Conserve Wildlife Blog

Wild New Jersey: Savoring springtime at Sandy Hook

March 27th, 2020

by David Wheeler

Wild New Jersey and the COVID-19 pandemic: During these stressful times of social distancing and isolation, taking solace in the natural world is more valuable than ever. I want to share some of my favorite outdoor oases with you. My hope is that by visiting on your own, with your family, or in some cases with your beloved dog, that you too will find the peace and happiness I feel when spending time in the wildest parts of our state.

In a time like this, it’s reassuring to find a place where you can admire the New York City skyline across the great New York Harbor – while being surrounded not by people, but by dune grasses, spring migrants, and overhead ospreys carrying fish.

Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Photo by: Tomwsulcer / CC0

Sandy Hook in springtime is a magnificent treasure. Like the famed Cape May funnel effect in miniature, this peninsula juts out over six miles into the harbor, attracting migratory birds with mostly preserved land surrounded by water on nearly all sides. During spring migration, wave after wave of birds – hawks, waterfowl, short-distance migrants such as golden-crowned kinglets, and neotropical migrants such as Baltimore orioles – pass through from mid-April to the end of June. April offers the peak for hawks, followed by the other migrants soon after. 

Sandy Hook is a great place to spot waterfowl this time of year, like this Pied-billed grebe. Photo by Blaine Rothauser.

A walk along any of Sandy Hook’s dozens of beaches can bring unexpected findings, both out at sea and at your feet. Many years ago on the morning after a storm, I was hiking down Fishermen’s Trail and stumbled upon an unimaginable array of washed-up sea stars, urchins, spider crabs, and many seashells and fish – finding in a few minutes many species I had never encountered first-hand in decades of exploring New Jersey beaches.

Search for beach treasures on the shores of Sandy Hook, including shells and sand dollars.
Photos by Joe Reynolds.

On two recent weekends, I visited with my family and dogs – and us going back for seconds should confirm that our visits surpassed our expectations! While we arrived a bit too late in the season to encounter any of Sandy Hook’s famed harbor and harp seals, and still too early for spring migration, we found wintering ducks and waterfowl galore, including brant, red-breasted merganser, and bufflehead.

Bufflehead ducks at Sandy Hook. Photo by Blaine Rothauser.

We were also greeted by a low-flying osprey carrying a sea robin. Our own ooh’s and ah’s were then followed by those of the nearest human family – around 50 yards down the beach.

Sandy Hook is unique in that the abundant wildlife and nature are complemented by a host of historic forts and ruins, many of which are being reclaimed by nature. These offer incredible photo opportunities in any times, but carry a beautiful yet bittersweet resonance during a time of shutdowns and quarantines.

Your Visit:

Exploring the natural world while social distancing.
Photo by David Wheeler.

Sandy Hook is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The National Park Service’s website for Gateway NRA posts helpful and timely closure information related to COVID-19. As with many nature destinations, trails remain open but facilities and events have been closed or cancelled.

In addition to hiking or walking, the trails at Sandy Hook are as good as it gets for biking. The combination of scenic and winding paved trails, salt air, ocean breeze, and varied habitats cannot be beat!

Remember that dogs must remain on a leash and are restricted from ocean beaches due to nesting birds after March 15. Conserve Wildlife Foundation is partnering with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service on managing and restoring habitat for piping plovers at Sandy Hook.

Sandy Hook also spurred the inspiring return of Seabeach amaranth to New Jersey’s beaches. This plant, which starts to bloom in May, was undocumented in the state for nearly a century before reappearing not far from Sandy Hook in 2000. Last year, after continued monitoring by the above partners, along with Pinelands Preservation Alliance and Raritan Valley Community College, saw almost 15,000 plants counted, about half of which were at Sandy Hook, the state’s stronghold! CWF is removing invasive Japanese sedge to restore the beach to the more sparsely vegetated state that piping plovers and seabeach amaranth prefer as habitat.

Getting outside is good for body and soul. Photo by Kayla Wheeler.

David Wheeler is the Executive Director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation and author of Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.

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3 Responses to “Wild New Jersey: Savoring springtime at Sandy Hook”

  1. Absolutely inspirational.... I need to go there with my family! says:

    Bravo… Makes me want to go ASAP.

  2. Bonnie Coe says:

    Wonderful! My friends enjoy visiting Sandy Hook. I HAVE to go soon. Stay well.

  3. Jim Ward says:

    Wow, I never knew! Sandy Hook is now a place I must visit! It’s as if it’s the Cape May of the north with all its habitats. Being a birder, I’m quite interested in spotting a BaltimoreOriole or two. David, thank you for your insight!