One of those days…but with a phenomenal ending

My brother Scott and I always try to spend one long day together each Spring, birding southern Jersey. Last Saturday, May 21, was our day together. Although it promised to be beastly hot, I had lined up a “tour” of spots along the Cape May peninsula for Scott’s and my targets.

We started at the Ocean City Welcome Center at dawn, where Scott got his lifer White-faced Ibis sitting on her nest. Then on to Belleplain for the residents: Prothonotary Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, Worm-eating Warbler, Summer Tanager, and an exceptionally cooperative Hooded Warbler at the stream near the magic triangle. We left Belleplain and were going to go straight down the western Cape when I decided that a side trip to Heislerville might be interesting. We stopped at Langley Road to look for a Blue Grosbeak…no (none all day long). We were there about 25 minutes, and I’d not checked any alerts. As we walked back to the car after a lengthy walk to see a Prairie Warbler, I noticed: Black-necked Stilt at Heislerville! 8 minutes away! ZOOM! But: the bird was gone…five minutes before. Had I had the alert sounds on, we could’ve truncated our PRWA chase…there were many others during the day…and would’ve easily seen the Stilt, as it had been foraging right next to the viewing area.

Later, we were at Reed’s Beach looking at a couple of Red Knot (we only saw seven the entire day. Ugh), and a nice couple pulled up and said, “The Iceland Gull is still back there.” That was a Lifer for Scott as well, and “back there” was the several-hundred-foot section of Reed’s Beach Road where there are no beachside buildings. It was a distance of <1/2 mile and a travel time of <4 minutes. But: no gull.

Later still, we were at the Stevens Street Hawkwatch for a hoped-for Mississippi Kite, as there have been many observed all over the state recently, including there. After awhile in 92 degree heat with no raptors of any kind other than TVs, I suggested we go to Coral Avenue. It was 2:45. When we got to Coral and were set up, I checked alerts again: at 2:52, Lisa Fanning had observed a MIKI fly right past the Stevens Street Hawkwatch. Strike three for the day. Oh yes, we had had other fine birds thus far: Brown Pelicans flying down the bay at East Point Lighthouse, all three of the marsh sparrows at Thompson’s Beach Road, beautiful views of the Red-headed Woodpeckers along Delsey Road, but we’d missed three unusual species by minutes each time.

After Coral, we were again at Stevens Street after having walked the Beanery grounds, hoping to find the MIKI perched. No. An alert pinged: Little Stint refound at Heislerville. We considered hopping in the car and driving 45 minutes for it. “Nah,” I said. Too far, and we’d both be delayed getting back to our families. “Let’s just remain here.” This time, staying put paid off: A raptor sailed in just under treetop level and I caught the light head and the long pointed wings against the leafy background. But my heart stopped when I looked closer and picked out details: this bird was too big and too black-and-white for a MIKI. Then I saw a forked tail and I was jumping up and down and hollering like Mel Hodges after Bobby Thomson’s home run in the Dodgers / Giants pennant game in 1957: “It’s a Swallow-tailed Kite! It’s a Swallow-tailed Kite! It’s a…(well, you get the idea).” Our observation period wasn’t very long…maybe 90 secs to two mins…but it was enough. After a decade of serious birding in New Jersey, I finally was at the right time and place to encounter this most beautiful and graceful of birds.

122 species, 14 different stops, 3 near-misses, and one giant “get” in the end. My heart is beating faster even as I type.

GREAT birding, everyone.

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