Winter’s Off Ramp

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A woodcock on its journey north to New England, stops to rest and dine in a snow free drainage along the South Branch of the Raritan River. The woodcock’s journey to its northern breeding ground was triggered by the increasing daylength. An odd collection of left over parts makes the woodcock a feathered spectacle to ponder. Short legs, long bill and perfect camouflage. A woodcock will often flush when almost stepped upon. Its erratic flight and strange mating ritual draw in birders and female woodcock to hopefully be impressed by the males’ aerial acrobatics. 

March is Winter’s off ramp, and each day, by attrition, the darkness of winter fights the increasing daylight to a standstill, but only for a moment. In a scripted celestial movement, called the vernal equinox, the earth curtseys to its stationary solar partner, to show respect for both ethereal combatants before allowing the light to dominate the darkness.

The ebb and flow of light is continuous and only by poetic license do the two stand opposed. They are really one entity, measured as day length based on sunrise and sunset. The stability of the change or, periodicity, of daylength is used by all life on earth as a reference to evolve physiologically and to predict future events.

The ability to recognize patterns and predict future outcome is the key to survival. From sporting events to weather, political campaigns and animal migration, prediction dominates everything we do and reflects our need to see the future to ensure our security and safety.

Daylength is one of a constellation of indicators which sound the call to action. Migration of birds and marine life are dramatic examples of long distance travel from wintering to breeding grounds. An osprey named ‘Lady’ traveled over six thousand miles, each year, for 24 years from Loch of the Lowes in Scotland to West Africa and back. Lady’s light receptor organs, which evolved from the generational exposure to seasonal light change, triggered chemical changes in her body to prompt her journey.

Closer to home, an osprey born on a bulkhead in Portland, Maine, was observed in Branchburg on its journey north, from South America, in early April a few years ago.
Increasing daylength prompts early nesters like great horned owls and eagles to bond with their mate, begin nest construction and eventually incubate eggs.
A lamprey migration up the South Branch of the Raritan in June provides an alternate menu item for eagles gathering prey to feed hungry nestlings.

Shad and alewives were a major fishery on the Raritan River in early colonial times, their migration blocked by mills and dams, killed the local economy. As dams are removed the shad, along with juvenile striped bass from the Hudson canyon, follow their ancient migratory patterns up the Raritan River.

Even the smallest of amphibians like the spotted salamanders will migrate short distances, usually across roads to vernal ponds. This spectacle takes place in late winter and early spring, and are joined by several species of frogs in a grand meet and greet fertilization extravaganza.
Each year about March nineteenth, I visit a natural drainage where there might be found a migrating woodcock. An oddly constructed native gamebird who seeks soft ground around springs and seeps to feast almost exclusively on earthworms.

Native people in the arctic regions traditionally rely on the migrating wildfowl, like eider, for food. While the relationship between humans and migratory birds and animals is a long tradition, it has somewhat changed from a survival event to that of observing birds as a passive outdoor activity. Migratory flocks sometimes include species not native to the region, a great addition to a birders’ ‘life list’.

One dramatic migratory event witnessed in the spring, in New Jersey, is the exact timing of the red knot migration to the horseshoe crab spawn on Delaware bay.

A red knot is a sandpiper which migrates nine thousand miles from the tip of South America to the Arctic breeding grounds. The birds will fly for days without eating in anticipation of feasting on millions of horseshoe crab eggs produced when the crabs come ashore to spawn. An ancient relationship developed over the centuries, on which the survival of the red knot hangs by the thinnest of threads. 

The change in daylength captured by the eye, acts on the pituitary and pineal glands to stimulate the sex organs, and begin the migration. One red knot was found to be 21 years old and theoretically made the nine thousand journey nineteen times for a grand total of 189 thousand miles!

Set aside a moment on March 20th, 2023 at 5:24 pm, to recognize the impact between the choreography of celestial bodies in space and the existence of life on earth. Be amazed at how life has adapted in a long moment of equilibrium in a universe marked by chaos and change.

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