Saturday, July 30, 2005

Trip Report: Sandy Hook, NJ

I am still out of town, visiting family in New Jersey and New York, and I will continue to be doing some occasional birding during that time. This afternoon I, along with several family members, visited one of the birding shore birding spots in Central Jersey, Sandy Hook. (The virtual tours in that link are highly recommended.)

In summer there is a $10 fee to enter Sandy Hook, but it is still free for birders who park in certain lots. (The fee is really only to cover the cost of providing life guards and other services for the swimming beaches.) So we went all the way out to the north end where there is a hawk watch platform. This platform is built on top of one of the old gun emplacements from when Sandy Hook was a military base to protect New York harbor. Now there is still a Coast Guard base at the very tip of the hook, but the rest of the bunkers that litter the hook are off-limits and in varying states of decay. The view to the beach is blocked at the parking lot for the hawk watch by a line of bunkers that are now crowned by sumacs and poison ivy rather than the naval siege guns aimed at German submarines during the two world wars. A field in the parking lot was overgrown with grasses and wildflowers, ideal for many butterfly species, including monarchs, a mourning cloak, clouded sulphurs, cabbage whites, and a silver-spotted skipper. My sister thought a viceroy was in the mix as well. When we first arrived there was a cloud of butterflies, but these slowly dispersed before we could identify all of them.

The hawk watch is only active during spring migration, but there were still raptors to be seen from the observation deck as most osprey nests were still operative. Unfortunately I could not make out any chicks in the nests, but many of the platforms had two adult osprey perched upon them. From the observation deck we were given a show by two brown thrashers who took sand baths in the dunes and then began sparring with each other.

The beach is a long walk along the Fishermen's Trail from the hawk watch. Because of the frequent foot traffic, the sand along the trail is very difficult for walking, to the point that some people have begun walking over the intact parts of the dunes as well. I hope that NJ Audubon will put up a fence to stop this; otherwise the whole dune will be destroyed sooner or later. There are ponds on either side of the trail. The one on the left had a large congregation of shorebirds and gulls. Unfortunately I could not make out much without a scope. There did appear to be some larger shorebirds, perhaps yellowlegs, but this could not be confirmed. Large chunks of the beach have been closed off with temporary fencing for nesting shorebirds and terns, but there is still plenty of room for walking in the surf and surf fishing. See, birds and people can get along no matter how much people complain about restrictions.

One of my hobby horses on this blog has been the state of certain species of concern, especially the least tern and piping plover. Well, this afternoon we saw least terns and a single piping
plover, two birds on NJ's endangered species list. The piping plover was a lifer for me. It was alone with a group of sanderlings, who later took off, leaving the plover all alone. This group was a few yards inside of the restriced area, while we watched from a few yards outside of the restricted area. The piping plover blended in with the sand quite well, and it required several sweeps with the binoculars for me to make it out. Further down the beach was an American oystercatcher, one of my all-time favorite birds. (Need I explain?) The least and common terns, both of which nest at the hook, were vocalizing in a way that I had never heard before. Now that I am home five hours later I cannot describe this call adequately; it was kind of like a gull's, except more raucous and throaty. I assume this active vocalization was related to their proximity to nesting territories. The signs marking the restriced areas also mentioned black skimmers as nesting there, but I saw none; I do not know if any actually bred there this summer.

Sanderling amaze me with the way they can run back and forth, dodging the incoming waves while snatching the bits of food washed up by the surf. I am surprised that more of them are not drowned by the waves. Terns also amaze me by their ability to dive into the waves and pick out small fish, while avoiding the oncoming waves. All such species require an uncanny sense of the rhythm of the surf greater than that of even the best human surfers.

In winter one can usually see New York from the end of the Fishermen's Trail. Today Brooklyn was barely visible and I could see only the ghost of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge with my binoculars. Manhattan was right out. Oddly enough Staten Island was invisible as well.

There are several places to stop and bird on the bay side of the hook. Today we only stopped at the southernmost cove. (I believe this is Spermacetti Cove, but I may be wrong.) We did not add much here except for a semipalmated plover, spotted sandpiper, and least sandpiper. Several heron species perched in the trees above the marsh grasses. The mosquitos were more apparent than birds along that trail, so we left before providing any more dinner for the hungry insects.