most formative experiences as a young birder.
Today Cape May is a mecca for bird and nature study, and it is world-famous as a migration hotspot. I don't get there as often as I once did. But I think back every now and then to my first visits as a young bird watcher to the southern tip of New Jersey.
It's funny sometimes how a simple word or thought can trigger a cascade of memories from long ago.