I lived in Brigantine, NJ both as a summer and year-round resident for close to 50 years but regretfully didn’t make my first visit to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge until I moved off the island. Since the Brigantine Division of the refuge is just across the bay from my former home, that makes me feel like a Philadelphian who never visited Independence Hall or a New Yorker who never visited the Empire State Building. I’m happy to now say that I’ve been making regular trips to this birding wonderland.
The Brigantine refuge was first established in 1939. In 1984, it was combined with another refuge in Ocean County that had been established much later in 1967. This second parcel is now known as the Barnegat division of Forsythe.
The refuge protects more than 47,000 acres of habitat for migratory water birds along the Atlantic Flyway. Typical species include great blue heron, cormorants, bald eagles, ospreys, great egrets, snowy egrets, glossy ibis, oystercatchers, northern pintail ducks, hooded merganser ducks, snow geese, Canada geese, mute swans, and red-winged black birds. Birds are not the only animals that make the refuge their home. You can also spot white-tailed deer, red foxes, horseshoe crabs, amphibians, and reptiles.
The Brigantine division is home to the popular Wildlife Drive, an eight-mile long unpaved road that loops through the refuge’s wetlands and wooded areas with two observation towers and an Experimental Pool Overlook. It also contains the .5 mile Leeds Eco-Trail, which offers an expansive view of the refuge along with Brigantine Island and Atlantic City in the distance. For more information, download the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge official brochure.
During my first visit in the Fall of 2020, I was rewarded with an adult bald eagle for election day! I also captured a Northern Harrier preying on some ducks and a double-breasted cormorant wrestling with an eel it was trying to devour with the eel putting up a valiant fight. Less dramatic but quite adorable was this little white-crowned sparrow nestled in some bushes.
Between the distance and the waning light, these photos were not the best quality, even after some tweaks with my image editor. Even though I was losing the light as the sun went down, my last photos of the day of a great blue heron turned out quite nice. The setting sun made a spectacular and dramatic backdrop.
I love this sequence of a mute swan taking off from Lily Lake near the refuge entrance. Another swan nearby, perhaps the mate, was busy nest building. Snow geese migrate to the refuge in the winter en masse. I heard the crack of a branch from a nearby tree and saw this osprey fly by on its way to one of the nesting platforms displaying its impressive talons. Best of all, while I was on the viewing platform on the Leeds Eco Trail, this great blue heron suddenly swooped directly in front of me and came to a landing to my right. The light was perfect, and I captured this incredible sequence. I also got some more distant shots of a great egret and some nice shots of northern pintail ducks. I especially like this female strutting her stuff and proving that bronze is beautiful. Ducks were as plentiful as geese.
I made several trips to the refuge in both April and May of 2021 during nesting season. The highlight of these trips was my best shots of an adult bald eagle. Glossy ibis and snowy egrets had begun to arrive. In one of my snowy egret photos, a greater yellow legs appeared in the background. Most snow geese were gone, although I did spot a pair near Wildlife Drive. One of them appeared to have an injured wing, which would explain why they hadn’t migrated for the summer. The other, its mate, stayed close to it. Male red-winged black birds sang their mating trill, puffing out their fiery wing patches. I was pleased to spot a few oystercatchers, a species that has become less common in New Jersey with declining numbers in the state and now listed as a species of special concern. I also saw another great egret and a few more ducks. Multiple pairs of ospreys nested on platforms along the drive. While the females lay on their eggs, the males went fishing. I photographed one male diving into the water in a failed attempt for a fish. Another male successfully caught a fish but had to outfly another osprey trying to steal it. While stopping at one of the viewing towers, I got some better shots of a northern harrier. Most of the double breasted cormorants I saw kept their distance, either swimming or standing on the shoreline in groups. I was excited to take this shot of one in flight. I didn’t realize what beautiful emerald eyes they have. On one foggy day, I experimented with the video on my DSLR and got some footage of a great blue heron flying away like a gangly phantom through the mist.