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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the June 26, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Sandy Hook: Birds & Beach
I‘d heard of Sandy Hook all my New Jersey life. But
for odd and useless reasons, it had remained a place for others. Perched
at New York Harbor’s entrance, the Jersey Shore’s northernmost point,
Sandy Hook has protected these reaches for centuries. Only in recent
years has it been devoted to hedonism.
"Location, location, location" is as true of navigation and
coastal defense as in real estate. The spare and creamy Sandy Hook
Light — which began service in 1764 — is our country’s oldest
in continuous operation. Fort Hancock has bristled over New York Harbor
since 1874. Both can be visited, if you can tear yourself away from
Sandy Hook’s seemingly limitless six miles of beach.
I had unjustly overlooked Sandy Hook as unworthy of my nature treks.
Ever since my first amazed visit in the summer of 2000, "my heart’s
been in the Highlands." (You cross Highland Bridge to reach the
entry to this expansive, pristine park.) This paradoxical place lies
perilously near Manhattan, yet you can find yourself alone in dune
and marsh. Crossing its threshold transforms visitor into a time traveler:
For thousands of years, "The Hook" served as prime hunting
and fishing grounds for Lenni Lenape Indians. Sagas of shipwreck and
vigilance, skullduggery and heroism fairly pulse from dunes and venerable
We were given brochures as we paid at entry. One insisted, "For
birding, try Plum Island and Spermaceti Cove." We chose the latter,
the romance of that name conjuring "Moby Dick." Whales beached
here long before New Bedford and Nantucket sailing ships carried harpooners
and their try-pots to mid-ocean. Spermaceti must have been recovered
on these very strands. This rare and costly substance is found near
the whale’s blowhole, not where the name implies. Waxen, almost crystalline,
a cache of spermaceti could bring in heftier profits than whale oil
itself. Spermaceti was essential in certain medicines, lubricants,
perfumes, and in candle manufacture. This substance was literally
light years ahead of wax candles, these luxuries scarce in the days
of odoriferous sheep tallow. Spermaceti’s steady flame made it the
fuel of choice for most critical lighthouses. Wealthy Colonial women,
sewing the night away, appreciated its steadiness. The standard candle
was then defined as "a candle of spermaceti, of which six weigh
a pound, burning at a rate of 120 grains per hour." I hope Melville
had the blessing of spermaceti as he crafted his story of the ultimate
As we discovered, Sandy Hook’s Spermaceti Cove held a wildly different
treasure for us. A few feet onto its too-brief boardwalk over marshland,
I looked up into a a sparse pine. At its tip presided an enormous
dark bird with glistening white head. My glasses showed the golden
beak, confirming my fierce hope: a bald eagle. My companion’s first.
A life bird. True birders insist on a dance for each life bird, and
my friend was quick to comply. Other winged wonders awaited on that
walk. Terns and ospreys, herons as a matter of course. Two elegant
cedar waxwings feeding in the eponymous cedar. Black skimmers slicing
shimmering bay water with scarlet beaks. After that eagle, we were
tempted to say, "we can go home now." But we didn’t.
Sandy Hook’s birding instructions suggest Horseshoe Cove, North Pond,
or fields at Fort Hancock. Ultimately, we covered them all. The day’s
prize was the seriously endangered Ruddy Turnstone, welcoming us at
the tip of the park, virtually on the apron of Manhattan. These brick,
black, and white shore birds feed on eggs of horseshoe crabs, whose
numbers in our Delaware Bay have been seriously depleted by overfishing
for bait and fertilizer. Without those eggs in May, turnstones cannot
make it to Arctic breeding grounds in time or shape to reproduce.
No matter how early you get to Sandy Hook, you may wish you’d arrived
earlier. I’m not only talking about possible crowds. Succulent as
shore light always is, you’ll sense and regret having missed dawn
sweetness. You may be scolded by mocking birds hopping on the roof
of the 1894 Life Saving Station, now restored as the Visitors’ Center.
Hundreds of voyagers owed their lives to Herculean efforts of those
manning this building in the days of sail. In the 1800s craft breaking
up on nearby shoals were the norm.
Walking among (but not on) dunes, your trail will be framed by winey
rose hips, bursting and begging to be turned into jam. Soft pink Bouncing
Bet picks up each nuance of sea breeze. Poison ivy is bountiful. Rejoice
with migrant warblers whom it generously feeds. Keep away yourself.
When you come upon a rise, you’ll be treated to that atavistically
thrilling sight of water on two sides. The full heaving glisten of
ocean lies to your left, a serene saucer of bay to your right. There
is no sound save rustle of breezes in dune cover, whispery whistle
of overhead terns.
World War II echoes chill as bunkers hunker among dune cover. Across
the bay, a seemingly limitless destroyer claims the horizon. Larger
than a city block, the ship brings to mind May West’s question upon
boarding the Queen Mary: "What time does this place get to New
"Immaculate" is not a word that jumps to mind in the shadow
of the Verrazano Bridge. Yet "The Hook’s" sands glisten, unmarred
by trash or tar. There are glittering wrack lines, "the newspaper
of the tides." The sea writes her story of previous hours in clear
and elegant script: Citrine jingle shells sing when you cradle them.
Sleek black "mermaids’ purses" (skate egg cases), with their
four curly antennae. Seaweeds look shampooed. Healthy opalescent blue
crabs and limpet-studded horseshoe crabs attest to the viability of
these waters. We wish for sand pails to fill with these unbroken treasures.
Always walking toward the park’s ultimate point — being connoisseurs
of Land’s Ends — we expected to be disappointed by the nearness
of the city. But the scintillating contrast of those six sandy miles
and that legendary skyscape only astounded. In 2000, two sooty towers
served as exclamation points, marking the power and culmination of
that seemingly invincible site. Returning two years later, I stood
with 50 Audubon birders, wordless, staring across sand and brush toward
an unrecognizable altered horizon. Absence burnt itself onto retinas
attuned to Barrow’s Goldeneye and Buffleheads. I brushed a baffled
hand over my eyes, cleaning my monocular, as if, then, I could find
the lost towers. What city was that, over the Verrazano Narrows? One
I no longer know.
Back in August, at the Hook’s ultimate tip, a most elegant great egret
lifted dainty legs, fishing a tidal pool, aloof to humans and towers.
This queenly bird was as comfortable in that setting as though subways
didn’t weave their sinuous webs within a few thousand feet of her
It’s not difficult to find Sandy Hook, but good maps come in handy.
From the U.S. 1 readership area, go north to the New Jersey Turnpike,
then south on the Garden State Parkway to exit No. 117. Take 36 East
for 12 miles, crossing the Highlands Bridge to the park entry. Summer
fee is $10 per car, levied from Memorial Day to Labor Day, no charge
at other times. A $50 seasonal pass is also available. Park staff
recommend you make the Visitors’ Center, located two miles from the
park entrance, your first stop. However, it does not open until 10
a.m. Summer weekends at Sandy Hook may be busy. When parking areas
are full, the park closes until parking becomes available. To avoid
delays arrive before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m. For superb views and
seafood, Bahr’s Restaurant, on the water to the north of Highlands
Bridge, will not disappoint.
— Carolyn Foote Edelmann
from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 732-872-5970.
1 to 5 p.m. History House, an officer’s row home, furnished
to the 1940s, is open on weekends from 1 to 5 p.m. Also open weekends,
1 to 5 p.m., is Battery Potter, a battery built in the 1890s
as the first of the defenses against enemy ships approaching New York
only, from noon to 5 p.m. Same day bookings are taken begining at
noon; stop by and book early in your visit to Fort Hancock, then return
for your tour. This lighthouse first burned oil to guide ships in
1764. Paid for by New York, it stood sentinel to the northernmost
strand in New Jersey. Her "48 blazes" were replaced in 1856
by a third order Fresnel lens.
Officers Row, 732-872-2500. Newly opened and operated by New Jersey
Audubon Society, the center is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10
a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. It has a
bookstore and displays dedicated to the state’s environment.
$50) is in effect from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. This is
for use of beach parking lots. If you plan to only visit Fort Hancock
or birding areas along Sandy Hook Bay, tell the Fee Collector when
you arrive and the beach fee is waived.
a 26,000-acre area located in the New York metropolitan area, extending
through New York boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island,
and into Monmouth County, New Jersey. The National Park Service website
www.nps.gov/gate offers information on travel directions,
facilities, camping, fees, and events.
Sandy Hook Summer
a wetland salt marsh along Sandy Hook Bay. Friday, June 28 at 6
Fort Hancock’s oldest gun batteries and discover how the Mortar Battery,
Battery Granger, and Battery Potter protected New York Harbor. Bring
a flashlight. Saturday, June 29 at 6 p.m.
program that uses a seine net to gather creatures from the bay. They
provide the net and hip boots. You wear sneakers and plan to get wet.
Reservations needed, call 732-872-5970. Thursdays, July 11 and
25 at 1 p.m.; Saturday, July 27 at 5 p.m.
a wetland salt marsh along Sandy Hook Bay Friday, July 12 at 6
walk with Monmouth County Audubon Society along the salt marshes of
Sandy Hook Bay to see ospreys, egrets, herons and cormorants. Thursday,
July 18 at 6 p.m.
Learn about some of the basic needs of plants and animals living in
Sandy Hook’s harsh maritime environment on this beach to woodlands
walk. Friday, July 19 at 6 p.m.
on this after dark walk along Sandy Hook’s beaches or trails. Saturday,
July 20 at 8:30 p.m.
Jersey Audubon Society evenings ramble in search of towhees,
terns and turnstones. Tuesday, July 23 at 6 p.m.
Discover the long history and historic sites at Horseshoe Cove from
the days of sail to the modern missile era on this ranger-led walking
tour. Thursday, July 25 at 6 p.m.
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