by Kelly Ball, BWD Advertising Director
If I could prescribe a cure for general malaise, it might just be a guided birding tour during fall migration in Cape May, New Jersey, with Mark Garland on his very own stomping grounds, augmented with the expertise of Holly Merker, another birding phenom, not to mention art therapist and co-author of the recent book Ornitherapy: For Your Mind, Body, and Soul.
On Day 1, Mark was able to get our group on every vulture and hawk target species, as well as every falcon species. In part this is thanks to the naturally occurring funnel effect at New Jersey’s southernmost point—but with a seasoned birder like Mark, we learned A LOT about the why of what we were witnessing, as well as how to use distinguishing characteristics like the rhythm of wing movement; size and shape comparisons; and flight silhouettes for identification. I think my favorite lesson was learning to embrace “I don’t know!” because, well, even seasoned experts cannot conclusively ID when they get a too-distant or too-brief look at a raptor.
Overall, this being my first visit to Cape May, New Jersey, I added another seven birds to my life list: Eurasian wigeon; willet; lesser and greater black-backed gulls; American oystercatcher; black skimmer; and a vagrant Townsend’s warbler. All provided memorable moments, but I truly found my groove observing a flock of about 350 black skimmers on the beach of Cape May, right across the street from our hotel, where they move in unison, seeking out optimal spots along the shore to rest during the day. Our group observed skimmers on two separate mornings, and it was during the second morning that I was able to enjoy stretches of observation through Holly’s Swarovski scope at the little cuties. Not only that, but I also managed to snap photos revealing the banding codes on a few individual birds. Holly encouraged those of us who were interested to report the banding codes.
Following a trip of this nature, which included three consecutive 14-hour days of hosting participants, the urge to crash upon returning home is strong. This time, however, I had a mission: bird band reporting! From the various photos I made, I was able to discern banding information for three different black skimmers.
I am here to tell you, it’s a cinch to report a bird that shows a federal band (silver ring) or a color marker (a colorful ring, as the name implies). It took me longer to upload the photos to my computer than to use the website. Even better, if you have multiple species to report, the website will allow you to use the same location information for each bird and modify as needed. Thank you, USGS, for this efficiency!
The absolute best part? Within eight hours, I already received my first banding certificate of appreciation from USGS.
Growing My Life Birder List
by Jessica Vaughan, BWD Assistant Editor
I have been looking forward to the Cape A-MAY-zing Reader Rendezvous for two years now, since it was first scheduled in 2019 and rescheduled for the following year, and then rescheduled again for this year. As I knew it would be, it was completely worth the wait.
I knew that the hawk watch (my first) and the hundreds of vultures, hawks, and falcons we watched pass overhead would blow my mind. As would the concentrations of shorebirds, many of them life birds for me, such as black skimmers, American oystercatchers, and assorted plovers, sandpipers, and gulls. As would the pristine beaches along the Atlantic Coast and the Delaware Bay at this southernmost tip of New Jersey where we started most of our mornings with a picture-perfect sunrise. As would viewing monarch migration up close, with fluttering butterflies continually in sight, gathering to roost before their 2,000-mile journey to Mexico. I was also lucky enough to get to experience this all with my BWD colleague and longtime birding bestie, Kelly Ball.
And while all of this would have been more than enough to comprise a birding trip of a lifetime, every day it just got better, the experience elevated by the things you can’t plan for. I am reminded of the words of BWD columnist Al Batt, who wrote in a recent issue about how birding for him isn’t just about accumulating life birds, but also life birders—the people you meet along the way who make the birding sweeter, richer, more memorable. I was fortunate enough to encounter a few life birders on this trip, folks who touched my mind, my heart, and are now part of my birding story.
Our local guide was Mark Garland, a renowned naturalist who has lived in Cape May for 20 years and is one of the most knowledgeable birders not only there but in the country (and beyond!). Mark pens our “Readers Question Mark” column in BWD, and I’ve had the pleasure of birding with him before at the New River Birding & Nature Festival, so I knew we would be in extremely capable hands on this trip—but I learned more than I could have dreamed.
In his guiding, Mark always offered a detailed but accessible explanation that provided context and a deeper understanding of a species’ behavior, or the significance of our geography, or the complex phenomenon of migration—all of which helped solidify my observations and make connections and deepen my appreciation of what I was viewing.
Mark joked that he was incapable of giving a short answer to any question, but we were all eagerly soaking up his knowledge and hungry for every nugget of information. (Also, he has a wonderful sense of humor and an endless supply of good [bad?] bird jokes!)
We were also fortunate enough to have the company of Holly Merker, an environmental educator and birding guide based in eastern Pennsylvania but who is no stranger to Cape May and its birds. Holly is also the author of Ornitherapy, a different kind of birding book that teaches how to use birds and birding to promote mindfulness, peace, and healing in your everyday life.
Holly supported our excursions with sharp ears and eyes, a deep knowledge of bird behavior and migration, and a quick ability to get birders—as well as her scope—on a bird. I felt a heartfelt connection to Holly, whose quiet, soothing demeanor and small stature belie a fiery passion for the well-being of both birds and those who watch them.
Birding has certainly been a balm to my soul during the most difficult challenges in my life, and birding alongside someone who has intensively studied and understands the connection between nature and our mental health is a next-level birding experience.
While we didn’t get to bird with Michael Lanzone, founder of Cellular Tracking Technology, and his wife, Dr. Trish Miller, a wildlife biologist who specializes in golden eagles, Michael gave a presentation one evening that took us virtually birding around the world as he shared his company’s history and innovations. The tracking technology he and his colleagues have developed is literally changing the way we study birds and other wildlife, opening up doors to previously inaccessible information that is empowering scientists and conservation leaders in mind-blowing ways.
I am not going to even attempt to try to recap what he shared, as I could never do it justice, but let’s just say I went back to my hotel room and immediately plunked down money to support his Kickstarter campaign and secure my own Terra device. (Learn more about CTT and the Terra Project by listening to our recent Out There with the Birds podcast interview with Michael here.)
In addition to these prominent birders, on every Reader Rendezvous I am introduced to our remarkable-in-their-own-right fellow travelers. Every birder has a story, and getting to know those who choose to Rendezvous with us is half of the pleasure of these trips. Twelve participants joined us in Cape May, and while chatting with each of them at various points during our four days together, I was reminded how unique we each are in how we became birders and what birding means to us—and also how special it is to experience a trip of a lifetime with like-minded folks who share your passion and appreciation for birds and nature. As we like to say here at BWD, “Birding is better with friends!” In fact, it is what takes an already extraordinary trip to an epic level.