Extraordinary Birds, Bayshore Edition

In search of avian wonders out of the ordinary, we turn now to the sparkling shores of the Delaware Bay. A large expanse of sandy beaches and saltwater marshes along the New Jersey side of the bay attracts many feathered marvels.

I went to the Bayshore one sunny May day to see migrating shorebirds. I’m easily distracted. A side trip to Cape May Point State Park occupied most of my morning.

You’d be distracted, too, by the Glossy Ibis I found at the edge of a pond. His deep burgundy plumage shimmered in the sun as he stalked, slow and stately, along the shore.

Everything about an ibis is long: long legs, long neck, long bill. All the better to eat with, my dear!

Distracted again, this time at Heislerville WMA. Bald Eagles, once endangered, are now common in some areas of the region. But an eagle posing on the roof of a nearby house? Extraordinary!

Alongside the road, a gravel, shell and grass area serves as a parking lot for visitors. It also serves as a nesting area for the local Killdeer population. We didn’t see this little mother when we pulled in; three feet to the right would have been disastrous.

The Killdeer was incubating eggs right there in the parking area. She was none too happy about our near-miss and our presence, so I took my photos quickly and left her in peace.

Wait, that’s not a bird! Did I mention I’m easily distracted? Clouded Sulphur.

Well, finally! Distraction-free at Reeds Beach.  There was no shortage of shorebirds.

And gulls. Laughing Gulls are quite common in my neck of the woods. The sheer numbers of them clustered at the water’s edge was extraordinary. Extraordinarily noisy, too.

And comical. Heads down to feed, the gulls resembled a tail-feathered basket-weave fence. One poor guy in the middle had a complaint.

“Hey! Quit stepping on my toes!”

Ruddy Turnstones were dramatic in russet, brown and black plumage.

The stars of the show were the Red Knots. This little shorebird travels immense distances every year from wintering grounds at the tip of South America, to breed in the far north. Along the way, having lost much of its body weight to the rigors of flight, it joins other long-distance migrants at the Delaware Bay, to feast upon the fat-laden eggs of the horseshoe crab.

Horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs at the same time the shorebirds arrive. Unlike this unfortunate crab, most remain right side up and survive to breed another year. Their numbers are dwindling though, due to sustained over-harvesting. Bad news for the shore birds, especially the Red Knots.

Hey, wait! Was it something I said? Come back!

And back they come, in a big hurry to get to those eggs.

There is concern for a number of shorebird species, but the Red Knot population is in the worst shape. In an attempt to protect and conserve these birds, scientists have been tracking their numbers and movements. Spotters were posted at Reeds Beach, recording band colors and numbers. Only time will tell if conservation efforts succeed or fail.

This Red Knot has been captured, weighed and released, and wears some distinctive jewelry to commemorate the experience. Green is the color used for birds in the United States. I saw orange bands as well. Those birds were banded in Argentina!

From Argentina to New Jersey, and on to the far north, shorebirds undertake extraordinarily long journeys, twice, every year. The horseshoe crabs along Delaware Bayshore provide the fuel they need to keep going. Its sandy shores are the perfect places to savor the wonder of these extraordinary birds.

A Woodland Surprise

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6537acsIt started as a typical walk through the woods. After all, the word “woods” is in its name: Hartshorne Woods Park. So we weren’t too surprised to find ourselves walking through a woodland that felt all too familiar.

My friends and I had come to the northernmost tip of the Jersey Shore on Thanksgiving weekend specifically to visit Sandy Hook and the Twin Lights of Navesink. These were places we’d not been before, places with a different flavor than the southern Jersey coast. A visit to nearby Hartshorne Woods, a small Monmouth County park, wasn’t on the original itinerary. Heck, we didn’t even know it existed until we arrived in the area. A short morning walk there was mostly a way to kill time until Sandy Hook Light opened for tours in the afternoon.

It ended up being the highlight of the day.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6656acsNot for the woods, though they were nice enough. We hiked down, up and back down steep hills, more akin to our native Piedmont than the Atlantic Coastal Plain.

The maple, oaks and hickories were still adorned in a smattering of gold and russet, set off by the dark green of abundant American hollies.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6558acsThe first glimpses of blue water through the trees tipped us off: this was NOT a typical Piedmont walk. The trail traveled along the top of a bluff overlooking the Shrewsbury River. Beyond the river lay a narrow spit of land, the town of Sea Bright, and the Atlantic Ocean. Nope, don’t see that in Pennsylvania!

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6549acsA little further along, the Navesink River joins the Shrewsbury. By this time, we were actively seeking a way to get down the hill to the water. If we are anywhere near water, we want to be at its edge. Not up above it.

The bluff was too steep to brave a descent. We continued along the trail until we came to a green lawn that sloped downhill –  to the pier and boat launch of Black Fish Cove. Ah, much better.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6582acsOnce on the beach, the walk suddenly became much more interesting.  All thoughts of completing the 2.3-mile Rocky Point Trail loop were quickly abandoned in favor of exploring along the river’s edge. With views like this? The beach beckoned.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6593acs-copyGolden leaf on sand. Seems a strange juxtaposition to me. Should be either beach, or woods, not both. That’s a South Jersey conceit, though. There are many wonderful places where the two habitats play nicely with each other.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6620acsHere the boundary between woods and beach was quite dramatic. A tall cliff loomed, topped by towering trees that clung to its edge, their roots exposed for all to see.

Don, for scale, risking life and limb under a widow maker tree.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6626acsThe view upriver. The sand was yellowish, picking up the strange ocher tones of the exposed soil above the beach.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6697acsWe ventured downriver, picking our way over fallen branches and trees. There’s only so much erosion a tree can take before it loses its grip and falls. The beach widened, covered in cordgrass and phragmites and cottony groundsel trees. Pathways to the water led us to troves of mussels.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6699acsAt the water’s edge. Weathered white driftwood was everywhere. I wanted to take it all home and decorate my house with its silken beauty. But no – best to leave it where it lies for others to enjoy.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6683acsUnder the water, a bed of pebbles and shells. And what is this on the largest of shells? “A tube worm,” I said, not sure why I thought so. “NO!” said Robb. “It’s not a tube worm!”

Well, guess what? It is a tube worm – or rather the tubes that tube worms used to live in.

FUN FACT: Tube worms are invertebrates in the class Polychaeta. They are sessile animals, meaning they are anchored to a hard surface underwater. Once its tail is anchored, a worm secretes a calcium carbonate substance that hardens into a whitish tube. The worm can retreat into this shell completely. It cannot survive for long outside of the tube. Tubes of some species of polychaeta worms are long and snakelike; other species coil into a spiral.

All too soon, we came to a place where the beach ended, where there was nowhere else to go but up. Up, using exposed tree roots as hand holds and steps. Up, along the Rocky Point Trail. Up, through the hilly woods and back to our car.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6607aNever again will I take for granted a simple walk in the woods.

The Twin Lights of Navesink

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6105acsSeafaring is a dangerous business. Be they sail or steam, passenger or cargo, many ships have gone down along the Atlantic Coast over the centuries. Powerful storms and strong, tricky currents make navigating harbors a challenge that in darkness is nigh unto impossible.

Which is why man made lighthouses.

Towers topped with bright lights visible for miles dot the coasts and Great Lakes of North America. Sandy Hook Light has guarded the southern entrance to New York Harbor since before the American Revolution. In 1828, help arrived: the Navesink Highlands Light Station, otherwise known as the Twin Lights.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6154acsThe name says it all – there are TWO lights to this light station. Rebuilt of local brownstone in 1862, the towers are linked by keeper’s quarters. They stand 64 feet high atop a 200’ hill overlooking the Shrewsbury River.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6368acsThe two towers are different shapes, the North being octagonal and the South square.

At night, the two beacons, one fixed and one flashing, were easy to distinguish from the light at Sandy Hook.

They were also easy to see. The Twin Lights were the first in America to use the revolutionary Fresnel lens design, when two of these beehive shaped lights were installed in 1841.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6223acsThe South Tower’s beehive light was replaced in 1898 with an electric-arc bivalve lens. This light could be seen 22 miles out to sea, the brightest light in the U.S. at the time. It was so bright the North Tower light was taken out of service.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6248acsIn 1941 Navesink Light Station was decommissioned and extinguished.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6316aThe 9’ bivalve lens needed its own generator to power it. Today that lens is on display in the Electric Power Station building.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6309acsClose up of the bivalve light.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6254aThe front of the building that connects the two lights. The battlements along the roof and the towers at each end give the Twin Lights a fortress-like feel.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6268acsThe cannon adds to the ambience. On clear days the New York skyline is visible from the Twin Lights site. So is the Statue of Liberty, according to Robb.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6360acsThe view from the top of the North Tower.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6335acsThe South Tower and the Shrewsbury River.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6349acsLooking across to Sandy Hook. The first demonstration of Marconi’s wireless telegraph took place here in 1899, at the America’s Cup yacht races off Sandy Hook.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6375aThe North Tower.

Now a National Historic Landmark, this life-saving light station reminds us of the years it stood watch over the harbor, its beacons a comfort to all who passed.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6338acsThe Twin Lights of Navesink.

Sandy Hook to the Rescue

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6510acs

HOEK (Dutch): Corner, angle; spit of land.

The long spit of land known as Sandy Hook, comprised of beaches, dunes and maritime forest, is a recreational wonderland. It serves a higher purpose, though. For centuries the spit has guarded the entrance to New York Harbor. The peninsula, owned by the federal government since 1814, has long been essential to the safety of mariners and the defense of New York. There’s a lot of history resting on the shifting sands of Sandy Hook!

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-lifesaving-station_6768acsNew York Harbor is one of the busiest in the nation. Seafaring is always treacherous, and many ships foundered off the Jersey Coast. In the 1870s, the U. S. Life-Saving Service was established, to watch the coast and rescue stranded seamen. Life-saving stations like this one were built along the coast. Spermaceti Cove Station No. 2, built in 1894, housed a six man crew of “surfmen” and their rescue equipment.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-lifesaving-station_6815acsThe Spermaceti Cove station was used by the Life-Saving Service and subsequently by the U.S. Coast Guard until the 1940s. It has served as the Visitor Center for the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area since the 1970s. Damaged in Hurricane Sandy, it’s now closed, to our deep disappointment. We could only admire the old girl from the outside.

Also guarding the harbor is the Sandy Hook Light.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6506acsFirst lit in 1764, it was captured by the British in 1776, withstood an American attack, and was held until the end of the Revolution.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6497acsThe Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters now standing on the site was built in 1883. It also saw life as a U.S. Life-Saving Station.

Sandy Hook Light is still in operation 24 hours a day, using an automated, fixed 3rd-order Fresnel lens. When it was built in 1764, water lapped the shore just 500 feet away. The light now stands a mile and a half from the tip of Sandy Hook.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6894acsWe took advantage of a chance to climb the 103’ tower. Along the way, deep set windows gave peek-a-boo views of Fort Hancock below.

Sandy Hook’s location at the mouth of New York harbor made it the perfect place to build a fort to defend the harbor and New York City.

A wooden fort called Fort Gates served during the War of 1812. Fort Hancock replaced it in the late 1800s.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6902acsA view of Fort Hancock from the lighthouse. This is Officers Row, a group of yellow brick residences. Enlisted men lived in barracks and a small village of supporting buildings sprouted up over the years. The population of Fort Hancock peaked during World War II at nearly 12,000 military personnel.

Much of the fort’s defenses centered on concrete gun batteries using the most powerful cannons of the day. After WWII, the fort’s mission shifted to an array of Nike air defense missiles. At the end of 1974, Fort Hancock was officially decommissioned. It now is part of Gateway National Recreation Area.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-fort-hancock_6402acsFort Hancock’s Nine-gun Battery.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-fort-hancock_6419acsThese old gun batteries were quite picturesque, in a moody sort of way.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-fort-hancock_6485acsBattery Peck.

Near Sandy Hook, in Atlantic Highlands, is Mount Mitchill Scenic Overlook. Perched at 266’, the highest natural elevation on the Atlantic Coastal Plain, it offers sweeping vistas of Sandy Hook, Raritan Bay and New York City. You get a feel for the strategic importance of Sandy Hook to the defense of New York and the safety of seamen traveling into the harbor.

Throughout the weekend, from every high point and lighthouse, we searched for the Statue of Liberty. Throughout the weekend, from every high point and lighthouse, Robb claimed to see her.

Atop the Sandy Hook Light,  Robb declared that he could see the Statue. Again,

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6945aDon was skeptical. She never seemed to be where Robb said she was.

After two days of following Robb’s guidance, to no avail, I sought the aid of other visitors to Mount Mitchill. Within minutes, thanks to them, I had found what I was looking for.

At last! Lady Liberty! Let’s zoom in…

161126_nj-mt-mitchill-overlook_7002acs2There she stands, the symbol of freedom, the symbol of welcome to all who come to our beautiful land.

And guarding her flanks, Sandy Hook, ever vigilant.

Sandy Hook Au Naturel

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-lifesaving-station_6769acs2Ahhh, Thanksgiving! Autumn draws to a close with a harvest feast. Now thoughts turn to the holidays and the coming winter: shopping, caroling and celebrations, cold and snow and ice. The long dark season approaches. So naturally on Turkey Day, we went to… the beach!

Not just any beach though. Sandy Hook, the Far North of the Jersey Shore, in sight of New York City’s towering skyscrapers. Unexplored territory, as far as I was concerned.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6429acsOn the trail to the tip of Sandy Hook. Sandy Hook is a peninsula nearly 6 miles long and part of Gateway National Recreation Area. It juts out between the Atlantic Ocean and Sandy Hook Bay, at the entrance to New York Harbor. A variety of habitats comprise Sandy Hook. Glad to see some late fall color in the sand dune and shrub thicket.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6473acs161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6432acs161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6448acsMore dunes. Other habitats in the park include grasslands, ponds, maritime forests and saltmarshes.

FUN FACT: Sandy Hook is a peninsula, but furthermore it is a sand spit. The Jersey Coast runs generally north-south. But the mainland at Highlands New Jersey takes a sharp turn to the northwest. This change of direction is called re-entry. The longshore current which has been carrying sand northward reaches this point and dissipates, dropping its sediment load.

Longshore drift continues to carry sand along the sand bar in the direction of breaking waves. Soon an above-water spit forms. Vegetation takes root and grows, establishing a stable peninsula. In the lee of the spit, salt marshes develop. Wave refraction (the change in direction of a wave) occurring carries sand and sediment around the end to form a hook. Hence, Sandy Hook!

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6451acsAt last we reached the point. It was a gloomy day, but still picturesque. A gloomy day at the beach beats a good day indoors. Winter will be full of dark, cold, gloomy days. We have found the beach to be the perfect antidote. Visiting the Shore on Thanksgiving is like getting a vaccination against the malaise of winter.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6455aThe beach at the point was a treasure trove of shells. Shells upon shells upon shells. Those smaller shells aren’t just resting there, folks. They’re attached to the shells below them.

I could have stayed here for hours beachcombing through the shells. Alas, my companions had other priorities.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-lifesaving-station_6789acsOver on the Atlantic side of the spit a long sandy beach lines the shore. The only thing different than other beaches along the Jersey Coast is the view of New York City in the distance. (See top photo.) Oh, and the thin layer of teeny tiny pebbles covering the sand.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6170acsBrant along the Shrewsbury River at the southern end of the park. The brant is a small goose that hangs out near oceans. Adult brant have black heads and wear a white necklace at their throats.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6855acsSpermaceti Cove is one of several coves on the Sandy Hook Bay side of the spit. A trail led to a boardwalk across the marsh.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6849acsThe tide was dropping. In one of the nearly dry channels, we spotted this cloud of fish. They’d been left stranded by the outgoing water in a small pool, with no way out. How many fish do you think there are?

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6846acsHere are a few of them, up close and personal. They were quite small, maybe an inch or two long.

Some of them appeared to have dark stripes or blotches.

I really need to learn more about fish.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6853acsNext to the pool there were other critters afoot, who had written their tales in the open book of sand. A heron had been here, and a raccoon, and at least one fox. Bet the fishing was good, for those content with hors d’oeuvres.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6873acsCedars, hollies and marsh grasses.

161126_nj-mt-mitchill-overlook_6958Spermaceti Cove from afar. Blue water, white sand, green trees. Who can think of winter with a view like this?

A Shore Thing: A Day For the Birds

160928_nj-oc-sunrise_9034acsThe sun rises on a new day, setting the sea aflame in glittering gold. This beauty is of no consequence to a Herring Gull. Neither is the turbulent surf. Just another day at the office.

160928_nj-oc-sunrise_9062acsTaking wing and then diving, he expertly snatches breakfast on the go.

160921_nj-devils-island-kayak_9281acsOut on the marsh, Great Egrets congregate. Three stand watch while others attend to their beauty routine. Behind them, Snowy Egrets look for a midmorning snack.

160921_nj-devils-island-kayak_9348acsRuffled by the wind but not the bridge traffic in the distance, a Great Blue Heron surveys a wide expanse of saltmarsh cordgrass.

160926_nj-middle-thoroughfare-kayak_9652adsOn the mudflats, Yellowlegs forage.

Greater Yellowlegs? Lesser Yellowlegs? Or one of each? Who’s to say?

(Yellowlegs identification is a challenge. For the record, I think these are Greater Yellowlegs. At least the one on the left with the long bill. But I could be wrong.)

160928_nj-strathmere-point-birds_9566acsThe beach is a ballroom brimming with tuxedoed birds. Black and white with orange-red accents, these Black Skimmers (front) and American Oystercatchers (rear) await the next dance.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_9376acsMy, what big eyes you have, grandmother! The American Oystercatcher enhances its clownlike appearance with oversized pink feet and a long red bill.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_9793acsAhhh, lunch! Oysters are not on the menu today, but crabs are. This Oystercatcher carries his entrée into a nearby puddle. Apparently, it’s considered good manners to wash one’s food before one eats it.

How to tell these birds apart? The American Oystercatcher has an all-black head, red bill, and those marvelous red-rimmed golden eyes. The Black Skimmer in the background is a stockier bird with a white chin and unremarkable dark eyes.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9761acsBut then there’s that bill. Razor thin, with a lower bill much longer than the top. Skimmers feed by flying over the water, bill open and lower mandible cutting through the surface. The bill snaps shut as soon as it touches a fish. Gotcha!

160928_nj-strathmere-point-oystercatcher_0350acsAfter lunch, it’s time for preening. An American Oystercatcher goes to great lengths to keep those feathers clean.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9917acsAlso a contortionist, the Black Skimmer turns upside down to get those hard to reach spots.

160928_nj-strathmere-point-skimmer_9491acsThere go the Skimmers. Evening is the time for them to feed along the ocean’s edge, knifing their bills through the calm water in search of fish.

160918_nj-oc-beach_8353acsJoining the Skimmers on this lovely evening are the Sanderlings. These small shorebirds chase retreating waves down the beach, while probing for tiny invertebrates and crustaceans.

160918_nj-oc-beach_8485acsOnly to flee from the incoming wave in a blur of constant motion. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

…in the sunset glow of another fine day at the beach.