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Hudson County Park

City parks were designed as oases for people. Hudson County Park in Bayonne is such an oasis--an invaluable asset to the 80,000 residents, who live in closely spaced one- and two-family homes around it.

We know the park as county property, within the city limits of Bayonne, New Jersey. It is, just as properly, a piece of the East Coast of North America, at the mouth of the Hackensack and Hudson River estuaries. Rectangular in shape, the park is similar in design to Central Park in New York City. It is sixteen blocks long, north to south, extending from 48th Street down to 36th Street, East to West, it extends a few blocks in width from Kennedy Boulevard to Newark Bay. The park is divided lengthwise into two distinct areas. The western half, at sea level, consists of playing fields, with a running track at the south end. Midway down this half is a small pond. The eastern half of the park is about twenty feet higher in elevation and consists of widely spaced mature hardwood plantings; various oaks, yellow poplar, sweet gum, and Norway maple with very little understory. Between the two halves, a shrubby slope extends the length of the park.

Not only an oasis for people, the park also serves as a refuge for birds, containing a living history, written in the patterns of bird migration, visible to any who care to look. As birds trace their patterns across the continent, they pass directly through the heart of the city, and these tracings are among the few ties that bind the city dweller to the land.

Hudson County Park is a good place to observe spring and fall bird movements. From March through May, local residents can step into the park for an hour or so before work and keep abreast of the spring migration. The first fox sparrows, kinglets and sapsuckers of the year can be spotted here. During the third week of April, the pine warbler can invariably be found foraging through a particular Austrian pine, located in the upper section of the park, next to the flagpole.

Each morning, from mid-April through mid-May, several common loons come in off the ocean near Lower New York Bay, pass directly over the park on a northwest bearing, and head for the Great Lakes and Canada beyond. How many local residents can recall these birds from some past summer vacation in the Canadian woods? Do they know that these same loons are flying right by their kitchen windows, while they eat their breakfasts in Bayonne?

By early May, pockets of warblers begin to appear. The best strategy for finding them is to walk through the wooded upper half of the park until you locate the flock. On one or two days in May, a real fallout can produce up to twenty-one species of migrant warblers. A few days may yield fourteen to sixteen species, and on days when there seem to be no birds in the park, eight to twelve species can be found with a little patience.

Certain warblers are rare here. After ten years of observation, golden-winged warbler was seen for the first time last year [Ed. Note: Publication Date Spring 1990]. The yellow-throated warbler has turned up three or four times during the last week of April or the first week of May. Worm-eating warbler, not easily found in migration, has occasionally been seen in the treetops. Finding a hooded or cerulean warbler is a rare treat.

Since the park consists of widely spaced trees without an understory, any birds present are conspicuous, a definite advantage when searching for secretive or skunking species, like the gray-cheeked thrush. This boreal species is a regular in the park during the third and fourth weeks of May. It can be found in the lower branches of the trees, along with its look alike, the Swainson's thrush. The ratio of Swainson's to gray-cheeked in the park is about seven to one, and the birds must be seen in good light to distinguish them.

Lincoln's sparrow, another skulker, is a possible find throughout May on the shrubby slope. Yellow-breasted chat and mourning warbler have been seen on several occasions, foraging along the lower branches of the trees or along the shrubby slope.

Most of these birds pass through the park and out again within the course of a single day, but a few stay longer. One year, two warbling vireos settled in the plane trees at the southwest corner of the park. They sang incessantly for over a week, until, unrequited, they left the park in search of new opportunities. Immature orchard orioles have roamed in the park for several days, before wandering off elsewhere.

Other interesting spring migrants have included flyover upland sandpipers and golden plovers. Summer tanagers are occasional. Last year, a new bird for the park was American woodcock; flushed out of the park, it was last seen flying up Kennedy Boulevard.

The small pond in the lower section attracts swallows, kingfishers, and green herons. Least terns, which nest across the bay, often fish here. This is also the preferred habitat for yellow warblers and northern waterthrushes.

The fall migration brings all the regular migrants and a few special one. The autumn birds concentrate along the brushy slope. This limited habitat has attracted mourning and Connecticut warblers in September, and a variety of sparrows in October. Western kingbird has been seen once. If the water level is low in the pons, shorebirds will appear in small numbers.

November and December bring in the ducks. It is remarkable that the greater scaup, which nests along the coastal wilderness of western Alaska, flies completely across North America to its favorite winter home, Newark Bay. Several hundred canvasbacks arrive at the same time from their summer home in Saskatchewan. These two species are perhaps the most conspicuous birds in the park from late fall to early spring. Canvasbacks, among the handsomest of the ducks, often raft as close as ten feet from the shore, offering excellent photo opportunities. Most of the duck species that occur in nearby Liberty State Park in winter can also be seen by overlooking Newark Bay from Hudson County Park.

The best time to visit the park, spring or fall, is in the early morning. In May, the birds seem to materialize out of nowhere around 7:00 a.m. Usually an hour and a half to two hours is enough to get an idea of what is there, but on a good day on entire morning can be profitable.

The park starts to get crowded on weekends by 8:30 a.m., but weekdays are pleasantly quiet all morning. It is a safe place to be, the only other people in the park being a few walkers, joggers, cyclists, and mothers with baby carriages.

Every good place to watch birds is special in its own way. The setting in which we see the bird is as important to the experience as the bird identification. The golden eagle glides across our line of sight along the Kittatinny Ridge in November, sweeping out an arc across the continent, and in our mind's eye we can see clear to the Rocky Mountains. At Sandy Hook, we sense the birds hugging the coast on their way to the north woods. In a city park, when birds stop to rest, the world within the city meets the world without, and we realize that man and nature are indeed one. Our place is their place, and for a moment, our view of the horizon is unobstructed by the buildings around us.

To reach Hudson County Park, take the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 14A. Proceed straight out of the toll plaza down Avenue E, make a right at 48th Street, and go four blocks to the north entrance of the park.

--John A. Holinka

(Reprinted from New Jersey Audubon magazine, Spring 1990)