The new Ocean City Welcome Center, on the almost-as-new Route 52 Causeway, the town's main entrance, has all the products and services you'd expect to find in a modern visitors center.
Stop in on the way from Somers Point and the mainland to Ocean City's downtown Ninth Street and you'll find racks of tourist brochures, stacks of local visitors' publications, helpful people to answer your questions and all the handy facilities you could ever need for a comfort break in a long drive.
But this visitors center also is on the upswing of a steep new bridge, which means it sits at least 25 feet above the islands and water of the Great Egg Harbor Bay network below. And that means the Roy Gillian Welcome Center, as it will be formally baptized in grand-opening ceremonies set for Friday, offers an amenity visitors probably won't find at the more-famous Vince Lombardi rest stop or any other highway byways in New Jersey.
Ocean City's elevated welcome center offers travelers a bird's eye view of miles of meandering marshlands - and on the right day, even a bird's eye view of dozens (or more) of truly beautiful birds nesting and roosting and fluttering and fussing around in the trees below.
Jennifer Torres, of Ocean City, doesn't fancy herself an ornithologist or any kind of bird expert. She's a mother of four and a businesswoman - she runs Inn The Gardens B & B, which takes its name from its Ocean City neighborhood - and she enjoys taking wildlife pictures.
And even though she's also no professional photographer, Torres is so happy with some of the pictures she's gotten from the welcome center she's made it a regular stop on her way back to town from the mainland.
She also talks up the spot on her Facebook page, and tells visitors to her seven-room B & B they really want to stop in at the welcome center - even if they have no particular need for tourist information.
"I don't even know all the names of the birds. I just know it was spectacular" to take pictures on some days she stopped - as she put it on a morning when the trees below the welcome center were far less spectacular, to the point of being quiet.
"A lot of times, it's hit or miss. ... But I just enjoy photography and nature, and I can see in the future that I'll probably want to learn more about birds," Torres added. "Now, I'm not quite there with the serious bird people."
Mike Crewe certainly is. He's so serious, he's program director at New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory, and from what he's seen, the main birds nesting near the new bridge are yellow-crowned night herons - although he adds in this and many other local places, "You can get a whole mishmash of things."
But Crewe was on the Route 52 Causeway earlier this year for a habitat survey, and got a nice picture of one of those night herons from above - although not from the welcome center, because he didn't stop in there.
He says the word about birds at the welcome center really hasn't spread as far south as Cape May - even in a birding community known for sharing finds and other tips.
Those yellow-crowned night herons aren't rare birds in a South Jersey summer, Crewe said, which may be why there hasn't been a rush from the Cape May area - a world-famous magnet for birds, and birders - to a parking lot off an Ocean City bridge. Still, neither Crewe nor a CMBO colleague could think of another place in South Jersey where bird-watchers can stand comfortably and actually look down on the birds they're watching.
"Not around here, but I'm sure there are some other places" with similar setups, he said. And after he heard a description of the welcome center's vantage point - from a definite non-expert - Crewe said he wished he hadn't passed up a stop when he crossed the Ocean City causeway for his survey.
"I'm kicking myself for missing it," he said, adding he plans to fix that error - but probably not just now, because his expertise tells him the nesting season for those yellow-crowned herons is over for this summer.
"I might leave it until next year," he said, "but I'll certainly give it a look."
Still, Michelle Gillian, the executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce - whose office is in the welcome center - knows many people have gotten the memo about this great new spot to spot great birds.
"The first few weeks we were here, I saw about 10 people lined up at the railing with binoculars and cameras, with these big lenses," Gillian says.
Before the welcome center even opened, "We knew it was something of a bird sanctuary," she says - to the point the building had to be moved slightly from its original planned location to accomodate the creatures already living on the little island. "But that area was saved and maintained, and the elevation is great for bird-watching. You can see right down into (the nests)."
She adds that "I don't think we knew it would be as successful as it's become" - but now that tourism officials do know that, they hope to produce a tourist brochure on bird's-eye birding opportunities at the welcome center.
"Ecotourism is one of the major attractions in Cape May County, especially in the off-season," says Gillian, who adds local officials have been happily promoting other recreation the new bridge offers. It's already a popular biking, running and walking spot - "It's the Boardwalk on the bay for us," in her words - and an easy place for fishermen to park and for kayakers to start and end tours of the bay.
Steve Croft, a retired real-estate agent who lives in Ocean City, actually found the visitor center as a fisherman. But once he got there and looked around, he was so amazed at all the birds he saw - and that he could see them from above - he put out the word to other members of his fishing club, the South Jersey Coastal Fly Anglers.
"I first saw them back in April, when they were nesting. It was totally unexpected ... probably 15 or 20 of them, and you could look right down into the nest with the birds doing this dance," Croft said. "Those birds have some incredibly beautiful plumage, at least while they're on the nest. And I'll bet that nobody who built that place had any idea that what they'd done was create a beautiful vantage point to see nature right in front of you - and made it totally accessible to everybody."
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