Fork-tailed Flycatcher! – Cape May Autumn Birding Festival

First year Iceland Gull passing the Cape May Hawkwatch (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

First year Iceland Gull passing the Cape May Hawkwatch (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Cape May has been having an incredible run of rarities this fall, and with Whiskered Tern capping off September and a Vermilion Flycatcher earlier this month, this past weekend’s Cape May Autumn Birding Festival was bound to turn up something crazy! An American White Pelican kicked off the rarity excitement when Bill Boyle spotted one soaring and flying around fairly low over the Cape May Meadows at 10:50am on Friday. The pelican was soon seen moving NW passing near the hawkwatch and Cape May Point, to the delight of possibly hundreds of birders! Then at 4:15pm Friday afternoon, an Iceland Gull flew down the beach at the point, and jumped over the dunes to then fly right up and over the hawkwatch platform! Another really great bird, and early date for the species, seen by many birders.

On Saturday morning Skye Haas spotted an adult Black-legged Kittiwake from the Avalon Seawatch, but the hawkwatch quickly responded at 9:40am with a sighting of a male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher making a quick flyby! George Armistead and Doug Gochfeld birded the little-known Cape Island Creek Preserve later on Saturday morning, and spotted another long-tailed flycatcher – but this one seemed wrong for a Scissor-tailed; the distance and brief view left them unsure. Both George and Doug were able to capture distant photos of the bird, and it was confirmed as a Fork-tailed! Despite many, many birders out searching for the flycatcher for the rest of the day, it wasn’t seen until 4:30pm – Jake Cuomo spotted it perched in a tree in his backyard (which is against the preserve where the bird was initially seen) and although again observed for just a few minutes by a few birders, Jake was able to get a fantastic photo! Again, birders gathered at the preserve within minutes, but the flycatcher proved to be elusive. Needless to say, birder discussion throughout the rest of the day focused on the flycatcher – where is it hanging out; will it stay till Sunday; where will it be on Sunday; the weather looks awesome for migration, so maybe it’s gone already. Drew Weber and I were scheduled to help lead a bird walk Sunday morning at the Meadows, and joked that maybe it would turn up there – as I’m sure many other birders were hoping that it would appear where they planned to go out, or at least stick to one location for more than a few minutes so that chasing it would be more successful than Saturday’s attempts.

Sunday morning came earlier than I would have liked, but Drew and I made our way over for the morning bird walk. At 7:30am, just as it was getting light enough to see well through binoculars, our group of about twenty birders slowly wandered our way around through the Meadows. There were honestly thousands of Yellow-rumped Warblers, sparrows, American Robins, and many other species filling the sky and the bushes! But then at 7:50am, the unbelievable happened – a number of us glanced up to realize that the Fork-tailed Flycatcher was directly over our heads! The bird bounded away from us, dropping down and then launching back up into the air as it went off to the west. It was probably only in view for 5 to 10 seconds, but as far as I know, everyone on our walk saw the bird! Thirty minutes later, the Fork-tail was reported again flying past another field trip that was birding the Coral Ave area of Cape May Point! Clearly, anything can happen in Cape May!

Fork-tailed Flycatcher during the Sunday morning field trip to the Cape May Meadows! (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Fork-tailed Flycatcher over the Cape May Meadows on Sunday morning! (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

There are 6 previous reports of Fork-tailed Flycatcher from Cape May County (all on Cape Island), and at least another 3 sightings throughout the rest of New Jersey. Most sightings have been between late September and mid-December, as well as March and June. This past weekend’s bird is likely an adult male based on the very long tail streamers, and notched outer three primaries. The primary notching also confirms it as the southernmost subspecies.