Richard W. DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst, NJ

Another of the twenty parks managed by New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Richard W. DeKorte Park (https://www.njsea.com/parks-and-trails/ ) was one of the first locations I ventured to when I started birding. It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this park inspired me to become a bird watcher. We would pass it on the train and I kept wondering what this amazing place was, and how could I get there. One day I finally tried it, and it didn’t disappoint. I still go there regularly, and it never fails to amaze. In the heart of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, this wetland habitat is visited by over 285 different species. The 3.5 miles of trails include a boardwalk through the wetland area itself, as well as some grassy, treed areas. The Manhattan skyline is visible in the background with the highway and train line. Nature truly co-exists with man in this spot.

I always start by heading out on the Marsh Discovery trail with its boardwalk and bird blinds. There are many birds that you are sure to see here in the summer months. Top of the list is tree swallows. They truly dominate the area. Little wonder really. The whole habitat has been populated with tree swallow sized nest boxes, out in the middle of the marsh. They are constantly gliding overhead and chirping to each other in their hyper-active way. They do settle on banisters, nest boxes and vegetation if you are patience enough to wait. I can never get enough of photographing them. The sheen of their feathers in the direct sunlight is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

After the tree swallows, it is Great Egrets and Great Blue Heron you should expect to see. Sometimes, especially in spring and summer, there will be dozens of them, slowly making their way across the marsh, with their steady, exacting steps, heads down watching for anything tasty they might flush out of the mud. It is actually the Great Egrets that first attracted me to this place.

Being a marsh, Seagulls and Terns are also species you are likely to encounter on a walk here. The Seagulls tend to congregate at the mudflats, while the Terns like to explore the whole area. Their antics are more than a bit amusing. The Terns often remind me of the Three Stooges (even when there are more than three), as each of their actions always seem to be a direct reaction to some action another in the flock took. He hops away, I hop after. He flies up and lands, I fly up and land a little farther. These waterbirds are some of the only birds who remain on this spot through the winter, not a light-hearted prospect. I give them a lot of credit for braving the exposed waters, especially when the icy winter wind blows.

Other waterfowl can also be seen and at some points, such as early spring, you can see five or six different kinds of ducks. Mallards are usually abundant, but I have also spotted Northern Shovelers, Bufflehead and Greater Scaup. Canada Geese are sometimes here and the occasional Muted Swan can also be found floating around. Double-Crested Cormorants really like the mudflats. They usually congregate their in large groups, but you can sometimes see a lone Cormorant drying off its wings in the sunshine.

The song birds need their acknowledgment as well. Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens fill the air with their songs. Red-Winged Blackbirds also make their presence known either with a loud call or a sudden appearance in the reeds. Catbirds, Robins and the occasional Grackle also like this spot, particularly the more forested areas.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to this location is the surprises that seem to be waiting at every turn. Yes, I see a lot of the same birds each trip, but I never know what other birds and animals might be waiting around the next curve in the boardwalk. I have seen woodchucks, painted turtles and so many lovely butterflies here. Some of my other favorite rare encounters include a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs wandering in the mudflats, a bright yellow Palm Warbler and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

Barbour’s Pond- Garret Mountain Reservation, Woodland Park NJ

Garret Mountain Reservation is a wonderful urban park. Located in Woodland Park, New Jersey, the park has at least two different vantage points where visitors can look down/out at the city of Paterson and beyond. Along with the paved paths frequented by walkers and joggers and the many picnic areas (some recently updated) with grills and picnic tables, there are also hiking trails. According to Passaic County’s website, the park welcomes over 150 species of birds throughout the year and the County sponsors Bird Watching meet-ups throughout the summer. While they are not as intense, nor as remote as the Appalachian Trail, they do provide good terrain for a short walk. I typically do not follow the whole trail (which basically works its way around the outer edge of the park. Instead I usually walk an easier and shorter loop around Barbour’s Pond.

Well shaded, the trail at Barbour’s Pond has lots of lovely ledges to sit on and watch the swallows. There are also many outlets to the water’s edge, though you often have competition for these spots from fishermen. In the many times I have walked this loop (often my go to spot between the end of the workday and an evening activity) many times and seen a great many birds. Most are the common New Jersey birds you would expect, but I have also seen a Palm Warbler, Killdeer, Ovenbird and what I believe was a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.

On one particular summer afternoon in July the landscape was dominated, not by the flapping of feathered winging, but rather the flitting of an army of blue dragonflies

While the dragonflies stole the show, there were also Robins, Grackles, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Catbirds and mourning doves around and about. A pair of Canada Geese were surprisingly the only members of the species near the water. At one point I came across three Blue Jays, all a bit unsure of themselves. Upon closer inspection, you could see a few downy feathers still among their mostly adult plumage indicating that they were juveniles. The shrill of a baby Blue Jack was gone, but they still made a racket.

The swallows at Barbour’s Pond are usually far too busy to stop and pose for photos. One did land on a tree. Being darker blue/black, I believe it was a Bank Swallow. Bank swallows sometimes nest along stream bank and I think in the case of Barbour’s pond, they like the rock ledges which line one whole side of the pond. I have also seen Tree and Barn Swallows at the pond, but not on this occasion.

There were three Mallards hanging out in the shade by the edge of the pond, two males and one female. The males were between feathers, just molting into their breeding plumage. Their partially green heads were particularly odd to see. There are apparently six different plumages for the Mallard, four of which are different phases of the male’s feathers. You can see am great image of them all together at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/urban-jungle/pages/110830.html?noredirect+on&noredirect=on

Besides the dragonflies, there was a lot of other interesting insect activity. Moths fluttered around and one beautiful blue-black butterfly. I didn’t get an amazing photo of it, but I can see enough of the wings with their iridescent blue to determine it was a Red-Spotted Purple. You can learn more about this butterfly at the North American Butterfly Association’s website: https://www.naba.org/chapters/nabanj/butterflies/red_spotted_admiral.html

Painted turtles were also everywhere, particularly in the algae covered edge of the pond directly in front of the boathouse. At first I didn’t realize quite how many there were. Most weren’t moving an inch. Rather, they were perfectly still, mostly submerged with the exception of just their heads popped up above the blanket of green algae. At first I thought they were the ends of sticks or maybe jagged rocks, but I knew I hadn’t seen that many rocks here on earlier visits. There were at least seven or eight turtles in this concentrated section, floating along, just chillin’.

To learn more about what Garret Mountain Reservation has to offer, and for a map of the trails, visit: www.passaiccountynj.org/passaic_county_park_system/parks/garret_mountain_reservation.php

Tourne County Park

Occasionally we get bored with walking the same trails all the time and we seek a new adventure a bit outside our normal realm. One weekend we decided to check out Tourne County Park in Morris County New Jersey (https://www.morrisparks.net/index.php/parks/tourne-county-park/ ). Overall, I think it was a lovely park, nice trails and very well marked. We decided to hike to the top of Tourne, (in the process I was lapped by a group of seniors, literally walking up the hill with their canes….I don’t really like hiking uphill) where the overlook was completely blocked by vegetation.

After that minor hiccup, we took the Red trail which walked us around much of the perimeter of the park. It was all very nice and enjoyable (if a bit muggy) but the highlight was Birchwood Lake. We had stopped to admire the water lilies and the dragonflies. A juvenile Great Blue Heron came to do a bit of fishing, so we sat by the side of the pond for almost a half-hour, to see what he would catch. Great Blue Herons don’t need to see their prey. When they place their bills in the water, they just try to touch prey. Once they touch something they have a rapid reflex which snaps their bills closed. Unfortunately for this guy, he didn’t seem to be very successful.

Derby Hill Observatory – Oswego County NY

“Oswego is where we go…” Most of the summers of my life have been spent, at least in part on the edge of Lake Ontario. Yet, considering all that time, I discovered the Derby Hill Observatory only a few years ago. I guess I needed the extra interest in birds to motivate me to turn down the dead end road and find the Observatory.

Operated by the Onondaga Audubon, Derby Hill Observatory has a strong focus on watching birds of prey. Their website claims they count about 40,000 raptors each spring, so I guess the focus is justified. (https://onondagaaudubon.com/derby-hill-bird-observatory/) The observatory’s lands include a small strip of cliff at the lake’s edge, a true novelty as the rest of the road is crammed with homes along the water’s edge. This, especially given its height, provides a great vantage point to observe fishing osprey and other birds of prey. In fact, the first time I visited, we were meandering over to the edge and there was a flash of Bald Eagle. By the time I ran to the edge, it was out of sight. I haven’t seen another Bald Eagle in any subsequent trips (I have only visited about 3 or 4 times), but I keep hoping!

The Observatory is actually split up into about four or five sections, but the main parking area provides you access to the lake overlook, as well as four fields (with a mowed perimeter) and a woodland trail. If you follow the meadows down the road, you can also cross over to the marsh space, but it is a very small section, better for watching than walking.

There is no doubt that there are many birds residing in and around the Observatory. The trees just reverberate with bird calls and chirps. But I have never been very lucky at spotting many birds when I visit. The Scarlet Tanger manages to be particularly elusive, but I have seen a few other birds that are outside of my regular milieu. This included an Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebes (juvenile as well as adult) and a young Cedar Waxwing, chowing down on some berries.

Along with some birds I am more familiar with, including Robins, Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows.

The meadows do have another big perk… butterflies are everywhere! You also see some great frogs and other woodland creatures if you are lucky.

On my most recent visit, earlier this summer, I was disappointed by the obvious lack of trail maintenance of the woodland trail. Not only was vegetation overtaking the boardwalk, but the trail markers were all over the place. After tromping around in the woods with very little guidance, hoping the trail would become more clear, we made our way back, getting turned around more than once. Painted trail markers are far superior to the signs, which fall off trees, or get moved around. I know there has been a lot of rain and flooding in the area, but they should still try to maintain what they have, before it deteriorates further. Compare the difference between 2018 and 2019.

Another issue I have with the Onondaga Audubon is their website and that it lacks even a basic trail map for the Derby Hill Observatory. I know I did find one once, after some extensive googling, but it really shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t even think the map was on their website, but on another birder’s private site.

Despite the disappointment of my last visit, I will doubtless give Derby Hill another chance. It does provide a nice excuse for a stretch of the legs, and statistically, if I go enough times, I will get another view of my bald eagle.

Mill Creek Marsh – July

Another visit to Mills Creek Marsh in Secaucus, New Jersey. A warm day but not too hot, so we walked the whole loop. We were rewarded for our efforts, and I am not just talking about the treat we had at Panera afterward.

The dominant sensory experience throughout our walk was the Marsh Wrens calling to each other from every patch of tall reeds or bushes. There must have been hundreds of them. Spotting them however, presented a challenge. I did manage to spot a few, but they mostly eluded me. This soundtrack of the wetlands was interrupted occasionally with the call of the Red-Winged Blackbirds, not wanting to be left out or overshadowed.

As you might expect, we spotted Robins, Grey Catbirds, Swallows (probably tree), Mallards, a Tern (not sure which variety), a few House Sparrows and a Song Sparrow. There were many Canada Geese, some with goslings, and we saw several Mockingbirds, including a juvenile whose adult feathers hadn’t fully come in yet.

Snowy Egrets were the only stilted birds present. At 24 inches tall, they are much shorter than Great Egrets or Great Blue Herons. They also have longer feathers around their chests and the back of their heads, which, when added with their bright yellow beak and often weird postures, gives them a deranged almost Igor-like quality.

Besides our feathered friends, we saw a few butterflies fluttering and some dragonflies hovering. There were a pair of Painted Turtles on a log in the water. We also saw a Diamondback Terrapin Turtle, a first for us. She was backed over a small hole and I think she might have been laying eggs, or she was planning to until we came and stood over her. After a few photos at a safe distance we left her to it. I only hope our fellow walkers did the same. Diamondback Terrapins are listed as endangered or species of concern in many states, including New Jersey.

We also saw a very fat groundhog, who, despite his size was a quick runner.

Mill Creek Marsh (Secaucus)

One of my favorite places to take nature walks is Mill Creek Marsh. A one mile trail in a tidal wetland, Mill Creek Marsh offers both a chance to commune with nature and a stunning backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Another feature of the marsh that makes a visit here more unusual are the stumps that populate the water. The remains of a prehistoric forest of white cedar trees, today the rot resistant stumps provide platforms on which many of the waterbirds hunt from and rest on.

And boy are there water birds. This trail is never boring. Besides a wide variety of ducks, Canada Geese and Sea Gulls, the water is often populated with Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Tree Swallows, Dragonflies and Painted Turtles.

To me the big treat of visiting Mill Creek Marsh is getting to watch the many Snowy Egrets that hang out there. Smaller than a Great Egret (they stand about 24 inches to a Great Egret’s 38 inches), what the Snowy Egrets lack in stature they make up for in personality. The bright yellow on their face, contrasted with their black bill, seems to emphasize their jet black pupils in a sea of yellow eyeball. Where their eyes are interesting, the Snowy Egret’s plumes are sassy. They use them to fend off other Egrets in territory disputes and often puff them up when hunting. The Snowy Egret’s plumes were once an object of fashion leading to their population being over-hunted.

Smaller birds can also be found while walking here, in the reeds and cattails, or resting in one of the many trees that line the trail. Red-Winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens are common here, as are Northern Mockingbirds. The flashes of the Northern Mockingbirds wings can be seen with almost every rustle of leaves, but spotting them on a tree is also not difficult.

This park, like many in this area, is maintained by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Learn more about Mill Creek Marsh and the other twenty parks the Authority manages at https://www.njsea.com/parks-and-trails/ When driving to this park, beware your GPS navigation. The best way to make it to the trail head (and not the opposite side of the marsh, which has no entrance) is to navigate to Bob’s Discount Furniture in Secaucus. From there the trail parking and entrance is on the right of the store.

Celery Farms

One of the places where I take frequent walks is the Celery Farms in Allendale, New Jersey. Doubtless I will mention it again. And again. There are many reasons I keep returning to this site, not the least of which is it is quick and easy to get to, and a fairly short loop. There are also, according to the website, 240 species of birds recorded. And that is only birds. Besides our feathered friends, there are countless deer, squirrels, chipmunks, painted turtles, and snapping turtles who make this wetland their home. On one occasion I even saw what I think was an otter. Butterflies can also be found, depending on the season. Considering that you can peek through the leaves on the trees and see into the backyards of suburban New Jersey, this place is pretty wild.

Formerly a farm, this space was flooded to create a lake and wetland habitat, with a stream running along the trail on one side of the loop. The trail is about a mile and is muddy eight times out of ten. Flat and easy to walk, but watch out for tree roots. It is a pretty popular trail for walkers, joggers and other bird watchers so don’t expect to feel like the only human left on earth. That being said, the Preserve doesn’t allow boats, dogs or fishing, so it can be more peaceful than similar spaces.

Besides some well placed benches, there are also several observation platforms where one can get a good vantage point over the lake from various angles. One of the platforms even has benches when you get to the top, so hanging around to bird watch is pretty easy.

As you would expect in a wetland habitat, you will likely see Red-Winged Blackbirds, Great Egrets, Great Blue Heron, Tree Swallows, Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a variety of duck species.

In the wooded areas turkeys, robins, cardinals and a variety of sparrows are common and you usually hear the turkeys, and woodpeckers.

The smaller birds are often a bit harder to spot among the vegetation, but finches and chickadees are frequent visits, as well as a variety of warblers, if you are lucky to catch sight of one!

To find out more about the Celery Farms and to see a map of the Preserve, visit http://www.fykenature.org/celeryfarm.html