The Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary is a wonderfully preserved microcosm of what the barrier islands of New Jersey looked like hundreds of years ago. As you walk along Sanctuary paths, it is easy to imagine the Lenni-Lenape Indians wandering through the maritime forest, crossing wind swept sand dunes, past groves of white cedar, birch, pine, holly and sassafras trees, taking time to drink water from a spring fed freshwater pond and then, fishing in the salt water meadows surrounded by herons and songbirds.
As early as the 1870’s and 1880’s, the Sanctuary area was recognized as a “veritable paradise of birds” for ornithologists. The primary attractions were Little Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Green Herons and egrets. Once the 96th Street Bridge opened in 1911, those who wanted to study, hunt or collect the eggs of birds no longer had to walk across four miles of marsh. Easy access to the heronry was a boon to birders but also a threat to birds whose plumes and eggs were valued.
In 1941, the Stone Harbor Bird Club was organized in the home of Lillian R. Leuallen. The Bird Club was renamed in 1946 as the Witmer Stone Club to honor Witmer Stone, one of the first ornithologists to document birds in the Sanctuary area. With considerable foresight, the Witmer Stone Club proposed early in 1947 that the Borough of Stone Harbor establish a “sanctuary”. In October of 1947, the Borough Council passed Ordinance #208 which preserved 31 acres of land as a wildlife sanctuary. Subsequent to expert study in 1961 which demonstrated that no birds were nesting on the beach side sanctuary acreage, the Stone Harbor Borough Council sold ten acres to the east of Second Avenue. The remaining 21 acres bounded by Second Avenue to the East, Third Avenue to the West, 111th Street to the North and area between 116th and 117th on the South represents the Sanctuary as we know it today. The Sanctuary remains one of the few bird sanctuaries in the world that are completely within municipal boundaries.
One can’t overstate the foresight and commitment of the residents and Borough officials to conservation as well as the preservation of open space and wildlife in 1947, 1961 and every year since. This commitment was reinforced by the United States Park Service in 1965 when it designated the Sanctuary as a National Natural Landmark.
Over the years, the Sanctuary has been home to thousands of birds and visited by more than a million people representing all fifty states and most countries in the world. It has been estimated that Sanctuary visitors spend more than $5 million each year, locally. Although some like the New York Times in 1960 glorify the Sanctuary, referring to it as “The Everglades of New Jersey”, Stone Harbor residents think of the Sanctuary as a symbol of the character of this quiet, single family town which respects the nature and wildlife that surrounds them while placing a premium on livability, aesthetics and serenity.