By Margo D. Beller
It's February, and that means snow lies heavy throughout New Jersey. At Scherman Hoffman’s Field Loop Extension trail, it covers the path and the roots of the grasses like a thick blanket. (The picture below is of another part of Scherman Hoffman, taken a few years ago.)
It's too early to expect the three-petaled flowers of April-blooming White Trillium, much less the later May-Apple, Jack-In-The-Pulpit or the Bunchberry.
No, for now about the best we can expect is the skunk cabbage (pictured below). This is the perennial leafy plant you see along stream banks and in boggy areas of the woods. It is the first plant to start growing, in March, helped in large part by its unusual internal chemistry that heats the ground around it and melts the snow.
Now you don't see it, now you do - in droves.
It's a good plant for holding soil that would otherwise erode because of the water flow, and it has even become a popular ornamental garden plant despite the odor that gives it its name. The plant is poisonous to mammals, including us, so planting it in gardens near other plants you want to protect is helpful. Its tiny flowers attracts bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.
The cabbage is a welcome sight when you are tired of snow and white and desperate to see anything growing. It signals we got through another winter.
There are other signs in this dead season that life is waiting to burst upon the scene.
My houseplants have started to flower because of the slowly lengthening days. Daffodils and other early-blooming plants I planted in the garden had poked their noses above the ground during the unusual – for that time of year – warmth of December and January. Then came the blizzard at the end of January, putting the plants under several feet of snow.
The blanket slowly melted over the next few days as above-normal temperatures returned; then came the heavy rain that dumped more than an inch of water and washed most of the rest of the snow away. When my plants reappeared, they seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. But these, too, are perennials and so will come back with the lengthening days and the warming temperatures.
Meanwhile, I've noticed the birds are in a state of anticipation. In my yard I’ve heard cardinal, titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch and house finch singing their spring territorial songs. At Scherman Hoffman, sanctuary director Mike Anderson recently reported hearing a singing hermit thrush. “I’ve never heard them sing here in winter,” he said of the one type of thrush – aside from its cousins the robin and mockingbird – that doesn’t migrate south for the winter from New Jersey.
At my feeders, and at Scherman Hoffman's too, the usually skittish cardinals have been muscling aside the smaller, more numerous house sparrows, juncos and house finches to get at the sunflower seed they need to survive the winter cold.
One recent dawn, a male cardinal sat on one side of my feeder, a female at the other. My suspicion that this was a mated pair was confirmed when a second male flew in and dislodged the female, only to be chased off by the first male.
The birds are singing territorial songs because they are preparing to start their broods. It is only a matter of time before the days are long enough and the temperatures warm enough for them to act.
Some birds are already sitting on eggs. The great horned owl hoots its territorial call in the dead of winter. The barred owls call “Who cooks for YOU? Who cooks for YOU-all?” Both these large birds need more time for their eggs to incubate, which is why the females are already sitting on eggs by February. It's no coincidence that these owlets hatch after squirrels, mice and other rodents have had their broods, providing plenty of food.
So even though there’s still plenty of snow on the ground I see signs this is only temporary. I await the birds and the flowers, including the skunk cabbage.
By Margo D. Beller
Around 3:30 on the morning of Friday, Aug. 14, one of my friends told me, she was rudely awakened by what she thought was an explosion. In that addled state between waking and sleeping, she thought it was construction work.
She wasn't alone, according to the reports I read on NJ.com. In fact, it was a 2.5-magnitude earthquake. Luckily, no one reported any damage.
The quake's epicenter, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, was two miles north-northeast of Bernardsville, where my friend lives and where the headquarters of New Jersey Audubon and its Scherman Hoffman sanctuary are located. According to one report I read, the earthquake was "centered two miles underground about three miles northwest of Olcott Square, near the banks of the Passaic River in the Hardscrabble section near the Scherman-Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary and the Morristown National Historical Park" informally known as Jockey Hollow.
Scherman Hoffman (seen at left) is in Somerset County, across the Passaic River from Morris County. According to local media, the Morris County Office of Emergency Management almost immediately started getting 911 calls from a number of towns, including some very close to mine.
The USGS said it received more than 200 reports from as far southwest as Philadelphia and as far north as Rochester, N.Y.
Who knew Scherman Hoffman could be Ground Zero of an earthquake?
As for me, I slept through it. It was, after all, "only" a minor earthquake.
Earthquakes were not part of my childhood in the east. Nor'easters, yes. Heavy snow, yes. Even the occasional hurricane.
However, I think we're going to hear more about damaging earthquakes in the U.S. thanks, in part, to a burgeoning population that has moved to housing put up on just about any land mass no matter how tiny or ecologically insecure.
One of the worst series of earthquakes to hit the eastern U.S. centered on the New Madrid Fault, named for the epicenter in New Madrid, Mo., between 1811 and 1812. The San Andreas fault, the cause of the San Francisco earthquakes of 1906 and 1989, is better known. It's even been the subject of a 2015 movie.
But the New Madrid, at 7.3 to 7.5 on the Richter scale, was the most devastating earthquake to hit the U.S. for its time.
There are faults and folds all over the U.S. and the world. New Jersey's fault is the Ramapo Fault System. What shook Bernardsville and beyond was described as an "offshoot" of the fault.
The Ramapo Fault is part of a system of faults that runs from southeastern New York to eastern Pennsylvania. According to a 2004 fact sheet I found from Columbia University, these faults were active "during the evolution of the Appalachians, especially in the Mesozoic when they served as border faults to the Newark Basin and other extensional basins formed by the opening of the Atlantic Ocean approximately 200 million years ago."
(If you want to learn more about the Ramapo Fault click here.)
So here we are in the New York City metropolitan area, which is now much more built up than New Madrid was in 1811.
My husband remembers a visit to his parents in N.J., in the late 1980s, when an earthquake struck and he was shaken awake by the sound of thunder with an edge. He called it "thunder on drugs."
I remember an August 2011 earthquake while at work when there was a violent shake and a crash, as though someone on the floor below me had dropped a heavy piece of equipment. This earthquake was centered not far from Washington, D.C., and was so strong it damaged the Washington Monument.
According to NJ.com, there have been a number of "minor" earthquakes in New Jersey since 2010 measuring anywhere from 1.2 to 2.1 on the Richter scale.
Should we be getting used to more frequent rumbling of terra not-so firma? And what will happen when the Big One strikes a major urban population such as New York?
Well, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 gave us a pretty good indication of what happens when a big city is hit by the Big One, and that was a case when reports of Sandy's strengths were known days in advance.
Now imagine a major earthquake, say a 6 ("noteworthy" on the Richter scale) or 7 ("high" - the 1989 San Francisco area quake was a 6.9). Like my friend's rude awakening, there are no warning signs. The earth starts shaking. It could be a tremor or more violent. It could last a few seconds, it could last minutes. There could be a pause and then, when you think it's over, aftershocks (which could come hours later and be worse than the original earthquake).
Your world, literally and figuratively, could come crashing down around you. It could happen at any time.
Scientists recently did tests to see what would happen if the New Madrid fault took place today.
Based on the simulations, were the 1811-1812 earthquakes to take today - and remember, these were over 7 in magnitude - more than 8 million people (emphasis mine) living and working near the New Madrid seismic zone "would experience potentially damaging ground shaking" at intensities ranging from strong to severe, according to the lead author of the paper that appears in the July 30, 2015, edition of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.
This is no movie where the world ends and then the house lights come up. What happened in Bernardsville could be looked at as a coming attraction..
By Margo D. Beller
Every river, even the mighty Mississippi, starts small. Water bubbles to the surface from underground and gravity brings it downhill. As it rains, the waters rise, the flow increases and brooks and streams are created. They feed larger water forms that have become rivers.
Before highways took us from Point A to B, New Jersey and the other original 13 colonies were wooded wilderness. It was hard traveling over the land so people and their goods got from one town to the other via river. If you remove the highways from a map of New Jersey and look at where the state's original towns were located, the importance of rivers becomes more obvious.
For a small state, there are many rivers, among them the Delaware on the state's western coast, the Hudson on the east and, within, the Raritan and the Hackensack.
What these rivers have in common, besides their importance in trade and transportation, is they are natural borders between states and counties.
The border between New Jersey's Morris and Somerset counties is the Passaic River. "Passaic," if you believe Wikipedia, is from the Lenape word "pahsayèk," which has been variously attributed to mean "valley" or "place where the land splits." There are many sources where you can learn more about the river's history, starting with the formation about 11,000 years ago of the Ice Age's Glacial Lake Passaic.
At 80 to 90 miles (depending on which source you use), the Passaic is one of the the longest rivers in New Jersey, starting in Mendham, Morris County, and ending up the much larger river that drops in a giant waterfall at Paterson and flows by Newark before emptying into New York Bay. The Passaic starts its run not far from Hardscrabble Rd., which is why when you head to New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary it isn't easy to see. Unless you know where to look for it, it is obscured by houses on the road or woods.
However, it is very noticeable if you are walking Scherman's yellow-blazed River trail. At this point the Passaic is about the size of a large brook and filled with rocks.
Water draws bugs, and the Passaic is no exception. Birders put up with this because bugs draw the birds that feed on them. The movement of the river draws flycatching phoebes and the Louisiana waterthrush, which have nested at Scherman for years.
I've heard the distinctive rattling of a belted kingfisher flying back and forth along the river looking for fish. The river provides birds and other creatures a place to bathe and feed. Families come to Scherman's part of the Passaic to sit on the shore and cool off during a hot summer day.
The river ecosystem encourages such plants as trout lily, Canada mayflower, cinnamon ferns (pictured) and skunk cabbage, one of the first plants to grow in spring. Rivers are a source of life.
The part of the Passaic at Scherman is clean water. But the part at the Newark end is not and its tortured industrial history reminds us rivers can be killed quickly.
Many of suburban New Jersey's rivers are threatened by too many suburban houses and homeowners who over-treat their lawns with chemicals that not only kill beneficial insects but run off in heavy rains into storm sewers and from there to rivers.
That's nothing compared to the lower Passaic. If the upper Passaic is Dr. Jekyll, the lower Passaic is Mr. Hyde.
It has been a major chemical dumping ground for decades, filled with toxins that have hurt people living downriver. Paterson, for instance, was once known as the Silk City because of its mills. That was a long time ago. More recently it has been a byword for crime, urban decay and, thanks to its many now-closed factories, the creator of the "toilet river" that was the Passaic.
As a 2009 New York Times article put it: "The Passaic begins in the clear trout streams of rural Morris County, provides drinking water to 3.5 million New Jersey residents, reaches a peak at the Great Falls of Paterson and then devolves at the end of 80 increasingly foul and dispiriting miles into a dark, malodorous industrial sink."
Six years later I wouldn't eat any fish caught in Paterson.
If you go to Scherman Hoffman to hike the trails you are what has become known as an ecotourist. It is a big business in some parts of the world. Towns in New Jersey have been catching up to the concept. The people running the cities and towns along the Passaic, whose people got sick from the chemicals in their air and water, have been literally trying to clean up their act, promoting ecotourism opportunities such as fishing, kayaking, and in the case of Paterson visiting the Great Falls, which only recently became a federal park.
Environmental groups have used the river as a teaching aid. The Hackensack Riverkeeper, for instance, within the last few years has run an ecotour that takes people up the urban end of the Passaic. As with their trips up the Hackensack - another river trying to recover from nearly being killed by industrial pollutants dumped into the Meadowlands marshes - the idea is to show the importance of the river and and how fragile the river's health is still.
Things are slowly improving for the lower Passaic, despite the long time it takes to get a polluting company to pay for river cleanup and government inefficiency.
At the upper Passaic, along the Scherman Hoffman River trail, we don't have that problem -- at least not yet. It is easy to forget the clean, Dr. Jekyll, suburban one and the polluted, Mr. Hyde, urban one are the same river. But it is connected. The upper Passaic is healthy because its headwaters are not in an industrial area. But it wouldn't take much - say a farm sold to developers who build a massive condo development in a watershed, as many would like to do in the New Jersey Highlands - to do a lot of harm.
Rivers are fragile and their health shouldn't be taken for granted.
By Margo D. Beller
Scherman Hoffman gets a lot of visitors all seasons of the year. Some want a quiet hike in the woods. Some look for migrant birds in the spring or migrating raptors in the fall. Some come to buy supplies - binoculars, feeders, books or bird food -- from the nature store. Some come for the educational programs Starting last summer, visitors came for the growing sport of geocaching.
Visitors have ranged from the famous to the more humble. But there is one visitor I'm sure Scherman Hoffman and the other New Jersey Audubon centers would rather do without - black bear.
It may not seem like it after such a long spell of cold weather, but winter is over. I've already seen signs of spring in my yard, finally. Crocus and snowdrops are blooming and the daffodils and iris are coming up. I've also seen chipmunks, the bane of my garden because of their digging.
Chipmunks hibernate during the winter and come out when it is warm. So do bears. I put up with little chipmunks, begrudgingly. Bears scare me.
Scherman Hoffman Director Mike Anderson remembers a bear that visited about 10 years ago.
"The bear took down the feeders. After everyone drove up the hill from [New Jersey Audubon headquarters] and got a look we made a lot of noise and it ran off," he said. "That was probably the first sighting in 50 years."
Times have changed. Mike said last summer alone there were nine separate bears seen in the area including a big male, a little male, a sow with two cubs and a sow with three cubs.
When those cubs get bigger they start wandering to find new territories, and that is why bears are now seen in all 21 counties of New Jersey. New Jersey is one of the most built-up states in America, and that means there is a greater chance you are going to come in contact with a bear at some point, if not at a park then in your backyard.
My first close bear encounter came last year when my husband and I were on Old Mine Road in Sussex County to do some birding. We were driving and suddenly there was a bruin (the one pictured) sauntering in the middle of a road where the speed limit is low but most people just blow through. Luckily, we were alone on the road and going slow.
We pulled to the side of the road and parked so my husband could take a picture from the car. He was not going to duplicate the stunt of the guy who so wanted his kid in a picture with a bear that he used a bagel to entice it closer. His kid was mauled.
As we sat in the car the bear casually looked at us, then ambled off the road and up a hill. My first bear, I thought. It was not a complete surprise because Sussex County has been bear country for decades.
This past March 27, the encounter hit home - literally. One of my feeder poles was bent to the ground and a feeder lay there empty and partially damaged. Who would do something like this in the middle of the night? I asked my husband. He knew immediately - a hungry bear just out of hibernation.
Since then I take the feeders inside at night. Mike Anderson says for the last five years Scherman Hoffman has done the same thing - taking them in at night once it starts to warm up. (The feeders are not out at all during summer camp, and I don't have feeders out after Memorial Day.)
I got off easy - it was only a bent feeder pole I can replace. Bears can destroy property, including livestock and small pets in the backyard. Get between a sow and her cubs and you have put yourself into great danger.
One of the most horrifying incidents involving bears in recent years was the killing of a Rutgers University student who was hiking with friends. This attack, the first recorded fatality in the state’s history, brought new calls for a longer bear hunt. New Jersey agreed and has decided to expand the hunt to twice a year.
Like bear, deer were almost hunted to extinction. Then the pendulum swung the other way and the deer population got out of control. Deer destroy forest undergrowth with their browsing, which has a major effect on the rest of the forest population including birds.
A bear is more dangerous. The one I saw on Old Mine Road was several hundred pounds and not intimidated by my car. I wouldn't have wanted to mess with the one that took down my feeder pole either.
You can't hunt bear at Scherman Hoffman -- it's a wildlife sanctuary. But you can be prepared. There are a number of sites where you can find rules for avoiding a bear encounter. These happen to come from the National Parks Conservation Association site:
Keep your distance and allow the bear every opportunity to avoid you.
If the bear continues to approach you, it is most likely trying to identify what you are. Remain calm. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
Identify yourself by talking in a normal voice.
Try to back away slowly at a diagonal angle. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground.
Don't run. Bears can reach speeds of 35 mph, and like dogs they will chase fleeing animals.
If the bear gets too close, wave your arms, raise your voice and be more aggressive. Never make high-pitched squeals or attempt to sound like a bear.
In short, don't be foolish. This is no bedside Teddy.
Beware the bear.
What would you pay to get the utility companies - electricity, oil, gas - off your back and never pay them a dime again?
I don't know about you, but when I see my bills I want to pull the plug. For instance, the average house uses approximately 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per month .
We all know there are other options out there -- costly ones -- including windmills, solar panels and geothermal, or drilling into the earth to draw its heat to power your home.
Mike Strizki has another option he claims will save you money, create no emissions and take you completely off the grid, preserving the earth for generations to come.
He uses hydrogen.
The sun is over 70% hydrogen. Hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table -- colorless, odorless, literally lighter than air and, when combined with oxygen, creates your water. It is this basic chemistry, with more than a little help from the sun and the fuel cell system he created to transform hydrogen into power, that he uses in the 11-acre house in Hopewell, N.J., he completed retrofitting in 2006. That house is the nucleus of the educational Hydrogen House Project.
"We have to educate the public that hydrogen is safe," he said at a recent program at N.J. Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. "We can't keep going down the same path. It just doesn't work that way."
To that end New Jersey Audubon is partnering with Hydrogen House to be the state coordinators of the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Eco-Schools USA program providing free materials to schools to include "sustainability education" in their curriculums. That includes tours of Hydrogen House, learning the nuts and bolts of creating sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.
Hydrogen is safer than the crude oil that exploded in flames recently in W. Va. as it was being hauled by railroad. It creates none of the unpleasant side effects of fracking. For those who know history, Strizki insists the only reason the Hindenburg airship blew up over Lakewood, N.J., in 1937 was because rocket fuel coated the shell, not the hydrogen inflating it.
Looking at his website you can see Strizki is no mere tinkerer. He spent 16 years at the state Department of Transportation's Office of Research and Technology, leaving it when funding for renewable energy was cut because, unlike oil and gas, "you can't tax free," he said. Since then he has worked on renewable energy and clean water projects around the world. He’s also come up with fun stuff, like the hydrogen-powered toys pictured above and below that can be directed from his hydrogen-charged cellphone..
How does hydrogen power work? According to his site:
Hydrogen House operates by collecting solar energy from a 21-kilowatt array of solar panels mounted throughout Strizki's property. The energy from the 70 thin film and 80 polycrystalline panels passes through inverters where it is collected in a relatively small battery bank used to run a low-pressure electrolyzer.
The electrolyzer splits water molecules into the base elements hydrogen and oxygen. Strizki's system stores the hydrogen in 11 reused low-pressure propane tanks, similar to those found at a typical gas station. The hydrogen can then be burned for cooking and heating similar to natural gas, and can be converted into electricity by way of a hydrogen fuel cell. The only emissions from the system are medical grade oxygen and chemically pure water!
There are 10 used propane tanks in back of Hydrogen House to store the gas to get him through times when there isn't a lot of sun, such as the short days of winter. Those 10 tanks provide enough hydrogen to power his house for a year. And you can make more - put in purified water and you can split it into hydrogen and oxygen or, using another of his products, the joule, recombine it with oxygen to form water that can be split again. It is the ultimate in recycling.
But as with anything new, there are two daunting drawbacks to going hydrogen - the cost and the government bureaucracy.
It cost Strizki $500,000 - that's half a million - to retrofit his Hopewell home back in 2006. He said he put in $100,000 of his own money and got the rest from New Jersey Board of Public Utilities grants and donations, he said. He is now building a second home in Hopewell that will cost about a fifth of that, in part because he has developed more streamlined and simpler storage technology that doesn't require a tank farm.
He said it took 3 ½ years to get all the permits to retrofit his house because of those 10 old propane tanks. The local building inspector took one look and refused to do anything, he said. The process was moved to another agency that treated the home as an industrial facility, also because of those tanks. Even then the process sat in limbo until, he said, he got the New York Times involved. He got his permits.
Strizki said that now, with his smaller, more portable fuel-cell system - which uses flexible, lightweight solar panels rather than the heavier ones seen on roofs or in solar panel farms -- the only permit a homeowner has to get is for the connection to the house, just as someone must do to install an outside, permanent generator -- the kind that became very popular with homeowners after Hurricane Sandy.
Such generators "just sit there and cost you money," he scoffed, while his system saves money. As for the simpler permitting, the regulators are "not happy about it but there is nothing they can do about it."
That was certainly on the minds of those in the audience, who peppered him with questions. There is something very appealing about saving money and becoming self-sufficient.
For instance, Hydrogen House never lost power after Sandy, he says on his website, at a time when "New Jersey’s electric utility companies scrambled to fix downed power lines and busted transformers." As you can imagine, his house became very popular with the neighbors who were without electricity for over a week and needed to power up their phones using the charger he developed (pictured). This charger, the streamlined power system and other products he has developed are detailed on the site, too.
The cost of the technology will come down over time - as it has with computers that are smaller but have more power than the ones that used to take up a whole room, for instance - as will the retrofitting cost and the cost of your energy usage. But the initial outlay is high.
Scherman Hoffman director Mike Anderson said he'd love to have a renewable source of energy to power the education center and offices. Right now they are powered using propane. Most of the old oil tanks used in the former Hoffman estate were removed.
Sustainability is a wonderful idea but it's a costly reality.
To Strizki, it's all about self-sufficiency and not being "squeezed and controlled" by the government. It's also about removing your "carbon footprint" and saving the planet for our children and grandchildren.
How much is that worth to you?
By Margo D. Beller
It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade. – Charles Dickens
According to the annual “year in weather” chart published each January by the New York Times, January 2014 was the eighth-snowiest on record because of the 11 inches that fell. A month later, when “polar vortex” became part of my vocabulary, we had a record eight inches of snow and 1.43 inches of rain that, on top of that January snow, created huge drifts of snow with inches of ice on top of it. I don’t think I saw my lawn before March.
This January is balmy by comparison.
Still, it has been cold, with below-normal temperatures in a world where “normal” is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
From my warm home I look at the four feeders – three with sunflower seeds, one with suet – and watch the huge flock of house sparrows, house finches, mourning doves and jays attacking them. Every so often I feel the need to go out on my enclosed porch and scare them off to allow the chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches access to the seed. The downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers have no competition at the suet thanks to the upside-down feeder I bought at Scherman Hoffman’s store (most birds don’t like hanging upside down, although a hungry Carolina wren has been known to take a few mouthfuls of suet and then stand on the baffle to eat them).
A record six male cardinals are in my backyard because mine seems to be the only one around offering seed, which is a shame.
Scherman Hoffman’s feeders are also busy with birds, and the SAVE sunflower seed I buy to help encourage local farmers to create more sustainable habitat for the birds is completely sold out. That’s a lot of good people feeding a lot of hungry birds, and we’re not even halfway through winter yet. The few, hardy souls taking the very cold early-morning bird walks have turned up many of the same birds I’m seeing at the feeder. In fact, aside from the feeder birds I’ve not done much birding at all because of the cold.
At this point I am looking forward to my neighbor’s witch hazel shrub blooming. The flowers are not much – stringy yellow or orange, they are more petal than flower – but they are often the first color of winter aside from the snow’s white and the gray or blue of the sky. The neighbor’s witch hazel usually blooms in February. This shrub was one of the native plants offered during Scherman Hoffman’s plant sale last June, and this year I think I’ll look for one to plant in my own yard.
Another early plant – skunk cabbage. It’s usually found in wet meadows and along stream banks so it’s along the Passaic at Scherman Hoffman and, as I discovered last winter, throughout the back of the Field loop extension field.
Even though each fall I am always glad when I have cut back my perennials and put my spent annuals into compost, I am looking forward to seeing my flowers again, starting with the crocus and the daffodils. The crocus show up in late February or early March, the daffodils from March into April. I put 50 more daffodils in before the ground froze because this plant is avoided by digging squirrels and chipmunks and the flowers won’t be eaten by deer because of the toxins throughout the plant – ideal! They are of different types to prolong the growing season as long as possible although last year, once the snow melted, they seemed to all come up at once. I wish they could bloom all summer.
Last year the red azaleas drew ruby-throated hummingbirds despite being behind netting to keep them from the deer. That would’ve been in April. I’d never seen hummingbirds in my yard so early in the year – I usually see more in June and July when I have my feeder out. But last winter, as noted, was a bad one and with the wacky weather the hummers likely wanted to return to their breeding grounds as fast as possible once they finally could.
At the end of April and into May the northbound migration will begin. There will be fewer juncos and white-throated sparrows (but not house sparrows, alas) in my backyard. At some point I’ll be taking my early morning walk and hear a phoebe over the brook. The walkers at Scherman Hoffman will start finding more warblers and fewer fox sparrows. Last year the trees over the brook in my town were filled with warblers that, like the daffodils, all seemed to show up at once when the weather allowed them to fly.
When these migrants return the days will be longer and warmer. I’ll be doing less hibernating and rising earlier to find them on my walks, or will come to Scherman Hoffman and listen for them along the Dogwood or River trails.
But for now, these are just midwinter thoughts. There’s still a lot of winter to go.
By Margo D. Beller
Why would citizens of a free state within a democratic republic care about saving a Monarch?
Because this Monarch is an indicator that our world is rapidly getting out of balance and we will all suffer as a result.
When it comes to butterflies, I can't tell the difference between the swallowtails or the skippers or the fritillaries. But when I see a Monarch butterfly, I have no doubts at all.
Monarchs are among the largest of butterflies, 3.5 to 4 inches big, and are distinctively patterned in orange and black. Look at any butterfly identification book – mine is the Stokes’ Beginner’s Guide to Butterflies – and you will see a Monarch on the cover. They like a wide variety of open habitats including fields, gardens and coasts.
Every year my butterfly bush and joe-pye weeds and other plants draw bees and butterflies, mainly swallowtails but usually a few Monarchs. Not this year. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen Monarch butterflies in New Jersey this year, all in gardens specifically set up in public or private state natural areas to draw and feed butterflies, including Great Swamp and Scherman Hoffman.
So I was not surprised to receive a September press release from New Jersey Audubon warning the Monarch population has fallen by 90% in the past two years. September has always been a good time to see Monarchs because they are on the move to their southern homes in the mountains of northern Mexico. (It isn't just the birds that have favorite areas to which they return again and again.)
It was during one September afternoon years ago when we saw Monarchs heading south to Monhegan Island over Gulf of Maine as our boat headed north to the mainland. (I rescued several Monarchs from spider webs while on the island.) During another September trip, to Sandy Hook, NJ, my husband walked through a field of goldenrod and clouds of Monarchs rose as he passed. I regret I had no camera to record the magical scene as I walked behind. New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Observatory has been monitoring Monarch migration for 25 Septembers.
New Jersey Audubon supports several bills now in the New Jersey Legislature to help Monarchs survive.
Legislation? For butterflies?
Well, yes. “Butterfly population decline is an important indicator of ecosystem health,” said NJ Audubon’s press release quoting Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, D-Bergen and Passaic, sponsor of several of the bills. “Drastic reductions in certain species of bee and bat populations have demonstrated there are unforeseen consequences to a single species decline, and this legislation lends a helping hand to Monarchs.”
Unlike other butterflies, the Monarch has particular needs. Monarchs need milkweed, a perennial plant that grows in fields, creating pink flowers that, when pollinated, form large seed heads. Monarch adults feed on the flowers’ nectar while Monarch caterpillars eat the leaves. The seed heads pop open and each seed is attached to a silk thread that acts as a sort of parachute to carry the seed to an area where it will grow.
Unfortunately, the more New Jersey paves over its fields for roads and housing, the less likely that seed will find a suitable place to grow. Milkweed has declined thanks to overuse of herbicides in agriculture and loss of agricultural lands and open space - including roadsides - to development.
Homeowners compound the problem by their obsessions with their lawns, mowing whether they need it or not and hitting them with chemicals to kill the insects (beneficial as well as harmful) and "weeds" -- the wildflowers that, in some cases, are helpful to the survival of birds, bees and butterflies.
New Jersey is not known for its high standards of environmental protection. It has more people and more roads packed into a small space than any other state in this country. The prevailing wisdom is "I got mine, keep yours away from me." That extends to landscaping. In my town, for instance, disturbing the “park-like setting” of my front lawn in my neighborhood would get me fined.
That’s why there are times you have to legislate to encourage better human behavior. The Private Wildlife Habitat Certification bill (A3133) would provide homeowners with an "affirmative defense" against nuisance complaints and code violations arising from "providing habitat for wildlife by way of native vegetation that provides sources of nectar, seeds and berries," according to the press release.
Other bills would provide resources and coordination for planting milkweed on public lands and parks, and "focus efforts on drainage basins that could provide ideal growth opportunities for milkweed in otherwise unused areas," again according to New Jersey Audubon..
There is also a bill that would keep towns and the state from mowing down what open fields there are in this state before useful plants can flower (for the bees and butterflies) and go to seed (for the birds). To me this is akin to measures that encourage and protect more grasslands to boost the state populations of bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows and dickcissels, which have also lost habitat. It would also help greatly if we approved the state measure guaranteeing a funding source for the state's Open Space program before all the money runs out.
Unfortunately, the problem isn't confined to New Jersey, or even the United States. Monarch populations in Mexico have declined for the same reason as in New Jersey -- the burning down and clearing of forests and the overuse of herbacides. Climate change is another factor, with unusual freezing temperatures and heavier rain having an effect.
I know these butterflies are tough, but they are not that tough.
So let's you and I start with putting in more milkweed and other beneficial plants in the backyard, stop using herbacides and other harmful chemicals if we must have a lawn and appreciate the needs of the other creatures who share this world with us.
We all benefit in the long run.
By Margo D. Beller (@MargoDBeller)
At this time of year, people go on vacation. If you have a family, you travel in summer before the kids have to go back to school and the daylight ends early. Whether it is by car, plane or train, travel can be exciting, a change in the routine, a way of clearing the cobwebs from your mind and giving your camera a workout.
The rubythroated hummingbird I see at the feeder just beyond the window from the store at Scherman Hoffman takes a long drink of the sugar water. The bird weighs less than an ounce.
It is fun to watch a hummingbird, which looks more like an insect than a bird. But this little creature is getting ready for a long trip, too, and it is certainly no vacation.
Although it is August, the birds (and the butterflies, for that matter) already know that it is getting time to go south again. Despite the heat, the days are getting shorter and the decrease in light is a cue that soon it will be cold and there will be no more insects. What young there were this year should have fledged and will be able to fend for themselves.
At my home feeder, the hummingbirds that visit at this time of year are usually adult females. By now the males, whose only role is to battle for territory and then mate with a chosen female, have already left. The females build the nest, brood the eggs and then feed the young. Once the young can get their own food, Mom will be going south.
Think about it: Something about the weight of a penny will be traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, battling bad weather, the Gulf of Mexico (where, if it’s lucky, it will find an oil rig for rest -- if it hasn’t been blown into it) and predators, all under its own power. No four-wheel drive here. Its instinct tells it it must go.
I can’t help but look at a visiting hummingbird with respect tinged with sadness at what it must face. Many will not survive.
These little birds are not alone, of course. The various sparrows, thrushes, tanagers, warblers and other passerines that birders will follow as they pass through southbound will be joined by shorebirds, ducks and raptors. Some will end their journey in New Jersey. Most will head to the southern U.S.. or beyond the gulf to central and South America.
The raptor flight is particularly impressive, whether you see what can be a parade of birds (if the north wind is strong) from the uppermost porch at Scherman Hoffman’s education center or the uppermost North Outlook at Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain.
I’ve seen raptors from both areas, surrounded by large crowds impressed by the vultures, the buteos (like the red-tailed hawk pictured) and accipiters and especially the bald eagles. There’s something about a soaring, mature bald eagle -- symbol of the U.S. and easily identified by the white head and tail -- that causes a stir and gets the cameras clicking.
But there was a time, decades ago, when my husband was told (as a Boy Scout) that he’d never see a bald eagle in the wild in his lifetime because of its near-destruction by, among other things, chemicals (DDT) and shooting (Hawk Mountain was once a favorite shooting spot for sportsmen in the fall).
Every time you see a bird at your feeder, it is not there to entertain you but is trying to survive. Every visit to a water dish, or flight into a tree to escape a cat, or chase after a much bigger bird to protect its young is all about survival. The long, dangerous trip south is a real-life “Survival” you won’t see on TV.
If the bird gets to its winter spot and can stay alive for the next few months - no mean feat in areas where the forests are being destroyed - and then make its way north to our area next spring, its reward will be creating another generation of young to perpetuate the species.
So we who care about birds put out our feeders and water and try to keep the cats out of the yard to keep the birds alive. But when it’s time for them to go, they are on their own.
Travel can be exciting, a way to break up a routine. But that’s for people. For birds, travel is a matter of life and death.
By Margo D.Beller (@MargoDBeller)
The treasure hunt has gone high-tech.
The Northern New Jersey Cachers (NNJC) held a “meet and greet” at Scherman Hoffman on May 31, a unique partnership between a group dedicated to expanding interest in using satellite technology to find caches and a sanctuary that, as its website says, is “focused on nature.”
If you see an inherent contradiction here, you’re right.
For this treasure hunt, called geocaching, you need global positioning satellite, or GPS. Ever since the Clinton administration stopped scrambling government satellite data, the use of GPS has exploded.
According to NNJC President John Neale, once GPS took off it was just about inevitable some techy wonk would make a game with it. That happened in 2000, in Oregon, when a couple of hikers found an old bucket in the woods. Instead of passing it by and forgetting about it, they put the coordinates -- good old longitude and latitude -- on a website for others to find.
From those humble beginnings the movement has grown to 220 countries, 2.5 million active caches and over 6 million geocachers worldwide, according to geocaching.com. Neale said in New Jersey alone there are 16,000 caches. His group has over 500 members and there are separate organizations that cover central and south Jersey.
The cache can be anything, of any size. Some are big enough to fit into ammunition boxes. Some are “nano-caches” that can be easily concealed in big cities. Griggstown Grasslands has caches concealed in the false bottoms of a few bird boxes. Typically, it’s a plastic lock box that contains a pencil and pad of paper for signing your name. The cache can be anything from a toy Jeep (many are sponsored by Chrysler dealerships - it’s good publicity) to a manhole cover. If you take the cache you must leave something of equal or greater value.
Then you log your finding in your logbook and log the experience at the geocaching.com website.
So on a lovely Saturday morning more than a dozen people chatted, ate cookies baked by one of the long-time cachers and waited for the coordinates of the 10 Scherman Hoffman caches to “go live” so the hunters could check their phones and then their GPS and start hunting. (The meet and greet would be lasting into the afternoon.)
The event was intended to bring newbies and more experienced geocachers together. Neale said that besides being a fun activity for people of all ages there is a competitive aspect. Case in point: one older man he pointed out who is ranked ninth in the world in finding geogaches. Like a lot of cachers, this man goes by an alias, IMSpider. Neale - whose own alias is Old Navy - told me IMSpider took up caching with a vengeance after his wife died years ago. Now he doesn’t even bother using the pencil when he finds the caches, he stamps his name.
Anyone who has ever read The Big Year or To See Every Bird on Earth knows that competitive aspect too well.
Bird watching has also become more technical and competitive. There are bird calls stored on mobile phones for checking in the field, GPS, high-tech cameras and sites such as New Jersey Audubon’s eBird, which allows you to check what has been found and where, including coordinates. There’s the annual World Series of Birding and other events.
We’ve come a long way from a walk in the woods.
Ironically, that’s how Neale got into geocaching. Neale loves to hike and gained a love of nature traveling with his mother when she worked at Watchung Reservation. She worked with Dorothy Smullen, now a teaching naturalist at Scherman Hoffman and the point person on the meet and greet.
Smullen said the route of the caches runs along the Dogwood (Red) trail, crosses the driveway heading toward the vernal ponds near the NJ Audubon headquarters building at 9 Hardscrabble and then the River (Yellow) trail (seen here). Each cache has letter(s) inside the box tops. When unscrambled, the letters complete a phrase that cachers can use for a discount on some merchandise in the Scherman Hoffman store. Cachers could also buy a collectible "path tag" with the NJ Audubon logo to keep as a souvenir or drop at their next cache.
Smullen told me the hope is the cachers discover the sanctuary, see the beauty of the place and then come back. Many of the cachers I spoke with had never been to Scherman Hoffman before, much less Bernardsville, NJ, where it’s located.
Once the cache coordinates were published, I followed one small group (2 men, 1 woman and 2 boys) to the first location. “Third boulder from the trail,” one of the men read from his phone. (Warning: In the woods, you’re likely to lose your cellphone signal.)
The boys started counting and then turning over rocks somewhat off the path. By the time they had found the cache we were joined by a larger group, who now - one by one - signed their names in the cache notebook (such as the man I photographed). IM Spider used his stamp and then strode off to the next cache, up the steep hill, other cachers scrambling to keep up.
Among them were Carmine and Maria, of Jersey City and Mountainside, who have been geocaching for a year. “That guy is hardcore,” Carmine said of IMSpider with some awe as he puffed up the hill. Maria told me she’s a teacher. Trying to find some way of engaging her tech-literate students, she read about geocaching in a magazine and got them involved. That’s how she and Carmine got into it.
I think I told Carmine and Maria as much about Scherman Hoffman as they told me about their geocaching.
By this time we’d gotten to the top of the hill. But instead of veering left along the Red trail, the group continued on Patriots Path (the White trail) into the Cross Estate, which is not part of the private Scherman Hoffman but is part of the National Park Service -- specifically the Morristown National Historical Park (Jockey Hollow).
This brings up one of the problems I find with geocaching. The official route might’ve been along the Red trail but if the GPS says the quickest way is cutting through a federal park, you follow it. Neale told me people placing caches are supposed to get permission from landowners and at least warn states and the federal government there will be caches and people looking for them. But that does not stop people from using shortcuts.
One geocacher told me he does not believe in bushwhacking and puts all his caches within five feet of a trail. He also gives clear clues on the geocaching website so people don’t harm the environment looking for the cache.
I gather he is unusual.
Just as you will see birders putting themselves and the environment in danger by bushwhacking after a bird you will see people put caches in inappropriate places and searchers do quite a bit of harm -- despite the organization’s rules to the contrary.
It’s part of the “game’s” competitive spirit, I guess.
Scherman Hoffman Director Mike Anderson told me geocachers inundated New Jersey’s Kittatinny Valley State Park with caches. Before the state knew it, hundreds of people were overrunning the park.
That’s the main reason NJ Audubon got involved with the NNJC -- to have some sort of control and minimize that kind of damage, Anderson said. NNJC maintains the caches. NJ Audubon trail maps, program schedules and other flyers were there for the taking, to encourage NNJC members to come back again.
I’m not sure that will happen.
The cachers running up the hill were too busy following the leader -- IMSpider -- to stop and listen to the birds around them or even notice the beauty of the woods.
Not everyone is like this, of course. I later found a geocacher alone on the river trail - unlike others, he came from the area - who said he doesn’t like finding caches in packs because it takes the fun out of it when others find them first. However, he showed less interest in the nearby veery I pointed out than in his ringing cellphone.
As with everything else, it is too easy to forget technology is merely a tool. Too often I see people use an iPod - even in the car - to block out the world or stare at a game on their phone to avoid eye contact on the street. And don’t get me started on drivers blindly following GPS instructions to the exclusion of sense.
I do not use GPS, and I was glad when the cachers left me alone in the woods with the birds.
Earlier that morning I was on the bird walk with naturalist Stephanie Punnett. Our group stopped for long periods of time listening to and looking at all sorts of birds. At one point one of the younger group members looked down instead of up and found a wood turtle.
Wood turtles are threatened in NJ, and Punnett said this female was new to her because it hadn’t been marked. She put it in her bag so it could be marked and then returned to the same spot to get on with its life.
Now this was a cache worth finding.
By Margo D. Beller
It was with some surprise that I opened my email the other day and found an announcement from Scherman Hoffman inviting visitors to its “morning walks” every Friday and Saturday from 8 am to 9 am.
The walks weren’t the surprise. Particularly during March and April – spring migration - I’ve struggled out of bed on many a Saturday morning over the years to drive to Hardscrabble Road to take these walks.
But the last time I was at Scherman Hoffman, director Mike Anderson was demonstrating how he rakes snow off the roof. The driveways were clear but the trails were not. Snow was deep and, thanks to ice from an earlier storm, solid. Many areas are still frozen – Swartswood Lake, for instance, where a March 15 nature walk had to be cancelled.
Still, at least in my town, in the last week there have been warm days that have taken most of the snow off my lawn and all of it off my roof. So the Scherman email reminded me that, yes, winter is starting to let go and spring – and the birds – will be returning.
I am sure that at first the spring “walks” will consist looking out the education center’s’ window at the feeders and then a trudge along the main driveway. This is not a bad way to look for birds. The conifer outside the education center has drawn red-breasted nuthatch, gold-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets and, in season, warblers including the Cape May.
But later, whoever is leading the walks will lead us down to the Dogwood or Field Loop trail and that is likely when people will make the acquaintance of something my New England in-laws know well – Mud Season.
Ground that had been frozen and covered with several feet of snow becomes thawed, wet and spongy. Footing becomes treacherous, particularly on hills, and mud is everywhere. You’ll have it thick on your boots and kick it up on the back of your legs.
In New Jersey, Mud Season is usually relatively benign because we don’t get the amount of snow they get in some parts of New England. But this past winter has not been benign. In 20 years of living in New Jersey this winter has been the closest to what I have seen in my brother-in-law’s rural part of New Hampshire. Many of the roads there are packed dirt, and when Mud Season comes you have to learn a whole new way to drive.
I have only driven in New Hampshire’s March Mud Season once: What I learned was, when approaching a massive sea of mud you speed up, slam the car into first gear, hold the wheel tight and hope momentum carries you through the muck. My brother-in-law, the naturalist for one of the state’s leading nature organizations, extols Mud Season. It separates the men from the boys, the hardcore from the tenderfoot.
I don’t expect it to be that bad on the Scherman trails.
What I do expect is a slippery mess which I will try to ignore when, one Saturday morning, I see many early migrants – phoebes, black-throated green warblers (like the one pictured, which I photographed from the driveway), kinglets and perhaps a few bluebirds near the boxes and raptors soaring overhead. Insects will start swarming; tadpoles, snakes and amphibians will seemingly appear from nowhere; and flowers will begin to bud, then flower.
At that point the snow will seem like a distant, bad dream.