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Wildwood is for the Birds

October 26, 2019

What’s the most dramatic, heart-pulsing, gasp-worthy activity in Wildwood? 

Is it riding one of the extreme attractions on Adventure Pier? Drag racing vintage motorcycles on the sand? Watching the awe-inspiring display that is a Curley’s Fry-eating contest?

Psshhh. 

All of these things are child’s play. Or, at least, that’s what the adrenaline junkies who stay in our hotels this time of year will tell you. They’re here for a totally different kind of rush. 

They’re here to bird.

As a hobby, birdwatching has exploded. Sixty million Americans (and counting) now identify as birders. And this South Jersey peninsula? It’s their holy grail. 

“To me, Cape May has the best birding in the world,” says Tom Johnson, an ornithologist who leads birding tours around the globe, from Antarctica to India to Costa Rica and beyond. “And Wildwood -- just four miles north -- is integral to this Cape May experience. The wetlands here are where tons of fish and invertebrates spend a huge chunk of their lifecycle, meaning they’re absolutely full of bird food.”

We’re now in the middle of fall migration, and the Wildwood area is an important migratory stopover. In other words, this is an excellent time to get in on the birding action. But getting started can feel overwhelming. With so many avian species flocking to this place before heading south for the winter, where does a newbie birder even begin?

No need to get your feathers ruffled. With Tom’s help, we’ve compiled a list of bird species you’ll most appreciate or identify with, based on your favorite boardwalk attraction. So grab a pair of binoculars, load up your fanny pack and look up.  

The piers may be closed for the season, but this ride is just taking flight...

The Springshot: If you’re cool with being launched into the stratosphere at more than 75mph, you’re obviously a daredevil turned on by drama in the sky, so the peregrine falcon might just be your avian soul mate. The fastest animal on the planet (yep, even faster than the cheetah), it dive-bombs its prey – including other birds – at speeds of around 200mph. Sometimes, the impact is so great, the peregrine’s target is decapitated midair. You’ll see these guys circling above the piers through the first half of October.

The Giant WheelIf you enjoy the panoramic beach view you get from 156 feet in the air on the Giant Wheel, one of the largest Ferris wheels on the eastern seaboard, you’re likely a person who appreciates great beauty. And the yellow-crowned night heron is certainly a looker. “These birds are ponderous and slow moving,” Tom Says. “And they have these incredible plumes on their backs and necks that flare up into a circular shape, kind of like a Ferris wheel.” Look for them in the park at the intersection of West Wildwood and New Jersey Avenues, where they build their nests. 

Tea Cups: If you’ve got a strong enough stomach for the whirling, twirling Tea Cups, you can handle a dizzying tree swallow formation. This time of year, tens of thousands of these small songbirds will gather in spectacular, shapeshifting flocks to feed on flying insects or on the bayberry bushes and wax myrtles of the dunes. The effect can leave you feeling a little woozy, but totally spellbound. Dave Brown, night manager of our Pan American hotel, has had to get resourceful with fishing line in order to keep these choreographed flocks from landing in the Pan Am pool. “They always reminded me of a group of bomber planes,” he says.

Cliff Dive: Love plummeting feet first from a five-story height into a body of water in three seconds flat? You may be a fan of the Cliff Dive slide at our Ocean Oasis water park. Or you might be an osprey, a raptor who plunges into the ocean from a height of 30-100 feet in order to hunt. The bird grabs ahold of its fish target using four toes, all of which are lined with spikes. Some ospreys suffocate their prey in these talons before chowing down; others eat their fish alive. 

Musik Express: If you find yourself gravitating toward a family thrill ride complete with energetic music, you’ll appreciate the brown thrasher, a particularly musical bird with more than 1,100 songs in its repertoire. Usually found in shrubs and treetops, this brown cutie mimics the calls of other avian species, but it also offers up some “neat, laser-like, Star-Wars-esque sounds of its own,” Tom says.

Dante’s Dungeon: If you are jazzed by all the creepy scenes and scary sound effects you get from a stint in Dante’s Dungeon, you’re likely a fan of the owl, which has become a universal symbol for spookiness. (This might have something to do with those crazy heads that turn 270 degrees…) In the fall, barn owls frequently fly over Wildwood at night. “And they make a loud screeching sound that’s pretty startling,” Tom says. Every couple of years, the Two Mile Beach unit at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in Wildwood Crest also caters to huge eruptions of ghostly white snowy owls that have migrated here from the Arctic. 

Luna’s Lost Labyrinth: If working your way through a confusing maze is the kind of puzzling challenge that lights your fire, here’s another: Locate a clapper rail. These secretive birds, who spend their time sneaking along the confounding tidal creeks in the wetlands between Stone Harbor and Wildwood, remain concealed by vegetation 99 percent of the time. Occasionally, one will pop its head out of its marshy labyrinth long enough to offer a glimpse. 

The Great White: A wooden roller coaster, the Great White is a classic, dependable standby with staying power, no matter how many sexy, sleek, steel roller coasters pop up on the piers. In this way, it’s reminiscent of the laughing gull. Are there sleeker, flashier or more exotic birds out there? Sure. But the piers wouldn’t be the same without this classic old favorite. 

Skycoaster: Since skimming over Wildwood’s beaches, belly down, is your cup of tea, you’ll appreciate the black skimmer. While flying gracefully over the ocean, this guy uses the lower half of its orange beak to steadily skim the surface of the water. As soon as he connects with a fish, he clamps down. Like soaring on the SkyCoaster, this is an activity best done with friends. Black skimmers fly in groups, synchronizing the flapping of their wings.