Along the coastal regions of New Jersey, the marshes, estuaries, and meadows that line the shore provide an invaluable resource for the state. These areas are the first line of defense against severe weather storms, acting as a buffer for the New Jersey shoreline and protecting against erosion. These places are also home to many creatures great and small, including most of the state’s fish and shellfish (via
nj.gov). As a lifelong New Jersey resident, the wetlands are places to pass by as I head to my beach destinations. Through the car’s windows, I appreciate the pretty meadows, (especially toward sunset), and often it is easy to spot an egret or a heron hunting among the still waters. I confess, however, to not knowing much about them, beyond something to look at on my drives to Sea Isle City, Cape May, Wildwood, and other beach towns.
My wife and I had planned a quiet weekend at the shore, and originally I intended to take a week off from writing this blog. However, my wife discovered an institute in Stone Harbor that specializes in preserving the coastal wetlands of New Jersey. There is a museum, an aquarium, and a unique boardwalk trail through the marshes – it sounded like a great place to visit, learn more about this unique ecosystem, and share with our readers!
The Wetlands Institute
Located in Stone Harbor, about twenty minutes north of Cape May, is The Wetlands Institute. Established in the late 1960s, the institute seeks to inform the public about this unique coastal environment, while also working to preserve these critical zones (via The Wetlands Institute).
On the way to the shore, we made a slight detour to Haddonfield, to stop once again at Bleu Bear Bakery. Bleu Bear specializes in gluten free baked goods, and is always worth a return visit.
A little better than snacks we could find at a convenience store! We picked up a gluten-free soft pretzel to enjoy during our drive, and a cupcake for dessert… more on that later!
A sure sign it is still the off-season for the Jersey shore – during summertime, you won’t see the Atlantic City Expressway this devoid of traffic on a Saturday afternoon!
We arrived at the institute after two hours of driving. While the clear skies and warm temperatures made for a beautiful day, what we both noticed as we emerged from the car was the smell – the scent of the coast. The briny, salty odor that fills your nostrils – I wish I could bottle it and take it with me wherever I go.
Not even ten paces from my car, I spotted this egret spreading its wings among the marshes. Clearly, we had come to the perfect spot for my camera and me! (Author’s note: I received some questions and comments regarding the lack of bird photos in my last post – don’t worry. This one has you covered…)
We started our tour by checking in at the gift shop in the visitors center. Although the grounds of the institute are free to visit, a small aquarium and museum has a nominal entrance fee. Figuring we’d check it all out, we paid our fee and started our visit by walking through the Salt Marsh Trail, an elevated walkway that allows you to explore the marshland while not damaging the delicate ecosystem in the waters below.
One enormous benefit of the salt marshes to humans? They act as a natural buffer, protecting inland areas from rising seas and storm surges.
Numerous forms of wildlife call this area home, including these ribbed mussels, which act as natural filters, cleaning the waters of toxins and bacteria.
It’s the ospreys, though, that we saw in the greatest abundance. Their nests dotted the landscape. Check out the webcams peering down at the nest – this one can be viewed on the institute’s website.
Osprey hunt for food in the tidal waters of the wetlands. This one is bringing lunch back to its nest!
We saw this osprey repeatedly flying between its nest and the marshland, as it searched for building materials. The Wetlands are like the Home Depot for osprey home improvement supplies.
A vulture approached an osprey’s nest and was promptly driven off.
For most of the time outside, though, I simply enjoyed the opportunity to photograph these magnificent birds of prey as they swooped and dove overhead.
I swear this one was looking at me, wondering if I was an appropriate meal.
…it is still trying to decide if I’ll make a good lunch.
I loved the contrast of the osprey with the trees in the background.
Less awe-inspiring than the ospreys, but I did like how these ducks were all flying in formation, close to the water.
We stopped by the small but informative aquarium to learn more about the wildlife of the wetlands.
Although they can be found throughout the northern Atlantic Ocean, the striped burrfish spawns off the coast of New Jersey (via Wikipedia).
A face only a mother could love… this spider crab crab was pretty cool to see up close.
A section of the aquarium is dedicated to the diamondback terrapin, a species of turtle that makes its home in coastal marshes from Cape Cod to Florida. Whereas once these turtles were plentiful, their numbers have dwindled due to hunting (they were popular as a food source in the early 20th century), they can be harmed by propellers of passing ships, and the turtles frequently die when accidentally entering crab traps. Conservation of these turtles is a major focus of the Wetlands Institute.
When I visited, two terrapins were swimming in their tank – I had a blast photographing them playing together.
We greatly enjoyed our time at the Wetlands Institute, and highly recommend it as a fun stopover for anyone looking for an interactive learning experience about the shore. Two thumbs up!
Before leaving Stone Harbor, we crossed the island to enjoy a few minutes on the beach. On the dunes we saw this historical marker – the first airmail flight in New Jersey took off in Ocean City, twenty miles to the north, and landed on this beach in Stone Harbor in 1912. The flight was conducted to test if airplanes could be an effective way to deliver mail. In 1918, the United States Post Office began a regular airmail service between New York and Washington D.C. Fascinating! The Food.
What blog post is complete without some food photos? Our dinner destination was Lucky Bones Backwater Grille, a restaurant and bar on the waterways that lead to Cape May Harbor.
My wife ordered the gluten-free crab and shrimp cakes, with sides of string beans and polenta. Lucky Bones’ pizza is also excellent, and I ordered the “Sofia” – a pizza with shrimp, mozzarella, roasted garlic cloves, and garlic oil, on a wafer-thin crust. A huge bonus – most items at Lucky Bones can be prepared gluten free. How was dinner? Yum! Yum! Yum!
Bleu Bear provided dessert – a gluten free vanilla cupcake with chocolate creme icing. It was the perfect ending to the meal.
By this point, I’m certain my readers can guess where we ordered breakfast…
Takeout from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House! I had the pecan pancakes with bacon, while my wife enjoyed the gluten-free pancakes with sausage. So good! The Sunsets
And of course, no trip to Cape May is complete without some sunset photos.
The colors were truly spectacular.
Sunsets at the Jersey shore are a spectator event, and beaches quickly fill with people to watch the sun go down. As soon as it vanishes, most of them turn to leave… they don’t know what they’re missing. Twilight is even more spectacular. The Easter… Elephant?
On the way home, we wanted to break up the drive with a quick stop, and realized we were near the original American tourist stop… Lucy the Elephant! Built in 1881, this 6-story tall pachyderm has been a Jersey Shore landmark for almost a century and a half.
Lucy is the twelfth-tallest statute in the United States. At one point the tallest, she was surpassed in 1886 by another you may have heard about… the Statue of Liberty (via Wikipedia). After hanging out with Lucy and stretching our legs, it was time to get back in the car and head home.
And home! The Accord was flawless once again. Another significant milestone is approaching. Onward! Updates
For this week’s updates section, there are no stories of automotive maintenance and repairs, no tales from the internet to share. Instead, I wanted to pass along a few photos I took the previous weekend during a trip to visit family in southern New Jersey.
While sitting on the patio of a relative’s house, we spotted this red-tailed hawk swooping overhead. I rushed to my car to grab my camera, affixed my zoom lens, and started snapping away.
Although it was only overhead for mere seconds, I managed to get several shots before it disappeared behind the treeline.
Such a magnificent creature… I was happy with how the photos came out!
After a long and cold winter, spring has finally arrived on the East Coast. Here’s to warmer months, and lots of open road adventures! Wrapping Up
If you are visiting southern New Jersey and have an interest in nature and the environment, I would strongly recommend the
Wetlands Institute. The aquarium has lots of fun, interactive exhibits for children, while also providing thorough information for those looking to dive deeply into the story of the coastal areas of the state. The Institute is open during the fall and winter on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 am – 4:30 pm. While the grounds are free to wander, admission to the aquarium and terrapin (turtle) exhibit costs $8 for people ages 13 and older and $6 for children ages 6-12.
Thank you for coming along on another beach journey along the open road ahead.
‘Til next time.