An Autumn Morning on Sandy Hook

Like most sane humans that live near a beach, we obviously never visit the Jersey Shore in the summer. Never may be an exaggeration, but once or twice is usually our limit. The traffic alone will kill you. And this is New Jersey drivers we are talking about, so I mean literally, kill you. Once you get there, the beaches are too busy for nature watching anyway.

That is why we usually go to the beach either in early spring or autumn/winter. In winter the cold, salty sea air does the trick if you need to blow out a few cobwebs. It was one such morning last November when my husband and I headed to Sandy Hook, one of our go-to Jersey Shore destinations. The site of Fort Hancock and its associated army barracks, Sandy Hook is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area that features hikes, beaches and nature, along with the oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, historic structures from the barracks and, as my mother in-law once put it, “war thingies,” such as powder magazines, gun batteries etc. So you can probably see why we like Sandy Hook, it has a bit of everything.

This particular November day was cool but not freezing. Clear and bright. Perfect for a brisk ramble on the sand. I honestly wasn’t even really expecting to see a ton of birds, but you never know what sea birds you may see, so we brought the camera along. Sandy Hook, because of the way it is positioned in the Atlantic Ocean and at the mouth of the Hudson River, is a great place for collecting whole seashells. I have a hard time not glancing down at the tidal lines on the beach in search of treasures. A sea urchin, bits of coral and whole crab shells are just some of the more unusual items I have combed on this particular beach.

However, it is actually horseshoe crabs that Sandy Hook is known for. They sell postcards of dozens of them piled up on the beach together and you can often find pieces of their shells in the sand. Atlantic Horseshoe crabs are interesting creatures, actually related to scorpions and spiders rather than crabs. Apparently their blood is used to test medicines, which is pretty unusual. However, I think that one of the more interesting things about them is that they shed or molt their shell when they are growing. They do this throughout their lives, and it is a slow and dangerous process, leaving them vulnerable to predators while they are shell-less. Here is a video showing the process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJr-CQGQYg4 We decided to dig up one of the larger pieces of crab shell we saw sticking out of the sand, and ended up unearthing a very large, complete shell. General rule is that shells with no legs were probably shed, so don’t worry about the crab. However, this one is so big, I am not sure if it was still growing or if its legs and other bits were lunch for a willing seagull.

The biggest group of birds we saw on the beach was a very large flock of Sea Gulls. New Jersey has several Gulls that live on our shore line, the most common being the Ring-Billed Gull, the Herring Gull, Laughing Gulls (with black heads) and the Great Black-Backed Gull. However, especially in the non-breeding months, none of these birds are too picky about their friends and you can see them in large mixed flocks. Many of the juveniles of these species look similar to each other, complicating identification, especially to the naked eye. Their antics were very entertaining and there was one juvenile who was tying to look for food along the waterline without getting wet. He wasn’t very successful but his behavior had a Charlie Chaplin quality to it.

Besides the gulls, the ocean was densely populated with Black Scoter, both males and females. These ducks were swimming just far enough from the beach that it wasn’t easy to get a great look at them with the naked eye, but the photos came out pretty clear, despite the fact that they were bobbing around in the waves. Summering in the Canadian Arctic, the Black Scoter spends its winters along the Atlantic seaboard and is very content to remain in the rough sea. As the name implies, the male Black Scoter is all black, but the female has some gray to her black feathers. The male also has a raised yellow knob on the back of his beak, where it connects to his face. The female’s beak is totally black.

We then crossed the path and the road to the bay side of the peninsula, which proved to be just as exciting. Swallows and Song Sparrows were zipping about, and singing to us from the telephone wires. A Northern Mockingbird decided to challenge us, “who goes there?!” from his vantage point in a bush along the path. A Great Blue Heron flew off into the sky and several deer were wandering about, foraging for something to eat among the bushes and weeds.

The bay was also sheltering a very large flock of Brant. Smaller than Canada Geese by at least ten inches, Brant geese have a black, grey and white body, with no brown. They have a white marking on their throats, called a “collar” which looks like a handkerchief tied around their necks, wider in front and thinning toward the back of their heads. Another summer resident of Canada, the Brant winters along the Atlantic coast.

Sandy Hook is a great place to experience nature regardless of the season. The combination of river and ocean, bay and beach allow for a great variety of wildlife to thrive here. Some of the large nests we saw along the beach promised some interesting spring residents. Regardless of the season, I highly recommend it to nature lovers, history lovers and day trippers. If you want to learn more about Sandy Hook, visit their website at https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/sandy-hook-hours.htm

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