The light ahead of me hops from green to yellow to red. Eye to brain to foot to brakes to wheels. The truck eases to a halt. I'm sort of half in both lanes, but it doesn't matter. Early morning is not the time for difficult decisions, like deciding between the left and the right. The light is green again. I push a cassette in the tape deck and crack the window a bit.
"Churry churry churry," I am bearing right onto Hardscrabble Road. Kentucky warbler, I am thinking, a nice bird. I wonder if they'll nest this year. The truck keeps rolling. Up a hill and around a bend, a little weave here and there. It is important to choose between left and right now; when my pickup passes another on Hardscrabble Road, only the width of a reflection separates the mirrors.
The Passaic River appears on my right. If you think you know the Passaic River, you must come see this Passaic River. This Passaic River is a babbling stream with native brook trout in it that feed on the abundant stone and caddis flies (also native). Upstream, showy orchids are blooming. Three plants this year. according to local birder-botanist Steve Ozard, who likes to keep track of these things.
I negotiate the right-angle bend at the bottom of the still-chained Hoffman driveway and turn right into the Scherman parking lot. I check my watch. 5:15 a.m. No sun yet, but I'm pretty sure it's coming.
." Louisiana waterthrush, traditionally the first warbler on territory in the spring. I press "rewind" on the tape deck, then "play." The high, long, and fast song of a winter wren bursts from the speaker next to my left Nike. Ooops! Rewound too far. Winter wrens pass mouse-like through Scherman-Hoffman's floodplains and forests in March and April. This is May 7.
I shut the stereo off, and as I step out of my truck, I'm greeted by a spectacular dawn chorus. For the next few hours the birds will be live, and there will be plenty to challenge and delight my eyes and ears.
The Scherman-Hoffman Sanctuaries are a New Jersey wildlife heaven, a heaven of hardwood forest, fields, floodplains, and streams at the very edge of New Jersey's Highlands. This particular section of the Highlands, more popularly known as the Somerset Hills, lies in extreme northeastern Somerset County. The hills, formed with the rest of the Highlands in the Pre-Cambrian era about 500 million years ago, reach 600 feet above sea level; the lowest elevation at the sanctuaries is 310 feet. Scattered boulders and rock outcroppings evidence the Wisconsin glaciation of 10,000 years ago; a cluster of such boulders provided a nest cave for a pair of turkey vultures last year.
Even better than having a wildlife heaven is having an abundance of it. The twin sanctuaries' property totals more than 250 acres, and abuts on an important 1000-acre neighbor: Morristown National Historic Park. There are also private tracts of undeveloped land bordering the sanctuaries and the national park. Thus, close to Morristown and easily accessible via Route 287, lies a 1500-acre home for wildlife that needs the privacy these acres offer--wildlife like the pileated woodpecker, symbol of Scherman-Hoffman Sanctuaries, or like wild turkeys, which gobbled at the sanctuaries in spring 1986, and may yet nest here.
The land now comprising the sanctuaries was donated to the New Jersey Audubon Society in parcels beginning with the donation of 120 acres and two buildings in 1965 by Mr. and Mrs. Harry K. Scherman. G. F. Hoffman added adjacent parcels in 1973 and 1975, and in 1981 the Hoffman building and grounds were bequeathed to the society. The imposing two-story Hoffman house, built in 1929, is now the center of sanctuary operations, housing offices, museum, bookstore, and rooms for programs. The old Scherman Museum is used for school classes while the former Scherman house provides quarters for the sanctuary director.
The changing seasons and 250 acres of varied habitat attract people to the sanctuaries at all times of the year. They come to paint, to photograph, to botanize, to see deer, to cross-country ski. They hike, they sit, they contemplate. Summer flowers and butterflies, autumn foliage, winter snow...and spring? In spring, they come for the birds.
It starts with a trickle in February. Just when I'm sure the month is never going to end (thank God it only has twenty-eight days), we get a flight of robins and red-winged blackbirds, with grackles close behind. Fox sparrows check in at the feeders in the first week of March. In mid-March, the bluebirds that sometimes spend their winters along the sanctuaries' floodplains begin selecting nest boxes in the Hoffman fields. At about this time, golden-crowned kinglets and a few myrtle (yellow-rumped) and pine warblers usually appear. Eastern phoebe is calling along the Scherman Nature Trail by the twenty-fifth. In late March there are hawks overhead, rusty blackbirds along the streams, and winter wrens passing heard but unseen in the undergrowth. Field sparrows begin singing. The pace is building.
April--hallelujah! Trout lily and bloodroot bloom. Louisiana waterthrush is on territory along Indian Grave Brook by the second week of April. Common loons and snow geese pass overhead. As early as the twentieth we get a mini-flight. The early comers, arriving on nearly the same day, include palm, black-and-white, and blue-winged warblers, solitary vireo, house wren, and chipping sparrow. Broad-winged hawks are seen daily now over the Hoffman fields; they nest in the area every year.
Then it happens. On one of the last days of April or the first days of May we get warm, southerly winds from an approaching low pressure system. A cold front to the north will not reach the sanctuaries until early the following morning. Passerines 50 to 200 miles to the south become restless. Just after dark, they ascend 500 to 3000 feet and put the wind behind them. Driven by changes in gland activity brought on by the lengthening spring days, these birds will fly all night. Mostly, they will fly along; occasionally small groups form, held together by reassuring call notes. I suppose birds, like people, flock together for comfort.
At 4:00 a.m. the birds meet the cold front. Northerly winds and rain force them down en masse. Many just make it to the wooded hills rising in front of them. The Somerset Hills.
New Jersey Audubon's own Scherman-Hoffman sanctuaries in Bernardsville provide one of the best locations in New Jersey to observe the spring landbird migration. Why? Because the sanctuaries provide a large parcel of high quality habitat for migrating birds looking to make a stopover. Expanses of quality habitat are, as all NJAS members are aware, becoming scarce in New Jersey.
A look at the counts from the last two World Series of Birding gives an idea of just how good the sanctuaries are in spring. On Big Day, May 1986, two teams visited the sanctuaries on their runs and produced a combined warbler total of twenty-seven species. As one team member said, "Warblers were dripping from the trees." On Big Day, 16 May 1987, virtually every team in the World Series stopped at Scherman-Hoffman. These are the best birders in the country, now; they don't choose their "dickey bird" stops randomly.
You don't need a cold front to see lots of birds at Scherman-Hoffman. Any night in May with southerly winds will bring migrants, and arriving birds may stay for several days to feed before continuing north. The sanctuaries don't slouch in the breeding bird department either, with sixty plus species nesting annually. Pileated woodpecker; eastern bluebird; worm-eating, cerulean, Kentucky, hooded, and chestnut-sided warblers; plus acadian flycatcher are some of the most interesting breeders. Virtually any New Jersey spring migrant land bird can be seen at Scherman-Hoffman. Generally, May brings several twenty-plus warbler days, and one or two with twenty-four or more. In late May, mourning warbler and olive-sided flycatcher usually appear, not to mention abundant newborn fawns.
take Exit 30B. From the exit ramp go a short distance to the light by the Old Mill Inn, at the Intersection of Route 202. Proceed straight ahead through the light onto Childs Road. Go 0.2 miles and bear right onto Hardscrabble Road. We are about 1 mile down on the right-hand side. The Hoffman Building is on the right up the hill. To reach the Scherman parking lot, continue past the driveway around the curve to the left. The Scherman parking lot is the next right.
take Tempe Wick Road 1.9 miles to Ledell Road and turn right (there is no sign for Ledell Road -- it is by a waterfall). Follow Ledell Road 1.7 miles to Hardscrabble Road and turn left. Proceed approximately 1 mile to the Scherman parking lot entrance on the left. The main driveway to the Hoffman Sanctuary building is past the Scherman parking lot on the left, up the hill.
There are many ways to explore Scherman-Hoffman, but for the best looks at birds it is important to get there early. There are several reasons for this. First, birds are simply most active and most vocal just after dawn. Vocal is important, because many of the birds will be high in the trees or low in the undergrowth and can be tracked down only if they are singing. Knowing individual songs is very useful, but not necessary. Steve Ozard, a Scherman-Hoffman regular, finds his birds without their songs. One of the things that makes Scherman-Hoffman especially good in spring is that you can see the birds as well as hear them either by watching them feed along the streams or by climbing the hills to get above them.
The second reason for getting there early has to do with insects. Virtually all May migrants feed partially or wholly on insects, but before the sun gets high insects are lethargic and difficult to find. The birds have been flying all night and need food, so they concentrate at the places where the insects are active first thing in the morning: woodland edges exposed to the rising, warming sun, and stream corridors, where insects hatched from the water are abundant. Later on, when the insects are active everywhere, the birds disperse to feed, making them more difficult to find and see.
The third reason for an early arrival at Scherman-Hoffman has to do with time-crazed commuters. Hardscrabble Road provides excellent birding where it bisects Scherman-Hoffman, until about 7:30 a.m. At that time, the road becomes a narrow, high-speed commuter highway where you don't want to stand looking up into the trees through binoculars. If you arrive by 6:30, you can cover the areas along the road early and then move away from it by rush hour.
After birding around the Scherman parking area and along Hardscrabble Road, I usually take the Dogwood Trail to the Hoffman Fields [Ed. Note: Trail maps are available in the book store]. The woodland finger between the upper and lower fields is often alive with birds, especially on cloudy or rainy days. The apple orchard and the area right around the Hoffman building are also very good; watch for deer in the orchard as well. By 10:00 a.m. things die down, but before you leave be sure to visit the Bird Room and the Book Store in the Hoffman building, where there is a sightings book to record what you've seen.
(Reprinted from New Jersey Audubon magazine, Spring 1988)
From Route 24 in Mendham,
From Route 287 North or South,
"Tew tew tew tew-twitter