The past two Fridays have been great for eagle spotting. On Good Friday, I took beautiful shots of an adult bald eagle hunting at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. I’m calling this one my Good Friday eagle. This past Friday, I returned to Forsythe and had two more interesting eagle encounters.
First, I photographed an adult bald eagle flying by with a fish grasped in its talons. This is my first capture of a bald eagle with its prey. I’m calling this one my Easter Friday Eagle, a fitting bookend to my encounter the previous week.
And for a bonus, I next witnessed an adult bald eagle being driven off by a feisty pair of ospreys. This was further along Wildlife Drive, and I don’t believe it was the eagle I saw earlier with the fish. I spotted this bald eagle on the same tree growing on a little island in the bay where I photographed my eagle encounter last April. I was able to take many shots of that one last year because the eagle sat perched for a while before taking off. It also hovered above me when it heard my camera clicking.
This particular eagle didn’t have time to perch on the tree very long. The ospreys were intent on driving it off. They won their point, and the eagle took off towards Atlantic City. This was fortuitous for me because it passed close to me and fairly low, enabling me to take one of my best shots of an adult bald eagle.
The altercation also attracted the attention of a few other visitors. One man initially thought the ospreys were juvenile bald eagles. Another woman recognized them as ospreys, stopping her car to exclaim: “Was that an osprey driving away an eagle? That was a treat!”
Benjamin Franklin once criticized the bald eagle for stealing prey from ospreys, calling it “a Bird of bad moral Character” and praising the osprey as a “diligent Bird,” depicting eagles as “too lazy to fish for himself” in contrast to the “Labour of the Fishing Hawk.” I imagine he would be surprised and pleased at how this pair of osprey defended their territory.
Happy Easter! It’s my custom to take the day off for Good Friday. This year I spent about an hour hiking at Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge. Along Wildlife Drive, I got some great photos of a hunting bald eagle that I’m calling my Good Friday Eagle. It was the first eagle I saw at Forsythe this year and these are the best shots of an adult bald eagle that I have taken to date. I also saw a juvenile, but it was too far and soaring too high for decent photos.
I noticed species of birds that spend the winter in warmer climates returning for nesting season. I spotted snowy egrets, glossy ibis, and laughing gulls for the first time this year. Ospreys started returning a few weeks ago, and I photographed one with freshly captured fish. I also took this shot of a great egret coming into breeding plumage with green appearing around its bill and long plumes in back.
Celebrating Easter in Brigantine and the Pine Barrens
Before visiting Forsythe on Friday, I spent some time in Egg Harbor City. I stopped at Nancy’s Country Kitchen for lunch, a roadside breakfast cafe along the White Horse Pike with a small lunch menu. Then I visited Egg Harbor Lake Park to take some photos for an upcoming post. Before heading home, I stopped in Brigantine for the Good Friday Service at St. Thomas’s, my former parish. Good Friday is part of the Easter Triduum, a period of time starting the evening of Holy Thursday and completing with Easter.
I started off Easter Sunday with early morning Mass at Christ the Redeemer, my current parish in Waterford. Christ the Redeemer, which formed from the merger of several different parishes in 2010, actually holds services at three different worship sites: Assumption Church, Sacred Heart Church, and St. Anthony’s Church, a small country chapel very near the border of Wharton State Forest. The rest of my day was spent visiting family in Sicklerville and Absecon before having dinner with friends in Shamong. I hope everyone else was able to spend Easter with good friends and family!
The symbolism of seeing a bald eagle on election day during my first visit to Forsythe Wildlife Refuge will always make that sighting special to me, but it wasn’t until several months later in April 2021 that I had an even better bald eagle encounter, one that is my favorite one to date. And fortunately, I was able to capture many shots of which this is one. I was walking along Wildlife Drive again and spotted a white-headed shape on a tree on a little island in the bay. I waited patiently and took photos as it perched, seemingly content.
It was getting late, and it decided to get some hunting in before nightfall. It finally took off and started soaring back and forth keeping close watch on the water. It was windy, and I think it got curious about me and my camera. As it passed over me at one point, it took a moment to hoover on the wind currents and peer down at me as I clicked away.
Juvenile bald eagles have brown heads and do not have the characteristic white head plumage until they reach adulthood after about five years.
Fish are the preferred food of bald eagles.
Bald eagles became rare in the 1900s but conservation efforts led to a dramatic rebound, and it was removed from the Endangered Species list in June 2007. Not only is this great news for the eagles, it spurred the growth of ecotourism as this article in the Press of Atlantic City highlights:
A federal study estimates that the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township alone is at least party responsible for $8 million worth of Atlantic County’s economy, with visitors spending money at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and retail shops.
– New Jersey’s bald eagle population soaring, by Thomas Barlas, Press of Atlantic City, 4-27-16
A rare treat awaited me during a recent visit to Forsythe. A flamingo pink waterbird with a beak like a spoon that normally inhabits the Gulfstream states ventured much further north this summer. Meet the Roseate Spoonbill. This medium-sized wading bird is actually not rare or endangered. It just chooses to make its home in the furthest southern reaches of the United States along with South and Central America. Sightings of Roseate Spoonbills in the Garden State are so unusual that they have made the local news in the past.
I got photos of two, although both were a bit too far for my lens. A birdwatcher with a telescope kindly allowed me to take a closer look.
The Roseate Spoonbill belongs to the Threskiornithidae family, which contains 34 species of ibises and spoonbills, including the Glossy Ibis, another medium-sized water bird with a curved rather than a spoon-shaped bill and iridescent dark red and green plumage. Glossy Ibises are much more commonly spotted in the state but only during the breeding season. According to the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, this species migrates from the south to breed along the Jersey Shore. Although not an endangered species worldwide, New Jersey lists them as a species of special concern. I spotted flocks of glossy ibis this past spring but only saw one on my most recent visit.
Another highlight of the day for me was my first sighting of an American Avocet. This large black and white wading bird with a distinctive long, thin, curved beak develops a rust-colored head during the breeding season. Very striking!
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.
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.
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.
Benjamin Franklin famously did not approve of the Bald Eagle as the national bird of the United States, although the story that he preferred the wild turkey is a myth, according to the Franklin Institute.
Personally, I wouldn’t trade the Bald Eagle as America’s national bird for anything, but I do share Ben Franklin’s appreciation of the “Fishing Hawk” or, as it is officially known, the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and thankfully America is blessed with an abundance of them.
Smaller than a Bald Eagle, the Osprey is nevertheless a raptor with striking white and dark brown coloration and larger than a Red-tailed Hawk. My favorite place for Osprey watching in South Jersey is the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Wildlife Drive in the Brigantine division has multiple nesting platforms along its route where Osprey pairs return each year after migrating south for the winter. Ospreys, with their fish hook-like talons, are obviously expert fishers and the bays and coves along the drive provide ample opportunity.
When searching for and pursuing fish, the osprey hovers over the water until it spots one. Then it dives in after its prey, not always successfully, as this series of photos demonstrates.
And when it succeeds in catching a fish, the osprey still has to fend off thieves, not only bald eagles as Ben Franklin pointed out, but also members of its own species. This osprey eluded another osprey trying to steal its hard-earned dinner.
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.