Category: Voices of the Watershed

Of the residents of the Lower Raritan Watershed there are many naturalists and individuals with a wealth of knowledge about the special ecosystem we call home. “Voices of the Watershed” is our community blog, a place for watershed residents to document (through photos and posts) stories and observations of the watershed.

For more about our authors and photographers, and how you can contribute and essay, story, artwork or photo.

Summer Solstice Stream Habitat Assessment of Ambrose Brook

Article and Photos by Margo Persin, Rutgers Environmental Steward

Internship Diary / June, 2018

So summer is in full swing – I made a visit to the Ambrose Brook immediately after the summer solstice, on 24 June 2018. The environs have changed in several ways, both passive and active. There are several aerating fountains that spray a cool mist that is distributed by the shifting breezes off the water. The highwater mark on the center island has changed since I last visited, probably because of late spring run-off. But the water has even been higher, as evidenced by the residue on all of the banks, the tree roots that extend into the water, and the low-lying bushes. All are wearing a dusty mud color that gives evidence of water that has since receded. Water flow has significantly strengthened, as is noticeable over the modest waterfall close to Rte. 28. In addition, the rain run-off in the two drains has increased, so that more than a trickle from both of them is observable as it enters the brook after the waterfall.

Fauna have increased. One of my prize observations was that of a somewhat lazy or perhaps sleepy but wary blue heron standing on just one leg somewhat in the middle of the stream, past the waterfall. I tried to ease my way in a stealthy and languorous manner along the bank to not call attention to myself, but alas, the heron quickly reacted to my not so subtle approach, was on to me as I slowly worked my way toward the lovely bird . S/he dropped the second leg into the water, turned a cold shoulder in my direction, then deliberately moved away from where I had planted myself on the bank opposite to his/her position. Even though the distance between us stayed about the same, I was so taken by the proximity of this lovely creature and my ability to observe without causing a startled reaction. S/he continued a slow and deliberate saunter down the creek and disappeared around the bend. What a treat to be able to be a silent observer of a stream visitor. Nice!

I also noted that the population of Canadian geese has multiplied to a startling extent. And the birds have become so accustomed to human presence that they barely move when a vertical mammal saunters among them, even when they are settled down and roosting on the grass, the available paths or the cement. In order not to encourage their presence, the township has placed signs that pointedly give the command NOT to feed the waterfowl. Obviously, they greatly outnumber any other visitors to this place, either animal or human. And needless to say, mementos and tokens of their presence are all around, some pleasant and others not so much. An addition to the command to not feed the waterfowl would be “Watch your step and be sure to check your shoes before getting in your vehicle.”

Another observation is that butterflies and moths inhabit the environs, with several Monarchs making their graceful presence known as they fluttered past and through my line of vision. Their wingbeats cast a silent beat to the pulse of the planet as they made their way over and through the environs.
Human presence has also increased. It should be noted that the four walkways that run over and parallel to the stream offer an unobstructed view. And all of them are handicap accessible either all or in part. In other words, on all of them ramps are available so that proximity to the stream can be achieved. People who are fishing on the walkways are only part of the traffic. There were several runners, families with tots and strollers, and other quiet observers to finish out the panorama. My next visit in July will be for another stream assessment, boots, thermometer, floating duck, ruler at the ready Happy summer, everyone!

What’s the Point?

Article and photos by Joe Mish

My South Branch office is made of kevlar and weighs 52#, well lit with natural light and leaves no trace. A perfect vehicle for discovering New Jersey’s natural treasure hidden in plain view.

Every once in a while, it is useful to check your back trail to validate your current course. For the last few years I have been attending the Rutgers sponsored, ‘Annual Sustainable Raritan River Conference’ and was introduced to the people and effort dedicated to improve the water and land that make up the Raritan River basin.

It was strange at first to hear someone else talk about my river. There was a moment of concern, a tinge of jealousy, that my ownership of the river was being usurped by strangers, some not even native to New Jersey. I soon realized I was among kindred spirits. It was like meeting long lost relatives….. whose company you sincerely enjoyed. Each member contributed a critical piece of the puzzle, whether a citizen, volunteer or a degreed scientist, each perspective complimented the other, and occasionally there was the discovery of a piece no one knew was missing. The symposium took the threads of individual effort and wove them into a whole cloth.

I was pleasantly surprised, the focus of the conference dovetailed perfectly into my goals and objectives. It also prompted me to revisit what I hope to accomplish with my images and words, given the current status of New Jersey’s relationship with its natural treasures.

Today New Jersey enjoys a natural inheritance that is the sum of the legacy left by generations of agrarian, industrial and residential development. Sacrificed in the name of progress, our natural and wild treasures are reputed to have been diminished to a vanishing point in the wake of the great human juggernaut. However, despite New Jersey’s recurring reputation as the most densely populated state in the union, wildlife is found to proliferate along its river corridors, highways, woods and fields. Much of this wildlife existed before the establishment of farms, whose disappearance falsely signals the surrender to unabated construction and development. The farms and cows are actually late-arriving interlopers, highly visible and used as a convenient but inaccurate measure of our intrinsic wild and natural resources. It is the presence or absence of cows that form the basis for politically subjective land use decisions.

Even the most ardent nature-oriented residents are often oblivious to the richness and distribution of this state’s natural treasures. Regional areas, reputed as nature destinations, add to obscure our natural treasures as their existence implies an absence of nature except where designated. Combine this with the perspective of the nature-neutral and nature-oblivious residents and it is understandable how the nature sterilized image of New Jersey arises from within and grows with distance to earn a national and global reputation as “the ghost of nature past”.

Against this background my photographic intentions range from historic documentation of ephemeral wild moments to portraiture revealing the energy and dignity of the creatures that covertly exist among us. What the camera misses the words capture, what the camera sees the words enhance.

The articles are a blend of literary flourish embedded with scientific information as much for entertainment as to arouse curiosity. I wish to create a gravitational pull of curiosity that draws the reader to seek deeper knowledge. Hopefully some youngster will be intrigued enough to pursue more detailed information and perhaps launch a career in science.

One reason New Jersey’s natural treasures remain hidden in plain view is because of prejudice and limited expectation. The best way to remedy this, is to change the lens through which our natural world is viewed. I do this by presenting stories and information from unique perspectives, along with images of wildlife most have never seen and many more don’t believe exist so close to home.

When I consider my place in the effort to restore the rivers, I see me operating on the interface between art and science. I walk that line to help transition attitudes and open eyes to a new reality fostered by creativity and imagination.

Rutgers fish camera at Island Weir Dam on the Raritan River is now online.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.

My 8th grade service project: building a bat box!

By Maya Fenyk, 8th grader

Me with my bat box installed on the roof of a building in downtown New Brunswick

The plight of the Indiana Bat has been on my radar since 2015, when I first researched this species as part of a blog series I wrote about endangered species in the Lower Raritan Watershed. At that time I became aware of several obstacles the bats face, including development of their natural habitats, overcrowding of colonies due to lack of habitat, increased exposure to predators (due to unsubstantial habitat cover) and White Nose Syndrome. This year, as I started my 8th grade service project, I knew I wanted to do something to help the bats. The thing was, I had no idea where to start.

Originally, building a bat box was not even on my mind. I thought I was either going to plant trees that the bats could roost in, or do an outreach campaign to raise awareness on the bat’s plight. It seemed however that it would be difficult to find the exact right place to plant trees, and it would take too long for them to grow. I also felt that general outreach would not make a specific measurable impact. As I continued my research I came across a Youth Service Action article that listed 10 different projects to do to help the environment. Building a bat box was on the list. I thought “Perfect! What’s better to help the bats than to build a safe habitat?”

I downloaded bat box building instructions from the National Wildlife Federation, raised money to fund the project, and reached out to different entities to gain permission to install my bat box on their property. I had three possible sites in mind, two on New Brunswick park land and one on private property – all sites known to have bat activity. The City of New Brunswick never returned my emails or phone calls, but the landlord of an apartment complex gave me permission to install the bat box on the roof of his building.

After securing permissions, I purchased supplies from Home Depot and constructed the bat box with help from my uncle. The building process of the bat box took just a few hours; I hand cut the wood, stained the wood with a non-toxic dark stain, assembled the bat box and painted the box. The whole process took less time than I thought, and I waited two weeks to install the box on April 17th. I decided to wait to install the bat box on April 17th because the 17th is National Bat Awareness Day.

I had an amazing time completing the project, and I am very glad I built the bat box, because it helps address a very serious local environmental issue. I hope my act of service inspires you to also perform service in your local community.

Ambrose Brook Stream Assessment: One-Year Chronology

Margo Persin, Rutgers Environmental Steward

Editor’s Note: In 2018 Margo Persin joined the Rutgers Environmental Steward program for training in the important environmental issues affecting New Jersey. Program participants are trained to tackle local environmental problems through a service project. As part of Margo’s service project she chose to conduct assessments of a local stream for a year, and to provide the data she gathered to the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Margo keeps a journal of her experiences, excerpts of which are included in the LRWP’s “Voices of the Watershed” column.

Location: Willow Dr.  Middlesex, NJ  08846, USA

            Latitude: 40:566552

            Longitude: -74.510890


In working on my project, I plan to provide a detailed chronological report of the specified site over a period of one complete annual cycle.  Secondly, I will take photos to document any changes – or lack of changes – with the passing of seasons, and to bear witness to human intervention, whether it be positive or negative.  For example, has any work been done previously to prevent erosion of the stream?  Or, what are the effects of littering/ dumping in regard to stream health?  I am looking forward to being an active observer of the ‘big picture’ as well as the minutiae of this specific site.  Because I am a life-long gardener, it is patently obvious that my garden ‘talks to me’ – I learned that from my Mom.  One needs to learn to observe and interpret the sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious messages that nature sends out.  For example, a plant may not be partial to a planting site and thus sends out runners or shoots to a more appropriate placement and then a new plant pops up in the more favored location.  Needs more sun?  Wants higher or direr ground?  Example:  day lilies don’t like to be in the vicinity of lilies-of-the-valley and they also don’t tolerate any mulch…. With this in mind, I want to to enter into that active ‘observing/listening’ relationship with a stream habitat, which will be slightly different from one with a suburban garden.  But I suspect that some (many?) of the same or similar skills will apply.

And third, I want to create a written narrative of my relationship with the site, which I hope will be a meditation on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a more intimate connection with the wild part of nature that surrounds us.  How can we become more active and aware observers and listeners, in order to be able to honor the wildness in nature?  And how can we utilize that in order to attain a closer, more authentic and honorable connection between earth and human, to acknowledge that wild part that connects rather than separates us?

A bit of a delayed and bumpy start ….

Given that I wanted to do a stream assessment, the first order of business was to get some training in that field of endeavor.  To that end, I participated in a Visual Habitat Assessment training program offered by the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership that took place on 21 May 2017 at the Lawrence Brook. It was led by Heather Fenyk and those of us in the group learned how to assess stream quality utilizing a very helpful and specific set of guidelines that include water conditions, stream measurements, and stream characteristics.  In addition, we also were introduced to ‘high gradient monitoring’ that has as its focus such parameters as embeddedness, sediment deposition, channel flow, velocity/depth, channel alteration, bank stability, etc.  My mind’s eye was awakened to the plethora of detail that could so easily be passed over, if one’s full attention to detail is not called into service.  It was a wonderful learning opportunity and I was so glad that the opportunity had been afforded to me to learn in this very supportive and educational context.  It is my opinion that we learned from the group leader, from the assistants and from nature itself.  It was an experience that has stayed with me – I was so impressed by how the gifts of science and observation we who inhabit that green planet that we call home can both inhabit and commune with earth, water, sun, and sky.  We need to be silent, to look, to listen, to be, and to be at ease so that the earth’s signals can fill us with wonder.

My next step was to find out exactly where the stream was located, obviously.  But this task proved much, much harder to achieve than would be expected.  After contacting several people over a period of several months, the site coordinates were eventually sent to me by Mr. Robert Hughes, the Watershed Ambassador WMA 9, on 30 October 2017.  Progress!

The third step was to do a reconnoitering mission to the site – more about that in a moment – and finally, to arrange for an ‘official first visit’, in the company of another environmental enthusiast, so that the first official set of measurements could be taken.  It was strongly suggested by both Michele Bakacs and Heather, with an eye toward safety, to develop and utilize a team approach for site visits.  Two people had been recommended to me who might be willing to visit the site with me; I contacted these two people and because of timing, only one was able to co-ordinate with me for the site visit.  That first official visit took place on 2 December 2017, with Carolyn F as the second member of the site visit team.  So begins the project – it will continue over the course of an entire year, from December to December, so as to be able to capture the feel of the site and to develop a relationship with nature’s rhythm at this particular site.  Wish me luck.

Preliminary visit

Prior to the official start of my project, I wanted to locate the site on my own and to reconnoiter it from a very practical perspective: aside from the spatial co-ordinates, what was the easiest, safest, most direct route to the site?  Is parking available?  How safe/reachable is the site from a public safety perspective?  Is the site easily accessible via vehicle?  On foot? Are there walking trails? Are they cleared / easy to negotiate?  Are there other accommodations?  Is the site under the care of any public entity?  Are there man-made structures in the vicinity?  If so, what purpose do they serve?

25 November 2017

My first unaccompanied visit to the site was purely for reconnoitering.  The part that I visited is easily accessible from Rte. 28 in Middlesex and there is a small parking lot available that fronts the Ambrose Brook.  (It turns out that I was not quite at the coordinate site, but within walking distance of the GPS coordinates.  More about that later.) While seated in my vehicle I waited for a few moments to get my bearings:  there are paths that lead in both directions, one that parallels Rte. 28 and another that cuts back into a residential area.  Part of the path is paved, then gives way to some well-trodden dirt walkways that follows the contours of the stream as it meanders its way through the suburban area.  There is a small park with a pavilion, a suspended observation / fishing deck that is handicapped accessible, and a portable potty adjacent to the parking lot.  Farther down, barely visible from the road, is a lovely foot bridge that crosses the stream from the small park area to a rather dense suburban area.  The bridge is made of metal, quite sturdy, and provides a beautiful vista in both directions of the stream.

Exiting my vehicle, I walked farther down along the part parallel to Rte. 28 and observed a small but lovely waterfall that allows for the swelling of the brook during times of heavy rain.  There are two drains, presumably for rain run-off, that deposit water into the brook.  One is a cement structure with a grate that protrudes from under Rte. 28 and the other is a slightly battered metal pipe that extends from underground over the brook.  During that first visit, neither drain had any appreciable amount of water to contribute to the brook water capacity.  In regard to vegetation, being that it is winter, the ground is frozen hard but the water from the brook is not frozen.  The grass is brown and dormant, fallen leaves are all around and the trees are bare, sleeping as they should on this cold winter day.  Few birds made their presence known and the only sounds were those of the quietly gurgling brook versus the distant hum of the traffic less than one block away.

A lovely memory and observation came to me from the past.  One of my acquaintances from years past is a lovely Native American woman; if I remember correctly, she is of the Cree tribe.  In speaking of the turning of the seasons, she noted that within Native American culture, in her tribe in particular, winter is of great value because it gives members of the tribe both the time and the space for storytelling, for being with family and tribe members in close proximity, for listening and learning, for observing, for working on and teaching traditional crafts to the younger generation, for making music and singing, for the passing down of valued and cherished information such as family and tribal history, tribal traditions, myths and legends, for sharing the lessons that are needed to pass from one stage of life to another, for maintaining a way of life.  She also emphasized that winter is so important to nature because it is a time of somnolent rest, a time to retreat inward, to focus on the completion of one cycle before embarking on the renewal of spring and the start of yet another growing season.  As I wandered the bank of the Ambrose Brook on that cold and quiet winter day, I pondered the lessons that await me in this project.  The air was cold and I felt a quiet sense of contentment and anticipation, a turning inward that my friend had indicated that is one of the gifts of the winter season.  What other gifts would nature bestow upon me if I could just be still, wait, observe, and listen?

2 December 2017

Ready, set, go!  This was a cold and brisk, partly cloudy, not unpleasant day for the very first ‘official visit’ to the site; I was accompanied by Carolyn F, a valued member of the assessment workshop whose name had been suggested to me by Heather of the LRWP.  We communicated several times via e-mail and then met on this Saturday in order to put into practice the skills and formula that we had learned back in May.  It turns out that this environmental buddy had a bit more on the ball than I did, for she pointed out to me that the actual site of the GPS coordinates was a bit farther removed from the one that I had scoped out on Rte. 28.  After texting back and forth, we finally met at the appointed date and time at the GPS location; both of us came prepared, she more than I.  Her waders served her very well, given that we did a practice run of habitat assessment using the study sheets provided at the workshop.   We did a quick reconnaissance of the site via the latitude and longitude numbers, which is located in a residential neighborhood a bit farther removed – about two blocks or so – from Rte. 28, close to a modest children’s playground.  We walked the site, she took some photos, then we decided to head for the other section closer to Rte. 28 in order to try our hand at working through the assessment sheets as a practice run.

Using all the equipment and measurement tools provided by the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership – metal ruler, flag markers, floating rubber duck, thermostat – we happily set to work on the task, starting with the ‘general sheet’, then working through ‘water conditions’, and ‘stream measurements’ (width, depth, velocity).  Sounds fairly straightforward, right?  Well, what slowed the process at this point was that the measurements are required to be taken using the metric system and not the standard American system of inches, feet and yards, including centigrade versus Fahrenheit readings.  Arghhhhhhhh……  Needless to say, the conversions slowed us down just a bit but Carolyn’s phone (with calculator) turned out to be a most vital component of our visit.  We did some of the calculations on the spot and then later at home I checked our numbers and completed the conversions. Our tasks included wading into the stream – her waders and my duck boots came in very handy considering the distance and depth – and I appreciated very much having a buddy to ‘compare notes’ to take all the measurements and come to a shared decision in regard to stream characteristics and visual assessment of gradient factors such as epifaunal substrate, embeddedness, sediment deposition, channel flow, frequency of ripples, and the rest of the categories.  We measured out our required distance – 50 meters in either direction – placed the flag markers, then got to work.

The task was engrossing and the suburban context faded into the background as we assiduously worked our way through the assessment.  Even though the natural habitat was in full winter mode, I became aware of the subtle shadings of sound, color, texture, movement and stillness.  For example, the floating rubber duck signaled the literal ebb and flow of the stream with its bobbing and stalling as it responded to the currents and cross-currents of the slowly moving water.  At times it got caught in a pocket of calm, and then with a bit of encouragement from us, rejoined the water’s energy to make it to the final point of our measures.  In observing the little rubber duck’s movement, its vibrant yellow color so visible to our human eyes, it became for me a bit of a metaphor, in that it was floating on the surface of the all-encompassing stream, seemingly unaware of its insignificance vis-à-vis the natural world.  We humans ‘float on the surface’, unaware of our insignificance over time in regard to the pulsing of the planet beneath our feet.  Alas, our interventions often are negative, considering how overpopulation, pollution, and other forms of contamination interfere with this pulsing, as our lovely green planet hurls itself through the universe, the planet itself insignificant in the greatness of space.

Carolyn and I utilized our time well:  we were at the site for approximately two and a half hours, taking measurements, comparing our individual observations, appreciating the subtleties of the winter landscape.  And just one more observation.  We both noted that the area was relatively clean of human garbage, trash, and other forms of detritus, which was a pleasant surprise for me.  Given the site’s proximity to the road, the parking lot and rather dense housing, I honestly had expected there to be a stronger and more visible human footprint in the form of various forms of waste – trash, paper, cans, bottles, old tires.  But the area is fairly clean!  At the end, my environmental buddy suggested that a visit for the purpose of kayaking might be a doable undertaking at some future time in the warmer months, in order to explore the area upstream of the given site.  That idea will be placed on the list of possibilities for another day.  With that we each went our separate ways.  It was good to be heading home, with the heat flowing in the cab of my vehicle.

30 December 2017

         “The best laid plans….”  Now that this project had finally launched, I was anxious to establish a steady rhythm in regard to my site visits.   And in addition, there was contact with another environmental enthusiast, who signaled a sincere willingness to serve as my exploration buddy.  Susan E. had volunteered to accompany me on further adventures; she is perfectly qualified and suited for the task, having developed an environmental project of her own, which in truth, was the inspiration for my own.  We decided that an end-of-the-year visit would be an appropriate means to both close out one cycle and look forward to another, Janus like, in anticipation of a yet another change of season.  Alas, the plans fell through because I came down with a virus and was out of commission for the good part of a month.  So… on to the New Year and the start of another cycle.

21 January 2018

In the company of Susan E., we headed to the site on a cold, clear and sunny day.  We parked at the lot in close proximity to the brook, then on foot wandered back to where the GPS coordinates are located.  Our meandering took us farther upstream than I had previously visited. The footing was firm in places and quite soggy in others, and we noted the dormant vegetation, including a healthy crop of brambles that very effectively caught at our clothing.  Ugh.  We noted the places where the waters had left a mark on the land within an overflow plain, evident in the swirling, matted down grass and the markings on the shrubs and trees that line the banks of the brook.  Susan pointed out several places of evident erosion in the banks of the opposite side of the stream and noted the layering of sediment – different colors and textures — that gave evidence of the changing composition of the earth’s layering.   Many are the varieties of trees that line the banks, whose root systems benefit from the generous supply of water. [ Note to self:  try to identify the flora on the banks of the stream.  Are these specimens native to the area? Or have they been added to enhance the landscape from a human perspective?]

We made our way to the lovely footbridge, a steel structure that provides an excellent vantage point to look in both directions, both up and down stream.  Some fauna were present, a few ducks and geese on the surface of the water as well as a some fish that lazily lolled in the current below.  I was struck by the sense of solitude and peace of this beautiful place, in spite of the proximity of suburban life so close.  We continued on the bridge to the other side, then made our way carefully along the opposite bank.  The footing became quite muddy and unstable but the view from this far side of the stream offered the opportunity to reclaim a perspective based on a more unenhanced version of the site, one not as manufactured by human intervention.  Nice!

Our visit included stopping for Susan to take some photos, then we crossed back to the parking lot and took our leave.

21 March 2018

         As predicted by the US Weather Service, it has been a cold and long winter, followed by a cold and wet spring.  I stopped by the Ambrose Brook today in the hopes of spying a bit of change, whether in the early budding of trees, the minute sprouting of grass, a return of more birds with their flutters and chirping.  Any harbingers of spring?  No such luck, not yet.   However, this visit provided me with another opportunity.   It was a cold and mostly cloudy day that served for me to stand in quiet solitary contemplation on the observation platform.  Not to be deterred, I chose to focus attention on a small island that is at the center of the brook and attempt to take note of the visual minutiae that delineate the island’s subtle shadings.  The colors are primarily brown and green, with varying shades of tan and grey.  Black lurks in the shadows and slivers of flickering sunlight shoot arrow-like through the trees, shrubs and brambles.  Wind ruffles some fallen leaves that cling to roots and branches, decaying evidence of a season long past.   Some ducks paddle quietly along the perimeter of the island and barely take note of my presence.  Perhaps they have become inured to human presence in general or through experience have learned that the imposing, vertical mammals do not have the habit of crossing the water barrier between solid ground and the little island to their backs.  They occasionally glanced in my direction and then continued on with their creek cruising.  Not a bad life, given that their feathers and a layer of winter fat provide ample protection from the water and wind.

My observation also took in the water level, higher than in previous visits, presumably from early spring melting and run-off.  The brook water was a muddy brown and lapped at the edges of the island; there was some bank vegetation that was partially submerged and partially above water level.  As with the previous visit a bit upstream, trees on the island threw off roots, some as thick as the fists of a prize fighter, to sustain their height.  There was no indication as yet of buds forming on the trees, none that I could see from the distance, standing on the observation platform.  The quiet of this visit on this end-of-winter day comforted me, offered a soothing message of tranquility, endurance and the abiding wisdom of nature’s continuing cycles.

10 May 2018

         Spring has finally arrived at Ambrose Brook, there are many indications that the season has turned in alignment with the earth’s rotation and tilt.  I visited the site at around 10:30 am and stayed for about one and a half hours.  My time was spent in observation and contemplation of the natural environment as well as the effects of human intervention.  For starters, the leaves are starting to appear on all the trees – finally – the grass is starting to appear less stubbly.  As a result of the burgeoning leaf cover, the ability to see across the brook will be quickly diminishing in the coming weeks, I surmise.  The water in the creek seems to be moving at a bit faster pace, probably because of the amount of rain that has been falling in the last week or so.  I walked for approximately a quarter of a mile in each direction from the parking area off of Rt. 28 in order to determine what changes, if any, had occurred because of the winter weather.

What I observed in the area closest to the segment identification by latitude and longitude was some washing up and / or tree fall from winter storms.  Some of the fallen timber had been ‘cut down to size’ by someone wielding a chain saw, most probably a worker from the local DPW; the logs and branches were piled up on the left bank to a height of approximately three and one half feet.  This pile of wood and leafy debris may prove enticing to some small furry creatures in the future for a lovely, cool, and protected nesting or burrowing place, if it is left as it is. I was able to get around the pile and continue my observation but the brambles have started to fill in and the slog got a bit more difficult.  It was evident from where I was walking on the bank that there is a type of flood plain for the creek; the flow exceeds the bank where the creek takes a meandering turn toward the left.  The footing became quite muddy and the brown grass left over from the fall manifested the effects of flowing water – lovely swirls and whorls that give the impression of a lazy aquatic ballet performed upon the welcoming earth with the literal ebb and flow of the creek’s capricious visits during the winter months.

The brook’s water has now receded from the flood plain and is within a channel that has definitive banks, although the height of the banks varies at different points on my observation path.  Taking a turn in the opposite direction from the parking area, parallel to Rt. 28, the view is idyllic – a meandering brook with a few surface ripples that give off a low and pleasing hum, an overhang of greening trees, grass appealing to the eye and calling for the tread of bare feet, a small waterfall, and some waterfowl – Canadian geese and a few mallard ducks who were more than willing to share the space and beauty of the moment, either the ones who were on the banks of the creek or those who were enjoying the cool embrace of the creek’s sultry flow.    In spite of the minimal traffic noise emanating from Rt. 28, this was place and moment that could be described as a feast for the senses.   The gift of sight  that captures the nuance of color and form, that of hearing,  the sound of birds and brook, that  of touch, that encourages physical discourse with so many material forms as well as the ephemeral contact of wind on my face.  And the olfactory experience is not to be denied, in the sweet reminder of flowering trees and bushes that contrasts with the musty and not-to-be-denied odor of the languorous creek within its uneven banks.  And the experience of taste?  I was not expecting to add that to the list, but a bug unceremoniously entered my mouth and with an unanticipated crunch, the bitterness of the insect’s demise forged its way into my consciousness.  Ugh.  So much for poetic contemplation of this idyllic scenario.

In regard to human intervention, in addition to the chainsawed fallen timber, there was evidence of tidying up in the recently mowed grass along the banks, mulch piled and spread along the public walkways, and a cheerful DPW worker raking some leaves.  There was some human traffic; two men were fishing off of two different piers with hand rails – handy for resting their fishing poles –, and a young mother ambled briskly with her toddler son who had no interest in staying in the stroller but rather preferred to trot along beside her.

The visit was enjoyable, refreshing, renewing.  Some ideas for further exploration are to identify the trees and shrubs in the area, to focus on bird species that are present, and perform another official habitat assessment of the creek utilizing the format provided by the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership.  And the possibility of a kayaking expedition offers yet another challenge.  Onward!

About Margo Persin: I am a retired Rutgers professor who needed a project. I took the Environmental Stewards course offered through Rutgers and was inspired to get back in touch with this beautiful green planet that we all call home via a focus on water. I grew up on the Lake Erie shore, the northeast Ohio coastline, so the pull to return to a partnership with water was a logical and autobiographical one for me. Also, during my years as a professor, I spent several years in Mexico and was able to observe firsthand the devastating and catastrophic effects of no access to potable water. Water means healthy communities, healthy crops, healthy kids. Water is life.

Image of an Eagle

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Rose gets a green aluminum band affixed to her left leg and a silver band to her right leg. Green is the band color used by NJ and silver is a federal band. Each state uses a specific color to quickly identify a banded eagle’s origin.


Over last century as the northeast bald eagle population dwindled, their image flourished as a marketing tool to brand high end merchandise. Gilded eagles sat upon flag poles in parades and auditoriums. Dollar bills and quarters bore engraved, lone eagles, wings spread and talons flared, about to attack at the least provocation.


Never did any image show more than one eagle, even though they mate for life and are dedicated parents. As a generation, we came to know eagles as powerful solitary creatures frozen in iconic poses. There was nothing to challenge that image, the skies were empty and no shadows could be seen speeding across the land. Least of all in central NJ, a land reputed to be sanitized of nature.


Awareness of man’s place in the natural world and his impact on the environment began to be studied in universities like Rutgers College of Agriculture and Environmental Science in the late 1960s, which opened the door to a new era of enlightenment and activism. Books like Silent Spring and Sand County Almanac were the seeds sown to nourish the idea humans were not apart from the cascade of life that flowed, uninterrupted, from the soil and water to apex predators, like the eagle and peregrine falcon.


Eagle restoration in NJ began in earnest in the 1980s accompanied by an ever-growing accumulation of study data gleaned by observation and scientific research. Still the view of intimate eagle relationships and social interaction remained at a sky-high level and not well published for public consumption.


Eagles kept their privacy and legacy reputation as solitary creatures intact until the advent of live cameras, genetic mapping, banding and miniature transmitters.


As far as the public is concerned, it is the live cams, set above some nests and broadcast on the internet, that provide non-stop coverage of eagle antics in the aerie to feed an insatiable voyeuristic human appetite.


The forums that accompany these spy cams generate lively conversation and together, have created a whole new audience beyond those immersed in all things nature. People who can’t tell a snow goose from a snow bunting, are now addicted a wildlife reality show.


And addictive it is, as viewers and scientists both learn what goes on behind nest walls. As voyeurs watch, they see behaviors that mimic human responses. The eagle screaming at its partner could very well be a replay of last night’s argument with their spouse, “who never listens to a word I say”.


Cumulatively, what we see are personality differences among pairs of eagles, where before we had only anecdotal observations and generalized conclusions. We knew the eagle as a solitary warrior and now we see a great raptor dedicated to its mate and offspring. When we look closely into the world of an eagle we see a glimpse of ourselves.


Locally the intrigue has been riveting, with a ringside seat to a female ingénue coming between a mated pair, a harassing hawk obliterated by an annoyed eagle and tender moments of dedicated parents doting on their precious offspring.


We watch as courting behavior evolves into mating, egg laying and alternate job sharing, as pairs relieve each other from brooding duty. We see and hear the wailing of one parent when their mate fails to return, either through injury or death. You cannot be unaffected by that sight and sound as what you experience is automatically translated into human terms.


A live cam from another state showed a female eagle covering her three, day old chicks, as a late spring snowstorm raged. That moment was tender enough but then the male positioned himself alongside the female, resting his head on her shoulder and spread his wings to shield his mate and their chicks from the heavy snowfall; our collective tears flowed.


Recently an eagle that prematurely fell from a local nest was rescued, examined and found to be in good health. Given that one parent went missing in the weeks prior to the fall and it was impossible to return the bird to the nest, a decision was made to place that eagle in another nearby nest.


Armed with the knowledge of intimate eagle behavior and demonstrated dedication to their young, fostering that young eagle was done with full confidence it would be accepted and thrive.


Only time will tell but so far, so good. Years hence, if you see a bald eagle bearing a green leg band, engraved with E68, you now know the rest of the story. Consider an eagle that was killed, June 2015, in upstate NY by a car, was banded 38 years prior! So, eagle E68, affectionately named, Rose, and her foster siblings, E66 and E67 have a good chance to be seen by your grandchildren!


Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.

A Special May Flower

Article and photos by Joe Mish


Looking up into the columbine flower’s mouth, I see a dove with wings spread or an angel. This diminutive wild flower is found in isolated patches among the red shale cliffs that line the South Branch. Who knew, other than hummingbirds, that such a treasured crown jewel was hidden along our river.

The red shale cliffs interrupt pasture and field along the South Branch to stand as an unchanging reference point, immune to progress and raging spring floods that swirl around them.

The exposed cliff face is characterized by a jagged appearance, with sections of smooth rock face the exception. Ancient floods have scoured rounded contours into the soft shale, to form shallow caves, nooks, crannies and alcoves. Like a human face with striking character, the cliffs beg more than a casual glance.

I cannot paddle by without desperately searching the high cliff face for ancient etchings or a petroglyph. Travelers from earliest times could not have passed up an opportunity to scribe their name or draw their hunting or fishing trophies into the smoother areas of these red shale sketchpads. It would be against human nature to leave no sign.

Unexpectedly, what I have found among the craggy shale cliffs is a species of native wildflower that begins to bloom in late April through May. Wild columbine is not found anywhere else, except in the crevices of the prominent shale outcroppings along the river.

Columbine is a finely structured red and yellow flower, in the shape of a crown with five distinct tubular projections. The openings of the five separate passages are shrouded in a common vestibule. Several stalks arise from one clump, one flower to a stem, opening faces downward. The plant is not found in profusion, just in scattered, isolated patches.

There are many commercial cultivars and species of columbine, so to be clear, the wild native columbine is Aquilegia columbine. The derivative of the name is interesting as, ‘Aquila’, is Latin for eagle, and columbine references the family designation of doves. Early taxonomists saw characteristics of both in the flower. It is said the ‘spurs’ resemble the open talons of a raptor and the face of the flower, a nest of doves. To me the spurs that project to form the crown remind me of the reversed leg joint of a grasshopper when viewed from a certain angle and looking up into the mouth of the flower, I see the form of a single dove with wings spread.

The columbine flower produces tiny round black seeds in late May that are indistinguishable from poppy seeds. Though the columbine blooms about the time the first migrating hummingbirds show up, I have yet to catch a hummer dining on the flowers but surely some returning hummers have the plants marked on their GPS.

How and when columbine first found anchorage in these cliffs is a mystery. In the absence of its known origins, I prefer to think of these flowers as inheritance from an ancient legacy of primitive plants. The first of which relied on wind for propagation and then, as if by the hand of an engineer, designed shape, color and form to take advantage of insect pollinators and local soil conditions. Could it be that flowers intelligently made use of the cliffs to mark their presence through the centuries where humans left no trace?

Wild columbine are the crown jewels hidden among the cliffs, that appear in the spring for a brief moment to enrich both pollinators and humans who stumble upon them.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.

Along the South Branch: May Flowers

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A hummingbird and orange trumpet flower engage in an evolutionary dance of equal partnership that has lasted for eons. The flower not only took advantage of an array of pollinators but also stole the heart of man who would seek to propagate flowers far beyond their natural range and ability to survive.   

 A name logically follows the existence of an idea, a person, place or a thing and forever provides an instant reference, complete with assigned identifiable characteristics. So before there was a month named May, a segment of time existed in nature where birth and bloom dominated the season.

The mythology from which the name of May arose was based on the same natural observations seen today. Stories of the stars and the gods became the reference points displayed on the night sky overhead projector to help explain observed phenomenon. The poetic phrase, “April showers bring May flowers” provides information sufficient enough for most people to understand the season. Instead of placing flowers at the altar of the goddess Maia we now send flowers to our mothers on a day designated to show her our appreciation, same story, different day.

Going back to the time before May, can you imagine discovering the first flower ever to bloom? In retrospect it would have meant that some plant had evolved to take advantage of a new method of pollination that relied on insects rather than wind. At the time of discovery, however, the moment had to be absolutely magical. Here was something so different in structure, color, scent and profusion that it instantly intensified a fledgling human emotion that speaks to the appreciation of beauty. The flower not only took advantage of insect pollinators but at that moment stole the heart of man who would later seek to propagate flowers far beyond their natural range and ability to survive.

Watching a rambunctious fox pup at a distance, I saw what appeared to be orange pollen on its solid black nose. As the pup was playing around the daylilies I imagined he stuck his nose inside a funnel shaped orange flower, designed for bees and hummingbirds, to come away with the telltale signs of brightly colored pollen grains. If he sniffed a few more flowers he actually became the “bee” and a willing, if not random, participant in asexual reproduction. The part that serendipity plays in nature and science can never be underestimated and its potential never unappreciated when unprecedented success results.

Fox pups are not the only pollinators unknowingly pressed into service by the ingenious evolutionary design of flowers. It is a laugh riot, for some reason, to see a dusting of yellow or orange pollen on the nose of a child or adult who sniffs a flower in pursuit of its scent. Eyes closed, as if about to plant a kiss, the human pollinator presses forward until nose touches stamen.

The entire event, so instinctive and innocently conducted, that the “bee” comes away unaware of its role in the evolutionary drama of species reproduction and survival. A kind friend will of course bring attention to the dusting of pollen left by such an intimate encounter and be trusted to address it discreetly.

Bees of all kind have ‘pollen baskets’ on their back legs which hold an accumulation of pollen grains that appear as large colorful round beads on opposite back legs. Watch one of those big furry yellow and black bees and you can easily see the lumps of colorful pollen that varies from flower to flower.

Paddling along the south branch, wild columbine can now be seen in select places on north and west facing red shale cliffs. These delicate plants grow from roots wedged between the layered red shale well above the surface of the water. The reddish pink tubular flowers with a common yellow center resemble a group of ice cream cones joined to form a common opening which leads to several individual tails. This structure encourages contact with the centrally located pollen that has to be brushed against in order to reach several sources of nectar located in each tail. This flower must have had a hummingbird sitting on the design team who decided not only the flowers structure but the time the flower was set to bloom. Hummers arriving in early spring from Mexico and Central America have a ready source of food to replenish the energy spent in their annual migration north.

Consider the greatest mayflower of all and the part it played in another notable migration. The “Mayflower”, was a ship that sailed to our shores bearing its human pollen to establish new life on the North American continent  The ship, so named by unknown whimsy and intended as a supply barge, grew to evolve much as early flowers did into an effective delivery system directed by nothing more than chance. Like a flower it bloomed, spread its pollen and ‘died back’ soon after returning to England.

May apples, Virginia bluebells, trout lilies, trillium, jack-in-the pulpits and spring beauties are a small sample of local May flowers that represent the spectrum of a floral legacy whose genealogy traces back to the earliest flowers. Consider that flowers are living things that in some magical way recruited man to further their propagation in exchange for a glimpse of eternal beauty, dreams and imagination to expand the universe of human potential with unbounded creativity and expression.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.

Notes From Garden & Afield — Week of April 15, 2018

Article and photos by Joe Sapia

Callery pear trees taking over a field in Monroe, Middlesex County.

     CALLERY PEAR TREES:  Have you noticed the trees of blooming white flowers in abundance during your travels? Pretty? As we drive by them, yes. But take a closer look, these non-native, but once popular ornamentals, have large thorns, have week branches, and grow thickly. This thick growth prohibits beneficial native plant life from growing. Calleries cross-pollinate easily and produce small pears, which birds eat and, then, poop seeds through the countryside — resulting in more calleries. Enjoy the view and learn from them — that is probably the only good I can say about them.

Callery pear trees along Route 130 in East Windsor, Mercer County.

 A closeup of callery pears in Monroe, Middlesex County.

HEAVY RAIN…:  The Jersey Midlands got clobbered with rain on the Sunday-Monday overnight and Monday, April 15-16 and 16. The National Weather Service reports the following rainfall totals in Midlands counties, although these reported records may not be complete records:
Burlington:  1.94 inches at Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst to 2.50 at Southampton.
Hunterdon:  2.34 at Lebanon to 2.51 at Readington.
Mercer:  2.33 at Trenton-Mercer Airport.
Middlesex:  No reading available.
Monmouth:  3.17 at Wayside.
Ocean:  No reading available.
Somerset:  2.20 at Middlebush to 2.83 in the Hillsborough area.
Bucks County, Pennsylvania:  2.85 at Doylestown Airport.

Flooding at Saw Mill Brook in Helmetta, Middlesex County.

  …AND WIND:  On Monday, April 16, besides getting hit hard by rain, the Jersey Midlands got pretty good winds. According to the website, strong winds were recorded at:
Monmouth County:  47 miles per hour at Sea Girt.
Ocean County:  51 miles per hour at Tuckerton and Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst.

The wind whips these flags at Thompson Park on the boundary of Jamesburg and Monroe in Middlesex County on Monday, April 16.

“Jamesburg Lake” (properly Lake Manalapan) at Thompson Park on the boundary of Jamesburg and Monroe, Middlesex County, is wind-driven Monday, April 16.

     GROUNDHOG IN THE WATER:  I do not think of ground hogs, “Marmota monax,” and water going together. But I spooked one near Manalapan Brook. A hole dug under a tree was flooded, but the ground hog fled me, into the flooded hole. At 61-years-old, all my life in these Pine Barrens around Helmetta, I still learn.

Two women searching for American Indian artifacts in a farm field on the Cranbury-Plainsboro boundary, Middlesex County.

     SNOW:  I received a report of snow falling Tuesday, April 17, in the Cranbury-Plainsboro area of Middlesex County. Since the winter of 1995-1996, this would be the latest snowfall I am aware of in South Middlesex County. Previously, I knew of April 16 in 2007. This season, I recorded 42.5 inches at my home in Monroe, Middlesex County; Normal, based at New Brunswick about 7.5 miles away, would be about 26 inches. Basically, half of this season’s snow did not fall until March 2 or later.

A double-crested cormorant, “Phalacrocorax auritus,” on “Jamesburg Lake” (properly Lake Manalapan) on the boundary of Jamesburg and Monroe, Middlesex County.

SHAD RUN:  I ran into Don Kamienski, a field editor for The Fisherman magazine, at this year’s Outdoors Writer’s Workshop, sponsored by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. Don, who lives along the Delaware River in Burlington County, told me the shad were already running up the river. The annual Shad Fest in Lambertville, Hunterdon County, is Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29. More information is available at 

Shad Fest, 2011 — Various festival posters and one of the artists involved.

     BEWARE THE LANDSCAPER:  As it warms and we get into our yards and gardens, beware of hiring landscapers or gardeners. Have some reasonable faith in them. For example, I see way too much “volcano” mulching, rather than the proper “doughnut” mulching. The buildup of volcano mulching invites fungus into the mulch and disease into the tree. (Why mulch at all?) Also, I see white rock circles around trees; It just heats up the tree. Another recent sighting was a lawn treatment of topsoil on top of old lawn, then a seeding on top of the topsoil; One, it is the wrong time of year to properly plant a lawn and, two, why not remove the old lawn and aerate? Also, topsoil is not regulated, so try to make sure you know what you are getting.

Houseplants in the living room window in my house in Monroe, Middlesex County. A cardinal, “Cardinalis cardinalis,” perched in a tree outside the window.

     GOLDFINCHES, SKUNK CABBAGE, ETC.:  Another sign of spring is the yellowing of male eastern goldfinches, “Spinus tristis.” “Spring males are brilliant yellow and shiny black with a bit of white,” according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website. “Females and all winter birds are more dull, but identifiable by their conical bill; pointed, notched tail; wingbars; and lack of streaking. …The brightening yellow of male goldfinches each spring is one welcome mark of approaching warm months.” This species is the New Jersey state bird. And skunk cabbage, “Symplocarpus foetidus,” is greening up in wetlands.

Two eastern goldfinches, the colorful male on the left and the duller female on the right, on my backyard finch feeder in Monroe, Middlesex County.

 Skunk cabbage in the Millstone River floodplain on the boundary of Cranbury and Plainsboro, Middlesex County.

     TONY’S MARKET:  For the first time this season, I visited one of my favorite places, Tony’s Farm and Garden Center in Robbinsville, Mercer County. At Tony’s, I usually buy house plants — On this trip, I picked up a wandering Jew and a fuschia — house plant supplies, tomato plants, seeds, and perhaps other odds and ends. I have been a Tony’s customer for 25 or so years. Also, a trip to Tony’s includes me walking through the greenhouses, shooting photographs. Many thanks to the Ciaccio family. I normally deal with Tony, a third generation of the family. (My other two regular nursery stops are Krygier’s in South Brunswick, Middlesex County, and Ferris Farms Garden Center in East Brunswick, Middlesex County. All three are courteous and very helpful.)

Blooming flowers at Tony’s Farm and Garden Center in Robbinsville, Mercer County.

     DRIVE-BY NATURALIST:  I was driving to a Monmouth County section of the  state’s Assunpink Wildlife Managment Area to attend the annual Outdoor Writer’s Workshop, sponsored by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. While driving on Route 539 in East Windsor, Mercer County, a male northern harrier, “Circus hudsonius,” flew only a few feet off the ground and only a few feet in front of my Jeep, crossing my path from left to right. This sleek hawk is one of my favorite birds of prey. To see one close-up, if only only a glimpse, is a sight. Because it was a quick-happening event, I was unable to photograph the harrier.

Pollinators, honeybees on the Kiesler farm along the boundary of Cranbury and Plainsboro, Middlesex County.

     OUTDOOR WRITER’S WORKSHOP:  As a journalist, I have been attending the state Outdoor Writer’s Workshop, sponsored by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, on and off for about 30 years. I am a little off my turf because it is basically attended by hunting and fishing writers, rather than naturalists such as me, but the talks are informative. This year, I was able to catch the welcome by Larry Herrighty,  director of Fish and Wildlife; Paulette Nelson, assistant director, on “Recovering America’s Wildlife Act,”; Ross Shramko’s “Results of the Strocked Trout Movement Study in Flat Brook”; and Sharon Petzinger’s “Songbird Response to Forest Management in Northwestern New Jersey.” Many thanks to Al Ivany, chief of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Wildlife Education and Information, for inviting me every year. The lunch, catered by Mastoris Diner-Restaurant, one of my old hangouts in Bordentown Township, Burlington County, is a treat. (Disclosure:  Beginning a few months ago, I became a Fish and Wildlife volunteer, primarily keeping tabs on the Upper Millstone River bald eagle, “Haliaeetus leucocephalus,” nest on the boundary of Mercer and Middlesex counties.)

Larry Herrighty, director of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, welcome attendees to the 2018 Outdoor Writer’s Workshop.

A vanishing scene of farmland, here on the Cranbury-Plainsboro boundary of Middlesex County.

     VOICES FROM AFIELD, FRANK ULATOWSKI:  Frank Ulatowski, an outdoorsman-friend from Manalapan-Englishtown, Monmouth County, is looking to get rid of circa late 1930s-early 1940s Allis Chalmers tractor. In its deteriorated condition, it probably would be best used for parts. Frank is reachable at Frank’s Auto Repairs in Manalapan-Englishtown, telephone 732-446-7616.

The circa late 1930s-early 19402 Allis Chalmers tractor in Manalapan-Englishtown, Monmouth County.

     SKY PHOTOS:  This week’s sky photos are from the areas of Helmetta, Monroe, Cranbury, Plainsboro, South Brunswick, and East Brunswick in Middlesex County; Upper Freehold in Monmouth County; and East Windsor and West Windsor in Mercer County.

A night view from my backyard in Monroe, Middlesex County.

The Kiesler farm on the boundary of Cranbury and Plainsboro in Middlesex County and East Windsor, Mercer County.

The Kiesler farm looking toward the Cranbury, Middlesex County, side.

The Kiesler farm on the boundary of Cranbury and Plainsboro, Middlesex County, looking toward Grover’s Mill, Mercer County.

Along the Millstone River on the boundary of Plainsboro and Cranbury on the Middlesex County side and East Windsor and West Windsor on the Mercer County side.

 From my backyard in Monroe, Middlesex County.

Sky over the cuesta geologic formation in Upper Freehold, Monmouth County.

South Brunswick Middlesex County.

 South Brunswick, Middlesex County.

Over a swamp hardwood forest on the boundary of Helmetta and East Brunswick, Middlesex County, in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta.

SUNRISE AND SUNSET:  For the week of Sunday, April 22, to Saturday, April 28, the sun will rise about 6:10 to 6 a.m. and set about 7:45 to 7:50 p.m. For the week of Sunday, April 29, to Saturday, May 5, the sun will rise about 6 to 5:50 a.m. and set about 7:50 to 7:55 p.m.

NIGHT SKY:  The next full moon is April 29, the Sprouting Grass Full Moon.

 The crescent moon and the planet Venus, from my backyard in Monroe, Middlesex County.

     ATLANTIC OCEAN TEMPERATURE:  The Atlantic Ocean temperature off New Jersey was about 51 degrees.

A squirrel, “Sciurus carolinesis,” at my backyard bird feeder in Monroe, Middlesex County.

     WEATHER:  The National Weather Service office serving the Jersey Midlands is at


April 28, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Middlesex County, New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Ag Field Day, Cook Campus, Route 1 and Ryders Lane. More information is available at website

April 28 and 29, Saturday and Sunday, Hunterdon County, Lambertville:  Shad Fest event of environmentalism, entertainment, food, crafts. More information is available at 

Inside the greenhouse at Tony’s Farm and Garden Center in Robbinsville, Mercer County.

 REDUCING MY CARBON FOOTPRINT:  As I awoke one morning, I listened to a radio broadcast about reducing one’s carbon footprint. I thought, Where am I failing to be an environmentalist? My answer is I drive too much, probably in the 20,000 miles-per-year range. I should work on this. Well, a few hours later, my Jeep was in the shop again for an ongoing clutch-dashboard area problem. Several weeks ago, I had no Jeep for 10 days — and survived quite well, walking and bicycling. So, here we go again. Fortunately, this is my slow time of year for work and with the little work I have this time of year, I can survive without a motor vehicle — I hope. Which leads me to a related story…

…BICYCLING:  Without my Jeep, I bicycled from my Monroe house, through Helmetta, to Spotswood, all in Middlesex  County, for breakfast. On my way back, I stopped at Timmy Mechkowski’s farmette in Helmetta. Timmy has a woodcutting operation there and I needed one log for the woodstove Timmy gave me. I grabbed the wood, tied it to rack of my second-hand, but lovingly trusty, circa 1980 Schwinn Collegiate coaster bicycle. Chris, the pizza delivery woman, saw my parked bicycle with the firewood and thought, Who would do something like this? Then, she saw it was my bike and she added, Now, it makes sense. I am like the “Log Lady” on the old Twin Peaks television show…

My coaster bicycle hauling firewood.

BURNING THE LOG:  After watching on television my Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Boston  Bruins is a National Hockey League playoff game, I went to my woodstove in my garden and threw in the log. I figured I would hang out under the stars on a cool night with a warm woodstove. Well, I gave up that idea when I realized I was smoking out the neighborhood. I guess the log was too wet. So, I watered down the fire and called it a night.

The woodstove in my garden with the log on top.

     Joe Sapia, 61, is a lifelong resident of Monroe — in South Middlesex County, where his maternal family settled more than 100 years ago. He is a Pine Barrens naturalist and an organic gardener of vegetables and fruit, along with zinnias and roses. He loves the Delaware River north of Trenton and Piedmont, too.

     He draws inspiration on the Pine Barrens around Helmetta from his mother, Sophie Onda Sapia, who lived her whole life in these Pines, and his Polish-immigrant grandmother, Annie Poznanski Onda.

     He gardens the same backyard plot as did his Grandma Annie and Italian-American father, Joe Sr. Both are inspirations for his food gardening. Ma inspires his rose gardening.

     Joe is a semi-retired print journalist of almost 40 years. His work also is at @JosephSapia on, along with The Jersey Midlands page on on the Jersey Midlands page.

Copyright 2018 by Joseph Sapia

Notes From Garden & Afield — Week of April 8, 2018

Article and photos by Joe Sapia

Matchaponix Brook near Englishtown Market in Manalapan, Monmouth County. This section of the brook is both diamond and rough — a beautiful natural world fighting the nonpoint-source pollution along Route 527. Brook in the foreground, swamp hardwood forest in the near background, and in the left of the far background, pitch pine trees of the Spotswood Outlier, disconnected from the main section of the Pine Barrens to the south.

MATCHAPONIX BROOK AT ROUTE 527:  I am 61-years-old and have been crossing Matchaponix Brook at Englishtown Market in Manalapan, Monmouth County, since as far back as I can remember. Yet I never gave much thought to the natural world here — until Englishtown outdoorsman Gary Forman relayed information to me through our mutual friend, outdoorsman Frank Ulatowski. This is the beginning of Matchaponix Brook, formed by the joining of Weamaconk Creek and McGellairds Brook. When I stopped by this week, I was amazed. Step only a few feet away from busy Route 527 and one is in a beautiful natural world of brook; swamp hardwood forest; a lodge of beaver, “Castor canadensis”; mallards, “Anas platyrhynchos”; great blue heron, “Ardea herodias”; and the telltale pitch pine, “Pinus rigida,” of the Pine Barrens because this is part of the Pines’s disconnected Spotswood Outlier. Probably plenty more that I did not notice. Unfortunately, I did notice the nonpoint-source pollution — garbage gathering in Matchaponix Brook. Take away this garbage and the busyness of Route 527 and I was in a wonderful natural world. Again, we should keep our eyes open because the natural world is around us, even if we taint it.

A great blue heron on Matchaponix Brook in Manalapan, Monmouth County.

     AS BEAUTIFUL AS MATCHAPONIX BROOK IS AT ROUTE 527…:  Nonpoint-source pollution — basically debris, such as litter or materials blown offsite, with no specific origin — is a major problem in our world. Simply look at litter along a road or, in this case, gathered in Matchaponix Brook at Route 527 in Manalapan, Monmouth County. Generally, the source of this garbage appears to be debris that drains into the brook and Route 527 littering.

Garbage in Matchaponix Brook at Route 527 in Manalapan, Monmouth County.

Garbage in Matchaponix Brook at Route 527 in Manalapan, Monmouth County.

     MATCHAPONIX BROOK:  In the Englishtown area of Monmouth County, Weamaconk Creek and McGellairds Brook join to form Matchaponix Brook. The brook then flows for about 5 miles, as the crow flies, to the north and merges with Manalapan Brook to form the South River on the boundary of Monroe, Spotswood, and Old Bridge in Middlesex County.  “Matchaponix” is a Lenni Lenape Indian word for “land of bad bread,” or land where corn does not grow well. I speculate this name comes from the Matchaponix Brook area being in the Spotswood Outlier of the Pine Barrens, or an area of sandy soil not conducive to growing corn or other conventional crops. (Conversely, “Manalapan” means “land of good bread.” Manalapan Brook begins and runs for miles in a non-Pine Barrens area, or an area of darker, gravelly soil that is good for growing corn.)

Mallards on Matchaponix Brook in Manalapan, Monmouth County.

     SPRING SPRINGING:  People are fishing. Listen in the early morning and you will likely hear birds singing. Look at a woods and you likely will see the red buds of trees. Flowers are blooming in gardens. Nature is coming alive with spring.

Warren Kiesler churns up horseradish plants on his farm in Cranbury, Middlesex County. To the right of the tractor in the background, notice the tree budding.

An angler at “Jamesburg Lake’ (properly “Lake Manalapan”) on the boundary of Jamesburg and Monroe, Middlesex County.

     ROBINS IN THE YARD:  With the coming of spring-like weather, it means the likelihood of seeing robins, “Turdus migratorius,” in our yards. I have noticed more of them around my yard in Monroe, Middlesex County. This week, I watched a robin pull a worm from my garden. “Although robins are considered harbingers of spring, many American Robins spend the whole winter in their breeding range,” according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website. “But because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time in your yard, you’re much less likely to see them.” As the weather warms and nature comes alive, they move to yards because of the availability of such things as worms. “American Robins are common sights on lawns across North America, where you often see them tugging earthworms out of the ground,” according to the Cornell website.

A robin in the shrubs of my front yard in Monroe, Middlesex County.

     HORSERADISH FARMING:  With the collapse of newspapers and, in turn, the collapse of my approximately 35 years as a reporter – basically from 21-years-old when I got my journalism degree to 55-years-old – I am always looking for work. Over those 5-plus years, I have been a part-time staff writer on a weekly paper, freelance writer, writing teacher, security guard. Security guarding, which I did during my college years and resumed these years later, now takes me from a Central Jersey professional park to the perimeter around foreign cargo ships where Maryland’s Patapsco River meets Chesapeake Bay. As I like to say, I have the best syntax at the Baltimore docks and am the only employee of Rutgers University’s Plangere Writing Center that wears a hard hat on his other job. This week, at 61-years-old, add laborer at the Kiesler horseradish farm to my resume.

 Harvested horseradish on Kiesler farm in Cranbury, Middlesex County.

     SNOWBIRDS GOING, GOING…:  When will “snowbirds” — juncos, “Junco hyemalis” — be gone for the season? Based on field notes I have kept over the years, they should be leaving Monroe, Middlesex County, any day now to about April 25 or so. They will head to high ground, as close as North Jersey or Pennsylvania or as far as Canada. Then, I will see them again around the yard about mid-October to early November.

Manalapan Brook in the section of Monroe between Helmetta and Jamesburg, Middlesex County.

     IN MY GARDEN:  I finished the planting of the early spring crop — Kaleidoscope Blend Carrots, Touchon Heirloom Carrots, Bloomsdale Long-Standing Heirloom Spinach, Early Wonder Heirloom Beets, and Salad Bowl Lettuce, all Burpee products.

I found this in my garden. Something got this bird, the remains possible those of a mockingbird, “Mimus polyglottos.”

     YARDWORK:  I tackled the first yardwork of the season, working the front yard. I trimmed trees and prepared soil to plant zinnia and warm-season vegetables. The latter is a continuation of my plan to make my one-quarter-acre yard as productive as possible. With that idea, I am trying to minimize a generally unproductive lawn as much as possible.

PRINCETON ENVIRONMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL:  I attended the annual Princeton Envirionmental Film Festival, seeing part of the “Evolution of Organic” movie and the entire “Seed to Seed” movie, both about organic farming. I also got to see the talk of Dr. Joe Heckman — organic farmer, a member of the board of directors of Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, and Rutgers University soil scientist — after the showing of the “Evolution of Organic” and got to socialize with Joe. (Joe and his wife, Joyce Goletz Heckman, own Neshanic Pastures farm in East Amwell, Hunterdon County. Joyce and I are childhood friends from Monroe, Middlesex County.)

Awaiting a movie at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.

Dr. Joe Heckman, who spoke on organic farming  at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Joe is an organic farmer, a member of the board of directors of Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, and Rutgers University soil scientist.

     UPPER MILLSTONE RIVER EAGLES:  We are pretty sure the nest of bald eagles, “Haliaeetus leucocephalus,” on the Upper Millstone River on the boundary of Mercer and Middlesex counties, has one eaglet in it. The baby should fledge in early to mid-May or the early end to early June on the far end. Then, the family should stay together in the area. After fledging, the young eagle or eagles should stay in the area until about early September to early December. (The bald eagle remains in New Jersey an “endangered” breeder – that is, in immediate jeopardy as a breeder – and “threatened” in general – that is, in danger of becoming “endangered” if conditions deteriorate.)

An adult bald eagle landing on the Upper Millstone River nest.

     GARDEN WRITING:  A great pleasure of mine is to be back at the Princeton Adult School this semester, again teaching non-fiction writing. In the past, I have taught the essay and the vignette. This semester, the course is called “Garden Writing,” but is really about gardens, the outdoors, or nature. Because of its title, the course has drawn a class of passionate gardeners. This passion inspires wonderful stories. Just this week, I have read papers about dandelions, beginning spring plantings indoors, tomatoes and their guests of the hornworm and Braconid wasp. The dozen or so in this class make it a joy to teach.

THINGS THAT DO NOT BELONG:  Just because something is outdoorsy does not mean it belongs everywhere in the outdoors world. On the Millstone River on the boundary of East Windsor, Mercer County, and Cranbury, Middlesex County, I noticed ornamental daffodils growing in the river floodplain. I suspect these were purposely planted or they grew from waste soil. They looked pretty along the river, but they are a non-natives that do not belong there.

These daffodils look pretty blooming along the Millstone River on the boundary of Cranbury, Middlesex County, and East Windsor, Mercer County. But they are ornamentals that do not belong in the wild.

     SKY PHOTOS:  This week’s sky photos are from Monroe, Cranbury and Plainsboro, all in Middlesex County.

Sky above farmland in Monroe, Middlesex County.

Sky above farmland in Cranbury, Middlesex County.

Above my backyard in Monroe, Middlesex County.

Above farmland on the Cranbury-Plainsboro boundary, Middlesex County.

     SUNRISE AND SUNSET:  For the week of Sunday, April 15, to Saturday, April 21, the sun will rise about 6:20 to 6:10 a.m. and set about 7:35 to 7:45 p.m.

A Piedmont boulder field on the Princeton Ridge in Princeton, Mercer County. Notice the lichen growing on the rocks. Lichen is a sign of fresh air.

     MOON:  The next full moon is April 29, the Sprouting Grass Full Moon.

ATLANTIC OCEAN TEMPERATURE:  The Atlantic Ocean temperature off New Jersey was about 46 to 52 degrees.

WEATHER:  The National Weather Service office serving the Jersey Midlands is at


April 21, Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Burlington County, Southampton:  The Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s 13th Annual Native Plant Sale, Alliance headquarters, 17 Pemberton Road (Route 616). More information is available from the alliance, telephone  609-859-8860 or website

April 28, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Middlesex County, New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Ag Field Day, Cook Campus, Route 1 and Ryders Lane. More information is available at website

April 28 and 29, Saturday and Sunday, Hunterdon County, Lambertville:  Shad Fest event of environmentalism, entertainment, food, crafts. More information is available at 

Daffodils in bloom in Cranbury, Middlesex County.

     Joe Sapia, 61, is a lifelong resident of Monroe — in South Middlesex County, where his maternal family settled more than 100 years ago. He is a Pine Barrens naturalist and an organic gardener of vegetables and fruit, along with zinnias and roses. He loves the Delaware River north of Trenton and Piedmont, too.

     He draws inspiration on the Pine Barrens around Helmetta from his mother, Sophie Onda Sapia, who lived her whole life in these Pines, and his Polish-immigrant grandmother, Annie Poznanski Onda.

     He gardens the same backyard plot as did his Grandma Annie and Italian-American father, Joe Sr. Both are inspirations for his food gardening. Ma inspires his rose gardening.

     Joe is a semi-retired print journalist of almost 40 years. His work also is at @JosephSapia on, along with The Jersey Midlands page on on the Jersey Midlands page.

Copyright 2018 by Joseph Sapia

What’s In a Name?

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A red eyed vireo briefly descends from the treetops to provide a fleeting glimpse of one of the most common, yet rarely seen birds, east of the Mississippi.

March is the last piece of evidence needed to prove winter has gone by. No matter the weather March brings, her legacy of cold and snow, as the step child of winter, is invalidated by “the first day of spring” conspicuously stamped twenty-one days into the month on just about every calendar printed.

Further visual proof needed to allay the fear that winter is here to stay, are the strands of migratory birds that precede peak migration in the next couple of months. Perfectly positioned between two rivers that lead to the sea and link to the main Atlantic flyway, Branchburg comes alive with colorful winged migrants. Some birds are just passing through while others stay to establish breeding territories.

You don’t really need to be a graduate ornithologist with the ability to differentiate a magnolia warbler from a black throated warbler to enjoy all the feathered gems that pass our way in spring.

During a recent snowfall the view of several brilliant red, resident cardinals, dodging among the tight branches of a nearby holly tree resplendent in dark green leaves and an overabundance of red berries was a sight to behold. The gently falling snow turned the scene into a living Christmas card.

Bird seed scattered on the ground immediately near the back glass sliding door was being appreciated by a flock of brave juncos. The scene was calm and predictable with an occasional song sparrow darting across the stage. Suddenly, standing on the ground next to the glass was what appeared to be a Parula warbler. I ran for the camera to no avail as the little bird disappeared quicker than a shooting star. It didn’t seem plausible that a warbler would be in this area so early but there it was. Looking through the, ‘guide to field identification, Birds of North America’, I reviewed the dazzling array of warblers each differentiated by plumage unique to adult and juvenile, male and female with a cautionary note on hybrid warblers and seasonal plumage. I guess it was a male Parula warbler.

The conflict of identification versus the excitement at seeing a strange colorful bird lingered for a moment until I realized it was the sight of the bird that provided the magic.

Knowledge of the scientific classification was irrelevant to the enjoyment of simply noticing something that appeared to be different and gave pause to a moment of thoughtfulness or beauty.

As an example, you might gaze upon a stunning portrait of another person or a dreamy sunset and immediately be drawn in even though you have no idea of the person’s name or the location of the sunset.

Beauty is its own reward and needs no further qualification.

Birds are creatures which reflect the colors that dripped from God’s palette of infinite hues used to paint the portrait of life. One could argue ‘colors’ have wings to spread nature’s beauty far and wide and taken together they are called, ‘birds’.

Soon the area will be crowded with migrating birds, the most colorful of which are the warblers. A walk along the river flyways while scanning the treetops will reveal small flocks of birds that look like no other you have ever seen. The bright plumed breeding males will be the first to arrive as they travel in the safety of numbers. It is hard to imagine that these diminutive delicate appearing birds migrate yearly to Central America, Mexico and the West Indies from New Jersey and points north. After arriving in breeding areas, the males separate to set up mating territories defended by trilling songs sung loud and often.

The colorful and numerous male warblers representing several species are spectacular to observe in their diversity of color swatches, masks, vests, necklaces and caps. Each color pattern represents a different species despite similar size and intermingling of flocks.

Even the most ‘nature oblivious’ and ‘nature neutral’ observers may have their heads compulsively turned by the accidental appearance of a flash of tropical color among the local treetops.

Perhaps a seed of curiosity may be sown, nurtured and cultivated from a brief encounter with a spring warbler. That dangling thread of gangly curiosity left by a Magnolia warbler or Yellowthroat can easily draw the observer into the world of nature to wander and wonder at the infinite complexities that bind all living things. To believe beauty is only skin deep and fleeting is to ignore the power, depth and satisfaction the beauty of nature has to offer. Asking nothing in return, not even requiring that you can differentiate a Rufous sided towhee from a Cape May warbler, beauty exists only to be appreciated.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.

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