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. We regularly feature environmental observations and writing by Joe Mish, Joe Sapia, Margo Persin, Susan Edmunds, Maya Fenyk, Heather Fenyk and others on our site.

Starting in 2020 the LRWP is pleased to include a set of new voices to our “voices of the watershed” contributors. Our new writers are students in Dr. Mary Nucci’s Environmental Communication class at Rutgers. Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan.

Whispering Shadows Tell Their Mid-winter Secret

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A female cardinal fluffs her feathers and settles in to wait out a midwinter snowstorm

The autumn light gradually dims, as it follows its well-worn path deeper into December. Like a long circular tunnel with a vanishing point, the swirling colors fade away until they disappear, engulfed by dark shadows on the threshold of winter.

From this darkness, caused by the celestial despair of the planets, new light instantly begins to grow while shadows hidden on the far side of light begin to withdraw.

The apparent low orbit of the sun across the sky in winter produces the longest shadows. Shadows, which when measured at the height of the day, over time reflect the ebb and flow of the seasons. It is as if the shadows whispered their secret to early sky gazers, bestowing upon them, the gift of predicting the future.

When the position of stars and planets were noted in association with the occurrence of the longest and shortest shadows, a living calendar was discovered. Sunrise and sunset defined a day, full moon a month and the longest shadow to the longest shadow was a year. The concept of time was now measurable and the occurrence of future events predictable; predictability being an innate need and prerequisite to human survival.

As the primitive calendar became more refined, certain times were marked for celebration. Surely, the longest and shortest days were noted and given special attention. Humans will bridge gaps in knowledge with mythology and paleo societies revolved around myths used to explain natural phenomena.

In the northern latitudes, winter was a critical time of survival. During midwinter the sun appeared to stand still. If you look at a perpetual calendar of sunrise and sunset, the change in day length is minimal during that period.

Many were the rites and ceremonies during that period of darkness. Some gave rise to modern celebration when religious holidays overlaid pagan rituals. Druids burned a yule log to encourage the return of light. Holly, which was evergreen, was given as a sign of life. The birth of light marked a new year, a time to plan and celebrate future success.

I take comfort in celebrating the shortest day and birth of light with a campfire, lighting a cattail and roasting a piece of venison on the glowing coals. This day is my paleo New Year celebration, identifying more with primitive ancestors than ethnic DNA. January first is of no consequence.

To hunt with a traditional bow and arrow and bring a deer to ground to share with the clan is the ultimate act of caring and community. It becomes a communion of spirit and flesh where the animal is assimilated, a sign of respect for its sacrifice. It also transcends time and allows me to share in the emotions felt by my ancestors who looked to the sky and listened to the whispering shadows for guidance and survival.

Welcome to winter and new life. Sophisticated calculation of planetary movements indicates that this year winter will arrive December twenty-first at 11:19 am. Like magic, the descent into darkness instantly gives way to the ascent into light.

If nothing else, give a glance up at the stars on the twenty-first. Know the wonder your ancestors felt when they looked to the heavens in awe, their imagination encouraged by the stars and planets moving across the night sky.

A female cardinal turned upside down, perfectly reflects the new year of light ushered in by the midwinter solstice. It is a chance to use the light to see your world from a different perspective and discover all the treasures hidden by unconscious routine and preconception.  A legacy of the ancient Roman midwinter celebration of Saturnalia where “social order was turned upside down” while merriment and wild celebration ruled the day.

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. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Good Bye Dam!

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The large letters written in white chalk on the old concrete dam simply said, “good bye dam”. That sentiment was accompanied by other names and sketches, not unlike a farewell card signed for a departing fellow co-worker.

The dam on the Lamington River at Burnt Mills was scheduled for removal after several iterations of mills beginning in early colonial times circa 1754.

Dams and mills came and went on New Jersey rivers and streams. Some destroyed by floods, fire or angry upstream neighbors deprived of migrating fish. British troops did their part and burned the mill on the Lamington, in Bromley, which was henceforth named Burnt Mill. These days the dams are being removed by private organizations and groups in cooperation with the National Fish and Wildlife Service. These organizations are dedicated to the restoration of rivers and the downstream benefits to native wildlife and soil stability.

Hundreds of dams across the country have been removed or are being scheduled for removal. The results are, for the most part, shockingly positive. From California to Maine, stories of returning fisheries, reduction in sediment accumulation, reduced flooding and a greater diversity of wildlife have been documented.

Every dam is its own story, its significance dependent on location. Downstream of the Lamington, on the lower Raritan, removal of dams allowed the upstream travel of anadromous fish.

In colonial times, netting alewives and shad as far upstream as Raritan, generated a profitable commercial fishery. Mills and dams put an end to that business.

Most early mills were situated on feeder streams to avoid seasonal floods and raging current. The Lamington dam was perfectly situated in that regard.

Mature trees lined the banks to stabilize the soil and as a result the stream bed suffered minimal erosion during seasonal flooding. Runoff was minimal due to the surrounding land being unsuitable for farming. Even today as development has exploded, the stream bed of the upper Lamington and Rockaway is mostly sand and gravel. The difference is striking when compared to the nearby lower South Branch which suffers from erosion and a build up of silt.

This image above the Burnt Mills dam captures the character of the Lamington and South Rockaway. Mature trees lock in the soil and a heavy canopy shades the shallow water. 

The low concrete dam across the Lamington had been breeched in the early 1950s and misdirected the streamflow into the opposite shore causing severe erosion. An aerial view comparing the intact structure in 1953, to breeched version in 1956, shows the progress of the resulting erosion. An aerial view as seen today, compared to 1956, is even more dramatic.

The image on the top shows the intact dam in 1953. The image on the bottom shows the impact of erosion caused by the breeched dam in three years time in 1956.
 

The Lamington is the recipient of water released from Cushetunk Lake and Round Valley reservoir via South Rockaway creek as well as runoff from extensive upstream development. The added flow into the lower Lamington has hastened its meandering as directed by impervious shale cliffs and the concrete dam. Concrete walls designed to prevent erosion, speed the streamflow otherwise slowed by natural shorelines. Concrete walls line an upstream golf course, and another wall lines an outside curve along the road about a half-mile above the dam. During times of planned water release and seasonal storms, the water volume and speed create a high-pressure nozzle at the point of the breeched dam. The sum of upstream water, that makes up the Lamington, flows around a sharp bend a few hundred yards above the dam, careens off the high straight wall of red shale, slams into a concrete barrier perpendicular to its flow, then left, into a bank of unstable soil.

Free flowing rivers exhibit pure energy and it is energy and movement that define life. Science aside, it is the magic of perpetual motion and endless flow that we embrace. Flowing water is a magic carpet which requires no effort to travel, whether it be by vessel or imagination.

Any interruption of the energized free flow is representative of progressive pathology and an existential threat. The ‘damnation’ of rivers and streams represent stasis, blockages and clots; their removal, a life saving intervention.

So it was, the landmark Burnt Mill dam came down. Mixed feelings for those whose youthful memories were cast into the concrete substructure. The sight of the dam served as a reminder of an idyllic time and sunny days. A momentary retreat from the harsh reality that, on occasion, bites us all, was erased.

The removal was well planned and orchestrated as opposed to a charge of dynamite and a call of, ‘fire in the hole.’

The course of the river needed to be shifted and so large boulders were placed strategically to form the foundation of a left bank to replace that which was lost.

A 323 Caterpillar excavator fitted with tracks, moved into the river above the dam and began to scoop river bed gravel to line the upstream side of the length of the concrete dam. Apparently, this prevented water from flooding the work area during removal. Boulders in place, a second 323 Cat positioned on the downstream side, fitted with a ram driven spike, began to break up the concrete starting at the midstream end, working toward the right shore. It appeared the first foot and a half was easily penetrated. The second and third pass strained the hydraulic ram, the concrete’s resistance futile. After each session with the spike, the front-end loader scooped up the rubble and dumped it in-line with the boulders to form a new shoreline. The effort continued and half the dam was broken up and redistributed in about four hours. https://vimeo.com/367086739

Before and after images show the progress of the removal. Images 3 and 8 are the same view. Images 1 and 7 represent the same view. This work took place over three days.

Work continues as the removal of the dam was the first step in restoring the Lamington to its original course, pre-1754.

A new generation will know a different river, just as the last generation knew only a river interrupted by a dam.

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. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

A Final Blast of Flaming Fluorescence

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Another autumn, like no other, passes through an ageless portal, as all seasons must.
Autumn’s final blast of flaming fluorescence is embodied in these black oak leaves that appear to be on fire.

A profusion of spider webs and hopeful strands of silk, looking for a second anchor point, weave throughout the late August woods in an attempt to hold the fleeting summer hostage.

Though the formidable silken net poses enough of an obstruction to divert a hiker’s footsteps, its hold on summer goes unnoticed by the celestial choreography that declares the arrival of autumn.

Color begins to appear as careless drips and blotches on the faded green palette left behind by summer. Scattered specks of yellow mist the crown of a wild cherry tree, as if clearing the sputtering nozzle on a can of yellow spray paint.

Deep scarlet splashes onto leafy vines of virginia creeper to appear as strands of a necklace lying against the perennial greenery of an eastern red cedar.

Swaths and stripes of color appear in fields and resemble an artist’s palette, holding an array of colored oils.

Fields offer the greatest diversity of any stage of plant succession and so, are showcases of color in the fall. The earliest news of the changing seasons is published in full color ads in open fields for all to read.

Pokeweed, drooping with clusters of deep purple-black inkberries, standout among the yellow swaths of fully blossomed goldenrod. The main stem of pokeweed always gets a second glance as it appears to be some odd placed artifact that does not belong. The arrow straight magenta stems are so dramatic in color they deserve a long moment of admiration simply for the boldness of nature’s artistry.

Native cardinal flowers which favor damp soil, is a personal favorite, which signals that the end of summer is near. Blooms begin mid-August and last well into September. A favorite of humming birds, this small, delicate tube-shaped flowers glow with a flat reddest red fluorescence and contrast beautifully against pale green cattail leaves, which often grow nearby. If ever a color was to catch your eye it would be an isolated cardinal flower bloom that glows with the power of a lighthouse beacon.

Bright purple ironweed, swamp and common milkweed add to the scene of fall color. Begging a closer look, an isolated stand of ironweed or a yellow swallowtail butterfly on a cluster of milkweed, often offers a surprise in exchange for curiosity. Hidden among the dominant grasses and blooming plants, hide the volunteers. Long thin pods of dogbane, used to make bowstrings and cordage, odd placed wildflowers or other cultivated escapees, find safe harbor and anonymity within these trackless fields.

An isolated single plant of Beardtongue penstemon was an unexpected surprise hiding in obscurity among the dominant field grasses
Dogbane

As summer begins and ends with colorful flowers, and Autumn, bearing genes of summer parentage, carries on that tradition of color in a final blast of flaming fluorescence.

Black gum and native persimmon begin the lightshow, subtly at first. Random isolated leaves are electrified and take on the appearance of old fashioned decorative light bulbs, salmon and orange, respectively.

The concocted color combinations composed of various tints used during the early seasonal transition, now overflow, mix and explode in brilliant colors used by October to paint the tree tops.

Oak and sweet gum take the full blast of color shot from October’s paint gun. Add a clear autumn day under full sun and blaze orange oak leaves absolutely glow against the blue sky.

The sweet gum produces a kaleidoscope of color ranging from shades of reddish purple to pure red, maroon, orange and yellow. Individual trees favor one color over the other but all sweet gums offer the complete spectrum of possible tints and shades.

It’s fun to imagine, spiders, as in Charlotte’s Web, spelling out the word, AUTUMN, in silken letters, to foretell the coming season.

Another autumn, like no other, passes through an ageless portal, as all seasons must, only to reappear and fade and reappear and fade again. The ephemeral concept of life seems at odds with the reality of nature.

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. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Encounter with a Gray Ghost

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The elusive gray ghost of Native American mythology appears out of the river’s mist, as we stare into each other’s eyes.

February fourth, late afternoon, marked a close encounter with a gray ghost I have been chasing for decades. Face to face at eighteen paces, the apparition materialized out of the river’s mist. So close, our eyes met as I looked unavoidably through the lens of its honey-brown/yellow eyes and into its soul.

Just as an opening act raises the energy of the audience, three terrified deer ran past moments before on the same trail and I do not use the word ‘terrified’ lightly.

I quickly picked up the camera in anticipation of more deer running through the constricted pass. I was sure there would be a second act, though had no idea what it might be.

To my amazement, shock and awe, a coyote appeared. I always wondered if I could tell a coyote from someone’s pet dog. Well I’m here to tell you, the recognition was instant and left no doubt which canine version stood before me.

The eyes, the yellow eyes, commanded full attention at that close a distance. The coyote’s mottled gray fur blended so perfectly into the leaf covered ground, its eyes appeared as two gleaming orbs hovering, unattached, in the air, above the ground.

The eyes, those yellow eyes, were a personal invitation afforded to me as a momentary portal through which to view the heart of a wild spirit.

The coyote is a mythological character come to life whose reputation for intelligence and adaptability is well documented in ancient tribes’ oral histories. Amazing, our interaction with coyotes in ancient times has continued unabated to this day. The coyote appropriately goes by any one of several aliases, yotes, song dog, brush wolf, prairie wolf, so fitting for a reputed trickster as described in the myths of many early cultures.

Originating in the west, coyotes have migrated east on their own, as well as spread by intentional redistribution. The first documented sighting of a coyote in NJ is reported to be 1939 and today they have been reported in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Song dogs have been legal game in NJ since 1998. Many states have been conducting genetic studies on coyotes and some, like NJ require the killing of a coyote by legal means or roadkill, be immediately reported to the state division of fish and wildlife.

The eastern coyote is generally much larger than its western cousin. The largest coyote has been reported at 55 pounds, though they average much less. DNA sampling has documented coyotes and wolves have mated, which may explain the larger size and the color variation in their coats. Coyotes will, on rare occasion, mate with dogs and are referred to as coydogs.
Coyotes are now well established in our area and often, a red or gray fox will be mistaken for a coyote. The visual differences between the two species are dramatic, size and coloration the most obvious.

Coyotes have always been at the center of controversy, especially in the west where livestock depredation is a concern. Their adaptability includes a diet so varied as to take advantage of whatever fare is available. That menu may include pets, insects, plants or poultry. Coyotes have been trapped, poisoned and shot and yet persist in viable populations in close proximity to man, thus have earned a ghost-like reputation. Someone once said of a coyote, ‘if you turned a coyote loose on a tennis court it could disappear behind the net!”

In the court of popular opinion, defenders stand opposed.

A doctor I know was nonplussed at my excitement of encountering a coyote. He regularly sees them on his property and one often comes to play with his 110-pound German shepherd.

Another strong proponent and defender of coyotes is Geri Vistein, who has written a great book, “I Am Coyote”. Geri also has a website and Face Book page, “Coyote Center, Carnivores, Ecology and Coexistence”. Geri explains that coyotes are an indispensible part of our living web of life and points out coyote management errors that add to the problem of negative human/ coyote interaction.

However you view coyotes, this wild and untamed spirit, wrapped in gray fur, is worthy of admiration. If you love dogs, it is not a leap to extend that feeling to their wild cousins. But be warned, not everyone shares that love.

It is quite a feat for any species to have flourished in times gone by and still maintain genetically viable numbers in the midst of an expanding human population and chronic loss of natural habitat.

The coyote remains more of mythological character of dubious existence, as it is rarely ever seen; you are more likely to hear a chorus of melodious howls on a cold and still winter night than to ever see a coyote. As with any sound in the night, its source and location are left to pure speculation which only deepens the mystery of the gray ghost’s existence. Doubt creeps in when your eyes fail to confirm what your ears hear.

For more information on coyotes see the link on the NJ Fish and Wildlife site.

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. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Field Trip Recap: July 15 Green Infrastructure Tour

Middlesex County Extension Agent Michele Bakacs explains shoreline restoration to our group.

Many thanks to everyone who joined the LRWP and Middlesex County Water Resources Association for a picnic and tour of green infrastructure and detention basins in Middlesex County!

Rutgers County Extension Agent Michele Bakacs and Rutgers Doctoral Student and plant expert Kate Douthat provided guidance as we explored several sites in Middlesex County’s Thompson Park (Monroe Township), a retention basin retrofit site in Monmouth County, and a new rain garden at Spotswood Middle School.

Lake buffer restoration was the highlight at Thompson Park (more information on this project is available on the Freehold Soil Conservation District project webpage). This area is also part of the Watershed Protection and Restoration Plan for the Manalapan Brook Watershed one of the southernmost sub-watersheds in the Lower Raritan watershed.

For more info on wetland islands….

Additional general resources on Green Infrastructure include the following:

Overview of Green Infrastructure practices (brochure)- http://water.rutgers.edu/Green_Infrastructure_Guidance_Manual/GI-Brochure_PRINT-FRIENDLY.pdf

Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey- http://water.rutgers.edu/Rain_Gardens/RGWebsite/RainGardenManualofNJ.html

Manalapan Watershed Restoration videos- www.tinyurl.com/ManalapanWatershed

More technical resources include:

Green Infrastructure Guidance Manual- http://water.rutgers.edu/GreenInfrastructureGuidanceManual.html

NJ’s Developers Green Infrastructure Guide (NJ Future)- https://developersguide.njfuture.org/

NJDEP’s maintenance guidance for stormwater- https://www.njstormwater.org/maintenance_guidance.htm

Butterflies in the rain garden.

Two times five, plus one

Article and photos by Joe Mish

What the eagle sees

I love math, as it reveals patterns of periodicity which lead to predictability and useful projection of the future and explanation of the past. Even chaos in nature follows mathematical formulas, as explained by Fibonacci’s sequence and the golden rule.

When a simple mathematical formula is applied to the pair of eagles that make their home on the South Branch of the Raritan River, an amazing picture is revealed.

Two times five plus one; Do the math and the answer is, eleven. It is this simple formula, with a single constant and two variables that summarize the efforts of one pair of eagles over a five-year period. It also theoretically predicts their future contribution to the greater eagle population.

The constant, two, is the single pair of eagles that have built and rebuilt their nest at a single riverside location on the South Branch.

Structures on the tongue to help stiffen it.

If any deserve to be called a constant, it is this dedicated pair of eagles. Though, over the years, argument between them has been has been loud and expressive. The larger female revealing her feelings in a series of threatening calls, directed at the male, beg for anthropomorphic interpretation. Dad proudly arrives with a large branch to improve the nest and mom decides its arrangement as if she was changing the furniture around. It is mom that spends the night on the nest. Food deliveries stop at dusk and by morning mom is hungry, needs to take a shower and stretch her wings. If dad is not there at first light, she becomes quite vocal, calling for him to take her place on the nest.

Every once in a while, dad would wander back a little late and get a real tongue lashing. Through the travails of their relationship, they persist as a dedicated pair. Their partnership is undeniable as they attend the needs of their offspring and each other. Both will bring food to the nest and share it with their partner. Though sometimes the fish provided has a few bites taken out.

The next variable, two, is the number of eggs this pair has laid and the number of chicks they have fledged every year for over five years.

To achieve one-hundred percent success on the number of eggs laid to eaglets fledged is quite an accomplishment. Not all eggs remain viable and not all hatched chicks survive. Some may fall out and be fatally injured or attacked by a predator. Of those that do successfully fledge, their fate is tenuous. This is one reason banding eagles can provide some data on survivability. If enough data is collected a statistical projection can be attempted by age group.

Any deviation from ‘two’ in our eagle formula is added or subtracted in the second variable. In this case it is plus one, which represents the fostering of an eaglet from a down stream nest that fell or was forced out by an attacker.

The aluminum band affixed to E82. This year both chicks were male.

Last year a female eaglet, assigned band number E68, was placed in the south branch nest during the scheduled banding session. The adult eagles and their two, six-week-old offspring, accepted the stranger. One can only imagine the endless thought bubbles appearing over each bird’s head to reveal their thoughts and words when two, magically became three. The adults had to work overtime to feed an extra hungry mouth and the established pair had to share the food provided. Consider the eagles at six weeks of age weighed almost seven pounds each.

Doing the math, our eagle pair can live thirty years or more. Subtract their immature years and in theory could produce, plus or minus, fifty offspring. Consider their first nestlings from the 2015 season are approaching maturity and the number of eagles of South Branch origin, keep growing. More impressive, today’s eagles may be seen by our grandchildren along the South Branch or several states away.

A four-year-old immature eagle captured in Quantico Virginia, March 15, 2018 as part of a study, was observed in South Jersey earlier this spring. A square solar panel on its back powers a transmitter and records a plot of its travels. Truly, the skies are the limit, to the world of an eagle and a lesson we might take to heart, literally and figuratively.

By year, this eagle pairs’ offspring have been banded with numbers…… 2015 – E14, E15,  2016 – E43, E44, 2017 – E57, E58, 2018 – E66, E67, E68 and 2019 – E82, E83.

Veterinarian with NJ fish and game endangered and non game species program, Erica Miller draws a blood sample while Kathy Clark assists in the process. Kathy is head of the endangered and non game species program.

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. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Luci in the Sky with Diamonds

Article and photo by Joe Mish

Another magic moment revealed itself in a face to face encounter with a deer fawn enjoying the cool water of the South Branch. The pattern and contrast of spots on the fawn is reminiscent of the firefly spectacle and becomes a walking billboard for the upcoming bioluminescence night show.

This year mid to late June showcased a bumper crop of fireflies or lightning bugs as they are often referred. Who hasn’t seen a lightning bug flitting around their yard? Big deal! Well it is a big deal if you see the intense display of luminescence played out in a grassy pasture surrounded by tall trees on a moonless night.

Beginning just before dark, with a growing intensity, the concentrated fireflies put on a dynamic light show guaranteed to hold your attention until the curtain begins to fall at around 11 pm. Strangely enough the moving flashes of bright yellow light contrast against the black darkness to steal away any perception of depth or relative position. Stare long enough and you might lose your balance. The scale, intensity and contrast of this visual phenomenon does much to anesthetize any thoughts of logic and scientific understanding from creeping in to spoil the moment. The experience is heightened by our primal esteem of fire and light to reflect upon our souls as we surrender to the magical display of luminescence.

Fireflies are the stuff of childhood memories. Many a captive luminary flashed a desperate signal through the clear glass of a Skippy peanut butter jar. Our fascination soon ended with puberty to become an unremarkable footnote in our adult lives.

Read on and you might want to salute every time you see a lightning bug.

Fireflies belong to the family Lampyridae, so even without knowing Latin, the assignment makes sense. It was about 1948 that the luminescence was isolated but unusable until years later when sufficient quantities of the material could be produced. The firefly’s light is created by using a combination of luciferin, an enzyme named luciferase and ATP. Lucifer in Latin can be translated as ‘light giver’. Lucid is a word that means clear and derives from the Latin word for ‘light’. To the uninitiated luciferin sounds like something the devil had a hand in. Amazingly when compared to a misnamed “light bulb” almost all of the lightning bug’s light energy goes to creating light while the “light bulb” is said to produce 10% light and 90% heat.

Typically poisonous plants and animals are brightly colored to warn away potential predators. So it is with lightning bugs that they contain a substance similar to digitalis. Veterinary journals report many exotic lizards kept as pets die each year when owners try to vary the pet’s diet by feeding them lightning bugs

Worldwide there are many species of fireflies. Our local bugs display the luminescence as adults and as larvae. In fact the larvae are predatory and eat earthworms by injecting a mix of enzymes and probably anesthetic into the worm and then sucking out the blended juices. Often referred to as glow worms, firefly larvae will intensify their light when stressed not unlike you turning red in anger or embarrassment.

Female fireflies climb onto tall grasses or shrubs as they cannot fly. All the flashers cavorting in the night sky are the males. When a female finds a flash pattern she likes she signals to the male in similar fashion to ‘come on down’.

Recently with the advent of genomic research and the clinical application of gene therapy, bioluminescence has been recruited to make stunning inroads into medical research. Attaching a bioluminescent gene to a cancer cell allows researchers to follow the progression of cancer cells from the moment they are injected into animal models. Up until now, researchers would have to wait months after inoculating animals with cancer cells to see the manifestation of clinical or laboratory effects. The incubation period for tumor production was a blind spot that has now been revealed with the help of the common firefly. Immediately the distribution of cancer cells can be followed as it spreads through the body and does battle with our rather effective immune system. Immediately the effectiveness of cancer therapies can be tracked and adjusted or changed.

These light producing cells can be attached to bacteria as well in the study of anti-infective drugs. Imagine a visual image of bacteria spreading throughout an animal’s body, injecting medication and seeing immediately the effectiveness of the trial drug and dosage.

Last of all consider the myth surrounding the old favorite Beatles tune, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Most Beatle’s fans agree the title of the song came from the Fab Four’s immersion in the psychedelic drug culture. I, however, contend the song was named after watching a mid summer’s spectacle of lightning bugs flashing in the sky like diamonds courtesy of Luci- ferin and Luci-ferase.

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. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Hidden Natural Treasures Revealed by Invitation of the Rain

Article and photos by Joe Mish


Access to some of the tributaries feeding the North and South Branch of the Raritan River is strictly a trail blazing event. The rewards are worth the effort.

Like a spectacular desert flower that only blooms after a rain, many tributaries of the Raritan river’s North and South Branch suddenly blossom into navigable waterways if only for a brief moment.

These ephemeral watery threads weave though otherwise inaccessible places of pristine beauty and undisturbed wildlife. Visitation is exclusively by invitation of the rain. The chance of appropriate water level matches the odds of winning at roulette. However, the opportunity to enjoy runnable water is increased, as it can occur at any time of the year, unlike many northeast rivers that are seasonally dependent on melting snow and large drainage areas.

One jewel of a stream went a full year before the shadow of my canoe silently passed over its sandy bottom in time with the midsummer freshet racing to the sea. The rarity of such a small stream sojourn increases the value of the experience.

The appearance of an apparition is the best way to describe the transformation of a small tributary into a navigable waterway. Water that lazily followed a convoluted path through a twisting labyrinth of exposed rocks, now flows over them with self-determination. The exposed stream bed is flushed clean of fallen leaves and broken branches while smaller rocks and stones are subtly rearranged into future sand bars and shoals.

For many years I had my eye on a tributary of the South Branch too shallow to run and whose character was totally unknown to me. On these small streams, strainers, trees that span the watercourse from bank to bank can be life threatening, especially in high water with minimal possibility for evasive action. Even on the main course of the North and South branch, strainers have claimed paddlers’ lives.

So, it was with caution that I approached what I considered to be a reasonable water level, after studying the historic stream gauge data. The possibility of another as yet undiscovered eagle nest, was also a consideration in choosing this stream.

While not situated in the wilderness, a solo trip like this, even in central New Jersey, is not to be taken lightly. I checked topo maps as well as aerial views and road maps to confirm my location at any given point.

Though I certainly wasn’t the first to paddle this stream, it sure felt that way. The initial stretch was one of several locations where the water level could be viewed from the road and rarely were the midstream rocks covered with water. Today, however, I floated easily, inches above the largest rocks. Five minutes later I was out of sight, around the first bend and on my way to explore the unknown. A very strange thought to have amid the congestion of central New Jersey; a little kid’s fantasy come to life.

The scenery did not disappoint, hardwood trees dominated the shoreline and formed a wide greenway to serve as a protective margin against runoff from cultivated land and residential properties. The intimacy of the stream’s narrow course bought both banks into view while looking straight ahead.

Bare red shale outcroppings provided a cutaway of the contours seen on the topographic map. Some more dramatic than others.

At the point of highest elevation, through which the stream cut its course, a palisade of red shale stood so high, it felt as if I were paddling through a canyon. Atop the sky scraping cliff stood a wall of giant trees which appeared to be on the same plane as the cliff face. Their combined height and singular appearance could not be taken in with just a tilt of the head and an upward glance. It was as if the trees were standing on the earth’s shoulders in a successful effort to touch the sky.

As is characteristic of these small streams, changes happen quickly and dramatically.

One moment later, the unobstructed view of the blue sky and towering prominence vanished, as a sharp bend in the again green canopied river, demanded my full attention. Here, the main current was rushing to the inside of the almost angular curve and through the branches of a fallen tree. Several forceful draw strokes were required to avoid entanglement.

The rest of the trip was easily navigated through a few rock gardens and shoals. Deer were everywhere, while a pair of geese and a few wood ducks provided a downriver escort, warning the world of my otherwise silent approach.

No eagles were to be seen, though a close encounter with a great horned owl made up for the absence of a new eagle nest site. I eagerly await my next rain drenched invitation to another, one of many, tributary paddling options.

Each tributary has its own character, no two alike, other than they share invitation by rain only.


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. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Red Shale Cliffs Mark the River’s Course

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The sentinel red shale cliffs host a garden of moss, wildflowers and lichens as they stand watch over the meandering South Branch. The wandering river has its way after honoring the boundary set by this shale outcrop

The meandering South Branch has changed much of its course over the decades, restrained in its wandering, only by the presence of red shale cliffs that mark its course.

In an area of rolling hills, flood plain and the absence of field stone, the last thing you’d expect to see is a cliff. The cliffs are an exposed edge to the earth’s crust, forced above ground by never ending geologic activity along a fault line.

Growing up along the lower Raritan, there wasn’t a cliff to be seen. So when I ventured upstream in later years, the presence of a cliff was a big deal. It added drama to my paddling adventures. A genuine, bonafide cliff, like the ones you see on TV and in the movies, where heroes hung by their finger tips and from which villains fell to their death.

To top it off, these cliffs are red, well really maroon, which set them apart from any other cliffs, most of which are composed of hard gray stone.

I cannot paddle past one of these outcroppings without looking for some sign of a petroglyph. Shallow carvings made in stone by paleo inhabitants. What paleo hunter/gatherer would not leave some indelible sign on those giant billboards untouched by seasonal floods? Haven’t found any, but still keep looking.

One thing I did find is a shale slab underwater, etched with the name, “J N Stout”, followed by a roman numeral. Stout is a name common to the area of some of the earliest settlers. That inscription still remains a mystery. It would make sense to use that cliff as a boundary marker, even early 20th century deeds listed trees and rocks to mark property lines.

Surely there must be some sign from paleo travelers scratched into those cliffs. Perhaps when the light is right, a shadow of a deer or a turkey will magically appear on that red stone tablet, a testimony to a successful hunt from post glacial times.

While not finding ancient artifacts of human origin, there are ancient travelers who set down roots in the cliff face. To my amazement, columbine, a native wild flower, flourishes only on the cliffs and flowers in the April/ May timeframe.

Portions of the cliffs, shaded from the sun, will be covered with a carpet of thick, dark green moss and scattered patches of the pale green lichens, to compliment the dark maroon shale.

It was beneath one high shaded cliff, notched with narrow ledges, that I silently walked, searching for photo ops. The cliff on one side and the river on the other, separated only by a few paces, my steps were confined to one narrow trail.

Suddenly, the sound of frantic scrambling in the leaf litter on a small ledge just above, got my full attention. A red fox had been sunning comfortably, protected from the wind and safe from any danger. Now, as it scrambled to escape my presence, it slipped and fell, as leaf litter rained down upon my head. Fortunately, the fox regained solid footing and headed for parts unknown.

The cliffs held another surprise for me as I paddled by on a bright sunny day in the early spring. It was a time when large flocks of geese gathered on the river. In the distance, the river made a sharp bend to the left, directly opposite a high, bare faced shale cliff.

The noise the geese made was deafening, a misrepresentation of the few geese that were visible. The greater mass of the flock was out of sight, downstream of the bend. At first glance, the overwhelming noise, out of proportion to the geese that could be seen, amounted to an auditory hallucination and set the stage for what was yet to come.

As expected, the massive flock exploded into flight as I got closer. The sound was undiminished, though the geese were out of sight, below the river bend.

I suddenly realized I was watching the endless shadows of the geese that I could not see; fly across the face of the cliff.

Because the sound the geese made echoed off the cliff and only the shadows were visible, it appeared the shadows were the source of the sound. The cliff acted as a giant movie screen complete with sound track and shadow puppets in the form of geese.

So, it is with awe and expectation that I look upon the stalwart cliffs as timeless reference points, immovable sentinels that add beauty and dimension to the scenery along the North and South Branch, their tributaries and the upper Raritan River.

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. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

Notes from Garden and Afield in the Jersey Midlands; Week of 2019, March 31 to April 6

Article and photos by Joe Sapia


A beautiful rainbow trout at “Jamesburg Lake” in Middlesex County.

     TROUT FISHING ‘OPENING DAY’:  New Jersey’s trout fishing “Opening Day” was Saturday, April 6. On that day, I surveryed anglers as a state Fish and Wildlife volunteer. I was at “Jamesburg Lake,” properly “Lake Manalapan” on the boundary of Jamesburg and Monroe in Middlesex County. County Parks and Recreation lists the lake as 30 acres, created by the damming of Manalapan Brook. Prior to Opening Day, NJ Fish and Wildlife released 610 rainbow trout, “Oncorhynchus mykiss,” into the lake. I interviewed about 50 anglers, who reported catching 65 rainbow trout of which 49 were kept, 7 released, and 9 unknown if kept or released. The 65 trout ranged in size from about 9 or 10 inches to about 18 inches. Anglers were allowed to keep 6 trout as long as each was 9 or more inches. Fish and Wildlife is to release 450 rainbows during each of the next three weeks. Trout fishing at the lake, which is not traditional trout water of clarity and coolness, should extend to about June. (I also volunteer for Middlesex County Parks and Recreation, so this surveying was a two for the price of one.)

Rainbow trout on a stringer at Jamesburg Lake.
Canada geese, “Branta canadensis,” fly behind a osprey, “Pandion haliaetus,” carrying a fish in its mouth.

     OSPREY:  I watched an osprey, “Pandion haliaetus,” crash into Jamesburg Lake and grab a fish in its talons. The fish was likely one of the recently stocked rainbow trout. The osprey flew off, circling the lake, carrying the fish. “Unique among North American raptors for its diet of live fish and ability to dive into water to catch them,” according to Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website. The osprey was “seriously endangered by effects of pesticides in mid-20th century; since DDT and related pesticides were banned in 1972, ospreys have made a good comeback in many parts of North America,” according to the “Audubon, Guide to North American Birds.”

The osprey with the fish — likely a freshly stocked rainbow trout — in its talons. “When flying with prey, an osprey lines up its catch head first for less wind resistance,” according to Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website.

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
https://josephsapia.wordpress.com/ @JosephSapia on Twitter.com, along with The Jersey Midlands page on Facebook.com on the Jersey Midlands page.

Copyright 2019 by Joseph Sapia

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