Month: February 2017

Walking with the Weather Boy

Article and photos by Joseph Sapia

Sapia - Shekiro's Pond in Helmetta

Shekiro’s Pond in Helmetta

Joey Slezak grew up in South Jersey, but he has multi-generational roots in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta and has lived in his parental grandparents’s former house in Helmetta while studying at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. In his own right, Joey is a meteorology student at Rutgers, an outdoorsman, and, importantly to me in the outdoors, my go-to science guy.

I was looking forward to walking afield with him – perhaps not on as cold a day as February 18, 2015. Minus 1 degree at dawn and 9 degrees when I left my house about two hours later. But between our schedules, we had to take advantage of this opportunity, cold or not. Plus, we are woodsmen from Helmetta of tough local Polish stock. So, we plunged into the approximately 15 degrees when we finally started walking before 10 a.m.

A woodpecker hammered away. A few inches of snow covered the ground – on the surface, it was fluffy — and clung to trees.

“You could see the snow fall from the trees, these little flakes go by,” said Joey, 22-years-old at the time and working on his bachelor’s degree in meteorology.

On this day, we would spend much time in wetlands, including an Atlantic white cedar swamp being threatened by invasive phragmites.

Sapia - Looking skyward from Atlantic White Cedar Swamp

Looking skyward from the Atlantic white cedar swamp

“This is probably as secluded as you could be in these woods,” I said.

It was very quiet, until a jet airplane flew by.

“The final approach to Newark Airport comes over us,” Joey said.

Despite the cold, I was surprisingly warm.

“Once you heat up your clothes, there’s no wind to dissipate it,” Joey said. “(And) you’re dressed for it.”

I was dressed in long underwear, bottoms and tops; covered with a sweater and windbreaker jacket, all made of materials to wick sweat.

Joey pointed out hoar frost, a crystallized coating of frost. With the hoar frost, Mother Nature worked her art on any icy surface of water and on blades of vegetation.

Sapia - hoar frost on water

Sapia - hoar frost on twigs

Mother Nature’s artwork: hoar frost.

Here and there, we were in danger of breaking through the swamp ice. I went up to my shins at one point, up to my thigh at another. Joey noted how he could smell the swamp when I broke through.

As we walked, we noticed evidence of the day’s low humidity – in the clarity and blueness of the sky.

“Not a cloud in the sky (hardly), a bluebird day,” said Joey, who, now in 2017, is working on his master’s degree in atmospheric science.

As we walked a sand road, we noticed fallen trees, lying northeast to southwest.

“That’s probably coastal,” Joey said, meaning a storm out of the east, rather than in the normal flow of wind from the west.

Sapia - Joey Slezak

Joey Slezak at a treefall.

Perhaps the highlight of the day was hearing the call – a running-a-finger-along-the-teeth-of-a-comb sound — of a New Jersey chorus frog. This frog is an early caller, breeding as early as February, according to New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife literature.

“That sun’s getting warm,” Joey said.

By the time we ended the walk at lunchtime, the temperature was about 30.

“I had a lot of work to do, a lot of stress,” Joey said. “It felt pretty good to get out there.”

Sapia - Joey Slezak at stream

Joey Slezak at a small stream

Joe Sapia, 60-years-old, grew up and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.


The Edge of Winter

Article and photo by Joe Mish

mish - grass prints in snow

The hand of the wind uses the delicate grass to etch its thoughts in the snow. Nature’s secrets are whispered among the wooded hills and fields for all who pause to ‘listen’.

March is the month when winter puts its house in order to depart our latitude on its tour of the earth.

Remnants of left over winter wind, swept from dark, frozen nooks and crannies, are set free to blow themselves out in the twenty days leading to the arrival of spring.

The force of the wind breathes life into tree canopies and grasses as they dance and sway to the tune of the invisible but palpable energy. There is joy expressed when those, planted in place, unable to change location, experience rhythmic movement in perfect time.

A linear mass of silver maple trees, along the river’s edge, branches tipped with red velvet buds, sway in unison, as they execute a perfect ‘wave’, encouraged on by a burst of wind which leads the cheer.

Consider that the trees and tall meadow grass have evolved to take advantage of the wind. Dispersion of seed that still cling to stems and pods are sent aloft on a later flight to give the best chance for germination than seeds dispersed months earlier.

Trees benefit from the March wind as broken, insect infested branches are excised in a manner to suggest surgical intervention to remove a cancerous limb. The wind effectively prunes tree branches to allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy and promote new leaf growth; each leaf a new solar factory to boost the tree’s nutrient supply.

The wind has a wide range of expression that arises from deep internal turmoil. Perhaps the wind offended the gods in a prideful manner that justified eternal punishment. The gods therefore made the wind invisible to all the senses except for touch, and then only when the wind moves.

The wind constantly struggles with this blow to its vanity and does its best to make its presence known by channeling other elements.

Think about the wind and the scale of expression from hurricanes and tornadoes to a gentle whisper, where the wind uses a dried stem of grass or tree branch to etch its thoughts in the snow or the side of a wood building.

A spring breeze, carrying the scent of lavender blossoms, adds another dimension to the wind’s ‘visibility’ as the wind assumes the identity of the aroma. This is an expanded statement of expression; a loophole to get around the punishment imposed by the gods. This pleases the wind.

As the wind struggles to regain its physical identity and frustration builds, snow and ice are incorporated to flesh out the wind and give it a visible form.

Sometimes the desire to be seen is so fierce, the wind driven snow and ice makes the sense of sight useless, adding to the wind’s frustration, causing it to howl louder and blow harder.

The blustery wind, complement of March’s winter legacy, eventually subsides to become the gentle breeze of spring. The edge of winter passes and tempers the winds attitude to more gentle expressions of mood.

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.

Stormwater Management, A Farmer’s Perspective

Article and Photos by Jess Niederer

On this rainy 2017 day, I am just fresh back in the office after a drive past a whole lot of farms. Many farms drain their surface water out to the road, and in these saturated conditions, you can usually see how well the farmers’ erosion prevention measures are working. You know when you should wince? It’s when that run-off in the ditches looks like chocolate milk. I saw a fair share of chocolate milk run-off out there today. Why should that bother us? It puts silt in the streams (smothers a healthy benthic zone ecology), it puts nutrients in the streams, it puts any present agricultural chemicals in the streams, and it takes topsoil (which takes 100 year/inch to form) off the field.

And someone, yes, a human, is gonna have to drink that water after some imperfect filtration process. Humans not your thing? Well, first the fishes will have to live in it. Scales don’t strum your heartstrings? Alright…the adorable baby foxes will have to drink it too. Not really an animal fan at all? OK, the nutrients may cause imbalanced plant growth in the ocean, and you’ll get a lot of seaweed on you during your beach day. If you don’t think of yourself as an environmentalist, don’t worry about it, I’m not trying to convince you. But it’s a guarantee that something you care about is negatively affected when a farm’s topsoil ends up in the creek.

Contour Farming - Chickadee Creek Farm - J. Niederer

Contour Farming at Chickadee Creek Farm

GOOD NEWS though. The water running off our farm was clear. It wasn’t always like that, we had to work and change things up to protect the water. Through filter strips, contour farming, and being conscientious about when we till, we all win.

Jess Niederer is the owner of Chickadee Creek Farm, a certified organic and certified transitional organic* vegetable, flower and herb farm in Hopewell Valley, NJ. In 2016 she was named the National Outstanding Young Farmer by the Outstanding Farmers of America. Candidates are nominated from all across the country, and a panel of judges selects winners based on progress in their agricultural career, soil and water conservation, and service to their community, state, and nation.

February, Mid-Winter’s Better Half

Article and photos by Joe Mish

mish - juvenile myrtle warbler

A juvenile myrtle warbler searches the ice shrouded shoreline of the South Branch in late February

February is midwinter’s better half, given it is two days shorter than any other month and two days closer to spring, a virtual, ‘get out of winter free, card’. The significance of those two missing days provides a powerful psychological boost to soothe winter doldrums and seasonal affective disorder accumulating since December.

Although spring is the ‘finish line’ for surviving winter, the early days of spring are often indistinguishable from winter weather. This demonstrates that our characterization of the seasons is based more on legend than reality, especially when a lingering winter feels like an eternity.

Moving from impressionable feelings and missing days to more tangible evidence, February provides many visual clues that spring is around the corner. Its 28 days are a prelude or appetizer, stirring the emotions, building anticipation for the main event, the first day of spring.

To see visual clues we need light and light is what February delivers. In 28 short days we gain about an hour of day length, most evident to causal observers by noting the later time of sunset.

The increasing day length triggers a response in people and animals as we see the start of bird migration, courtship, flowers and tree buds.

Bird migration is one of the most colorful visual cues that winter has run its course. The milder the winter the earlier migration begins. Migration may be local, as with bluebirds or two thousand of miles away for many of the colorful warblers.

Late February usually marks the very beginnings of small bird migration north. Our rivers, streams coastlines and even interstate roadways provide linear pathways for migrating birds. The most colorful and plentiful are the myriad of warbler varieties. It is not unusual to see a bright flash of color darting along the riverside in late February despite shoreline ice and cold weather. A band of north bound travelers may find temporary shelter during a cold spell on south facing hillsides or in brush along steep river banks, protected from the wind and saturated with full sun.

Hawks are usually seen now in pairs as they bond prior to nesting. The owls hooting on cold winter nights and local bald eagles may well be incubating eggs.

mish - great horned in red tail nest

Great horned owl nesting in am old red tailed hawk nest

Muskrat, mink and fox are out and about in a courting mood. This is the time to scan fields for red fox roaming the countryside looking for mates. Love is definitely in the air.

mish - muskrat 2017

Muskrats are more often seen during their late winter early/ spring courting season

Male white-tailed deer have dropped their antlers and females are heavy with fawns as day length triggers hormonal changes to alter behavior and ensure best chances for winter survival. Now is a good time to walk the fields and woodlots to look for dropped antlers.

mish - buck series 1

mish - buck series 2mish - buck series 3

A buck has dropped one antler, the other will soon drop perhaps when it jumps a fence. A dropped antler charcterized by an irregular base. Antler buds after the antlers drop. Within a couple of months, the antlers will begin to sprout from these buds surrounded by viable tissue with a velvety appearance that readily bleeds if injured.

mish - buck series 4

The first and most consistent sign of spring for me is the blooming of snowdrops, en masse on a hillside, near where I usually launch my canoe on the South Branch. As cold as it might be, the sight of those tiny white flowers gives me inspiration, fires my energy and issues a solemn promise of the return of spring.

mish - snow drops

A patch of snow drops blooming midwinter heralds the return of spring

By February, the deep red leaf buds, on the trees that line the river, stand out against brown and gray interlaced branches. When viewed at a distance, the contrasting colors are enhanced as they take on a solid appearance as if created by long horizontal brush strokes in a painting.

A full moon will occur on February 11th to light up the night, as a compliment to the lengthening daylight, to make February a well lit marquee announcing next month’s arrival of spring.

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.

Discoveries During a Quick Walk – December 2016

Photos and Article by Joseph Sapia

Sapia - A pond at Szeliga’s Orchard

A pond at Szeliga’s Orchard

On this near-to-Christmas day, I was without my Jeep, which was in the shop for most of the day for routine, but time-consuming, maintenance. Without a vehicle, I was living life by foot – walking a mile or so to lunch at the old general store in Helmetta and picking up my mail from my third-generation Post Office box next-door. The walk was to be pragramtic, rather than playful, although I chose a route skirting the woods, instead of walking the Main Road directly from my neighborhood.

After 60 years of living and about 40 years as a journalist, I should know, Be ready for what is out there, unexpected or not. As a woodsman here in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta since old enough, I should know, A walk is not simply a walk.

So, I was glad I put my camera in my pocket.

Before I even left the neighborhood, I came upon a cluster of holly, thick with leaves and holding many berries. A Christmas treat – and my first photographs.

After about three blocks, I went afield, getting on the Pipeline, then onto the freight railroad tracks. Almost immediately on the tracks, I saw a dead mouse lying on a tie between the rails . A victim of a hawk or fox or some other cause of death? I do not know, but another photograph.

As I walked the tracks north, toward Helmetta, I noticed two species of pine: pitch, with its long, swirled needles in clusters of three, along with Virginia, with short, swirling needles in clusters of two. Their green contrasted nicely against the clear, blue sky.

Sapia - Virginia pine to the left, pitch pine to the right

Virginia pine to the left, pitch pine to the right

After crossing Saw Mill Brook, I noticed a third pine in the old Szeliga’s Orchard: white, with supple needles in clusters of five. The species being easy to remember with its five needles, or W-H-I-T-E. It is not a native, here. This was probably an escape from nearby houses.

In the old orchard, I saw ground pine, or Lycopodium. Also, there was a nice little pond – I knew of the swamp, here, but did not remember this much ponding. And there was a fallen tree trunk, pecked by a woodpecker or woodpeckers.

Sapia - Ground pine at Szeliga’s Orchard

Ground pine at Szeliga’s Orchard

I got to the former worker homes of the George W. Helme Snuff Mill — which ceased production in 1993 and, this year, opened as apartments — and cut through the alley dividing them. After a visit to the Post Office and lunch at the store, I walked to Helmetta Pond.

There, I found a thin layer of ice along the shore – the temperature was now in the low 40s, but overnight it had got down to about 30. Canada geese sat in the pond on its other side by the woods. There, it was a mix of pines on the high ground, swamp hardwoods and Atlantic white cedar in the wetlands – and, it seemed, more and more invasive Phragmites reed grass.
On the way back, I took photos of ice in a ditch and Shekiro’s Pond, which had a cluster of punks, or cat-tails, dying off in the cold weather. Shekiro’s was fending off Phragmites nicely, unlike the Pond to the north and Cranberry Bog to the south.

Sapia - Shekiro’s Pond

Shekiro’s Pond

At the Bog, I spooked a great blue heron, which took off slowly in flight. But not slowly enough for me to get a photograph. I did stop nearby, though, to shoot a stand of birch on the old Shekiro homestead.

On my way home, I was treated to a ConRail locomotive pulling two hopper cars toward Jamesburg. I snapped photos of the train, glad I had the camera with me over these few hours.

Sapia - A ConRail train in Helmetta, heading toward Jamesburg

A ConRail train in Helmetta, heading toward Jamesburg

Joe Sapia, 60-years-old, grew up and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.

Copyright 2016 by Joseph Sapia