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.

Autumn in the Celery Farms

The Autumn is one of my favorite times to visit the Celery Farms. The air is usually crisp, the temperate is usually perfect for a leisurely stroll, and if you hit it just right, the trees around the lake just explode with color.

Taking advantage of a rare weekday off, I headed to the Celery Farms mid-morning and had it more to myself than I usually do. The weather and light couldn’t have been more perfect. I had all the time in the world, so I sat on benches, went up every platform and even made a second loop on the trail.

Waterfowl was the main attraction. There were all kinds of birds taking advantage of the water. Most prominent due to their size, were four Muted Swans, whose pure white was such a stunning contrast to the palette of colors behind them.

Canada Geese and Mallards were present, as they usually are, but with the aid of my telephoto lens I noticed that some of the ducks looked different, and their bills seemed longer. Once I got a good look at the male, I confirmed it, Northern Shovellers. It was really amazing I was able to see them at all, or their fronts at any rate. As soon as they got a breath of air, they were right back in the water, butts in the air. I can tell you, one duck butt looks much like the next.

Another smaller bird was also in the water. Swimming solo, it was so small my camera had trouble focusing on it. The largest challenge to photographing it was that it kept submerging and would pop up somewhere just beyond where I expected it to be. Quite the little swimmer. My photos didn’t come out as clear as I would have liked, but I am fairly certain it was a Pied-Billed Grebe.

Besides the water birds, I was able to spot several others as I made my way around the trail. One Robin even decided to pose for me, changing the position of his head back and forth like a supermodel in front of a lovely Autumn leaf backdrop. A Red-Bellied Woodpecker was likewise inclined.

While sitting on one of the platforms, a very fluffy and slightly frazzled looking Sparrow (Song Sparrow I think) was so intent of getting all the berries on the floor that he came right up by me. I couldn’t even photograph him with my lens, he was too close. We hung out together for quite a while. He wasn’t phased by my presence in the slightest. You could almost hear his inner monologue, “…eat the berries…there’s a berry! Eat the berry…need some more berries…there’s a berry!” as he zigzagged along the platform floor.

Some less common sightings for me on this particular walk were a female Ruby-Crowned Kinglet and a female Magnolia Warbler. I think both the decreased vegetation and my meandering pace helped me spot them, and both birds stayed in place long enough for a few nice shots.

A deer crossed my path as well. It wouldn’t be a day at the Celery Farms, no matter what season, if you didn’t see at least one deer.

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.

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.