Birders generally refer to the coastal sections of Monmouth County, from the Manasquan Inlet at Point Pleasant to Sandy Hook, as the North Shore. To most residents of New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia, this is an area to visit in the summer, being known as a place of beach access fees, loud radios, and traffic bottlenecks. But birders know an entirely different North Shore, with free beach access, light traffic, solitude, and interesting birds. The difference in these two views of a single place is that birders visit the North Shore from late fall to early spring, and especially during the winter.
This stretch of coast offers the birder a variety of fresh water ponds, river and stream inlets, and ocean access where many of the sought-after ducks and gulls can be found on a regular basis. I usually find my redhead, Eurasian wigeon, lesser black-backed gull, Iceland gull, glaucous gull, and purple sandpiper early in each year along this stretch, as well as the more common species such as hooded merganser and ring-necked duck. If I'm lucky, I'll find even more interesting species -- perhaps a common eider, a few harlequin ducks, a common black-headed gull, or a red-necked grebe. But I find it necessary to make a number of trips each winter to get the greatest number of unusual species.
Working the North Shore requires a number of stops at various ponds and inlets, as well as selected views off the coast. You'll need binoculars, a spotting scope, a tripod and perhaps a window clamp for the scope, a Monmouth County map, and warmer clothes than you likely expect. Bring food and a hot beverage as well. Don't be surprised if you wind up exhausted by mid-afternoon, as climbing in and out of your car at each stop takes its toll.
I usually start at the Manasquan River jetty on the south side of the inlet at Point Pleasant. From the intersection of Routes 34, 35, and 70 (yes, a traffic circle), take Route 35 south over the Manasquan River, turning left, then immediately right onto Broadway. Take Broadway to the stop sign at Ocean Avenue, and park along the dead-end section of Broadway straight ahead. Put on your warmest clothes, grab your scope and tripod, and head out across the sand to the jetty. Keep your eyes on the gulls passing up the channel; in addition to the usual Bonaparte's, ring-billed, herring, and great black-backed, you may find a kittiwake, an Iceland or glaucous, or even a common black-headed or little gull. On one morning visit in November, there were over twenty black-legged kittiwakes resting on the calm waters just off the end of the jetty!
Plan to spend some time at the end of the jetty scanning the ocean for passing gannets, scoters, and loons. You should also see oldsquaws and red-breasted mergansers in this area as well. Be sure to look at the concrete "jacks" at the base of the jetty and at the end of the north jetty as well; purple sandpipers often pop in and out of these structures or fly from the end of one jetty to the other.
When you have had enough of the cold at the end of the jetty, go back to your car and turn right onto Ocean Avenue for the short loop past the Coast Guard station. You may want to drive slowly through the parking lot along the jetty to get a better look at the gulls lined up along the posts (I saw my life Iceland gull just sitting here about 25 feet from the car). Stop just past the parking lot, where the one-way road makes a hard left turn, and scan the small section of exposed sand and rocks visible across the inlet.
For the past few years, I have found boat-tailed grackles wintering here, or on the roof tops along the street nearby. Next, pull into the parking lot at the Shrimp Box and check the gulls around the fishing boats; a common black-headed gull frequented this area a couple of winters ago.
The next stop is Old Sam's Pond, one of the highlights of the North Shore. Follow the one-way road from the Shrimp Box to the stop sign; turn left onto Broadway, then go right onto Ocean Avenue. Follow Ocean Avenue a few blocks south until you reach Elizabeth Avenue, and turn right. Take your time scanning the ducks on the large pond on the right. Canvasbacks use this pond as long as the water stays open; often there are one or more redheads among the flock. One year I had thirty redheads here at once. You'll also see northern shovelers, coots, American wigeons, and other duck species; so be sure to look at all birds in all corners with your scope. Red-throated loons and various grebes also use Old Sam's Pond, although I missed the red-necked grebe that was seen here once. Don't forget the gulls; I found my life black-headed gull, an immature, sitting on a post with ring-billeds here.
I find Old Sam's Pond an ideal place for taking close-up photos of waterfowl, especially when the pond is partially iced over and the ducks have become accustomed to handouts from the local residents. Set up a 400 or 500 mm lens on the west side of the pond; then pick out the ducks as they come for handouts. The most trouble you will have is getting solitary ducks, as the place can become a mob scene very quickly. I prefer an afternoon visit on a cloudy or overcast day for best lighting for these photos.
After a trip around Old Sam's Pond, my route varies. If I missed redheads, then I'll head south to Twilight Lake in Bay Head. Take Ocean Avenue south to Route 35; follow this south a couple of blocks and turn right, then left when you see water. You'll need an Ocean County map to figure out exactly which street you're on anywhere south of the Manasquan River. In the past two years, one or two redheads have been present here, even when they were missing at Old Sam's Pond. You may even find a wintering wood duck among the birds if you look closely.
After Old Sam's and Twilight, I usually head north on Route 35, cross the Manasquan Inlet, and exit onto Route 71. Be careful of the speed limit here. The signs are hard to see, and the police take advantage of the situation. Depending on the most recent reports or my energy level, I'll sometimes check Stockton Lake, from Stockton Lake Boulevard, for a Eurasian wigeon among the numerous American wigeon. A check of the Coast Guard grounds from the dead end off of Stockton may yield a few horned larks or a snow bunting.
My next stop is Wreck Pond on the northern boundary of Sea Girt. Return to Route 71, and follow it north until you cross a wide stream; this is the feeder for Wreck Pond. Turn right onto Shore Road, and pull over when the view of the water opens up on the right. This large, brackish pond usually has a few common mergansers, maybe a hooded merganser, as well as some buffleheads and mute swans. A great blue heron often works the southern shore in winter, as long as the water stays open. When the lake gets a good topping of ice, the gulls like to sit around here, especially on the edge of any open water. Although there are frequent reports of the white-winged gulls here, as well as lesser black-backed, I'm usually not very good at finding them. Maybe the birds are too far out for me; the lighting is often a problem as well. I do better for these gulls on smaller lakes farther up the coast.
Follow along the edge of Wreck Pond, turning right onto Ocean Road, and right again onto Second Avenue. The water stays open the longest here; you may get a close view of a bufflehead or other diving duck just off the edge of Second Avenue. If you plan to take any photos here, stay in the car and shoot out the open window with the engine off; you'll not spook the duck away as quickly. Morning light works best for this location.
From Second Avenue, take the dog-leg turn and follow the road to the ocean. Don't overlook the stop sign. Pull into the parking lot on the right and check the outlet from Wreck Pond on the south side of the lot for a lingering wader. Walk out onto the boardwalk and scan the ocean for passing scoters or gannets, or perhaps a harlequin or eider off a nearby jetty.
After checking the ocean, I return to Second Avenue and Ocean Road on the north side of Wreck Pond, and follow Ocean west to Mill Road between Route 71 and 35. Old Mill Pond, visible from the parking lot at the Old Mill Restaurant, can be surprisingly good given its small size. In addition to shovelers and wigeons, this is an excellent place to find a wintering wood duck. Be sure to walk about a bit, checking from the bridge on Ocean Road over the feeder stream, as the wood duck may be hiding in one of the more secluded areas.
Unless something special has been reported, I usually skip Spring Lake, although somebody has to be the first to find a misplaced Eurasian wigeon or redhead. My next stop is Lake Como. If you skip Old Mill Pond, Lake Como is easily reached from the Wreck Pond outlet by heading north along Ocean Avenue. You'll know you've reached the area when you see the arches of Belmar ahead; turn left just before the arches and follow the road around Lake Como. Look for the unusual ducks and gulls here as with the previous ponds. Jack Peachey was able to find an ivory gull here a few years back, but I made him show me the photos that he took before I'd believe him.
When you have gone completely around Lake Como, turn left onto Ocean Avenue again, and park just before the bridge over the Shark River. Once again, check the ocean and jetties.
Most birders make a U-turn from here, and take Ocean Avenue back to Fifth Avenue. Turn right on Fifth, then follow the edge of Silver Lake until you reach Eighth Avenue, checking for ducks and gulls on your left. Follow Eighth Avenue to Route 35, and turn left, then right, into the marina parking lot.
Take your scope to the large body of water ahead of you. This is the Shark River estuary. Careful scanning of the water and any exposed mud or sand can turn up a number of species. Look for more Eurasian wigeons among the numerous Americans, try to separate greater from lesser scaup, check for pied-billed grebes and more numerous horned grebes on the water. Look for wintering shorebirds such as dunlin, yellowlegs, and black-bellied plovers.
Check the water from other vantage points at the marina, then drive along the edge by following Route 35 south to River Road. You can check more of the water by walking across the grass at McCreary Park; this is where the famous Barrow's goldeneye used to be found among the numerous common goldeneyes.
From McCreary Park, continue to skirt the estuary by following River Road to Belmar Boulevard, then to Marconi Road. Along Marconi, you can reach the water and mud flats by continuing straight when the main road jogs left after about a quarter mile from Belmar Boulevard. Pull down to the end of the blacktop and scan the nearby flock of ducks before getting out of the car; there were three drake Eurasian wigeons here in winter 1989-90.
From the dead-end overlook, return to Marconi Road and continue to Brighton Avenue where you should turn right to follow around the estuary. Turn right on Riverside Drive and follow it until you can see the water once again on your right. Scan the ducks along the marina; a female harlequin joined a flock of buffleheads here a couple of winters ago.
I have found it worthwhile to check Musquash Cove, the bit of the Shark River estuary on the north side of East End Avenue at the junction with Riverside Drive. It has been an area for Eurasian wigeons in some years and has also had redheads.
Take East End Avenue to Sylvania Avenue; follow it to Ocean Avenue to view the ocean. I have learned to look seaward more often in recent years; last winter I found a common eider near the jetties at Belmar; Bob Henschel had twenty (20!) razorbills fly past at the same spot when looking for the eider. Harlequins were off Deal in both 1989 and 1990; perhaps they will return again this winter.
After checking the ocean, return to Route 71 and head north towards Asbury Park. Turn right at Deal Lake Drive and park wherever convenient to check the gulls on the ice at Deal Lake. Take Deal Lake Drive to Ocean Avenue and continue north through Deal. Conover Road and Phillips Avenue, both right turns off Ocean Avenue, give vantage points for the ocean where the harlequins were in recent years.
The next stop is Lake Takanassee; you'll know you're there when you see the bright red church along Ocean Avenue. There are a number of small ponds upstream along Whale Pond Brook; the largest is right at Ocean Avenue. Hooded mergansers are regular here each winter, as well as many other duck species. Also, I have had good luck finding lesser black-backed gulls here, especially when the pond has a layer of ice on top for the gulls to rest upon. After a circuit of the first pond, take Greens Avenue from the north side to Cedar and turn left. After crossing the railroad tracks, make another left onto Hoey Avenue. Be sure to check the water on both sides of Hoey for ring-necked ducks, and scan carefully for Eurasian wigeon among the Americans (they sometimes feed in the back yards of the houses on the north side.)
There's only one more important stop on the tour -- Franklin Lake in West Long Branch. From Lake Takanassee, take Cedar Avenue (it becomes Route 71), watching for a right turn onto Locust Avenue just west of Monmouth College. Turn left off of Locust onto Parker Road, Franklin Street, or Throckmorton Avenue to access Franklin Lake. In the past couple of years a Eurasian wigeon has played games of hiding here when everyone is looking for it at Takanassee.
From Franklin Lake, it's easy to take nearby Route 36 to the Garden State Parkway at interchange 105 to get home for a well-deserved rest.
Reprinted from NJ Audubon magazine, winter 1991-92.