NJWILDBEAUTY readers are accustomed to my voyaging far and wide, mostly in New Jersey, in search of Nature at her finest. Many of these trips take this former Michigander to the ocean, which reminds her of the Great Lakes.
Can you guess the location of my Columbus Day excursion?
In this collage. see how many scenes you need to discover the answer.
Can You Guess?
Are You Thinking Caribbean?
Manhattan Lurks Beyond Those Trees
Emptiness vs. Fulness
Anne Zeman and I think the black dots in this picture are actually winkles, a specialite of course, in France, to be eaten raw with the assistance of tiny pins, in Bretagne et Normandie, especially near Gaugin’s Pont Aven. They’re a key feature of their ‘l’assiette du coquillage’ — plate of shellfish. One time in Paris, near the Gare du Nord, ordering this feast for myself at lunch, I asked the Parisian couple to my right, “How do YOU eat these?” (Then, I could say it in French – “comment on mange ceci?” Their answers were in concert, their equivalent of, “Are you kidding? We NEVER order that!” (It was divine, all of it, of course…especially the winkles.)
This series recreates one of two recent outings at Sandy Hook, New Jersey’s ultimate barrier beach, so near Wall Street, the former World Trade Center Towers, the unspellable Verrazanno Bridge, and so forth. It’s luminous there, pristine in many places, and should be replete with migratory birds this time of year.
Ha! I’d be surprised if we had a dozen species either trip.
Today (Sunday, October 18), –returning sunburnt. windblown and quite amazed at avian bounty by comparison, I would say Karen Linder and I had more birds in our first hour. sauntering Island Beach (another barrier beach, unspoilt since creation, in our southern reaches) walking Reed’s Road, to Barmegat Bay.
After my first Sandy Hook day of few birds, I dared title my autumnal assignment for the Packet, “Bad Day at Sandy Hook?” Read it below and see if you agree.
The key to all three excursions, however, is that what really matters is never the birds!
It’s fellowship, friendship, what the wise French term, “l’amitie“! Thank you, Anne, Karen and Mary, always!
Bad day at Sandy Hook? Autumn Questing in Monmouth County’s Gateway Recreation Area
- By Carolyn Foote Edelmann
Updated Sep 24, 2015
For birders, fall begins in late July, with the first southward shorebird migrations. Naturalists travel like detectives, seeking early clues to the new season. Heading for Sandy Hook, a seven-mile stretch of a barrier peninsula, in late August, we dared hope to find autumn via Hudsonian godwits clustering on its storied shores.
At ‘the Hook’ (meaning a spit of land) in autumn, there is always the osprey question — who’s departed, who remains? With any luck, there might be eagles. Green herons lurk in hidden pools. Fall’s raptors could be coursing overhead. Oh yes, there are renowned beaches with limitless sea vistas. One follows sharp-shinned hawks pouring overhead on one side, with the Verrazano Bridge arcing to the left. Beneath it rises a tiny water-surrounded lighthouse. Across from the Hawk Watch Platform looms the site of where the World Trade Center used to stand.
A fort from the 1800s and the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in America also preside on Sandy Hook proper. But this park holds nature miracles few suspect, as in 300-plus species of birds. Hudsonian godwits would be particularly appropriate, as ‘The Hook’ was discovered by Henry Hudson in the 1600’s.
Mary Wood and I set out on the last August Friday, binoculars at the ready. There’s free entry for birders to ‘The Hook”, otherwise known as the Gateway National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service. Entry is free for all between Labor Day and Memorial Day Weekend. It always stuns Mary of Minnesota, and Carolyn of Michigan to encounter the Atlantic Ocean after a mere hour-and-a-half drive north and east. We frankly gasped on that futuristic highway bridge over the Shrewsbury, facing the sea’s patchwork of cerulean, slate, teal and Prussian blue.
The guard merrily waved us in. We parked at once, crossing the four-lane road to enter dense shrubbery, where Roger Tory Peterson’s famous ‘confusing fall warblers’ should have been everywhere. Bayberry and poison ivy are laden this autumn, which may presage another intense wintertime. Their fruits provide all essential migration fuels, especially long-lasting fats. Hearty, bountiful seaside goldenrod is burgeoning on all sides, key food for monarch butterflies. In Augusts past, at ‘the Hook’ these butterflies turned all gold plants orange. But, for us, that Friday, not a wing. Not even a butterfly’s. Well, at least we weren’t confused.
Our disappointment disappeared, however, as we were brushed by broad wing shadow. One keen-eyed male osprey was checking us out. We were elated to raise optics to follow this soaring raptor out over the Shrewsbury estuary. Deciding to skip warblers for now, Mary headed us over to Fort Hancock for more osprey. That end of the park holds military buildings and official dwellings, most of which have seen better days. Last year, a week or two earlier, their generous chimneys had been Osprey Central. Some of these hurricane-strafed houses are now undergoing desultory restoration. Most seem tragic — hinting of long-ago intrigues and even ghosts. This year, nests are less welcome than ghosts. White pipes rise from most chimneys. Only a few reveal nests of determined birds, who had deftly woven in and around obstructive plastic tubes. Not one nest held a resident.
Visitors bent on a day of surf and sand may be startled to come upon missiles and fences, bunkers and closed gates, barricades and a battery named “Potter.” The United States Army utilized the fort as the Sandy Hook Proving Ground, from the Civil War through 1919. It is now part of Fort Hancock Memorial Park. The National Park Service “is soliciting proposals for renovation and use to the more than 35 buildings in the fort complex.”
No ospreys? Let’s get back to warblers. We turned this way and that, each knowing exactly where to find rich forests that should be sheltering and nourishing these feisty little travelers on their way south. We found more ROAD CLOSED signs than birds. “No problem,” I assured Mary. “We’ll just get go up to the lighthouse and turn left.” Wrong. We could reach the oldest continuously operating coastal light in the United States. But orange cones blocked the left turn to ‘my’ warbler forest.
What birders do when they can’t find birds is to reminisce about rarities of yesteryear. “That woods was full of vireos” “Golden-crowned kinglets gleaned insects from cobwebs all along these bricks.” “There’s the dead tree where the scissor-tailed flycatcher posed forever.”
”No problem,” I foolishly repeated. “We’ll just head for the hawk watch platform. Could be broad-wings.” Instead of the wide trail to the platform where we used to see the World Trade Center towers, as well as spring or fall raptors too many to count, we met a United States Government official. “Oh, did you want to take pictures?,” he asked with regret. Not only was the trail closed. The hawk watch platform had been demolished—safety issues, but it’s being rebuilt, the official promised.
When we were sure he wasn’t looking, we departed North Beach for the minuscule parking lot for overnight campers. One non-camper parking space remained, so we pulled in. Mary remembered, “This is where we found the wood thrushes with Anne Zeman.” “Yes!,” I exulted, “and the cedar waxwing flock flew out of that tree!” Across the road, on the west side, is a gentle, waveless freshwater beach, with rich saltwater marshland across from a trail plus mini-boardwalk. “Here Betty Lies stood transfixed as the great egret, examining the incoming tide, scooped fish like a skimmer.”
Mary found what we hoped was a kingfisher, posing on one arm of an empty (man-supported) osprey nest. We spent a long time watching this patient bird as it scanned as intently as had the Fort batteries when in use. Too far away for us to tell whether the bird sported the female’s rust belt, that bird kept us mesmerized. It finally zoomed in that downward loop. We were not treated to its remarkable rattley call.
”I’ll settle for a kingfisher, any day” Mary observed, as she turned us back toward the entry, but first, Spermaceti Cove. Its boardwalk had been pulverized to toothpicks by Sandy. We discovered a new walkway — half walking, half running along resounding ‘boards.’
Leaning over very solid railings, we examined high-tide-strafed mudflats, the ‘headlines’ of the night. Colonies of scurrying fiddler crabs lifted golden defensive claws, as they backed into dark round holes. Intriguing raccoon tracks threaded down to gently coursing waters. We were relieved that this very recent and sorely needed restoration had not driven away the wild creatures.
At the culmination of the boardwalk, solid benches awaited. We steadied binoculars on the broad railing, in the face of a rising wind. On sandbars across the flowing water, we found double-crested cormorants, lined up like a black picket fence. Strutting around between them was the rarity of our day, a black-bellied plover still in breeding plumage. In no time, his eponymous belly will be white for winter, and identification will be somewhat trickier, and, yes, “confusing”. Laughing gulls in eclipse plumage baffled us at first, for they no longer sported their vintage burgundy beaks. We’d watch that plover pose and posture, then sit to relish absolute silence, on this peninsula from which Battery Park and Wall Street are visible. Even the waves were whispers on the west side.
There’s no such thing as a “Bad Day at Sandy Hook,” although ours came close.
I was asked to describe our “pretty route”, which is too complex for a story. You could direct your GPS to take you to Rumson, cross the Shrewsbury River and turn left/north onto 36 into the Park.
Our trick is to head always for Bahrs Landing, legendary seafood house far above the Shrewsbury in the Highlands. Have any of their seafood specialties (simple ones, don’t try anything fancy), also knowing that the rare “belly clams” relished by my friend, food critic Faith Bahadurian, are available on the dinner menu.
Yes there is outdoor seating now. While you make up your mind, you can watch proprietary gulls pilfer new clam hauls from docked fishing boats, then crack the shells on weathered docks for their own lunch. Beer is sparklier indoors and outdoors at Bahrs, with the Shrewsbury winking behind it, Sandy Hook beckoning over the bridge. Between your GPS’s instructions to Bahrs and your own cheery waitress, they’ll point you back over that bridge to birding or hiking or biking, or, yes, swimming. Then, whether it’s a bad day or a good day is up to you.
Sandy Hook’s official address is 58 Magruder Road, Highlands. For more information, go towww.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm.