Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Crossing and the Climb: Adventure Day in Cape May

Adventure Day! Those words are guaranteed to induce wide-eye-ed-ness in grandchildren and the jumping-up-and-down anticipation of something challenging and something new! The Astrophysicist and The President were selected by their mom to spend the day with she and ply the broad mouth of the Delaware River via the Cape May-Lewes ferry.  Our destination: Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey. The challenges: learn how to walk on a rolling deck, look for sea birds through binoculars, and climb a really tall lighthouse,

Our destination for Adventure Day, via the Lewes-Cape May Ferry.

Walking on a rolling deck was pretty fun! It was just cold and windy enough that everyone except one other outdoors family were all huddled in the snack-bar. Seven us had two full decks to ourselves, although Duke the Brindle Boxer and his family did come out for a few minutes to visit with the kids. So did the Captain. Captains are cool that way. Both The Astrophysicist and The President quickly gained their sea legs and cruised around with binoculars and sketchbooks to see what we could see.

The Astrophysicist and The President snuggle up to Captain Joe Napoleon during his coffee break. 

This is the 50th Anniversary Year for the Cape May - Lewes Ferry.  It's an important route that connects Delaware to New Jersey via a ninety minute passage. Birders in our area (including me) take this round trip at least once a year to catch pelagic species venturing into the broad mouth of the Delaware River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Gulls are numerous and always worth the extra careful look for the beautiful but illusive Icelandic Gull mixing in with Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls in winter. The Astrophysicist quickly caught the gull bug and followed a mixed flock trailing in our wake. He learned to correctly identify the Greater Black-Backed Gull and the smaller Herring Gull by size and coloration.

A huge birding platform that moves.

As a mom and a grandparent x 5 (how'd that happen?!) its important to me that kids have big adventures outdoors. This summer The Ecologist learned to paddle her own canoe solo on a huge lake. Now her brothers are experiencing the open bay, a wild beach in winter, and a big climb; challenges that are just big enough for them. Including those challenges unplanned as when The President tossed a plastic juice bottle over a rail fence at the park. Mom insisted that he climb through the splintery rails  to retrieve it. It wasn't at all fun, but The President did what had to be done, and apologized for making the earth cry.  He rejoined the expedition as its leader through the back dunes on our way to the Cape May lighthouse.

Beach grass holds high dunes in place against the onslaught of the sea.

The Cape May Lighthouse is our destination through the wild dunes.

Cape May Lighthouse is 160 feet high!

We wandered around the dunes (on the trails, of course!) and visited the hawk watch for a while. This is the second to last weekend for volunteers who are manning the scopes at this large observation deck. They broke all records this year with over 100,000 raptor sightings so far! This observational data will be tallied as per species, sex, age, and time/date  to add to an ever growing longitudinal study of the incredible fall raptor migrations that happen here every year.

Temporary back dune pond fills up in spring and summer and rests semi-dry in fall and winter

The beach plum - cloning itself all over the back dune

The beach plum grew short and stout throughout the back dune area where we hiked towards the lighthouse. This native small tree is a favorite of the red fox who 'plants' the seeds or pits as he leaves his scat at favorite marking posts. Foxes will poop to mark territory as visual signals that a trail or patch of vegetation 'belongs' to a certain claim. We looked for fox scat in obvious places:on top of drift wood, near stumps, and at the base of fence posts. The President found two scats, um...poops...on a log. "Poop!" he giggled, having recovered from making the earth cry earlier. 

A piece of whale jaw - intricate structure for such a huge bone!

Comparing kid jaws with whale jaws.

I love visiting  the wild swaths of marsh, dune, and stunted pine forest that makes up this coastal plain peninsula, on either side of the Delaware Bay. It's all young landscape, being formed and shaped even as we walk the trails. And it's very flat. Averaging only 25 feet above sea level the idea of impermanence and the possibility of major changes during intense storms is always in the back of my mind. Cape May maintains strict conservation rules. Many residents know something about birds, native plants, ocean life, river and marsh, and are happy to share it. All residents, however, are aware of how precarious a home they have and land planners work towards maintaining strict building codes and conservation statutes. If only all coastal communities could be as aware.

The light - a beacon of safety for generations of seafarers, sailors, and merchant marine.

If there's a metaphor in this visit, it's the lighthouse. Cape May shines like a beacon of how conservation and human needs and wants can be balanced. There are no barrier islands to protect the cape from nasty storms, which we get plenty of here on the Atlantic Coast, so the importance of the high dunes for protection are critical.  And, unlike on some of the barrier islands up and down coast from us, this area has not been overdeveloped.

The WWII gun battery emplacement still stands - minus  guns - on the beach. No more U-Boats, however.

I really find repulsive some of the resort towns  that stretches of the Mid-Atlantic coastal shores unsightly and vulnerable to severe property loss and habitat destruction. Cape May folks understand that the dune system is their only defense against an angry sea, so it's cared for and protected. Around the peninsula vast stretches of marshlands have been protected to ensure that rising seas and battering waves are calmed by the natural systems best able handle them.  But on to the lighthouse!

We made it to the top!

We made it to the top of the lighthouse and we were treated to beautiful views of the sea and the landscape around us. It wasn't easy an easy climb for the boys though. The Astrophysicist who enjoys the starry heights of the heavens at night counted out the dark steps and the window-lit landings ("Pull Over!") and made note of the double-walled tower space becoming increasingly narrow. The President's pants kept falling down so the landings every thirty steps made for perfect yank 'em up stops. The boys were determined to make it to the top. And once there, a museum docent met us with a big smile, a warm room, and a short introduction to the light and the light keepers with photos and displays placed around the small room, where we all fit very nicely. Then - she opened the door out...

Cast iron spiral staircase the whole way up!
"This is the coolest place on Earth!" cried The Astrophysicist in the strong wind atop the Cape May Lighthouse!

The Astrophysicist and The President cautiously stepped through the door into the wind. They grabbed on to the thick steel rail and tentatively made their first circle around the deck. "Look! The ocean!" "Look our car!" "Look at all those houses!"  "The beach!" "The dunes!" and my favorite "Look at those white dots on the lake! Swans!"  Every few steps they stopped and shouted into the wind. People waved from the parking lot. The Astrophysicist squealed with delight. The President, now comfortable, toddled a few laps around.

Fresh water pond system and the pine forests beyond - North View.

Another trip around. They knocked on the window to say hi to the volunteer inside. They took turns going inside to watch the other make a turn around to peer smiling through the thick wavy glass. They looked up at the light and across at the huge tankers awaiting their Bay Pilots out at sea. "Grandma - Can the Captain see us waving?" No, but they could see the light, I said. "OOOOOO! They can see the light!" Then it became apparent to The Astrophysicist why it was important to see the light. He quickly inferred that without out the lighthouse, ships would crash into the beach and become a shipwreck. "Yes," said the docent, "And they have!" She pointed out where on the cape famous wrecks lie and where at certain times we could come back and see what remained of them. 

The small village of Cape May - South view.

We made our way down the long winding staircase after thanking the docent. We picked up Mom halfway down. She was hanging out in a comfy pull-over spot, high enough for her, thanks. Off to the gift shop where she picked out a beautiful book to take home and the boys were so pleased and so proud. We took pictures with the lighthouse and the new book.

Gathering up Mom on the way down.

With May The Magnificent Lighthouse by Nancy Patterson

The Astrophysicist could not be prouder of himself!

Birds we listed for the day included the fox sparrow, chipping sparrow, house sparrow, northern shoveler, ruddy ducks, greater-black backed gulls, herring gulls, ring-billed gulls, bald eagles, a merlin, cormorants, northern gannets, common loons, surf scoters, Canada geese, mallards, pintails, mockingbird, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawk, and a possible red-throated loon, but I am still on the fence about that. No amount of studying the blurry in-flight pictures of the bird winging hump-backed with legs dangling beyond the tail has convinced me yet. Too fuzzy and too unsure, I won't count it towards our sightings.

Fox Sparrow

Northern Mockingbird
Female house sparrow

First year male house sparrow

Greater Black-backed Gull

Immature herring gull harassing a loon - diving!

Waterlogged common loon scrambling out of the ferry's path

Our day was coming to a close and we returned to the ferry terminal to catch the Cape Henlopen back to Lewes. Windier and colder, we first had a nice snack inside, then we ventured out again.. Gannets, loons, scoters, gulls, and cormorants glided along with our ferry, the Cape Henlopen. We played a game of Spider Man tag and snuggled out of the wind behind the great ventilator stacks on the top deck. We sank into the joy of another Adventure Day finished, happy for the boys' accomplishments; their brave climb up the lighthouse and earning their sea legs! Back in the car heading home, The Astrophysicist and The President went sound asleep.

Snuggling in the brisk winds of the open Delaware Bay, Mom and The President.


Cape May and its surrounds are identified internationally as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The Cape May Bird Observatory maintains year round programs for experienced and novice birders alike!

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