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Sandy Hook in Spring

One Stop Big Day -- SANDY HOOK

There are two extremes to playing the Big Day game in the NJAS World Series of Birding. The traditional approach, and the one that gets the most attention since it can generate results in the 200+ regions, is a state-wide hit-and-run assault that strings together as many staked-out birds in as many diverse habitats as possible. Although a large species count can be tremendously rewarding to a participating team, it requires a great deal of planning, advance scouting, the ability to put up with people who you thought were your friends but become annoying over twenty-four hours of close contact, and the endurance to jostle over hundreds of miles of New Jersey's highways and back roads.

An alternative that is becoming ever more popular is to pick a suitable area of limited extent but varied habitats, and trade off the frantic pace of hit-and-run birding for a slower, more thorough search for birds that may be present but nut obvious to the casual observer. With a limited area, it is always possible to return to key spots at different times of the day to see what new birds have surfaced. Two areas in New Jersey are ideally suited for this type of approach: Cape May south of the canal, and Sandy Hook in Monmouth County. A number of people compromise and pick a somewhat larger area: Cape May County is very popular with a number of teams; my efforts for the Owl Haven Nature Center have focused on all of Monmouth County.

Sandy Hook is a five-mile long barrier beach separating Sandy Hook Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. It is a wonderful place for birding any time of the year (as long as the summer beach crowds can be avoided between Memorial Day and Labor Day).

For the NJAS World Series of Birding in early to mid-May, it is ideal. This sand spit offers an impressive variety of habitat in about 1,600 easily covered acres. It can all be visited in the typical Big Day effort leaving time to actually enjoy the birds encountered. For a number of years, a team calling themselves the "Sandy Hook Onlies" has done just what their name implies: stayed exclusively on Sandy Hook for the duration of the World Series of Birding. Their Big Day list has been as high as 159 [ed. note: this total is as of the date of publication in spring 1993], demonstrating that a single location can be very productive. Their low of around 80 shows that weather conditions can have a larger negative impact on a small area as compared to a statewide effort.

Sandy Hook is an excellent location for viewing spring migrants. The trees and shrubs tend to be short, giving the birder an opportunity to see species at lower levels than at more inland locations in New Jersey. But there are extensive stands of tall, thick poison ivy that give the birds plenty of chances to hide from the view of birders as well as the hungry gaze of migrating accipiters and falcons.

My first New Jersey encounter with an orange-crowned warbler actually occurred at Sandy Hook on a World Series run. Other unusual birds that we have seen at Sandy Hook on the Big Day include Philadelphia vireo (a rarely encountered spring migrant in New Jersey), and Lincoln's sparrow (a bird that I have difficulty in seeing each year).

An interesting phenomenon of Sandy Hook is its attractiveness to late lingering winter species. In past years we have been able to find dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows in some low vegetation at the Hook, when these species have left the rest of New Jersey. Other "late" birds that we have found and that you should be alert for are Bonaparte's gull, brant, both loons, and red-breasted merganser.

The secret to any successful Big Day effort is visiting a variety of habitats at appropriate times throughout the day. An inventory of Sandy Hook produces sandy beaches, ocean and bay waters, vegetated back dunes, a couple of fresh-water ponds, grassy fields, mud flats, and a few stands of larger, mature trees. Dawn is a key time for birding, as night birds such as woodcock, nighthawk, and rails are best discovered by call while it is still dark. It may be necessary to make prior arrangements with the superintendent at Sandy Hook for access to the fresh water marshes at the north end of the Hook while it is still dark. Don't just arrive at the main gate on Big Day expecting to get in if you haven't verified access in advance.

The other critical timing issue is low tide; you want to have ample opportunity to look for shorebirds along the exposed mud flats of the bay side. since you want to see as many species as possible, better plan on checking the edges of Plum Island (opposite parking lot B), Spermaceti Cove (opposite the Visitor Center), and Horseshoe Cove (just north of parking lot L on the lay side). Food shorebird habitat is at a premium in Monmouth County; so it is imperative that you check whatever is available at the proper tide.

The rest of your Big Day at Sandy Hook should be fit around these two events. After trying for rails and nightjars in the time just before dawn at the fresh-water pond at north beach, you might want to head for the locust grove along the nearby dunes. Remember that the feeding activity of most migrant birds if most obvious in the first hour after sunrise as the new arrivals get serious about rebuilding fuel reserves expended in their northward flights. On Big Day, you'll be even more aware of the birder's maxim: not enough mornings, too many afternoons. You'll be anxious to visit as many different wooded feeding areas as possible in the first hour or two of the new day, but remember that time spent traveling between locations is time that could be better used looking more thoroughly where you already are. Only experience can guide you in deciding when it's time to move on to another area.

The fresh-water pond and the locust grove are both accessed from parking lot K, the northernmost public lot on the Hook. Take note of the grassy field just to the west of this area; you'll want to return later in the day to look for sparrows, meadowlarks, and bobolinks using this field. Be sure to look at the tops of the fences around here for an odd sparrow or two. Be alert for white-crowned sparrows; they often move through Sandy Hook in good numbers in mid-May.

The fresh-water pond should also receive some birding time in daylight, as it often holds a pied-billed grebe, an occasional least or American bittern, some night-herons, and an assortment of ducks. Careful scanning of the far side of the pond with a spotting scope can reveal a bittern, or even a sora rail or solitary sandpiper. This pond is also the most reliable spot on the Hook for belted kingfisher, a species that can be missed even by the highest scoring teams that cover the entire state. Don't ignore the swallows that hawk insects over the water; spend some time trying to pick out a cliff swallow from the much more common tree and barn swallows.

Another location that should be visited for warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other tree lovers includes the stand of woods behind the rusty metal barn known as the Brookdale site. Access is gained by walking north from parking lot L or the unmarked lot just past it, through the scout camp area, and past the rusty barn. Be prepared for mosquitoes in these woods; try thinking of them positively as "bird food."

A favorite spot for birders at Sandy Hook is the garden area, opposite Battery Potter (a relic of the military heritage of the Hook). This unkempt garden is a magnet for many warblers and sparrows, and should be visited at least once on any Big Day. While in the vicinity of the garden, be sure to walk around the trees in front of the yellow brick buildings just to the west. These are the tallest trees on the Hook and often attract tree-top feeders that are hard to find elsewhere.

A prime habitat offered by Sandy Hook is the Atlantic Ocean. Since the Hook is so thin, you're never very far from it, but in the attempt to find as many birds in the shrubs and woods as possible, you may forget about the birds possible along the beach or offshore. You should make a number of visits to the various access points, such as parking lots B, C, and D south of the Visitor Center, and E, F, and I north of the center. [Ed. Note deleted].

You should check all the flocks of gulls along the beach; there have been white-winged gulls still at the Hook on previous World Series of Birding days. Scan the distant horizon with a spotting scope for a possible northern gannet while you are looking at the ocean.

Walk down to the rocky area just north of parking lot C; this is the only place where I have seen purple sandpipers at Sandy Hook (unfortunately, never on Big Day). We know they often linger into May at Cape May; so you could still run into them at the Hook if you are very lucky.

There is a boardwalk on the bay side opposite the Visitor Center that should receive your attention. In addition to the osprey nest just to the south, you'll be able to look at the sandbar used by cormorants, ducks, geese, and shorebirds. You'll need a good scope to look at the shorebirds. This is your best shot at great cormorant, a common winter species that can linger until the World Series of Birding. Look among the cormorants for one that is obviously large or an immature that shows a dark throat over a white belly (the opposite of an immature double-crested cormorant). The tidal area near the end of the boardwalk sometimes has a clapper rail calling or even visible at the proper tide conditions; so keep your eyes and ears open in this area.

In addition to the chance of bothersome mosquitoes in the wooded areas, you should be prepared for encounters with poison ivy. Sandy Hook may be the state's capital for this dreaded plant; so watch what you touch or rub against if you are at all allergic. On Sandy Hook, the poison ivy grows as low shrubs, vines on the larger trees, and as dense stands that tower over six feet high.

Another hazard to guard against is a speeding ticket from the National Park rangers. The 35 mph speed limit is rigorously enforced with radar units; don't let your birding enthusiasm overwhelm your attention to the posted speeds. Also pay attention to the posted parking regulations; the park rangers will notice cars along the sides of roads and ticket them. What's worse, you may get stuck in loose sand that could cost you valuable time in getting free.

If you haven't been to Sandy Hook before, or if some of these locations are unfamiliar to you, do some advance planning. By all means, make a few visits to scout out the locations I've suggested to familiarize yourself with the variety offered by the Hook. You might want to sign up for one or more field trips to Sandy Hook, offered by the various NJAS nature centers throughout the season. You may be introduced to additional places that I've been unable to describe here. Certainly, be sure to read the chapter on Sandy Hook in Bill Boyle's A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey, available at NJAS bookstores.

Don't forget to put sufficient time into lining up your pledges for your World Series efforts. Above all, enjoy yourself in one of New Jersey's best birding locales.

DIRECTIONS:

 

Take the Garden State Parkway to Exit 117 (Keyport, Route 36). Go east on Route 36 for thirteen miles, then watch for the exit sign on the right, just after you cross the bridge over the Navesink River. The exit road leads under the bridge and then to the entrance to Gateway National Recreation Area, Sandy Hook Unit, in about 0.3 miles.

--Richard Ditch

New Jersey Audubon Board Member

(Reprinted from New Jersey Audubon magazine, Spring 1993)