Having been under-wowed, and cold, on a winter walk in Richard W. DeKorte Park, my expectations for Mills Creek Marsh in the winter were extremely low. However, I should have realized that Mills Creek Marsh is more sheltered from the bitter winds we encountered in Lyndhurst. Therefore a few more birds seem to shelter here in the winter. Regardless of the number of animals we encountered, the frozen landscape at the Marsh is also much more interesting, with the tree stumps planted in the ice covered water.
We spotted many of the winter residents we expected to see, Mallards,
Canada Geese and Ring-Billed Gulls. They all seemed to be managing
with the icy water. There was enough of a current that some of the
water was still flowing ice free and many of these birds had turned
the icy patches into a shortcut, walking across the ice with the ease
of a figure skater.
One Mallard was so impressed by my camera that he stopped his march across the ice to pose for me. He turned his body and his head several times, holding the pose just like a runway model, complete with attitude. I took several great photos, but the one I selected below I think expresses his personality the best.
The lack of vegetation on the surrounding trees also allowed us to
get a good look at a few feathered friends that we know are at the
Marsh, but don’t usually see so clearly. A very cold and fuzzy
Northern Mockingbird was trying to get some shelter in the branches
of a naked tree. He kept his eye on us, but decided we weren’t so
scary that he needed to hi-tail it. A female Northern Cardinal also
showed herself to us. She took a high open vantage point in a pine
tree, and while she was looking around, I moved a bit closer and took
The water in the Marsh also flows on the outer edge of the trail and
in the winter that water seems less prone to freezing. While taking a
few more photos of the Canada Geese and the Mallards, I noticed a
different duck that I had never seen before. He was a Green-Winged
Teal. According to my New Jersey book he should have been migrating
thorough this area in the Autumn, but it was definitely winter and he
seemed pretty content. I don’t think he had received the memo. The
Green-Winged Teal’s chestnut brown head has a vibrant patch of
green. A matching patch of green on his wing (as his name implies) is
harder to see when swimming.
The Mills Creek Marsh trails are a must visit in winter.
I want to take the time in this post to talk about a less respected bird, the Canada Goose. Most people choose to write off the Canada Goose as a nuisance. They make a mess in parks and nature preserves. They don’t tend to be friendly, especially in the spring. They don’t have a nice song, and they aren’t pretty to look at. So what’s to like?
Perhaps one of the reasons they aren’t liked is that they are not native to many of the places they now call home. However, despite making the invasive species website- which was somewhat akin to America’s most wanted for our animal friends- being invasive was not really their idea. It is hard to believe today, but the geese population was actually failing in the 1950s. Because of this decline, they were moved to urban and suburban areas where they would not naturally have occurred. They have now thrived in those areas for generations, creating the overpopulation problem we are familiar with today.
Due to the abundance of Canada Geese in my area, I have had a lot of
opportunity to photograph them and observe them closely. I think that
they have a strength and an intelligence that I truly admire. They
also have strong family ties. They are, and this is incredibly
impressive, adaptable. One of the reasons we see so many Canada Geese
is that they have learned to live in many different situations.
Apparently, Canada Goose identification can actually be more of a challenge than you would think. They are several subspecies, no doubt a result of that adaptability in their nature. All are basically the same to the untrained eye, with the black head and neck, a gray-brown body and white highlights on the chin and backside. Most measure about 36-46 inches, making them much bigger than most ducks but not quite the size of a swan.
One of nature’s first signs of Autumn, the Canada Goose’s V- formation is iconic. The V is also symbolic of the strong family and group ties these geese have. Like Muted Swans and several other waterfowl, Canada Geese mate for life. They also have strong attachment to their nesting locations, and return or remain in the same territory every year. A pair will only have one brood a year, in a nest located near the water. They can have anywhere from five to ten eggs, which incubate for about a month. According to PETA, parent geese can communicate with goslings while they are still in the egg, but I didn’t find any other reference to this in my research. Both parents watch and teach their young for about two months.
In the non-breeding months, Canada Geese join a larger flock or community. They are very protective and territorial all year round, but this is particularly true when they have young or eggs. While other members of the flock search for the aquatic plants, insects, seeds, crustaceans, or berries which make up a goose’s diet, one member of the flock stands guard. The sentinel is easy to spot, usually the only one with its head up, searching the area like the periscope on a submarine. Upon the approach of danger, he or she will honk a warning to the others. The protective nature of Canada Geese extends to the sick or injured birds within a flock, whom the Geese will protect until death or recovery. Suffice it to say, community spirit runs strong in the Canada Goose. And they are very orderly. They always cross the street in a straight, line. A few times I could have sworn the leader looked both ways before starting across!
That is not to say that their overpopulation is not a problem. Human feeding, among other factors, has encouraged too many geese to reside in parks and other recreational areas. In these places they lack many natural predators and can have an impact on the water and vegetation through both their presence and microbes in their feces. An overabundance of Canada Geese has had a negative impact on many wetland habitats in particular.
One human attempt to control the rampant numbers of Canada Geese is through licensed hunting. In New Jersey geese can be hunted in the Fall. And yes, you can eat Canada goose. If you are interested in recipes, this might be a good website to check: https://honest-food.net/cooking-my-goose/ But even hunting Canada geese is more complicated that it first appears. New Jersey lies in the flight path of several different groups of Canada Geese. The New Jersey DEP Fish and Wildlife have identified three separate populations of Canada Geese: Atlantic Population, North Atlantic Population and Resident Population (no-migratory). Of these three, the Resident population is the group that has fewer natural predators however, hunting birds that live in suburban and urban areas creates problems. Hunting regulations have been designed to target the groups with highest populations. Bag and time limits are determined based on the variable populations of the migratory groups.
Outside of hunting seasons, some communities, including Greenwood Lake, have conducted culls against the geese populations in the past. In 2019 they canceled their cull for alternative, humane measures including noise, lasers and dogs. Egg addling, or stopping the grown of embryos younger than fourteen days is another method employed to keep the population down. I don’t envy those who undertake these measures, especially as the Humane Society’s Canada Goose addling guide warns “addling active nests is not a solo activity.”
So there you have it, the Canada Goose. Far to complex to fit into a nutshell. Tenacious creatures with endearing family instincts that happen to be overpopulating our parks due in part to first human intervention and human encouragement.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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
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!