It’s the meeting of two herds: more than 470,000 tourists come to Cape May County each year for the express purpose of watching migratory birds ruminate, grow and take flight.
Some are there to watch the red turnstone, which stops in Delaware Bay to dig up insects and larvae under shells and rocks on the beach on their journey between the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic. Others are there to watch the falcons, which cruise the Cape May Point State Park falcon viewing platform like a highway in the sky of 50,000 falcons a year. The star of the show, however, is the red knot, which travels thousands of miles each year from Tierra del Fuego to Cape May, where it may fatten on horseshoe crab eggs en route to the Arctic.
Armed with binoculars and sophisticated cameras, birdwatchers bring economic activity to the region with an average expenditure of $662 per trip on hotels, restaurants, tours and trips, representing an infusion of $313 million into the one of New Jersey’s southernmost counties.
According to New Jersey Audubon CEO Eric Stiles, outdoor recreation in the state generates $18.9 billion annually, provides 143,000 direct jobs, $5.9 billion in wages and salaries, and 1.2 billion dollars in state and local taxes.
“It’s a huge, huge industry. When you explore wildlife-dependent recreation, that’s about $2 billion out of the $18.9 billion,” Stiles said.
Stiles pointed out that New Jersey has more species diversity per square mile than any state in the country, reflecting the state’s population diversity. “You can have all kinds of amazing connections there. A lot of our birds that breed here winter in Central and South America, so the birds really bring people together. They link culture, ethnicities and transcend borders,” he said.
The Atlantic Flyway has more diversity than any other flyway in the country, and right in the middle, the Cape May Peninsula is recognized on birding lists as one of the best places in the world. world to see the migration of birds. Just look up: With so many species of flying birds, migration is a year-round spectacle in the Garden State.
“Winter waterfowl migrate to the coast and wetlands and spend the winter here and start migrating in the spring. You have birds like the eastern phoebe, they are flycatchers, they should be here every day in northern New Jersey. You have the woodcocks with their courtship dance already happening. It’s warm enough in Cape May County for them to winter there,” Stiles said.
When American Littoral Society Executive Director Tim Dillingham advocates for the protection of bird species like knots, his starting point is the intrinsic value of nature and the roles these species play in the environment. wider ecosystem. But the economy inevitably comes back, especially in a state with as many people and such an active development sector as New Jersey.
Cape May may be world famous for its birding opportunities, but it’s far from just a land-based activity. There are hawk watches in Montclair, Martinsville and Blairstown to watch the raptors take flight. According to the Skylands Visitors Center website, the Raccoon Ridge Falcon Watch in Blairstown alone sees 15,000 falcons a year in the fall, mostly between September and October.
The Pinelands in early May is teeming with birds, especially in the wetlands as there are so many insects. Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary in Bernardsville and Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Vernon offer a variety of species to view. Stiles’ favorite place, however, is Garrett Mountain near Paterson, where he said, “You see everything that moves: warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, cuckoos, hawks. It’s famous.
“The birds will use what is available. These birds migrate in the middle of the night and see a dark spot in Newark. A dark spot means that it is not developed. These birds will land on the rooftops of the Ironbound, which has a huge Portuguese Brazilian population…so the birds around them are the birds of their home country,” Stiles said.
let them come
For years, Delaware Bay has been home to an overabundance of horseshoe crabs. Thirty years ago, Dillingham said there would be heaps of them on the beach and their eggs, an important food source for red knots, would be in windswept heaps around the beach. More eggs equaled more red knots, which showed up for six weeks between May and June for the most important feast of their migratory journey.
“When people realized this was happening, they started coming. All of these beaches in the bend of the bay had the highest concentration of shorebirds, so it became a place where it was easy to see them,” Dillingham said.
A lack of regulation around fishing has caused problems. The fisherman realized the horseshoe crabs made great bait and Dillingham said they would truck them up.
“They had such an impact that they crushed the population, and with that crash the red knot population went from 100,000 birds each year to just 12,000 in 2006,” he said.
He is still amazed at the work of the American Littoral Society to obtain a moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing. He said he spent years talking to an angry fisherman, but the organization got the red knot on the endangered species list and restoration began. Horseshoe crab and red knot populations are increasing.
The piles of horseshoe crabs and the 100,000 birds rising from the beach like a cloud “is a picture of abundance that is hard to imagine today. It might be a thing to say in Jersey, but the bigger the show, the bigger the draw. So if we make $313 million where we are right now, how much more could there be? Dillingham posed.
“We are conducting research which indicates that fish in the bay, such as acoupa, also eat horseshoe crabs when they are really small. Fishing was once important in Cumberland County, but when the fish died and there was no sport fishing, many people stopped coming to Cumberland County, which is now the largest county. poor in the state,” Dillingham said. “It’s a bit of a foreshadowing of what could be lost if we lose these animals, lose these birds.”
Wildlife preservation begins with habitat preservation and restoration. Super Storm Sandy stripped the beaches of Delaware Bay, dumping the sand into the salt marshes behind it. When the dust settled, it gave New Jersey six months — from the October storm until spring, when horseshoe crabs lay their eggs — to rebuild the beaches. Without sand, horseshoe crabs would have had nowhere to lay their eggs. Without horseshoe crab eggs, knots would have nothing to eat, further endangering a population that has already suffered so much.
In that first year, 2 miles of beach was rebuilt with sand from local quarries, delivered by local Teamsters driving trucks to local bulldozer operators.
“If you don’t have the habitats, you don’t have the birds. In other words, if you don’t have the birds, the 470,000 people don’t come to see the birds in Cape May County, and they don’t spend the $313 million every year on it,” said Dillingham.
Editor’s note: Eric Stiles’ title has been updated to CEO of New Jersey Audubon.