Winter wildfowl (and other goodies) at Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

November 01, 2016

This post has been long overdue, but as I recovered from shoulder surgery over the summer, whilst I couldn't lift a camera I could tap on a keyboard, so I finally got round to finishing the report!

I took the trip to Barnegat back in March 2016, and with winter upon us now seemed like a good time to publish. Arguably going mid-week, and late in the season is ideal, as the birds are likely to be less skittish compared to when they first arrive in early winter, but I imagine once your target birds have arrived and are settled (check ebird for latest sightings at this "hotspot") any time from late November to early March is likely to be productive.

Barnegat Lighthouse is one of those fabled winter bird photography destinations on the New Jersey shore. A rocky jetty runs SE into the Atlantic Ocean for just under 1 mile, with a sandy shore to one side, and the Barnegat Inlet/Atlantic Ocean to the other. This location affords close views of various sea duck that overwinter in the area, perhaps most highly sought after being Harlequin.

Harlequin Duck, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseyHarlequin Duck, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

Harlequin Duck, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseyHarlequin Duck, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

But equally beautiful are the drake Long-tailed Ducks, also known as Oldsquaw.

Long-tailed Duck, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseyLong-tailed Duck, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

Other species frequently seen on the seaward side are Loons, Scoters and Mergansers. In the tidal pools that form on the inshore side of the jetty you can find the odd wader (shorebird), including Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone and Grey/Black-bellied Plover, and on the beach you may stumble across the Ipswich Sparrow, a pale, sandy coloured race of Savannah Sparrow.

Getting a good sun angle is generally fine, although it may require some careful manoeuvring over the rocks. WARNING - the jetty is SLIPPERY, at times VERY slippery, and without due care and attention you can land yourself in trouble. The jetty is not to be trifled with, and so tread carefully at all times, ensuring you have a firm and safe footing.

Find a "comfy" (!) spot to sit on the jetty and let the birds come to you - your patience will be rewarded with plenty of BIF opportunities. Long-tailed Ducks, in particular, will float by with the current, then fly back past you, to once again float by. If you get lucky, they might even have an inquisitive look as they fly by!

Long-tailed Duck, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseyLong-tailed Duck, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

Loons/Divers too are good candidates for the "waiting game", this one in transition from winter to summer plumage.

Common Loon, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseyCommon Loon, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

I had tremendous success with shorebirds foraging along the edge of tidal pools, as well as small groups roosting among the jetty boulders - Grey/Black-bellied Plover, Purple Sandpiper and Dunlin.

Black-bellied Plover, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseyBlack-bellied Plover, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

Purple Sandpiper, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseyPurple Sandpiper, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

Dunlin, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseyDunlin, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

One of my favourite birds of the day was Ipswich Sparrow. Back in the day this was recognized as a distinct species, but since 1973 the AOU has considered it a subspecies of Savannah (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps), although morphologically they're pretty distinctive with their pale, sandy plumage and narrower breast stripes that have a pinkish cast.

Savannah (Ipswich) Sparrow, Barnegat Lighthouse, New JerseySavannah (Ipswich) Sparrow, Barnegat Lighthouse, New Jersey

To get a sense of the place, here's a couple of snaps taken with my iPhone. The first shot is taken looking back towards the lighthouse/car park, with the jetty on the right of the frame - essentially a wall of large boulders! You can also see one of the (larger) tidal pools.

Barnegat Lighthouse jetty, looking back towards the car parkBarnegat Lighthouse jetty, looking back towards the car park

And this second shot shows the very end of the jetty. On this day the waves were routinely crashing over the end - I did not venture anywhere near there - too wet, too slippery and just too dam dangerous!!

Barnegat Lighthouse jetty, looking towards the very endBarnegat Lighthouse jetty, looking towards the very end

Tips

  • Be careful!
  • Check out the tidal pools for shorebirds. With patience, shorebirds may forage close by, and roosting groups can be quite approachable
  • Whilst I used a tripod, if I return I'd be tempted to take a large bean bag/sack as it would be quicker/simpler to set-up on the boulders, and a Skimmer Ground Pod for the beach
  • When is early never a good tip, but being one of the first along the jetty gives you a better chance of finding shorebirds
  • Find a "comfy" (!) spot to sit and let the birds come to you
  • Elect to walk along the boulders or the sand, hopping (VERY CAREFULLY) back onto the jetty as needed, noting that you will have to navigate past tidal pools to keep your feet dry!!
  • If you plan on being on the jetty after closing time, be sure to park outside of the gates that do get locked promptly
  • Watch your footing at ALL times and be alert for waves that may unexpectedly crash over the jetty
  • Did I mention... BE CAREFUL!!

Further information

 

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