Visiting the Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch

Kelley NunnRecovery Big Year

Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch

Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch

View from the Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch

Last weekend was the international Big Sit! weekend in birding, in which birders compete to see who can tally the most species in 24hrs while stationed in a 17.5ft diameter circle. As unexciting as that sounds, it actually makes for a really fun day! In the first few hours of the count– from dawn until about 10am– the level of excitement is high as the team is constantly adding new species to the list for the day. But after 10am, the species diversity plateaus, and adding new species becomes more and more difficult. Even sightings of a flyover Rock Pigeon can be extraordinarily exciting on a Big Sit! day, if it means adding a new species to the list!

As part of my Recovery Big Year, I’ve been intending to visit some nearby hawk watch locations that I’ve never been to– primarily hawk watching hotspots like Hawk Mountain, Cape Henlopen SP, and Cape May. When it was announced that there would be a Big Sit! at the Cape Henlopen SP hawk watch, I knew I wanted to be there! There have been a few species regularly observed at the Cape Henlopen hawk watch that would be life birds for me– Parasitic Jaeger, Royal Tern, etc.– and a few others that would be excellent year birds, like Northern Gannet and Surf Scoter.

On the day of the Big Sit!, Hannah Greenberg and I headed South down the Delaware coastline towards Cape Henlopen State Park. This was only my second time at the park, and I was excited to be there during the hawk watch! When we arrived at the hawk watch platform, we were greeted by a small group of people who were dedicatedly scanning the skies and water for migrating birds.

View from the Ashland Hawk Watch

View from the Ashland Hawk Watch

My first impression of the hawk watch was how complex the migratory flightlines were! Up at the Ashland Hawk Watch in the piedmont of northern Delaware, the vast majority of birds are picked up as they fly in one of three major flightlines: either directly overhead, high to the southeast, or low and distant to the southwest. At the Cape Henlopen hawk watch, which is located on the Delaware shoreline in Lewes, raptors and seabirds come flying from every direction! Raptors fly over the Delaware bayshore/Atlantic Ocean from Cape May point, and can be spotted flying high overhead, coming directly past at eye level, in the distance heading southwest, or gliding by from the north. In addition to these variable raptor pathways, there are seabirds moving South along the bayshore towards the Atlantic Ocean, and a spattering of local gulls, terns, and others flying up and down the shoreline. We had a few flocks of Surf Scoters fly south, and several Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls along the shore.

Cape Henlopen State Park Map

Cape Henlopen State Park Map

In addition to raptors and seabirds, there were lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers flying into the tops of trees (at eye level) surrounding the platform. We had a Pine Warbler  in flight, as well, and heard a Brown-headed Nuthatch calling from the parking lot. Flock after flock of Tree Swallows was shooting by, and I was able to pick out a single Cliff Swallow in one group. After spending about an hour up on the hawk watch platform and observing several Bald Eagles, a few Ospreys, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and many Turkey Vultures, we decided to follow Chris Bennett’s advice of walking the trail to The Point in search of gulls and terns.

The Point at Cape Henlopen State Park

The Point at Cape Henlopen State Park

So, we left the hawk watch platform and headed over to the trailhead for The Point. Cape Henlopen State Park is so amazingly different in habitat from the northern Delaware I’m used to– there are sand dunes covered in coastal grasses, pines, and in some places cactus plants. It’s a habitat type I’ve never seen elsewhere, and is truly exciting to explore! Along our walk, we picked up a few new species for the day– the highlight being a late Piping Plover (PIPL) in non-breeding plumage. This was the first PIPL I’d ever come across and identified on my own! The first and only time observing this species was up in Plum Island, Massachusetts with my good friend Jackson; we saw a handful of PIPLs on their breeding grounds at a distance through bins. This PIPL, however, was less than 15 or so feet away, foraging in a tidal pool with several Semipalmated Plovers and a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Piping Plover at Cape Henlopen State Park by Hannah Greenberg

Piping Plover at Cape Henlopen State Park by Hannah Greenberg

I was amazed at how unfazed these birds were by the beach walkers who were totally unaware of the flock’s presence. We also saw a flock of 5 or 6 non-breeding plumage Black-bellied Plovers (BBPLs), which is a first for me in that plumage. I was hoping at least one of the birds would turn out to be an American Golden Plover, but alas, they all sported diagnostic BBPL black armpits. While we unfortunately weren’t able to pick up any life birds on the walk (no Royal Terns or Jaegers for me), the walk was very enjoyable. There were constantly birds moving in every direction and every way over the landscape– just like back at the hawk watch– and I felt so excited to be taking it all in.

All in all, I had a wonderful time visiting the Cape Henlopen hawk watch and walking the state park trails. Exploring new habitats, like the dunes at CHSP, will ever get old. I am so thrilled to have the opportunity to discover these new locations, and can’t wait to get out and see more hawk watch sites as part of my recovery big year! Life is good, and I’m so happy to have mine back.