Remarkable Nature Places: Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

View of the Wildlife Drive

View of the Wildlife Drive at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge

Forsythe (Brigantine),  New Jersey

These thirty-six thousand acres of coastal marsh are a birder’s dream. Probably there is no place certainly no place on the Northeast and mid-Atlantic coast where birders can find such large numbers, variety, and the occasional rarity. And what is here is unusually accessible, from a wildlife drive on top of a dike that divides salt marsh from freshwater impoundments.

October can bring a peak of more than 150,000 waterfowl of two dozen or so species, which may linger into midwinter depending on freeze-up in the coastal bays.

Ghost Crab

Ghost crab (Ocypode) posing for a picture at Little Beach, NJ. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

None are more spectacular than the Snow Geese which can seem to fill the air with their cries. Thousands fly in at a height of less than 50 feet against a crimson sunset, returning from feeding in the marshes to spend the night in the pools. They nearly cover the water with their white bodies.

More than 80,000 Brant may come in — 20% of the Atlantic population of this small dark goose which leads such a precarious existence — nesting in a small area north of the Arctic Circle and with a diet so limited they nearly became extinct during an eelgrass blight in the 1930s. (Luckily eelgrass does well here now.)

Ducks will include Northern Pintails, Gadwalls, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Duck and Black Ducks, which also nest — and perhaps among all these a rare Eurasian Wigeon and Ross’ or Barnacle Goose, a Ruff, or an Ivory Gull.

Endangered Peregrine Falcons are around most of the year. Two pairs which nest on the refuge usually bring off several youngsters each from nesting towers constructed for the peregrine, and others appear to hunt, sometimes thrilling a lucky observer with a lightning stoop on a migrating duck or a threatening dive on a marsh harrier invading its territory. (Fierce Great Horned Owls sometimes prey on the peregrines at night).

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret at Wildlife drive. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pair of Osprey

Pair of Osprey in their nest at Wildlife Drive. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Beautiful tall wading birds can be almost anywhere along the water’s edge — Great Blues most of the year and Little Blue HeronsSnowy Egrets and Great EgretsTricolored Heron and Black-crowned Night-Herons, and, less obviously, American Bitterns from April to October. In May and June Glossy Ibises are everywhere — hundreds of them, offering an unusual opportunity to see this retiring, darkly iridescent species.

The clattering call of the Clapper Rail is commonly heard even when the bird itself is too shy to be seen. Ospreys are here from March to November and an occasional bald eagle comes by in winter.

Warblers and songbirds make an appearance around upland walking trails around the same time Horseshoe Crabs show up on the beach to mate and lay their eggs. This coincides with the full moon and the highest tides of May — a phenomenon that attracts Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlins and other shorebirds by the thousands to fatten up on the eggs for their continuing journey northward to nesting grounds.

Grasshopper Sparrows, sharptailed and Seaside Sparrows stay to nest, as do Forster’s, Least, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns. Canada Geese bring downy broods to pose for photographers on the dikes.

The wetland habitat does not support a large mammal population but some are here — raccoon, skunk, weasel, muskrat, fox, both red and gray, and otter. One of the best ways to see otters playing — which is what they mostly do — as well as red fox hunting is to wait and watch early at the northwest corner of the wildlife drive.

The beautiful rare Pine Barrens Treefrog, bright green with plum body stripes, lives on a bog recently added to the refuge.

View of the Wildlife Drive

View of the Wildlife Drive at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The refuge includes 6,000 acres of wilderness with such nowadays-rare features as several thousand acres of pristine salt marsh accessible by small boat only, offering fascinating views of estuaries and salt marsh; and the undeveloped coastal barrier beaches of Holgate unit and Little Beach Island, New Jersey’s only offshore island not accessible by road. Here one finds plants rare elsewhere; also the threatened Piping Plover as well as colonies of Black Skimmers and least terns. To protect them both the Holgate Unit and Little Beach Island are closed to public use during nesting, and the fragile dune area is closed all year.

The Barnegat Unit, more than 14,000 acres of salt marsh habitat, is accessible by boat or by viewing from several adjacent roads; otherwise it has no public use facilities.

How to Get There
From Absecon, take Route 9 north about 4.5 miles to Great Creek Road in Oceanville. Turn right there to refuge office. (The Intracoastal Waterway bisects the refuge and boat landings are nearby.)

Sunrise to sunset. Office 8-4 weekdays, volunteers available for information on busy fall and spring weekends. Entrance fee.

Best Times to Visit
Spring and fall.

What to See
Great numbers and variety of bird species.

What to Do
Two self-guided walking trails; eight-mile wildlife drive surrounded by salt marsh with great diversity of birds from both fresh and salt estuary habitat in view simultaneously; observation towers; limited small boat launch facility at Scott’s Landing.

Where to Stay
— Motels — On Route 9 and 30, around Absecon.
— Campgrounds — At Wharton State Forest and Bass River State Forest, adjacent to refuge on north.

Variable all year — come prepared for possibility of change. Winter ice can close wildlife drive — best call ahead.

What to Take and Wear
— Insect repellent in summer.
— Sturdy waterproof footgear a good idea on the trails.
— A warm jacket November through March.

Points of Interest Nearby
— Wharton State Forest (see campgrounds) — part of interesting Pine Barrens.
— Cape May Bird Observatory.
— Stone Harbor near Cape May worth a visit for its fascinating heronry, located right in the center of town.

For More Information

Forsythe (Brigantine) National Wildlife Refuge
P. O. Box 72
Great Creek Road
Oceanville, New Jersey 08231

Phone: 609-652-1665

Fax: 609-652-1474


Update as of Monday, November 5 at 4:00 p.m.

Most areas of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge will remain closed to public use until damage and repair needs are assessed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. This includes the Wildlife Drive in Galloway, Holgate beach on Long Beach Island, and the deCamp Wildlife Trail in Brick Township.

Water crested over the Wildlife Drive in Galloway and it sustained significant damage during the storm.  Extensive assessments will need to take place before a timeframe for repairs can be estimated.

Trails adjacent to the Wildlife Drive and the Visitor Information Center are currently closed, and will remain closed until public safety can be ensured. Other areas of the 47,000-acre refuge will be re-opened as soon as possible.


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