LAVALLETTE, N.J. - Watching a landscape come alive with birds is a magical experience. Slight flashes of movement alert to the presence of some wary creature where a moment before it seemed there was nothing.
The sighting of something as ordinary as a common goldeneye gives a thrill of excitement more appropriate for the discovery of a new species.
Hoping for just such a view on the day after Thanksgiving, my father, my brother, Ben, and I had set out to spot birds at Island Beach State Park, a gorgeous barrier island that stretches 9.5 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay in New Jersey.
One of a few undeveloped barrier beaches on the Atlantic coast, this slender finger of land contains 3,000 acres of tidal marshes, maritime forest, sand beaches and dune communities.
Beyond sightseeing, the park offers a wealth of activities, such as surf fishing for bluefish and striped bass, and horseback riding along six miles of ocean beach available from October through April.
Thanksgiving might not seem like the best time to spend a weekend at the seashore. Indeed, I must admit that when my aunt proposed the trip to me, I was less than thrilled at the idea of Thanksgiving dinner in my great-aunt's favorite restaurant, followed by several nights spent with six relatives in a three-room bungalow that's mainly desirable because of its proximity to a prime sunbathing beach. Turkey from a menu, the shore in late November - what was going on?
However, when I expressed these reservations to my brother, he reminded me that I don't even like turkey and, much as I like to think that my summer shore visits involve long, bracing ocean swims and arduous kayaking expeditions, the pleasures of the beach have always been, for me, the pleasures of indolence.
While other vacations are approached with the anticipation of the unknown - exploring foreign countries, learning how to scuba dive or snowboard - a visit to the Jersey Shore affords people the opportunities to indulge in lazy occupations.
Lolling about on the warm sand is certainly a pleasurable way to spend a weekend, but so is lolling about on the sofa with a book, surrounded by family and food. And, for the cash-strapped vacationer, the favorable winter rental rates can be more than enough to compensate for the plunging thermometer - a typical two-bedroom, oceanfront cottage rents for $750 a week in October, as opposed to $4,100 in July and August.
So, I packed for the beach - sweaters, parka, long underwear.
The housing development where my family was staying, charmingly named Ocean Beach Unit 3, is a grid of cheerfully painted Monopoly-like houses, compactly built and spaced in neat rows leading up to the beach. A beehive of gleeful children and beer-drinking adults in the summer, in winter many of the houses are empty, giving the area the feel of a ghost town.
People in search of activities, however, need not despair.
"Most of our big cultural events happen in the fall," Barbara Steele, director of Ocean County public affairs, had assured me, sending a hefty packet of brochures to prove it.
Indeed, the shore has outings to suit all types and ages, more of them offered year-round to serve the increasing number of retired baby boomers who are settling in the area.
In addition to the thrills provided by nor'easters and the annual Polar Beach Plunge (a February Special Olympics fund-raiser at which thousands of crazy people jump into water so cold the dolphins are beaching themselves just to warm up a bit), there are great antiques stores, aquariums and zoos and several performing arts venues.
Located along a major migration flyway and spanning an array of habitats, the Jersey Shore is also famous for its prime birding. Island Beach State Park is home to one of the state's largest osprey colonies, as well as a wealth of shorebirds and waterfowl.
When I was a little girl, my father regularly took me out bird-watching. Born and raised in lower Manhattan, his wonder at and delight in the coastal Maine landscape, where he and my mother had moved to raise a family, took particular root among the splendor of its many bird species.
So, armed with telescope, binoculars and bird guide, we drove through the largely deserted park, headed for the bird observation blind at the edge of the Barnegat Bay tidal marshes.
The quarter-mile trail from the road to the blind meandered through a variety of vegetation, from thickets and common reeds taller than our heads to red cedar and American holly, their bright green leaves and red berries conspicuous in the otherwise gray afternoon. The only noise was the wind thrashing the bare branches.
Thankfully, the roomy wooden blind was sturdily constructed, so that we were largely protected from the wind. As my dad set up the telescope, Ben produced a box of chocolates, and we were quite cozy. We stationed ourselves in front of the blinds narrow windows, and waited for the marsh to reveal its feathered denizens.
Still recovering from the Thanksgiving gluttony, we had decided on the park outing to get a bit of fresh air. My mother, aunt, uncle and cousin Kathleen were not particularly interested in enduring subzero temperatures to, as Kathleen put it, "Stare at a bunch of birds!" and remained at the beach house.
Frankly, as we unpacked that first night at the shore, I was exhausted just looking at all the activity options. Besides, historic tours couldn't really compete with the splendors of our bungalow - wine and hot chocolate, a Jane Austen novel and a Court TV marathon of NYPD Blue, and an array of cheesecakes left over from my cousin Kathleen's senior year fund-raiser. Nobody was going anywhere.
After being ensconced for hours in our respective couches and finishing off three cheesecakes, we walked up to the deserted beach. The stars were bright and the sand had been ossified into a ridged lunar landscape by a recent storm. My fingers were soon numb from the cold and the only threat of skin burn came from the wind.
It was another perfect evening at the Jersey Shore.
Rental agencies typically offer accommodations from May through October and will often tell you that there are no rentals during the winter. However, for those vacationers intent on experiencing a deep freeze, lodging can be found.
Try Birchler Real Estate (732-793-3333) or Ocean Beach Rental (732-793-7272; www.oceanbeachnj.com).
For those who prefer the amenities of a hotel, there are a variety of bed-and-breakfasts and inns in the area. One to try is the Grenville Hotel & Restaurant, (732) 892-3100 or www.thegrenville.com.
For Island Beach State Park, go to www.state.nj.us/dep/forestry/parks/island.htm or call (732) 793-0506.
Check out www.oceancountygov.com for helpful links and listings for Ocean County.
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