A forest of oaks, maples, and black gum trees unfurled below us, forming a plush autumn carpet tinged with rust, gold, and yellow. Through it twined the mighty River of Rocks, an arid boulder path paved during the ice age. Given the splendid panorama stretched out at our boots, you’d suppose several dozen hikers lingering on top of a rocky overlook on Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain would be gazing everywhere but skyward. But this was October, the middle of raptor migration, and the big birds would be soaring by any . . . minute . . . now.
Birdwatching at migratory hotspots, like this historic wildlife sanctuary at the western end of the Lehigh Valley, can be hit or miss: hundreds of birds on good days, practically zilcho on bad ones. (Hey, avian headwinds do happen.) Still, there remains no better season than fall to witness countless hawks, ospreys, eagles, warblers, terns, gannets—plus Monarch butterflies—in transit to their winter homes.
Even if you can’t tell a falcon from a finch, follow the Mid-Atlantic’s migratory routes and you’ll sample the kinds of creature comforts feathered travelers do: eye-popping scenery, plentiful food, and serene spots to rest and recharge. Less than a half day’s drive from Baltimore lie three of the nation’s top birdwatching sites plus nearby destinations worth flocking to: Hawk Mountain near Bethlehem, the revitalized city on a hill founded by Moravians; Cape May in southern New Jersey, with its Victorian seaside mansions; and Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore, whose charms include a former railroad stop, Cape Charles.
And since vacations aren’t built on birdwatching alone, we also direct you to nearby towns that have lots of dining, shopping, and relaxation.
Drive time: 2½-3 hours
Birding site: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Kempton
Hawk Mountain was a raptor slaughterhouse until an unsung conservation heroine thwarted shooters, who had picked off migrating birds by the thousands. In 1934, suffragist-turned-birder Rosalie Edge worked to turn this central Pennsylvania hunting ground into the world’s first sanctuary for birds of prey. Today, visitors to its North Lookout (elevation 1,500 feet) aim only binoculars at the estimated 20,000 hawks, eagles, and falcons that pass by every autumn—soaring and gliding on thermals funneled up the ridge’s steep, forested slopes. At the visitor center, get handouts to help identify raptors by their silhouettes, pick up scorecards to tally your sightings, and buy field guides in the book/gift store. There’s a modest fee to hike trails leading to the close-by South Lookout and more distant North Lookout. The latter trek entails a 30- to 45-minute walk and a moderate climb, but this outcropping overlooking two valleys offers the best bird spotting and incomparable scenery. Most visitors carry in lunch and make a day of it on the rocks, with the early birds (so to speak) getting the flattest seats. For the über-ambitious, two (steep) trails lead to the River of Rocks boulder field. Abundant: hawks (broad-winged, sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and red-tailed), osprey. Finds: golden eagles, peregrine falcon. Best variety: mid-October. Don’t miss: visitor center raptor exhibits, including life-size wooden carvings and a fiberoptic migration map. Avoid: slippery leaves, stink bugs. Events: Vulture Awareness Day (Sept. 4), Monarch Migration celebration, tagging, and mass release (Sept. 18), Golden Eagle Saturday (Nov. 13). Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, 610-756-6961 (visitor center), 610-756-6000 (info/weather line), hawkmountain.org.
Nearby Destination: Bethlehem
Ecumenicalism and industrialism converged along the Lehigh River to forge this city, which has an old soul and a new spirit. Explore its roots in north (historic) Bethlehem at the Moravian Museum (66 W. Church St., 610-867-0173) and the Moravian Book Shop & Gift Gallery (428 Main St., 610-866-5481), which claims to be the world’s oldest continually operating bookstore. Vestiges of Southside’s steelmaking past have become vibrant shops, galleries, and the new Sands Casino (877-SANDS77), where tourists play slots and Emeril serves steaks. On Third Street, chat up glassblowers at the Banana Factory gallery/studio complex (610-332-1300), browse recycled objets d’art at Home and Planet (610-866-7370), and savor artisanal chocolates at Tallarico’s (610-694-9950).
Rest: Built in the 1920s, the restored Hotel Bethlehem (437 Main St., 610-625-5000) exudes refinement and tradition, including murals depicting local history and a benevolently haunted “room with a boo.” In south Bethlehem, the gothic revival home of a 19th-century philanthropist has been revived into the opulent Sayre Mansion Inn (250 Wyandotte St., 610-882-2100), whose rooms include Robert Sayre’s old gold-leaf-ceilinged library and a rooftop conservatory with panoramic city views. At Wydnor Hall Inn (3612 Old Philadelphia Pike, 610-867-6851) on Bethlehem’s leafy outskirts, an 18th-century outbuilding was recently transformed into a luxe two-story guesthouse with Irish cottagey charm. The innkeeper/ceramicist decorated Bordaria Cottage and the inn’s guestrooms with one-of-a-kind artworks.
Recharge: You needn’t stay at Glasbern (2141 Pack House Rd., Fogelsville, 610-285-4723) to savor the romantic country inn’s farm-to-table fine dining. Should you, however, they’ll throw in breakfasts hearty enough to fuel a hike along Hawk Mountain—or a stroll uphill to the inn’s rejuvenating spa. The surrounding farm supplies the organically grown produce and pasture-raised protein served in Glasbern’s sumptuously rustic restaurant. Guest lodges are converted farm buildings. Our bi-level suite—the stables in a former life—had a loft whirlpool, stone fireplace, and a porch overlooking a pond and pasture.
Feed: Bethlehem offers dining to suit many tastes. Best indigenous fare: a pint of Steelworker’s Stout and a pierogi casserole (“Pennsylvania Dutch lasagna” stacked with mashed potatoes, pasta, onions, and cheese) at Bethlehem Brew Works (569 Main St., 610-882-1300). Best brunch: Sunday musical brunches in the Hotel Bethlehem’s 1741 on the Terrace (437 Main St., 610-625-2226). Best discovered gem: Bolete (1740 Seidersville Rd., 610-868-6505), a romantic restaurant/tavern whose way with locally sourced ingredients and textural compositions has drawn raves from magazines Condé Nast Traveler and the now folded Gourmet. Best overlooked gem: Piccadelly Café (3610-12 Route 378, 610-868-5455), an unassuming breakfast-lunch spot near Wydnor Hall run by a Johnson & Wales University-grad chef. Try the walnut-crusted French toast croissant spiked with fresh strawberries, mint, and whipped cream. Most esoteric cocktail: the Treaty of 1905 Martini at Starfish Brasserie’s Star Bar (51 W. Broad St., 610-332-8888). Only the history geek among us deciphered this mixological riddle. (Hint: It includes vodka and sake. Give up? Okay, it refers to the pact that ended the Russo-Japanese war.)
Drive time: 3-3½ hours
Birding sites: Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, Cape May Point State Park, Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area, The Avalon Sea Watch.
Prevailing fall westerlies funnel winged migrants down Jersey’s shore to the Cape May peninsula, with birders in avid pursuit. Whatever your fancy, you’ve a good chance of spying it at this premier birding venue: raptors, songbirds, seabirds, owls, even butterflies and dragonflies. Begin at Cape May Bird Observatory’s Northwood Center (Cape May Point, 609-884-2736), a state Audubon Society information center usually atwitter with recent sightings. Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (West Cape May, 609-861-0600) offers excellent multi-species viewing. Hawks, water birds, and songbirds can be seen in a single trail walk. Known as The Meadows, its grass/beach/freshwater habitat invites stopovers by falcons, merlins, terns, sandpipers, and warblers, among others. Look sharp to spot shy Virginia rails. The site of Cape May’s annual hawk watch, Cape May Point State Park (Cape May Point, 609-884-2159) remains the place to see migrating raptors—17 different species. Naturalists and veteran birders can help novices identify passing BOP (birds of prey). Non-birders will enjoy the park’s climbable lighthouse, sandy beach, picnic area, boardwalk trails, and glimpses of Monarch butterflies en masse. For motorists, Cape May is the Garden State’s southern-most exit. For fall migrants, it’s Higbee Beach (609-628-2103). The 1,000-acre bayside preserve attracts astounding numbers of songbirds plus pursuing raptors. Prime viewing occurs at first light, when warblers and other weary nocturnal migrants feed. Arrive early for spots on the viewing platforms and earthen dike. Look for dragonflies and Monarchs later in the day.The autumn seabird census takes place at Avalon, 20 miles north of Cape May. Each year, 700,000 to one million migrating birds (including scoters, loons, and gannets) pass just offshore, most between October and mid-November. Abundant: black surf and white-winged scoters, red-throated loons, double-crested cormorants, and assorted gulls. Finds: razorbills, pomarine jaegers, California gulls, and short-eared owls. Best variety: mid-October. Don’t miss: dawn at Higbee Beach. Avoid: loud talking, rustling clothing. Main Event: Cape May Autumn Weekend (Oct. 29-31), featuring birding workshops and field trips.
Nearby Destination: Cape May
As nature-lovers, Victorian-era visitors who popularized this seaside resort would completely understand why birders clamor to explore Cape Island’s avian sanctuaries. As luck and historic preservation would have it, their stately Queen Anne, Italianate, and gothic revival houses survived to accommodate 21st-century travelers. Dip into the past with a horse-drawn carriage ride, scones, and Darjeeling at Physick Estate’s tearoom (609-884-5111) and heritage festivals such as popular Victorian Week (Oct. 8-14). Lots more nature beckons, including Birding by Boat (609-898-3500) and Cape May Whale Watcher (800-786-5445) eco-tours departing from Miss Chris Marina.
Rest: Four renovated 19th-century buildings comprise The Queen Victoria (102 Ocean St., 609-884-8702), a romantic, antiques-filled B&B steeped in Victoriana. Restored to its antebellum luster, the genteel Southern Mansion (720 Washington St., 609-884-7171) is a B&B-style hotel set amid beautiful gardens. For small-scale lodgings without the laciness, The Virginia Hotel (25 Jackson St., 800-732-4236) offers 24 deluxe rooms (European linens, plasma TVs, designer décor) and five Victorian-style rental cottages with gourmet kitchens. (It’s the stylish prodigy of Congress Hall, a landmark Cape May hotel.)
Recharge: An off-season “pamper package” at The Fairthorne (111 Ocean St., 800-438-8742) includes an in-room massage sure to work the kinks out of your neck. The two-night stay in one of the luxury B&B’s premium rooms (most have fireplaces and whirlpools) also includes dinner at one of Cape May’s top restaurants like Peter Shields Inn, Union Park, Merion Inn, or Washington Inn.
Feed: In Cape May, you needn’t eat like a bird. Best leisurely breakfast: The Mad Batter (19 Jackson St., 609-884-5970), a local institution where the cognoscenti order the orange almond brioche French toast. Best birder brews: Higher Grounds (479B W. Perry St., West Cape May, 609-884-1131), a laid-back organic coffee house near birding hotspot The Meadows. Best grab-n-go food: Westside Market (517 Broadway, West Cape May, 609-884-3061), whose cheese steaks and hoagies are stuffed with fresh meats hand-carved by the butcher/owner. The breakfast sandwiches rock, too. Best new chef: Lucas Manteca has brought a deft touch to prix-fixe dinners at the Virginia Hotel’s elegant Ebbitt Room (25 Jackson St., 609-884-5700). Save room for his steamed-fig-and-cocoa-toffee pudding. Best veteran chef: Mimi Wood still sets a high standard at Cape May’s fine-dining stalwart, the Washington Inn (801 Washington St., 609-884-5697). She’s added new tools to her culinary arsenal: a Spanish-style plancha griddle and a wood-burning oven.
Drive time: 4-4½ hours
Birding sites: Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, Kiptopeke State Park, Virginia Coast Reserve/Brownsville Seaside Farm
Narrow and sparsely developed, the southern (Virginia) tip of the Delmarva Peninsula forms a uniquely hospitable layover for millions of migratory birds. In the fall, they rest and refuel in the woods, marshes, mudflats, and barrier islands of Northampton County before crossing the Chesapeake Bay. This is such a migrant magnet that researchers have operated songbird-banding and hawk-counting stations at Kiptopeke for decades. Once a World War II coastal defense outpost, the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge (Cape Charles, 757-331-2760) now guards 1,400 acres of vital wildlife habitat. After an orientation at the impressive visitor center, use the observation decks, a photo blind, and two trails to spot some of the nearly 300 bird species found here. Beginning in October through mid-March, take Saturday tours (sign up in advance) of a normally off-limits refuge, pristine Fisherman Island.When birders convene for October’s birding festival, they throng to Kiptopeke State Park (Cape Charles, 757-331-2267), a ferry terminal-turned-recreation area on the Chesapeake Bay. The park’s hawk observatory tallies about 80,000 migrating raptors every fall. Look for them yourself on the large hawk watch platform. At the banding station, photograph tiny vireos and warblers up close as volunteers measure and tag them. Watch for woodland songbirds and scan marshes for egrets and rails as you explore Brownsville Seaside Farm (Nassawadox, 757-442-3049), headquarters of the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coastal Reserve. Inquire here about touring the 14 fragile Atlantic barrier islands the reserve encompasses. Abundant: American kestrels, sharp-shinned hawks, merlins, myrtle warblers, American oystercatchers, marbled godwits. Finds: northern goshawks, northern parulas, whimbrels. Best variety: late September. Don’t miss: Fisherman Island tours, Kiptopeke’s butterfly garden, birding by boat. Avoid: camera flashes for bird closeups. Events: Kiptopeke Challenge team birding (multiple venues, Sept. 25), Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival (multiple venues, Oct. 7-10).
Nearby Destination: Cape Charles
This small bayside town is a historic district unto itself. The railroad/ferry service that brought prosperity a century ago is gone (succeeded by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel), but the late-Victorian architecture and still-busy harbor remain. Stay at a B&B, watch a sunset from the public beach, and visit the Cape Charles Museum (814 Randolph Ave., 757-331-1008). The Bridge-Tunnel’s rocky islands make for great birdwatching (toll fee, $12 one way, $5 return trip within 24 hours, 757-331-2960), but don’t startle the flight-weary birds. Birdwatch by boat with local guides such as Broadwater Bay Ecotours (Exmore, 757-442-4363). Explore the countryside; you’ll find gems like hand-loomed sweaters at The Gallery at Eastville (Eastville, 757-678-7532).
Rest: The five cheerful, handsomely decoratedrooms at Cape Charles House B&B (645 Tazewell Ave., 757-331-4920) have welcomed many a visiting birder. Rooms come with private baths and gourmet breakfasts. North of the Bridge-Tunnel, Sunset Beach Resort Hotel (32246 Lankford Hwy., Cape Charles, 800-899-4786) serves as birding festival headquarters. The 73-room resort offers two dining options (a full-service restaurant and beachfront pub), a private beach, even an RV park.
Recharge: Rent a British West Indies-esque villa at Bay Creek Resort & Club on secluded Kings Creek (Marina Village Circle, Cape Charles) and let nature soothe you to sleep. The resort, a private golfing/boating community whose buildings sport Caribbean colors, offers public dining and shopping—all within easy reach if you’re staying at these luxury two-to-four-bedroom lodgings (888-422-9275).
Feed: Seek out Eastern Shore specialties like shellfish and anything made with sweet potatoes.Best country inn: The chef-proprietor of the Eastville Inn (16422 Courthouse Rd., Eastville, 757-678-5745) knows a thing about preparing fresh local seafood, from creamy oyster stew to the catch of the day. Sweet potato biscuits are a specialty. Best seafood shack: The name says it all at The Great Machipongo Clam Shack (Nassawadox, 757-442-3800), a Route 13 seafood market/lunch stalwart. Best Eastern Shore combo: Part of a Route 13 restaurant/gas station/pottery shop complex, Sting-Ray’s (Cape Charles, 757-331-1541) delivers a tasty twist to our favorite meal: a cup of Eastern Shore clam chowder with a slice of sweet potato pie (topped with Damson plum sauce). Best sunset view: Aqua, Bay Creek Resort’s fine-dining restaurant (900 Marina Village Circle, 757-331-8660), serves some of the best seafood, period—but glance up from your jumbo lump crab cakes to savor the Chesapeake at twilight. Best view with a brew: Customers of Cape Charles Coffee House (241 Mason Ave., 757-331-1880) enjoy their java in the swank, wood-paneled confines of a restored 1910 bank building.