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Sandy Hook Bird Observatory
Close Focus on Natco Lake

By Tom Boyle
All Things Birds Associate Naturalist

Natco Lake was created by accident, rather than by Mother Nature.  The National Fireproofing Company (Natco) mined clay here for bricks in the 1930's.  Eventually the mining equipment hit underground springs and the lake filled in.  A ditch was dug in an attempt to drain off the water into a nearby tidal creek.  The ditching brought in salt water and made the lake brackish, as it remains today.


Getting there

Birding the northern section of the lake:

Walk east along the Henry Hudson Trail and over a small bridge. Eastern Phoebe has nested under this bridge.  After the bridge, turn right off the paved trail and then left.  Follow the unpaved trail a short distance to a small tidal cove in the lake.  On a changing tide, Yellow-crowned Night Heron is regularly seen.  Both night herons nest locally and can be seen frequently. Occasionally, Diamond-backed Terrapins are seen basking on flotsam in the cove.  Continue on the unpaved trail until it ends at a lawn on the lake's north side.

Scan the lake here.  Shorebirds can be found in migration, along with herons, Osprey, gulls, cormorants, terns, and waterfowl.  Great Black-backed Gull has begun nesting on one of the islands in the lake.  Don't be surprised to see something unusual.  An American White Pelican was seen on the lake in January about five years ago. I've seen American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer, and copulating Least Terns sitting on the island in front of you.  This is a good spot to check for lingering waterfowl at World Series of Birding time [mid-May].  Northern Shoveler has been seen in late May, Canvasback in late June and a drake Bufflehead has lingered here into July!  Rough-winged Swallows and Belted Kingfishers have nested in the dirt banks around the lake and are often seen.

The woods along the Henry Hudson Trail are good for migrants in spring.  In recent years I've seen (and heard) Acadian,  Alder, and Olive-sided Flycatchers; Gray-cheeked Thrush; Mourning and Brewster's Warblers; Yellow-breasted Chat; and Lincoln's and White-crowned Sparrows.  Fall is equally good, and Connecticut Warbler is regular at that time of year.  If you walk the trail a little more than a quarter mile to the next bridge, look north along Thorne's Creek for Purple Martins, which now nest in houses provided by a homeowner here.

Birding the southern section of the lake:

Natco Park, a 260-acre Green Acres site managed by Hazlet Township, consists of mature swampy woods excellent in spring for migrants.  From the Lakeside Manor restaurant parking lot, walk down the Orange Trail near the lake and into the woods.  Philadelphia Vireo has been seen here in late May.  The mature oaks along this trail can have Bay-breasted, Tennessee, and Cape May Warblers.  A knowledge of bird song will be helpful here as the vegetation is thick.  The trail turns left and follows the shoreline, eventually coming to a small cove (1 on map) where Spotted Sandpipers are seen. 

At the south end of the cove, the trail (now the Red Trail) turns southeasterly into the woods.  A small footbridge crosses over a little ripple called Thorne's Creek.  Here the understory is again very thick.  In this area in spring I've seen such sought-after migrants as Yellow-throated Vireo; Louisiana Waterthrush; and Worm-Eating, Prothonotary, Hooded, and Kentucky Warblers.

Continue south along the Red Trail.  As you approach another footbridge, the Blue Trail comes in from the right.  Follow it a short way to an area with standing water in spring (2).  Check this spot for Rusty Blackbird and Northern Waterthrush. 

Back on the main Red Trail, continue south.  The trail gains elevation, leading into an area of pitch pine habitat (3).  Pine Warbler nests and Whip-poor-will has been found here.

Retrace your steps back along the trail to the cove at the lake.  Facing the cove, take the part of the Red Trail that leads left [west] away from the lake.  The mature deciduous woods along the trail have nesting Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and Red-eyed Vireo.  This trail eventually comes to a T intersection with the Yellow Trail.  Turn left onto the Yellow Trail, which will gain elevation until it arrives at another T intersection.  Turn right on the unmarked trail and walk slowly to a small opening in the forest.  In spring the vernal pond here (4) holds the occasional Solitary Sandpiper.  Roosting above the pond in spring I've seen Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks.  Continuing along this trail will lead through several wet areas with second-growth woodland.  Prairie, Mourning, and Wilson's Warblers have been seen here, and Brown Thrashers nest in this area.

Return to the last T, and turn left to retrace your route along the Yellow Trail.  Pass the intersection with the Red Trail and continue straight ahead on the Yellow Trail to reach the parking lot.

Raptors are very much in evidence in the Natco Lake area in spring as northbound hawks bump up against the bayshore.  On west winds, hawk flights can be seen over the park right from the parking lot. These flights consist mostly of buteos, with vultures, accipiters, and the occasional Bald Eagle mixed in.  Mississippi Kite and Common Raven were seen over the park in Spring 2012.

Additional breeding birds in the park include Scarlet Tanager, Great-crested Flycatcher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Cooper's Hawk, and Great Horned and Screech Owls.  Northern Saw-whet Owl has occurred in winter.  Mammals in the park include Whitetail Deer, Opossum, Raccoon, Striped Skunk, flying squirrel and both Red and Gray Fox.  With its mix of deciduous swamp and upland pine oak forest,  Natco is also very botanically diverse. 

Natco's mix of habitat, along with its location on the bayshore, makes it a great place to discover birds.

For more information on the park, including a more complete trail map, write to the Hazlet Environmental Commission at 317 Middle Road, Hazlet, NJ 07730.