Appalachian Trail Boardwalk at Pochuck Mountain

As self-isolation during the pandemic stretches on, I find myself daydreaming about past hikes and walks. One of the places where my husband and I used to hike frequently was the Pochuck Boardwalk. He had first discovered it as he did overnight hikes along New Jersey’s Appalachian Trail and he brought me back to this spot because it was so nice. With a trailhead literally on the side of route 94 in Sussex County, New Jersey, this section of the AT allows for a leisurely walk on a boardwalk, above boggy or sometimes swampy ground. The spot is certainly scenic, framed by the Pochuck mountains on one side, and Wawayanda Mountians on the other. The boardwalk snakes through the landscape in a way that somehow adds to, rather than detracts from, the picturesque nature of the spot. And the word is out. A very popular walking spot with families, we have never been to the boardwalk completely alone, spring, summer or winter. We tried to walk here once in winter, but hadn’t anticipated or prepared for the ice of the walk (the snow had all melted to the east where we lived at the time). Even then, there was evidence that a few hearty souls had walked along the snow and ice covered boardwalk.

On one particular day in late March 2018, we chose to head to Pochuck and try out our new camera. One of the first hikes/walks with our new birding lens, Pochuck was appealing with its level trail and dense wildlife population. We had never visited and seen absolutely no birds or other wildlife. It was basically a sure thing. So off we went.

As was the case with our attempted walk in the winter, even in March we had underestimated the difference in weather and temperature between where we lived and Sussex County. Never mind. We quickly zipped up our rain jackets against the last of winter’s bitter winds and headed onto the trail. We were not going to waste the trip being cold. The space was definitely bleak and potential stormy, creating an interesting lighting conundrum. But we were mostly oblivious as we were playing with all the setting, trying to figure out new camera.

The cool weather, ensured it was fairly quiet among the reeds and cattails, many of which were lying down where the crushing snow of winter had pushed them. After some careful searching within the reeds and the sky, a Turkey Vulture emerged above the treeline. The Turkey Vulture is fairly easy to identify, because of its naked pink/red head, which is were it gets its name. While it wasn’t the most attractive bird to look at, it definitely offered us a moving target to aim the camera at, and a large one. Even at a distance we had mixed success getting the camera to focus on it as it rode the wind over the reeds, searching for something to eat.

As we slowly walked on, scouting the ground for something smaller to photograph, the Turkey Vulture circled overhead, carrying out its own search. Watching it soar through the air was mesmerizing, as it never needed to flap its wings to continue its forward motion. They achieve this by flying not parallel to the ground but with their bodies at a slight angle. As the wind brushes the upper wing, it tips the bird further in that direction, propelling the bird’s body either left or right. The push also creates a more extreme angle of the birds body, This results in the lower wing now being more exposed to the same gust of wind, which pushes this lower wing in turn and that puts the bird back to a more parallel angle with the ground. With this strategy Turkey Vultures can use smaller air currents that other raptors can’t.

After following the Turkey Vulture’s crooked trail across the sky for a while, the wind got the better of us, and we continued to head further down the boardwalk. By this point we realized from both the lack of movement and the lack of bird noises that we were unlikely to see the large variety of wildlife that we were expecting. The animals all had the good sense to stay warm for at least a little while longer. We carried on with our walk and our conversation. So it was amid a thrilling conversation about apeture settings verses ISO when we saw some flashes of movement among the reed to our right. We stopped and starred for a long time before we realized that the fallen reeds and cattails were serving as perches for a few bright blue Eastern Bluebirds. The birds stood out so clearly against the otherwise bleak background. As we don’t spot Eastern Bluebirds on our walks very frequently and because they were a much smaller and jumpier subject to work with, we decided to set up the mono-pod and see if we could get some decent shots.

At seven inches the Eastern Bluebird isn’t exactly small, but these birds were too busy searching for food among the reeds to sit still and pose for us. Despite their name, the Bluebird isn’t all blue. It has a rusty or orange chest, similar in color to that of an American Robin, and a white downy belly. Its back, head and tail however, are a bright blue, with the females being a bit more gray-blue than her mates.

The American Bluebird is one of nature enthusiasts’ favorite feathered friends. I am not really sure why that is. It might be due, at least in part, to a decline in their population for most of the 1900s. This decrease was due to nesting competition with Starlings and House Sparrows (both species technically invasive, having been introduced to North America from Europe). But birders, nature lovers and the larger community reacted, and today the Bluebird population is doing well, thanks to a plethora of bluebird bird boxes provided throughout the northeast.

Having had our nice photo session with out small flock of Bluebirds, we decided that we had had enough of the wind, and packed off back to warmer elevations for some much deserved hot chocolate.

Additional Sources:

Source: https://www.raptorresource.org/2019/06/28/identifying-birds-of-prey-in-flight/

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