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Manahawkin WMA

"The bridge that goes to nowhere"

Stafford Avenue runs straight as a line drawn between east/west points, between flanking woodlands and feral plots. It is an old road, raised and graded dirt. Depending on state funding or how work crews have been rotated, the drive can be relatively smooth, washboard bumpy, or it can be a pothole-ridden horror.

After a mile or so, the road takes a southerly track. The woodlands give way to a bush ecotone on the north and a large impoundment pool on the south. It may be ice when you arrive, but if not, look to the wires flanking the road for kingfisher. They sometimes linger here; may even survive through some winters. All it takes is a little open water.

Now the landscape is flat -- flat and brown and windswept. Reaching out to either side are low lines of bushes -- Iva bush, marking the paths of mosquito control ditches dug during the make-work days of the Depression. If the day is particularly clear and your eyes particularly sharp, you may see the Barnegat Lighthouse, Ol' Barney, to the northeast and the bridge to Long Beach Island to the south. But you would do well not to cast your eyes afield, not yet. Because now the bumps begin in earnest; the potholes are cavernous, and standing water on the road makes navigation risky. More than one vehicle has lost its footing (and its traction) on Stafford Avenue and some have even been swallowed whole.

I personally recall a Barnegat Christmas Bird Count during which the front end of our Chevy Citation disappeared up to the hood and water crested at the door panels. Despite a tow and the infusion of many hundreds f dollars in repairs, the engine was beyond salvage.

Best to keep your eye on the road and try to keep at least one set of wheels on dry ground at all times (even if this means crowding the bushes a mite). And if it comes down to parking and walking the last half mile or so, well, there are worse walks in the world. One way or another, once the road lines out across open salt marsh, you have no more than a mile of road, anyway. when the road reaches the timber bridge, it ends.

But where does the bridge go?

It goes precisely and delightfully nowhere. It crosses a tidal creek and stops. Beyond it's open marsh. Beyond it, Barnegat Bay. All around you is open space (one of New Jersey's most precious commodities). And, there is:

Enchantment, magic . . . and something special. An evening pageant enacted daily on a winter stage so long as winter lasts.

Manahawkin Wildlife Management Area falls under the auspices of the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife. It is a favorite spot for waterfowlers and, as such, gunners are present in season (except for Sunday, when hunting is prohibited). But come January, with water freezing up and hunting season having run its course, Manahawkin runs scant of waterfowl and those who pursue them. Its riches now are measured in terms of raptors -- the birds of prey.

Raptors! Cold weather birds that hunt the marshes by day, taking advantage of a surfeit of rodents and wintering passerines. Accounted among the raptorial ranks are red-tailed hawks who will sit on wooded edges, surveying the marsh. Don't casually dismiss any old buteo sitting out as "just another red-tailed hawk" without scrutiny. Red-shouldered hawks have been known to winter in the area, too. (But don't forget, either, that immature red-tailed hawks lack red tails).

Farther out on the marsh, look for the boldly patterned rough-legged hawk -- an arctic buteo that winters along New Jersey's coastal marshes. Light phase birds predominate; dark phase birds, showing silvery flight feathers, are uncommon. Rough-legged hawks tend to sit right out on the marsh and steer off the woods. Most are found in flight, out over the marsh.

The long-winged buteos glide on wings hunched up at the shoulder and flattened toward the tip. They hover frequently and, when perched, will often choose the springy tip of a bush or tree (red-tailed's prefer sturdier perches). On a normal day, in a normal winter, an observer scanning the marshes should be able to turn up two and sometimes three rough-leggeds at a time (albeit some will be distant birds).

But the most common diurnal raptor is the harrier, the "marsh hawk." Manahawkin and adjacent Barnegat National Wildlife Refuge is a winter harrier stronghold. Sometimes a half a dozen or more harriers can be seen at a scan -- coursing low over the marsh, hovering over grassy expanses, sometimes soaring high overhead.

Males and females are dimorphic (a 75-cent way of saying they have different plumages). Adult males are silver gray backed, the color of gun smoke; females are brown backed, tawny below (with chocolate streaks down the sides). If you see a cinnamon colored bird, that one is immature.

There are other winter birds on Barnegat Bay's marshes. Black ducks huddle in the tidal creeks. Occasionally diving ducks wing by on their way to deeper water (a trip to nearby Long Beach Island and Barnegat Light will grant better looks at these).

There are meadowlarks out on the salt hay, tree sparrows out in the Iva, and a few other hardy winter species -- song sparrows, savannah sparrows . . . who known, maybe a sharp-tailed sparrow or a sedge wren.

But it's the diurnal raptors that hold center stage at Manahawkin, who put on an aerial show for as long as daylight lasts. Come evening, when the shadows begin to reach for the horizon, the activity on the marsh becomes frenetic. Harriers, rough-leggeds, and red-taileds crowd the air hoping to face down the night with a full crop. And as the sun sets, the diurnal raptors are joined by one more raptor -- the special bird that makes Manahawkin such a special place. The bird is the short-eared owl.

At first glance you might mistake a distant short-eared owl for a pale harrier. But the wings are broader, and the body stout, the flight is not quite so fluid. In the air, short-eared owls look for all the world like great big pale moths. Up close, look for the pale crescent patch on either wing and the solemn mask of a face.

At dusk (and sometimes on overcast days) short-eared owls rise from their roosts out on the open marsh and begin to cruise the marsh. On an average night three or four short-eared owls may be visible at one time from the bridge that goes to nowhere. On occasions, five or six or more. Usually, they are silent on the wing. Sometimes one or more birds vocalize -- making terrier-like yaps. Always, they are feisty -- eager and willing to engage late hunting harriers in a bout of aerial combat.

They circle and spar, these ancient adversaries, jousting for dominion over the marsh. During the summer, these battles are fought in the skies over the arctic tundra. In winter, they bring their bad blood with them and the rivalry continues.

Both harrier and owl hunt the same manner of prey. Both hunt over the same habitat. Both view the game as a matter of life and death. As adversaries, both are pretty evenly matched; quick as cats and agile as Focke Wulfs. From ringside (from the bridge), the short-eared owl seems a tad better in the turns and can out-climb a pursuing harrier. But harriers have a better reach and probably pack a better punch.

I recall watching a harrier, cruising along, perhaps a hundred feet over the marsh, who suddenly folded up and stooped, flat out into the marsh. The sharp "crack" of impact was audible over one hundred yards away. The bird's target proved to be a short-eared owl, apparently caught napping. The punch drunk owl rose, unsteadily, to defend its honor and got soundly trashed for its effort. After thirty one-sided seconds, the owl threw in the towel, returned to the marsh, and nursed its grudge.

There is really only one thing that steps between the birds, preventing the adversarial duo from going the way of the Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat. That is darkness. Though both harrier and short-eareds are crepuscular, only the short-eared is nocturnal. When darkness falls, hungry or not, scores settled or not, the harriers quit the field, surrendering the marsh to the short-eared owl.

Owls hold a special allure. Though not uncommon, they are difficult to see and New Jersey residents may spend a lifetime and not encounter a screech owl or a great horned owl (much less a saw-whet, a long-eared, a barred or snowy owl). But the short-eared owl is more gracious. Its crepuscular schedule fits easily into ours and Stafford Avenue offers access (and maybe a little adventure).

And maybe an excuse to visit another of New Jersey's special places.

To reach Manahawkin:

From the intersection of the Garden State Parkway and Route 72 (Exit 63), go east on Route 72 toward Long Beach Island, 1.5 miles to Route 9. Then go north on Route 9, 0.1 miles to a traffic light at Bay Avenue. Continue straight and make the next right onto Stafford Avenue. Go straight, through one blinking light. 0.9 miles, across Hilliard Avenue. Past Hilliard, the road turns to dirt. You have entered Manahawkin Wildlife Management Area.

The condition of Stafford Avenue varies year to year. Some years it is possible to drive all the way out with relative impunity. Some years it is patently impossible. Let good judgment be your guide. Permanent snow cover is rare but sudden thaws turn the road to mire. There is bottom, but the surface is slick. snow tires are advisable. It is not necessary to drive all the way out to the bridge to see wintering raptors, but the owls do tend to be out near the bridge (and beyond).

Suggestions:

Wear warm clothing. Standing on an open bridge, on open marsh, in the middle of winter is a formula for discomfort. The bridge, though sturdy, has been the target of periodic vandalism. Watch your step.

You will need serviceable binoculars to get the most out of your viewing. A tripod-mounted spotting scope (fitted with a 20x to 40x power eyepiece) is well worth bringing if you have one.

The owls are visible December through early April. January is best before winter has cut into the numbers of wintering birds. The owls are most active during the last half-hour of daylight and, for comfort and viewing, windless evenings are best.

This is a remote, unsupervised location. Such places go better with caution and friends.

--Pete Dunne

Reprinted from NJ Audubon magazine, winter 1991