Where are the Best Birding Spots in South Jersey?

On Saturday, March 12th, Stockton University held the 33rd Annual Pinelands Short Course described as “a daylong event featuring educational presentations that explore the unique history, ecology, and culture of the Pinelands.” One of the presentations I registered for was the Stockton Campus Birding Walk. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible with cold drenching rain switching over to sleet so the Birding Walk was switched to an indoor presentation of best birding locations in and around the Pine Barrens. The presenter Joshua M. Gant, a park naturalist with Ocean County Parks and Recreation, offered the following recommendations:

During the question and answer session, we discussed Forsythe and when ospreys might be returning. I mentioned that I hadn’t seen any yet, and he noted that it was still too early for them. 

I saw ospreys in the wild for the first time on a gloomy day in late March of 2021 during one of my first trips to the Forsythe refuge. I was on Eco Leeds Trail when I heard a branch snap in a nearby tree and spotted a large bird fly out from behind it. As the osprey swooped above me and headed out over the bay toward a nesting platform where it landed, I snapped a series of photographs.

I’ve already visited Forsythe multiple times this winter when gulls, geese, and ducks are by far the most common birds. Mute swans and Canada geese are year round residents but snow geese visit only in winter.

A mute swan in the bay at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge in Galloway, NJ
Mute Swan at Forsythe (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

This past Saturday, the day before the vernal equinox, I visited Forsythe again and spotted ospreys on several nesting platforms. And they are already hard at work building nests and catching fish! I also saw my first great egret and first double-crested cormorant of the year. Happy Spring!

An osprey eating a fish while sitting on a nesting platform containing a partially built nest at Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, Brigantine Division
Osprey Eating a Fish (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Snow Birds of Prey: The Eagle, Falcon, and Harrier

Juvenile Bald Eagle over Atco Lake

This warm spell is making me look forward to spring when many bird species return to Jersey. In the meantime, I’ve been photographing the birds who spend the winter with us. After the blizzard  earlier this month, I took my camera to Atco Lake. Mallard ducks and Canada geese make the lake their home along with a pair of swans. The swans are usually on the other side of the lake, but I once caught them feeding very close to shore.

I went to the spot where I had photographed the swans but didn’t expect to see much with the lake frozen over. Suddenly, a large brown bird swooped over the ice directly in front of me, close enough for me to immediately recognize it as a juvenile bald eagle searching for breakfast. With slim pickings on the ice, it soared away over the White Horse Pike.

Juvenile American Bald Eagle Flying Over Frozen Atco Lake in Waterford, NJ towards White Horse Pike
Atco Lake Eagle and White Horse Pike (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Peregrine Falcon on Forsythe’s Osprey Platforms

I also made several trips to Forsythe this month. I was hoping to get shots of snowy owls or bald eagles but no luck there yet. The drives were not in vain, though, since I got my first shots of peregrine falcons. I caught two of these famously fast and wide-ranging raptors perching on the vacant osprey nesting platforms. This one returned the gaze of a group of bird watchers for a few minutes before taking off.

Northern Harrier along Wildlife Drive at Forsythe

I’ve encountered harriers on numerous occasions at Forsythe but have not had the best of luck getting a good photo of this medium-sized raptor with an owl-like face. I spotted several hunting along Wildlife Drive on each of my visits. Their usual prey includes small mammals and birds, but I saw one going after ducks once. On another visit last spring, I photographed one near one of the observation towers. On my most recent visit, I photographed one at the beginning of the drive and another where the drive loops with Atlantic City and Brigantine in the background.

Birding in the Pines and along the Jersey Shore

On the last Saturday in October this year, I spent the morning with birding expert Steve Sobocinski and a small group of birders hiking the Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s Rancocas Creek farm.  With more than 24 years of birding experience in the Pine Barrens, Steve helped identify the many species we spotted.

Steve Sobocinski Leads a Birding Walk at the Rancocas Creek Farm, an initiative of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance
Steve Sobocinski Leads a Birding Walk at the Rancocas Creek Farm (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Warblers and Sparrows

A Tennessee warbler and grasshopper sparrow made rare autumn appearances. These two species usually have migrated out of the area by this time of year, and Steve was excited to see them. The yellowish gray Tennessee warbler migrates through New Jersey between Canada where it breeds and Central and South America where it spends the winter. 

Tennessee Warbler at Rancocas Creek Farm, October 2021 (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

A yellow-rumped warbler also made an appearance. They have distinct brownish grey streaks and yellow markings.

The grasshopper sparrow seemed unafraid and curious about us as we admired and photographed it. This little sparrow feeds primarily on grasshoppers and migrates south for the winter. Although not endangered, the species is in decline.

Grasshopper Sparrow at Rancocas Creek Farm, October 2021 (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Sparrows in general ruled the morning. Steve pointed out house, field, and chipping sparrows along with heavily streaked savannah and song sparrows. Here’s a nice reference to help differentiate various species of sparrow: https://www.thespruce.com/pictures-of-sparrows-4121969.

Double-crested Cormorant and Great Blue Heron

A double-crested cormorant flew overhead at the very beginning of the tour, and one group member spotted a great blue heron

I’ve seen both these species closer to the shore but not as often inland. In fact, this was the first time I saw a cormorant in this area. My favorite thing about them is their beautiful emerald eyes. This photo I took of one at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge shows that feature clearly.

Double-crested Cormorant at Forsythe (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Great blue herons are common in New Jersey. I have seen them in Shamong and at Batsto Lake while kayaking but have seen them most frequently at Forsythe where I have taken my best photos of them.

Great Blue Heron at Forsythe (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel

We spotted a red-tailed hawk near Route 206. It flew from a tree to a wire where it watched the roadway before leaving for better hunting. 

Steve noted that it was unusual to see one perched on a wire, but coincidentally I was able to take photos of one earlier this year perched on a wire along Route 206 in Shamong not far from Atsion Lake. Perhaps they like keeping an eye out for roadkill.

Red-tailed Hawk in Shamong, April 2021 (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

A female American kestrel perched along several fence posts, moving away each time we got a little too close for her comfort. This little raptor is the smallest falcon in North America. Although common, in some locations the species has declined. 

American Kestrel at Rancocas Creek Farm, October 2021 (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

We came upon a garter snake lying so still we wondered if it were dead until it moved slightly. Steve wondered why the kestrel hadn’t grabbed it yet.

Backyard Birds

A male Eastern bluebird flitted around, joining an eastern phoebe on a fence. Who doesn’t love bluebirds? I wish they visited my backyard more often. The bluebird’s companion, the eastern phoebe, is a species of eastern flycatcher.

A male Eastern bluebird flitted around, joining an eastern phoebe, a type of eastern flycatcher, on a fence. Who doesn’t love bluebirds? I wish they visited my backyard more often. Blue jays, on the other hand, visit my backyard frequently where they are more than welcome. We spotted a few of these colorful cheeky birds as well as a few mockingbirds.

We saw a male red-winged blackbird perched on a fence hanging out with a flock of cowbirds. Although very common, red-winged blackbirds are one of my favorites. Last winter, I took a sequence of photos of a feisty male red-winged blackbird driving off a green heron in the early morning fog.

Although the brown female of the species may not immediately catch the eye compared to the striking glistening black male with his fiery markings, I noticed this little girl in Brigantine and got a photo of her perched on some reeds.

Female Red-winged Blackbird in Brigantine (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

We also saw an American Goldfinch, the state bird of New Jersey. Like the male red-winged blackbird, the male of this species is more brightly colored than the female, especially during the breeding season.

Cowbirds and Canada Geese

Among the flock of cowbirds, we spotted an unusual specimen with a white ring around both eyes. Steve thought this might be caused by a melanistic gene. 

Flocks of Canada geese passed overhead with the sky as a beautiful backdrop.This photo taken at Goshen Pond in Shamong shows this large bird close up.

Canada Goose on Goshen Pond (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Pinelands Preservation Alliance Headquarters and the Rancocas Creek Farm

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance headquarters is located at 17 Pemberton Road, Southampton Township, New Jersey at the historic Bishop Farmstead, which includes the Bishop-Irick House, the Louden Barn, a gift shop, and walking trail.  

The adjoining 72 acre Rancocas Creek Farm is the latest addition to the complex thanks to a donation of the land made in 2019. Originally a soy farm, the PPA repurposed it as an organic sustainable farm.

Autumn Updates: New Deer Photos and Information!

A couple weeks ago, my horse’s trainer was driving home one night in Shamong when she collided with a large buck bolting in front of her car. He did not survive, and her car received significant damage. Luckily, she was not hurt. 

Be careful out there! Rutting season and hunting season are beginning. I have updated my Close Encounters of the White-tailed Kind post with the following safety information from the U.S. Forest Service along with new photos and additional fresh content.

  • Wear bright clothing. Make yourself more visible. Choose colors that stand out, like red, orange or green, and avoid white, blacks, browns, earth-toned greens and animal-colored clothing. Orange vests and hats are advisable. 
  • Don’t forget to protect fido. Get an orange vest for your dog if he/she accompanies you
  • Make noise. Whistle, sing or carry on a conversation as you walk to alert hunters to your presence. Sound carries well across mountain basins, and hunters should be listening for any sounds of animal movement.
  • Be courteous. Once a hunter is aware of your presence, don’t make unnecessary noise to disturb wildlife. Avoid confrontations.
  • Make yourself known. If you do hear shooting, raise your voice and let hunters know that you are in the vicinity.
  • Know your own comfort level. If hunting makes you uneasy, choose a hike in a location where hunting is not allowed, such as a national park or a state park, or schedule your outings for Sundays.
  • Know when hunting seasons are. Continue to hike, but learn about where and when hunting is taking place. Here is the schedule from the New Jersey state website, which contains more detailed information, including regulations:
    • Fall Bow, September 11 (Early Zones Only, Regulation Sets #4-8)
    • Youth Deer Bow Hunt, September 25
    • Fall Bow, October 2 (Statewide)
    • Permit Bow Season, October 30
    • Youth Deer Firearm Hunt, November 20
    • Permit Shotgun/Muzzleloader, November 22 (Varies by zone)
    • Six-day Firearm Season, December 6-11
    • Winter Bow, January 1, 2022

Close Encounters of the White-tailed Kind

‘Tis the season for white-tailed romance! That’s a polite and poetic way of saying it is the time of year known as “the rut” for New Jersey’s white-tailed deer population. Bucks lose their minds and throw caution to the wind in pursuit of mates. It is a bonanza for hunters, a great opportunity for photographers, and a potential nightmare for motorists.

NOTE: A couple weeks after the date of this post, my trainer was driving home one night in Shamong when she collided with a large buck bolting in front of her car. He did not survive, and her car received significant damage. Luckily, she was not hurt. Be careful out there!

Another note of caution: New Jersey’s hunting season for white-tailed deer is beginning. If you venture into the woods this time of year, follow these safety tips from the U.S. Forest Service:

  • Wear bright clothing. Make yourself more visible. Choose colors that stand out, like red, orange or green, and avoid white, blacks, browns, earth-toned greens and animal-colored clothing. Orange vests and hats are advisable. 
  • Don’t forget to protect fido. Get an orange vest for your dog if he/she accompanies you
  • Make noise. Whistle, sing or carry on a conversation as you walk to alert hunters to your presence. Sound carries well across mountain basins, and hunters should be listening for any sounds of animal movement.
  • Be courteous. Once a hunter is aware of your presence, don’t make unnecessary noise to disturb wildlife. Avoid confrontations.
  • Make yourself known. If you do hear shooting, raise your voice and let hunters know that you are in the vicinity.
  • Know your own comfort level. If hunting makes you uneasy, choose a hike in a location where hunting is not allowed, such as a national park or a state park, or schedule your outings for Sundays.
  • Know when hunting seasons are. Continue to hike, but learn about where and when hunting is taking place. Here is the schedule from the New Jersey state website, which contains more detailed information, including regulations:
    • Fall Bow, September 11 (Early Zones Only, Regulation Sets #4-8)
    • Youth Deer Bow Hunt, September 25
    • Fall Bow, October 2 (Statewide)
    • Permit Bow Season, October 30
    • Youth Deer Firearm Hunt, November 20
    • Permit Shotgun/Muzzleloader, November 22 (Varies by zone)
    • Six-day Firearm Season, December 6-11
    • Winter Bow, January 1, 2022

Franklin Parker Preserve

The Saturday after Thanksgiving last year I decided to hike in Franklin Parker Preserve. On a trail near the parking lot, I suddenly heard hoofbeats running up behind me. I turned expecting to see someone on horseback but instead saw an eight-point white-tailed buck! We both froze for a moment. I ducked behind some bushes by the side of the trail in case he decided to continue charging down the path. Instead, as I began shooting photos, he leaped off the trail and took off into the woods. It counts as one of my most memorable encounters in the woods with a wild animal to date.

On the Run

Deer on the Farm

This was not the only exciting moment I witnessed of a white-tailed buck last year, though. Not long before crossing paths with this buck at Franklin Parker Preserve, I captured a great sequence of another eight-pointer chasing a doe through a pasture on the farm where I keep my horse. Once she eluded him, he jumped the fence and took off into the woods, all of which I photographed.

This big guy was familiar to the neighborhood. A friend of mine captured him on his security camera visiting one night. A fellow boarder thought it looked like the same buck who approached her and her horse out on the trail, unnerving her with his brazenness. She nicknamed him “Cujo.”

The farm is home to a herd of deer, and I have had good luck photographing them. During the summer, I photographed a buck with velvet on his antlers hanging out with a group of does and fawns. This was my very first photo of a buck.

White Tails

I snapped this doe and her fawn during the summer last year as well. This was near where I saw the fence-jumper later that year.

A doe and her fawn

This is my only photo of deer at the farm this year so far. This pair of does were in the mare pasture. When they saw me, they took off for the woods. I broke my ankle a few weeks later so unfortunately have yet to hike around the farm since then.

A Pair of Does in Shamong

Waterford, Goshen Pond, and Quaker Bridge Road

My first deer picture last year was of this doe in the morning mist during a walk in Waterford near my house.  I have frequently encountered deer along this road.

Doe in the Morning Mist

I got this nice close-up of a doe while driving near Goshen Pond in Shamong in my Jeep. Wish I could have swatted those deer flies off her face.

Goshen Doe

Just a few weeks ago, I came upon this doe while driving in the woods with my Jeep near Quaker Bridge Road. She was quite brave, and I tried to inch by and take photographs without scaring her. Once she saw the camera, though, she bolted and I got this shot of her. The buck I saw at Franklin Parker Preserve also bolted when I aimed my camera at him. I have to wonder if they confuse it with a gun.

Doe Near Quaker Bridge Road in Shamong

See more photos of White-tailed Deer in this Beach and Barrens Facebook album.

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.