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Princeton's Institute Woods

A place doesn't have to be wild or geographically isolated to make it special. It doesn't have to be unknown to be overlooked. There are places that you pass every day that are made invisible by routine. And, they are vessels of magic lacking, perhaps, some natural catalyst in order to be transformed.

You've seen it happen. A place you've looked at a thousand times before and suddenly, its beautiful. Maybe it's just the play of shadows or a trick of sunlight. Sometimes the magic requires the touch of an ice storm or the cold light of the moon to catch and hold your eye. And sometimes the magic of a place is temporal, unfolding for a short span of days (invisible except to those who know when to look).

The Institute Woods is like that. Four hundred acres of woodland, steeped in the stately lassitude of Princeton, that comes alive each spring with wave after wave of migrating birds. Spring means migration and spring migration means warbler migration--brightly colored bundles of quicksilver. For three weeks, the limbs of trees whose lives outspan the sleeping memories of the oldest don come alive. The names Institute Woods and Spring Warblers are one.

But why?

There was a time when a gray squirrel could run from Hoboken to Pennsauken and never touch the ground. That time is gone. First, the forests were felled, the land plowed and planted. Pockets of woodland survived on untillable hilltops, but a burgeoning population whittled them away, too. Land in New Jersey is simply too valuable to be left to trees (and it isn't). Trees don't vote, they don't file suit, and falling down isn't much of a defense against a chain saw.

"Now wait a minute," the developers object, "that's not fair. What about the Pine Barrens? Prime, developable land just sitting there doing nothing.!"

"Protected," one adds (as an afterthought). "Ask them," the developers say, gesturing toward the smiling group of politicians.

"Yes, that's right," the politicians agree happily. "Protected forever. It will belong to you, the people, and to your children for as long as the sun and the moon rise and fall."

One coughs discretely and adds, "Unless, of course, it interferes with the public good." Everyone smiles.

Several ghostly figures wearing beads, blankets, and moccasins (and hardly visible in the smoke rising from their pipes) grimace and nod sadly. They'd heard it before.

 

And the Pine Barrens is special, marvelously special, but it doesn't meet all needs for all wildlife. Birds and mammals and insects adapted for oak and pine forest do well in the barrens. Animals whose lives are melded to another habitat type avoid it as if it weren't even there. What good is pine forest to a wood turtle, a sturgeon, or a Black-throated Blue Warbler?

Back before a gray squirrel ever saw a surveyor's stake, North Jersey was one big oak, beach, and hickory forest. In late April and into May, the oaks came to flower, attracting a host of nectar-feeding insects. At precisely this time, the wood warblers (and other species of migratory birds) began filtering through the northeast, leaving the tropical forests where they wintered and heading toward the Canadian-zone forests to breed.

Migration is energy sapping, so warblers are forced to forage as they go, and they are insect-eating birds. Three hundred years ago, a Black-throated Blue Warbler could pick and choose a landing site anywhere over the green expanse of treetops that was New Jersey. Now they have to hunt and seek. The Institute Woods in Princeton is an island of how North Jersey was. For thousands of migrating birds, it is the first major hardwood stand north of the barrens and west of the ocean--a place to rest and feed.

Spring warbler watching is not just birding. It is a social phenomenon, a ritual, a happening like sugar off in Vermont or the opening day of trout season in Pennsylvania. People who never lift binoculars at any other time of year "X" out their Saturday mornings in May and join thousands of kindred souls searching for treasure in the treetops. You can find them in Central Park, New York, in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, and in Point Pele, Ontario, but in New Jersey, the place to look is Princeton, Mecca on the warbler mainline. Over 190 species of birds have been seen in the woods and adjoining Rogers Wildlife Refuge.

On a typical Saturday, cars line both sides of West Drive, leading to the pumping station (now the Charles Rogers Wildlife Refuge). Necks crane skyward, and high overhead the canopy vibrates with the frenetic movement of feeding warblers--Tennessees, Blackpolls, Parulas, Cape Mays, and the flame-throated Blackburnians. Lower, in the understory, there are Canada Warblers (with their bold, staring spectacles), licorice-striped Black-and-whites, elegant Black-throated Blues, and flashing male Redstarts (the bird whose coal-black and crimson pattern gave rise to its Spanish name, the "little torch"). Hugging the ground, leaving no niche unfilled, are Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes and skulking Kentuckys; later in the season, sounding the death knell of spring migration, is the elusive wraith of the shadows, the Mourning Warbler.

Beginning birders study their field guides and work out identifications point by point. Veterans rely mostly on ears finely tuned over the course of seasons; they sift through the myriad of songs and calls for... "There! Got it? Cerulean Warbler. Hear how they push that last note up the scale?" Or... "Hey, wait a minute. That's not a Chipping Sparrow; too breathy. Worm-eating Warbler--has to be."

Many birders simply work the main road (as good a spot as any on a good "fallout"). Others take to the woods by moving along a labyrinth of paths.

The peak warbler weekend (the sages will tell you ) is the second in the month (or perhaps the third)--whichever weekend brushes closest to the magic date, May 15. But during the May period, weather is really the determining factor. Warblers move up the Atlantic Seaboard in pulses--waves, as they are called. Waves ride the crest of a warm front coming up from the south (usually running just ahead of a cold front moving into our area out of Canada). On the morning after a "flight-night" (most of these birds migrate at night), Princeton may be saturated with warblers. But it's best not to get jaded by such wealth. The very next day (after the cold front passes), the trees will hold only a fraction of the previous day's birds.

Rain is not necessarily a detriment. Some of the best warbler fallouts occur on rainy days, because rain usually precedes a cold front and because warblers remain more active and more vocal later in the morning on rainy days.

It is possible to see as many as thirty species of warblers in a single day (though no single individual has ever achieved this mark--twenty-nine is the one-day record for an individual). Any number over twenty-five is considered exceptional. Waves of birds can pass through as early as the last week in April and as late as the first weekend in June. Binoculars are a must, field guides invaluable, and a notebook useful. One other item that will come in handy at the end of your morning at the Institute Woods is a heating pad to combat the discomfort of "warbler-neck," one of the hazards associated with watching warblers in the woods that are an island of the way New Jersey used to be.

One of the moccasin-shod figures lays his pipe aside and reaches into the folds of his blanket. His hand emerges holding a pair of Zeiss 7x42s. He trains them on a hyperkinetic bundle of feathers moving overhead and he grunts his approval.

 

"Wha'cha got Frank?" the second figure inquires.

 

"Female Bay-breasted," he replies (not bothering to drop his glasses).

 

"Oh, yeah?" his companion says with heightened interest. "I need Bay-breast for my year list. Where?"

 

A group from the Montclair Bird Club passes the reclining figures without taking any notice. After all, they're just watching birds. Nothing unusual about that.

 

Directions:

 

To reach the Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge (which lies just east and is adjacent to the Institute Woods) take Route 206 south out of Princeton. Lover's Lane (yeah, really, Lover's Lane) is a left turn 0.7 miles from the intersection of 206 and Nassau Street.

Lover's Lane becomes Olden Lane. The end of Olden Lane is heralded with a sign that reads "No Exit." Turn left onto Hardin Road. At the "T" intersection, turn right onto a dirt road. A large parking area is on your left 0.1 miles down (capacity approximately forty cars). You may park here or continue to a fork in the road (bear right) and continue to the road leading to the Elizabethtown Water Company. A second parking are (limit nine cars) is located 0.2 miles beyond the first parking area, near an observation tower. Parking is tight during peak migration period (the lots and roadsides fill). You would be advised to arrive early (and early, as it is interpreted in birding circles, means shortly after dawn).

The Refuge may also be reached from West Drive off Alexander Street. Watch for the sign to the Elizabethtown Water Company.

Birding commences as soon as you leave the car. After a good warbler fallout, birds will be everywhere. The road leading to the waterworks is quite good--it is open enough to provide good looks at treetop birds. On your right there is a foot trail, marked by a gate, that leads into the Institute Woods, or you may walk the length of the road down to the waterworks and take one of several trails leading through several habitat types. The Stonybrook trail (which runs along the course of the stream) is particularly enjoyable and, from a birding standpoint, productive.

Suggestions:

 

Plan to arrive early and make a morning of it. Bird (and birding) activity tapers off after midmorning. Birds will become active again just before dark, but vespers birding lacks the flash and dash of a morning in May. Dress for temperatures that will be cooler than you think, but apply the old "layer" rule because May sunshine will raise the mercury past the comfort threshold of a down jacket.

Bird the sunny side of the trees first (insects and insect-eating birds will be more active there). Bo in under the canopy later.

Seven-power binoculars excel in this type of birding (wide field, lots of light, close focus capacity for birding in tight places). The good old Peterson Field Guide probably gets the nod over other fine guides for the Institute Woods brand of birding, not only because of its patented simplicity but because Dr. Peterson has always been a songbird man at heart (and his affection for passerines is betrayed by his text).

But if something that is green with wingbars and tail spots just won't stay still long enough to hang a name on it, why not ask another birder for some help. Open camaraderie is an established birding ethic. You needn't feel intimidated or embarrassed. Just remember, an expert is only a beginner who has been at it longer than you have.

--Pete Dunne

(Reprinted from New Jersey Audubon magazine, Spring 1986)