Cape May Birding Places: Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

By Paul Kerlinger
Outdoors Columnist

For general, all-year birding, it is tough to beat Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Formerly called Brigantine NWR, Forsythe hosts birds in all seasons. It is sensational for both spring and fall migration, as well as wintering species. Forsythe also offers some fine summer birding. Not only does Forsythe support an immense diversity of species, but it also boggles the mind with respect to the absolute numbers of birds present.

From Exit 41 of the Garden State Parkway, go east on Jimmy Leeds Road. About a mile east of the Parkway, the road splits with Great Bay Avenue going slightly to the left. Take that road and follow it all the way into the refuge. When you arrive at the refuge, the restrooms are at the end of the parking area, immediately adjacent to a little kiosk with sitings records. Stop to see what has been seen.

After finding out if there are any rarities, continue on the driving road. That road is a 7-mile loop, out through saltmarsh, freshwater marshes, ponds, open back bay, and mudflats. The view of the Atlantic City skyline with the wind turbines can be spectacular. The Atlantic City casinos are only 5 miles across the bay.

Drive the loop slowly, pulling over to look either from you car or getting out to scan the entire area. You can’t get lost. Just follow the road and you will complete the loop. There are several key stations for observing, which can be recognized by the larger pull-off areas. There are also towers from which viewing is possible, although you really don’t need to climb them.

In spring and fall, Forsythe can be one of the best places in the east to view migrating shorebirds. Dozens of species put down in and adjacent to the refuge to rest and feed. Anytime you see a mudflat or exposed creek bottom or tidal area, you will likely see shorebirds. Both yellowlegs, various peeps (small sandpipers like Least, Semipalmated, Western, etc.), Semi-palmated and Black-bellied plover, dowitcher, Willet, Dunlin, and many more gather here. Rare shorebirds occasionally drop in, so look carefully. Curlew Sandpiper has been seen there.

In late fall, through spring, waterfowl are extremely abundant at Forsythe. You really can’t drive without seeing many, many ducks and geese. Black Duck, pintail, shoveler, wigeon, both teal, Buffle-head, Common Goldeneye, mergansers (Hooded and Red-breasted), Long-tailed Duck, scaup, and others. These birds start to arrive in good numbers in September and continue through March and even April, the following spring.

One of the real spectacles of winter is the Snow Geese that gather by the thousands. They can’t be missed. Brant are also present through the winter and are mostly viewed as they feed and float in the back-bay waters.

Raptors are plentiful at Forsythe. Peregrine and Merlin are regular visitors, attracted by the promise of a shorebird meal. Peregrines also nest nearby so they can be present year-round. Bald Eagles soar from fall through spring and can be seen almost everyday. They too nest in South Jersey, so be alert for them in all seasons. Golden Eagles are known to frequent the refuge in winter, but they are tougher to see. Look northward along the marsh edge for perched Red-tails, Golden and Bald eagles. In winter, Rough-legs can be present, although they are not as regular as the Short-eared Owls. Watch for the latter hunting, mostly at dawn or dusk, or when the weather is heavily overcast. Northern Harrier is also a regular visitor and can be seen year-round at the refuge. Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks are often present during migration, usually near the upland edge where they can find songbirds and other prey. Snowy Owls have been present in some winters.

In spring into summer, you will likely see almost all of the egrets, herons, and ibis that nest in New Jersey. They will be feeding or resting in the ponds on the inside of the loop. Osprey nest here, so you will definitely see them. Watch for feeding and resting terns. You will likely see Forster’s, Least, and later in the summer and during spring, Caspian Terns are present, along with an occasional Gull-billed Tern. Look through the terns for the less common species and rarities, which sometimes show up.

From April through September and even October, herons, egrets, and ibis are usually present. All of the species of long-legged waders that nest in New Jersey can be seen in a single day at Forsythe. Look for roosting night-herons in the brushy vegetation within the impounded area to the left of the road. Great and Snowy egrets will be easy to see and Little Blue and Tri-colored herons are occasionally present. These rarer species in New Jersey are regular visitors to Forsythe, though less common than Great and Snowy egrets. Glossy Ibis are less common, although they are often present in the impoundment areas. Great Blue Herons are present year round and Green Herons can be seen skulking along the marshy edge within the impoundment. Scanning the edges can reveal some wonderful sightings. Be patient and look carefully.

During spring and fall, the parking lots and the trail near the bathrooms sometimes provides really good songbirding. If there is a fallout, make sure you check this area for migrating warblers, sparrows, orioles, and other songbirds. Nesting species include Chipping Sparrow, Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhees, and many others. In fall and winter, sparrows, towhees and even some Hermit Thrushes inhabit these forests. Check the open fields for nesting bluebirds and some grassland birds (Killdeer) at the beginning and end of the wildlife drive.

Note: Forsythe can be a one-half or all day birding adventure. Bring both binoculars and a spotting scope. The latter will come in handy when looking at ducks, herons, egrets, and shorebirds. Regarding the loop drive, remember to pull over when looking so that other cars can pass. Look before you get out of the car and don’t stand in the middle of the road when watching birds. In summer there are greenhead flies, which will drive you crazy. Gnats are present, but not as much of a pest. Watch for ticks along the forest trail near the bathrooms.


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