Tag: Voices of the Raritan

Natural Treasures Hidden in Plain View

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A short rapid at the head of an island on the South Branch demanded my immediate attention, though it was an easy and familiar passage. A few quick draws and paddle strokes allowed the canoe to negotiate the exposed rocks without a scratch. The smooth open water below the rocks, this day, appeared to be non- navigable as a herd of Holstein milk cows stretched from pasture to the far bank.  The cool water must have felt so good on their udders they were reluctant to move and remained motionless, all eyes watching me silently approach.

I did my best to avoid starting a stampede and shunned the thought of owning the notoriety of being the only canoeist ever to be churned into oblivion by stampeding bovines, while paddling down a quiet river. It would certainly be an inglorious and unexpected end to a peaceful canoe trip.

The cows did give way, grudgingly, as they shifted position to allow my passage, each cow substituting for a slalom gate on a downriver run.

A a glance, the note hanging from the cow’s ear appeared to be a cartoon bubble expressing the animal’s thoughts. The cows are gone, never to return, unlike the diverse collection of wildlife populations reconstituted along our local rivers and open space.

That scenario will never happen again as the dairy farm was sold and new environmental regulations barred cattle from rivers and streams.

So it was the proliferation of dairy herds dwindled to change the perception of the character of the region from rural to land prime for development.

The absence of cows from the landscape was taken as signal that nothing remained to be saved in terms of nature or wildlife. The land without cows was sterile and devoid of life, a waste of space, only to be saved by ratables.

Unbeknownst to most, the open space and river corridor teemed with viable populations of wildlife that existed long before the cows came and remained in viable populations after the cows passed.

A common misconception about wildlife is, if you don’t see herds of animals, they don’t exist, except as anomalies. The facts are, many wildlife species, mink for example, exist in healthy populations across the state.

Animals that dominated stories of frontier days, sans mountain lions, still live among us. Tales of coyotes, black bear, otter, beaver, turkey, whitetail deer and eagles belong to wild country, pristine wilderness rarely visited by humans. Even the sound of migrating wild geese, flying a mile high in a V formation, still make the heart beat faster. The geese were travelers from the far north on a winged journey, whose eyes had seen wild places we could only dream about.

The symbol of our country, the bald eagle, until recently, existed only as marketing brands, has now established territory along our rivers, one nest producing fifteen fledglings over seven years. Eagles of all ages are now a common sight.

Trees gnawed by errant beaver looking for a permanent home line the rivers. Transients pass through each winter, occasionally homesteading for a few years. Beaver were the main attraction for early settlers and provided impetus to explore and settle the early wilderness. Again, a local animal whose lineage is associated with mountain men, wilderness and American history, remain and thrive despite the absence of cows.

As I paddled down the south branch, an oversized raptor perched on a dead tree branch extending over the river. I could not identify the species and wanted to get some images. I set the boat to drift on a course that would pass directly under the bird. To my surprise it tolerated my presence as I took my limit of images. Still thinking it was some variety of hawk, I continued on my journey. Only when editing the images, I realized I was within intimate distance of a juvenile bald eagle! I had no idea eagles even existed locally; the only one I ever saw was fifty years ago on the upper Delaware River. Consider the misconception created when the most common image of an eagle, as seen exclusively on branding, is that of an adult with a white head and tail. It is easy to ignore or mistake juvenile birds as it takes about four and a half years for the plumage to change to pure white.

The thought then occurred, beside eagles, what other unexpected wild life or endangered and threatened birds and animals existed in our midst? Rivers serve as ancient migration routes for birds and animals, the pathways imprinted in their DNA. So the opportunity exists to observe unusual species during times of migration and the possibility some may decide to take the exit ramp and remain. 

Our natural treasures are hidden in plain view, their legacy continues if we recognize their existence and the importance of protecting the land along our rivers and open space.

 

You may not see him but rest assured he sees you! The howl of coyotes in the night, strikes a primitive cord in our DNA as we share the emotion felt by our paleo ancestors, huddled around a fire, bridging the unknown with magic and mythology.  

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.

Memories are Where You First Met Them

Article and photos by Joe Mish

This maroon shale cliff forming the river’s bend, serves as a memory retrieval bank for times gone by. I was canoeing with my late friend Jimmy, who caught and released a feisty smallmouth bass just upstream of that shale prominence. Memory storage may be why the shore of a river is referred to as a ‘bank’.

Over the course of time everything we experience is stored as a memory. Having limited capacity for recall, it is the most impactful memories that linger. By no means are memories ever lost, they are stored in pristine condition in unconscious archives. The key to recovery can be a scent, sight or a sound. Prompted by clues hidden in unrelated conversations, a single phrase or word can bring an experience back into sharp focus. Old, faded photographs of no particular beauty or composition can instantly bring the past into laser focus as the prompts to our memories are as individual as fingerprints.

So it is that each time I paddle the river, it becomes a physical journey through the accumulated memories collected over hundreds of miles, paddled on the same stretch of river. Each trip is like opening the old family album to add new photographs and seeing the older images as the pages are turned. It is as if a gravitational pull compels you to linger a bit longer in the realm of old memories.

There is hardly a location on the river that does not hold a memory for me. Digital images and photographs, abound, however, it is being present on the river that provides access to memories not captured by the camera or pushed aside by the endless flow of freshly minted memories.

Every time I pass the drainage above the mouth of Pleasant Run, my mind immediately plays the video of the snowy winter day I pulled out of the current into the safe harbor of a drainage stream to warm my hands under my arms. The heavy snow quickly covered me and my boat as I leaned forward, folded arms resting on my thighs. I felt safe and comfortable as the canoe was stabilized in the heavy slush and well within the six-foot-wide drainage stream away from the main current. The snow was almost a foot deep along the high bank and to my surprise a dark brown mink was porpoising through the deep snow toward the drainage and my canoe. The mink came within arm’s reach before it realized the convenient bridge and large lump of snow was an existential threat.

One summer day I had my young daughter in the bow of my canoe, as we approached the tower line near home, a large fish jumped clear of the water, hit the gallon jug of juice she was holding, bounced off the opposite gunnel and fell back into the river. Her expression was priceless, as was mine, to witness a scene that could only happen in a cartoon. Can’t pass under that tower line without reliving that moment! Though many years have passed, the clarity and even the emotion of that comedy is still retained in the tower line archives.

On an initiation canoe trip with my four-year-old grandson, I paddled close to a high shale cliff, as in my experience cliffs were a major attraction to young boys. Sure enough, Caleb was impressed and asked how to get to the top. Before I could answer I noticed a large animal on the narrow shelf at water’s edge below the cliff. We closed in on a supersized beaver munching some delicate vines growing on the cliff face. The beaver slowly moved into deeper water but not before swimming on the surface a few yards in front of the canoe. You will not be able to see it, but when I pass that cliff, it reveals a crystal-clear video of that priceless moment. Of course, the next day Caleb never mentioned the beaver to mom but was totally impressed by Grampy carrying the canoe over his head.

One early spring day after ice-out, the river was running high, and the only ice that remained was found in deep cuts into the bank where trees were washed away. As I rounded a sharp bend in the river, I kept about three feet off the left bank to avoid the main current. Immediately on my left was a large ice-covered cove about twelve feet into the high vertical bank. I could not believe what I saw! Standing in sharp contrast to the empty expanse of graying ice, was an otter!  As it ran toward me, I realized its only escape route was into the water next to my canoe. At less than two feet away I watched the otter dive into the fast-moving muddy water in the narrow space between my boat and the ice shelf. I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps hypothermic. I never saw an otter on the river before or since. Consider, this bend in the river projects the memory of my close encounter with an otter, exclusively for me. It is my personal archive, available to no one else.

Memories are where you first met them, they are safe from prying eyes and remain where you last left them. The storage capacity is infinite and the keys to unlock them are everywhere.

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.

Fencing Hummers

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A small patch of red monarda grew wild in one corner of the fenced in garden, survivors of at least one deer who decided their minty flavor to be a perfect palate cleanser.  Much to the dismay of the late season hummingbirds, their over browsed food source left fewer opportunities for nourishment at a critical time, just prior to migration south.

The ownership of this last loaf of bread on the shelf, further intensified the territorial disputes that typically take place among hummers.

A young of the year male was feeding on the monarda, his dining strategy was to circle to the right, probing each scarlet tubule, then pulling back to hover for a moment, before repeating the flight pattern around the next floral head. Suddenly a second immature male appeared and the two began aerial acrobatics almost too fast to follow. Each bird disputed the property claim of the other. After close face to face sparring, they took off out of sight, separated by no more than a few inches.

It was impossible to differentiate one darting hummer from another, though the aggressor appeared to be the same bird, how many different challengers was in question.

Five minutes later another hummer appeared and began to feed with uncharacteristic speed, as if knowingly violating another’s territory, stealing as much as it could before the expected challenge from the self-proclaimed owner.

As expected, the challenge ensued. This time the interloper was inside the garden fence while the claim owner hovered outside the fence. So intense was their dispute, each floated in place commencing an aerial duel, with their needle like beaks, separated by the fence. It was a high noon showdown with unloaded weapons, as neither could be intimidated nor vanquished. The spectacle continued for a full minute until the aggressor realized the futility of his efforts and flew over the wire barrier to engage the trespasser. The two fencers immediately dropped their foils in favor of high aerial maneuvers to settle this territorial dispute.

While most hummingbird disputes consist of posturing, and aggressive aerial pursuits end harmlessly, another unexpected threat targeting hummers lurks among the flowers. The brown Asian preying mantis, an introduced species, will on occasion attempt to take and kill an unsuspecting hummer.  Having read about the relationship of mantis and hummer, it seemed a rare occurrence of low probability until one early September afternoon.

A female hummer was feeding on the blooms of native red cardinal flower. Being aware of how individual hummers have their own feeding strategy, circling always to the right or left, pulling back for a moment before going on to the next flower or just moving on to the next bloom without a slightest hesitation, I noticed something odd about this hummer. She seemed to take sideways glances diverting attention from the business at hand. Sure enough, there was the focus of her attention. A light brown Asian preying mantis whose body length exceeded that of the hummer. Likewise the mantis appeared aware of the hummer and waited to strike. As the hummer worked the flower, she always maintained awareness of the mantis and at one point faced it directly. All ended well for the hummer, though it is easy to imagine a new fledged hummer falling victim to this insect predator.

Two hummers in this image, one perched, the other making an intimidating fly by.

As delicate and diminutive as hummingbirds appear, they are tough, aggressive creatures whose late summer-early fall southward migration defies the imagination. Hummers are as close to magic and myth as anything in nature. The ability to hover and maneuver with almost invisible wings and float in the air probing brilliantly colored flowers, while robed in iridescent feathers that seem more metallic than organic and change color with movement, surely earns mythical status. As is within a hummer’s personality, it will often initiate a face face introduction as it stays suspended in mid air inches from your nose, looking directly in your eyes. It is a wild thought that the hummer has captured the image of your face as readily as you hold his image in memory, to be recalled and reviewed, perhaps in a future pleasant dream, whose memory fades upon waking, leaving only the hint of a smile on your lips.  

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

Rivers Were Here First

Article and photos (except where noted) by Joe Mish

Imagine glistening water appearing on the south face of a retreating glacier at the end of the last ice age. The warming atmosphere sent a cascade of water onto the bare earth where it pooled to create an echo chamber, sounding the arrival of each drop of icy water. This scenario describes the theoretical birth of the Raritan River watershed.

The rivers were here first, post glacial retreat. Consider the main branch of the Raritan River, the South Branch, was formed at the start of a brief ten-thousand-year moment of post glacial, relative geologic stability.

The weight of megatons of glacial ice removed, the now unburdened earth began to squirm. Seeking to ease tension and reach a state of equilibrium, mountains, valleys and ridges were formed and reformed as tectonic plates shifted. Low areas filled with glacial melt and rainfall till overflowing. Large lakes formed as water accumulated, the weight of water then destabilized the ground to breech these impoundments. The sudden release of water further altered the topography of the land. Over time equilibrium was reached where water accumulation and flow were balanced. Gravity then directed the relatively constant overflow downhill, seeking a path of least resistance dependent on soil structure and around hard rock to reach sea level. The current source of the Raritan, which arises at Budd Lake, is approximately 933 feet above sea level.

Source of the main branch of the Raritan River arises from a glacial lake 933 feet above sea level and flows for fifty miles to its confluence with the Raritan and North Branch  at 50 feet above sea level.
The South Branch of the Raritan flows from Budd Lake, aka Hattacawanna, to its mouth, aka Tucca-Ramma-Hacking, aka, the meeting place of waters. Standing at the convergence of the the two branches, each is named for the direction from which it joins to form the Raritan, though both the North and South Branch begin north of the confluence. Aerial image courtesy of flight provided by LightHawk and No Water No Life

Tucca-ramma-hacking, the meeting place of waters. South Branch on the right, north Branch on the left. Raritan begins at the confluence of the North and South Branch.

Looking at the stability of today’s river we must appreciate the almost evolutionary natural selection of its watercourse. Locally we see deep valleys far outsized in comparison to the small streams flowing through them; Holland Brook and Pleasant Run are two examples. Somewhere in the past these pastoral rills were raging rivers, perhaps overflow from the volcanic vent that formed Round Valley.

The outlet of the Hudson River was determined at one point to be in the area of Bound Brook and formed what is now the lower Raritan River. The South Branch of the Raritan eventually meandered through rock and rill to merge with the Raritan River, orphaned by the mercurial Hudson in its adolescent stage.

The first rivers and streams were simply situated where the combination of elevation/gravity, rate of flow, soil structure and rocky obstructions were random. Flora and fauna had no stable conditions upon which to flourish.

Once the river course stabilized, it provided ideal conditions for an interdependent community of plants, animals and eventually humans. Undeniably the river is referenced in every aspect of planning and development. Suffering good and bad decisions, its endless flow serves as innate immunity, susceptible to remediation and full recovery.

Human habitation along the river has to be considered dramatic as human intervention has the greatest impact upon the environment in any given era. Whether it be the first colonial dams which were burned because they blocked the upstream alewive migration or twentieth century chemical effluent from industry which poisoned our waters and the cascade of life from which it arose.

The river is an immovable constant which provides stability when change rages in an ebb and flow of perceived progress. This watery touchstone provides a north star upon which to re-direct an awareness of community and balance.

Look closer at the flowing water and realize what appears as an enduring entity is made up of endless stream of new water molecules. A river looks static in that its bed is always filled with water. I just find it fascinating to realize I am looking at the closest thing to infinity, as unique water molecules have passed by the same point for eons. The individuals come together to create a seamless enduring entity.

A great place to contemplate the river and come to the realization each drop of acrobatic water bubbling over the boulders is new to the journey to the sea. The river is alive and constantly renewed! Never the same.  

It is mind boggling to consider that view, but helpful to see life as a continuous flow of new recruits and how decisions made today will impact the future. It also provides a new perspective from which to view an issue. Too often problem solving suffers from restricted contributions.

Our rivers provide tangible benefits as well as being a source of inspiration to expand our imagination and fire our creativity for the benefit of all. The rivers were here first and life grew up around them in an expanding spiral of interrelated communities.

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.

Pollinators in Disguise

Article and photos by Joe Mish

One fox says to the other, “Huh, my nose fits perfectly in your ear!” Something along those lines a humming bird might say to a trumpet vine flower.

The midsummer morning dew covered the green meadow grass with a transparent layer of condensation. In the light before sunrise the green grass appeared to be covered with a dull silver wash.

I was making a morning pilgrimage to an isolated jumble of trumpet vine in hope of capturing hummingbird images.

The freshly made trail of an animal, passing through the tall grass, caught my attention. Its fur wiped off the droplets of moisture clinging to the meadow grass. The image was that of a long single brush stroke of dark emerald green overlaying a dominant pewter green tinted background.

In the distance near the trumpet vine I saw a fox repeatedly bounce in the air as if on a trampoline. I edged closer hoping for a better view with binoculars.

The fox sat up and turned its attention to the tangle of vines covered with large trumpet shaped orange flowers.

As if out of curiosity the young fox stretched forward and sniffed among the vines and actually stuck its nose up one of the flowers. A closer look revealed a smudge of orange pollen on the tip of the fox’s wet black nose!

I knew what to look for or I would never have noticed the telltale pollen dust. Whenever I identified a flower for my daughter, she instinctively held the flower to her nose. The weaker the scent the closer to their nose it was placed. Curiosity then demanded another flower be sniffed in comparison to the first. Inevitably she would comment on the scent totally unaware the tip of her nose was smeared with bright colored pollen. In doing so, genetic material from one flower was transferred to another in an act of incidental pollination by a pollinator in disguise!

Flowers have evolved along with primary pollinators for mutual benefit. The flower’s structure provides an ergonomic accommodation resulting in an automatic pollen dispenser. This is essentially a primitive method of artificial insemination, where genetic material is collected from one individual and dispensed to another.

When we think of pollinators, honeybees and butterflies first come to mind. There are however, scores of other insect pollinators along with highly adapted birds, hummingbirds being a prime example. Bats and orioles are also listed as pollinators.

Primary pollinators and flowers have developed unique structures that fit together perfectly to serve the needs of both.

Bees have pollen baskets on the side of their legs while hummingbirds have the ability to hover motionless over a delicate stemmed flower and feed by way of a highly adapted beak and tongue, avoiding damage to their food source.

Flowers use color, shape and placement of reproduction structures to accommodate specific pollinators. Flat faced zinnias are perfect for bees and butterflies while the cone shaped flowers of trumpet vines are best suited for the long thin probing beaks of hummers. Specificity and dependence between species in nature often comes with a price. Where major crops like blueberries are grown, a die off of honey bees will result in a poor harvest. In this case, the relationship between pollinator and flower expands to include agriculture, economics, commerce and consumers.

The beauty of flowers extends to their adaptability to recruit incidental pollinators. When a non targeted pollinator, fox or human, walks though a field of flowers, pollen will collect on fur or clothing and brush off on other flowers. Not an efficient method of genetic transfer, but some pollination will occur.

If the inquisitive fox were to sniff another trumpet vine bloom, genetic transfer would be complete.  That flowers can use a fox to transport pollen makes one wonder if an argument could be made that flowers are an intelligent life-form.

Consider that flowers are living things that in some magical way recruited man to further their propagation in exchange for a glimpse of eternal beauty, dreams and imagination to expand the universe of human potential with unbounded creativity and expression.

More detailed information on pollinators in NJ may be found at Conserve Wildlife New Jersey’s website.  http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/protecting/projects/pollinators/

If you look closely you can see a smudge of yellow pollen top center of the hummer’s head as it feeds on cardinal flower. The pistil containing the pollen is perfectly positioned just above the hummer’s head. As the bird will visit multiple flowers it carries pollen from one flower to the next.

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.

Expect the Unexpected

Article and photos by “Voices of the Watershed” Contributor Joe Mish

A white fronted goose, rarely seen west of the Mississippi river, enjoys grazing on central New Jersey grass.

Long before President Eisenhower signed the interstate highway bill into law in 1956, The Atlantic, Central and Pacific flyways served as major superhighways for migrating birds.

The primary exit ramps for these super flyways are the rivers which radiate out along the north-south migration routes to distribute the migrating birds far and wide.

New Jersey sits directly on the Atlantic flyway, bounded by the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean. Within the state’s interior flows the Raritan River, the longest inland river in the state which serves as a major migratory off ramp.

The confluence of the North and South Branches may then be considered the prime visitors center and rest area, as birds funnel down the Raritan to disperse inland.

Look at a colored distribution map in any bird book and discover that many species are specific to defined regions.

You might not expect to see a rufous hummingbird from the northern Pacific coast, sipping nectar in central New Jersey. However, in 2012, a rufous hummer showed up in our midst and stayed the winter, surviving by the kindness of human intervention. Marlene Scocco reached out to this wayward hummer providing food and shelter, causing a stir in the birding community which gratefully documented this migratory anomaly.

Checking the records for rare hummingbird visitors to New Jersey, other hummer species like the calliope and green violet eared were also documented.

How these birds end up on the east coast is pure speculation. The point is they do and they are here for you to discover.

Feathered visitors from faraway places to the Raritan valley are not just limited to hummingbirds. In 1963 I was handed a small owl taken from a guard tower in the Raritan arsenal. It died shortly after. I mentioned this to a friend’s dad who was an avid bird watcher. Told him it was a boreal owl. He smiled and assured me it was probably a saw whet owl. We ended up at the Newark Museum and showed it to the curator, Irving H. Black. Confusion ensued and experts from across the country were consulted. The experts concluded the bird was indeed a boreal owl. It set a new record for the southernmost sighting in the US. The boreal owl, briefly known as the Richardson owl, is a fulltime resident of the coniferous forests of the arctic region. The owl is preserved as a study skin at the Newark museum.

The visitors keep coming. In mid March of this year I noticed an inconsistency in the color pattern of a flock of grazing geese, as I drove by. The geese blended together in one giant mosaic, painted with repetitive splashes of black, white and brown. I pulled over and focused on the colors that didn’t belong.

I was looking at a white fronted goose, another bird that was obviously unfamiliar with distribution maps found in bird books.

The white fronted goose is rarely seen east of the Mississippi river, the main artery of the central flyway. To see a white fronted goose in central NJ is therefore an unexpected surprise and evidence that nature has a tendency to violate scientific generalizations.

The following week, a Canada goose with an orange and white collar marked OHOX was observed along rt 22. It also had a metal band on its left leg. While editing images, I was shocked to see the goose standing next to it also wore a leg band. Reporting this goose to the USGS bird banding website I was provided with a certificate noting that the goose was a female, banded as a flightless gosling near Varennes, Quebec, Canada on the Fourth of July, 2016.

Adding to the distinguished list of local visitors was the osprey I observed April 7, 2016, just upstream of the confluence of the North and South branch. The osprey had a blue plastic band on its left leg, with stacked letters, DV, visible on one of the images taken. Again, making a report to the USGS banding website, a certificate soon arrived, stating the osprey was born on a bulkhead in Portland, Maine and banded on July 27, 2011. To report a banded bird, visit the USGS bird banding website, bandreports@usgs.gov

The spring migration is now in full swing. And along with colorful warblers, ruby throated hummingbirds, woodcock and osprey, come the errant travelers.

Diverging from their evolutionary migration patterns, these intrepid winged visitors explode the myth that, “birds of a feather stick together”.

Migrating birds that nest in our region, along with birds just passing through, are now appearing along our waterways. The confluence that forms the Raritan River is the staging area that hosts a feathered extravaganza of unimaginable variety.

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.

December – A Fall into Light!

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A female cardinal fluffs up her feathers to ward off the cold, as winter wind sweeps the snow covered landscape.

The first breath of winter is felt in the last days of December’s autumn. The frigid wind, intent on erasing the last vestige of fall color, convinces reluctant rusted oak leaves to cleave from their lofty anchorage and sail free. The dry, stiff leaves rattle their objection before finally letting go to add depth to the leafy woodland carpet laid in October’s grand leaf fall.

The branches swept clean of obstruction; darkness deepens as theatre lights fade to heighten the drama of winter’s opening curtain featuring the winter solstice and the birth of light.

The winter solstice describes the time of the year at which the tilt of the earth is such that the sun appears at the lowest point above the horizon. ‘Solstice’, directly translates to, ‘sun stands still’. An impression one gets when the earth’s tilt changes to make the sun appear to halt an instant before it changes direction and ‘rises higher’ on the sky on the first day of winter.

Early observers reasoned the earth was a stable platform and the sun moved from one horizon to the other, above the earth. During the course of the year, the height of the sun was noted each day, measured in some primitive way. Stonehenge comes to mind as one version of tracking periodic celestial events, which led to the concept of time. Days and months were easy events to track and filled in the gap to mark time and define seasons.

That predictability was noted and celebrated as a whisper from the gods, sharing the future forecast of animal migration, weather and plant succession with those who pleased them.

The shortest day of December, which translates to the darkest day of the year, occurs on the last day of autumn. At the instant of the deepest darkness, the wick of the winter candle is lit, glowing like a beacon, getting brighter each day as winter progresses.

Look at a sunrise/sunset chart, cross referencing minutes, hours and days against months, to provide a visual representation of day length over time. Though you may not have noticed the change over a few days, you are now conscious of the minutes of light gained each day. That tangible bit of information acts like bio feedback and goes a long way to physically quell the sadness that the dark winter will never end.

Even if you forgo charting daylight, your body has physiologically evolved to capture trending day length and alters your hormones and mood accordingly. The pineal gland at the base of the brain monitors the day length to mediate release of hormones, primarily melatonin, which affects sleep cycles and behavior.

An odd situation, when you consider that while being consciously unconcerned or oblivious to changes in day length, your pineal gland is hard at work, keeping track.

A candle, glowing in a distant window, giving off a flickering halo of warm amber light, is a perfect tribute to mark the early days of winter and celebrate the birth of light.

This year, winter arrives December 21, at 5.22 pm, so make a conscious effort to mark the time and celebrate the first flicker of light that grows longer each day to make the winter much brighter and improve your mood.

December owns first rights to freezing weather and whimsically decides just which week will host the initiation of winter. The calculated movement of the planets determine the exact moment of the winter solstice right down to the second. Practically, however, winter begins when December decides.

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.

November – the Far Side of Autumn

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Expect the unexpected when you look up into the leaf bare November woods. Here a red fox walks up a leaning tree to rest 30 feet high in the crotch of an adjoining tree. Red fox are not known to climb trees as are gray fox., but this fox channeled his inner gray fox to climb to dizzying heights.

November is the far side of autumn, a time when the colorful drapery of October is taken down to reveal the bare structure, upon which fluorescent orange leaves once hung.

The change in scenery is quite dramatic, as we pass through the colorful curtain that decorated the first full month of fall. I imagine standing behind a waterfall where colorful autumn leaves flow like cascading water to create a transparent wall of scarlet, orange and yellow. As I reach out to part the flowing colors, I step forward into November.

Linear brush strokes of gray and brown now dominate. Light and rain play with intensity of tone as the bare trees alternate between tans and gray to darker shades of brown and black. Rain saturates the branches to shift subtle earth tones to the bold end of their color spectrum.

The fading light of dusk and early light of dawn erase all color to turn trees into black silhouettes. The interlaced network of branches and solitary trees become one dimensional, as any perception of depth is lost against the stark contrast enhanced by the loss of daylight.

A dynamic lightshow in the sky then commences with a pale yellow glow as the sun departs over the horizon to melt into a pool of fiery orange. When the unmoving silhouetted trees are viewed against the ever changing celestial color spectrum, the still scene becomes a cinematic event.

Stars begin to appear well before the sun’s aura fades. Their sparkling silver brilliance is held against an even colored, dark blue night sky, making the perception of depth impossible to detect. Here, the background is static and the stars sparkle with energy. Just the opposite occurs where trees appear one dimensional and static, while the sky is alive with changing color.

All these theatric opposites combine in a single scene to create an inspiring, though brief preface, to the end of a November day.

A walk through the November woods cannot be more dramatically different than experienced a month before.

Strolling within the woods, beneath the canopy of trees, now without their leafy crowns, the lattice work of a branched arbor is apparent. Since late spring, a cloud of leaves dominated the view, banning shadows and sunlight.

A day time stroll on a sunny day or moonlit night, allows light to play with trunk and limb. Gnarled branches, which fought for their place in the sun, form grotesque figures that groan in the wind. The source of the sounds impossible to locate, lend a ghostly atmosphere even in the light of day. Shadows that begin to arise from a subterranean prison at the base of large trees, appear as immovable as the tree from which it escaped.

Turn away and back to find the shadow has imperceptibly moved, as it circles the tree to close the distance between you.

Walk along silently on the rain and color soaked carpet of October and let your imagination run wild. Animals and portions of human like figures, frozen in the transition of creation, hang like spare parts growing from trees.

While November is no one’s idea of autumn, given the cold, frost, barren landscape and introductory snowfalls, the month ends 21 days short of winter.

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.

A Brilliant Jewel in New Jersey’s Treasure Chest of Natural Wonders Revealed

Article by Joseph Mish, photos by Joseph Mish and Brian Zarate

A moment in the sun. The elusive and rare bog turtle, aka Muhlenberg turtle, is captured in this image by Brian Zarate.

The smallest and rarest turtle in NJ has emerged from the obscurity of its muddy bog to celebrity status as the bog turtle was recently named New Jersey’s state reptile.

The bog turtle was first scientifically cataloged by botanist Gotthilf Muhlenberg at the approach of the 19th century. In honor of the discoverer, this diminutive reptile was named Clemmys muhlenbergii. It was commonly known as the Muhlenberg turtle until the vagaries of taxonomic nuance christened it the bog turtle, one hundred and fifty-six years later.

The bog turtle averages a bit less than four inches in length. To visualize its size, write its scientific name on a piece of paper and that length will approximate the size of the turtle.

The blaze orange patch on the side of its head provides unmistakable and instant identification. The orange color glows like a brilliant gem. Stare at it for a moment and the turtle magically materializes from its muddy background.

The overall appearance of the turtle is a grayish black, though on closer inspection there are varying degrees of dull orange skin and freckles especially at the base of the front legs, neck and face. The carapace or ‘top shell’ is covered by ridged scutes or horny segments, comparable to fingernails. Faint amber markings may sometimes be seen on the shell, their appearance dependent on age or accumulated mud.

The small size, secretive habits and specialized habitat requirements restrict the presence of this turtle to very defined regions of the state.

As its name suggest, these turtles prefer open boggy areas fed by clear springs or streams. Skunk cabbage and jewelweed, aka, ‘touch me not’, are easily identifiable plants commonly found in bog turtle habitat. Pasture lands are desirable locations as plants and grasses are kept in check by grazing cows to maintain optimum preferred habitat. Deep mud, constantly infused with spring water, provides ideal hiding places and protection from freezing during winter hibernation.

Tree stumps protruding from the bog and raised islands are preferred locations to lay eggs. Females seek these drier places within the bog to lay eggs as opposed to other turtle species which travel quite far from home.

To illustrate the secret life of the bog turtle, a friend who was a conservation officer, stopped to investigate a car parked alongside a road in north Jersey. He came upon two researchers following signals from a bog turtle equipped with a transmitter as part of a study project. Nothing could be seen to indicate a turtle was present. The signal, however, indicated its precise location and after digging deeply into the mud, there was the turtle alive and well!

Bog turtles are considered to one of the rarest turtle species in the United States.

The bog turtle had been declared ‘endangered’ by the state in 1974 and ‘threatened’ by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997. Population estimates are speculative, as some articles cite the total population in the eastern US as 2,500 to 10,000 and ‘fewer than 2,000’ turtles in NJ. The Bog Turtle Project states 168 colonies have been identified. Equal distribution of 2,000 turtles over 168 locations cannot be assumed and further emphasizes the rarity of this precious gem.

Among the locations identified, there are a select few, which have a large enough gene pool to ensure a viable population into the future. While turtles found in isolated micro habitats are vulnerable to insufficient genetic variation.

In both situations the loss of contiguous habitat is a deadly threat, as a segmented environment limits migration and thus genetic variation as well as exposing animals to predators, mowers and vehicles.

Loss of habitat is a major threat to bog turtles as well as many other species.

Invasive plants, like the familiar purple loosetrife and phragmites, dominate areas to destroy plant diversity and alter soil porosity which in turn eliminates the cascade of insect and invertebrate life upon which the bog turtle feeds.

purple loosestrife invasive plant chokes out native grasses reduces invertebrate diversity

More turtles may yet be found by wild chance, though by no means can their presence be considered widespread as is the case with more common species like painted and snapping turtles.

Suffice to say the description of ‘rare’ is understated when used to describe the bog turtle.

The designation of ‘state reptile’ is not an endearing term to the general population. I like to think of the bog turtle, as one in a series, of New Jersey’s unheralded natural treasures.

Read about the NJ Bog Turtle project at

https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/bogturt.htm

More references for bog turtle information.

https://www.nj.gov/dep/fgw/ensp/pdf/end-thrtened/bogtrtl.pdf

http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/species/fieldguide/view/Glyptemys%20muhlenbergii/

Should you find a bog turtle, report it and keep the location secret, as this turtle is high on the list of the illegal wildlife trade.

Report any discovery to the state at: https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/rprtform.htm

Whenever I see a turtle, I always wonder how old it might be and compare it to events in my life. Most age ranges provided for wild creatures are speculative and based on captive animals or hard data collected from tagged wild animals. A bog turtle tagged in 1974 and estimated to be about 30 plus years at the time was again found in 2017, which places its estimated age at around 65 – 70 years old! That age range allows young and old to ponder what was going on in their life at any point in that turtle’s parallel life.

Thirty something years ago when that turtle burrowed deep into the mud to hibernate, my daughter was born in Muhlenberg hospital. A local hospital named after the son of the discoverer of the bog turtle, aka Muhlenberg turtle. The legislation to proclaim the bog turtle the official state reptile was co-sponsored by Kip Bateman of Branchburg. It would be a further coincidence to find and report the discovery of a bog turtle community within Branchburg!

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.

What’s the Point?

Article and photos by Joe Mish

My South Branch office is made of kevlar and weighs 52#, well lit with natural light and leaves no trace. A perfect vehicle for discovering New Jersey’s natural treasure hidden in plain view.

Every once in a while, it is useful to check your back trail to validate your current course. For the last few years I have been attending the Rutgers sponsored, ‘Annual Sustainable Raritan River Conference’ and was introduced to the people and effort dedicated to improve the water and land that make up the Raritan River basin.

It was strange at first to hear someone else talk about my river. There was a moment of concern, a tinge of jealousy, that my ownership of the river was being usurped by strangers, some not even native to New Jersey. I soon realized I was among kindred spirits. It was like meeting long lost relatives….. whose company you sincerely enjoyed. Each member contributed a critical piece of the puzzle, whether a citizen, volunteer or a degreed scientist, each perspective complimented the other, and occasionally there was the discovery of a piece no one knew was missing. The symposium took the threads of individual effort and wove them into a whole cloth.

I was pleasantly surprised, the focus of the conference dovetailed perfectly into my goals and objectives. It also prompted me to revisit what I hope to accomplish with my images and words, given the current status of New Jersey’s relationship with its natural treasures.

Today New Jersey enjoys a natural inheritance that is the sum of the legacy left by generations of agrarian, industrial and residential development. Sacrificed in the name of progress, our natural and wild treasures are reputed to have been diminished to a vanishing point in the wake of the great human juggernaut. However, despite New Jersey’s recurring reputation as the most densely populated state in the union, wildlife is found to proliferate along its river corridors, highways, woods and fields. Much of this wildlife existed before the establishment of farms, whose disappearance falsely signals the surrender to unabated construction and development. The farms and cows are actually late-arriving interlopers, highly visible and used as a convenient but inaccurate measure of our intrinsic wild and natural resources. It is the presence or absence of cows that form the basis for politically subjective land use decisions.

Even the most ardent nature-oriented residents are often oblivious to the richness and distribution of this state’s natural treasures. Regional areas, reputed as nature destinations, add to obscure our natural treasures as their existence implies an absence of nature except where designated. Combine this with the perspective of the nature-neutral and nature-oblivious residents and it is understandable how the nature sterilized image of New Jersey arises from within and grows with distance to earn a national and global reputation as “the ghost of nature past”.

Against this background my photographic intentions range from historic documentation of ephemeral wild moments to portraiture revealing the energy and dignity of the creatures that covertly exist among us. What the camera misses the words capture, what the camera sees the words enhance.

The articles are a blend of literary flourish embedded with scientific information as much for entertainment as to arouse curiosity. I wish to create a gravitational pull of curiosity that draws the reader to seek deeper knowledge. Hopefully some youngster will be intrigued enough to pursue more detailed information and perhaps launch a career in science.

One reason New Jersey’s natural treasures remain hidden in plain view is because of prejudice and limited expectation. The best way to remedy this, is to change the lens through which our natural world is viewed. I do this by presenting stories and information from unique perspectives, along with images of wildlife most have never seen and many more don’t believe exist so close to home.

When I consider my place in the effort to restore the rivers, I see me operating on the interface between art and science. I walk that line to help transition attitudes and open eyes to a new reality fostered by creativity and imagination.

Rutgers fish camera at Island Weir Dam on the Raritan River is now online.

http://raritanfishcam.weebly.com

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.

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