Renowned among boaters as one of the state's most treacherous waterways, Barnegat Inlet is equally renowned among birders and beachcombers as one of the most rewarding. It is a beautiful area with an expansive beach, uncluttered by condos, where instead sea, sand, and sky dominate. Here, where land, bay and sea meet with ever-changing tides and currents. "The usual kinds of birds" ("ukobs," as Karl Anderson calls 'em) are unusually good ones. Here, too, the unexpected is almost -- well, expected.
The 172-foot tower of Barnegat Lighthouse is the most prominent landmark anywhere near the inlet; it's visible from most of northern Long Beach Island, southern Island Beach Park, and mainland marshes miles across the bay. Known almost universally as "Old Barney," construction of the lighthouse (in 1858) was supervised by Lieutenant George Gordon Meade, of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers; he is perhaps somewhat better known for leading the federal forces in the Battle of Gettysburg. A lightship stationed off Barnegat Inlet replaced the land-based beacon in 1927. The property became part of the New Jersey State Park System in 1954. The lighthouse is open from 10:00 to 4:30 daily through Labor Day -- which means it's closed when most birders visit. (For information during park hours, call (609) 494-2016.) On the plus side, the parking is free in winter, and the rest rooms by the entrance usually remain open all year.
To enjoy Barnegat Inlet and vicinity to best advantage, visit between mid-September and mid-April. It's especially good from November through March. Plan to explore several close-by areas; whereas the birds for which the area is best known are on the ocean at the mouth of the inlet, you'll need to move around a bit to find the greatest variety. Especially try High Bar, a mile-long dike extending northwest into Barnegat Bay and visible from the inlet. To reach it, go west on Twentieth Street, right onto Arnold, and right again onto Sunset to the end. "Ipswich" Savannah sparrows, American pipits, oystercatchers, and short-eared owls are a few of the species you might see here. Boat-tailed grackles are regular in winter in the nearby marshes. It's also a great spot for all the bay ducks (scaup, bufflehead, goldeneye, mergansers, and oldsquaw). One January day I had over three hundred oldsquaw here, and their musical ow-owl-omelette call rang continuously -- a real Arctic treat to hear!
To reach the bay side of the inlet, follow Long Beach Boulevard north from Ship Bottom; it becomes Central Avenue in the town of Barnegat Light. Continue on Central and bear left onto Broadway, which ends in about a quarter mile. Scan the water and sand bars here for brant, oldsquaw, and a variety of gulls. Oystercatchers are frequently seen except in midwinter. The entrance to the state park is back about 100 feet from the end of the road. In fall, be sure to check the narrow woodlot (hedgerow, really) on the perimeter of the parking lot for migrant land birds. In the holly, sumac, and red cedars, you may find warblers, vireos, thrushes, kinglets, and even sapsuckers. Western kingbird shows up here in late fall/early winter in some years.
From the northeast corner of the parking lot, walk the trail toward the lighthouse. (Be sure to read the historical marker about my six-times great uncle Andrew Steelman first.) The breakwater near the base of the lighthouse gives you another view of the inlet, and you can see across to Island Beach State Park. (A fifty-mile drive!) Scope it for the rare snowy owl or gyrfalcon, highly mobile birds which can be on the dunes on either side of the inlet. (On occasion they've been seen on the lighthouse itself, or the water tower in Barnegat Light.) Other raptors -- notably peregrines and merlins -- are apt to be seen anywhere in the area.
My birding notes over the last two decades are filled with references to the "Eighth Street Jetty." It's still there (sort of) -- partly crumbled by storms, partly buried in the sand -- but in 1987 construction was begun on a new breakwater, parallel to the one on the Island Beach (north) side of the inlet. It's basically complete now, and there's a walkway on it which is accessible from the state park. This allows you to survey nearly the entire inlet out to the ocean. The old Eighth Street jetty runs north-eastward from Eighth Street (1/4 mile south of the lighthouse) and ends well before the middle of the new breakwater. Last fall, the harlequin ducks were often inside the inlet, hugging the rocks. For decades, this has been the best and most consistent spot in the state for these beautiful northern ducks. They usually linger until early April, rarely into the first week of May. The triangular lagoon formed by the new breakwater and the old jetty was filled with sea ducks last fall. Ten common eiders and all three scoters were joined by red-breasted mergansers and oldsquaw. King eider also occur here each year. It will be interesting to see how the shifting sands will affect this area; it might fill in completely.
You can still access the new breakwater from the end of Eighth Street, though you won't have the advantage of the walkway, just rough boulders. Be sure to check them for purple sandpipers, which so perfectly blend in with the rocks that you often don't see them until they move -- and they don't move until you're just a few yards away! There are usually just a couple dozen birds present, but flocks of over fifty occur. By scoping the tower at the end of the jetty, you're sure to see great cormorants all winter long; if they hang around until April, you'll see their bright white flank patches. There are always double-cresteds among them in spring and fall, rarely (but increasingly) in winter.
Already, a much larger beach area has been created; some of this is seasonally fenced off for beach-nesting birds. Watch along the dunes and open sandy area for American pipits, horned larks, and lapland longspurs in migration and during the winter; I saw my "life" snow buntings here one Halloween Day many years ago, and they still occur annually.
Migrating loons (both common and red-throated) may be seen in numbers during late fall, and a few will be present all winter. Though they are usually silent, on rare (in New Jersey) occasions one may get the thrill of hearing them call; I still remember a January day in '83 when two wailed back and forth on glass-smooth Barnegat Bay.
One of the thrills of cold weather birding here is the numbers of gannets which may be seen. They can almost always be found with the aid of a spotting scope, and with easterly winds may be quite close to shore -- sometimes just beyond the breakers. On such good fall days, you may see several hundred gannets, diving into the ocean with a great splash (which you can see but not hear).
Throughout winter, but especially November and December, as well as March and April, Bonaparte's gulls may be common, and I have seen both little gull and common black-headed gull here too. Thorough searching through the gull flocks on the beach may reveal lesser black-backed, glaucous, and Iceland gulls present in small numbers each year.
The black-legged kittiwake, one of the truly pelagic gulls, is found here more often than at any other New Jersey site, except perhaps Manasquan Inlet. They are usually far out -- I recall a somewhat exaggerated description of their distance from a rare bird alert tape by (I think) Pete Dunne: "Set your Questar high on a dune, aim it at the horizon, focused on infinity; the birds over the island are kittiwakes; the island is Ireland." Actually, they often follow fishing boats almost into the inlet.
Barnegat Inlet is the starting point for many fishing trips (headboats and charters), and a few which specifically target pelagic birds. Many of these birds are eighty-five miles out, in Hudson Canyon, but very rarely, a jaeger, red phalarope, or alcid may be spotted from shore. Since the mid-1980's, brown pelicans have been regularly sighted in summer at the inlet, though the highest counts to date (300+ in 1992!) are from the southern part of Barnegat Bay.
What else might you see in this special place? Arctic tern and western grebe are both confirmed here, as is bridled tern (following hurricanes). One lucky field trip a few years ago reported a white-tailed tropicbird! Not found in the binding literature due to observer embarrassment (despite certainty -- and no, it wasn't me) was the flamingo which flew past Barnegat Inlet one summer day. We'll say nothing of the Macaroni penguin caught swimming in Barnegat Bay in the summer of 1981!
Reprinted from NJ Audubon magazine, winter 1992-93