Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve

Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve is another haven of wildlife that can be found in the midst of suburban New Jersey. Formerly a reservoir for the town of Haledon, this space became a Preserve in 2006. The dam is still in place, containing 75 acres of water. This location is the perfect recreation spot for boaters (kayaks or canoes) and fishing, which are both allowed here. Not as wild as some, this Nature Preserve provides a short loop path around the water and an opportunity to enjoy some wild birds from our area. To learn more about this Preserve, visit https://www.franklinlakes.org/flnp

Woodpeckers, Robins, Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds and other common forest birds can be found at the Franklin Lakes Preserve. However, for me, the serenity of the water is usually what dominates my attention. Waterfowl are in abundance here, and it is easy to spot Mallards and Canada Geese at any time of the year. Herons and Egrets are much rarer, but they can be found here as well.

However, it is the Mute Swans that I go here to see. There are always at least a pair of them, enjoying the serene waters and searching for aquatic vegetation along the edges of the water and in all the small bays and nooks of the shoreline. Aquatic vegetation actually makes up the majority of their diet, so if you ever see a swan with its beak in some algae, he isn’t hunting, he is munching. While they are majestic to watch, remember to keep your distance, especially during the breeding season, as Muted Swans are extremely aggressive.

Swans are somewhat famous for being monogamous, a romantic feature of their nature which has been referenced frequently in popular culture, including HBO’s the Tudors. While monogamy in birds can vary depending on the species (some only mating for a season) Muted Swan’s mate for life and (this is what pop culture has gripped onto) supposedly when one of the pair dies, the other Muted Swan will not find a new mate. Rather, it is believed it spends the rest of his/her life alone, pining for its lost love. While romantic, this seems unlikely as it would not be great for the survival of the species.

During the breeding season, you can spot the Muted Swan’s nest close to the waterline. In Franklin Lakes Nature Preserve they like some of the smaller little “islands” by the main shoreline. The female sticks pretty close to the nest during incubation, on the couple’s 4-8 eggs. They only have one brood a year, so early spring is the best time to see their nesting behavior and to get a peek at their fuzzy little gray youngsters.

An Autumn Morning on Sandy Hook

Like most sane humans that live near a beach, we obviously never visit the Jersey Shore in the summer. Never may be an exaggeration, but once or twice is usually our limit. The traffic alone will kill you. And this is New Jersey drivers we are talking about, so I mean literally, kill you. Once you get there, the beaches are too busy for nature watching anyway.

That is why we usually go to the beach either in early spring or autumn/winter. In winter the cold, salty sea air does the trick if you need to blow out a few cobwebs. It was one such morning last November when my husband and I headed to Sandy Hook, one of our go-to Jersey Shore destinations. The site of Fort Hancock and its associated army barracks, Sandy Hook is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area that features hikes, beaches and nature, along with the oldest lighthouse in New Jersey, historic structures from the barracks and, as my mother in-law once put it, “war thingies,” such as powder magazines, gun batteries etc. So you can probably see why we like Sandy Hook, it has a bit of everything.

This particular November day was cool but not freezing. Clear and bright. Perfect for a brisk ramble on the sand. I honestly wasn’t even really expecting to see a ton of birds, but you never know what sea birds you may see, so we brought the camera along. Sandy Hook, because of the way it is positioned in the Atlantic Ocean and at the mouth of the Hudson River, is a great place for collecting whole seashells. I have a hard time not glancing down at the tidal lines on the beach in search of treasures. A sea urchin, bits of coral and whole crab shells are just some of the more unusual items I have combed on this particular beach.

However, it is actually horseshoe crabs that Sandy Hook is known for. They sell postcards of dozens of them piled up on the beach together and you can often find pieces of their shells in the sand. Atlantic Horseshoe crabs are interesting creatures, actually related to scorpions and spiders rather than crabs. Apparently their blood is used to test medicines, which is pretty unusual. However, I think that one of the more interesting things about them is that they shed or molt their shell when they are growing. They do this throughout their lives, and it is a slow and dangerous process, leaving them vulnerable to predators while they are shell-less. Here is a video showing the process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJr-CQGQYg4 We decided to dig up one of the larger pieces of crab shell we saw sticking out of the sand, and ended up unearthing a very large, complete shell. General rule is that shells with no legs were probably shed, so don’t worry about the crab. However, this one is so big, I am not sure if it was still growing or if its legs and other bits were lunch for a willing seagull.

The biggest group of birds we saw on the beach was a very large flock of Sea Gulls. New Jersey has several Gulls that live on our shore line, the most common being the Ring-Billed Gull, the Herring Gull, Laughing Gulls (with black heads) and the Great Black-Backed Gull. However, especially in the non-breeding months, none of these birds are too picky about their friends and you can see them in large mixed flocks. Many of the juveniles of these species look similar to each other, complicating identification, especially to the naked eye. Their antics were very entertaining and there was one juvenile who was tying to look for food along the waterline without getting wet. He wasn’t very successful but his behavior had a Charlie Chaplin quality to it.

Besides the gulls, the ocean was densely populated with Black Scoter, both males and females. These ducks were swimming just far enough from the beach that it wasn’t easy to get a great look at them with the naked eye, but the photos came out pretty clear, despite the fact that they were bobbing around in the waves. Summering in the Canadian Arctic, the Black Scoter spends its winters along the Atlantic seaboard and is very content to remain in the rough sea. As the name implies, the male Black Scoter is all black, but the female has some gray to her black feathers. The male also has a raised yellow knob on the back of his beak, where it connects to his face. The female’s beak is totally black.

We then crossed the path and the road to the bay side of the peninsula, which proved to be just as exciting. Swallows and Song Sparrows were zipping about, and singing to us from the telephone wires. A Northern Mockingbird decided to challenge us, “who goes there?!” from his vantage point in a bush along the path. A Great Blue Heron flew off into the sky and several deer were wandering about, foraging for something to eat among the bushes and weeds.

The bay was also sheltering a very large flock of Brant. Smaller than Canada Geese by at least ten inches, Brant geese have a black, grey and white body, with no brown. They have a white marking on their throats, called a “collar” which looks like a handkerchief tied around their necks, wider in front and thinning toward the back of their heads. Another summer resident of Canada, the Brant winters along the Atlantic coast.

Sandy Hook is a great place to experience nature regardless of the season. The combination of river and ocean, bay and beach allow for a great variety of wildlife to thrive here. Some of the large nests we saw along the beach promised some interesting spring residents. Regardless of the season, I highly recommend it to nature lovers, history lovers and day trippers. If you want to learn more about Sandy Hook, visit their website at https://www.nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/sandy-hook-hours.htm

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.