Wild Times at the Jersey Shore: Cape May National Wildlife Refuge

Tall forest on the Delaware Bay Unit of Cape May NWR provides important stopover habitat for songbirds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. It also protects the headwaters of several coastal creeks and buffers coastal communities from direct storm impacts. Photo by Stacy Small-Lorenz

Maybe forest isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Jersey Shore. But this was just one of the sights I encountered on the Delaware Bay Unit of Cape May National Wildlife Refuge on an October weekend ramble this year.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of wandering around a National Wildlife Refuge and basking in the tranquility and solitude it offers, you owe yourself this experience, especially since this week is National Wildlife Refuge Week.

Exploring a refuge is an opportunity to imagine the wildness that came before humans cleared and paved and bulk-headed the world, and have chance, once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters along the way.

Refuges often occur as clusters of “units” across a landscape. Trails aren’t always connected, so it helps to consult a map before your visit. Navigating to a single GPS point won’t necessarily get you to the whole range of habitats you could otherwise encounter on a refuge visit.

On the Atlantic Ocean side of Cape May NWR, the Two Mile Beach Unit offers glimpses of what coastal New Jersey must have looked like before developers filled wetlands and cleared maritime scrub-shrub and forest.

Wander through maritime forest on the ocean side of Cape May NWR, at the Two Mile Beach Unit. This now rare habitat type grows within reach of salt spray and is often stunted and sculpted by winds. The shrubs can be loaded with berries in autumn. Photo by Stacy Small-Lorenz

Shrubs and flowers that support migrating monarch butterflies are also in full bloom in the fall, like this flowering groundsel bush, a cousin of the western coyote bush. Photo by Stacy Small-Lorenz

Berrying shrubs, like northern bayberry and American holly, provide abundant food for birds like cedar waxwings in the maritime forest and scrub-shrub. These coastal habitat types are now rare along the Jersey shore, but are still critically important for migratory birds and as coastal buffers against wind & wave erosion and storm surge. Remnants of these valuable habitat types have been preserved at the Cape May NWR.

Differing from parks in more than one way, wildlife comes first on refuges, so check the timing and seasonality of your visit, as certain areas may be closed to protect wildlife during sensitive times of the year, like nesting, and some of the migratory species may or may not be present at any given time.

Cape May NWR’s beaches are closed to human entry during nesting season to allow birds to nest safely without being disturbed by human activity. Photo by Stacy Small-Lorenz

However, most refuges offer great opportunities for year-round walking, wildlife viewing, photography, nature study, and just experiencing peace and tranquility away from the hectic pace of developed areas, so you’re bound to find some part of a Refuge to enjoy at just about any time of year. Many have interpretive signage and self-guided trails, a great way to learn more about wildlife and habitats first-hand.

The wide beach and dunes of Cape May NWR provide a safe haven for beach-nesting birds like piping plover, least tern, American oystercatcher, and black skimmer and places for migrating shorebirds to rest and feed without disturbance.

Piping plover are one of the many shorebirds found in Cape May NWR. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant David Wornham

Threats to beach-nesting birds include beach raking, motorized vehicles, feral cats and dogs running off of leashes, and overabundant gull populations that prey upon nests and chicks. Eggs and chicks are vulnerable to being crushed, and when adult birds are scared off of nests, eggs and chicks are vulnerable to sun exposure and nest predators.

The refuge gives them a place to raise their young away from the millions of beachgoers that hit the Jersey Shore every summer. The refuge’s beaches re-open to lightly treading humans after October 1.

Tidal wetlands are another critically important, yet vulnerable, coastal habitat type that one can experience at Cape May NWR. Photo by Stacy Small-Lorenz

Visitors can also wander into the back-bay wetlands at Cape May NWR Two Mile Beach Unit to watch and listen for secretive wetland species like Virginia rails and wading birds, from the Marsh Trail boardwalk. The wetlands of Cape May NWR are in the part of the Delaware Bay watershed that has been designated a Wetland of International Importance.

Check a refuge’s website before you go, where you can learn more about wildlife species you might encounter and find refuge maps as well as calendars of organized activities and educational events for all ages, seasonal variations in weather and trail closures, tide tables, safety hazards, opportunities to volunteer or join a Friends of the Refuge group.

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