Monday, November 12, 2012

Island Beach State Park to Barnegat Inlet Bird Hike

This piece I had published in The Sandpaper, offices in Surf City, New Jersey, in 2010.

Just returned from England, I haven't fished in almost two weeks. Of course I knew about England's chalk streams, but didn't know how common the small trout streams. Next visit, I want to bring a fly rod.
Bird Hike to Barnegat Inlet

by Bruce Litton

          Twice, in 2007 and 2009, my son Matt and I anticipated the onset of the deep fall season by an Island Beach bird hike with New Jersey Audubon members. Most years, November’s first week marks the moment when across the state the leaves are down. In recent years, at least one exceptional fall flourished much later than usual. But on the first November Friday of 2009, a powerful westerly wind ripped away what straggling, brown foliage was left; and the death-hollowed, beige ghosts of phragmites that had grown tall on Barnegat Bay shores bended nearly horizontal. Cold slipped across the state from somewhere in the upper Midwest, but being no more than a bracing nip, a heavy jacket and cap sufficed for comfort. Two years before, on the first November Friday of 2007, chill seemed to hurry migrant birds southward as well, although I remember no such wind.

          That first year I knew something about what birds for us to expect. I had lived through Long Beach Island winters for about 13 years of my youth, working the bay as a clam treader year ‘round, taking mental note of birds on the bay and on beach walks. Birding had remained in my blood since I was 11-years-old; my species list tallied 169 different kinds at the end of 1971. It seems as if my passion for bird watching would have continued to grow into a lifelong commitment. Having studied books on birds intensely and spent many hours daily and weekly in woods and a marsh near my home, I also drew and painted birds. But bird watching was a social dead end for me, as virtually anyone would expect for a boy in America during the early 1970's, the endeavor having been an entirely solitary pursuit. It took real independence to do it persistently. But after a year or so, I guess the precedent of fishing with friends took its own place in the scheme of my interests, replacing birding, as much as I fished alone anyway. 
          On that much more recent day with New Jersey Audubon the birders were a flock among themselves, something that I never knew as a boy.

          My son, then eight, and I met the group of perhaps eight or nine other people in a lot near the Island Beach State Park entrance. It was not to be our first birding in a group, although we had perhaps only two or three other such trips behind us. I felt slightly distracted birding in the group, but I was sure that this feeling ultimately had no necessity, that it was just my inclination to be alone getting in the way, memories from many years before. Besides, advantages such as more eyes to sight what one pair of eyes might miss, a collective pool of bird knowledge, conversations, and even shared superior equipment (high magnification scopes), clearly added to excitement and interest.

          First we began a walk from a nature center along a well used trail to edges of Barnegat Bay. We repeated the same paths two years later with new people led by the same naturalist.

          Mostly migrant birds would focus our interest. The Atlantic Flyway is the migration route for birds from north to south, and back again. It generally follows the North American Atlantic coast, although its width extends from offshore pelagic status to as far west as the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and northeastern Ohio. Our trip had been planned to allow for sightings of birds yet passing through, here to stay for the winter, as well as for sightings of fewer resident birds.

          Familiar brant first caught my eye. Perhaps a dozen bobbed about a hundred yards out from baywater’s edge. These goose-like birds—very easily confused with Canada geese—are smaller, although larger than ducks. Brant have some white markings on the neck below the head, while Canada geese have a striking white sling from under the throat to behind both eyes which appears almost triangular from a side, and brant are black to the bottom of the breast. Other differences mark less saliently. I told my son that many of these arctic breeders had accompanied me and my fellow treaders clamming among eelgrass in cold water. As our feet had churned through bay bottom mud and roots, eelgrass released and floated to the surface where brant eagerly ate these greens just out of our reach.

          With my ten-power binoculars, I focused on a distant patch of birds in the chop, which someone had already identified as bufflehead ducks. A loose group of about five ducked and rose with the waves. This specie, too, was very familiar, I told my son. I had seen thousands and they never failed to thrill me by the boldness of the large white patch on the head and white lower body and breast, set against a black back and black head. When these ducks fly together, the white on the wings seems almost like a series of strobe lights because of the rapidity of wing beats by which the white portion of wings flash against darker environmental backgrounds and the black of the birds’ own feathers. These arctic buffleheads have always seemed to me to bring a presence of the very far North to New Jersey like no other. Their pristine white patterns seem to strike the air cold.

          When only four of us walked in 2009 to the same viewing points from the bay shore, and a few more spots from a longer walk along marshland, we saw brant and buffleheads, but also closely observed a group of perhaps a dozen mallards feeding in a cove, as well as watched and photographed an American egret feeding on small fish, perhaps killies. I have fished a lot since the age of eight, and have seen dozens of American egrets. But this single bird, unperturbed at our presence perhaps half a football field away, must have drawn from me my best attention ever given to its kind. I saw it eat about half a dozen fish. Perhaps we also saw double-crested cormorants flying over the bay; at any rate, these fish eaters are common here in the summer, and some winter over.

          The bay was a treat; but the main leg of both of our trips involved a three mile beach hike to Barnegat Inlet and back, taking our time to view birds by naked eye, binoculars, and the monocular scope owned by Michael, the naturalist. The first year, the sky beyond the breakers seemed filled with southward-flying gannets, some of them diving from fifty feet straight down for fish. Ring-billed gulls patrolled the beach both years; and we even saw a laughing gull, straggling well behind on its migration to Virginia and perhaps further south to the Caribbean. Sanderlings hustled at the tide line as they do all year.

          We saw a few red-throated loons in their winter phase of plumage swimming well beyond the breakers and disappearing behind swells, then highlighted in full view on the top of a riser. Closely, we contemplated these great birds through the monocular scope. Viewing birds through the scope is like watching an intensely realistic, yet visionary, movie because it brings the birds into exceptional view, and you know at the same time that what you see is actually there before you. The image is relished as it excites the sense. 

          Occasionally, we walked very long lengths between stops for birds. On one of these trudges the first year, Mike mentioned that the ultimate goal of these November Island Beach bird hikes is to see a snowy owl. We never saw one. But rumor had it that a snowy had been seen across the inlet near Barnegat Light. What did raise the pitch of excitement were snow buntings, a whole flock of dozens which together alighted here and there up near the dunes, as well as close to the waterline. These white, finch-like birds spend summers on arctic tundra in limited numbers. Very uncommon, they winter on beaches, which resemble tundra wastes.

          Shortly after we had first sighted buntings, Barnegat Lighthouse began to come into majestic view over dunes. The rocks of the inlet jetty, close enough to make out individually, set a goal that began to seem as tangible as the length of our walk. All along the way on these hikes, I had asked fishermen sitting on the tailgates of their SUVs, or standing patiently beside long surf rods secured in sand spikes, about the fishing. When we got to the jetty the second year I didn’t have to ask. Just then a pod of smaller-size striped bass cornered baitfish in the right angled pocket between beach and rocks. It was fun to see, but more compelling, a sandpiper I had never seen before caught Michael’s attention on the inlet side of the rocks. I apparently had missed the purple sandpiper in all of those study sessions with bird books at the age of ten, had never heard of it. An uncommon bird, the purple sandpiper eats periwinkles and snails, depending for life on rocky coasts and outcroppings or jetties. Having flown from arctic or subarctic Canada, this bird now fearlessly held its ground yards from us at the Jersey Shore. When I was a boy, it used to be that a visit to the beach after Labor Day wasn’t real. Now—no doubt, it's substantial any day or month. I had walked snow covered beaches during my clamming years, caught late fall stripers in the surf, and now had seen snow buntings scatter like snow flakes.

          Michael spotted a large bird on a distant channel marker beyond the mouth of the inlet. Like a sentinel standing atop a watch tower, the great cormorant looked north through the depth of ocean environment, unknown to us quite how the bird perceived that view. Michael braced the monocular on a flat basalt top, and then I viewed another bird I had never seen. New Jersey is the southernmost reach of great cormorants’ wintering range. Double-crested cormorants had passed before my eyes by the many thousands, but the enlarged singularity of this great cormorant, with striking white on its throat, and white patches on its wings, filled me with awe which I have not begun to forget in five years’ time. Besides the purple sandpiper and laughing gull, the great cormorant was the one specie of which we had spotted only one representative. And this very large solitary bird looked to me like no representative at all. It seemed to stand high over the ocean and judge the world for itself alone in striking counter distinction to so many common double crested cormorants I had seen over the years, and yet I knew the bird lived quite beyond that human arrogance.




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