Each year, when winter winds howl through the woods and fields near my home in southeastern Pennsylvania, I feel the urge to visit Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. I figure that if I can’t run from the cold weather, why not go enjoy it at one of the best winter birding sites on the East Coast?
The 32-acre park offers the opportunity to see and photograph a rich and diverse gathering of winter waterfowl, gulls, loons, and shorebirds. It’s the most reliable site in New Jersey for wintering Harlequin Ducks (up to 30 individuals). And the ocean beyond the jetty is one of the only places in the state to see Common and King Eiders, although they’re not present every year.
Prime birding begins in the maritime woods near the lighthouse and extends along a concrete walkway by the harbor bulkhead, onto a ramp that straddles the jetty, and along the jetty itself.
Look for the occasional Snowy Owl along the north and south sides of the inlet, Bonaparte’s Gulls feeding on the water, and Snow Buntings and Horned Larks on the dunes. — William Jobes
Atlantic Ocean, sandy beach, dunes, remnant maritime forest.
Mostly flat and level. Wheelchair-accessible paved and fenced walkway leads from lighthouse to the inlet, where it continues several hundred feet to a rocky jetty. A 0.2-mile trail loops through maritime forest.
Winter: Harlequin Ducks. A distant spectacle beyond the ocean breakers is the feeding frenzy of diving Northern Gannets. Red-throated and Common Loons in fall migration sometimes pass in significant numbers. Also Brant, Long-tailed Duck, Bonaparte’s Gull, Red-breasted Merganser, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Iceland Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwake, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, all three scoters, scaup, Common and King Eiders, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, American Pipit, Snow Bunting, “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow, warblers, thrushes. Rare: Gyrfalcon, Little and Black-headed Gulls.
When to go
Mid-September through mid-April.
A newly renovated interpretive center exhibits the history of the lighthouse and the island. Picnic tables and shelters along inlet. Waterfowl-viewing programs in winter.
State park. No admission fee. Parking and restrooms available at the lighthouse.
Extreme care must be taken on the jetty, as the huge rocks can become dangerously slippery when wet. Cleated footwear certified for icy, wet, and mossy rock hiking strongly recommended. For a safer route, walk along the sand. Bring a spotting scope to view distant birds.