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Why bird-watchers flock to Cape May and Philly: ‘We are migration central.’

If you want to go birding, this is the best time of year.

Warren J. Lilley Jr., a member of the Audubon Society of Atlantic County, watches birds at Cape May Point State Park in 2014.
Warren J. Lilley Jr., a member of the Audubon Society of Atlantic County, watches birds at Cape May Point State Park in 2014.Read moreMichael S. Wirtz / File Photograph

This week, thousands of birding enthusiasts — a.k.a. birders — will flock to the annual Cape May Fall Festival. Far from the typical town festival, defined by live music and local vendors, this is all about birding. It’s an annual highlight for bird-watchers in the United States.

The four-day event — the longest-running of its kind in the country — includes lectures by esteemed ornithologists, bird walks, Monarch butterfly tagging, sand art, and more nature-inspired activities.

Although many veteran birders attend the Cape May Fall Festival, it’s also a great place for beginners.

“Being in a place like this is definitely an inspiration,” said Brett Ewald, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory. The observatory employs professional (and, at times, volunteer) counters. In a typical year, they’ll count between 30,000 and 55,000 hawks, 750,000 to 1 million water birds, and 80,000 to 90,000 songbirds. And those are just the avians they observe with their eyes and ears.

The Cape May peninsula attracts birds — and birders — because of its location and topography. For birds pushing southward, the tip of South Jersey is an ideal stopover, where the land meets the sea. Ewald said the best fall days for birding occur after a strong northwesterly wind or rain. That’s when there tend to be a large number of “fallouts,” “when a lot of birds get grounded or put down in one area.”

Fall is “the best time of the year for a good, diverse snapshot of the migration,” when different types of birds, “shorebirds, warblers, hawks, waterfowl” are most concentrated in one place, Ewald said. Each autumn, approximately 30,000 birders check in at least one of the observatory’s three research sites — a number that doesn’t account for visitors who don’t bother checking in.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, more than 45 million Americans purposefully watch and identify birds.

Non-birders might wonder: Really? Why?

Take it from Keith Russell, program manager of urban conservation for Audubon Pennsylvania: “Birds are a gateway to your understanding the natural world.”

Moreover, “Birds are everywhere. They’re in cities. They’re at all different elevations. They’re in different habitats. They’re accessible.” Birding can be done on your own or in a group, at your local park or at a renowned birding destination like Cape May and Hawk Mountain in Berks County.

You could also just “ride a bus and look out the window,” said Russell.

Philadelphia is a hot spot in its own right for birders. When the East Fairmount Park Reservoir in Strawberry Mansion — now the Discovery Center — set up a radar unit in September 2012 to monitor overhead bird migration, “We detected 75,000 birds within one kilometer of the radar unit,” said Russell. And that was a week before the fall migration’s peak.

“If you extrapolate, there are probably tens of millions of birds passing through this season, just in the city of Philadelphia,” he said. “We are migration central.”

Philadelphia and South Jersey are part of the Atlantic Flyway, a zone stretching along the coast from northern Canada to the Caribbean. So, almost anywhere you look up this time of year, you’ll likely see a raptor or even a flock of birds.

“There are fantastic places all over the city to look for birds,” said Russell.

For Russell, birding hasn’t been just a passion. It’s been a community. “I got involved with the Delaware Valley Ornithological Society when I was in high school," he said. “Some members were really rich. Some were really poor. Everyone was different, but the common denominator was birds.”

As a black birder, he felt included. “Birding unifies all these people, even people of different political persuasions.”

What’s more, bird-watching is free — though it’s enhanced by a few tools (and potentially some company).

The number one thing Russell said every birder should have is “a bible.”

“What I’m talking about is a field guide that will teach you what birds exist in your area, what they look like, when they occur, what they sound like, and other key information to identify those birds,” he explained. He recommended an illustrated guide, like those by ornithologist David Sibley. Drawings emphasize better than photos the differences between species.

Another birding essential: binoculars.

Ewald called binoculars “a great tool that first allowed the masses to take part in birding. In the old days of [18th and 19th-century ornithologists John James] Audubon and [Alexander] Wilson, they did their birding with their guns. … They would shoot a bird in order to look at it.”

Russell said binoculars are not mandatory. Birders often observe with the naked eye, and by listening for a bird’s unique song.

Russell also suggests joining a birding group or finding a mentor. “It is helpful to have someone you can go out with and learn from. The Delaware Valley Ornithological Club has a [web]site called Bird Philly. They have field trips, bird walks that you can participate in for free all over the Philadelphia area.”

Said Ewald, “You just go out and see what’s there.”

Birding hot spots near Philadelphia

North, Northeast, and Northwest Philly

Olney’s Fisher Park, 23.3 acres of woods in the middle of city neighborhoods attract migratory songbirds. 571 W. Spencer St.,

Benjamin Rush State Park, known for its woodlands and open meadow habitat. 15001 Roosevelt Blvd.,

Pennypack on the Delaware has a variety of habitats, and therefore a variety of birds: water birds, marsh birds, shore birds, forest birds, and grass birds, such as eastern meadowlarks. Access at 7801 State Rd.,

Pennypack Environmental Center, originally a bird sanctuary, has migratory and other bird walks throughout the year. 8600 Verree Rd.,

Houston Meadow in Wissahickon Valley Park, an open space for great bird-watching. Valley Green Road,

South and Southwest Philly

FDR Park, where open water, a golf course, and forest attract birds. 1500 Pattison Ave.,

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, near the airport, has a wide variety of habitats and a huge number of species. 8601 Lindbergh Blvd.,

Downtown Philly

The Delaware River Trail is great during migration and in winter. Along Columbus Boulevard from Spring Garden to Ellen Streets,

Fairmount Park, with forest birds, raptors, and water birds. Within Fairmount Park in Strawberry Mansion, Audubon Pennsylvania’s Keith Russell and others lead bird walks at the Discovery Center. 3401 Reservoir Dr., Philadelphia,

PA Suburbs

Militia Hill Hawk Watch in Fort Washington State Park, to count birds alongside members of the Wyncote Audubon Society. 500 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington,

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, with a historic house, bird museum, birding events and outings, and trails. 1201 Pawlings Rd., Audubon,

New Jersey

Cape May Bird Observatory (three locations), world-renowned for migratory birds. 701 E. Lake Dr., Cape May Point,

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, less than 10 miles north of Atlantic City, has an eight-mile wildlife drive for spotting waterfowl and seabirds: herons, egrets, terns, and more. 800 Great Creek Rd., Galloway,

Island Beach State Park, herons, terns, plovers, oystercatchers, and other seabirds make this preserve a destination. End of Rt. 35 South, Seaside Park,

Palmyra Cove Nature Park, tidal wetland and deciduous woods at the base of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, known for flickers and peregrine falcons. 1300 Rt. 73, Palmyra,

Even further

Hawk Mountain, renowned for watching raptors and raptor migration. 1700 Hawk Mountain Rd., Kempton,

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on the Delaware Bay in North Central Delaware for spotting infrequent visitors to this area such as the American avocet, the Brewer’s blackbird, and the black-necked stilt. 2591 Whitehall Neck Rd., Smyrna,