Cape May National Wildlife Refuge
Northeast Region
24 Kimbles Beach Road
Cape May Court House, NJ
(609) 463-0994

Wildlife & Habitat

Wildlife Habitat


Cape May National Wildlife Refuge provides critical habitat to a wide variety of migratory birds and other wildlife. It supports 317 bird species, 42 mammal species, 55 reptile and amphibian species, and numerous fish, shellfish and other invertebrates. Its value for the protection of migratory birds and their habitat will continue to grow as wildlife habitat along the Jersey Shore is developed into roads, shopping centers and housing developments. Cape May Peninsula's unique configuration and location concentrate songbirds, raptors and woodcock as they funnel south to Cape May Point during their fall migration. Faced with 12 miles of water to cross at the Delaware Bay migrants linger in the area to rest and feed until favorable winds allow them to cross the Bay or head north along the Bay's eastern shore.

Red knot and horseshoe crabs. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS
Red knot and horseshoe crabs. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS


The Refuge's five-mile stretch along the Delaware Bay is a major resting and feeding area for migrating shorebirds and wading birds each spring. The Delaware Bay shoreline has gained international recognition as a major shorebird staging area in North America second only to the Copper River Delta in Alaska . Each year hundreds of thousands of shorebirds-nearly 80 percent of some populations-stop to rest and feed here during their spring migration from Central and South America to their Arctic breeding grounds. The arrival at Cape May of more than twenty shorebird species-primarily red knots, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings and semipalmated sandpipers-coincides with the horseshoe crab spawning season which occurs in May/early June. The crab eggs provide an abundant food supply which these long-distance flyers use to replenish their energy reserves before moving on. (In May virtually the entire North American red knot population gathers along Delaware Bay beaches!)

Because of the Delaware Bay Estuary's value to migrating shorebirds and wading birds, in 1992 it was designated a Wetland of International Importance under the The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance--otherwise known as the Ramsar Convention.

Songbirds / Neotropical Migrants

Neotropical migrants--birds that spend their summers in Canada and the U.S. and their winters in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America--use Cape May Peninsula's varied habitats in great abundance during their long and difficult migrations. Due to loss of habitat throughout much of their range many of these species are in decline. Almost 100 neotropical songbird species stop to rest and feed along the Cape May Peninsula most often using forest habitats. Many songbird species also nest here including ovenbirds, wood thrushes and yellow-throated warblers.


American kestrel. Credit: USFWS
American kestrel. Credit: USFWS

Cape May Peninsula is renowned for its spectacular raptor migrations each fall. During this period great numbers of 17 raptor species are commonly seen including peregrine falcons, ospreys, northern harriers, American kestrels, Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks. Because many raptors do not choose to cross such large bodies of water as the Delaware Bay, many use the bayshore upland forest edge as a migration corridor.

All raptor species found in southern New Jersey occur on the Refuge. Some, like the red-tailed hawk, frequent the Refuge year 'round. After a population decline in the 1970's, bald eagles once again nest on Refuge land. Owl populations make extensive use of Cape May's woodland habitats in winter, and several species--such as the barred owl--also nest here.

American Woodcock

During fall migration these unique upland shorebirds concentrate in massive numbers in Cape May 's moist woodlands and thickets. They use such habitats for foraging, replenishing their fat reserves by eating more than their weight in earthworms daily. On the Atlantic Coast, only Cape Charles, Virginia hosts comparable concentrations of woodcock. The Refuge provides excellent resting and feeding habitat for this interesting species. (The woodcock--also known in some parts of the country as a timber doodle- walks as though it were doing the rumba.)

Piping plover. Credit: Gene Nieminen/USFWS
Piping plover. Credit: Gene Nieminen/USFWS

Endangered / Threatened

Peregrine falcons, found on the Federal List of endangered and Threatened Plants and Animals, use the Refuge's protected habitats and are commonly seen during migration. The threatened piping plover uses Two Mile Beach Unit for feeding and roosting. New Jersey State-listed species confirmed within the Refuge boundary include ospreys, short-eared owls, barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, grasshopper sparrows, great and little blue herons, red-headed woodpeckers, sedge wrens, yellow-crowned night-herons, northern harriers, black rails, southern gray tree frogs, Eastern tiger and mud salamanders, corn snakes and northern pine snakes.

Swamp pink--a unique lily family member which is on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Plants and Animals--also occurs on the Refuge, as do 34 State-listed plant species.

Fishery Resources

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge's marshes and tidal creeks provide important nursery areas and nutrient resources for many popular species of finfish and shellfish including summer flounder, weakfish, striped bass, blue crabs and lady crabs. These fisheries provide abundant resources for wildlife as well as for people. Seventy percent of the species sought by recreational and commercial fishermen depend on shallow water habitats such as those found on the Refuge for at least part of their life cycle.

Refuge Wetland Values

While more than half the wetlands in the United States have been destroyed many people still wonder why we should protect our wetland resources. The Refuge's protected wetlands not only provide critical resources for fish, wildlife and plants, they also provide many benefits for people. They hold up storm surge and flood waters thus protecting the communities behind them; they discharge ground water supplies even during the drier times, when we most need it; they protect our water quality by filtering out impurities. The aesthetic and recreational pleasures, and the educational benefits these dwindling unique habitats provide for us are very important.

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Vernal pools. Credit: Heidi Hanlon/USFWS
Vernal Pools. Credit: Heidi Hanlon/USFWS

Delaware Bay Division

Delaware Bay Division Map (pdf - 592KB)

The Delaware Bay Division is located in Middle Township near Cape May Court House, along the western portion of the New Jersey peninsula along the Delaware Bay.This area protects many habitat types such as salt marsh, forested uplands, forested wetlands and vernal pools, shrub/scrub, and grasslands. Each spring, the Delaware Bay hosts the second largest concentration of migrating shorebirds in North America. The Delaware Bay Division remains an extremely important area for horseshoe crab spawning and consequently, shorebird feeding and roosting. Shorebird species, including the red knot, sanderling and ruddy turnstone need to feed on these horseshoe crab eggs to gain sufficient weight to continue their migration to their summer breeding grounds. The Delaware Bay Division also attracts large numbers of waterfowl, marsh birds, raptors songbirds, reptiles and amphibians. The state listed southern gray tree frog and Eastern tiger salamander occur here.

Great Cedar Swamp Division

Great Cedar Swamp Division Map (pdf - 506KB)

The Great Cedar Swamp Division is located in Upper and Dennis Townships near the towns of Woodbine and Dennisville. This area has the largest contiguous forest on the refuge and is part of the Pinelands National Reserve and the Great Egg Harbor National Scenic and Recreational River. This division protects mostly hardwood swamp, salt marsh, and bog habitat along with some forested uplands and grassland areas. Unique viewing opportunities exist for Atlantic white cedar stands, a variety of warblers, including prothonotary and pine warblers, wood thrush, bald eagles, wintering short-eared, long-eared and northern saw-whet owls, and northern diamondback terrapin. The Great Cedar Swamp Division also supports large numbers of marsh and water birds, songbirds, raptors, reptiles, and amphibians.

Two Mile Beach Unit at dusk. Credit: Jim and Diana Cutshall
Two Mile Beach Unit at dusk. Credit: Jim and Diana Cutshall

Two Mile Beach Unit

Two Mile Beach Unit Map (pdf - 228KB)

The Two Mile Beach Unit is located in Lower Township near Wildwood Crest, along the Atlantic Ocean.This unit offers opportunities to view barrier island habitat, maritime forest, tidal ponds, and beachfront. The unit offers views of undisturbed beach habitat which is used by beach-nesting birds and thousands of migrating shorebirds. The Federally threatened piping plover, State endangered least tern, and American oystercatchers nest on adjacent property and feed and rest on the Two Mile Beach Unit during the seasonal beach closure from April 1- September 30. This unit also offers opportunities to see wintering waterfowl such as American black duck and northern pintail, wading birds such as black-crowned night-heron and snowy egret, and shorebird species such as dunlin, sanderling, and semipalmated plover.

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Last updated: January 6, 2010