Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The D&R Canal and Sourland Mountain

A couple of local nature preserves were featured in local media this week. First, the Star-Ledger included a long article about the Delaware & Raritan Canal's history and current status in its Sunday edition. The canal was built in the 1830s as a shortcut between Pennsylvania and New York. At its peak in the late 19th century, the D&R Canal transported more cargo than many other canals, including the much more famous Erie Canal. In the 1970s it became a state historical park. Since the park preserves a great deal of habitat and connects with other natural areas, such as Six Mile Run and the Princeton Institute woods, it has become a haven for wildlife.
The main canal path now stretches 36 miles from just east of New Brunswick to northwest Trenton. The feeder canal route runs 22 miles along the Delaware River to just north of Frenchtown. A section of the canal was paved over in Trenton, but Chirco said there are plans to eventually make the paths contiguous.

The park combines lush stretches full of wildlife with sections that pass through historic towns such as Lambertville and Stockton. Some sections border shopping districts and restaurants. Others pass by abandoned mills and farmhouses, through Washington's Crossing and along waterfalls.

There are an 625 species of plants found along the D&R Canal and 230 species of birds, including herons and bald eagles, naturalists said. Wildlife includes beaver, mink, fox and muskrat. The canal supports catfish, perch and bass and is stocked with trout.
The D&R Canal is an attractive spot for birdwatching, especially during spring and fall migration when anything might drop in. While it does not quite measure up to the state's major hotspots, it also does not involve a 1-2 hour drive (or an hour's train ride into New York City). I have seen at least a dozen warbler species along the towpath at the right times of year, plus Common Nighthawks, Green Herons, Cedar Waxwings, and numerous other species. For local birders, it is definitely worth checking out.

Second, the writers at had some complimentary things to say about Sourland Mountain:
From the access point on East Mountain Road in Hillsborough, Sara and her fellow hiker spotted white-tailed deer, pickerel frogs, and many birds including wrens and chickadees along the 5-mile Ridge Trail. This diverse trail, with terrain including rock, mixed oak forest, and the Roaring Brook, peaks in a unique area full of large, exposed boulders, perfect for resting for lunch and getting a birds-eye-view of the preserve.
When I have visited Sourland Mountain's various access points, my impression was that the area was not that birdy. While there were certainly small flocks of common species here and there, I would also go for long stretches without seeing or hearing any birds. But I have not been there for a year or more, so perhaps things have improved since then.

The mountain is notable for two things from an ornithological perspective. First, it sits near the dividing line between the ranges of Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. Black-capped Chickadees live north of the line and Carolina Chickadees live south of it. This means that both species, plus intermediate forms, can be found there, making chickadee identification more of a challenge than elsewhere in the state. (Since the line runs all the way across New Jersey, Sourland Mountain is hardly unique in that regard.) Second, the mountain is just about the southernmost extent of the Ruffed Grouse's range in New Jersey. Sadly, the grouse's range has been shrinking in recent decades, with the population shifting northward. I have not encountered Ruffed Grouse at Sourland (or anywhere else, for that matter), but I know people who have.