The Salt Pond at Sandy Hook
Monmouth County, NJ
by Scott Barnes
Sandy Hook’s “salt pond” is a relatively new addition to the birding opportunities available at the 2,040 acre National Recreation Area. Located at the top of the jersey shore, “the hook” provides good to excellent year-round birding, with peak times of activity in April-May and September-October. Over 340 species of birds have been recorded in the last 30 years at Sandy Hook. About 280+ species of birds occur annually.
The littoral drift moves northward along the northern coastline of New Jersey and keeps Sandy Hook growing. One of the biggest changes to the landscape at the hook is the accretion of sand. The north end of Sandy Hook has grown tremendously in the past few decades, and areas that were once ocean now support dune grass, goldenrod, and bayberry. All told, 375 acres of new land exist today that were ocean when the park was established.
At the north end there are two ponds. Both ponds were initially tidal pools created by shifting sands and storms, then were pinched off from tidal flow by high dunes, and now fed solely by rainwater. Although brackish, the salinity level in the ponds is low enough to support breeding dragonflies. Large populations of Striped Killifish are resident. North Pond is shallow and dominated by Phragmites around the periphery, with scattered tall cottonwood trees, and other typical dune plants. The pond is an excellent location for a variety of waterbirds including Least Bittern, American Bittern (counts of up to 12 birds have been recorded in April), Sora, and Virginia Rail. The list of rarities here is long and includes Eurasian Wigeon, Purple Gallinule, Sandhill Crane, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Cave Swallow.
At the newer salt pond, vegetation is slowly becoming more prevalent with Marsh Mallow, Salt Marsh Fleabane, Seaside Goldenrod, and Cottonwood trees all growing. Over time, the salt pond may look more and more like the north pond as natural succession takes place.
The salt pond is an important feeding and roosting habitat for Federally Endangered Piping Plovers and Least Terns. Many Common Terns and the occasional Black Skimmer utilize the pond as well. The peak of bird activity at the salt pond takes place from mid-July through September, when a variety of southbound shorebirds visit. Numbers here are not overwhelming, with 100 individuals being a good count. However, diversity can be excellent, with 15+ species of shorebirds present most weeks. The salt pond is arguably one of the most reliable locations in New Jersey for viewing juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers during August and September. Counts of a half a dozen individuals are not uncommon. One enjoyable feature at the salt pond is the ability to observe shorebirds at close range. Although a string fence is in place from mid-March to Labor Day, birders can walk a path behind the fencing that allows close approach to the pond. After Labor Day the fencing is removed and birders can walk around the perimeter of the entire pond. In addition to shorebirds, the pond hosts gulls, terns (Black Tern is reliable here in May and August), and a few ducks. The dunes and low vegetation around the pond can be good for pipits, sparrows, and other open-country birds.
Rarities found at the salt pond have included American Avocet, Hudsonian Godwit, Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic Tern, Western Kingbird, Lark Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. With the pond’s strategic location at the northern terminus of the hook, local birders salivate at the thought of what rarity might appear here next. Vagrants like Groove-billed Ani, Gray Kingbird, and Chestnut-collared Longspur have all appeared a stone’s throw away.
The ponds are located at the northern end of Sandy Hook and accessible from Parking Lot K. For details, stop in at the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory where you can pick up a free, detailed birding map of Sandy Hook.