A Walk Through The Raptor Garden

Now that I got what I wanted, I’m not so sure it was such a great idea.

The best part about heading out to the Holgate refuge is that you never know what is waiting out there to surprise you.

Like Stewart the Bald Eagle. Shot at the Raptor Garden.
Or the first Bald Eagle I ever saw at Holgate. Also shot at the Raptor Garden.
Iz Bridgette!!!111!!
Or the first time I ever met Bridgette, the bird with a backstory. Shot at the Raptor Garden.
Who, incidentally, got turned into a giant mural out near Philly.
"I iz Jo Durt, from House Flower Pot, unpin Crest of the Wild Woode. Eater of Burd!" he said.
Or the first time I ever met Jo Durt. She was just a baby. Now she is Queen of The Causeway and the BOIS Igloo. Shot at the Raptor Garden.
Or met a Snow Owl so fresh from the Arctic it didn’t even know what I was, so was curious, and happily landed right above my face, staring into it, apparently attempting to hypnotize (successfully!). Shot at the Raptor Garden.
Or the time I noticed a Snow Owl sitting on the Easter Bunny, and then realized it was wearing an iPhone on its back and it turned out to be Baltimore, the world famous Snow Owl. A sighting so cool it even made it into a film (where you can see the Raptor Garden!). Shot at the Raptor Garden.
Or maybe you see two Snow Owls trying to murder each other. Also shot at the Raptor Garden.

I think you get the point. Or points. Holgate is a surprising place. And the Raptor Garden is an especially magnificent little corner of it.

But every once in a very rare while, the surprise awaiting you at Holgate doesn’t come from the wilderness.

It comes, surprisingly, from the peoples.

Murderball. A new trail cut right through the Raptor Garden.

And so it was last evening when I checked in to see who might be loafing around the Raptor Garden waiting to surprise me, and instead discovered some mysterious plastic trail markers. I have no idea where they came from. They weren’t there in the morning. Yet here they are now.

It appears a walking trail has been put right through the Raptor Garden.

And it’s a dream come true.

Trail Through The Raptor Garden

It is a trail so short and so tiny, it certainly does not justify the above trail map. Yet it is kind of a big deal. Because the traditional setup of the refuge is that while you can freely stroll its front beach, the inner sanctum is exclusively protected for wild plants and animals and is totally off limits. At least according to the signage. The entire 2.5 mile stretch is marked by a symbolic fence with no place to cut through (legally) to the other side. Until now.

I’ve long suggested to Kathy Clark at NJ Fish & Wildlife that we pitch the refuge on creating such a trail for limited use reading raptor bands. Since I spend most of my best time at Holgate reading and reporting bands, it is extremely frustrating when the raptor is perched bayside, just far enough out of reach that the band is unreadable. Even just an extra 50 feet would make the difference in many cases.

And now suddenly that wish has come true and I have unfettered access to the single most important and active acre of the refuge for raptors.

Overwashed. Shot at the Raptor Garden.

If you love Holgate’s raptors, the Raptor Garden is the crown jewel. This tiny acre-or-so of overwash near the middle of the refuge is the absolute heart of its raptor activity.

I’ll put it to you this way: If you see an Eagle flying in from the inlet and it is flying south, you head straight to the Raptor Garden because that’s where it landed. If you drive in at sunrise, you turn off your headlights and slow to a crawl as you approach this sacred space because something wonderful is bound to be there and you don’t want to spook it. If there is nothing going on at Holgate and I don’t feel like going home, I park at the Raptor Garden and wait. Because something will happen. It always does.

Tiny as it is, it is a highly contested space amongst Holgate’s raptor population. If you want to see a fight, between Snow Owls, or Snow Owl & Peregrine, or Eagle & Peregrine, or Eagle & Osprey, or Harrier and Snow Owl, the Raptor Garden is the place to watch. All of my best photos of these interactions occurred there. In fact, an enormous percentage of my most well know and well loved photos were taken there. And most of my best band sightings also happened there; Jo Durt, Baltimore, Bridgette, Red, and even recently, BE/40, all were in the Raptor Garden. When I went out trapping with Project Snowstorm, Scott Weidensaul set up just off the Raptor Garden; because of course, that’s where Mr. Handbersome, the beautiful white male we were targeting, was hunting.

I can’t say for sure why this place is so special to the raptors. Though I can make a few guesses. As you can see from the map, it is the narrowest point in the refuge. It is one of the most consistently overwashed areas, so is always flat, open, and clean, dotted by a few short perches and a few tall ones, with excellent views of the ocean and the bay. Perfect visibility in every direction. The backside is a giant mud flat with some protected waters so it is always full of ducks, brant, herons, and others.

First Sundown inside the Raptor Garden

Upon discovering the trail, I immediately called home. I, of course, wouldn’t be home for dinner. I wanted to watch my first sunset from  inside this habitat that I had stared into so longingly for so long… so many evenings, stuck out on the front beach, while some Snowy or Peregrine or Eagle perched at rest deep in the Raptor Garden, smugly staring at me, helplessly stranded outside the symbolic fence.

As any wildlife photographer who knows Holgate well will tell you, you are lucky if you get a raptor on the oceanside of the garden; so you proceed with caution. One wrong move, that raptor will just hop to the bayside where it will sit, laughing at you and the terrible photos you will now get, for the rest of the day, confident in its own safety.

To find this trail was indeed a surprise. But the biggest surprise of all came as I walked the path through that long-forbidden zone for the first time. The surprise was how I felt.

Even with all of my excitement and having this dream-come-true, I actually felt kind of… sad.

Now, I’ve known a few Catholics who abandoned their faith. And while they were able to rewrite most of their own personal rules, they were never quite able to shake the powerful sense of guilt their upbringing had embedded deep within them. Maybe my sadness came from something like that. Maybe it will just take time to accept that strolling through the Raptor Garden is actually legal.

Why violating the symbolic fence matters, as covered in The Trespisser

Yet I also felt sad being back in that protected space because I’ve watched so many animals seek refuge in this very, very specific place so consistently for so many years. And I know these animals understand how the refuge works and what the symbolic fence means for them. While they probably can’t read the signs, repeated observation and experience suggests a Holgate raptor learns quickly that perches adjacent to the front beach are dicey and that they will experience less disturbance bayside. And when we trespass, we blow their tiny minds and destroy their entire worldview.

It should come as no surprise that when I walked this tiny trail, I flushed all 50 or so birds out of there simply by my presence. Even the gulls fled, seeming to recognize that something wasn’t quite right with this situation.

Whether this new trail is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, and certainly isn’t for me to decide. The trail was most likely put in by the refuge itself, and I’d assume they have a much broader mandate than simply giving wild birds a safe space. I believe they also have a responsibility to make those places accessible, and to give the public access to enjoy the many treasures of the wilderness area.

I just couldn’t shake the feeling that all of these animals from the Raptor Garden that I’ve been featuring here for so many years have just lost much more than we’ve just gained. Which will be a struggle for me, as I most certainly am drooling at the increased access I have long wished for.

There is a good chance that at least some the animals will become habituated to humans walking through the Raptor Garden and will get more comfortable with us being there.

Or maybe they’ll just find someplace else to go. Which would be sad. Because it is clear the Raptor Garden was their first choice in a world where they are rapidly running out of choices.

Sunset on the Raptor Garden

For now I’ll keep the faith. Long live the Raptor Garden!

13 thoughts on “A Walk Through The Raptor Garden

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  1. This from Jay Mann
    “An ocean/bay pedestrian nature loop walkway has appeared at the Forsythe Refuge in Holgate. It is about a mile in from the parking lot and allows access to the bay — which is alive with bird life right about now. This is absolutely not a sign of open access onto the rest of this Wilderness Area, which is off-limits to human traffic of every sort, year’round. However, it offers a great walkabout point … thanks to the Refuge.”

    1. Yes, he is talking about the same thing… this new trail through the Raptor Garden. He is wise to remind people that this does not mean access to the rest of the refuge. I would never think someone would interpret it that way, but Jay is right to assume someone might which would be awful.

  2. This pedestrian trail was proposed by the refuge as a clamming trail in a ‘wilderness area’. It was open for public comment this spring. I wrote a letter citing my concerns about opening it up but did not receive a reply. I watched bald eagles duck hunting there through binoculars this winter. As a volunteer there for 10 years I watched threatened and endangered bird species use this space to feed and roost. I am sad.

    1. Thanks for the info! That makes sense. I believe the clamming is good in the mud out back of the Raptor Garden and from time to time I have seen people clamming back there (having come to it by boat).

      So sad for for our eagles & falcons & owls to lose that precious spot to human activities. It was their last little stronghold on LBI. I suppose they were lucky to have it all and that it lasted as long as it did. It is clear at this point that enough is never enough regarding our hunger for new places to recreate. As I said in the post, I think this is a case where they are losing more than we are gaining. But I suppose I should try clamming there before I say that with certainty! I am highly impressionable. I used to think driving on the beach was horrific until I discovered the practice at Holgate. Maybe I’ll discover the joys of clamming.

      Of course you saw bald eagles hunting ducks there in the winter. It is the Raptor Garden and it is their most prized spot in Holgate!

    2. I forgot to say a big thank you for writing that letter too. A big part of the reason humans always trump animals is that animals can’t write good letters. People like you give them a voice. So, cheers.

  3. Doesn’t make sense to me that whole beaches are closed in Barnegat Light for our little plovers, but this raptor garden(home to so many) is being opened up to humans…so people can go clamming?
    Your photos are spectacular and LOVE the painted building! How did that come about?

    1. It actually does make sense. The difference is that we are talking about seriously endangered NESTING Piping Plovers vs. non-nesting raptors of all sorts just going about their business during the winter. THE ENTIRETY of Holgate is closed during the nesting season to protect Piping Plovers and other beach nesters. So making it a fair comparison, Holgate goes even farther than Barnegat Light.

      Also, importantly, the trail is a trail and does not open up the whole area explicitly. You can’t trample around willy-nilly. Yet for raptors, that is beside the point. If one is back there and you walk back there, it is going to flush. Yet unlike a nesting bird, they have other places they can go.

      So this place is not their “home” per-se. It just happens to be their favorite place and so is the epicenter of Holgate raptor activity. The closest to a home would be for most Snow Owls who spend the winter here. The dominant bird almost always controls the Raptor Garden, as it is an important place for getting enough food to survive the winter and make it back home in the spring.

      So it is a subtle point (kind of) I’m not sure there is a clear right or wrong to it. My point was simply that I thought this would be cool and then realized I was super sad.

      The painted mural just happened. I had no idea until someone (pretty sure Ben Wurst) found a picture of it. The artist used my Bridgette photo as the reference photo.

  4. I confess I am a bit surprised at the sudden access, but also curious enough to visit. I’m curious also as to the aftermath of the recent very high tides in the area, assuming considerable flooding, if not total breach. Thanks as always for your remarkable descriptive text, and phenomenal photographs. M 🙂

    1. Certainly worth checking out when at Holgate! Yes, there was heavy flooding this fall. But the more surprising thing is how strong and vegetated Holgate has become since Sandy. Where there were once desolate stretches, there are now enormous dune systems, very well formed. Those floods are now feeding them and making them stronger. I hope to do a larger post about this later this year. It has been amazing to watch this natural process unfold.

  5. I have mixed feelings about opening up this area to the public. I was birding the outskirts of this area recently, while silently cursing the people who were traipsing across to the bayside.
    Now that there’s a trail to the Rapture Garden I can’t help but want to venture in and observe the amazing birds/behavior. Let’s be aware that our mere presence (let alone behavior) is a stressor to all the critters in the preserve.

    1. Sames! Regarding using the trail for bird observation, I’m anticipating the advantage is a mirage in terms of the raptors. Truth is that area is narrow already and some raptors don’t even like people on the beach already. I think most will flush the moment you start waking into the trail.

      But for the waterfowl out in the back area, you can probably get at least 1/2 way in without spooking anything and should be a big advantage.

      Regarding awareness, that is a great reminder.

      I’ve always liked the simple, binary layout of the refuge because birds had a safe space, and people had the beach. If a bird didn’t like the people, it could just move as deep in as it needed to in order to feel comfortable. And the people had no option to pursue it.

      This trail introduces a gray area which your average visitor is not capable of navigating, and I honestly believe is confusing to the birds as well. As stated, I firmly believe Holgate’s experienced raptors understand how the refuge symbolic fencing works on some level!

  6. I walked out to this new “trail”today that is part of the Rapture Garden.I had no need to venture into the formerly restricted area since I had my binoculars and spotting scope.
    This area (and others) is quite narrow and delicate and parts of this trail were submerged with the higher tide. Kind of makes me feel sad. I will refrain from using it. Although I love to bird, I am happy to have the restrictions that are in place, giving the waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds some place for themselves.

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