Jersey Shore's second great bird-watching mecca

A walkway overlooking woods near the resort's main gateway gives a people's-eye treat of a half-dozen bird species.
A walkway overlooking woods near the resort's main gateway gives a people's-eye treat of a half-dozen bird species. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2014

OCEAN CITY - It'll probably never surpass Cape May and its environs as the Jersey Shore's birding capital.

But a small patch of woods on a coastal islet, where a concrete bridge foundation for part of the Route 52 Causeway was rebuilt two years ago at the resort's main gateway, may just be giving veteran birders a new place to flock.

The nesting and the squawking - despite the constant roar of traffic off the nearby causeway - can call to mind explorer Henry Hudson's crew.

As soon as the Dutch explorers came ashore in 1609, they started giving everything an embryonic-inspired moniker - such as Great Egg Harbor, Great Egg Bay, Little Egg Inlet - because of the inordinate number of seabird nests and eggs laid out across the marshlands and woodlands as far as the eye could see.

Pull in, park your car, and stand for a few minutes on the elevated walkway along stretches on the northern side of the little woods, and you'll likely be able to see at least a half-dozen bird species. The location of the walkway - about three stories above the island - allows an observer to look down into the little ecosystem.

"The first weekend we were out here, I saw 16 people lined up along the railing with these big cameras and lenses. . . . I thought there was an accident out here," said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose offices are on the top floor of the visitor center at the Causeway.

Gillian said the three-story building, which is perched only a couple of dozen feet from the busy roadway, was originally supposed to be built "farther out," closer to the woodsy patch that attracts egrets, glossy ibis, pelicans, osprey, and a particularly active colony of yellow-crowned night herons.

But when planners noticed the nature area, she said, the precise location of the Roy Gillian Welcome Center - named for Michele Gillian's father-in-law, a former Ocean City mayor and local amusement pier owner - was shifted a few hundred feet so the little woods could remain mostly intact.

Ocean City's birding culture - which also includes a live feed of an osprey nest streamed to a screen at the nearby Bayside Center, at 520 Bay Ave., and a birding program being developed around the nature area - may be the result of a network of environmental stewardship in the region.

Cape May County is considered one of North America's premier bird-watching locales, with 400 species recorded and as many as 100,000 birds a day funneling through the region during the spring and fall migrations between the North and South Poles. Just north is the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, a 47,000-square-mile preserved coastal habitat.

"I think this finally puts Ocean City on the bird-watching map," said Gillian. "Visitors can stop here and learn all about our wonderful beach and boardwalk and everything else the town has to offer, and at the same time see great nature scenes right here."

Gillian said the chamber of commerce planned to enlist the aid of the local library to bring in guest speakers for programs about birds, "so people can better understand the uniqueness" of the area. Debbie Green of Paoli, who owns a summer home in Ocean City, said she and her children already appreciated the spot.

"I try to stop here as often as I can whenever I'm driving into Ocean City, because we never know what we are going to see," said Green, 37, the mother of three children, ages 5, 7, and 10. "The kids really love it. We try to pick out different birds, and now keep binoculars in the car and a birding guide so we can try to figure out what we're looking at. We saw a huge blue heron here one day and a bald eagle another time."


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