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September 15, 2015

Epic migration flight in Cape May

Season record counted in under an hour

Migration Bird

American Redstart warblers made up the bulk of the flight that one counter called epic.

The Birds had a rough night Monday, but the real birds – songbirds known as warblers -- had a spectacular Monday morning in Cape May Point.

Just as dawn broke, the flight – known as a blitz – began with nearly 1,800 of the small songbirds swarming by a counting station at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area near the Cape May Point lighthouse in less than 10 minutes.

Overwhelmed by the numbers, two officially designated counters called in two more back-up counters to help scan the sky with them.

One of the spare sets of eyes was David LaPuma, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory.

“It was fast and furious,” he said Tuesday.

By the end of the day, 56,636 warblers flew by the four counters, who are certain the record number is an undercount.

And most of them -- 90 percent -- made the flight during the first 40 minutes of the day.

“We’re still trying to wrap our heads around this,” said LaPuma.

American Redstarts, a small black, orange and white warbler that overwinters in Central and South America, accounted for 40,729 or 71 percent of the birds.

That one-morning Redstart count broke all seasonal records for the species in the cape.

Because Cape May Point sits at the shank end of the Delaware Bay on the New Jersey side, southbound birds pile up in the woods and fields, resting and feeding.

Bunched up by west northwest winds, migrating birds fly across the 17-mile expanse of bay to Delaware and eventually on to another continent.

Andrew Farnsworth, a Manhattan resident who works at the Cornell Ornithological Lab, said the Redstart count was "off the charts, almost inconceivable."

He'd been to a Sept. 11 commemoration using beams of light and said several hundred Redstarts visible in the beams over the course of time, so he knew their migration had begun. But a full day of birding in Central Park even at peak migration might mean seeing just 50 birds.

North America hosts 54 different species of warblers.

All told, around 40 species of birds, though not just warblers, passed the count station Monday.

“Epic!” as bird counter and blogger Glen Davis wrote in his report about the flight.