Friday, April 8, 2011

Wanna buy a lighthouse? We'll throw in the oystercatchers for free.

A sage person once asked me: if a seagull flies over the bay, does that make it a bagel? That's not why we found ourselves on the shores of Raritan Bay, but it's an interesting question, nonetheless.

Following our visit to Perth Amboy, we stopped at the Raritan Bay Waterfront Park in South Amboy to tuck a bit of birding into the day. Ivan had heard that some little gulls were spotted there (and no, he didn't sing "Thank Heaven for Little Gulls"), and heck, when you have the chance to go to the beach in South Amboy, you don't pass it up.

New Jersey lighthouseWhat I didn't realize was that the beach also offers a perfect view to one of New Jersey's little known lighthouses, the Great Beds light. It's a classic 'spark plug' design, set off into the water, just where the Arthur Kill meets the bay. Its name is derived from the great beds of oysters which once dominated the bay floor, straddling the watery New Jersey/New York borderline. In 1868, New York ceded the underwater land on which to build the light, ultimately setting off yet another boundary squabble. It seems that the Empire State had granted the federal government a nice piece of the Garden State. Today that doesn't seem like much of an issue, but back then, when shellfish were still being harvested there, it caused quite a stir. Eventually, the dispute was settled in New Jersey's favor, and the light was built. First painted red, then brown and finally white, it was hit by passing barges and other craft at least 10 times in the early 1900s.

Unmanned since 1945, Great Beds is now run by automation, meaning that it rarely, if ever, gets human visitors. The light was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, which, unfortunately, doesn't mean it will be protected. In fact, the Coast Guard has declared it excess to its needs and offered it to other federal agencies and educational concerns, among others, but found no takers. The General Services Administration put it up for auction just a few weeks ago, so its fate is now up in the air. If you've got at least $10,000 and a boat and want a little solitude, it might be a pretty nice weekend place, though I have no idea what condition the living quarters are in. The outhouse, for example, was taken out many years ago.

An oystercatcher takes flight.
As for the birds, there apparently were no little gulls to be seen, though Ivan did pick up a few Bonaparte's gulls as he scanned the usual suspects on the water. I was particularly taken by a pair of American oystercatchers who were foraging around the shallow waters at the edge of the beach. Between their dark orange beaks and reddish circles around their eyes, they're quite an interesting sight, especially when contrasted with the monochromatic plumage of the surrounding gulls.

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but I also noticed quite a number of good-sized oyster shells on the beach. As recently as last year, experimental seed oysters were placed in the bay, but they were removed on order of the state Department of Environmental Protection, the rationale being that poachers would steal and sell the oysters, which were alleged to be tainted with harmful bacteria. While the Raritan is still recovering from years of pollution and neglect, it's a good sign that shellfish are starting to thrive, and hopefully new beds will be established in coming years.

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