Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory
In Search of New Jersey’s Feathered Friends
By Kathryn Lemmon
The hobby of birding has really taken flight
In the distance, the skyline of Atlantic City was clearly visible. The high-rise structures were a complete contrast to the scene we were watching: mute swans and snowy egrets in their natural environment. I could hear the spinning wheels of the slot machines and the insistent hum of human voices in the back of my mind. All things considered, I prefer the wildlife refuge, but it’s reassuring to know they can co-exist.
New Jersey might not be the first name that springs to mind when you think of birding, but its shoreline and natural areas are busy with winged creatures.
Not since the days of the notable Mr. Audubon have our feathered friends received so much attention. Birding has become “hot, hot, hot,” as the song says. Recognizing the opportunities for expanded tourism, at least 20 states have created birding trails to make the process easier.
It’s understandable. People are seeking outdoor activities which don’t necessarily require big investments in equipment or training. Better still, anyone can be a bird watcher. You can start as close as your own backyard or venture thousands of miles.
Edwin Forsythe Refuge
Forsythe is an extensive land mass covering 43,000 acres of southern New Jersey coastal habitat. It was established to protect the habitat for migratory birds and other species that rely on the state’s coastal wetlands. Nearly 80 percent is tidal salt meadow and marsh, interspersed with shallow coves and bays. Much of the remaining area is devoted to woodlands. It’s a birding paradise.
Birding, the modern term for bird watching, can be enjoyed year-round, although the peak times in New Jersey occur during spring and fall migrations.
My group ventured on a birding excursion on a morning in early June. With a preprinted check list and binoculars in hand, we set out.
One has time to ponder things while they bird-watch. What if this refuge did not exist? Could we now be standing amid expensive condos and bleak concrete for miles? While it may initially sound one-sided, all in favor of the wildlife, people do benefit greatly from open spaces, left as Mother Nature intended. The great challenge is to find a balance.
Soon we were seeing two groups of glossy ibis, a rare treat for me. I couldn’t recall ever seeing them before. I forgot to bring my Life List and wasn’t able to check it. They appear black at a distance, but are actually more bronze-brown color. Even novice birders can readily identify those large beaks.
Having enjoyed the good fortune to visit Egypt, I recalled that one of the most revered ancient gods was Thoth, a creature with the body of a man and the head of an ibis. The sharply curved bill on the Egyptian god produces a menacing appearance. On the other hand, I do like the notion that this bird was considered highly sacred.
The ibis bill is well designed for probing the water or mud. I can imagine how exciting it would be to see a scarlet ibis in the wild. They’re the most striking of the species. Even their legs and feet turn dark pink due to their diet.
By the end of the session, our birding list reached 23, not bad for just two hours.
Flocking to Cape May
Experienced birders will be familiar with Cape May, New Jersey. As Atlantic City is to gambling, Cape May is to birding. An added bonus – you can climb the lighthouse here, provided your stamina holds out. On the climb, you can be at eye level with the tweeters. The Cape May World Series of Birding began more than 20 years ago. Rain or shine, this event happens every May. But, you can visit anytime to see plenty of birds.
In yet another claim-to-fame, this region has been nicknamed the Raptor Capital of North America, partly due to its geography.
Cape May is a peninsula, an extension of the New Jersey coastal plain, bordered on the west by Delaware Bay and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean. This location acts as a natural funnel, directing southbound birds to the peninsula’s terminus at Cape May Point.
Cape May’s regular raptors include accipiters like the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and northern goshawk; buteos like red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, rough-legged hawk and Swainson’s hawk; falcons like the peregrine, merlin and American kestrel. Raptors are crowd-stoppers for their size and majesty.
Also seen regularly are osprey, northern harrier, bald eagle and the golden eagle.
Every spring, an estimated one million migrating shorebirds stop to feed on horseshoe crab eggs along the beaches of the Delaware Bay. This phenomenon alone attracts birders from all over the world. For man, beast or bird, food is always a big attraction.
More than 400 winged species have been sighted in Cape May County. At that rate, you’re sure to add a few newbie’s to your list.
Sandy Hook Sightings
Home of another beautiful lighthouse, Sandy Hook is also a peninsula that projects northward, into Raritan Bay at the northern-most point of the New Jersey coast. Sandy Hook is said to be the site of the very first lighthouse on the east coast, erected in 1764 by New York merchants to protect their shipping. I did climb to the top of this one.
Raritan bay is visible on a state map of New Jersey as the large “chunk” taken out of the coast. Even though the shores of Raritan and Sandy Hook bays are developed, they still support extensive wildlife.
Sandy Hook is a part of a larger zone called the Gateway National Recreation Area, which contains parklands and historical sites in and around New York harbor. More than 2,000 acres in size, the hook section is gradually gaining land as ocean currents continue to pile sand at its north end. New York City is just 14 miles away as the osprey flies, and if the sand keeps piling up, it will soon be closer.
The Sandy Hook Bird Observatory was established in 2001, in a building dating from 1899. If you’re in search of a special birding book or item, stop in at this shop.
For an annual overview, March and April feature waterfowl, gulls, and raptors. May brings migrating songbirds. Autumn birding starts in August with southbound shorebirds, followed in September and October by songbirds, such as flycatchers, warblers, sparrows and buntings. My personal quest to see a male painted bunting continues. They’re small but dazzling, with a vivid blue head and red breast. Various water birds can be found in wintertime around Sandy Hook, including loons, grebes, sea ducks and gulls. Rarities spotted in recent years include Sabine’s gull, swallow-tailed kite, Barrow’s golden eye, gray kingbird, scissor-tailed flycatcher and Townsend’s warbler.
Outside my window, a male cardinal sits within inches of a blue jay. Side by side they study the three feeders, seeming to wait their turn. Both devour sunflower seeds like crazy. Their red and blue colors are distinctive against the white backdrop of an overcast day. Though not unusual, they are visually appealing birds.
Our cat loves my office window, too. She thinks I produce the best bird shows in the world. Of course she’s never been to New Jersey.