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Nature in the Pines

Wildlife of the Jersey Shore and Pine Barrens

A Spectacular Winter Visitor - The Hooded Merganser

Eric Reuter
Wildlife and Nature Photography

This small (16 inches) relative of the ducks is a regular visitor to NJ during the winter months. The male with his spectacular coloring and black and white “hood” is hard to miss. The female is less colorfully marked, but is also very attractive, and sports a less prominent display on the top and back of her head. Hooded Mergansers arrive in NJ in late fall and early winter, and spend the cold months here, frequenting fresh water ponds, estuaries and lakes, and also areas of tidal marsh where there are channels of moving water with good food supplies.

Male Hooded Merganser showing off the prominent display that gives them their name
Male Hooded Merganser showing off the prominent display that gives them their name.

Female Hooded Merganser cruising by in a partly frozen channel.
Female Hooded Merganser cruising by in a partly frozen channel.

These small and very agile birds are also extremely shy and skittish. They generally don’t allow for close approach by people. The best ways to observe them if you are out walking is with a pair of binoculars. Another good way is to go to a location where you can use your car as a “blind” and stay inside the vehicle. One such place is the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in Oceanville. The Hooded Mergansers are usually there in good numbers, and from inside your vehicle, you can get much closer than on foot.

Small group of Hooded Mergansers swim a tidal channel at Forsythe NWR.
Small group of Hooded Mergansers swim a tidal channel at Forsythe NWR.

Even then, it is not unusual for them to take off shortly after your stop your car to observe them. They are extremely wary. They are also extraordinarily quick to get airborne, and even quicker once free of the water. Being as small as they are, they are a tempting target for larger raptors such as Bald Eagles, so they have evolved to be extremely fast and agile fliers, and able to take off from the water in a split second.

They use their wings to give themselves a push-start, along with their tails, to “jump” out of the water faster. They then use their feet along the surface of the water, along with their wings to make a startlingly quick getaway. Once airborne, they can reach speeds nearing 100mph, and they can turn and maneuver extremely well.

Male positions his wings and tail a split second before taking off.
Male positions his wings and tail, a split second before taking off.

Male gives a push with his wings and prepares for takeoff from the channel.
Male gives a push with his wings and prepares for takeoff from the channel.

Hooded Merganser pair run on the water like a runway to get airborne.
Hooded Merganser pair run on the water like a runway, to get airborne.

Hooded Merganser pair in flight, one of the fastest of all waterfowl.
Hooded Merganser pair in flight, one of the fastest of all waterfowl.

Hooded Mergansers are diving birds, and their primary foods are small fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects. They use their long serrated bills to grasp their prey. They use their wings and tails to maneuver under the water surface in order to chase their meal.  When in groups, they will dive in series, and not all at once, most times. This allows that one or more remain on the surface as sentries, to warn of trouble to surfacing birds.

Male Merganser starts his dive.
Male Hooded Merganser starts his dive.

These charming and beautiful waterfowl are a treat to see each winter here in NJ, and are fascinating to watch in action when they are diving and feeding. Keep an eye out during your walks in the Pine Barrens or visits to the marshes near the shore for these wonderful birds. They are here from now (December) well into March, so there are many chances to get a glimpse of them.

Male Hooded Merganser stretches out of the water to shake out his feathers and excess water.
Male Hooded Merganser stretches out of the water to shake out the feathers and excess water.



Wildlife of the Jersey Shore and Pine Barrens


King of the Wading Birds - The Great Blue Heron

Eric Reuter
Wildlife and Nature Photography

No other wading bird in the marshes, ponds, lakes and streams of the Pine Barrens is as formidable or noticeable as the Great Blue Heron. Standing almost 4 feet tall, and with a wingspan of up to 6 feet, it reigns supreme in the world of Herons and Egrets. Not even a Bald Eagle will tangle with one, if it knows what is good for it. The Great Egrets and other birds, including the pugnacious Laughing Gull, will give the Great Blue Heron a wide berth. With its huge size, and razor sharp, pointed almost 10 inch long bill, it commands respect.

Great Blue Heron in Breeding Plumage

For their size, they are extremely graceful fliers, and they can often be seen leaving their roosts in the early mornings to go out and hunt for prey during the daylight hours. In the evenings, they return to their roosting areas, which are usually on tall branches in trees.

Great Blue Heron making a smooth bank turn with its enormous wings outstretched


Landing in the marsh in the early morning light, to start a day of hunting.

The Great Blue Heron can be found all throughout the Pines, anywhere there is a body of water where prey is abundant. The largest numbers are common in the coastal marshes that border the Pine Barrens, due to the abundance of prey there. They will feed primarily on fish, but will also take pretty much anything they can get, including rodents and other small mammals including small birds, ducks, and just about anything they can swallow.

Great Blue Herons employ a number of feeding and hunting techniques. Often, they will find a likely spot, and stand still in wait for a fish to come by. In fact, they can stand almost motionless for hours, much to the dismay of one nature photographer. You never know when they may strike at something, so sometimes I park myself for a good long time and wait to see if the action will heat up. Other times, they will put one leg up and fall off to sleep, which is even more frustrating. Sometimes you get lucky, other times, you just get really bored. They however, are conserving energy, lying in wait for the meal to come to them when they do this type of hunting.

Another style of hunting they use is to slowly stalk through the shallow water, in search of fish that are swimming around. They do this very slowly and deliberately, so as not to alert their prey to their presence. When they see something, they will take a low profile, and then with incredible speed, extend their neck and plunge into the water to retrieve their prey.

Getting low, ready to strike.

Plunging into the water after its prey.

Coming up with the catch.

A treat of a small fish for his efforts.

These Herons will take all manner and size of prey. In the series of photographs above, the Great Blue grabbed a small fish in its bill. Often, if that is all that is available, they will catch and eat dozens of such fish in one day. In other cases, where larger prey is involved as below, they will spear the prey with their razor sharp bill.

Great Blue Heron spears a large White Perch.

Flying off to enjoy his catch on land.

The Heron can just swallow small fish whole with no ill effects. With very large prey, they must kill the prey first. This is so that a large, live fish does not cause serious internal damage to the bird. They accomplish this in a rather gruesome fashion, by placing the fish (or other large prey) on the ground, and powerfully stabbing it with their bill until the prey is dead and safe to eat.

Since Herons cannot pick apart or tear prey like a Hawk or Eagle does, and since they must swallow it whole, they have to make sure it’s safe to do so. Nobody said nature is always pretty. And in this case, it’s rather brutal to watch. The size of prey that a Great Blue Heron can swallow is absolutely astounding. If I had not seen this with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. Below is a series of images showing a Great Blue Heron swallowing a fish at least 20 inches long, and probably weighing over 3lbs. I would have been happy to have caught such a fish!

Once in a while, a Great Blue Heron will try to swallow something just a bit too large. In these cases, it ends up killing the bird. While they are generally pretty good at judging what they can eat, occasionally the Great Blue Heron's eyes are too big for its stomach, or in that case, its throat.

Great Blue Herons will stake out territory for feeding, and if another one of their species gets too close, a chase will ensue. They do not tolerate each other well and will be quite aggressive in defending their territory. Interestingly, they rarely chase away other wading birds such as Egrets. The Egrets however, generally won’t venture too close out of respect for what a Great Blue Heron can do.

Great Blue Herons build large nests in trees to rear their young. They are surprisingly gentle and agile for their size, when building the nest, and when caring for the young. Watching them mate however, is very amusing. They are huge birds. And although they accomplish the task, it is hard to believe they don’t fall out of the tree in the middle of it.

Gently tending to the nest

The proud family: parents with a juvenile standing in the nest.

The Great Blue Heron is one of the most enigmatic of all birds we see here in NJ, and in the Pine Barrens. They can be seen year round, hunting and foraging, or flying overhead, truly one of the most spectacular of all the birds we have in the Garden State. They are fascinating to observe and photograph, and provide some of the most exciting moments you’ll see when it comes to their behavior, especially when actively hunting.

The Great Blue Heron to me shows the closest connection to the dinosaurs from which birds have evolved. Its appearance reminds me of a Pterodactyl, and its call is a prehistoric sounding guttural croaking, almost screaming sound. They are startling when they take flight and give out their call or when they chase another Heron away from their hunting territory. You can almost envision them as creatures from Jurassic Park.

If you run across one of these birds and have a chance to just sit and watch sometime, do so. You may be rewarded with some spectacular moments.


Touching the water's surface: the graceful and powerful Great Blue Heron.


Wildlife of the Jersey Shore and Pine Barrens


Diving for Dinner is a Way of Life - The Forsters Tern

Eric Reuter
Wildlife and Nature Photography

One of the birds of summer that visits us in NJ near the coastal areas surrounding the Pine Barrens is the Forsters Tern. The Forsters Tern is an incredibly agile flier that dives head first into the water from height after locating fish or prey. They are a marvel of evolutionary aeronautical engineering, superbly designed to perform amazing feats unequaled by most other birds. They course along waterways, bays and shores, looking down from on high for small fish to catch. When they spot one, they often hover in place, waiting for the opportune moment. Then they tuck their wings in and dive headfirst, and in one smooth motion bounce back out of the water and fly off with their catch. They are so efficient at it that they can dive into and out of the water often in less than a second.

Moments before impack
  A millisecond before impact

Piercing the water
   Piercing the water


Coming up with a small fish
Coming up with a small fish

Not only do these terns fish for themselves, but they have elaborate and incredible courtship rituals. This involves a male suitor capturing a nice fish, and bringing it back to his prospective mate. Often, the female will wait perched, and using a loud series of calls, basically tell him to not bother coming home without something to eat. The female can often tell from a great distance if her suitor has captured a fish for her. She will begin to cry out excitedly as he approaches. Sometimes, the male will fly nearby and around in circles, sometimes landing to show off his wonderful catch. Then, when the moment is right, he flies over to her and hands the fish off while in mid-air, hovering next to her.

Fish for his mate
Flying in with a nice fish for his mate!

The offering.

Showoff! – Extra style points for this one.

Down the hatch!
Down the hatch!

After the female is happy with this and usually many other offerings, the result is well, making baby Forsters Terns.

  The "birds" part of “The Birds and the Bees”

Not only will the male engage in this ritual feeding and often complex behavior to woo his mate, but after the chicks are born, they are then fed for a while by either parent in the same fashion, until they are competent to dive and hunt for themselves.

Fledgling Forsters Tern being fed by a parent.

Forsters Terns arrive to the region in Spring in full breeding plumage: a dark black “cap”, bright red bill, and shining silver wing feathers. Before leaving in the Fall, they molt to Winter plumage, leaving just a small dark patch by the eye, and with the bill turning almost black.

One of the more incredible things about the Forsters Terns is their intelligence, and the way they will often work together to perform certain tasks. For instance, it is not uncommon for them to have one or more “sentry” birds, that will announce certain things to the group based on what is happening, such as announcing an incoming “friend”, or warning of a foe, or even communicating to the others that a parent is coming in with a meal for one of the fledglings. I’ve seen and heard them use different calls for different situations.

One particularly amazing thing I witnessed just recently, was how the terns dealt with an unwelcome guest. A very young Laughing Gull came over to where the Terns were gathered, and took a spot on a wood piling. The terns tried to harass it into leaving, but with no effect. The Gull was crying constantly begging for food. Then, something pretty incredible happened. One Tern went out and caught a fish, and returned and went right near the Gull, teasing it, and getting the baby Gull to follow the Tern far down the road. The Tern repeatedly would come close to the Gull, to get it to follow even further. Then, the most astonishing thing happened. The Tern GAVE the fish to the hungry baby, and returned to the flock on the piling.

There are those would argue me on this point, but what I believe I witnessed was a form of compassion.  Not just a defensive mechanism. I’ve watched these birds for countless days and hundreds of hours. They are remarkably intelligent, cooperative (most of the time), and have a huge vocabulary. They will gather at a productive feeding site as a flock, and take turns looping in (into the wind), and then dive for fish. If they miss, they will go around again, and get in line. They are organized and efficient. If things get too chaotic, one of the alpha birds will give a signal, and all birds will immediately fly out, regroup and then come back into the feeding location with a better order now reinstalled. Astonishing to say the least.

Fixing the feathers (preening)

Forsters Terns in flight (winter)
Flock of Forsters Terns in Winter Plumage

Although these birds will very soon be leaving New Jersey to head to warmer places, you may still be able to get a glimpse of them if you head out now. Certainly, next Spring or Summer, visit the coastal marshes and shores, and come see one of the most remarkable birds of all.

Shaking off the water after a dive.




Wildlife of the Jersey Shore and Pine Barrens


A New Jersey Success Story – The Bald Eagle


Eric Reuter
Wildlife and Nature Photography

In 1970, there was one nesting pair of Bald Eagles left in New Jersey. Years of the use of DDT and other factors had all but eliminated the birds from our state, and many other areas. In fact, the Bald Eagle was considered to become in danger of extinction by some experts, if trends continued. Thankfully, changes in the laws regarding pesticide use, as well as preservation of habitat, helped stem the tide. What also helped enormously was the repatriation of Bald Eagles from other places, back into our state. Few realize this, but birds from Canada and other locations were captured and moved here, in an effort to reestablish the population. And it has been incredibly successful.
I had the privilege of having a photograph of mine, of a NJ banded Bald Eagle grace the cover of the 2010 New Jersey Bald Eagle Project Report, from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection - Division of Fish and Wildlife. This prompted me to read the report of course, and to do more reading of earlier reports, and of the history of this magnificent bird in our state.
You can read the report here:  http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/pdf/eglrpt10.pdf  (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

As it turns out, there were a record 94 nesting pairs in New Jersey in 2010. Unfortunately, hatch successes were down somewhat. This is still an amazing accomplishment. Thanks to efforts by DEP and NJ Fish and Wildlife biologists, along with volunteers from other organizations, the repatriation of Bald Eagles has been a remarkable success story.

Now, it is not uncommon to see these amazing and gorgeous raptors flying over the Pine Barrens, fishing in the Maurice River, hunting ducks at the Forsythe refuge, or even cruising over busy traffic in Toms River and Brick, as a new nest was built there this year on of all things, a huge microwave tower. The very enterprising pair there put on quite a show for residents and business owners nearby, as the parents would build the nest, then raise their young, bringing back fish and other prey to feed the chicks as they matured and then fledged. It is very likely that the pair will return to that spot next year, which will be quite a treat for the residents there.

As a boy growing up in NJ, during the 60’s and 70’s, and well, even through the 80’s and 90’s, I never saw one of these birds. The first time I did was just a few short years ago, flying over the Forsythe refuge in Oceanville. To say that it made my heart pound is an understatement. It is one thing to see photos or videos of them, quite another to have one fly over my head and look down at me while I took its portrait with my camera.

Adult Bald Eagle

(Adult Bald Eagle soars over Gull Pond at the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in Oceanville)

With a wingspan of up to 7 feet or more, and standing 3 feet tall, these birds are the largest raptors in our state, and with the exception of the nearly extinct California Condor, the largest in the nation. They are impressive and awe inspiring. Amazingly, their size does not affect their agility. Bald Eagles can do some of the most incredible aerial maneuvers, including flying briefly upside down to try to snatch a fish with their talons from another Eagle or Osprey. They make swooping dives to the water, and snatch fish from just under the surface in one smooth and amazing motion. Their sharp, very long and curved talons serve as “fish hooks” and are precisely engineered for the task. Bald Eagles can take some very large prey, including things such as Mallard Ducks and full-grown Rabbits. They have a liking for fish, but will eat pretty much anything they can get, depending on circumstances and availability of prey. They are also extremely cunning.

On one occasion, I watched as an adult Bald Eagle flew into an area near some resting Hooded Mergansers (a small waterfowl). The Eagle managed not to startle them, and did not make a direct attack. Instead, it flew past them, and perched in some trees a few hundred yards away. The Eagle waited hours to make a move. It figured out an attack route that would not flush the prey before it had a chance to strike. Then suddenly, it flew out over the water, just a few feet above it, on a course that took it along the tree line behind the birds, obscured from view by tall grasses. In one amazing move, it snuck up from behind, rose up a few feet, and then shot down like a rocket to grab an unsuspecting Merganser. It had sat and planned for hours how best to get its meal. It was a stunning show of agility, and incredible planning.

Nature is very conservative. Wasting energy finding food is detrimental and can end up being fatal. Birds and other creatures have to be extremely efficient to not expend more energy than they can compensate for by eating. It is a zero sum game. If you chase prey and are not successful, eventually you become too weak to capture something to eat. So, this Eagle waited patiently for just the right moment, and it paid off.

Bald Eagle tries to steal food from a female
(Bald Eagle male tries to snatch a Shad from a large Female, he was not successful)

You get an appreciation for the Bald Eagle’s size when you can get up close to them. This is not always easy to do, and in fact it is considered harassment of them to approach close to an active nest. Bald Eagles tend to be very skittish around humans (can’t blame them, really), and in fact may abandon a nest if pressured by human interference. However, there are a few spots along the Atlantic coast where Bald Eagles will themselves decide to come very close to where humans like to go, such as Conowingo Dam, in Maryland. Although it is wonderful to now be able to regularly see and observe Bald Eagles in our home state of New Jersey, the premier spot East of the Mississippi River to watch them and get close views is this incredible locale on the Susquehanna River. If you get a chance for a day trip or overnighter, it is worth a visit in the late Autumn and Early Winter months, when numbers there peak. Last year, well over 150 were there at one time, for a period of weeks.

Adult Bald Eagle at sunrise
Adult Bald Eagle Catching the first light of day.

Staring Contest
(Not a staring contest I think I can win. Adult Bald Eagle shows me who is in charge.)

Bald Eagles take about 4 years or so to get their adult plumage. (The distinctive white head and tail that everyone is familiar with). As they start out as youngsters, they are mottled brown and then with patches of white showing in their feathers. They are quite attractive in their own right, but often mistaken by inexperienced bird watchers as other species (such as the Golden Eagle, which is much rarer in New Jersey).

Young Bald Eagle
(Young Bald Eagle passes very close to me overhead)

One of the birds often mistaken for an (immature) Eagle by people is the Turkey Vulture. We have plenty of those in the Pine Barrens, to be sure. They are very large birds as well, but their flight is quite different from that of a Bald Eagle. The Turkey vulture soars with very few wing beats, and its wings held in a slight “V” formation, otherwise known as “canted”. The Bald Eagle on the other hand, is larger, and soars with its wings horizontal, so that it looks like a glider aircraft when coming straight at or away from you. The Bald Eagle also tends to fly with purpose and powerful wing beats, much more frequent than a soaring Turkey Vulture. Up close of course, the heads and characteristics of the two birds are very dissimilar. But from a distance, in the sky, it can be very confusing to the inexperienced observer. If you are new to birding, I highly recommend a good field guide, so that you can take your observations and have a reference to compare against. Not just the appearance of the birds, but their behavior and characteristics are highlighted in the better guides. Almost all of the birders and bird photographers I know, have a copy of “The Sibley Guide To Birds”, considered the preeminent guide for novice and expert alike. You can find it on Amazon.com or almost any book store or online supplier.

Bringing home fish dinner
(Bringing home the fish dinner)

This is the same Female who was being chased for the fish in the other photo, earlier in the article. She was not about to let the pesky male get that fresh dinner, and she was not in the mood to share. It was quite humorous to watch, actually. She came over near me in a large tree, to eat the meal. The male, not content to quit that easy, then flew in above her, and perched like a vulture, waiting to see if he had a chance to grab it.


(The Very same female Bald Eagle enjoying said fish dinner, in a tree not 20 feet from me)

(Loser of the fish chase, this male sits not 5 feet above the female. She did not share her food)

After years of almost no sightings in the Garden State, it is now not uncommon to see these incredible birds flying overhead, or making a fishing run in one of our rivers. I encourage you to get out there, and visit some of the areas where they are now nesting and active. Some of the best areas are along the rivers and streams in Cumberland and Salem Counties, as well as the Forsythe NWR in Oceanville in Atlantic County. If you’ve never seen a Bald Eagle, you now have an excellent chance of catching a view of one of these amazing birds. Our National Symbol. You owe it to yourself to see them live and in person.

Bring a pair of Binoculars and if so inclined, a camera. Thanks to the efforts of some wonderful people, we now have them back, and will for generations to come, with these continued efforts.




Wildlife of the Jersey Shore and Pine Barrens


Secretive Bird of the Salt Marsh - The Clapper Rail

by Eric Reuter

One of the most interesting and secretive birds that inabits the NJ coastal areas and tidal salt marshes is the Clapper Rail. This bird bides it time waiting for the tide to recede, so it can dart out from under cover, and forage on the exposed banks and in shallow water. Clapper Rails are about the size of a chicken, but with a very compressed body. This allows them to maneuver quickly through dense marsh grasses, where they can hide and escape predators. The saying "skinny as a Rail" is derived from these and other species of Rails.

(Clapper Rail makes a run for cover after foraging for a meal)

Clapper Rails have a very distinctive call, which can be heard from great distances. Most often you won't see them, but you will likely hear them. It's a fairly rapid series of "kek, kek, kek, kek..." sounds, usually numbering 10-15 at a time, and trailing off at the end.

Once in a while, if you are lucky, you can catch a glimpse of these unique birds as they make their way out of the grass and look for a meal. Clappers will eat a variety of foods, such as crustaceans, worms, and even insects. Small crabs are a favorite.

They are very skittish birds, and are always looking around intently before making a move that puts them out in the open. They are extremely fast runners, and that is their primary method of escape when threatened. Never venturing far from the grasses and reeds that give them cover and protection.


(Clapper Rail shakes out his feathers after preening)

Clappers were actually hunted years ago, but that practice had been ended. They are no longer permitted to be hunted as a game bird. It was all too easy for hunters to shoot them, unfortunately, because they are slow and awkward fliers. So, they would walk the marshes with shotguns and flush them for easy prey.

Another interesting fact about them is that the mating pair will call out, started by one of the birds, then the other will join in, and try to time it so that they are synchronized. This is assumed to be part of the bonding process.

If you are extremely fortunate, not only will you get to see the adults, but in late summer, you may catch a glimpse of the chicks. Clapper rail chicks are born all black, and their feet and toes are already very large from the moment of birth. Within a very short time, they are following closely behind and near mom, as mom retrieves food for them, and then teaches them how to hunt for themselves.

(Clapper Rail chick makes a run across the reeds)

Often the chicks will huddle around the mother and stay very close or even underneath her for protection. They are never far away. Clapper rails usually lay between 5 and 8 eggs, in mid-summer, and the young fledge before the colder weather hits in Autumn.  Clapper rails are primarily migratory and will head South for the Winter, but a few may remain in NJ on rare occasion.

(Clapper Rail chicks huddle near their mother for protection)

The Clapper Rail is an often comical and always wonderful bird to observe here  in NJ, and if you get the chance, visit one of the salt marshes along the coast, or visit the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, in Oceanville NJ, where you can drive your car around the dirt road loop that stretches for miles throughout the marsh. Clappers are reliably seen and heard there throughout the warm summer months. There are also wonderful numbers of them in some of the marshes and wildlife management areas near the Maurice River Watershed, in Cumberland County, and just off the Delaware Bay.  Wherever there is tidal salt marsh, there will almost certainly be some Clapper Rails. Listen for that distinctive call, and keep your eyes peeled for a view of this remarkable bird.

(Mom feeds one of the chicks a tasty bug!)


Eric Reuter
Wildlife and Nature Photography


Wildlife of the Jersey Shore and Pine Barrens


The Black Skimmer - Elegance in Action!

by Eric Reuter

Black Skimmer
Every year in mid-May, one of New Jersey’s most charming and amazing birds returns from its wintering grounds in the South: The Black Skimmer!

These birds are a marvel to watch in action. The Black Skimmer is a large bird of about 17-19 inches in length, but with a huge 44 inch wingspan. The only bird in the world whose lower mandible is longer than the upper, they are uniquely designed for what they do, and from where they get their name. They skim the surface of the water with the bill open, and the lower mandible piercing the water, all the while using those long, glider-like wings to balance themselves perfectly. They are graceful and precise, and amazing to watch as they fish. When a Skimmer encounters a fish with its bill, it quickly snaps shut, and they pull up and swallow the meal on the fly. Sometimes this results in some pretty amazing maneuvers.  On calm days with very still water, their bill piercing the water makes an almost musical sound.

Black Skimmers can be found along the coast of NJ, and in the tidal marshes and pools and inlets. They seldom venture inland, but are occasionally seen on lakes near the ocean. They do a lot of their fishing at night, but will very often be seen fishing during the day as well. Mornings and late afternoons are the most active. The can be found anywhere from Sandy Hook to Cape May, and in some spots farther North of that range. 

The Black Skimmer is one of the most charming of shorebirds. Not only are their antics and fishing fun to observe, but their call sounds just like a puppy barking - a most unlikely sound coming from a bird. They always bring a smile to bird watchers when they return for the summer. They are perhaps my most favorite bird to photograph.  With those long black wings, huge dark eyes, and long red and black bill, they are simply incredible to watch in action. Seeing them catching fish  by cutting the water like a knife, or sitting together in a flock on a sandbar, talking to each other and playing, they are an instant favorite for almost anyone who sees them.

Sadly, Black Skimmers are a species of great concern for conservation. They require undisturbed sandy beaches above the high tide line to nest. There are precious few of those beaches remaining in NJ. Some areas where they nest are restricted and protected by local or state and federal wildlife management agencies, or private conservation organizations. Cape May and Holgate  (Long Beach Island) are two of the areas where Skimmers nest, and those areas are cordoned off and restricted during nesting season. Without those and a few other  areas, they would be in danger of having no real ability to nest along our shores.

Black Skimmers are here in NJ from May to about October, when they then gather again to migrate South. Sometimes very large numbers can be seen congregating during that time, in Ocean City and Cape May, especially, as well as a few other areas along the the Southern NJ Coast.

If you have never seen one of these birds before, you owe it to yourself to experience it! Even people with very little interest in birds are awed and captivated to see them skimming for fish. They are unique among birds, as they are the only species that skims the surface of the water like this, and they have evolved to be incredible fliers in order to remain stable, and scoop up a meal from the water with incredible efficiency.


Eric Reuter
Wildlife and Nature Photography



Wildlife of the Jersey Shore and Pine Barrens


The Black Crowned Night Heron

by Eric Reuter

Black Crowned Night HeronWhere the Pines meet the marsh can be found one of the most interesting birds we have here in New Jersey -The Black Crowned Night Heron. As its name suggests, it feeds primarily at night, but can be found often in the early mornings, well after dawn, and also before sunset. A few individuals will even hunt in the middle of the day. They are large, stocky Herons, standing 25 inches tall, and weighing close to 2 lbs. They frequent areas of tidal marsh, and also freshwater ponds and wetlands. They feed by still hunting. They will find an area that is promising and stand at the water's edge or in shallow water, waiting for fish, snakes, frogs or crustaceans. They will also eat small mammals and even birds on occasion.

The Black Crowned Night heron arrives in Spring from its wintering grounds in Mexico and the Southern United States. It is resident in our area all the way into late fall.

Black Crowned Night Heron - click to see larger imageLike its larger cousin, the Great Blue Heron, the Black Crowned Night Heron can swallow a surprisingly large catch. I have seen them eat fish over a foot long, swallowed whole. Herons can't tear apart prey like a Hawk or an Eagle will. They have to kill their prey, and then swallow it whole. This takes some doing, and they have to maneuver the often huge meal into a position so they can down it without killing themselves in the process. One occasional cause of death among herons such as this is attempting to eat something just a little too large.

These birds are surprisingly beautiful, and when they are in full breeding plumage, they sport 2-3 long tassle like feathers from the back of the head. The colors are rich blue-black, gray and white. The most noticeable feature is their brilliant large red eyes. They have relatively short yellow legs. They are striking to see in the early morning light. Their call is an almost prehistoric sounding croaking noise; very loud and startling when you first hear it! They are strong fliers, but very slow and deliberate. It is surprising to see how large the wings are (over 4 feet) once they take flight from a perch.

Juvenile Black Crowned Night Heron - click to see larger imageLater in the year, the juveniles can be seen, usually in late July and August, into September. They are brown and mottled with white spots. They gain their adult colors in the 3rd year.

If you've never seen this remarkable bird, there are a few locations in NJ where you can reliably see them. I recommend the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, in Oceanville. There is a large population there every year that nests and roosts on protected islands surrounded by water. Get there in the early morning, and look quietly along the edges of Wildlife Drive or in the ponds along the road to Gull Pond tower. But any area of tidal marsh, or ponds or wetlands, where there is abundant prey is a good spot to look for Night Herons.

Eric Reuter
Wildlife and Nature Photography


Pinelands Preservation Alliance
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA) is a private, non-profit environmental organization dedicated to saving the Pinelands of NJ. They use advocacy and education to involve the public and persuade government to protect the natural and cultural resources of this extraordinary region. Check their website and follow them on Facebook!


If shorebirds are your passion, be sure to check out the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Absecon.  A long loop road through the wetlands on the shore of the Egg Harbor Bay a birder's paradise any time of year, but especially in early spring, when migration begins.  A surprising element is the skyline of Atlantic City looming in the southeastern horizon. If you're wondering what bird you saw while at the shore, in the Pine Barrens or in your own backyard, try this great bird identification website! Lots of information: http://www.whatbird.com


The Pine Barrens is becoming a popular tourist destination. It offers history, nature, boating, camping, fishing, swimming, and most of all, peace and tranquility. It's important to families who live here, whether for a few years or many generations, that our peace and tranquility be preserved.A local lawyer or doctor won't look any different than his neighbor who works the land. Thousand dollar suits aren't what impress people of the Pines - taking care of nature and fellow man is what matters. To that end, it is important for you to know that as a visitor to our precious Pine Barrens, you should show respect for the flora and fauna, for the historical buildings or their remains, and show respect for the "locals". Walk and drive gently. Treat our Pine Barrens as you would want a visitor to treat your own home town - and your own family. Thank you.

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