Island Beach State Park

Dave and I spent Sunday exploring Island Beach State Park, a popular birding hotspot in Ocean County, NJ. Island Beach State Park (IBSP) is a 10-mile long preserved barrier island that extends along Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The southern tip of the island runs along Barnegat Inlet, where you can view Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. IBSP also includes the Sedge Islands Marine Conservation Zone. The park is a popular recreation area used for ocean swimming, fishing, birding, and kayaking, especially in the summer months.

IBSP is easily one of the best birding spots in Ocean County, with 330 species of birds reported over the years. The park is also known for its elusive red foxes. We didn’t see any foxes on our trip, but we did see a decent number of bird species.

We started our trip walking the trails around the Visitor’s Center and the Interpretive Center. There we saw a Hermit Thrush, a Gray Catbird, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Song Sparrows. From there were took a short maritime forest trail to the ocean. There were numerous gull species throughout the beach, as well as Dunlins, Sanderlings, and Black-bellied Plovers. The Dunlins were standing around on one foot and tucking their bills in their wings to stay warm from the wind. They kept making be giggle because when they wanted to move they would hop on their one little leg. They are such cuties :-).

Some of the other trails we explored were the Johnny Allen’s Cove Trail and Spizzle Creek Trail (which has a bird blind that overlooks Osprey Pond). We found Red-throated Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, Bufflehead, Carolina Chickadees, Eastern Phoebes, Brant, a Great Blue Heron, juvenile Little Blue Herons, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Goldfinches, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and our first Blackpoll Warbler (life list #1 for this trip). Along the way we enjoyed beautiful views of the tidal marshes.

Our last stop on IBSP was the beach near the south end of the island. There were mainly gulls on the beach, but all the action was happening in the water. Large rafts of scoters were rapidly flying across the ocean. Our second life list birds of the day were Northern Gannets who were flying by with some gulls. We saw both juveniles and adults. Gannets are usually found pretty far into the ocean, but are sometimes able to be spotted off shore. I was waiting so long to observe these seabirds, so I was so excited to get a quick glimpse.

We had a really enjoyable trip to IBSP. I hope to visit again in the winter when more waterfowl arrive.


Hidden in Plain Sight

Dave and I took a trip to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR on Saturday.

It wasn’t our normal trip however.The wildlife drive is under construction. A few years ago Hurricane Sandy hit the shore hard, so the refuge is finally being revitalized the way it should be. The wildlife drive was only accessible up to Turtle Cove Tower and up Gull Pond Road (which is a very small part of the 8 mile drive). We were hoping that there would see be a lot of birds to see despite being limited.

As usual, the refuge was filled with thousands of birds. Now that the weather cooler, the waterfowl have returned! There were large flocks of  Canada Geese, Brant, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Buffleheads, and Northern Pintails. Large flocks of Dunlins and various gulls were present as well. Some other birds we saw included Double-crested Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Song Sparrows, European Starlings, Northern Harriers, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, and Mute Swans. There were even a few Horseshoe Crab shells on the beach.

We decided to drive up Gull Pond Rd, a first for us. When we arrived there was a small crowd (about 8 people) gathered by the reeds snapping pictures excitedly. I heard someone talking about Ruddy Ducks and Hooded Mergansers as we approached. So I started to wonder, “Is everyone taking pictures of a duck?”

We stopped by to investigate, but…it seemed like nothing was there. I searched the water. There must have been something, or people wouldn’t have been so excited. I was at a loss. So after a minute I turned to a lady who was standing behind us on top of her truck and asked:

“Excuse me… what are we looking at?”

She replied, “An American Bittern. It’s right in front of us in the reeds. See it now?”

And I did! There it was! Hiding in plain sight.

American Bitterns are part of the heron family. They are brown with strong stripes on their underparts. They look similar juvenile Night Herons. American Bitterns live in meadows and marshes with grassy or reedy vegetation. They are very inconspicuous. Spotting one is extremely difficult because their bold stripes help them blend into the reeds perfectly.

American Bittern (Image by David Horowitz)

This bird was standing at the edge of the reeds. It was beautiful. We watched it for a few minutes as it watched us back. We took a few pictures then moved on. The American Bittern was a new addition to our life list.

You know the saying, “When one door closes, another one opens”? In our case when one road closed, another opportunity opened. Having most of the drive closed forced us to explore a different area, so we were able to find something new. That’s my favorite thing about birding, never knowing what amazing bird you’ll find. Maybe you’ll even find a bird hiding in plain sight.




Brant: Waterfowl Wednesday

It’s my favorite day of the week: Waterfowl Wednesday! A goose that I enjoying seeing the winter on the Jersey Shore is the Brant. Each year I see them in large flocks at the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

Brant (Branta bernicla)


A brant is a medium-sized goose (about 24 inches). They look similar to Canada Geese but they are smaller and very dark. Brants have black heads, chests, and necks. Their undersides are white. Pacific coast Brants have black bellies and Atlantic coast Brants have pale bellies. They also have a white partial “necklace”. When you see Brants flying they are dark in the front and white in the back.

Brant Geese-SS
Brant Geese (Image by Sindri Skulason)


High Arctic tundra in the summer. Pacific and Atlantic Coasts in the winter


Breeding (summer): high Arctic tundra, Winter: coastal salt marshes and estuaries.


Mainly aquatic plants, especially eelgrass if it is available. May also eat aquatic worms, mollusks, and insects. Brants are dabblers, meaning they will dip their heads in the water with their bottoms in the air to retrieve food. They will also look for food by foot in mud flats.  They mainly forage in groups.

Breeding and Nesting:

Brants will form pairs on their wintering grounds and form loose colonies. The nest is a shallow bowl of grass on the ground that is lined with down. Females will lay between 3-5 eggs and incubate them for around 24 days. A day or two after hatching, chicks will join their parents to forage and will eat constantly. They fledge within 40-50 days.


A low throaty ruk-ruk-ruk

Fun Facts:

  • Brants breed farther north than any other geese species.They migrate extremely far distances. They may fly non-stop up to 1,800 miles from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds.


  • How can you tell the difference between a Canada Goose and a Brant? Brants are smaller, have shorter necks, and are lacking the white spot on their cheeks that are characteristic of Canada Geese. Also in flight Canada Geese fly in a neat V-shape, while Brants will fly in shifting groups.
(Image by Mike Baird)
  • In the 1930’s a disease almost suddenly wiped out the Brant’s main food source, eelgrass. As a result populations dropped dramatically. The survivors switched to sea lettuce. Since then eelgrass have begun to recover on the coasts. Therefore populations have increased again. You can find Brants in large flocks on the coasts in winter. Pacific coast population estimates are around 150,000 while Atlantic coast estimates are around 100,000.
  • The oldest known Brant was 27 years old.

Have you ever seen a Brant?