After our trip to Queens to bring Daisy back to school was put off by a day we decided that the best move would be to drive straight to Steph and Sean’s place (Daisy’s sister and sister’s boyfriend) in northeastern New Jersey. They, despite not being bird-nerds, had suggested a birdwatching trip on a rare weekend off for Sean, who works as a tattoo artist under the name “Charlie” (don’t ask) at Lola’s Tattoos (I’ve been assured he can tattoo on you a bird of your choice, if anyone is interested).

On the familiar ride down the New York State Thruway we entertained ourselves by trying to turn Turkey Vultures into Black Vultures.  After about the third TV I muttered in frustration, “I will see my first New York Black Vulture on the thruway!”

Mind you, for nearly the last two years I have kept an eye on the vultures on the thruway, hoping to see a Black Vulture.  I’d only ever seen them in New Jersey and North Carolina and really wanted to see one in New York, where they occur regularly only in the southern portion of the state (though 2 were spotted last week in Albany County).  So of course about fifteen minutes later, just past mile post 50, not one but two Black Vultures flew over, unmistakable with their lighter-wingtips. Needless to say that much rejoicing occurred.  And, just to show it wasn’t a fluke, we had two more fly by a bit further south.

So we arrived at Sean and Steph’s already in birding mode and, after stopping for refreshments at a local diner, were on our way to Sandy Hook, the not-really-hook-shaped peninsula that juts out of the north Jersey coast.  The sun was shining and there was no wind when we left, so we mocked the weather forecasters who had said that clouds would cover the sun and wind would whistle out of the northwest.

By the time we pulled into the first parking lot at Sandy Hook the sun was behind the clouds (we wouldn’t see it again), the temperature was hovering around the freezing mark, and the wind was blowing hard out of the northwest. So we cursed the weather forecasters and went to the beach!

Gulls. Gulls, gulls, gulls. The usual three: Ring-billed, Great Black-backed, and Herring. Flocks of Surf and Black Scoters off-shore.  Red-breasted Mergansers, Horned Grebes and a single Common Loon.  Cold wind.  Snow and ice down to the high-tide line.  Shells and rocks and sand.  More cold wind. Back to the car.

Park the car.  Get out.  Look at more birds.  Get cold.  Get back in car, drive to new location, and repeat.

I’m sure Sandy Hook is a wonderful place and we did see some good birds, but when the wind is blowing I’d prefer a forest.  Northern Flickers and American Robins flocking on the roadside were nice, as was an Osprey on a tree.  A Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrows, a Northern Cardinal, Brant, Canada Geese and a couple Northern Mockingbirds helped pump up the day list (and the Fox Sparrow entertained Sean and Steph with its antics…I like sharing birds).  Eastern Phoebes didn’t look like they were doing too well in the bug-less cold (they were kind of lethargic) but we did see a couple.  Most entertaining was the gull pictured at the top of the post that we watched drop a shell onto the slush-covered pavement about ten times without breaking it completely open.  It couldn’t seem to figure out why the normally-hard pavement wasn’t cooperating.

We also found ourselves fascinated by Sandy Hook’s military history.  Apparently during World War II Sandy Hook was used as a defensive location for the coast and nearby New York Harbor (the military history actually goes much further back…thanks John).  The falling-apart defensive installations and random weird buildings lent an air of mystery to the outing.

On the way out we spotted more waterfowl in the forms of Common Goldeneye and Buffleheads.  A Merlin gave us a fly-by look too.  Next time I head to Sandy Hook I’m getting in touch with Patrick at The Hawk Owl’s Nest first so I know what the heck I’m doing…

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.