Cape May Peninsula

List of Species of Special Emphasis



I. SITE NAME: Cape May Peninsula


II. SITE LOCATION: The Cape May Peninsula is the southern tip of New Jersey between the New York Bight and Delaware Bay about 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of New York City.

TOWNS: Avalon, Cape May, Dennis, Lower, Middle, North Wildwood, Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Stone Harbor, Upper, West Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest


USGS 7.5 MIN QUADS: Wildwood, NJ (38074-87), Cape May, NJ (38074-88), Avalon, NJ (39074-16), Stone Harbor, NJ (39074-17), Rio Grande, NJ (39074-18), Sea Isle City, NJ (39074-26), Woodbine, NJ (39074-27), Heislerville, NJ (39074-28), Marmora, NJ (39074-36)

STATE: New Jersey

USGS 30 x 60 MIN QUADS: Cape May, NJ (38074-E1), Atlantic City, NJ (39074-A1)


III. BOUNDARY DESCRIPTION AND JUSTIFICATION: The Cape May Peninsula habitat complex includes the entire Cape May Peninsula; the boundary follows the Atlantic coast from Ocean City south to the tip of Cape May and north up the Delaware Bay shoreline to West Creek. The inland (northern) boundary extends inland along West Creek, then follows the boundary of the New Jersey Pinelands east along Route 47 to Dennisville, then northeast along the inland extent of Great Cedar Swamp to Petersburg, east to Peck Bay, and across to the Atlantic coast. All uplands, wetlands, and open water within this boundary are included in the habitat complex, except for developed barrier island and inland sites. This boundary encloses significant habitat for migratory landbirds, raptors, migratory shorebirds, colonial nesting waterbirds, and regionally rare wetland and upland communities and plants. Also included are the nearshore waters of the New York Bight and Delaware Bay known to be important for marine mammals. This complex is contiguous with the southern boundary of the New Jersey Pinelands habitat complex, and the southeast boundary of the Great Egg Harbor Estuary habitat complex. Similar habitat and resource values also occur along the Delaware Bay shoreline to the northwest but are beyond the scope of this report.


IV. OWNERSHIP/PROTECTION/RECOGNITION: There are several Wildlife Management Areas in Cape May managed by the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, including Cape May Wetlands Wildlife Management Area in the salt marshes in the Atlantic backbarrier lagoons, Higbee Beach, Dennis Creek, and Hieslerville Wildlife Management Areas along Delaware Bay, and Beaver Swamp Wildlife Management Area on the inland part of the peninsula. State parks managed by the New Jersey Division of Lands and Forests include Cape May Point State Park which contains Cape May Point and Cape May Wetlands Natural Areas, Corsons Inlet State Park which contains Strathmere Natural Area, and Great Sound State Park. Belleplain State Forest, also managed by the New Jersey Division of Lands and Forests, adjoins Cape May to the north. The New Jersey Natural Lands Trust owns several parcels in Cape May, including the Frye Preserve. The Cape May County Parks Commission manages the Cape May County Refuge, about 525 hectares (1,300 acres) along Fishing Creek. Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, includes two separate sites, one along the Delaware Bay shore and the other encompassing most of Great Cedar Swamp in northern Cape May County. The proposed refuge boundary is over 6,475 hectares (16,000 acres); the present refuge area is presently over 2,833 hectares (7,000 acres). Other protected open space includes The Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge and Eldora Nature Preserve, and the Bennett Bogs Preserve owned jointly by The Nature Conservancy and the New Jersey Audubon Society. The Nature Conservancy has also designated Delaware Bayshores, including all of Cape May, as a "Last Great Place," making it a priority for protection. Delaware Bay has been designated by an international conservation organization (Wetlands for the Americas) as a site of hemispheric importance in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (qualifying sites host more than 500,000 shorebirds or 30% of a flyway population annually). Delaware Bay has also been designated as a Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and participating states have declared Delaware Bay an estuary of national significance and are preparing a comprehensive conservation and management plan for the bay.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated several wetlands on the Cape May Peninsula as priority wetland sites under the federal Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986, including Cape Island/Pond Creek, Great Cedar Swamp (Cape May National Wildlife Refuge), Great Egg/Jarvis, and Sewall Point. The Cape May marshes (Delaware Bay) and Great Egg/Jarvis wetlands (Atlantic coast) are focus areas under the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Acquisition and protection of 7,690 hectares (19,000 acres) in the Cape May marshes and 5,422 hectares (13,400 acres) in the Great Egg-Jarvis wetlands is recommended. Moore's Beach, Kimbles Beach, and Del Haven have been designated and mapped as undeveloped beach units as part of the Coastal Barrier Resources System pursuant to the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act, prohibiting federal financial assistance or flood insurance within the unit. Del Haven, Higbee Beach, Cape May, Stone Harbor, and Corson Inlet have been designated and mapped as otherwise protected beach units pursuant to the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act. Wetlands are regulated in New Jersey under several state laws, including the Wetlands Act of 1970, the Freshwater Wetland Protection Act, and the New Jersey State Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA); these statutes are in addition to federal regulation under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1977, and various Executive Orders.

The state of New Jersey Natural Heritage Program recognizes numerous Priority Sites for Biodiversity within the Cape May complex. Many of these are part of the Cape May Corridor Macrosite and are listed here with their biodiversity ranks: Bennett Bogs (B2 - very high biodiversity significance), Corson Inlet North (B2), Corson Inlet South (B2), Indian Trail Swamp (B2), Lizard Tail Swamp (B2), Rio Grande Swamp (B2), Two Mile Beach (B2), Whale Beach (B2), Avalon Dunes (B3 - high biodiversity significance), Baseball Swamp (B3), Bucks Avenue (B3), Cape May Corridor Macrosite (B3), Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (B3), Cold Spring Gravel Pit (B3), Cold Spring Salt Marsh (B3), Dennis Creek Marsh Macrosite (B3), Great Cedar Swamp (B3), Green Creek (B3), Jakes Landing Cedar Swamp (B3), Clermont Bog (B4), Avalon Stone Harbor Marsh Macrosite (B4 - moderate biodiversity significance), Cold Spring Woods (B4), Court House Pit (B4), Gravens Inlet (B4), Lily Lake (B4), Magnolia Lake (B4), Middle Thorofare (B4), Ottens Harbor (B4), Pierces Pit (B4), Shaw Island Rookeries (B4), Stone Harbor Point (B4), Strathmere Bay Island (B4), Townsends Inlet (B4), WWOC Radio Station (B4), Cape May Courthouse Maintenance Yard (B5 - general biodiversity significance), Mayville (B5), and Swains Station (B5).


V. GENERAL AREA DESCRIPTION: Cape May contains a mosaic of marine, estuarine, wetland, and upland habitats; these include the barrier beaches and backbarrier lagoon system on the Atlantic side, the beaches and marshes on the Delaware Bay shore, inland wetlands including coastal plain intermittent ponds, hardwood and Atlantic white cedar swamps, upland forests, and agricultural areas.

The Atlantic coast barrier beach/backbarrier lagoon system extends for 154 kilometers (95 miles) along the New Jersey coastline from Point Pleasant south to Cape May. The Cape May Atlantic coast complex as defined here includes the southernmost 43 kilometers (27 miles) of this system from Peck Bay south to Cape May. This part of the New Jersey backbarrier system is characterized by its extensive network of salt marsh islands and small, protected, shallow bays, connected by a network of channels and tidal creeks. The bays from north to south are: Corson Sound, Ludlam Bay, Townsend Sound, Stites Sound, Great Sound, Jenkins Sound, Grassy Sound, Richardson Sound, Sunset Lake, Jarvis Sound, and Cape May Harbor. There is a higher percentage of salt marsh in this complex than in the bays to the north. The Cape May lagoons have a small drainage area, with most of the surface water in Cape May draining to the north into Great Egg Harbor estuary or to the west into Delaware Bay, and only a few small tributaries emptying directly into the Cape May lagoons. Barrier islands on the Atlantic coast from Great Egg Inlet south to Cape May are generally developed residentially; only the beach fronts and small areas near the inlets remain undeveloped. Four inlets, Corsons Inlet, Townsend's Inlet, Hereford Inlet, and Cape May Inlet, maintain the connection between the backbarrier lagoon waters and marshes and the New York Bight. The extensive salt marsh islands along the mainland shoreline and the salt marsh islands in the bay are predominantly high marsh, with salt-meadow cordgrass (Spartina patens) the dominant species. Along the mainland shoreline in areas influenced by freshwater brackish marshes dominated by common reed (Phragmites australis), narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia), and bulrushes (Scirpus spp.) occur. These marshes have been ditched for mosquito control, and common reed generally occurs along these ditches. Low marsh, dominated by smooth cordgrass (Spartina alternifora), occurs in intertidal areas, especially along the extensive tidal creeks and channels. Small areas of natural beach and dune communities exist along the barrier islands, especially around the inlets where sand is accreting. These beach communities include a coastal dunegrass community dominated by American beachgrass (Ammophila brevilugata) and other species, including seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), sea rocket (Cakile edentula), seaside spurge (Euphorbia polygonifolia), beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus), and beach pinweed (Lechea maritima), and small areas of coastal dune shrubland with red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), beach plum (Prunus maritima), and bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica).

The Delaware Bay shore is more protected than is the Atlantic coastline and, rather than a barrier beach/backbarrier lagoon system, has a network of tidal marshes and creeks, fronted along Cape May by a sandy beach shoreline. Creeks, from north to south, include: West Creek, East Creek, Dennis Creek, Bidwell Creek, Dias Creek, Green Creek, Fishing Creek, and Pond Creek. The marshes have a composition similar to that of the Atlantic coast marshes. Several of the high marsh areas on Delaware Bay in northern Cape May have active salt marsh hay farms. Coastal dune shrublands and woodlands occur at Higbee Beach.

There are several types of swamps and forests inland of the coastal areas on Cape May. Along streams and low areas in the northern part of Cape May are a few Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) swamps grading into hardwood swamps. Typical hardwood swamps here are dominated by sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and red maple (Acer rubrum); the Cape May lowlands swamp community generally found at the headwaters of streams in Cape May is a hardwood swamp type with an unusually high species diversity, in some instances with as many as 20 to 25 tree species and 40 shrub species. Typical tree species include red maple, sweet gum, pumpkin ash (Fraxinus profunda), and black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), with sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana) and American holly (Ilex opaca) trees and sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) shrubs in the understory. Southern species found in these swamps include basket oak, water oak, and willow oak (Quercus michauxii, Q. nigra, and Q. phellos), marsh St. John's-wort (Triadenum walteri), and swamp cottonwood (Populus hetrophylla). These swamps grade into mesic (moderately moist), southern coastal plain, mixed-oak forest, with southern red oak (Quercus falcata), willow oak, sweet gum, red maple, American beech (Fagus grandifolia), American holly, and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). Oak-pine and pine-oak forests occur on the drier uplands with black, chestnut, scarlet, post, and white oaks (Quercus velutina, Q. prinus, Q. coccinea, Q. stellata, and Q. alba), pitch pine, and shortleaf pine (Pinus rigida and P. echinata).

Coastal plain intermittent ponds and permanent coastal plain ponds with seasonally fluctuating water levels occur in headwater areas in the center of Cape May. The seasonally saturated soils found in these communities are typically dominated by sedges (Carex walteriana, Eleocharis microcarpa, Scleria reticularis, and Cladium mariscoides) and grasses (Panicum verrucosum, P. mattamuskeettense, P. capillare, and Muhlenbergia torreyana), and contain several rare species, described below. There are also numerous areas in the peninsula where gravel pits have been excavated down to the water table, resulting in seasonally saturated soils similar to those of intermittent ponds and supporting some of the same plant and animal species, though generally at much lower diversities.

A National Wetland Inventory study of wetlands in Cape May County and vicinity using aerial photographs from 1991 found that the study area had 45,641 hectares (112,778 acres) of wetlands or 42.4% of the area's land surface. Estuarine emergent wetlands, i.e., salt marsh and brackish marsh, predominated and accounted for 61% of the total. Palustrine wetlands, predominantly forested wetlands, accounted for 38% of the total.


VI. ECOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE/UNIQUENESS OF SITE: Cape May is significant for migratory shorebirds, songbirds, and raptors, as well as colonial nesting waterbirds, waterfowl, and rare plants and communities. The region's diverse habitat types, from marine to terrestrial, provide food, cover, and other habitat requirements year-round. The diversity of foraging habitats along Delaware Bay and Cape May provide a hemispherically significant shorebird stopover habitat during the northbound spring migration. The geographic location and orientation of the Cape May Peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay concentrate large numbers of migratory landbird and insect species, especially during the southbound autumn migration. The Cape May Peninsula supports one of the largest concentrations of migratory birds in North America. Cape May's location at the southern tip of New Jersey and the New York Bight watershed results in the only state and regional occurrences of several southern species that reach the northern end of their range in southern New Jersey.

There are 288 species of special emphasis in Cape May, incorporating 52 species of plants and 151 species of birds, and including the following federally and state-listed species. (Living resources and their habitats are dynamic; therefore, the ecological significance and species information presented here may not be complete or up-to-date. State and federal environmental agencies [see Appendix III for office contacts] should be consulted for additional information.)

Federally listed endangered
peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)
bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
finback whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Federally listed threatened
loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
swamp pink (Helonias bullata)

Federal species of concern(1)
rare skipper (Problema bulenta)
precious underwing (Catocola p. pretiosa)
northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin)
northern pine snake (Pituophis m. melanoleucus)
black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis)
cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulea)
creeping St. Johns-wort (Hypericum adpressum)
glade spurge (Euphorbia purpurea)
awned meadow beauty (Rhexia aristosa)

1Species of special concern listed here include former Category 2 candidates.

State-listed endangered
pine barrens treefrog (Hyla andersonii)
Cope's gray treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis)
eastern tiger salamander (Ambystoma t. tigrinum)
pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)
Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus)
northern harrier (Circus cyaneus)
black skimmer (Rynchops niger)
least tern (Sterna antillarum)
short-eared owl (Asio flammeus)
sedge wren (Cistothorus platensis)
vesper sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus)
coast flatsedge (Cyperus polystachyos var. texensis)
Britton's spikerush (Eleocharis brittonii)
black-fruited spikerush (Eleocharis melanocarpa)
twisted spikerush (Eleocharis tortilis)
thread-leaved beaked-rush (Rhynchospora filifolia)
grass-like beaked-rush (Rhynchospora globularis)
rare-flowering beaked-rush (Rhynchospora rariflora)
leathery rush (Juncus coriaceus)
snowy orchid (Platanthera nivea)
lace-lip ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes laciniata)
wrinkled jointgrass (Coelorachis rugosa)
bristling witchgrass (Dichanthelium aciculare)
short-leaved skeleton grass (Gymnopogon brevifolius)
American cupscale (Sacciolepis striata)
boltonia (Boltonia asteroides var. glastifolia)
stinking fleabane (Pluchea foetida)
butterfly pea (Clitoria mariana)
downy milk-pea (Galactia volubilis)
water oak (Quercus nigra)
reversed bladderwort (Utricularia resupinata)
sandplain flax (Linum intercursum)
seaside evening-primrose (Oenothera humifusa)
stout smartweed (Polygonum densiflorum)
featherfoil (Hottonia inflata)
larger buttonweed (Diodia virginiana)
coast bedstraw (Galium hispidulum)

State-listed threatened
great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
little blue heron (Egretta caerulea)
yellow-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax violaceus)
osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
barred owl (Strix varia)
red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
cliff swallow (Hirundo pyrrhonota)
grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)
savanna sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)
bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)

The Cape May Atlantic coast complex encompasses a variety of tidal habitats, from tidal fresh water to full salinity ocean waters. In the marine and estuarine zones, blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria), and surf clams (Spisula solidissima) are found. All life stages of blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) occupy the estuaries. The bays, sounds, and nearcoastal waters of the Cape May area are important nursery and juvenile habitat for Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) and several other important commercial and recreational fish species, such as weakfish (Cynoscion regalis), Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus), butterfish (Peprilus triacanthus), scup (Stenotomus chrysops), black sea bass (Centropristis striata), and summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus); the nearshore zone supports northern shortfin (Illex illecebrosus) and longfin (Loligo pealeii) squids. These fisheries are dependent on high-quality estuaries and nearcoastal areas for growth and survival during the summer period.

Corsons Inlet ichthyoplankton studies were conducted by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in 1968 through 1970. Thirty-four fish species were inventoried occurring as larval and pre-juvenile stages, indicating the importance of the estuarine nursery and spawning areas of this habitat. The most numerous species included bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli), American eel (Anguilla rostrata), Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia), Atlantic menhaden, winter flounder (Pleuronectes americanus), American sandlance (Ammodytes americanus), sculpin (Myoxcephalus aenaeus), cunner (Tautogolabrus adspersus), and northern pipefish (Syngnathus fuscus). Fish eggs captured indicated important spawning habitat for searobin (Prionotus carolinus), tautog (Tautoga onitis), Atlantic menhaden, cunner, and Atlantic silversides. Salinities ranged from 16.0 to 34.6 parts per thousand and temperature from -1.7 to 22.2C (29 to 72F) for the two years studied. The tidal range for this area is 1.1 meters (3.8 feet). The inlet drains Corson Sound and Ludlam Bay, and is connected to Great Egg Harbor via Crook Horn Creek.

Concentrations in nearshore waters of schooling pelagic fish such as mackerel and butterfish, as well as the squids, are utilized by marine mammals, piscivorous birds, and an array of predatory fishes including various species of coastal sharks and tunas. Marine mammals and sea turtles feed on these fish resources while crossing the area during their annual migrations, and dolphin species, including common (Delphinus delphis), bottlenosed (Tursiops truncatus), white-sided (Lagenorhynchus albirostris), and striped (Stenella coeruleoalba), are often encountered in and around the nearshore zone of the Cape May area. Bottlenosed dolphin have been observed in the waters surrounding the Cape May Peninsula, using the area to provide for all of their life history needs. Some finback and humpback whales, mostly 4-year-old and 5-year-old juveniles, are observed in shoal areas during the spring, feeding on the abundant baitfish. The area of concentrated coastal activity extends from the Cape May Canal in Delaware Bay, south about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) south of Cape May, and then north up to the Hereford Inlet on the Atlantic side, encompassing Cold Spring Inlet and many shoal areas including Prissy Wicks Shoal, North Shoal, Somer Shoal, Middle Shoal, and McCrie Shoal. There is some use of the area by harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), as evidenced by reported entanglement in gillnets during the spring fishery. Five species of sea turtles have been observed in the coastal waters, with loggerhead being the most common. Although most turtles observed are on their north-south migrations, loggerheads historically nested in the area. Diamondback terrapin feed throughout the Atlantic coast marshes and nest on the backside of the barrier beaches and other appropriate sandy shoreline habitat, including several of the causeways that cross the bays.

The nearshore waters of the New York Bight are also important for migrating seabirds, as evidenced by the numbers counted at the annual fall seabird watch at Avalon, which takes advantage of Avalon's easterly position on the coast. In 1995, this seabird watch counted nearly 900,000 birds migrating past from July through November, with over 100,000 birds on a peak day in late October. Seabirds observed and counted include over 440,000 scoters (Melanitta spp.), over 214,000 double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), over 47,000 red-throated loons (Gavia stellata), and over 46,000 northern gannet (Sula bassanus).

The shorelines of Delaware Bay, including the Cape May shoreline, are a critical spring migratory stopover for many species and numbers of shorebirds, with peak single-day counts of 200,000 to 400,000 birds and estimated totals of 800,000 to 1.5 million shorebirds passing through Delaware Bay each spring. Delaware Bay is the largest spring shorebird staging area on the east coast of the United States, and one of the top ten sites in the Western Hemisphere. Six species make up 95% of the birds staging in Delaware Bay in the spring: semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla), red knot (C. canutus), ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres), and sanderling (Calidris alba), with lesser numbers of dunlin (C. alpina) and short-billed dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus). Fourteen other shorebird species regularly use the Delaware Bay shoreline during their spring and fall migrations. Shorebirds may stay two to three weeks before migrating north to their Arctic breeding grounds. The peak stopover period is synchronized with the availability of horseshoe crab eggs along the Delaware Bay shoreline; the bay is reported to contain the largest number of horseshoe crab eggs in the eastern United States. Shorebirds are dependent on the variety of estuarine habitats on both the Delaware Bay and Atlantic coast sides of the Cape May Peninsula. Location and activity on Delaware Bay and Cape May appears to be related to species, time of day, and tide. Red knot and ruddy turnstone feed on horseshoe crab eggs on the Delaware Bay beaches at low tide, and move into the marshes to feed at higher tides. Sanderling follow similar movement patterns, but feed on a greater variety of invertebrate prey species. Sanderling appear to be more concentrated in the Cape May area than in other areas of Delaware Bay. Semipalmated sandpipers feed in a variety of beach and marsh habitats, while dunlins and short-billed dowitchers feed primarily in salt marshes and mudflats; these three species are most common north of Dennis Creek. On Cape May, at high tide, the birds feed and roost on ponds in the salt marshes on the Delaware Bay side of the Cape or fly over the Cape and feed on the Atlantic coast beaches and marshes. Shorebirds favor ponds on the Atlantic coast marshes and Delaware Bay marshes for roosting at night. Roosting shorebirds are less vulnerable on the Atlantic coast marsh islands because there are fewer predators.

The marshes along the Delaware Bay shoreline of Cape May also support nesting by black rail, Virginia rail (Rallus limicola), clapper rail (R. longirostris), common moorhen (Gallinuia chloropus), northern harrier, sharp-tailed sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus), seaside sparrow (A. maritimus), and marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris). Bald eagles, probably individuals from nearby nests in Belleplain State Forest, winter in the Delaware Bay marshes and forage in this area year-round. Other raptors wintering in these marshes include northern harrier, rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus), red-tailed hawk (B. jamaicensis), American kestrel (Falco sparverius), and short-eared owl.

The marsh islands on the Atlantic coast side of Cape May support a major part of New Jersey's, and the New York Bight's, colonial nesting waterbird population, with over 2,300 waders nesting in 1995, over 2,400 terns and skimmers, and over 28,000 gulls. Eight species of long-legged waders nest here, including snowy egret (Egretta thula), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), great egret (Casmerodius albus), black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor), little blue heron, and yellow-crowned night-heron. These heronries occur on many of the islands that have suitable upland vegetation for nesting, about nine sites in 1995. The location of these heronries shifts from year to year. Sizable heronries occurred on Stone Harbor Point and Townsend's Inlet along with several smaller sites in both 1989 and 1995. Nesting common tern (Sterna hirundo) and Forster's tern (S. forsteri) are both abundant in the bays, with some least tern and black skimmer nesting in appropriate sandy habitat, especially near the inlets. The nesting gulls are predominantly laughing gull (Larus atricilla), with some herring gull (L. argentatus) and a few great black-backed gull (L. marinus). The salt marsh islands of Cape May's Atlantic coast are also one of the most important osprey nesting areas in the state, with 85 active nests in 1993 (42% of the state total). Locally important areas for osprey include Avalon-Stone Harbor Marsh and Wildwood. The Avalon-Stone Harbor marshes are some of the few areas in the state where significant numbers of osprey nest in natural vegetation, mostly cedar trees.

Undeveloped portions of barrier beaches and mainland beaches are critical for feeding by shorebirds and nesting by beach-nesting birds, including least tern, piping plover, and black skimmer. During the period from 1985 to 1995, 46 pairs of piping plovers on average have nested on the beaches in the Cape May habitat complex, utilizing a total of 17 sites over the ten-year period. Forty pairs of plovers utilized 10 sites in 1995. Sites consistently used by plovers include, from north to south: Corsons Inlet North, Strathmere Natural Area, Whale Beach, Sea Isle, Avalon North and Avalon Dunes, North Wildwood, Coast Guard South, and Cape May Meadows (Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge). The fledging success of piping plovers in this area is low, with only 0.7 chicks fledged per nesting pair in 1995. In 1995 there were about 760 least terns nesting at five sites. The most important sites for least tern in recent years have been Corsons Inlet State Park, Strathmere Natural Area, Cape May Meadows, and Avalon Inlet North. Champagne Island, a sand island offshore of Hereford Inlet, has supported a large colony of black skimmer, as well as nesting common tern and piping plover. The island is also important as a migratory shorebird feeding and roosting area.

Total mid-winter aerial waterfowl counts along both shorelines of the cape average nearly 70,000 birds, including significant concentrations, in descending order of average winter abundance, of brant (Branta bernicla), American black duck (Anas rubripes), snow goose (Chen caerulescens), greater and lesser scaup (Aythya marila and A. affinis), mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), all species of scoters, red-breasted and hooded mergansers (Mergus serrator and Lophodytes cucullatus), Canada goose (Branta canadensis), American green-winged teal (Anas crecca), and oldsquaw (Clangula hyemalis). The concentrations of brant, averaging nearly 25,000 birds, and black duck, averaging over 20,000 birds, represent a substantial proportion of the Atlantic Flyway population for these birds. Waterfowl are not evenly distributed over the bays, but are often rafted in large and well-developed concentration areas. Brant are distributed among the shallow bays on the Atlantic coast where they feed mostly on sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) and other submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). Scaup flock in significant numbers on the Delaware Bay side, as do snow geese, especially later in the winter when the Atlantic coastal marshes begin to freeze first. In the late winter/early spring, several thousand red-throated loons have been observed around Cape May Point on Delaware Bay. Scoters are found at all of the inlets. Breeding waterfowl on Cape May include mallard, American black duck, Canada goose, wood duck (Aix sponsa), and gadwall (Anas strepera).

Over 300 species of migrating birds utilize the Cape May Peninsula, especially during the fall. An average of about 70,000 raptors is counted each fall at the hawk watch at Cape May Point. It is estimated that 80 to 90% of these raptors are juveniles; adults tend to migrate along inland ridges such as the Kittatinny Ridge, where 70% of migrating raptors are adults. The most abundant raptors, in declining order of abundance, include sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus), American kestrel, Cooper's hawk, northern harrier, osprey, red-tailed hawk, merlin (Falco columbarius), broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus), turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), red-shouldered hawk, and peregrine falcon, with lesser numbers of northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), black vulture (Coragyps atratus), bald eagle, golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), rough-legged hawk, and Swainson's hawk (Buteo swainsoni). Raptors tend to concentrate in the lower 10 kilometers of Cape May. Their abundance at Cape May appears to be related to geography, landforms, weather, and habitat; raptors are especially concentrated by cold fronts followed by northeast winds. At these times, the raptors concentrate at the tip of the peninsula, waiting for favorable weather to cross Delaware Bay. The varied upland, wetland, and open water habitat on the Cape May Peninsula provides roosting sites and abundant bird, mammal, insect, and fish prey species for migrating raptors.

Millions of songbirds, including at least 75 species of long-distance Neotropical migrant birds, migrate south along the Atlantic coast in the fall and are concentrated by weather and geography on Cape May. Recent studies have indicated a significantly higher diversity of bird species and greater abundance of birds along the edge of the coast (0 to 1.5 kilometers [0 to .9 miles] inland from the salt marsh edge) than further inland, and a higher abundance of migrant birds along the Delaware Bay shoreline than on the Atlantic coast. These songbirds migrate at night, make landfall at dawn, and stop during the day to rest and feed. At dawn, birds redistribute to appropriate habitat on the cape. All types of natural habitats, marshes, fields, successional habitat, and woods, are utilized by migrating landbirds, although woodlands directly adjacent to the salt marshes seem to be particularly important for these birds; these coastal woodlands contained the highest number of species utilizing only one habitat type during migration. Coastal dune shrublands and coastal dune woodlands on the barrier beach and the Delaware Bay shoreline, such as at Higbee Beach, contained the highest mean bird abundance of any community type surveyed. The most abundant species in surveys were yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata), American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus), black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia), pine warbler (Dendroica pinus), and gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). Cape May is also important as a migratory stopover habitat for insects during the fall, including many regionally rare species of butterflies and moths, although this use is not as well studied.

The Cape May corridor, along with Dennis Creek Marsh and Great Cedar Swamp, is an inland forested greenbelt which runs the length of the Cape May Peninsula, linking the Pinelands to the coastal areas on Cape May and linking together 18 priority sites for biodiversity recognized by the New Jersey Natural Heritage Program within the remaining contiguous forest. This corridor supports species that depend on relatively unfragmented forest interior habitat for breeding, such as barred owl, red-shouldered hawk, and wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), and provides cover, roosting, and foraging habitat for a variety of migrating birds and insects. The forest areas also protect the watershed of the aquifers of the Cape May Peninsula. Rare communities include coastal plain intermittent or vernal ponds as well as permanent coastal plain ponds with fluctuating shorelines and seasonally saturated soils that limit growth of typical wetland and upland species, keeping sites at early successional stages. These communities contain many rare herbaceous species, especially grasses, sedges, and rushes. Sites on Cape May with high quality examples of coastal plain intermittent ponds include Clermont Bog, Bucks Avenue, and Bennett Bogs. Bennett Bogs is a good example of this globally imperiled community type, with a diversity of rare species such as wrinkled jointgrass, Britton's spikerush, black-fruited spikerush, pine barren gentian (Eupatorium resinosum), pine barren smoke grass (Muhlenbergia torreyana), short-beaked bald rush (Rhynchospora nitens), and lace-lip ladies'-tresses. Gravel pits that have been excavated down to the water table, such as Cold Spring Gravel Pit, Pierces Pit, Cape May Courthouse Maintenance Yard, Court House Pit, Swain's Station, and WWOC Radio Station, create seasonally saturated soils and function similarly to vernal ponds. Most of these intermittent wetlands and surrounding habitat support populations of two state-endangered amphibians, Cope's gray treefrog and tiger salamander, and several rare plants and invertebrates. Cape May lowland swamps contain a high diversity of trees and shrubs, including species with a more southerly range. This community type occurs only on the Cape May Peninsula and is considered by The Nature Conservancy as critically imperiled globally (G1) due to its extreme rarity. These globally rare swamps are generally found at the headwaters of streams fed by groundwater and have varied topography. The best examples of this community type in the Cape May corridor include Indian Trail Swamp, Lizard Tail Swamp, and Rio Grande Swamp. The federally listed threatened swamp pink occurs at about ten sites in the Cape May corridor in various perennially saturated wetlands. Coastal plain Atlantic white cedar swamps at the northern end of the Cape May complex are a regionally rare community type, and support rare species such as barred owl, red-shouldered hawk, and Hessel's hairstreak butterfly (Mitoura hesseli).


VII. THREATS AND SPECIAL PROBLEMS: The complex of aquatic and terrestrial habitats used by migrating and resident species on Cape May is subject to a number of direct and indirect threats. Beaches are heavily used in summer for bathing and other forms of recreation that pose a major threat to beach-nesting birds. Human activities on beaches during spring migration disturb foraging shorebirds that, in a short period of time, must build up their fat reserves for migration and breeding. Extensive harvesting of horseshoe crabs and horseshoe crab eggs will result in a reduced forage base for migrating shorebirds. The low fledging rate of piping plover on Cape May beaches is of concern and is likely caused by a combination of human disturbance, flooding, predation, and other causes. Contaminants such as PCBs persist in the sediments of Delaware Bay and may continue to affect shorebirds and raptors.

Destruction of the variety of habitats used by migrating landbirds, especially the unprotected upland habitat, continues to occur. Altered hydrology through ditching, draining, pumping of groundwater, and other activities will change the habitat and species composition in coastal plain intermittent ponds. Off-road vehicle use of these ponds during the dry season is destructive to the rare plant communities. Pesticide applications to control mosquitos and gypsy moths could result in loss of rare invertebrates, and herbicide applications could destroy rare plants and food plants for rare invertebrates. Predation of diamondback terrapin nests and hatchlings by raccoon, fox, gulls, and other predators is a threat to terrapins in this area. Tire tracks left by off-road vehicles also pose a threat to terrapin hatchlings that become trapped in the tracks. Harvest of timber would change the structure of the rare Cape May lowland swamps and affect downstream water quality. Wetlands continue to be lost in Cape May. A National Wetlands Inventory study of Cape May and vicinity documented the loss of 296 hectares (733 acres) of vegetated wetlands from 1977 to 1991. From 1977 to 1984, the major losses of wetlands were due to dredged material deposition on salt marshes; from 1984 to 1991, the major losses were forested wetlands due to development.

Delaware Bay is a major commercial port and the probability of oil spills is a continuing threat, especially during the spring shorebird migration. Spills can occur during each mode of transportation and during product transfer. Severity of spill impacts is affected by numerous factors, such as type of oil product, behavior of the product on water, volume of the spill, weather conditions, time of year, and habitats impacted. Biological resources at risk include all stages of benthic organisms, the eggs, larvae, and juvenile stages of fish and shellfish, waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds, beach strand plants, colonial waterbirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Nonpoint sources, less easily recognized, contribute up to half of all the oil-related pollution, and result from municipal and urban wastes, urban runoff, atmospheric deposition of incomplete combustion products from autos and trucks, unrecovered spent motor oils, leaks from offshore operations, and burned and unburned fuels and lubrication products from boating. This chronic low-level pollution has devastating and widely differing effects on fish, invertebrates, and algae, with the early life stages being most vulnerable.


VIII. CONSERVATION RECOMMENDATIONS: It is necessary to protect a diversity and suitable amounts of upland habitat, including forests and farmlands, for migratory landbirds. Protecting upland sites will be best achieved through federal, state, and local agencies and organizations working together. Acquisition of upland and wetland habitats for inclusion in the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge is the highest priority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Delaware River/Delmarva Coastal Ecosystem Team and should be accomplished as soon as possible. The Nature Conservancy's Delaware Bayshores Bioreserve, which includes all of Cape May, is a good model for protection. The New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program is spearheading an effort to assess and protect significant natural areas on a landscape scale on Cape May and the Delaware Bay shoreline. This landscape project should be fully supported by federal, state, and local agencies and organizations.

It is not necessarily best, nor possible, for government agencies or conservation organizations always to acquire all the lands needed to protect a rare community type or important habitat. Various approaches and strategies exist for protecting valuable wildlife habitats; each provides different degrees of protection and requires different levels of commitment by regulatory agencies, conservation organizations, and landowners. These techniques include combined public and private financing, land exchanges, conservation easements, cooperative management agreements, mutual covenants, purchase of development rights, comprehensive planning, zoning and land-use regulations, enforcement of existing local, state, and federal regulations, and fee simple acquisition. Techniques can be combined to develop a strategy for land protection that is tailored to a specific site. Partnerships among individual landowners within habitat complexes offer an exciting, practical, and innovative approach to the large, landscape-scale habitats recognized here.

Conservation efforts must maintain the coastal corridor connection between coastal forests and inland forests. It is necessary to continue to study the effects of contaminants on raptors in Delaware Bay and the Atlantic coast marshes, and to clean up sources of contaminants. Focus areas should be identified and equipment readily available to protect Delaware Bay shorelines in the event of an oil spill. Oil industry use of best management practices, training programs, equipment maintenance, and strict adherence to industry standards and government regulations is essential to preventing oil spills. Government support and oversight is needed to evaluate techniques and materials to decrease the frequency and impacts of spills. Identification and mapping of significant habitats should be included in oil spill contingency plans. Planning efforts and practice drills by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Regional Response Teams and the USCG - Captain of the Port Oil Spill Area Contingency Plans Area Committees must be conducted annually for readiness to contain and remediate spills.

Disturbances to wintering and nesting bird populations need to be minimized or eliminated entirely, particularly for colonial beach-nesting birds such as least terns and piping plovers. Human intrusions into beach nesting areas during the critical nesting season (April to August) should be prevented using a variety of methods, including protective fencing, posting, warden patrols, and public education. Public education and cooperative approaches with landowners are essential to successful protection of beach species in this area. When determined to be a problem, as it is at most mainland-connected nesting beaches, predator control and or removal should be instituted. Those tasks and objectives of the piping plover recovery plan that are applicable to this area should be undertaken, including restoration or enhancement of degraded sites where appropriate.



Breden, T. 1989. A preliminary natural community classification for New Jersey. In E.F. Karlin (ed.) New Jersey's rare and endangered plants and animals, pp. 157-191. Institute for Environmental Studies, Ramapo College, Mahwah, NJ.

Cape May Bird Observatory. 1995. Official Avalon sea watch data for 1995. Unpublished.

Clark, K., L. Niles, and J. Burger. 1993. Abundance and distribution of shorebirds migrating on Delaware Bay, 1986-1992. The Condor 95:694-705.

Clark. K.E. and C.D. Jenkins. 1993. Status of ospreys nesting in New Jersey, 1984 through 1993. New Jersey Audubon Society Records of New Jersey Birds 19(4):74-77.

Dunne, P.J. and W.S. Clark. 1977. Fall hawk movement at Cape May Point, N.J. - 1976. Occasional paper no. 130, New Jersey Audubon 3(7-8):113-124.

Dunne, P., R. Kane, and P. Kerlinger. 1989. New Jersey at the crossroads of migration. New Jersey Audubon Society, Franklin Lakes, NJ. 74 p.

Dunne, P. 1984. Northern harrier breeding survey in coastal New Jersey. New Jersey Audubon Society Records of New Jersey Birds 10(1):3-5.

Dunne, P. and C. Sutton. 1986. Population trends in coastal raptor migrants over ten years of Cape May Point autumn counts. New Jersey Audubon Society Records of New Jersey Birds 12(3):39-43.

Kane, R., P. Kerlinger, and K. Anderson. 1992. Delaware Bay and River tributaries greenway project. Prepared for New Jersey Conservation Foundation. New Jersey Audubon Society, Bernardsville, NJ.

Kerlinger, P. and C. Sutton. 1989. Black rail in New Jersey. New Jersey Audubon Society Records of New Jersey Birds 15(2):22-26.

Mabey, S.E., J. McCann, L.J. Niles, C. Bartlett, P. Kerlinger. 1993. The neotropical migratory songbird coastal corridor study final report. A report of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management pursuant to NOAA award #NA90AA-H-CZ839.

McDermott, V. Undated. Study of the ichthyoplankton associated with two of New Jersey's coastal inlets. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, report 7M.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1996. Unpublished 1995 colonial waterbird survey data. Endangered and Nongame Species Program, Trenton, NJ.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1992. Strathmere Natural Area management plan. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks and Forestry, Office of Natural Lands Management, Trenton, NJ.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1986. Cape May Point Natural Area management plan. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks and Forestry, Office of Natural Lands Management, Trenton, NJ.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. 1979. Studies of the Back Bays systems in Atlantic County. 2 vols. Division of Fish, Game and Shellfish.

New Jersey Natural Heritage Program. 1993. Site reports for Bennett Bogs, Corson Inlet North, Corson Inlet South, Indian Trail Swamp, Lizard Tail Swamp, Rio Grande Swamp, Two Mile Beach, Whale Beach, Avalon Dunes, Baseball Swamp, Bucks Avenue, Cape May Corridor Macrosite, Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, Cold Spring Gravel Pit, Cold Spring Salt Marsh, Dennis Creek Marsh Macrosite, Great Cedar Swamp, Green Creek, Jakes Landing Cedar Swamp, Clermont Bog, Avalon Stone Harbor Marsh Macrosite, Cold Spring Woods, Court House Pit, Gravens Inlet, Lily Lake, Magnolia Lake, Middle Thorofare, Ottens Harbor, Pierces Pit, Shaw Island Rookeries, Stone Harbor Point, Strathmere Bay Island, Townsends Inlet, WWOC Radio Station, Cape May Courthouse Maintenance Yard, Mayville, and Swains Station.

Niles, L.J., K. Clark, and S. Paul. 1994. Comprehensive management plan for shorebirds on Delaware Bay. New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program, Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, Trenton, NJ.

Niles, L.J., J. Burger, and K.E. Clark. 1993. Factors affecting the concentration of migrating raptors on Cape May Peninsula. Unpublished paper. New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program, Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, Trenton, NJ.

Niles, L.J., K. Clark, and D. Ely. 1990. Breeding status of bald eagles in New Jersey. New Jersey Audubon Society Records of New Jersey Birds 27(1):2-5.

Schoelkopf, B. 1995. Personal communication. New Jersey Marine Mammal Stranding Center, Brigantine, NJ.

Schumann, Capt. C. 1995. Personal communication. Cape May/Wildwood Marine Mammal Charters, Wildwood, NJ.

Smith, G.S. and R.W. Tiner. 1993. Status and trends of wetlands in Cape May County, New Jersey and vicinity (1977 to 1991). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region II, Marine and Wetlands Protection Branch, New York, NY and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 5, Ecological Services, Hadley, MA. Cooperation report R-93/13. 29 p.

Soltesz, K. 1992. Checklist of the damselflies and dragonflies of Cape May County, New Jersey. New Jersey Audubon Society, Cape May Bird Observatory, Cape May, NJ.

Stone, S.L., T.A. Lowery, J.D. Field, C.D. Williams, D.M. Nelson, S.H. Jury, M.E. Monaco, and L. Andreasen. 1994. Distribution and abundance of fishes and invertebrates in mid-Atlantic estuaries. ELMR Rep. No. 12. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/NOS Strategic Environmental Assessments Division, Silver Spring, MD. 280 p.

Sibley, D.A. 1993. The birds of Cape May. New Jersey Audubon Society, Cape May Bird Observatory, Cape May, NJ.

Sutton, C.C. 1988. Barred owl survey of southern New Jersey, 1987. New Jersey Audubon Society Records of New Jersey Birds 24(1):2-5.

The Nature Conservancy. 1993. Delaware Bayshores bioreserve strategic plan, draft report. The Nature Conservancy, New Jersey Field Office, Chester, NJ.

U.S. Department of the Interior. Undated. North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Atlantic Coast Joint Venture.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1995. Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) Atlantic coast population revised recovery plan, technical/agency draft. Region 5, Hadley, MA.

Ward, D. 1980. Autumn 1979 seabird watch in Avalon. New Jersey Audubon Society Records of New Jersey birds 6(1):2-4.

Widjeskog, L. 1994. Personal communication. New Jersey Department of Fish, Game and Wildlife, Millville, NJ.

Windisch, A.G. 1992. Best remaining natural community and rare species sites of New Jersey's Cape May Peninsula and vicinity. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded report by The Nature Conservancy for Virginia Council on the Environment (NOAA grant #NA90AA-H-CZ839). New Jersey Natural Heritage Program, Trenton, NJ.

Wright, D. and P. Sutton. 1993. Checklist of butterflies of Cape May County, NJ. New Jersey Audubon Society, Cape May Bird Observatory, Cape May, NJ.

List of Species of Special Emphasis


Return to table of contents