CAPE MAY — The quartet of huge birds glided over a furrowed field just south of the Cape May Canal. They circled the field on New England Road several times before landing in a far corner, startling a squawking mass of geese into flight.
Larger than great blue herons, with a wing span only a little short of that of a bald eagle, the sandhill cranes are an unusual sight on the East Coast, one that has caught the interest of area birders.
There is a chance they may stick around for the winter, according to Brett Ewald, the director for the Cape May Bird Observatory, part of New Jersey Audubon. In an interview from the Northwood Center on East Lake Drive, near the banks of Lake Lily in Cape May Point, Ewald said the large cranes are not historically common in the Northeast.
“Normally, it’s more of a Western or Midwestern species,” he said. The birds can stand close to 5 feet tall and are a common sight on Florida golf courses, while in the winter, it is possible to see tens of thousands at a time in Nebraska.
He believes the four seen together on a recent fall afternoon may be the only ones in the area this year.
“I wonder if it’s the same ones that spent time here last year,” he said. He said they’ve been seen in the area around Cape Island Creek in recent weeks, suggesting the birds may be expanding their territory, with a few sightings reported in recent years.
“We’re starting to see an increase around the Cape. It’s always a bird that people look for,” he said.
Throughout the year, birders flock to Cape May, with the fall migration season an annual highlight. Hundreds often gather at a hawk watch platform in Cape May Point State Park to spot eagles, red-tailed hawks, falcons and many more birds of prey pass overhead on their journey south.
“It’s been a good fall for hawks and eagles. Not record-setting by any stretch of the imagination, but very solid,” Ewald said. “It’s been a very good fall for winter finches and birds of the boreal forest.”
Those smaller birds are not present each year, but when conditions are right and there is a shortage of food for them elsewhere, they will spend time in the Cape May area every few years. This year has also seen a large number of pine siskins, he said, a small bird about the same size as a goldfinch that draws interest from dedicated birdwatchers but may go unnoticed by passersby as the birds flit between branches on the edge of meadows.
“This year, there have just been thousands and thousands of them. One morning, we had about 10,000,” Ewald said.
There have been other usual Western birds in the area this year, he said, including the western kingbird and an ash-throated flycatcher. He said a rare masked booby, a seabird more likely to be found in the tropics, also visited the area for a day.
Unusual birds draw a great deal of interest, Ewald said, with some people driving for hours for a chance to see a particular bird.
“People come from all over, that’s for sure,” he said. Many follow the Cape May Bird Observatory’s blog, which details species in the area, or sign up for rare bird alerts. “There are a lot of people that chase rarities.”
Many birders keep a life list, in which they track every bird species they’ve ever seen. Others may be on a “big year,” an effort to see as many birds as possible in 365 days, a practice portrayed in a 2011 movie “The Big Year” with Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin.
The chance to see a bird that is usually in Nebraska, or even Asia, can be a big draw, he said. Someone with unlimited time and money could travel the world seeking bird sightings, but most have to fit their searches around jobs, family and other responsibilities.
Still others want to keep things local. Many keep lists of species seen in-state, south of the Cape May Canal or in their backyards, he said.
“My wife and I have a lighthouse list of birds we’ve seen from the top of lighthouses around the country,” he said. “There’s that competitive side of birding. A little bit is about bragging rights.”
There are a few reasons a bird may end up outside its usual range, Ewald said. A strong weather pattern could have pushed it off course or a food shortage could have convinced it to travel farther than usual. Many rare birds are pushed north or east by storms.
Whatever the reason, they are unlikely to go unnoticed in Cape May, where there is a concentration of residents and visitors who are likely to make the correct identification.
“There are a lot of birders around here,” he said.
Last year, some sandhill cranes stayed through the winter, roosting in a remote spot north of the canal. The four recently seen in the area have been around for weeks, but Ewald said they could be blown out of the area by a big storm or just decide to move on.
“That’s the great thing about birding: You never know what’s going to happen,” he said.