Exploring Cape May’s National Wildlife Preserve

by Sue Fajgier
cape may wildlife refuge

When you think of Cape May, you probably think of its iconic lighthouse, white sandy beaches, boardwalks and quaint Victorian homes. You may even think of the wide variety of migrating birds that use our flyways each season. What most people don’t associate Cape May with is a quiet walk in the woods; but that’s what you can get on the Woodcock Trail, one of five short hiking trails within Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.

We went because honestly, I had to just get out of the house. Our Central New Jersey weather forecast was high 50s, not bad for early March. Two and a half hours south along the shore, it was a lot cooler. The perfect day for several short hikes in different areas which gave us time in between to warm up in the car.

cape may

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge l Photo by Sue Fajgier

Over 30 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established three separate areas as the Cape May Wildlife Refuge. The divisions of the park enable hikers to enjoy the diverse habitats of this unique area. There are salt marshes, hardwood swamps, bogs, grasslands and forested uplands to wander here.  The divisions are:

Great Cedar Swamp Division

  • Cedar Swamp Trail – 1-mile loop

Delaware Bay Division

  •  Songbird Trail – 1.1-mile loop
  • Woodcock Trail – 1.2-mile loop

Two Mile Beach Division

  • Dune Trail – 0.8 miles out and back
  • Marsh Trail – 0.2 miles out and back

Cape May Wildlife Preserve l Photo by Sue Fajgier

We started our day on the Cedar Swamp Trail in the northernmost division of the refuge near Dennis Township. The trail begins as a mowed grass path. Slowly we wandered through this new growth forest. As named, the trail was both swampy with lots of bogs and contained plenty of beautiful cedars with their rippling multicolored bark. The area felt new to reforestation and there aren’t a lot of tall trees or much of an overstory here. It was perfectly silent along this loop with lots of open sky. A great place to begin a walk in the woods.

cape may wildlife refuge

Cedar Swamp Trail l Photo by Sue Fajgier

Our next stop was along the Delaware Bay in Middle Township, the Songbird Trail. This had more of a deciduous forest feel. The trees are taller in this section and lots of holly and oak line the leaf-strewn trail. The first native we encountered was a red-bellied woodpecker flitting from tree to tree. Shortly after that, we came upon a tufted titmouse. The Songbird Trail winds through the woods and the trees change from Loblolly Pines to Pitch Pines. We heard so many birds along this trail, it seems certain that they knew the trail was named for them.

new jersey bird watching

Songbird Trail l Photo by Sue Fajgier

Back in the car for another short drive over to the Woodcock Trail also along the Delaware Bay.  This section felt like a stroll through a park. Lots of very tall trees, vernal pools on both sides of the trail. The fallen leaves on the path make our footsteps nearly silent. In this part of Cape May, you feel like you could be deep in the woods anywhere in North America.

The stillness was broken by the rustle of wings. When we looked up, we saw two great blue herons circling in the trees next to us. They must have been a nesting pair because as we walked along the trail they continued to circle and land in the treetops, but they never left the general area.  This was pretty exciting for us. As we were leaving the Woodcock Trail, we were lucky enough to spot a pine warbler off in the brush bidding us goodbye.

cape may wildlife preserve

Woodcock Trail l l Photo by Sue Fajgier

Our last stop was the beach because it is Cape May and we can’t come all this way and not see the Atlantic Ocean. The Dune Trail is a short out-and-back. It used to be a longer walk along the beach but has been closed for several years now to preserve habitat for the piping plovers and oystercatchers that now breed here. This little walk is lovely. We’re always amazed when we see the prickly pear cacti along our New Jersey beaches. This area along the beach is referred to as an underdeveloped maritime forest. There’s something kind of magical about the concept.

new jersey beaches

Dune Trail in Cape May l Photo by Sue Fajgier

The last trail we visited in this Preserve was the Marsh Trail. The boardwalk leads you through the salt marsh to an observation area for a tidal pond. The day we visited, a flock of American Black Ducks was sharing the lake with Northern Pintails. There’s a bird blind perfect for viewing the antics of the waterfowl without disturbing them.

cape may wildlife preserve

Marsh Trail l Photo by Sue Fajgier

This isn’t your typical Cape May getaway filled with sandy beaches, cute shops and quaint Victorian bed and breakfast establishments. The woods are swampy, the marshes have tall grasses and there’s that sweet smell of cedar off in the distance. This is a wilder Cape May, and it’s equally magical.

Currently, the refuge is 11,000 total acres. There are plans to more than double this in the near future. Since Cape May is one of the top 10 birding areas in the United States—and home to at least 317 bird species, 42 species of mammals and 55 different types of reptiles—preserving this area for future generations seems like a worthy idea.

About the Author/s

All posts

Sue graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in English back when you could still get a degree for reading great literature. She spent nearly 40 years working in the Sales & Marketing field with companies ranging from non-profits to small businesses to Fortune 100 Corporations. Most recently retired after nearly 20 years with S & P Global, she is now free to pursue her true passions for hiking, writing and photography. Sue was born and raised in New York State. As a New Jersey transplant, her passion for the special blend of culture and nature that is uniquely Jersey is what Sue loves to share with the world. She has one grown son that she is insanely proud of. Her husband of many decades is an amazing partner both in life and hiking. When not out exploring, Sue is most likely at home reading a novel with her dog.

Related Articles

1 comment

Deb April 19, 2022 - 4:14 pm

Great article. I haven’t been to West Cape May in a long time. My husband and I used to vacation on the wilder side and do a lot of birding. Part of the area used to be lima bean fields, which were abandoned a long time ago. When we first got into birding, Cape May was where we went for our first big weekend trip. We saw a cuckoo in the brush at the edge of one the fields. The whole trip was magical. We saw flocks of all kinds of migrating birds. I think we need to plan a trip to Cape May soon.


Leave a Comment

Yes, I would like to receive emails from The Digest Online. Sign me up!

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: New Jersey Digest. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact