Month: February 2024

The Edge of Winter

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A fox sparrow takes refuge from a late March snowstorm as it migrates north to its breeding grounds

The fluffy white blanket of an early March snowstorm, preserved by the cold days that followed, began to shrink as the sun fought the darkness for dominance. The snow cover was still unbroken as it grudgingly settled lower each passing day. Eventually the white blanket would lose its loft and become threadbare, unveiling the gravid brown earth.

The days following the storm dawned clear and cloudless. The night sky was a showcase of brilliant white diamonds, alive with energy as they sparkled in the infinite celestial darkness.

An hour before sunrise the west facing snow covered hillside reflected enough light to reveal the fine detail of the skeletal silhouettes of every tree and bush that stood above the white ground cover. Even as the sky began to brighten, the entire hillside remained in shade, preserving the dramatic pre-dawn contrast. For a few slow minutes, the sky above the hill was bathed in a diffuse aura of gold, fading into white, which blended into the palest blue, growing more intense as the brightest stars lingered and were lost among the deepening blue background. For a long moment, night and day, past and present coexisted at one glance. The dynamic scene, frozen on an imaginary vertical tapestry, the black and white hillside held in sharp contrast to the gold and sunlit blue sky above.

In a way, that dawn was symbolic of the dichotomy of March, as the month ushers in the last cold breath of winter and departs amid life emerging from dormancy under the influence of increasing daylength.

Maroon, orange, green, and red buds decorate the bare tree branches to rival fall color, as early spring flowers tolerate the mercurial weather and defiantly poke through any errant late Match snowfall.

Bird migration is now in full swing as flycatchers, osprey, and colorful warblers make their appearance.

Great horned owls, hatched a month earlier, are flightless and near adult size.

March is the best time to find migrating woodcock and observe the unique mating flights performed by the males at dusk, choreographed to impress a potential mate. Woodcock were common locally in open woods and damp fields. As habitat dwindles, any sighting becomes a rare treat. When March rolls around I head for a likely spot where a swale is formed by the earlier mentioned hillside. The hillside is drained by a seasonal stream which remains wet where the gradient levels. The saturated soil creates a perfect environment for earthworms, the main food source for migrating woodcock. Woodcock, also known as Timberdoodles, will often sit tight and allow a close approach.

All migrating birds must deal with unpredictable weather anywhere along their migration path. So, arrival at any one location will vary from year to year. It is somehow comforting when birds that migrate through, show up on schedule. All is right with the world. When snow buntings, headed to points north, stop over at a specific location year after year, a dependence of sort can develop on behalf of the observer. The snowbirds become a reference point, much as a birthday or anniversary.

March provides the ‘wind beneath the wings’ of migrating birds as well as sweeps the land and grooms the trees, wind and March are inseparable.

March has earned the reputation as the month of relentless wind as it rushes mercurial weather on and off the stage to stir the breeze. 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 on the side of an old wooden barn.

The first day of spring will happen on the nineteenth day of March, 2024, at 11: 06 pm. Day and night reach perfect equilibrium for a split second as winter surrenders to 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.

Meet LRWP Board Member Alex Zakrewsky!

Interview conducted by Rutgers Spring 2024 Intern Maxim Pavon

Maxim Pavon: What is your earliest or most impactful memory with the Raritan (watershed)?

Alex Zakrewsky: Having grown up in the Raritan River Watershed, I have many boyhood memories of playing in its tributaries. As a free-range kid, my buddies and I would often walk unescorted to local streams to fish, turn over rocks to find crawdads, and build temporary stone and mud dams across rivulets. Hours would pass like minutes as we were totally engrossed in observing and interacting with the moving water and the plants and animals it supported. Sometimes a misstep (a “soaker” in our vernacular) would muddy my sneakers, socks, and pants—earning me a stern scolding from my mother when I eventually arrived home!

MP: At that time, did the people around you, friends and family, see what you saw in the watershed?

AZ: I was not unique in my explorations of the watershed. It was quite common for the working-class boys in my neighborhood (and there were many of us- we were on the tail-end of the baby boom, after all) to entertain ourselves by romping in the stream-side woods. Some would try to make some money by trapping muskrats, then skinning and selling their pelts to Schwendeman’s, a taxidermist and fur broker on Main Street in Milltown. My friends and I sometimes harvested cattails, dried them in the summer sun, and sold them to boutiques for sale as decorative displays. Otherwise, dried cattails (or “punks” as we called them) would make excellent slow-burning lighters for firecrackers on the fourth of July. On other occasions, my friends and I would cut 10-foot-tall bulrushes for use as “lances” as we “jousted” on our bicycles. These were mostly activities for boys and young men, however. Young ladies stayed away, and older men were too busy working in the many factories that dotted the riverbanks.

MP: Throughout your life, who or what has been a continuing source of inspiration for you to pursue the path you are on?

AZ: I am at heart a family man, and I do what I can to support my family. My wife Heather Fenyk is a continuing source of inspiration in her role as LRWP President—her work ethic and effort in this non-paid position is a sight to behold!

MP: What do you hope to accomplish/implement as a Principal Planner with Middlesex County?

AZ: I work with a team of Professional Planners and Licensed Civil Engineers to enhance safety, accessibility, and drainage along County Road rights-of-way.

MP: As Co-founder of Middlesex Apartments, LLC. How has the business’s mission fit in the scope of the watershed?

AZ: Part of the Middlesex Apartments, LLC property portfolio consists of a farm in Princeton, which lies in the Raritan River basin. We are currently exploring restoration of the wetlands on the property, improving the quality of runoff first into the Millstone River, a tributary to the Raritan. We also manage the farm sustainably. This includes using solar for energy, farming without using pesticides and herbicides, letting the goats (instead of mowers) keep the brush down, etc.

MP: As far as the LRWP goes, what has been the biggest hurdle?

AZ: As an organization that has no paid staff, the workload is always vastly greater than the resources available to do the work.

MP: Where have you seen the most growth?

AZ: Since its inception the LRWP has tripled the size of its Board of Directors, and with very accomplished and qualified members. Activities have grown beyond the original stream clean-ups to encompass public boat builds, a wide variety of kinetic and visual artistic displays, water quality monitoring, river tours, kayak floats, presentations, lectures, and numerous and sundry outreach efforts. Revenue from donations and grants has also grown and continues to expand at double-digit rates.

MP: What is something you can tell the people who don’t believe in the LRWP’s mission?

AZ: I would remind them that improving the health of the watershed also brings benefits to them and their families. Our own health and sense of well-being is inextricably tied to the health of the watershed’s ecosystem.

MP: We would also like to get to know the real you! Do you have any hobbies that have nothing to do with watersheds?

AZ: I think I read more than the average person—mostly current periodicals, but also books on historical topics. In recent years I’ve become a fan of YouTube—I like to listen to experts in various fields including anthropology, sociology, philosophy, economics, geopolitics, and military affairs. I also have a keen interest in matters demographic. I developed a model that estimates and predicts the movement of the United States Population Centroid. My annual calculation and commentary on changing US settlement patterns is reported upon in the national and international press.