Notes from Garden & Afield, Week of February 4 2018

Except as noted, article and photos by Joe Sapia

A Carolina chickadee in the front yard shrubbery of my house in Monroe, Middlesex County. Here, looking at the bird through the living room window.

BIRDING THROUGH THE WINDOW: One of my favorite places to watch birds is through my living room window. The love seat, my favorite resting spot, is across from the window, providing the lazy person’s way to birding. Birds perch in the shrubs and, if lucky enough, I take a good photo of them. Recents include the Carolina chickadee, “Poecile carolinensis“; cardinal, “Cardinalis cardinalis”; house sparrow, “Passer domesticus,”; and junco, or “snowbird,” or “Junco hyemalis.

A cardinal outside my living room window, easily identifiable as a male because of its bright red color.

A house sparrow outside the living room window.

Another view of a house sparrow, showing off its colorful pattern.

A junco, or “snowbird,” outside the window.

SNOWFALL: Flurries on Sunday, February 4, did not accumulate at my home in Monroe, Middlesex County. But on Wednesday, we had a dusting. So far, the season’s total is 18.5 inches (at my house). The normal seasonal total at New Brunswick, Middlesex County, about 7-1/2 miles away is about 26 inches. We still have about two months left of realistic snow weather.

The dusting of snow Wednesday, February 7, in my front yard in Monroe, Middlesex County.

ALONG MANALAPAN BROOK: I live across the street from Manalapan Brook in the house I was “born” in — actually taken to this Monroe, Middlesex County, home from the hospital of my birth. I often escape to a few minutes of woods time by walking the few hundred feet to the Brook. This week, I shot photos there on the snowy Wednesday, February 7, and the rainy-foggy Saturday, February 10. Manalapan Brook’s headwaters are in the area between downtown Freehold, Monmouth County, and the Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson, Ocean County. From its headwaters to where it meets Matchaponix Brook and the two form the South River at Spotswood and Old Bridge in Middlesex County is a straight line of about 15 miles in a direction heading north. It drains 43 square miles in Middlesex and Monmouth counties. The Brook, its floodplain, and surrounding woods are no longer as mysterious and no longer as big (literally and in in my mind) as when I was a kid, but they still provide an adventure. My family has lived along Manalapan Brook since about 1900.

A foggy Saturday, February 10, in the swamp hardwood forest of the Manalapan Brook floodplain.

A dusting of snow along Manalapan Brook on Wednesday, February 7.

VOICES FROM AFIELD, RED-SHOULDERED HAWK: Mike Deitche of Monroe checked in with a great photograph of a red-shouldered hawk, “Buteo lineatus,” he took Tuesday, February 6, in Hamilton, Mercer County. “The hawk was on a path as I was walking,” Mike said. “It must have been finishing up its meal when I noticed it. I took three photos (of it) on the ground. Then, it flew up to the top of the tree. It was a lucky shot. I circled around, but it had taken off. I took some photos of the remnants of its meal — looked like breast feathers and tail feathers.”

A red-shouldered hawk in Hamilton, Mercer County. “It’s one of our most distinctively marked common hawks, with barred reddish-peachy underparts and a strongly banded tail,” according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website. (Photograph copyright 2018 by Mike Deitche)

LIGHTED CANDLES IN THE WOODS: Pass a forest and you might see leaves of gold on small trees, “lighting” up the woods. These are beech trees, genus “Fagus.” Snow certainly paints a beautiful picture in a winter woods, but when there is no snow, look for these beeches to add some sparkle to the otherwise earthy tones.

Beech trees “sparkle” at a hardwood forest at Pigeon Swamp in South Brunswick, Middlesex County.

A closeup of a beech tree at Pigeon Swamp in South Brunswick, Middlesex County.

DEBBIE MANS, FROM BAYKEEPER TO DEP: Debbie Mans has watched over the New Jersey-New York Harbor Estuarty for 10 years as director of the New York-New Jersey Baykeeper group, based in Keyport, Monmouth County. Now, Debbie is moving on to be deputy commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Debbie is the type of person we need in government — smart, passionate but low key, a leader. As a Jersey boy who went to college in Wisconsin, I appreciate Debbie’s Upper Midwest sensibility — in her case, growing up in Michigan — and, as she put it, now “with a splash of New Jersey.” Congrats, Deb! (A profile I did on Debbie in 2016, September,

IF YOU THINK YOU HEAR A WOMAN SCREAMING IN THE WOODS…: …I am not saying you should not call the police, but it could just be a red fox, “Vulpes vulpes.” One, perhaps more than one, was really making a racket this week in the woods along Manalapan Brook across the street from my house in Monroe, Middlesex County. A year or so ago, my neighbor called the police after he and his wife heard what sounded like a woman being dragged through the woods, screaming. An example of a fox scream,

VERNAL PONDS: A New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife website defines vernal ponds as “confined depressions, either natural or man-made, that hold water for at least two consecutive months out of the year, and are devoid of breeding fish populations.” Vernal ponds, or “vernal pools, pools provide habitat to many species of amphibians, insects, reptiles, plants, and other wildlife,” according to Fish and Wildlife. “The absence of fish is the essence of these ecosystems. Fish are highly predatory on amphibian eggs and larvae. Over the course of evolution, several species of salamanders and frogs exploited these fish-less water bodies. Today, these species exhibit ‘hardwired’ instincts and behaviors that are geared exclusively towards fish-free aquatic habitats.” As warmer weather approaches, keep an eye on vernal pools and the wildlife they produce.

vernal pond at Pigeon Swamp in South Brunswick, Middlesex County.

ATLANTIC OCEAN TEMPERATURES: The Atlantic Ocean temperature along the New Jersey coast was running at about 35 to 37 degrees over the February 10-11 weekend.

SUNRISE/SUNSET: From Sunday, February 11, to Saturday, February 17, the sun will rise about 6:45 to 6:55 a.m. and set at about 5:30 to 5:35 p.m. From Sunday, February 18, to Saturday, February 24, the sun will rise about 6:40 to 6:45 a.m. and set 5:35 to 5:45 p.m.

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


March 3, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Somerset County — Deer Management Symposium at the Elks Lodge, 354 Route 518, Montgomery, free. Different stakeholders are to discuss deer management. More information is available at

March 10, Saturday, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Ocean County — Science Saturday, talk on striped bass management and fishing by Brendan Harrison, a New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife fishing technician,at the Long Beach Island Foundation of Arts and Sciences, 120 Long Beach Boulevard, Loveladies, 08008, $5 for non-members. More information at telephone 609-494-1241.

The Carolina chickadee in front of my living room window.

— Joseph Sapia
2018, February 11, Sunday,
In the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, Middlesex County,

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018 by Joseph Sapia