Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Coastal Cumberland

The second part of my South Jersey weekend took me through coastal Cumberland County, a New Jersey county that I had never visited before, at least to my knowledge. Now, there are some New Jersey counties that I have passed through via the New Jersey Turnpike, but never set foot in. (That would be Camden, Gloucester, and Salem.) Cumberland, on the other hand, I had never previously visited, and never had occasion to pass through, either. So this was entirely new ground for me.

Our first stop was at East Point, near Heislerville. At this stop, there were not many birds to see, and we spent more time looking at the old lighthouse, built in 1849, decommissioned in 1941, and placed back into service in 1980. To me, the building appears older than the 1840s – almost like 18th-century architecture. Perhaps this part of the state was slower to adopt new styles.

Our second stop, or perhaps auto tour would be a better descriptor, was the series of waterfowl impoundments along Matt's Landing Road, part of Heislerville WMA. Thanks to the warm weekend weather, most of the water was open, allowing decent numbers of waterfowl, especially Buffleheads. The biggest surprise – and my favorite sighting of the day – was a brief glimpse of a Clapper Rail swimming before it disappeared into some reeds. Try as I might, I could not spot the rail once it reached the reeds, even though I was standing directly over the place the rail was hiding, and even though the reed bank was only about two feet wide. These are amazingly elusive creatures.

The third stop was at Bivalve, so-called due to its primary industry, catching and processing mollusks. This industry is pungently apparent on Bivalve's High Street, where a large pile of shells attracts a large number of gulls – as well as a few birders looking for unusual gulls. I am sad to report that we found no rare gulls of any kind, just the usual Ring-billed and Herring varieties. That said, a stop was still worthwhile, as we continued to see waterfowl on all sides. Most were Black Ducks or Buffleheads. Now and then a distant flock of Snow Geese would rise out of the saltmarsh and shift locations. Two Common Goldeneye, both apparently female, were on the Maurice River close to the Bivalve shore.

Following a short drive through the nearby town of Shell Pile, we stopped at the restoration area at the end of Strawberry Lane to eat lunch and follow a trail through nearby fields. From the platform we were able to see many more waterfowl, which included decent looks at a dozen Green-winged Teal, one of my favorite dabbling ducks, and a flock of Northern Pintail. The fields as the boardwalk had a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds and lots of sparrows. One of my favorite sparrows, a Swamp Sparrow was present, and a White-crowned Sparrow also put in an appearance. I also got a taste for why NJ Audubon chose Cumberland County for its winter eagle festival. In the brief time we were at the restoration area, we saw at least one pair of Red-tailed Hawks and a third-year Bald Eagle. As we were leaving, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flushed from the treeline and flew across the field. Not bad for a raptor show.

Our final stops were in the Dividing Creek area. The impoundments along Maple Street had more or less the same set of waterfowl we saw at other stops, with similarly good numbers of waterfowl. Turkey Point was a good point to get an idea of the extent of the saltmarshes along our southern Delaware bayshore. It is disheartening to imagine that much of New Jersey's Atlantic coast was probably covered by similar marshes years ago, only to have them disappear in the face of summer tourism. Even this relatively isolated spot attracted many visitors in the short time we were present; it is not clear to me how many were birders. (Really, the number of cars present at Turkey Point really surprised me, after seeing hardly any birders all day.) On a more cheerful note, our stop at Turkey Point was also an occasion for observing large flocks of Snow Geese flying overhead and in the distance.

Following this stop, we head back to Central Jersey.