There’s nothing like birding on a blazing hot beach. Terns and surfers attack the waves; sandpipers and swimmers splash in the shallows; gulls, skimmers, and sunbathers lounge on the sand. They’re all part of my happy-as-a-baby-albatross-in-a-cabana place.
But sometimes beachgoers want a little more exposure: They want to ride the waves, float around, and tan in the nude. I don’t pass judgment against those who make that choice, but it’s never really been my scene.
Until last weekend, that is, when the lure of birding overpowered my social boundaries. Because the fact is, when it comes to diversity of species, nude beaches can be just as rewarding as any other strip of sand. Some are even famous eBird hot spots, including sites along Point Reyes in California, Cape May in New Jersey, Galveston in Texas, Provincetown in Massachusetts, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.
And so, I found myself driving to the Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area on the Jersey shore. If you’re picturing endless lines of towels and recliners, fried Oreos, drunk college kids, and bad tattoos—don’t. The 2,000-acre peninsula overlooking New York’s Jamaica Bay and the Manhattan skyline surely exceeds your wildest birding expectations. There’s an astounding variety of habitats covering salt marshes, maritime forests, dunes, cattails and cordgrass, tidal mudflats, rocky reefs, dilapidated Coast Guard quarters, and at least eight large beaches (often home to ground nesters like Piping Plovers). Nearly 350 species have been spotted in this Important Bird Area: threatened rufa Red Knots, climate-endangered Seaside Sparrows, and as of this week, a locally rare Wood Stork.
My main stop on this Sunday morning was Gunnison Beach. Considered the only official nude beach in New Jersey, it was packed with ferry riders from New York City. And yes, most of them were in their birthday suits.
I hope you find yourself in this situation so that you, too, can understand the gut-twisting dilemma of showing up to a nude party vastly overdressed, while packing bins. As I scanned the sand through my lenses, I counted about a hundred people eating hoagies (naked), playing volleyball (naked), and blasting Lionel Richie (yes, still naked). Yet somehow I was the one who felt self-conscious. Did everyone here think I was a creep?
I tried to ignore the feeling and focus on the birds, but they didn’t make it easy. My sightline was filled with gulls, more gulls, a plover that doesn’t match any species in my field guide, juvenile gulls, midsummer-molt gulls, three-year gulls, and—at long last—an easy-to-identify American Oystercatcher. At the same time, I couldn’t let my binoculars drop below the horizon, where there was a whole set of field marks that would make Kenn Kaufman go red in the face.
Ultimately, though, the beachgoers didn’t care who I was or what I was doing. Aside from the bronzed couple that screamed, “GET NAKED!” at me, no one asked any questions. This attitude may depend on the location. While Gunnison is accessible to the masses, a more secluded site will likely attract skinny-dippers expecting more privacy. In those cases, a birder’s presence and equipment can come off as menacing.
Birders and nudists aren’t always mutually exclusive, however. From 2012 to 2013, competitive birder Olaf Danielson did an entire North American Big Year in the nude, spotting a total of 594 species. In his book about the experience, Boobies, Peckers, and Tits, he said his goal was to force himself to approach birding with fresh eyes—and break a non-existent record. “It’s one thing to go out and see a specific bird,” he wrote, “but seeing it naked is a whole lot different. I had to be cagey and think in another dimension.”
My time on Gunnison definitely made birding feel new. But as the afternoon passed, I finally found my legs. I started sorting out the familiar gulls—Laughing, Herring, Ring-billed, Greater Black-backed—and noting size and feather variations. I also narrowed down the mystery plover to a Black-bellied or American Golden that was between breeding and wintering plumage. (Friends later told me that Black-bellied suited the stocky build I described, and is typical for coastal habitats; American Golden-Plover is daintier and fond of pastures and grasslands.)
While nothing rare crossed my path that day, I wasn’t complaining. I’d broken through my nude-beach paranoia and learned an important birding lesson: Keep your eyes on the birds and let the nudists enjoy their own diversions.