Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Winter 2021

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. 

Spring 2021

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.

The Elegant and Impudent American Herring Gull

It seems like the Jersey Shore has a love/hate relationship with seagulls as this article in the Press of Atlantic City indicates. Intelligent and relentless in the pursuit of any morsel of food, these birds thrive around humans and the immense smorgasbord of garbage we produce. They employ myriad techniques to obtain sustenance. Fishers, clammers, and crabbers par excellence, they also do not shy from scavenging, mooching, and thieving. I’ve seen them snatch food off hot grills and cheese curls right out of children’s fingers.

But who could imagine summer without the soundtrack of their raucous cries in the background? And, according to my marine biology teacher in college, their scavenging activity serves an important purpose. They are proud members of the beach cleanup crew, keeping it free of the carcasses of deceased marine life and potato chip crumbs.
My favorite species of seagull is the beautiful American Herring Gull (Larus argentatussmithsonianus). Larger than the omnipresent Laughing Gull, Herring Gulls always seemed a bit more elegant, regal, and dignified, the quintessential seagull. They frequent the Brigantine seawall as often as human residents and tourists. I couldn’t imagine growing up on Brigantine’s beaches without them. According to Save Coastal Wildlife, herring gulls are the most common North American gull species with about 60,000 in New Jersey alone.

American Herring Gull facts from Wikipedia

  • Males and females look virtually identical.
  • Sub-adult birds are brown and attain the white and gray color until they mature.
  • They almost went extinct in the 19th century but recovered after protections were put in place.
  • They usually lay three eggs in the spring.
  • A breeding pair can form a tight bond.
American Herring Gull successfully diving for a fish – Brigantine, NJ (April 2021)

See more American Herring Gull images in this Beach and Barrens Facebook album.

In February of 2020, while walking along the Brigantine Seawall and surrounding dunes, I was able to get some nice closeup shots of a herring gull perched on the railing. It watched me boldly for a few minutes before taking off when I got too close for comfort. I also took a moody shot of a lone herring gull staring out at the sea on this gray winter day. Later that year in the spring, I took a series of photographs of this herring gull working to clean every morsel off the shell fragment of a horseshoe crab at the edge of Steelman Bay. Steelman Bay is on the northernmost end of the island near the Brigantine Seawall. 12th Street North runs alongside it, providing an easy walk from the seawall to see gulls and many other bird species.

I made another visit to Brigantine next spring. On the beach near the seawall, I took a series of this herring gull diving for and catching a fish in the surf.

Other Gull Species

Herring gulls are by no means the only gull species found on the Jersey Shore. While spending summers in Brigantine, the Laughing Gull was the species I remembered seeing most. When researching gull facts, I was a bit surprised to learn that Laughing Gulls, actually trailed slightly behind herring gulls in population numbers in the state of New Jersey. Whenever I’m on the beach, they seem to be the most abundant and the gull species I notice the most often even further inland. According to this website, their numbers have dropped in recent years. 

In the spring of 2020, I photographed this pair of Laughing Gulls sharing a snack on the beach and this one in flight at the North Brigantine Natural Area. I thought I would miss their raucous cries when I left Brigantine but I’ve heard them outside my new house at the height of summer.

Gull species are plentiful at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. They are common to see along Wildlife Drive where people can watch them drop shellfish to crack them open on the hard-packed road. 

Other less common gull species that can be found in New Jersey include the Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Bonaparte’s gulls, Franklin’s gulls, Iceland gulls, Glaucous gulls, and Lesser black-backed gulls. I don’t have photos of any of these yet but hope to add some to my galleries. 

I sold my family shore house in 2020. On my last visit to the house before settlement, I took a walk on the beach across the street from my house. It was my final walk as the owner of the house that figured so prominently in the first half of my life. I took pictures of the ocean, and of course, gulls featured in the shots, as they always do as part of life at the Jersey Shore.

An Eagle, Harrier and More on Election Day

I lived in Brigantine, NJ all my life but somehow never took the time to visit the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. The Brigantine Division of the refuge is across the bay, but I didn’t make my first visit until late last year after I moved off the island and hiked Wildlife Drive several times. I heard bald eagles were fairly common there and was eager to see one.

I made one of my first hikes on the afternoon of election day in November 2020 after casting my vote. Although the nesting season was over and many species had migrated to warmer areas for the winter, I photographed a double-breasted cormorant capturing an eel for dinner, but it was unfortunately too far away for a good shot. The eel looked like it was putting up a fight and had wrapped itself around the bird’s neck. Eels are common prey for cormorants, and if you do a Google search, you can easily find photos of life and death photos between the two species, and according to a few accounts, the cormorants do not always win.

Walking on my way back up Wildlife Drive to the refuge parking lot, I noticed a bird of prey terrorizing some ducks and quickly took photos. At first, I hoped it might have been a bald eagle since I saw a flash of white, but it was too small. According to my Merlin app, it was a Northern Harrier. The white I saw was on its rump, which is characteristic of these hawks with owlish faces. I thought this one was a female since it was more brownish. The males are gray with white bellies giving the species the nickname of “gray ghost.” It might have been an immature bird as well since juveniles of both sexes have reddish-brown bellies. As with the double-breasted cormorant, it was unfortunately too far away for really clear shots. Although I was hoping, I wasn’t expecting to see a bald eagle on my first visit so I was happy to encounter the harrier. At least I got some photos of one bird of prey on my trip.

Northern Harrier hunting ducks near Wildlife Drive at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge
Hunting Harrier (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

As I continued walking, I glanced behind and saw a large bird soaring silently above. This was unmistakingly an adult bald eagle. Unfortunately, this one was in a hurry and passed overhead too quickly to get a good photo. I only got a few underdeveloped shots but they were clearer than the only other shots I have taken of an adult bald eagle, which I took with a cell phone.

I downloaded all the photos from the day at home later and I tweaked them with an image editor. It improved them slightly, but I hoped to get better shots on my future trips to Forsythe.

American Bald Eagle flying over Wildlife Drive at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge
Election Eagle (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

That was not my last bald eagle of the year 2020, though. I was on my way to a post-Thanksgiving hike in Wells Mills County Park in the morning when I caught this juvenile bald eagle near Chatsworth at the side of the road on Route 532. I drove past it before fully realizing what it was but pulled to the side of the road to take some photos. It took off too fast to get a clear shot of it’s head, though. I was still impressed with its size.

Juvenile Bald Eagle on the roadside in Woodland Township (Chatsworth), NJ
Roadside Eagle (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

A Stockton Grad Invokes the Spirit of Brigantine

If you ever visited the seawall at the north end of Brigantine, a popular attraction with both residents and visitors as well as American Herring Gulls and Laughing Gulls, you may have noticed the seven-plus foot tall abstract sculpture inspired by a seashell. Across from the iconic Pirate’s Den restaurant, the seawall took the place of the equally iconic Brigantine Castle and Amusement Pier almost a decade after fire destroyed the castle in 1987. Installed in 1996, it serves as a bulkhead protecting the vulnerable north end of the island from the storm surge that sometimes lashes this narrow strip of beach. 

The seawall survived Hurricane Sandy but suffered a breach and some damage. That makes it particularly fitting that the alabaster sculpture was installed in its present location on December 6, 2013, a little over a year after Hurricane Sandy hammered the little barrier island after making landfall nearby. The day of its installation was the Friday before my father, a summer resident of Brigantine for 42 years with a deep love of the island, passed away.  The sculpture stands guard now, along with the memorial benches, lamp posts, and coin-operated binoculars lining the wall.

In February of 2020, shortly after I moved off the island and before I sold my family’s shore house there, I spent some time in Brigantine and stopped by the seawall to take some pictures with my new DSLR camera, a Nikon D3500. It was a cold gray day. The surrounding dunes looked barren and stark save for evergreen bushes and the occasional piece of driftwood.  A lone intrepid herring gull perched on the railing, watching me warily as I snapped photos before taking flight.

I stopped at the sculpture and decided to photograph one upper corner, admiring the way it angled against the backdrop of the cloudy sky. I do not remember exactly when I first noticed the sculpture. It was sometime between the time it was installed at the seawall and when I moved to Brigantine as a year round resident in October 2015. Whenever it was, I admired it immediately but didn’t know any of its background until much later.

When I had the time, I did more research and found out that a Brigantine resident and Stockton University grad Gregg Knight sculpted The Spirit of Brigantine, aka the Seashell Sculpture, after being inspired by a broken shell found by his wife. When I lived in Brigantine, I used Gregg’s company The Fence Doctor to replace an old fence and gate on my property. Little did I know that the company was owned by a talented local sculptor. According to his LinkedIn profile, Knight obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Art/Sculpture in 2012.  In addition to The Spirit of Brigantine, Gregg also created a similar sculpture called Aspirations, which can be seen across from the Lighthouse Circle on the southend of Brigantine.

Brigantine, NJ public seashell sculpture called Aspirations by Gregg Knight of Knight Sculpture Studios in front of the CVS near the Light House Circle
Aspirations (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

South Jersey Horse Country

Horses have been my passion since childhood. I’m not really sure why. My family was not involved with horses unless you count my father’s father. Pop-Pop loved visiting and betting on the Thoroughbreds that ran at local racetracks during his retirement years. He died doing what he loved at Delaware Park when I was about four years old. After collecting his winnings from a successful bet, he sat in the grandstand with his friends and died there from a heart attack. I remember being at our shore house in Brigantine with my mother waiting for my dad to join us on his day off when we heard the news. Perhaps that connection made me take special joy in passing the Atlantic City Race Course, its name displayed in flowers, in Mays Landing on our weekly summer trips to the shore.

Splitting my time between a city and a barrier island made riding and working with horses a challenge but not impossible. I took riding lessons when I could and joined the Philadelphia Saddle Club in Fairmount Park, doing pleasure riding along the beautiful Wissahickon Creek. Annual rituals for me were attending the Devon Horse Show and Dressage at Devon in the Philadelphia Main Line. Watching dressage inspired me to pursue riding more seriously, and I found the Pine Barrens of South Jersey offered numerous opportunities to do so.

In February 2017, while shopping for my first horse, I saw an ad with the heading “Big, Beautiful, Brave” for a black Oldenburg gelding located at a farm in Chesterfield (Burlington County).  My trainer at the time wanted me to see a Paint mare she found for sale located in nearby Plumsted (New Egypt) just over the Ocean County border. As an afterthought, we arranged to see the black horse the same night. The mare turned out to be unsuitable, but the gelding was something special. Big, indeed, at just a hair under 17 hands tall, but a true gentle giant with strong dressage bloodlines that impressed me, good gaits that impressed my trainer, and an unflappable temperament that impressed both of us. A couple weeks later the big, beautiful, and brave black horse named Felix became mine. I took him to Dressage at Devon for the breed show in September of that year after which we began participating in dressage in the Burlington County area. 

Felix and me, Dressage at Devon, September 2017

Fittingly for a state with the horse designated as its official animal, New Jersey has more horses per square mile than any other state, a close-knit equestrian community I am happy to be part of, many horse farms devoted to diverse riding styles (dressage, jumping, Western, and endurance riding to name a few), and beaches and vast forests for pleasure riding.

My boy Felix on the left and his friends enjoying an Autumn day in the Pine Barrens