In less than 3/4 mile, pass from salt marsh through maritime scrub forest to ocean dune ecosystems to the beach.
Shaped by storm and tides, Island Beach State Park is a narrow barrier island stretching for 10 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay. Island Beach is one of New Jersey’s last significant remnants of a barrier island ecosystem that once existed along much of the coast and is also one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier beaches on the north Atlantic coast.
Over 3,000 acres and 10 miles of coastal sand dunes and white sandy beaches offer habitat to maritime plants and diverse wildlife that is almost the same as it was thousands of years ago. Island Beach contains outstanding examples of plant communities such as primary dunes, thicket, freshwater wetlands, maritime forest and tidal marshes.
The state’s largest osprey colony, as well as peregrine falcons, wading birds, shorebirds, waterfowl and migrating songbirds, are found here. Island Beach is nationally known as a unique resource with over 400 plants identified, including the largest expanses of beach heather in New Jersey.
Island Beach State Park is the largest protected undeveloped barrier island ecosystem in New Jersey, and also one of the largest in the United States. This undeveloped preserve stands in stark contrast to the heavy development along the rest of the barrier islands that make up the Jersey Shore.
In fact the town just north of Island Beach State Park, Seaside Heights, was made famous in the TV show called ‘Jersey Shore.’ Sadly, this town has recently become more famous for the place where Hurricane Sandy made landfall last year (and then suffered a devastating fire on the rebuilt boardwalk just last month).
Island Beach State Park is on the north side of Barnegat Inlet, with a great view of the Barnegat Lighthouse, where I make an annual pilgrimage every winter to see the beautiful Harlequin Ducks.
It was my intention when I went to Barnegat Light last January to also visit Island Beach State Park, but sadly the park was still closed from Hurricane Sandy. The devastation from the storm was still quite evident as we attempted to get to the park before we found out it was still closed.
I’m happy to say that the sand has been scraped from the road and returned to the beach, enormous amounts of debris have been removed, and Island Beach State Park has reopened to the public in time for 4th of July weekend this year.
There’s still a lot of work to do, but much work has already been done to restore the fragile dune ecosystem, thanks to the extraordinary effort of hundreds of volunteers. You can follow these efforts and get involved by “liking” the Friends of Island Beach Facebook page.
We started our adventure at the Nature Center, which lies less than half a mile from the beach, and less than half a mile from Barnegat Bay, so we first followed the trails out through the scrubby maritime forest till we emerged on the restored dunes, and then out onto the beach.
The Beach Habitat
The beach along the Atlantic Ocean is devoid of vegetation due to wind, rain, and the tides. But there is abundant food for birds in the form of sand fleas, crabs, and even jellyfish.
Large mixed flocks of gulls and smaller groups of sandpipers gathered to feast on the numerous jellyfish above the tide line.
The Primary Dune Habitat
The primary dunes are about 10-12 feet high, and on the windy side toward the ocean remains a bit sparse as restoration efforts continue. Dune grasses, Seaside Goldenrod, and Virginia Creeper are the main vegetation so far.
The Maritime Forest
The scrubby maritime forest is a dense thicket made up of mostly Eastern Red Cedar, American Holly, Bayberry, Beach Plum, and the omnipresent Virginia Creeper
Because there is so much wind coming over the dunes from the ocean, many of the trees are permanently bent away from the wind.
The Salt Marsh
The salt marsh ecosystem is mainly grasses with occasional stunted trees, like the Pitch Pine. Because these marshes are tidal, these grasses must be able to survive twice a day flooding.
The marsh ecosystem is highly productive, and provides food and habitat for a variety of birds and other wildlife.
The marsh is the buffer between the bay and the forest, filtering out toxins, and providing protection from tidal surges.
Island Beach State Park is a wonderful example of mostly undisturbed habitat. Birds, butterflies, and other wildlife abound in this protected refuge. And rare native plants abound in natural communities.
The ecological function of barrier islands is to protect the mainland from strong winds and storms. It was so exciting to see this remnant of Mother Nature’s design. If only we paid more attention to that when we thought about building resorts, hotels, boardwalks, etc along our barrier islands.
The pressure from this development on natural ecosystems can be devastating. And as we have recently seen with such sadness, the pressure on humans who make their homes and their livelihood here can have devastating consequences, too.
New Jersey may well be “Stronger Than the Storm” but I deeply hope they are strong enough to make some wise decisions (no matter how hard they may be) about the best way to rebuild this area!
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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