GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Becky Hedden, president of the Atlantic Audubon Society, and her friend, Jan Beauvais, spent Sunday high atop an observation tower at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.
The duo decided to do a “big sit,” in which they spend the day looking for birds from one spot. And that spot was surrounded by fall scenery.
“This is the best place to go birding in Atlantic County,” Hedden asked. “Is there anywhere else?”
As she spoke, a peregrine falcon cruised over the treetops before dipping down to terrorize some of the skittish shorebirds that scattered. In the distance, green-winged teal wheeled and banked in the sunlight.
“There’s always something to see,” Hedden said.
The Forsythe refuge celebrates its 75th anniversary this month. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established New Jersey’s first refuge by administrative decree on Oct. 5, 1939, among the 147 national refuges he created during his presidency.
“The refuge was set aside to create habitat for wintering waterfowl, especially the Atlantic brant and black duck,” Refuge Manager Virginia Rettig said.
“This was a time of our history when we were coming off the Dust Bowl and our important Midwestern waterfowl breeding areas were in bad shape,” she said. “The continental population of waterfowl was very low.”
In a controversial move, the refuge was made off-limits to hunters at the time, Rettig said, but in a compromise, state and federal regulators steered hunters to the nearby Lester G. MacNamara Wildlife Management Area in Upper Township, which has similar duck habitat.
“That was definitely a point of contention with local hunters. These had been hunted areas called shooting grounds, the terminology at the time,” she said. “They were really important to duck hunters.”
Today, hunting is permitted on some parts of the sprawling refuge.
Forsythe is still removing debris that was cast across part of its 47,000 acres by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
But Rettig said a bigger long-term threat to the refuge is posed by sea-level rise, the effects of which can be seen with the die-off of trees from saltwater intrusion.
“You just have to read the tide gauge reading 4 millimeters higher per year,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing we look at to help us make decisions.”
Forsythe is composed of beaches in Holgate on Long Beach Island and disparate sections of marshland stretching up to Mantoloking in northern Ocean County.
But its chief attraction is its 8-mile-long wildlife drive, which gives visitors a close look at shorebirds, ducks, geese and bald eagles.
Rettig said from its founding, the refuge has been a popular place for visitors, especially once its wildlife drive was completed in the 1960s.
“People come weekly just because they like coming here,” she said.
And the refuge is a birder’s delight, home to vast flocks of overwintering snow geese, rare shorebirds such as the endangered piping plover and the occasional snowy owl.
Snowy owls drew a record number of visitors to the refuge in February — the most of any month since they started keeping records, Rettig said.
The five-month closing of the wildlife drive after it was damaged by Sandy drove home how treasured the refuge is by locals and visitors alike, she said.
“We had so much feedback after the storm. People really missed being able to drive out there for the peace and solitude,” she said.
Birder Mike DiGiore, of Manchester Township, Ocean County, said he tries to get to the refuge as often as he can.
“It’s a nice day out. There is so much to see here. You never know what you’ll find,” he said.
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