Showing posts with label New Jersey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New Jersey. Show all posts

Monday, August 12, 2013

Photo of the Week: American Toad

This American Toad was near the top of the ridge in Schooley's Mountain Park on Saturday morning. After some initial skittishness, it let me approach fairly close and even moved towards me. This allowed for some close, wide-angled views of the toad in its habitat. During the breeding season, toads are found near wet areas. American Toads make a high-pitched trill while advertising for mates (a much different sound than the Fowler's Toad). Outside of the breeding season, toads retreat to drier areas like forests and meadows, where they forage for insects and worms.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Photo of the Week: Periodical Cicada

When I lived in Washington, DC, I experienced the first emergence of periodical cicadas that I can remember: the massive emergence of Brood X periodical cicadas in 2004. This was shortly after I started birding. The noise they produced was so loud that at times I had trouble hearing birds. As the emergence ended, dead cicadas littered the streets and were picked up and carried away by the ubiquitous House Sparrows in DC.

This year I am in New Jersey for the emergence of Brood II. So far I have not seen or heard any around Highland Park, but over the weekend, I encountered a fairly large number of them at Fairview Farm Wildlife Preserve in Bedminster, New Jersey. There was a continuous chorus going in some parts of the preserve, though it was not as loud as some I experienced around Washington. The cicadas I examined closely all seemed to be Magicicada septendecim, with an orange spot in front of the wing and broad orange bands on their undersides. You can read more about identifying Magicicada species here.

Periodical cicadas have adopted an unusual life cycle in which adults emerge at 13-year or 17-year intervals to mate and lay eggs. This emergence lasts for only a few weeks, during which the number of adults in any given location may be massive. They spend the rest of their life cycle as nymphs deep underground, feeding on the roots of trees. When they are ready to emerge, the nymphs dig their way to the surface at night and then molt into their adult form. It is thought that the long, prime-numbered life cycle makes it difficult for any predator to specialize in preying on periodical cicadas, though of course birds, wasps, and other predators take advantage of the bounty when an emergence occurs.

If you see any cicadas from Brood II, you can report them at

See more of my periodical cicada photos on Flickr.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Middlesex Merlins in the World Series of Birding

Every year New Jersey Audubon sponsors the World Series of Birding (WSB), an event scheduled for the peak of spring migration. It doubles as a competition for local bragging rights and as a fundraiser for conservation efforts. The statewide winner usually records over 200 species of birds, while other teams compete at the county level and in other categories. Last year I participated in a World Series of Birding for the first time as a member of the Middlesex Merlins with three other excellent birders: Patrick Belardo, Anthony Laquidara, and Tom Ostrand. We made a good showing, explored some new birding sites, and found some new county birds. You can read more about that effort in my post about it.

This year we tried again, this time representing the Plainsboro Preserve, New Jersey Audubon's center in Middlesex County. We revised our route: dropping some sites, adding others, and shifting more land birding into the morning. The route was more compact, to reduce travel time, and had the potential to produce more species than we had seen the previous year. Building a good route is challenging. Each bird species, whether a Kirtland's Warbler or a House Sparrow, counts as 1, and all team members must see a bird for it to count (except for a limited number of 95% birds). A good route needs to include locations for rare birds but also must leave time for picking up common birds in order to build numbers. In Central Jersey, there is the additional challenge of not getting stuck in traffic.

Our early morning birding was a wash, so to speak. We heard an American Woodcock but missed out on rails, bitterns, owls, and other nocturnal singers as we listened at our scheduled stops in the light rain. As dawn broke, we found ourselves at Rutgers Gardens, and new birds started coming more quickly. Blackpoll, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, and Tennessee Warblers. Veery, Wood Thrush, and Swainson's Thrush. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings overhead. Lingering Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the pine plantation. A small flock of White-throated Sparrows. By the time we left, we had seen or heard almost all of the warbler species we would find that day.

The agenda for the rest of the morning was a series of stops south of the Raritan River. When we arrived at Ireland Brook, the rain started pouring, but we found our target species there, a Pileated Woodpecker, and Tom spotted a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, another species we missed last year. At our next stop, Davidson Mill Pond Park, we missed our target Eastern Bluebirds but found Purple Martins and a Blue Grosbeak. Giamarese Farms produced a Mute Swan; we failed to find Wood Ducks at our designated Wood Duck stop, but we heard an Eastern Wood-Pewee instead. At Capik Preserve, we found Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, and a stop in South River produced the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron we hoped to find there.

At Kin-Buc Landfill, we found big flocks of Bobolinks and a surprise Eastern Meadowlark (which I missed, unfortunately), but missed out on Grasshopper Sparrow. Our miss might have been because of the loud singing of the numerous Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows, which made it hard to hear quieter birds. (I think that was the most Bobolinks I have ever seen together at one time.) From the top of Edison Landfill, we saw a Bald Eagle cruising down the river corridor. A drive around Raritan Center produced Clapper Rails, as well as lingering American Black Ducks and Gadwall.

From there we headed to South Amboy to start our tour of Raritan Bay access spots.  Waterworks Pond was less productive than we hoped. It seems to have gone downhill as a birding spot since construction work and Hurricane Sandy changed its hydrology. A spontaneous stop at a boat ramp in South Amboy became one of our best stops of the day. Not only did we get our target bird, Bank Swallow, but Patrick found a Western Grebe! Morgan Mudflats had the birds we expected, but we had to get off the beach early because a thunderstorm was rolling in from the west. Pirate's Cove had a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and a stop in Lawrence Harbor produced a Northern Gannet.

At Brown's Marina on Cheesequake Creek, we found two very cooperative Black-crowned Night-Herons (one of which is pictured above). We also had a beautiful view of a Seaside Sparrow — a hard bird to see and a hard bird to find in Middlesex County.

From Brown's Marina, we headed north. We made a short stop at William Warren Park in Woodbridge, a wooded park with a mostly native understory, where we found our Downy Woodpecker for the day. Our stop in Carteret failed to produce any Monk Parakeets. Medwick Park had a singing Swamp Sparrow. When we tried again for the Monk Parakeets, we finally heard them squawking. Despite some night birding in South Amboy, the Monk Parakeets would be our last species of the day.

When we tallied our list for the day, it came out to 127 species — the same total as the year before. (You can view our full list here.) Because of this year's unfavorable conditions, I think that shows we devised a better route this year than the year before. However, 127 species was not enough to unseat the defending county-level winners, the Meadowlands Marsh Hawks, who found 145 species in Bergen County.

Here is the full list of winners and full list of species found statewide (pdf). For the first time ever, a youth team won the World Series of Birding.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Soon Can Refuges Recover from Sandy?

Damage at Forsythe NWR / USFWS Photo
The Washington Post covers some of the damage that Sandy wrought at national wildlife refuges in the Mid-Atlantic region:
The wreckage at Forsythe and other Northeast coastal refuges was yet another testament to the destructive power of Sandy, the superstorm that ripped up the New Jersey shore and flooded Manhattan. And it drew attention to the costly plans being considered by the federal agency to protect wildlife refuges from the impact of climate change and sea-level rise.

Sandy’s winds rammed a dirt and gravel dike at Forsythe with seawater, causing it to burst. Bay salt water rushed into a shallow freshwater pond created for birds such as the American black duck and Atlantic brant. The usual foot of water in which the birds dip their heads got saltier, rose to five feet and washed out vegetation, so the birds could no longer reach underwater seeds or pick bugs from leaves.

Dozens of refuges between Maine and Virginia were pummeled. Four were damaged severely, including Forsythe, where about 130 boats in the Atlantic City area were blown into marshes, Kahan said.

At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, part of the public beach and two parking lots were washed away on Assateague Island. At Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, a 1,500-foot breach in a dune sent salt water from the Delaware Bay into a freshwater pond where waterfowl eat, nest and give birth, and flooded homes on an island near the refuge. And at the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex in New York, fallen trees blocked the entrance.

Sandy created sea surge powerful enough to reshape portions of the coasts of North Carolina, Delaware and Maryland, and Virginia’s portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Chincoteague, said the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thirty-five of the region’s 72 refuges were closed after the storm. Six million people per year — many from the District, Virginia and Maryland — visit the refuges, which cover 535,000 acres, and managers acted to protect visitors from “widow-makers,” damaged trees that crash down after storms, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said.

Forsythe still has not reopened. In addition to the busted dike and ruined pond, the wrecked boats appear to be leaking fuel, Kahan said.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Brigantine after Sandy

It looks unlikely that birders will be driving around the wildlife drive at Brigantine in the near future.

Those cormorants are swimming through what used to by the road along the south dike. Other parts of the road are eroded as well.

It looks like the refuge will be closed indefinitely, but the status will be updated on the Forsythe NWR website.

Update: Some aerial views of the south dike:

All photos are courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Draft General Management Plan for Sandy Hook and Jamaica Bay

Yesterday the Star-Ledger reported that Gateway National Recreation Area is in the midst of drafting a new general management plan. This is the first I can remember hearing about this, although it is possible that I heard something about it previously and did not recognize its significance. The plan will set priorities for programs and maintenance at all the parks within Gateway. These include Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Fort Tilden, Floyd Bennett Field, Fort Wadsworth, and Great Kills in New York, along with several smaller units. You can read the general management plan and its various alternatives and submit comments on Gateway's website.

Many of these parks were once part of New York City's harbor defenses, a role they played as recently as the Cold War. The remaining coastal fortifications are a unique historic resource that deserves to be protected and as open to the public as possible. Because these areas were involved in harbor defense, much of the land remains minimally developed, in contrast to adjacent parts of the metropolitan area's coastline. This means that the various parts of Gateway are also important wildlife areas. Finally, Gateway provides public access for the metropolitan area's beachgoers and related recreational activities.

Each of these elements is important. However, the first two are what make Gateway unique within the metropolitan area so they should get special emphasis in any future management plan. New Jersey has relatively few areas along its Atlantic Coast where natural dune communities and related ecosystems may flourish: Sandy Hook, Island Beach State Park, the Two Mile Beach division of Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, and the complex formed by Cape May Point State Park and the Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge. Sandy Hook's beachfront, saltmarshes, and maritime forest make it an important stop for migratory birds during both spring and fall migration. They serve as breeding grounds for endangered Piping Plovers and other beach nesters and host numerous waterbirds in the winter months. Dense development of the rest of the state's coastline makes the few remaining natural areas all the more critical. Likewise, the historic structures of Fort Hancock (and elsewhere in Gateway) are a unique resource that should be maintained for future generations and as open to the public as possible. Some of the structures are in very poor condition, and I worry that if something isn't done to preserve them soon, that they will pass a point of no return and eventually be gone forever. For that reason, my preference is that the National Park Service adopt Alternative C: Experiencing Preserved Places as the basis for future management at Sandy Hook and elsewhere within Gateway.

There are some good elements within Alternative B and Alternative D that ought to be considered regardless of which alternative the National Park Service chooses. Under Alternative B, the park's historic structures would see the most adaptive reuse, something that could probably be done under any of the three action alternatives. This means that the buildings would retain their historic appearance but would be renovated for use as restaurants, lodging, or offices. Buildings that are actively in use are more likely to be maintained, so adaptive reuse could further the goal of maintaining Sandy Hook's historic character. Expanding transportation options is also an excellent idea. In particular, a shuttle linking points on Sandy Hook, the ferry terminal, and the closest NJ Transit train station could reduce traffic congestion and provide alternative ways for people to visit the park. Kayaking facilities could enhance the recreational experience as well as provide a vehicle for environmental education if naturalists led kayak tours around Sandy Hook. The hiker/biker trail on Sandy Hook is often very crowded (sometimes with packs of birders) so widening the existing trail or adding other trails could make it easier to get around the park.

However, such recreational facilities should not be expanded at the expense of Sandy Hook's natural ecosystems. I would not want to see expanded camping areas eat away at the unique maritime forest on Sandy Hook. I would not want to see expanded boating activities adversely affect the saltmarshes and coves along the bayside. Both Spermaceti Cove and the inlets at Plum Island (across from Lot B) are heavily used by waterfowl and other birds as migratory stopovers and throughout the winter. Any expansion of beach facilities, particularly at North Beach and including the addition of shade structures and concessions, should take care not to disrupt the breeding activities of endangered Piping Plovers and other beach-nesting birds.

The combination of natural ecosystems and historic structures make Sandy Hook unique, both in New Jersey and in the wider metropolitan area. I hope that the National Park Service will take care to preserve and enhance these resources. This post is based on a comment I submitted to the National Park Service yesterday. I encourage any birders that visit one or more of Gateway's park units to submit comments of their own. Comments do not necessarily need to be long or address every aspect of the alternative plans, but I do think it is important that the National Park Service hear from us.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Frogs in the Pine Barrens

On Saturday I was part of a frog watching field trip at Franklin Parker Preserve near Chatsworth in the Pine Barrens. The trip was organized through the local chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and led by Russell Juelg, one of the land stewards for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which owns and manages the preserve. We were looking specifically for Pine Barrens Tree Frogs, an endangered species which is limited to Pine Barrens habitats in New Jersey, the Carolinas, and the Florida Panhandle. Despite searching two ponds that are usually reliable for Pine Barrens Tree Frogs (and wading through some knee-deep water to look for them), we were unable to find any. Most likely, the frogs normally in those ponds had already mated and stopped calling. However, we did get to see several other common frogs of the Pine Barrens. The leader caught a few and put them in a bucket so that everyone could get a chance to see them; all of the captured frogs were released.

This frog, like the one at the top of the post, is a Southern Leopard Frog. Leopard frogs can appear as green or brown, or a mixture of the two. The two light stripes running along its back to the hips are a good field mark for leopard frogs (in addition to the spotting).

This is a Carpenter Frog, which is recognized by its overall brown color with lighter brown streaks along its sides. Carpenter Frogs get their name from their raucous calls, which sound like someone banging on wood.

This is a younger (and smaller) Carpenter Frog.

Finally, here is a Fowler's Toad, the characteristic toad of southern New Jersey.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Review: Wild New Jersey by David Wheeler

New Jersey is the fifth-smallest – and the most densely-populated – state in the United States. A wide ribbon of urbanization stretches across the state from Philadelphia to New York, and another strip of urbanization runs along the state's Atlantic coast. The state has a long history of industrialization stretching back into the 18th century. The early start on the Industrial Revolution and two subsequent centuries of industrialization left toxic sites around much of the state. Now much of the industry is gone, and New Jersey is left with more Superfund sites than any other state (which is less surprising if you consider that New Jersey politicians were instrumental in drafting Superfund and getting it passed).

Despite all this, New Jersey supports a wealth of biodiversity. This may be ascribed to its geology, latitude, and proximity to the coast. The northern part of the state, particularly the mountainous northwest corner, supports plant and wildlife communities similar to those found much further north. Likewise, the southern half of the state has winters just warm enough to support plants and animals found much further south. As a result, many species find the northern limit of their ranges in or near New Jersey, and many others find their southern limit here. Chickadees are an example of this phenomenon: the ranges of northerly Black-capped and southerly Carolina Chickadees meet in the middle of the state, close to the boundary of the coastal plain.

David Wheeler gives readers a taste of this natural diversity in his recent book, Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State. Each chapter narrates a visit to a refuge or an encounter with New Jersey's natural world, starting with a search for black bears in northwestern New Jersey and continuing with visits to sites such as the Meadowlands, various points along the shore, and up again through the Pine Barrens and central Piedmont region. In some cases, a chapter is focused on a single trip, but in most cases Wheeler includes a few sites centered around the same habitat type or activities such as fossil-hunting and birdwatching. While there are far too many interesting natural places and ecological problems in the state to cover in a single book, Wheeler does well in selecting a representative sample. I was particularly pleased to see sites from the state's urban core included in the book.

The sites are grouped into parts by geographic region, and each part is prefaced by a map showing approximate locations for the sites mentioned in the following chapters. I noticed one error on the map for part 3 (The Jersey Shore), which places Cheesequake State Park in Monmouth County. (It is actually in Middlesex County.) The chapters are illustrated with black and white photos, many of which were taken by David Wheeler while others were supplied by other photographers (often the people that he interviews in the same chapter). Color photos are printed on plates in the center of the book; I especially liked one of a Bald Eagle flying across the path of a rower on the Millstone Aqueduct.

The narrative is informed by interviews with the people who work or volunteer at those locations or who visit them regularly. In many cases, the people Wheeler interviews are responsible for keeping New Jersey's natural areas wild or restoring degraded habitats. Middlesex County's Dismal Swamp, for instance, might not exist as a natural area without the efforts of Robert Spiegel, one of the many environmentalists who appear in the book. In other cases, the interviews add expert commentary on ecology or historical background.

It is great to read about someone else's experience in a park or refuge, but I wish books like this gave a little more information about visiting sites. Theoretically a park or refuge should be good in any season, but in my experience each shines especially in one season over others, and the prime season is not always obvious. For larger refuges (or obscure sites) is there a preferred entry point? Is a site open to the public or only by special permission? I think information like this would be helpful for moving people from reading about New Jersey's natural areas to visiting and enjoying them.

That said, Wild New Jersey provides a window into New Jersey's natural history. It will likely be most interesting to newcomers to the state or people who grew up in the state but have not explored its wild side in depth. Readers who (like me) have spent a lot of time in New Jersey's natural areas will probably find much that is already familiar. I have visited sites from at least half of the book's chapters and have met many of the people interviewed for it. Even so, I found much of interest here, and I imagine other readers would as well.

This review was based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Winding Down

Yesterday I walked through Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary to see what sort of birds were moving through. I followed the field loop trail and part of the dogwood trail, for those familiar with the preserve. Most of the trees were already bare, with most of the exceptions being beeches or oaks. The preserve looked so different from the last time I was there in late summer.

The trails were fairly quiet with only a few small flocks of birds being active. Most of them were common resident species, but Dark-eyed Juncos and Hermit Thrushes marked the onset of winter birding. A couple hawks passed overhead: a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper's Hawk. The constantly agitated behavior of the American Crow flocks suggested that there might be more raptors around than those two.

The exception to the small flocks rule were large roaming flocks of blackbirds. The biggest one I saw mostly consisted of Red-winged Blackbirds, maybe about 100 in all. Among them were a small number of Brown-headed Cowbirds and two Rusty Blackbirds. There were also Common Grackles in another flock.

Most of the plants in the meadows were dying back, with only the dried stalks still standing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Whittingham WMA

After wandering around Muckshaw Ponds Preserve in the morning, I spent Saturday afternoon at Whittingham WMA, which is conveniently located across the road from Muckshaw Ponds. (In fact, one of the WMA parking lots serves as parking for Muckshaw ponds.) Whittingham WMA is a 1,930-acre refuge that shares much of the same geology as its neighbor. Low limestone ridges alternate with depressions that hold wet areas. However, the public areas at the two sites have different characters. While the trails at Muckshaw Ponds pass through dense forests, Whittingham WMA is more open, with several large meadows in addition to the wooded ridges. In addition, the WMA includes a spring that serves as the principal source for the Pequest River and fills a series of ponds that are partially visible from the trails.

The bird species I encountered were much the same as in the morning. I did not see or hear a Hooded Warbler, but I did find a few new birds for the day. It was nice to see a Scarlet Tanager and hear a Prairie Warbler near the entrance. I found a handful of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers at the edge of a clearing in the woods. One pond had a female Gadwall in addition to the Wood Ducks and Mallards. Finally, I heard an Acadian Flycatcher calling; I have not heard many of them since moving back to this state.

There were a lot of dragonflies active in the refuge's meadows and clearings. The most numerous were ones like the meadowhawk above. From what I have read, this falls into a species complex that is not field-identifiable in New Jersey. The complex includes Ruby Meadowhawk, White-faced Meadowhawk, and "Eastern" Cherry-faced Meadowhawk, all of which have overlapping characteristics. Whatever these were, they were all over the place.

As you can see, I got myself an insect net and started netting dragonflies this weekend. The very first dragonfly I netted was this Great Blue Skimmer, which I think is an immature male. (You can see it perched here.) Catching them turned out to be easier than I expected, at least for the perched dragonflies I practiced on. All were released unharmed. The Great Blue Skimmers at Muckshaw Ponds and Whittingham were probably my odonate highlight for the day. While widespread in New Jersey, they are easy to miss among the other blue-colored dragonflies.

I saw relatively few Eastern Pondhawks, but I did catch up with this lovely female.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Muckshaw Ponds Preserve

New Jersey's northwestern counties are part of gives the state such incredible biodiversity for its size. While the southeastern end of the state has more in common with the Delmarva Peninsula or the Carolinas, the northwestern end is more like upstate New York. Though I grew up in New Jersey, and have now spent several years in the state as a birder, I have not explored a lot of the state's northwestern corner. So I spent yesterday morning at Muckshaw Ponds Preserve near Springdale in Sussex County, a county I think I have only visited once previously.

Muckshaw Ponds Preserve is a 530-acre refuge run by the Nature Conservancy. It consists of a series of low, parallel limestone ridges. In the depressions between the ridges there are a series of ponds and a few meadows.

A lot of the birds have quieted down by now, but some were still singing. The highlight was a Hooded Warbler that I heard on the way in and the way out. I finally managed to track it down and see it on the second hearing. Other birds included Indigo Bunting, Field Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-throated Vireo. A family of Wood Ducks (I counted 8) swam past in one of the ponds. I heard several flycatchers – mostly Eastern Phoebes and Eastern Wood-Pewees. I could tell that they must have a lot to eat there since the mosquitos were so thick in the air. I imagine that there would be a greater variety of avian songsters on a visit in May or June.

One reason I was interested in this particular preserve was to find unusual insects around the ponds. Unfortunately, I did not see as many dragonflies as I had hoped. I think that may partly be because I spent so much time in the woods instead of in meadows or around the pond edges. However, I did see a few, such as the Widow Skimmer above.

I found this Slaty Skimmer along a narrow, rocky pathway between two ponds.

This Great Blue Skimmer confused me initially, but eventually I figured out what it was.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Exploring the Passaic

The Passaic River in Lord Stirling Park, near Basking Ridge, NJ

Yesterday's Grist featured the first installment of a two-part essay on the Passaic, New Jersey's longest river, written by someone who grew up on the river's banks. Here is a taste:
The Passaic is many rivers: swift and clear in its upper stretch, sluggish and swampy in mid-section, a thundering cascade at Great Falls, brackish below the Dundee Dam, and so industrial in its final miles that New Jersey poet laureate William Carlos Williams declared it "the vilest swill hole."

The river rises in Mendham, an historic township in north central Jersey. It heads almost due south at first, then veers sharply north, then northeast, then due east and then south again, making two final northward loops before emptying into Newark Bay. This erratic path traces a sloppy, upside-down U that winds through, over, under, and around seven New Jersey counties, 45 of its cities and towns, three swamps, three dams, four meadows, four waterfalls, a pond, a lake, 49 bridges and seven highways, and past countless homes, parks, playing fields, parking lots, diners, junkyards, office buildings, shopping centers, gas stations, warehouses, and factories. The drive from Mendham to Newark is about 30 miles. The Passaic takes the long way around.

The Passaic's 90-mile journey can be divided into three long stretches. The Upper Passaic is a largely downhill romp through meadows and forest and along the southeastern edge of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Central Basin is the long, flat, flood-prone mid-section that flows north through an ancient lakebed. The Lower Valley, where I grew up, is a 35-mile-long corridor with sides that curl like plumped pillows as it sweeps down from the cliffs of Paterson to the sea level marshes of Newark.

In its convoluted journey from pristine headwaters to the superfund site at its mouth, the Passaic mirrors the triumphant and tragic relationship between nature and industry in America. The wildness and beauty that awed the first settlers some 400 years ago turned America into an industrial titan. Rivers like the Passaic powered the mills, farms, and factories that produced clothes, food, steel and electricity, a robust international trade, and a large and solid middle class. But along the way, the mighty frontier that helped forge American enterprise and character fell victim to an industrial fervor that seemed, at every turn, to sacrifice natural resources for financial gain.
Read the rest.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Nuclear Water in South Jersey

Tritium, a radioactive chemical present in nuclear waste, has been detected in a major aquifer in southern New Jersey. The problem stems from a leak discovered last year at the Oyster Creek Generating Station:

The agency said 180,000 gallons of tritium-tainted water gushed from two leaks at the plant on April 9, 2009.

Tritium, a low-level nuclear material, was found in the groundwater of Ocean County in the Cohansey aquifer at 50 times higher concentrations than DEP safety standards for drinking water.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin on Friday said in a statement there was no imminent public health threat. The tainted water is believed to be 2 miles from the nearest residential wells, he said.
Since tritium was detected in the aquifer, the DEP has taken over management of the cleanup under the Spill Act.
The DEP said polluting the aquifer is a violation of the law. They ordered the company to install deeper monitoring wells into the aquifer to track the pollution.

The plume is migrating about three feet per day, according to the state. At that rate it would take about 15 years for the contaminated water to reach the wells. Tritium has a relatively short half-life of 12.3 years, further reducing the potential risk to human health.

The radioactive water tested at 1 million picocuries. The federal safe-drinking-water standard is 20,000 picocuries.

Cleaning up tritium leaks is difficult. PSEG is still cleaning up a 2002 spill that measured at 15 million picocuries, the highest radiation level ever recorded in any tritium spill nationwide.
The Oyster Creek Generating Station is the oldest nuclear power plant operating in the United States.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Shivering through a Christmas Bird Count

On Saturday, I joined Patrick and his friend Mike for a day of counting birds as part of the Long Branch Christmas Bird Count. Long Branch is one of the oldest CBCs in New Jersey, with the compiled data spanning 75 years. A handful of species have been recorded in every year of the count's history. Some, like the Bobwhite, have become scarce in recent years, while others, like the Bald Eagle, have flourished. Last year, Patrick became the compiler and took over a small area near Allaire State Park.

The Long Branch CBC encompasses some coastal areas that are well-known as rarity magnets. One of them, Wreck Pond, maintained that reputation with a possible Pacific Loon during Saturday's count. The area around Allaire, by contrast, has fewer unusual birds with more opportunity for watching common songbirds.

The three of us started our route at the restored village in Allaire State Park. The trail into the village had good numbers of sparrows, including a Field Sparrow and a Fox Sparrow, the latter of which I missed. We also spotted a Gray Catbird and a flock of Cedar Waxwings. A stream running through the village held a handful of Mallards and Hooded Mergansers. I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in some conifers that I was checking for an owl. Following trails around the perimeter of the village proved fruitless, however; even a known Great Horned Owl roost site was empty.

At our second stop, a restricted area, we had an immediate identification conundrum: a Northern Mockingbird with no tail. How it lost its tail is unclear; it continues to act like a mockingbird, but at a size more fitting for a junco. Another oddity was a tree that held at least seven Northern Flickers. I have never seen so many flickers together at once before, unless perhaps on some crazy migration days in Cape May. The site had plenty of waterfowl if you judge solely by the 600 Canada Geese we recorded there. Most standing water was frozen, so the only other waterbirds were some Black Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, as well as a handful of white domesticated Mallards. The site proved productive for raptors, however. We saw an adult Bald Eagle, and as we were watching it, an adult Cooper's Hawk flew past. A little later, we saw two Red-tailed Hawks in the same field. These open fields and wooded edges are clearly good hunting grounds.

Returning to the state park, we walked a different set of trails but found largely the same birds. In fact we found hardly any birds at all outside of one or two small patches of activity. Patrick did his best to summon a Barred Owl but got no response. The only new species was a single Golden-crowned Kinglet.

After lunch, we walked around a wildlife management area near the Manasquan River. Few waterfowl were present, possibly due to the presence of waterfowl hunters. What we did find was an active foraging flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers joined by a few birds of other species. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings briefly joined them. One of the waxwings had an orange-tipped tail, a variation that may result from an individual bird's diet. The brushy edge of the entrance road also held another Gray Catbird, our second and the third for the count as a whole.

So far we had seen no Dark-eyed Juncos. A stop at the state park's campground changed that with a single flock of at least 40 juncos. A subsequent visit to a roadside lake produced a few more ducks, including a hybrid Mallard X Black Duck. One more stop produced a person building a screech owl nestbox, but no birds.

At that point we decided to pack it in. Even though there was some daylight left, the activity at each stop had been declining as winds picked up and temperatures dropped. Patrick and I went outside the count area to check for some alcids and other seabirds at Manasquan Inlet. There were no alcids to be seen, but we enjoyed the sight of Northern Gannets venturing so close to shore that they almost flew over the beach. There were a few Long-tailed Ducks and a couple Red-breasted Mergansers at the mouth of the inlet, and a Purple Sandpiper huddled against the rocks of the jetty. Beyond that, very few birds were visible. The wind was fierce, and we had to be careful that Patrick's scope did not end up somewhere in the North Atlantic.

Somehow we managed to spend a whole day birding without seeing any House Sparrows despite visiting some places that seemed likely to have them.

As the day drew to a close we headed for the CBC's roundup in Spring Lake. Patrick provided some pizza and shade-grown coffee for dinner to those participants who attended. As of Saturday night, the CBC had recorded 106 with a possible Pacific Loon. A few other species could get added as more checklists are submitted. So ended my Christmas Bird Count season. As with the Raritan Estuary CBC, this count was a lot of fun even if we did not tally any truly rare species in our section.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Washed-up Skate

At the second site we visited during Saturday's trip to Barnegat Inlet, there was a skate washed up on the beach. The tracks and dropping around the skate indicate that some birds had already discovered the skate's remains. The skate has a bloody patch on its right side, presumably from scavengers picking at it. While some openings on this skate are probably natural (the eyes and mouth need openings), others are more likely the work of scavengers. I am not entirely sure which holes fit in which category.

The photo above is a close-up of the skate's nose, eyes, and mouth.

Another point that I am not sure about is which species of skate was on the beach. There are six species of skate present in the Atlantic off the northeastern United States. Its translucent head suggests that this may be a Clearnose Skate, but I am not certain that this feature is diagnostic, especially for an animal that is getting picked on. Clearnose Skate is a southern species; according to the NOAA site New Jersey is at the northern end of this animal's range.

I did not realize this at the time, but it is possible to imagine a human face in the skate's remains if you view them from a certain perspective.

Added to Macro Monday.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Birds at Barnegat Inlet

Yesterday morning I went with my parents and sister to meet up with my uncle and his wife at Barnegat Lighthouse State Park. During winter months, this site offers some of the best coastal birding in the state. One of its major advantages as a birding site is that it allows relatively close approach. Birds that winter there seem used to being around large numbers of people and tend not to flush as quickly as at other sites. This allows close viewing of birds that we do not see very often.

It is the most reliable site in the state for finding northern waterfowl such as Common Eiders and Harlequin Ducks. Both of these species, as well as scoters, were present in modete numbers yesterday. I only saw one Harlequin Duck myself, but there was a larger flock farther down the beach. Other wintering waterfowl such as Long-tailed Ducks and Buffleheads were nowhere near their winter peak numbers. In addition to the headline ducks, there was a flock of Brant next to the jetty.

Several shorebird species were present along the jetty. A small flock of Black-bellied Plovers were hiding in the beach grass. Flocks of American Oystercatchers flew past us over in the inlet. On the jetty itself, there were Ruddy Turnstones, Dunlin, and Purple Sandpipers. The largest group of shorebirds that I noted was a flock of Dunlin numbering around 100. Above is a Dunlin and a Ruddy Turnstone loafing on the same rock. I posted other photos of Dunlin and Turnstones at my Flickr account.

Gulls, though abundant, should not be neglected. This handsome immature Herring Gull started its long call just as I took its photograph.

Walking from the lighthouse to the far end of the jetty is always exciting. I am lured farther and farther out by the prospect or seeing new birds or having a better view of birds I have seen distantly or in poor light. Plus there are constantly new birds – sandpipers, sparrows, etc. – popping up from between the jetty's rocks. On the way back I am more tired, more worried about my footing, and have seen most of the bird species the jetty has to offer. At least the return trip offers a marvelous view:

In the afternoon we walked along the "High Bar" beach to the west of the lighthouse. Most of the birds were the same as at the jetty – small flocks of Brant, Black-bellied Plovers, and Dunlin, with a few other water birds in the mix. One new addition was a hatch-year Merlin perched at the top of a bare tree. Not bad at all for a fall day!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Public Space Question Passes

The ballot question to approve borrowing for public lands preservation passed.

With 98 percent of the state's precincts reporting as of 11:35 p.m., the ballot question was narrowly ahead - 792,336 votes for the question, or 52 percent, and 729,557 votes against it, or 48 percent.
Such a narrow margin (a little over 60,000 votes) illustrates the problem I mentioned in my last post on the issue. Leaving public lands preservation up to annual ballot issues makes future funding uncertain. While these issues tend to pass, a day may come when it fails, especially if the state's budget problems worsen under the new administration. All it would take is a major push by an opposition group in a low turnout election.

Here is what the bond will fund:
The funding includes $218 million for Green Acres open space purchases, $146 million for farmland preservation, $24 million for Blue Acres purchases of flood-prone land and $12 million for historic preservation purposes.

It's not known how much the $400 million would cost to repay, as that depends on whether the bonds are repaid over 20 years or 30 years and the interest rates obtained as the money is borrowed over the next three years. It would probably be between $600 million and $700 million, at costs of around $30 million a year at their peak.

Paying back the borrowing would amount to approximately $10 a year per household, said Tom Gilbert of the Trust for Public Land, who is also chairman of the Keep It Green coalition of 135 groups that supports the bond measure.
There is clearly majority support for land preservation in the state. It is time that the state legislature create a dedicated fund for it, so that the state does not need to increase its debt burden each time it wants to purchase land for public use.

As for the other races, I hope the NJ Environmental Federation is happy with its candidate.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Election Day

Today is Election Day in New Jersey, which holds its state government elections in odd-numbered years. The election this year will decide who will serve as governor for the next four years, as well as the state legislature and various local offices.

There is also a public question on the ballot:


Shall the "Green Acres, Water Supply and Floodplain Protection, and Farmland and Historic Preservation Bond Act of 2009," which authorizes the State to issue bonds in the amount of $400 million to provide moneys for (1) the acquisition and development of lands for recreation and conservation purposes, including lands that protect water supplies, (2) the preservation of farmland for agricultural or horticultural use and production, (3) the acquisition, for recreation and conservation purposes, of properties that are prone to or have incurred flood or storm damage,and (4) funding historic preservation projects; and providing the ways and means to pay the interest on the debt and also to pay and discharge the principal thereof, with full public disclosure of all spending, be approved?
I am somewhat conflicted about this. Green Acres is a very useful program that has preserved valuable habitat and historic sites. Since 1961, the program has protected over 640,000 acres. However, it needs a more stable source of funding than annual bond initiatives. Ballot questions involving the Green Acres program usually pass, since it is a popular program, but bond initiatives remain vulnerable to negative campaigns. New Jersey has struggled to balance its budgets over the past decade due to revenue shortfalls; as a result, voters have been more apt to vote down ballot questions that would involve more debt. This situation leaves funding for the Green Acres program somewhat unpredictable and may make it difficult to plan or negotiate future land purchases. I don't see this as a reason to oppose the initiative. But I would like to see the state government work on making these initiatives unnecessary.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Celebrating Brig's Birthday

Yesterday, October 24, E.B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, known to Jersey birders as "Brig," celebrated its 70th birthday. The Brigantine Division, which includes the well-known wildlife drive, was founded in 1939 to preserve coastal wetlands in Atlantic County. At that time wildlife refuges primarily catered to hunters; Brigantine was intended as a migration and wintering stop for waterfowl. Later a separate refuge was created to protect wetlands around Barnegat Bay. The Brigantine and Barnegat refuges were combined and renamed for Congressman E.B. Forsythe in 1984.

As birding grew in popularity, Brigantine quickly established itself as one of the top birding attractions in New Jersey, and perhaps on the East Coast. Its tidal impoundments and salt marshes attract large flocks of shorebirds during migration seasons and waterfowl in the winter. It also serves as a breeding spot for Osprey and Peregrine Falcons, both of which used to be on the federal Endangered Species List. In summer it gathers large numbers of terns, herons, and other coastal breeding season specialties. The same features that attract common species make Brigantine attractive for uncommon and rare species as well. Jennifer has a list of the rare birds found at the refuge since the 1960s.

Despite the refuge's reputation as a rarity magnet, I have only seen four life birds there. Two were on my first trip to the refuge in 2004: Black Skimmer and Cattle Egret. The other two, Whimbrel and Roseate Spoonbill, came this summer. The latter, Roseate Spoonbill, is one of the most spectacular birds I have ever seen.

As my own tribute to Brig, I am including below a few of the photos I have taken there. Some of these probably appeared on this blog already.

All images link to larger versions on Flickr.

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.