Winter duck fix – reflections on Barnegat Lighthouse, NJ

Story and photography by Martin Sneary

Harlequin Duck, adults calling © Martin Sneary

Barnegat Lighthouse is one of those fabled winter bird photography destinations on the New Jersey shore. A rocky jetty (think wall of large boulders) 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, closely followed by the globally threatened Long-tailed Duck, also known as Oldsquaw. Other species frequently seen on the seaward side are Loons, Scoters and Mergansers, while in the tidal pools that form on the inshore side of the jetty you can find the odd shorebird, including Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone and Black-bellied Plover.

I took a trip to Barnegat Lighthouse back in March 2016, and with March fast approaching now is a great time to satisfy your winter duck fix! 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) any time from late November to early March is likely to be productive.

Getting a good sun angle is generally fine, although it may require some careful maneuvering 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.

© Martin Sneary

A good tactic is to find a “comfy” (!) spot to sit on the jetty and let the birds come to you – your patience will be rewarded with plenty of bird-in-flight 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! Loons too are good candidates for the “waiting game”, and at this time of year you’ll find a mix of winter plumage individuals and those in transition from winter to summer. During the day I had tremendous success with shorebirds foraging along the edge of tidal pools, as well as small groups roosting among the jetty boulders.

Perhaps surprisingly, although maybe I’m revealing my birding roots, one of my favorite 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.

© Martin Sneary

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, I’d also recommend taking a large bean bag for easy set-up on the boulders, as well as a 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 (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

 

Martin Sneary is a long-standing birder, passionate conservationist and award-winning photographer. With a special focus on wildlife photography he aims to capture and share moments of exceptional beauty and to help others do the same, passing on his experiences as both a photographer and conservationist. He spent many years working for BirdLife International, in Cambridge, U.K., and Washington D.C, before recently moving to Switzerland with his wife Kelly, where he is now a freelance environmental consultant. To view more of Martin’s work visit www.natureintheframe.com or his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/martinsnearynaturephotography.