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Birding at Cape May's Northern Cousin

Sandy Hook lures avian migrants and year-round treasures on New Jersey’s upper coast.

Pete Bacinski
Posted: May 16, 2013, 11:50 a.m. PDT

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Sandy Hook projects into the Atlantic at the north end of the New Jersey Shore like an arrow, pointing to America’s largest metropolis, New York City just 14 miles away as the gull flies. Only world-famous birding landmark Cape May rivals this marvelous 7-mile barrier beach peninsula, lying 120 miles north of the birding Mecca, in terms of a year-round birding location in the state with a cumulative bird list of more than 350 species.

Cape May reigns as a fall-migration hotspot when birds migrating south are funneled to land’s end at the tip of the Cape May peninsula. Sandy Hook stands out during spring as birds fly north along the coast to the tip of the hook, where they face the formidable Atlantic Ocean and the city of New York in the distance.

Critical Habitat
Situated near the center of the Atlantic flyway, Sandy Hook offers critical habitat to migratory birds during spring and fall. Spring migrants moving north must travel more than 30 miles from Island Beach State Park before reaching this spot — the last bastion of safety and feeding habitat. Fall migrants heading south over New York or along the coast find the hook welcome landfall to rest and feed.

Cape May

Historic Treasures
Sandy Hook offers many nonbirding opportunities, too. The oldest working lighthouse in the United States was erected here in 1764, and the park also includes many historic gun batteries and buildings. For instance, Sandy Hook Bird Observatory resides in a renovated, federally registered, 1899 building in the Fort Hancock district. The National Park Service offers opportunities to appreciate these historic treasures with walks, programs and museum exhibits.

Gateway National Recreation Area, of which Sandy Hook is a unit, contains parks and historical sites in and around New York harbor. More than 2,000 acres in size, the hook continues to grow as ocean currents continue to pile sand at its north end.

Habitat diversity attracts birds (and humans) to this wonderful destination, with 264 acres of maritime forest including the largest concentration of American holly on the eastern coastal plain as well as beach, dunes, fresh and saltwater marshes, shrub thickets, grasslands and brackish ponds. To the east lies the Atlantic Ocean and, to the west, Sandy Hook Bay formed by the confluence of the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers.

By The Month
Extraordinary opportunities await birders visiting Sandy Hook. The calendar dictates what you see, with every season offering numerous possibilities for avid and casual birders. During winter, the waters around the hook abound with waterfowl. Greater Scaup flocks often exceed 30,000 birds. Horseshoe Cove on the bay side often features hundreds of Common Goldeneyes, challenging even the best birders to pick out the Barrow’s Goldeneye females present in recent winters.

Across from the park’s visitor center, Spermaceti Cove can offer an array of diving ducks in all seasons except summer. The largest population of wintering Brant on the East Coast occurs in New Jersey, and they can be plentiful here.

The North Beach Pavilion on the ocean side offers a great place to scan for loons, cormorants, sea ducks and Northern Gannets, while the beach might offer roving flocks of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. Look skyward, and check the trees for large flocks of Cedar Waxwings -- with the knowledge that Bohemian Waxwings visited in 1991 and 2004.

March signals the return of American Woodcocks and their marvelous courtship flights as well as Red-shouldered Hawks on their pilgrimage north. The New Jersey Audubon Society’s Sandy Hook Bird Observatory annually sponsors a spring-migration watch daily March 15 to May 15, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., from the observation deck at the north end of Sandy Hook. An observer records data about raptors and other migrants and answers questions from visitors.

Large sections of the beach at the north end of the hook are off-limits to the public from March 31 to Labor Day for nesting endangered species. Sandy Hook has the largest number of nesting Piping Plovers in the state and a large colony of state-endangered Least Terns.

In April, watch for Common Loons, Horned Grebes and Long-tailed Ducks in their breeding plumage, while American Bitterns are regular at north pond. Scan the thickets for kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Pine Warblers as well as the edges for Palm Warblers and sparrows. Beaches on the ocean side will host the arriving, federally endangered Piping Plovers and, on the bay side, American Oystercatchers.

Early May with west or southwesterly winds often produces glorious migratory fallouts. Twenty-plus species of warblers are possible as well as Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and Blue Grosbeaks. The Boy Scout camp opposite the Horseshoe Cove boardwalk and the locust grove just south of North Pond provide two wonderful locations for migrants. A recently completed, multi-use paved path almost the length of the hook can offer great birding opportunities during migration.

As May progresses, the birding possibilities seem to improve. Sandy Hook is one of the best places to see Mourning Warblers, Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers as well as Bicknell’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes in late May and early June. The Boy Scout camp again reigns supreme as the optimum location. May 2005 also featured eight species of terns including Arctic and Roseate.

Between Memorial Day and Labor, there is a $10 fee per car to park in beach lots. If you visit the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, you can enter the park for free.

In late July, ponds of trapped seawater on the Fisherman’s Beach at the north end called the "Inland Sea" can host a great array of migrant shorebirds. This location has become New Jersey’s most reliable place to see Baird’s Sandpiper.

Other shorebirds discovered here include American Golden-Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, American Avocet and Hudsonian Godwit. A flock of 29 Piping Plovers once was tallied here in late August. Check the tern flocks for possible Sandwich Terns and the pound "fishing" nets in the bay for perched Brown Pelicans.

Late August is prime time to check the bay for Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and to investigate all the passerine hotspots for warblers and other passerines beginning to return. Many fall birding days here following northwesterly cold fronts can rival those of spring with extraordinary numbers.

The return of short-distance migrants in October can get the place hopping, literally. Often a flock of 100 or more kinglets blankets the grass, rendering it alive with movement. Sparrows can abound here in fall with regular visits by Clay-colored, Lark, Lincoln’s, Fox, Vesper, Nelson’s Sharp-tailed and, with luck, a true rarity such as Henslow’s or Le Conte’s Sparrow.

Rarities here include Pacific Loon, Eared Grebe, Manx Shearwater, Anhinga, Tufted Duck, Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, Gyrfalcon, Purple Gallinule, Wilson’s Plover, Sabine’s Gull, Black Guillemot, White-winged Dove, Ash-throated and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Townsend’s Warbler, Painted Bunting, Western Tanager and Chestnut-collared Longspur.

If you are in the New York metropolitan area and have a day to go birding, think Sandy Hook. You never know what you might find.

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Excerpt from WildBird September/October 2005 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC.

 

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