CAPE MAY POINT, N.J. - Call them the early birds.
Cool weather doesn't bother them. Spring showers aren't a problem. They aren't here for the beach.
These visitors - human and avian alike - begin returning to this spit of land at the southern tip of New Jersey every year at this time for what some consider the most remarkable springtime bird migration in North America.
"We like to tell people there is no bad day of birding in Cape May," said Marleen Murgitroyde, business and events coordinator for New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory. "Even if all you see is robins, there'll be hundreds and hundreds of them. But you'll likely see many, many other species right along with them."
By the end of April, more than 100,000 birds a day - gannets, grebes, warblers, owls, wigeons, ospreys, ibis, and gulls among them - and dozens of other species will funnel through this flyway.
Experts consider Cape May and the surrounding region the premier migratory flyway of North America - and possibly the world - by accident of geography. The Atlantic flyway funnels mind-boggling numbers of birds along New Jersey's coastline for one of their last stopovers for rest and nourishment before their thousands-of-miles journey to breeding grounds in the Canadian Maritimes and other points north.
And the spectacle can be amazing:
Marshes at the Cape May Meadows filled with so many egrets it looked as though snow was blanketing the reeds. Hundreds of ethereal-looking gannets roosted on a sunken ship at Sunset Beach. The woods at Higbee Beach were alight with flocks of yellow-throated warblers that never seemed to stop their sing-song trill.
On occasion during spring, birders have observed as many as 200 species on Cape Island - the area south of the Cape May Canal - within 24 hours, Murgitroyde said.
And though veteran birders will tell you the spring migration is not as spectacular as the one in fall - because of the absence of the magnificent raptors that make their way down the coast (they migrate north in spring using an inland route) - it is still an impressive sight.
So dripping with wildlife is the cape at this time of year that some passengers on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry on Friday morning were treated to a birds-eye view of finback whales cavorting off the bow.
Overhead, almost daily, flocks of northern gannet, the largest seabird in the North Atlantic, with an eight-foot wing span, have been spotted, according to Jim Salmon, a spokesman for the Delaware River & Bay Authority, which operates the ferry.
"The scenic beauty of the Delaware Bay is unparalleled," Salmon said. "Especially when you can see so much wildlife in its natural environment in one place."
And that's what brings visitors to the region from all over the world, according to officials.
"What I always feel is interesting about New Jersey, and about the Cape May peninsula in particular, is that you can really feel the movement of the birds and the wildlife," said Arizona wildlife photographer Tom Vezo, who has traveled throughout the world to shoot his photographs.
Vezo said he returned to Cape May often because of the variety of species he can find in one place.
"You can literally feel it in the wind along the shoreline, whether it's going to be a good day for the birds to start piling up along the beaches and fields and forests," Vezo said. "It's really a unique place."
And with the millions of birds come flocks of visitors.
Murgitroyde said that about 400,000 people visit the bird observatory every year and that about 60 percent of those visitors come during the spring and fall migrations.
Though ecotourism and outdoor activities have leveled off on nationally over the last five years, Cape May County has had an increase.
Ecotourism there is still the fastest-growing segment in the tourism industry, according to the Cape May County Department of Tourism.
About $37 million of the $215 million in tourism money that Cape May County business raked in during 2006 was generated by ecotourism, according to the county.
"I think we're still seeing the trend growing here because so many people can so easily get to what is really one of the best places in the world for birding," said Don Freiday, director of birding programs at the Cape May Bird Observatory, who over the weekend was leading a new workshop called "Break into Birding" to teach newbies how to properly observe birds.
"People are sick of staring at a computer screen all day or videos all night and they want to get outside and do something, and this is the perfect activity, whether you're 6 or 60," Freiday said.
Grab a pair of binoculars and a good birding book and you're pretty much set for the activity, he said.
Laura Pacitti, 52, of Marlton, agreed.
"I've had some health issues over the past few years and this is an activity that I can get out and do easily," Pacitti said on a recent afternoon visit to the Hawk Watch Platform in the shadow of the Cape May Lighthouse. "I love it. The birds are pretty and the air is so fresh."