Back To Nature

Piping plovers, horseshoe crabs, least terns, and red knots are among the rarities awaiting New Jersey ecotourists.

Nature Center of Cape May focuses on hands-on learning, with exhibits and programs for kids.
Photo by Marc Steiner/ANJ.

They might not know it, but New Jersey Shore-goers are naturalists at heart. To many, the call of the laughing gull is as familiar as the refrain of a Wildwood tram car. And what Shore house is complete without a jar of shells collected during early-morning walks? But what does the average beachcomber know about the creatures that inhabit these shells, or where gulls spend their winters?

Jersey Shore ecotourism can provide answers to these questions and more. Though most of the state’s beaches are heavily developed, large areas along the coast are protected and dedicated to the preservation of wildlife and habitats. From state parks to national refuges and recreation areas, the Shore is replete with opportunities for birding, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and discovering New Jersey’s natural world.

Birding aficionados flock from all over the country to watch hundreds of millions of birds pass through Cape May on their migrations. It’s one of the top three sites for birding in North America, says Pete Dunne, director of Cape May Bird Observatory, which is managed by the state Audubon Society.

Novice birders may feel overwhelmed by the variety of avian life at the Shore, but Audubon Society centers offer frequent tours that tell rookies exactly what they’re looking at. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the piping plover, a species that is endangered in New Jersey and nationally threatened. The birds come to the state to nest at the edge of the dunes.

“You can walk right by them and have no idea that they’re there,” says Scott Barnes, senior naturalist at the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, which is also run by the state Audubon Society. The state has about 120 nesting pairs of plovers, and their chicks appear between July and August. By Labor Day, most have migrated with their parents back to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Some beaches even turn away human visitors to ensure the birds’ success, including Two-Mile Beach in Cape May, which is closed between April and September. However, binoculars are welcome at scattered observation platforms.

Shoregoers can also observe the least tern, which is on the national endangered list, and, the black skimmer, which is considered endangered in New Jersey, says Steve Atzert, refuge manager at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville. The refuge preserves more than 47,000 acres of coastal habitat for birds and has nesting platforms for ospreys. It’s even possible to catch a glimpse of bald eagles. An eight-mile drive starting in Oceanville winds through the wetlands, giving visitors ample opportunity for bird spotting and nature photography.

Birds are not the only migrating species observable at New Jersey’s beaches. Monarch butterflies can put on stunning displays. In early October, after the first cold front signals the start of migration, certain trees “just bloom orange in the morning,” says Dunne.

The Cape May Bird Observatory offers birding tours almost every summer day. They also have beginner birding classes. Sandy Hook Bird Observatory likewise has guided walks and workshops for beginning birders at Sandy Hook and other locations.

New Jersey’s barrier islands form a variety of habitats that are home to fish, crustaceans, mollusks, reptiles, and other creatures. Several nature centers welcome visitors and will help you in all sorts of ways—like describing the difference between a blue crab and a fiddler crab. Among them is the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor. Its daily creature feature exposes ecotourists to all kinds of critters, plucked from the local habitat.

“We talk about what else you can find at the beach—what makes that hole in the sand, where does the shell come from,” says Phil Broder, education director for the Institute. “Most people don’t have any idea about what lives here.”

That includes the diamondback terrapin, which often falls victim to automobile traffic as it comes up on shore to lay eggs in early summer. There’s also the horseshoe crab, which experienced a population decline and is under a statewide harvesting moratorium. Broder tells visitors about its special relationship with the red knot, a bird that migrates about 9,300 miles from the southernmost tip of South America to breed in the Arctic. It stops along the Delaware Bay to refuel before making the final leg of its journey north.
Visitors can participate in a horseshoe-crab census on the evenings of June 24 through 28, around the time of the full moon, when the crabs come up on the shore to lay their eggs, Broder says.

The Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve in Tuckerton also offers a creature feature every Tuesday morning from June 29 through August 3, says education coordinator Melanie Reding. The reserve, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Rutgers University Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences, conducts hikes and recruits volunteer assistants.
The Nature Center of Cape May focuses on wetland habitats, too, and has several aquariums in which visitors can view local marine and estuarine life. It’s also run by the state Audubon Society and boasts a three-story observation tower that looks over the entire Cape May Harbor. The center has plenty of exhibits and programs for children.

But it’s not all about the wetlands. There are pristine examples of coastal and uplands habitats, such as those at Island Beach State Park. Some say the barrier island is so well preserved that it doesn’t look much different from when Henry Hudson first saw it in 1609. The ten-mile stretch of beach has eight trails, as well as daily educational programs during the summer at its nature center.

Some of the park’s most famous inhabitants are red foxes, which live among the brush and feast on everything from mollusks to mice and even some shore plants. They try to remain out of the view of human visitors, so they’ll likely be hiding during this year’s Barnegat Bay Festival on June 6. The annual gathering is run by the Barnegat Bay National Estuary Program and includes scavenger hunts, seedling planting, pontoon boat tours, and hands-on demonstrations.

For fantastic examples of a maritime forest and coastal scrub-shrub habitat, naturalist Scott Barnes recommends taking the Old Dune Trail and its continuation, the South Beach Dune Trail, in Sandy Hook. The trails are home to a forest of American holly trees, “which are native and very slow-growing—about one inch in diameter every ten to twelve years,” Barnes says. National Park Service staff occasionally run guided tours of the forest, but Barnes warns that mosquitoes can be pesky in summer. Better to take the trail in spring or fall.

Dolphins have made waves in New Jersey over the last couple of years, uncharacteristically appearing in rivers like the Navesink and Hackensack. So it’s no surprise that they can easily be seen during a trip to the beach. Pete Dunne says Cape May is one of their prime breeding grounds. His advice: see them up close on a whale-watch cruise. There are quite a few to choose from, including those at the Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center, the Cape May Whale Watcher, and Atlantic City Cruises.

“Whales are far less common,” Dunne says, but seeing a dolphin is almost a guarantee in the summer months.

Harbor seals are more frequent visitors than whales, although they come south to New Jersey in winter in search of fish-bearing waters. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine often rehabilitates those that have been hit by propellers or incurred some other misfortune on their journey. The center’s intensive-care unit isn’t open to the public, but it has a museum—the Sea Life Educational Center—and an observation tank stocked with creatures from weekly seining trips that visitors can take part in during the summer.

The Alliance for a Living Ocean in Ship Bottom also runs seining trips on summer Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning July 6 at Bayview Park in Brant Beach. The organization’s Kellie Karolkiewicz says weekly guided nature walks and kayak ecotours of Barnegat Bay are held every Wednesday starting July 7.
To really stretch your sea legs, learn the basics of sailing on board the A. J. Meerwald, a restored 1928 tall ship that docks in Cape May for the month of August. Daily two-and-a-half-hour public sails teach about local marine habitats and environmental issues, says Janis Traas, outreach program coordinator of Bayshore Discovery Project, which operates the tour. During marine trawl sails, “we see what kind of creatures we can catch and identify,” Traas says, and Thursday afternoon sails feature special guest speakers. Day camps on Wednesdays for kids ages 10 to 16 discuss environmental issues while also teaching trawling and water sampling.

For more sea time, check out the Salt Marsh Safari aboard the Skimmer with Captain Ginny Powell. Passengers on the 40-foot pontoon boat, docked at Dolphin Cove Marina in Cape May, learn about the local salt-marsh ecology, bird watching, and natural history. An on-board touch tank acquaints visitors with the marine life of the Cape May wetlands. “They don’t realize it’s a nursery for the ocean,” Powell says. Reservations for the two-hour cruises are suggested.

Nearly every state park or national area is kayak-friendly, and new paddlers can hop on a guided tour at several locations. At Island Beach State Park, guided kayak tours are offered through Barnegat Bay and the nearby Sedge Islands, and the park offers limited kayak bird-watching tours. Aqua Trails, a company near the Nature Center of Cape May, rents kayaks and gives regular tours. Experts can bring their own boats and launch at any park or refuge.

For those who want to go beneath the surface, the state’s artificial reefs and natural shipwrecks are a haven for divers. If you’re scuba certified, hop a charter boat—there are several along the coast—to get close to some of the Atlantic’s most common inhabitants: jellyfish, flounder, tautog, bluefish, sea bass, skate, and sea robins. Artificial reefs and shipwrecks are a boon to anglers as well. Like dive boats, fishing charters are widespread.

While you’re on board, keep an eye out for leatherbacks and green sea turtles, who sometimes ride the warm Gulf Stream waters northward. At 6 feet long, you might mistake the carapace of a surfacing turtle for a whale. If it hangs around to observe you, don’t worry. Like you, it’s just taking in the scenery. For resources, see

Kristina Fiore is a staff writer at MedPage Today. She lives in Glen Ridge.

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Ecotourism Resources

A.J. Meerwald
Docks at Utsch’s Marina
1121 Route 109, Cape May

Alliance for a Living Ocean
202 West 27th & Central Avenue
Ship Bottom

Atlantic City Cruises
800 North New Hampshire Avenue
Atlantic City

Cape May Bird Observatory
701 East Lake Drive
Cape May Point

Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center
1286 Wilson Drive, Cape May

Cape May Whale Watcher
1218 Wilson Drive, Cape May

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
Great Creek Road off Route 9

Island Beach State Park
Main office: 732-793-0506
Nature center: 732-793-1698

Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve
130 Great Bay Boulevard, Tuckerton

Marine Mammal Stranding Center
3625 Brigantine Boulevard, Brigantine

Nature Center of Cape May
1600 Delaware Avenue, Cape May

Sandy Hook Bird Observatory
20 Hartshorne Drive, Highlands

Sandy Hook Visitors’ Center
1 Bay Avenue, Sandy Hook

Salt Marsh Safari
Dolphin Cove Marina
Ocean Drive, Cape May

Wetlands Institute
1075 Stone Harbor Boulevard, Stone Harbor

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