Adventuring at Forsythe NWR and Brigantine Island, NJ

Kelley NunnRecovery Big Year

Purple Sandpiper at the Brigantine Island Jetty, NJ - Recovery Big Year 2016

While wrapping up my 2015 Recovery Big Year, I created a map of all the locations I birded throughout 2014 and 2015, to compare my range between the two years. Something I noticed when reviewing these maps was how heavily I birded Pennsylvania and Delaware as opposed to Maryland or New Jersey. In 2016, I wanted to change that. So when Hannah Greenberg and I had a free Sunday, we decided to take a trip over to Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey!

2015 Recovery Big Year Birding Range Map - Blue circle showing range in 2015 vs 2014 (in red)

2015 Recovery Big Year Birding Range Map – Blue circle showing range in 2015 vs 2014 (in red)

2014 Birding Range Map - Red circle showing range in 2014 vs 2015 (in blue)

2014 Birding Range Map – Red circle showing range in 2014 vs 2015 (in blue)

Exploring Edwin B. Forsythe NWR

View from Observation Tower at Gull Pond - Forsythe NWR, NJ - Recovery Big Year 2016

View from Observation Tower at Gull Pond – Forsythe NWR, NJ

The last time I had visited Forsythe was during the World Series of Birding in 2012– I was a brand new birder and we intensely birded the entire state of New Jersey in just a 24-hr period. As such, we spent less than an hour in the refuge, so yesterday, it felt like I was exploring the location for the first time.

Eurasian Green-winged Teal at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, NJ - Recovery Big Year 2016

Eurasian Green-winged Teal at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, NJ (center, with horizontal white bar distinguishing from American subspecies)

We had a fantastic time birding the impoundments with my good friend and awesome birder, Mason Sieges, who works at the refuge! The weather was a balmy 66 degrees, so we decided to start the trip off with a walk down the Leeds Eco-Trail. As we walked and talked, I thought to myself how happy that I was to be able to travel such a distance and then walk around on top of it. I’ve come so far in my journey with vestibular migraine! The end of the trail didn’t yield much other than a flyby Eastern Meadowlark, so we decided to get started on the wildlife drive. For those who haven’t been to Forsythe before, the refuge features a series of ponds, which are separated by dykes that form a driving loop. Because the ponds are separated and at varying degrees from the salty ocean and inland fresh water, each has a different salt-to-fresh ratio, thus offering habitat for different plant and animal species.

There were tons and tons of waterfowl in the many ponds, the majority of which were American Black Ducks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many black ducks in one place before! We estimated a total of about 1,000 for the day, although that was probably on the low side. The highlight as we were driving along the dykes was a distant Eurasian Green-winged Teal, which was the first of this subspecies I’ve ever found in the field!

I felt so excited as we drove along by the amazing natural spectacle that is spring waterfowl migration– breeding plumage male Hooded Mergansers performing their mating ritual dances, hundreds of Snow Geese gathering in the ponds, and the sounds of dozens of Northern Pintails and American Wigeons calling non-stop. Mason was such a pro– he could distinguish the ducks by their calls and when he heard a new one, he’d point it out to us! All in all, I added a bunch of year birds to my list on the wildlife drive: Eastern Meadowlark, Brown Thrasher, Horned Grebe, Lesser & Greater Scaup, and Brant! Brant I was especially excited about, since I hadn’t seen this species since my last visit to the refuge in May of 2012! (I like to think of this species as a more fancy version of Canada Goose, imagining their white neck rings as pearl necklaces.)

Brant at Forsythe NWR, NJ - Recovery Big Year 2016

Brant at Forsythe NWR, NJ

Snow Geese at Forsythe NWR, NJ - Uprooting Marsh Grasses - Recovery Big Year 2016

Snow Geese at Forsythe NWR, NJ – Uprooting Marsh Grasses

It was incredible to get such up-close looks at so many of these species. Only 25ft away, we watched as a flock of Snow Geese pulled at the marsh grasses, uprooting them completely. I had heard about this behavior separating snows from canadas, but had yet to actually witness it in the field. After completing the loop and getting back to the parking lot, we decided to take a trip out to see Brigantine Island! Our plan was to walk out on the jetty in search of Purple Sandpipers, which would be a year bird (and super cool to see).

Visting Brigantine Island, NJ

Purple Sandpiper at the Brigantine Island Jetty, NJ - Recovery Big Year 2016

Purple Sandpiper at the Brigantine Island Jetty, NJ

We started out at the base of the island, just north of Atlantic City, walking along the beach towards the jetty rocks. In the inlet, we spotted a distant Lesser Black-backed Gull, Surf Scoter, and many Common Loons. Close to the jetty as a female-type Long-tailed Duck, which was gorgeous. Again, I had never seen this species so up-close before! And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mason suddenly point and heard him say, “Bird!” I was looking in the water, searching for whatever diving duck must have just popped up, when I realized that there was a Purple Sandpiper nearly at my feet! Just 5ft away, the shorebird was staring up at us. What a goofy bird! The thing hopped from rock to rock, constantly looking back to check on our position. The bird was so close, the photos I got were completely full-frame!

At that point, we walked back down the beach and parted ways with our awesome “tour guide,” Mason, who left us with some suggestions for where to bird next. We took him up on his ideas, and headed to the end of the island to check out the wildlife viewing platform. From the structure, we could see many Red-breasted Mergansers in the distance, plus Horned Grebe, many scoters, and some more Long-tailed Ducks. We also saw a large flock of Dunlin, plus had a few flyby Yellow-rumped Warblers.

View from Observation Platform at Brigantine Island, NJ

View from Observation Platform at Brigantine Island, NJ

The views from the platform were amazing! It’s so incredible to see what Jersey birding has to offer. At that point, it began to rain and the sun was nearly setting, so we decided to head back home for the day.

I had such a wonderful time birding Forsythe & Brigantine! I felt so excited to think how far I’ve come in my recovery– just a few months ago, driving 2 hours to Indian River Inlet was a big and scary prospect, but now, taking a trip to a somewhat new location in a somewhat new state is no problem! I know now that I can handle a 2-hr drive with ease, which has opened up so many opportunities for birding adventures locally. What a truly terrific day! I added 7 birds to my year list!! That brings me up to a total of 131 for the year; still not quite at the half-way mark of my 275 species goal, but close!

Thank you SO SO MUCH to Mason for hanging out with us all day and for being such an awesome guide. I’m looking forward to checking out other awesome birding locations in New Jersey– namely Barnegat, Stone Harbor, and of course, Cape May. It feels SO GOOD to be out exploring, adventuring, and having new experiences. Life is incredible, and I’m so happy to have mine back.

If you’d like to check out my eBird checklists for the day, click the links below! Don’t forget, the eBird challenge for this month is to submit 15 complete, no-X checklists from the eBird mobile app. I’ve completed the challenge, have you?

Edwin B. Forsythe NWR eBird Checklist

Brigantine Island eBird Checklist

For More Trip Photos, Check Out the RBY Photo Gallery!

To check out additional photos from my trip to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR and Brigantine Island, NJ, click here or on one of the photos below to be directed to the 2016 Recovery Big Year photo gallery!

Thank you to my sponsors, the Delmarva Ornithological Society and Zeiss Sports Optics, for supporting my Recovery Big Year and My Migraine Brain endeavors!