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.

Raritan Pathogens Report 9.19.2019

Raritan River Enterococci results for September 19, 2019, for six non-swimming beach public access sites. Enterococci results are reported in Colony Forming Units or CFUs. Suitable levels for enterococci should not exceed 104cfu/100mL. Please note: these results are preliminary and awaiting Quality Control.

Here is a photo of Margo grabbing samples at exactly 9:19 am on 9.19.19!

Our official last day of monitoring will be Thursday October 10, however we plan to host a special “Facebook Live” monitoring demonstration and Q&A on Thursday October 17 from 10-11am. We welcome especially teachers and students to join us for this event, registration required.

This week our monitoring team was joined by visitors from Costa Rica, who are in New Jersey to learn about water quality monitoring so as to address issues of serious agrochemical contamination of Costa Rican waters by pineapple plantations. Our Costa Rican colleagues are involved in a protracted legal battle, which has reached the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. Their hope is that they will have international assistance to force the Costa Rican government and the pineapple industry to clean up the waters. We appreciated the chance to meet with them and learn about water quality issues in their area.

Know before you swim/paddle/fish! See here to learn more about citizen science volunteer opportunities and about our monitoring program.

#NYNJCitizenScience #NYNJCommunityScience

Raritan River pathogens report for 9.12.2019

Raritan River Enterococci results for 8.1.2019, for six non-swimming beach public access sites. Enterococci results are reported in Colony Forming Units or CFUs. Suitable levels for enterococci should not exceed 104cfu/100mL. **Please note: these results are preliminary and awaiting Quality Control.**

Know before you swim/paddle/fish! See here for more information about our citizen science program, and to get involved.

#NYNJCitizenScience #NYNJCommunityScience

We must put biodiversity on the agenda for our urban areas

The LRWP is often asked to identify top environmental issues facing our Central New Jersey watershed communities, and every year we develop a “Top 10” list of concerns. Through 2019 we feature these concerns in blog posts that explore the issues (and potential solutions) in more detail. In September we consider how loss of biodiversity reduces the ability of our local urban ecosystems to cope with threats from pollution, climate change and other human activities. Taking steps to increase local biodiversity should be on the agenda of every urban municipality in the state.

For humans, the mental and physical health and well-being, air purifying, water filtering, and other benefits of nature matter most in the places they live. Densely populated regions in New Jersey, like the Lower Raritan Watershed, are home to the majority of the state’s residents. Concentrating populations in cities, where ecological footprints per capita are lower, spares land from development and is favorable for overall global biodiversity. Biodiversity is not just an issue for rural land managers. Biodiversity matters for our cities, too. Increasing biodiversity should be on the agenda of every urban municipality in the state.

The average population density of the United States is 87 people per square mile. The average population density of US metropolitan areas (MSA) is 283 people per square mile. In 2010 in the Lower Raritan Watershed the average population density was 2,347 people per square mile, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the country.

The first “Intergovernmental Assessment of Biodiversity Summary for Policymakers”, released in May 2019, paints a grim picture. At least 1 million species face short term extinction. Declines in biodiversity link to reductions in food supply, fresh water, wood, fiber, genetic resources, medicines and more. Around the world, rates of change in nature are unprecedented, with complex causes including changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; and pollution.

Although threats are greatest in the Global South, our central New Jersey urban watershed is not immune. Loss of forest and freshwater wetland habitat compromise water quality and food sources. Loss of coastal wetland habitat reduces coastal protections, increasing the risk from floods and hurricanes to livelihood, life and property. Loss of soil integrity threatens our “Garden State” status.

The image series below shows an increase in impervious cover in the Lower Raritan Watershed between the years 1995-2012. We see an increase in hard surfaces like roadways, parking lots and roofs over time. What are these hard surfaces replacing? Significant swatches of bio-diverse natural habitat.

An increase in impervious cover is especially hard on our local streams, many of which have already been completed culverted, buried, or otherwise covered up. Increases in impervious cover also negatively impact the surrounding flora and fauna that is crucial to ecosystem health. We know that ecosystems with a wide variety of plants and animals tend to be healthier than those with low levels of biodiversity, and healthy ecosystems are better able to adapt to changing conditions like sea level rise and climate change. We also know that biodiversity provides a significant volume of ecosystem services to urban residents, helping to buffer against nuisances generated by the cities themselves. Those of us who live in urban areas experience directly how green areas of different types provide space for recreation, social contacts, experiencing nature, and education. And we benefit from these spaces in other ways as they filter pollutants, purify water, mitigate flooding, reduce noise and buffer climate extremes like heatwaves.

The image below illustrates the diversity of natural features in the Lower Raritan Watershed. These features include state and federal threatened and endangered species, significant natural habitats as part of the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary, and juxtaposition of geologic features tapering from the volcanic basalt trap rock of the Watchung Mountains in the north, to the Piedmont, to the Coastal Plain.

Pairing the map series that traces changes in impervious cover between 1995-2002 with the map above which shows our remaining environmentally sensitive habitat areas, we see clearly that the special bio-diverse lands we do have left are incredibly vulnerable to being disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments.

Documents like the Intergovernmental Assessment of Biodiversity (2019) and the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 developed out of The Convention on Biological Diversity (2010), provide broad policy guidance that points us in the direction of future biodiversity targets. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife developed the State Wildlife Action Plan (2018), providing guidance for diverse entities in cooperation across ownerships to conserve and restore habitat and connect lands and waters. These documents focus significantly on conservation and preservation of undeveloped and vulnerable lands. To be sure, they are important tools and resources on the path to a more bio-diverse New Jersey, nation and planet, but little of the guidance they provide directly informs policy choices and personal action for our urban landscapes.

The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership believes that in addition to broad policy guidance for conservation and preservation, we need a fundamental shift in collective perspective to see that in the fight to protect biodiversity, cities matter too. With the right form and organization, urban areas can provide significant opportunities to biodiversity, including hosting rare and endangered species and habitat types.

Any shift in perspective must involve broadening our understanding of what “nature” is in cities to include a variety of typically forgotten or neglected spaces. Detention and retention basins, brownfields and contaminated sites, vacant lots, roadside and streamside buffer areas, community gardens, and cemeteries are all potential reservoirs of urban diversity. Much of our work in the Lower Raritan revolves in and around these types of neglected spaces, and much of our work involves implementing Nature Based Solutions and Green Infrastructure. We have adopted Nature Based Solutions and Green Infrastructure approaches because they bring considerations for biodiversity and healthy ecosystem function back to our urban areas and their critical density of population. We believe that by implementing these concepts in our cities, linking healthy ecosystem function in the urban core to its broader watershed, we can center biodiversity at the heart of wider spatial planning and spatial policy making.

8.22.2019 Pathogen Monitoring Results

Raritan River Enterococci results for 8.22.2019, for six non-swimming beach public access sites. Enterococci results are reported in Colony Forming Units or CFUs. Suitable levels for enterococci should not exceed 104cfu/100mL.

**Please note: these results are preliminary and awaiting Quality Control.**

August 15, 2019 Raritan River monitoring results

Raritan River Enterococci results for 8.15.2019, for six non-swimming beach public access sites. Enterococci results are reported in Colony Forming Units or CFUs. Suitable levels for enterococci should not exceed 104cfu/100mL.

**Please note: these results are preliminary and awaiting Quality Control.**

Raritan River Pathogens Monitoring Results 8.7.2019

Raritan River Enterococci results for 8.8.2019, for six non-swimming beach public access sites. Enterococci results are reported in Colony Forming Units or CFUs. Suitable levels for enterococci should not exceed 104cfu/100mL.

**Please note: these results are preliminary and awaiting quality control.**

Please see this article for more information on our Summer 2019 monitoring project.

Raritan River Monitoring Results for August 1, 2019

Raritan River Enterococci results for August 1, 2019 for six non-swimming beach public access sites along the Raritan River. Enterococcus results are reported in Colony Forming Units or CFUs. Suitable levels for Enterococcus should not exceed 104cfu / 100mL. TNTC = Too Numerous To Count. 

**Please note: these results are preliminary and awaiting Quality Control**

Raritan River Pathogens Results 7.18.2019

Raritan River Enterococci results for 7.18.2019, for six non-swimming beach public access sites along the Raritan River. Enterococci results are reported in Colony Forming Units or CFUs. Suitable levels for enterococci should not exceed 104cfu/100mL. TNTC = too numerous to count.  **Please note: these results are preliminary and awaiting Quality Control.**

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.

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