Where can you go any time of year to observe and photograph birds for just about every skill level, age, physical condition in the comfort of your own car?
You got it – Forsythe is THE PLACE for Bird Photography!
In these times where social distancing is required, it is tough to think of a better place than “Forsythe”. For starters, it features an 8-mile auto road. It is a bird sanctuary – a bird photographer’s paradise! Driving on Wildlife Drive, there will be birds to the left of you. And birds to the right. Look up for more birds in flight!
It’s a National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps one of the largest in New Jersey.
According to the official website, the refuge protects over 47,000 acres of coastal habitat in southern NJ. This location makes it a prime flight path in the Atlantic Flyway, which is crucial for migrating birds in every season. As more people develop land on the NJ shoreline, this protected area becomes more important than ever.
Be aware that this post is based on the Main Refuge Headquarters and Wildlife Drive. There are other sections of the refuge.
Snow Geese make a stopover during winter. Look closely and you can see their “mugs” covered in mud from foraging in the marshlands.
Address and link to Google Maps:
From Garden State Parkway Southbound:
The refuge is easily accessed using Parkway Exit 48. You will exit onto US Route 9 South. The refuge entrance is at the 3rd traffic light (Great Creek Road). Turn left on Great Creek Road, which ends at the refuge.
Wildlife drive is open every day from sunrise to sunset. However, routine maintenance may require closures; check the website before your visit to check what is open.
There is a fee to enter the park; $4 per car and $2 for walk-ins and bicycles. There are other options for more frequent visits.
Common Terns are a common sight in late spring and throughout the summer
- There is a visitor center but refuge facilities are closed. There are port-o-johns available.
- Several picnic tables are located near the visitor center.
- Nature trails surround the visitor center – great if you just drove a few hours to get there. Depending on season, there are tons of songbirds, warblers, squirrels, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer and more.
- Wildlife near or in the ponds surrounding the trails may include muskrats, turtles, frogs and the occassional otter and mink.
Bird Photography along Wildlife Drive
This is an amazing opportunity to get stellar close-up photos of a huge variety of birds. Your vehicle is the perfect “blind” to allow safe viewing:
- The one-way 8-mile drive is in a square shape. Good light will be on one at least one side of your drive for most spots along the drive.
- For example, on a sunny morning at the begining of your drive, Atlantic City will be on your right side and be backlit. Birds on the left side of the drive will be in ideal light and will be easier to get good photographs.
- A lens of 400mm or greater is recommended. Many of the “pros” bring their 600mm + lenses without having to lug them around – definitely a huge benefit of Wildlife Drive!
Many birds are in the pools and channels right next to the road – it is like a wildlife safari!
Very often, seagulls will fly overhead to drop a mussel or other mollusk snack to help break it open. They will wait until the last minute to get out of your way.
In late Spring and Summer, Terns, Egrets and Heron – even Night Heron – can be found near drainage areas to fish for their meals. Great photo opportunities abound!
You can get out of your vehicle, but be sure to stay on the drive.
Hundreds of Northern Pintail can be seen during late winter and fall migration
Northern Shoveler make their way through Forsythe in the hundreds during winter months
Wildlife Highlights by Season
Winter is home to thousands of Brant, Black Ducks and Snow Geese. Raptors include Red-Tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, Short-Earred Owls, and even a Snowy Owl. Ducks like Northern Shovelers, Pintails and divers such as Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, Grebes and Mergansers can be spotted. We got a special visit from this Merlin during our drive in mid-January.
Closeup Merlin, also featured image
Yes – you can get THIS close – here’s the same Merlin on bird sign at Forsythe, so fitting “for the birds… and you!”
Spring is my favorite time to visit – there is just so much happening. Ospreys return, Snowy and Great Egrets, Herons, Oystercatchers, Terns and Warblers arrive, as well as all the shorebirds and sandpipers. Purple Martins can be spotted near the Visitor Center. Diamondback Terrapins lay their eggs in the soil – be careful driving. There are patches of bright Daffodils on some trails and the fruit trees produce beautiful flowers. Keep an eye out for Glossy Ibis.
Summer brings the pollinator insects and butterflies that you can see in abundance along the nature trails. The turtles are out in full force, and Fiddler crabs can be seen when the tide is low. Black Skimmers are a favorite to watch as they hover low to the water to catch any insects on the surface. Be warned – Summer is Green Fly season and it is amazing how they can swarm. Our last summer visit was in mid-July and it was difficult to put the windows down.
Be on the lookout for migrating hawks by early September. Monarch Butterflies also migrate through in order to prepare for their final journey south. As the weather gets colder and the days become shorter, foliage turns brilliant colors of yellow, orange, red to rust. As the frost arrives, so do wintering ducks and geese – their home for the win
This beautiful Black Swallowtail on Pink Knapweed was captured near the Wildflower Nature Trail, just outside the Visitor Center.
In order to keep up to date on the most recent sightings, be sure to check out ebird.org, a popular bird sighting and reporting app developed by Cornell, where hundreds of users report daily sightings, many of them regular and reliable visitors to the refuge.
Extending your stay?
If you are planning to make a few extra stops or extend your stay, be sure to check out Historic Smithville, located about 5 miles from the refuge headquarters.
- There are over 50 specialty shops, about 10 different eateries, including the Smithville Inn, where you can also stay the Night.
- The setting could hardly be more picturesque. The shops are a collection of wooden clapper board-syle building that surround a lake.
- There is a train, carosel and even a covered bridge! There are events year-round. Check out their highly informative and up-to-date site Historic Smithville map and info.
If you do plan on staying, there are hotels in nearby Little Egg Harbor; we haved stayed at the Homewood Suites by Hilton a few times, located about 20 minutes from the refuge.
For a quick pit-stop, there is a Wawa convenience store just up the road from Smithville, on Route 9 (from GSP South x 48)
If you like golf, there are some beautiful resorts in Galloway, including the Galloway National Golf Club. High-end restaurants, spas and other lodges options can be found in Galloway.
For a regional visit, I highly recommend staying in Cape May, home to the World Series of Birding.
There are many opportunities for lodging, including AirBNB rentals. You can even take your vehicle on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry for about a 1.5 hrs trip to Delaware to visit more Wildlife Refuges. We did this and visited Bombay Hook NWR, which also has a wildlife drive. In my humble opinion, Forsythe is much better. The ferry ride was nice, but it does take up most of the day because you have to arrive early for security, etc.
Great Egret photo from Bombay Hook NWR. This photo was captured in the Birds as Art (BAA) style of world renowed photographer Arthur Morris
Is swimming allowed?
No, the refuge was built to protect wildlife and provide and maintain resources for them to survive and thrive. Besides, salt marshes have mud flats, insects, crustaceans: a buffet for birds, definitely not a swimming hole. Go to the beach or local pool for swimming.
Are there picnic areas at the refuge?
There are picnic tables near the visitor center. However, due to Covid, picnicing has been prohibited in public places. Check the main headquarters for updates.
How about a snack bar?
No, but there are vending machines at the Visitor Center. Carry out any trash or disposable items.
Can I bring my dog?
No, pets are not allowed at the refuge. Dogs are highly disturbing to all the ducks, birds and other wildlife that call the refuge home. Animal waste is detrimental to the health and welfare of the wildlife and people who visit the refuge.
What are the hours?
Most areas are open from dawn to dusk. No overnight parking is allowed on any part of the refuge.
Can I camp out at the refuge?
No, camping is not a permitted activity. There are some great resorts and hotels in the area. Camping in popular as you make your way to Shore points.
Can I ride my bike?
Yes! Be advised that Wildlife Drive is a dirt-packed road. It can be very dusty on windy days and muddy during rainy season. The road is out in the open except at beginning and towards end, where there are trees to get some respite from the sun.
There is also a fee that must be paid before entering the loop road.
Can I launch my boat from Wildlife Drive?
No. Wildlife Drive is restricted to vehicles, walking, or bike riding only. The refuge encompasses 47,000 acres; there are other sections that do allow boating:
Boats may be launched at the Brigantine Division’s Scotts Landing boat ramp, located at the end of Scotts Landing Road, off Moss Mill Road, at Leeds Point.
Can I go fishing along Wildlife Drive?
No, not along Wildlife Drive, but there are designated areas at Brigantine and Barnegat divisions under Federal and State regulations. According to the website:
- These areas include: Salt water fishing (from land) at Gravelling Point, Little Beach (with permit), Parkertown Dock Rd, Cedar Run Dock Rd, and Stafford Ave.
- Boats may be launched at the Brigantine Division’s Scotts Landing boat ramp, located at the end of Scotts Landing Road, off Moss Mill Road, at Leeds Point.
- Fresh water fishing is permitted on Lily Lake in Oceanville.
There are several lookout towers on Wildlife Drive. The first one is a quick 1/3 mile walk from the Visitor Center. Check out the pools for ducks, turtles, herons at Red-Tailed hawks.
A group of Sandpipers flew in. After taking a few shots, they were easy to identify.
What should I bring?
Other than dressing accordingly for the season and your favorite camera, binoculars are highly recommonded. Serious birders will commonly have pro-grade binoculars and spotting scopes.
If you’re looking for high value binoculars and just getting into bird watching, there are some suggestions below. Binoculars are rated by their magnification power (strength) and diameter of the lens in millimeters, such as 8×42 or 10×50. The higher the first number, the more distance can be captured. However, longer distance also equals more hand-shake and less light.
For bird watching, 8×42 is the standard and also useful for boating, nature and hiking. If you are experienced at handling binoculars, consider 10×42, 10×50 or even 12×50 for details in smaller species at a distance. The lowest priced binoculars generally do not provide good optics, take extra time to focus and can become misaligned or break easily – very frustrating.
High-value binoculars to consider under $100 on Amazon:
Gosky 10×42, HD Professional Binoculars with Phone Mount, highly rated at about $85 on Amazon at the time of this publication
Are there family-friendly activities?
Yes. Most of the refuge is fairly flat so that people of all ages and most abilities can find a trail suitable for the amount of time they want to spend, activity or wildlife they wish to observe.
It is handicapped accessible?
Yes. There is a paved path to the Visitor Center and the parking area is flat. There are ramps to some of the trails and Wildlife Drive is best enjoyed from the comfort of your vehicle.
Are there dangerous animals at the refuge?
In general, it there are no dangerous animals at the refuge. The most dangerous threat is to be bitten by an infected tick, undected, which could lead to Lyme Disease. Ticks are common on Deer, which are abundant throughout the refuge. They are also very common in grasslands and wherever deer forage.
Are there a lot of mosquitoes at the refuge?
Depending on the season, especially in the summer, mosquitoes can become a nuisance. Green Flies are be very bad too. Since most of the refuge is surrounded by wetlands, ponds or saltmarshes, mosquitoes and other biting insects can become prevalent.
Take caution by wearing long sleeves and pants, a hat, and using bug spray, like Off. If you are concerned about chemicals, here are some great alternatives, available on Amazon:
- Repel Lemon Eucalyptus is deet-free and repels mosquitoes for up to six hours. The active ingredient is Oil of lemon eucalyptus 30% (smells good, too!).
- Natrapel 8 Hour is another natural remedy against mosquitoes, with an active ingredient of Picaridin (20%), also a common ingredient in Sawyer Fisherman’s Formula.
Are there restrooms at the Refuge?
Yes, there are port-a-john toliets at the Visitor Center.
Due to Covid, many restroom facilities in public lands were closed. Check the refuge headquarters for the latest information.
Where can I park?
Depending on your desired activity, there are limited amounts of parking throughout the refuge. The Visitor Center has the most parking spaces, enough for about 30 vehicles. Trails and lookout points offer an average of 5-10 vehicles per lot. Weekends tend to be more popular visiting times and fill up faster. Plan accordingly.
Where can I find maps of the refuge?
As mentioned above, here are some resources to help facilitate you on your journey to Forsythe – they are all from the official Forsythe NWR site and include PDF Maps and other great info to accompany your visit:
- Be sure to include Forsythe on your top birding spots whenever you are in the south NJ area.
- There are outstanding opportunities to photograph a large variety of birds from the comfort of your car. Be sure to check on the latest sightings and make sure the areas you plan to visit are open.
- To my knowledge, the largest closure occurred after Hurrican Sandy caused destruction to wildlife drive to the point where it was not safely driveable. Otherwise, head on down for a great day of birding!
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