Article and photos by Joe Mish
The osprey from Maine searches the clear water of the South Branch for a meal as she takes a break from her 2,500 mile journey north. The letters, DV, can be seen on the blue band attached to her right leg.
The warmth from the mid-morning sun felt good on my back as I paddled the low, clear water of the South Branch. The cloudless sky, directly above, was a darker shade of blue, its intensity pure and endless, and mesmerizing. It compelled me, as the devil’s advocate, to search for just a single speck to interrupt its perfection.
Suddenly a shadow sped across the water, momentarily stealing the sunlight. I instinctively looked up to catch a glimpse of an osprey circling above. The white head, streaked with a dark brown stripe, was instantly recognizable. The osprey proceeded downriver by making tight overlapping circles in its search for fish. It isn’t too hard to imagine some of these super intelligent predators realize a canoe is herding the fish ahead of it. When the osprey was about 150 yards downstream it tucked its wings and dove into foot deep water to come up with a large white sucker held fast in its black talons. The bird oriented the position of the fish to cut wind resistance as it flew out of sight.
Ospreys are ever present on the South Branch, typically from early spring to mid autumn. They feed primarily on live fish. I see them most often eating white suckers, a fish large enough to compensate for the energy spent to catch it.
Osprey on a riverside perch, dining on fresh fish during the 2014 NJ opening day of trout season.
Earlier this April, I noticed an osprey perched in the same location day after day. This wasn’t typical of the local ospreys that ranged far and wide in their constant search for food. I was able to get a few photos and noticed a blue band on the right leg and a silver band on the left. I reported the band to the USGS website, BandReports@usgs.gov, to find this osprey was banded in Portland, Maine, July 27th, 2011 while it was still in the nest, too young to fly.
Osprey migrate from the northeast, where they breed, to central and South America each fall, a trip of more than 2,500 miles. This bird was apparently on its way back to Maine and stopped to rest. Osprey, like other migratory birds, are very loyal to nest sites and return to the same location with great predictability.
Consider our visiting osprey will be 5 years old this July, and has 25,000 plus, frequent flyer miles on its account, you have to recoil in amazement, wonder and respect for its strength and tenacity. As osprey can live 25 to 30 years or more, the mileage really adds up.
Our Maine visitor, a female, as evidenced by her speckled décolletage, has a bright and long future and hopefully will stop along the South Branch again on her journey to and from Central America. No doubt other osprey are flying to northern breeding grounds through NJ, so the opportunity to spot a banded bird along the North and South Branch are quite good.
The reporting of banded birds is critical to wildlife research as it helps to unravel the mystery of migration, the location of breeding grounds, longevity, and other variables that impact the health and status of local and overall wildlife populations.
New Jersey is now using red bands for osprey and from Ben Wurst at conservewildlifenj.org, as per USGS; “Green anodized bands are being used in NY. Purple anodized bands in MD and VA. Red anodized bands (like ours, but with alpha code A&B 00-99) in PA (permit is expired now). Blue anodized bands in MA, ME & Ontario.”
The preponderance of osprey nests in NJ are along the Delaware River and Atlantic shoreline, its estuaries, bays and rivers, so keep an eye out for banded birds and report them to BandReports@usgs.gov . The researchers are as excited about a band report as you and will send a certificate of appreciation with relevant data about your bird. Many species of birds are banded, so don’t forget our eagles, hawks and songbirds. Opportunities abound as NJ is on a major flyway, the rivers being main exit and entrance ramps to our backyard.
*Joe sent us an update to this post, a photo of the exact location in Maine where the osprey was born. Photo courtesy of Lauren Gilpatrick at the Biodiversity Research Institute, Portland Maine.
See, http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/education/ospreycam/ for more details about NJ osprey project and live osprey cam.
Special thanks to Robert Somes, Kathy Clark and Ben Wurst for their enthusiastic help and support.
Robert Somes, Senior Zoologist
NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife
Endangered and Nongame Species Program
NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife
Endangered and Nongame Species Program,
Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager
New Jersey Osprey Project
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.
By: Heather Fenyk
Part of the fun of reading comic books when I was a kid was coming across ads for the absurd: Monster Size Monsters! X-Ray Vision Glasses! Kung-fu Sandals! (AUTHENTIC! Worn for Centuries by Oriental Fighting Masters!) But my absolute favorite adverts included invitations to “Own A Bowl Full of Happiness.” For just 49¢ plus $2.99 shipping, you could raise your own “trainable” insta-pet, the Sea Monkey.
Sea-Monkey ad from 1970’s comic book
Sea Monkeys fall into a general group of organisms including brine shrimp and “fairy shrimp” that, with the proper mix of nutrients and chemicals, can be stored in dry form and then “revived” with a dose of plain tap water.
Recent rains have nourished our New Jersey swamps and freshwater marshes, transforming seeming terra firma into vernal or ephemeral ponds. These ponds – or more specifically their “fairy shrimp” inhabitants – get me out in the field looking for Sea Monkeys.
The descriptive terms for these freshwater wetland types — “vernal” and “ephemeral” — refers to their habit of appearing in spring and being short-lived or temporary. Many vernal ponds in New Jersey and elsewhere were not protected during the post-World War II building boom. But with the passage of the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Protection Action in 1987, all freshwater wetlands – including these temporary wetlands – were finally granted protection. Fairy shrimp benefit directly from these protection measures.
A common species of fairy shrimp in our New Jersey vernal ponds is Eubranchipus vernalis. It grows between 0.5 and 1.5 inches in length, and other than its forked tail and large, stalked, compound eyes, its most obvious features are the 11 pairs of feathery appendages it uses for swimming, breathing and feeding. It collects algae, bacteria, protozoa, rotifers, and detritus on the feather-like structures and transfers that material to its mouth by other appendages. In addition, it will scavenge dead tadpoles, mollusks and amphibian eggs.
Eubranchipus vernalis. Image from www.bugguide.net
The shrimp’s reproductive strategy is fascinating. After mating, the male dies. The females are easily distinguished from males by the egg-filled brood sac on their abdomen, and the sac contains one of two types of fertilized eggs depending on the density of males in the pond. A low density of males results in thin-shelled “summer eggs,” which have a very short incubation period and hatch inside the brood sac. A high density of males results in thick-shelled “winter eggs” that eventually fall to the bottom of the pond and remain there even when the pond dries out. They will hatch the following spring, when the pond refills, and they have an amazing capacity to withstand extreme elements, including temperatures that are probably never encountered in nature: from a high of just below boiling (210 degrees) to a low extreme of -310 degrees.
The powdered thick-walled eggs of fairy shrimp are the type that my sister Julie purchased in 1978 from the back of an Archie Comic Book. It is this egg stage that enables the fairy shrimp to be distributed to other potential vernal ponds. Fairy shrimp eggs are tiny, dry granules that can be blown by the wind or picked up on the feet of animals and carried to other vernal ponds. These thick-walled, dry eggs remain viable even after 15 years, and the eggs are supposed to hatch 30 hours after being submerged in water.
Sadly, Julie’s order of Sea Monkeys never hatched. While she was perhaps permanently scarred by being duped into purchasing a package of powdered brine shrimp, I remain suckered in by the advertising and happily spend spring weekends exploring New Jersey’s vernal pools looking for my own Sea Monkeys to train.
Happy National Sea Monkey Day!
Article and photos by Joe Mish
A slow journey that began more than a million years before, ended at the tip of a mower blade spinning at 3,200 rpm. This wood turtle, listed as ‘threatened’ in New Jersey, was killed in late May, while on its way to lay eggs.
May and June have been the peak of the great turtle migration where females, laden with eggs, leave the protection of quiet places to journey far and wide to dig holes and bury their eggs. Incubation takes about 70 days, more or less, and nests are left unattended.
All species, whether aquatic, terrestrial or both, like the wood turtle, seek dry land to lay eggs. Each has a preference for where and when they dig nests, though individual variation is the rule.
A wood turtle on its way out of the river where it hibernated to lay eggs in the gravel soil near railroad tracks.
Wood turtles prefer gravel laden soil on high ground, as found along railroad tracks, roadsides and driveways.
Roadways have become the killing fields for these slow moving reptiles where large blocks of undisturbed habitat are segmented by roads. A preserved island of land may be celebrated as a conservation success but the lack of linear greenways to bridge these islands is a death knell for many small creatures as it exposes them to predation and roadkill.
Eastern box turtle pauses mid journey across a New Jersey roadway, in a false retreat that offers no protection form speeding vehicles.
Turtles are creatures of habit and maintain consistent pathways from year to year. So that eastern box turtle you saw crossing over the double yellow line last year will be crossing the road in the same place this nesting season.
Mowing tall grass during nesting season is a more insidious cause of death for turtles and grassland nesting birds. Many farmers and landowners alter their mowing schedule to prevent killing fawns and game birds; turtles and grassland nesting birds are coincidental beneficiaries.
State conservation organizations advocate mowing early in the season and then not again until August, late July at the earliest.
A driver may possibly avoid killing a turtle on a paved road as it is somewhat visible, while a turtle in tall grass is a foregone conclusion when a mower runs through a field. The fractured shell of the wood turtle pictured, was found on a path mowed through an overgrown pasture near the South Branch.
Females may travel half a mile from wet areas to lay eggs, so please be careful. As the wood turtle is considered, “threatened “, and known to populate our area, special caution should be taken. May 29, 2015, a female wood turtle was observed digging a nest within inches of a long paved private drive, in hard packed gravel. This would be the last place you’d ever expect a turtle to dig, as you would be hard pressed with a pick and shovel to penetrate that ground. The hole was about 5 inches deep and 4 inches wide.
An awareness of turtles and their nest sites are a prerequisite to protecting them. As the eggs are laid in a small hole, covered and left unattended, you’d never know you were endangering a nest. Many eggs don’t hatch or are destroyed by predators. Then imagine an inch long hatchling trying to traverse a quarter mile through fields and open ground in an effort to reach water, bog or swamp. Survivors are few and far between.
…you will find collapsed leathery egg shells scattered about; though they won’t look like egg shells. Imagine an egg shell make of cloth and inwardly collapsed to appear as a scrap of white material.
With poor odds for survival, it begs at least awareness on our part to, “first, do no harm”, and avoid destroying nests or mulching hatchlings and adults with a mower.
Turtles remain in their essential form that traces back to prehistoric times. Their evolution is an unrivaled success, even more astounding when their slow lumbering movements and low reproduction rate are considered.
Some interesting anatomical features reveal the secrets hidden behind the shell. See how the spinal cord is integral to the carapace or top shell in this painted turtle. The box turtle shell shows the spine as well as the clavicle. The thin plates that line the outer surface of the shell are attached much like a fingernail.
The easiest way to find a turtle nest is to look for the open holes in late summer and early fall. Either the nests were naturally opened by emerging turtlettes or dug out by raiding predators. In either case you will find collapsed leathery egg shells scattered about; though they won’t look like egg shells. Imagine an egg shell make of cloth and inwardly collapsed to appear as a scrap of white material. Last year I found 6 nests, one, just outside my back door. I had never seen a nest before but once I knew what to look for, they seemed to be everywhere.
The Unami, one of the three matrilineal clans of the Lenape indians, who lived in central New Jersey, were known as the Turtle Clan. Treating the turtle with respect, keeps the clan of the turtle alive and well in the land it has known since the last glaciers receded and the land emerged from the sea. Consider, the turtle had arrived at it final evolutionary form long before humans. As new to the neighborhood, we might look to the turtle for guidance as we would a centenarian, to seek advice on how to live a long life in alignment and peace with our ever changing environment.
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, hiswordpress blog. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.
By Elizabeth Dabundo, LRWP Green Infrastructure & Planning Intern
In the first of the LRWP’s Natural Asset Mapping speaker series we hosted two wonderful speakers, JeanMarie Hartman and Jessica Jahre, on the topics of the importance of riparian areas and floodplains.
Wetlands of the Lower Raritan Watershed, Map by Jeanine Kopec-Zanghi
Rutgers Professor JeanMarie Hartman, Director of the Hartman Lab of Watershed Systems Studies, spoke on the importance of preserving riparian areas around streams as “buffer zones” for stream and habitat protection. She explained that the best type of “green infrastructure” for flood protection is the kind that doesn’t have to be engineered or installed – it is the natural “infrastructure” already found in forests and wetlands. It is best to keep a 300-foot buffer zone around streams in order to keep the stream itself, its inhabitants, and the surrounding watershed healthy. Professor Hartman explained these conclusions as almost common sense, but provided findings from an ongoing study of watershed management in Lower Raritan Watershed streams (Bound Brook and Lawrence Brook) that demonstrate a positive relationship between forest and wetland cover and biological water quality.
The study measured the presence of three groups of macroinvertebrates (aquatic animals) in the streams to determine stream health. Certain macroinvertebrates are more or less sensitive to environmental pollutants, and they can be grouped thusly:
-Pollution Intolerant (mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies)
-Pollution Sensitive (dragonflies, damselflies)
-Pollution Tolerant (aquatic worms, midge larvae)
The presence of more pollution intolerant or pollution sensitive macros in a stream signifies that the stream and its waters are unimpaired, since they cannot live within polluted waters. These are often found in shaded streams with low levels of fine sediments, which not surprisingly are often streams with significant riparian buffers.
Next, Jessica Jahre of Princeton Hydro spoke on the importance of healthy floodplains. Floodplains are the areas surrounding streams and rivers that flood periodically, relating to risk. We often hear of 100-year or 500-year floods, but recently, we have seen more frequent and more intense flooding in the Lower Raritan Watershed. Floodplains are expanding, and more people are being put at risk for residing in or near the floodplain. Ms. Jahre explained that a healthy floodplain is integral for mitigating flood risk and damage in our communities, and she explained how she works with flood claims data to identify the areas most at risk.
It is important for a floodplain to be healthy in order to not only reduce instances of flooding, but also to improve water quality, recharge aquifers, and create wildlife habitat. It is often the case that floodplains have to be enhanced from current degraded conditions. This process includes reforesting or naturalizing (removal of development) floodplains, reconnecting the stream to the floodplain, lowering the floodplain through re-grading, or hydrologic restoration (eliminating abandoned agricultural ditches, removing dams). The problem we face in New Jersey and in many other densely populated areas is that development often comes right up to or is centered around rivers or streams, which only become more prone to flooding as the floodplain becomes more impaired through development and deforestation. In order to minimize future risks from flooding, we must enhance and improve our floodplains statewide.
Susan Edmunds identifying riparian areas of interest
Thank you to our wonderful speakers and attendees. Next up in the speaker series are presentations on Lower Raritan Watershed recreational assets and neighborhood, cultural, and historic assets. Please join us on March 15 from 9:30am-12:00pm at the Middlesex County Administration Building, 75 Bayard Street, New Brunswick.
Speaker themes for 2016 include natural resource assets, cultural and historic assets, transportation and mobility assets, seeing brownfields as community assets for restoration, and economic assets, innovation, & regional planning. We are very excited for the opportunity to have state and regional experts on these topics join us for these presentations, and we hope you will join us as well! Please see our events page for more information.
Articles and Photos by Joe Mish
A cooper’s hawk flies off after landing in a holly tree where it jumped from branch to branch in an effort to flush a hiding songbird into the open.
Midwinter is a great time to catch a glimpse of local wildlife, especially hawks, as these large birds stand in dramatic contrast to the gray-brown leafless trees in which they perch.
The most common hawk in our region is the red-tailed hawk. Comparatively large, the adults are recognized by the bright russet colored tail. This is the only hawk whose tail is not banded or bordered by a contrasting color. The young birds have barred tail feathers, alternating russet and white, with no distinct borders.
Easy to spot at highway speeds, the light breast and faded red tail stand out like a beacon when perched in trees along the roadway. Locally, I often see these hawks atop telephone poles near pastures and flood plains where they scan the open area for small mammals and ducks. Some red tails specialize in killing gray squirrels, a worthy meal for such a large bird whose energy expenditure in the winter would hardly be covered with mice or voles.
During a winter freeze when most of the river is solid ice, there are always open sections where ducks concentrate in the water and on the ice. A red tail will make an easy meal, especially of the smaller wood duck, flushing it into the air or catching it as it naps on the ice.
Last winter I watched an eagle feeding on a wood duck, speculation was the eagle took the duck from a red tail as eagles are notorious for stealing game from ospreys and hawks.
Muskrats are also high on the midwinter menu as the males often travel during the day over ice and snow as they seek food and females to breed.
A hawk requires a large nest and now is the time to scan the treetops and high tension towers for these stick built structures. One local hawk has adapted to a giant oak in someone’s backyard bordering a cluster of recently constructed homes. I have seen several local nests situated high in sycamore trees along the river. Hawk nests are relatively flat and large, not to be confused with squirrel nests which are numerous and quite round, generally built at a lower level, among thinner branches. Red tails will also use ledges as a base for their nests.
The ultimate adaptation belongs to the red tail known as, Pale Male, whose life is well documented in film, media and print as he has mated and bred several generations of hawks among the skyscrapers in mid Manhattan. His age is estimated at 24 years. Here is one site dedicated to Pale Male.
Marsh hawks share the sky with red tails and characteristically conduct ground hugging flights across overgrown fields, flood plains and grasslands and have an ability to hover in place. These hawks are slightly smaller than a red tail with dark brown coloration and a boldly banded tail. The key to identifying a marsh hawk is the bright white rump patch. These hawks are common, though not often seen and are known to migrate while red tails remain as full time residents.
Aside from red tails, the most often seen hawks are the coopers and sharp-shinned hawks. The coopers being slightly larger than the sharp shinned. Both hawks feed on songbirds and small rodents. As each is similarly marked, identification is always controversial. More often than not, someone will submit a photo of a hawk to a website asking if it is a coopers or sharp-shinned and the replies are often split, each summarizing why they made their choice. I see the larger coopers preferring doves and rabbits while the sharp shinned has left piles of bluebird, indigo bunting and flicker feathers about the yard.
Lastly, look for the diminutive sparrow hawk, now known as the kestrel, typically perched on telephone poles and wires along open fields. This bird is about the size of a large dove, feeds on insects and small rodents. Kestrels are known for hovering before they dive on their prey and this stationary flight is a good identifying characteristic. The males are brilliantly marked with blue, shades of russet, black and white. At first glance a perched kestrel will appear as a songbird so be sure to give a second look. They are considered threatened in New Jersey and a nest box program and monitoring effort is having a positive effect on their recovery. The birds are easily baited and trapped for tagging and data collection.
This is the winter of the hawk and hardly a commute is possible without being evaluated by a feathered predator. They can see you, can you see them?
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. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.
By Joseph Sapia
Holly at Cranberry Bog
As Timmy Mechkowski and I walked in back of Helmetta Pond, we came across a patch of Lycopodium.
“Look at all that ground pine,” I said. “It must like it just a little bit wet.”
The ground pine brought memories of his late mother, Catherine “Kay” Holsten Mechkowski. She used to make Christmas wreaths, using running ground pine as the foundation; common ground pine, as we were seeing on this day, to fill in the wreath.
Timmy Mechkowski and ground pine
“Every now and then, she would find holly (in the woods) and poke them in,” Timmy said.
On this day a year ago, between Christmas and the calendar changing from 2014 to 2015, Timmy and I walked afield in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where we grew up. As one year turns to another, we may reflect on the general past or our reflections could turn afield, here, to a time when there was less development and, in turn, more open space.
“Many years ago, I used to know these woods,” Timmy said.
Helmetta’s Timmy Mechkowski
Although Timmy, 54-years-old, lives adjacent to field, water, and woods, just as he did as a child, and works the land – in his case, gardening and cutting firewood on his property – he no longer ventures deep into the woods.
“I couldn’t even tell you,” said Timmy, speaking of the last time he explored the woods. “I was a kid, 17-, 18-years-old, had to be.”
So, on this day, Timmy and I hiked the woods.
We started about noon and walked counter-clockwise to places that locals would recognize, more so if they knew the woods, less so if they did not: the Ditch, Helmetta Pond, the Dance Pavilion, Jamesburg Park, Baron’s or Swing Hill (basically, the same place, but my mother’s generation knowing it by the former, those younger than me calling it the latter), Snuffy Hollow, the Pipeline, Cranberry Bog.
Not only do places afield have local names, but things in the woods, too, have names.
“What do they call that, a widow-maker?” Timmy said.
A massive widow-maker! An estimated 15-feet-or-longer part of a tree hung up 20 to 25 feet or so off the ground.
The typical view of Helmetta Pond is from the side of the former George W. Helme Snuff Mill, or from Helmetta looking toward the woods. Today, we had the other view, from the woods toward the Snuff Mill.
Nearby, a large oak had toppled thanks to the wind of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Its flipped root pan and clinging soil measured about 10-feet-tall, or well above Timmy’s approximately 5 feet, 8 inches.
Timmy Mechkowski in front of a tree uprooted, thanks to October 2012’sSuperstorm Sandy. The root pan is about 10-feet-tall
“Now, what is this, mountain laurel?” Timmy said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“I know some things,” he joked.
Actually, Timmy knows a lot, a fine mix of his maternal and paternal farming roots and his town upbringing. By trade, a mechanic. One of my first picks if I had to choose a team to live off the grid.
A coating of ice on a small pond near Helmetta Boulevard, which slices through the woods, was evidence of the day’s temperature of about 32 degrees.
Invasive phragmites grew in the swamps on both sides of Helmetta Boulevard. Yet, not far away, one was in a classic Pine Barrens uplands ecosystem of oak and pitch pine.
“Another pristine area,” I said. “This is beautiful, right here.”
Where the Dance Pavilion stood about 100 years ago – apparently the idea being to bring people out for a good-time night in the woods to sell them lots here – we could still find remnants.
“This is pretty cool,” I said, “you could still see them, the steps,” leading to where the pavilion stood on the top of a small hill.
Here, in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, there is a quick mix of nature and humans, some old, a lot current.
As we bushwhacked with Jamesburg Park behind us and Swing Hill ahead, swamp to our left, high ground to our right, a nearby path of white sand was hidden by the woods’s vegetation.
“You couldn’t even see the path a few feet away,” I said.
In the Swing Hill-Snuffy Hollow area, there was evidence of how this area of the woods is more accessible to the outside world: a stream washed out because of off-road vehicle riding and garbage dumped. But this walk was wrapping up, anyway.
On our walk, we passed swamp, uplands mixed with oak and pine, swamp hardwood forest and Atlantic white cedar swamp, sphagnum bog, a stand of baby pitch pines and invasive white pine, and what apparently was a coyote den, sometime the hum of the New Jersey Turnpike, only a mile or so away, in the background.
Coyote den under the roots of an uprooted tree
The woods is a funky place, a place to gather Mother Nature’s bounty. This Christmas, I did not get around to gathering materials for a wreath. Mrs. Mechkowski’s wreath is different than mine, which I make using pine boughs and inserting winterberry.
To next Christmas and, hopefully, a wreath. We are moving that way as another year has gone by.
On the way home, we saw winterberry, what I use for a wreath, and holly, what Mrs. Mechkowski used. For now, the outdoors is still here, but changing, too….
Winterberry at Cranberry Bog
Joe Sapia, 59-years-old, grew up in and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at Snufftin@aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.
Copyright 2015 by Joseph Sapia
by Joseph Sapia
As I hiked through Jamesburg Park, Jimmy Talnagi stood outside his cabin, lighted punk in hand.
Strange, I thought, I just had an online discussion with fellow, local baby-boomers about punks, or cat-tails. As children, we would light the cigar-like flower, ostensibly to keep mosquitoes away, but more likely to be one of the kids. Jimmy was not part of the recent discussion, but here he was, as if waiting for me, with the smoking punk. And, this being November, was not part of the season for mosquitoes.
I had three punks left from the warmer weather, what am I going to do? Jimmy said. They just start shredding, like a big puff ball.
True, the fluffy vegetation of this punk was coming apart, sticking to my sweatshirt. So, either light them for the heck of it or let them disintegrate.
Jimmy and the punk were one of various unexpected discoveries on today’s walk – a walk on the edge of the woods. The walk was meant to combine two things: one, a hike into nature, and, two, a pragmatic commute to the other side of the woods to Krygier’s Nursery, whose owner, Jimmy Krygier, was giving me a ride to pick up my Jeep, which was getting some mechanical work done about 8 miles away near Englishtown. Because I was tired and busy with house projects, I did not really have the will or the time to get into the woods. So, I compromised, turning down Jimmy picking me up at home, but sort of walking the woods – that is, walking on the edge of the woods – to Jimmy’s house.
So, around 2 p.m. on this overcast day of 55 to 60 degrees that was calm to having a light breeze, I set off toward Cranberry Bog. The idea was to walk the Pipeline to the ConRail railroad tracks, then to the bog, past Shekiro’s Pond into Jamesburg Park and out the woods at Jimmy’s, roughly a walk of two miles.
Walking the edge of the woods is not as good as walking deeply into the woods, but I made my first discovery hardly off the beaten track. On the natural gas Pipeline, I came across plentiful and huge acorns. This year is a “mast year,” somewhat of a mystery when oaks really kick out acorns. An oak in my yard was covered with acorns; Here, they were huge.
Huge and plentiful acorns during this “mast year” Here, on the Pipeline.
Classic Pine Barrens ecosystem of white sand, pitch pine, Virginia pine, and oak.
Continuing on, I turned toward Helmetta, briefly walking the ConRail freight tracks, before turning toward the Bog. Almost immediately I came across a microcosm of the Pine Barrens: white, beach sand-like soil mixed with oak, pitch pine and Virginia pine. If someone doubts this area is part of the Pine Barrens, have that person look at this scene.
As I continued, I came across blazing red tree leaves, the changing colors of vegetation during the transition from hot to cold weather. What a beautiful scene, but nearby there was evidence a local neighborhood is dumping its vegetative waste in the area. At the Bog, too, I was greeted by another sad scene: invasive phragmites. Not only overtaking the bog as a whole, but overtaking a nice stand of valuable punks.
As I moved on, the phragmites invasion continued. I counted five plants growing in Shekiro’s Pond. Five now, but how many in a short time? On the bright side, literally across the unpaved road from the pond, I found nice stands of winterberry. Not only beautiful, but food for birds and decorative material for my Christmas decorations.
Five shoots of very invasive phragmites, with the tassel at top, begins an invasion at Shekiro’s Pond.
I dipped back into civilization at the former worker houses of the George W. Helme Snuff Mill, then worked my way out again into the woods passing Jimmy’s cabin and a few other homes. Finally, I was back in the woods, but out all too soon, my walk done.
Sometime, life gets in the way of doing fun things, such as playing in the woods. So, one has to take advantage of snippets here and there.
As for the lighted punk, Jimmy insisted I take it as I continued hiking. But it was dry and leaves heavily littered the woods.
I don’t want to set the woods on fire, I said.
This went back and forth, with me finally agreeing. I took the punk, bit into its stem, and held it like a cockeyed version of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cigarette.
I tromped on, looking like a swamps-around-Helmetta aristocrat.
Jimmy Talnagi with a lighted punk
Joe Sapia, 59-years-old, grew up in and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at Snufftin AT aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.
Copyright 2015 by Joseph Sapia