Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Supawna Meadows: where you might see birds and what looks like an oil rig

Continuing on our Salem County jaunt, we headed to a three-in-one stop that contained a national military cemetery, an army fort turned state park, and a National Wildlife Refuge. For right now, I'll focus on that last one, the Supawna Meadows NWR.

Encompassing just over 3000 acres of Delaware Bay marshland, Supawna's mix of fresh and saltwater habitat is an important stop for migrating and feeding waterfowl and shorebirds. Several types of raptors hang out there, too. Likewise, it's a good place to tromp around if you want to get your boots a little muddy, or if you'd like to get into the woods a little bit. We found parking near the grassland trail and set out on the walk.

Given the warming temperatures and sunlight, it was really nice to be out, but it sounded as if the birds were elsewhere.  In other words:  it was totally silent, but for the pop-pop-pop of shotguns in the distance, reminding us that hunters were stalking deer in the distance. Sure, it was approaching midday, but come on, guys, throw us a bone and squawk or something!

One trail took us through a moist wooded area with wayside signs pointing out various tree species, an especially nice touch when leaves haven't sprouted yet. Eventually, we got to an elevated observation area overlooking a field of phragmites, the nearest of which appeared to be trampled down. Still: no birdies. Not even a peep, or a honk or a quack.

Another trail, in the other direction, brought us through grassland, along the edge of some more woodlands. There we heard some peeping, but alas, from frogs. Still, though, a wonderful harbinger of spring on a February day when temperatures were reaching the 50's. An elevated blind offered a view over a grassland distant; Ivan took a climb up and noted that the birds didn't appear to be there, either. We had a lot more trail ahead of us but concluded it would likely yield no more feathered fauna than we'd already seen. Thus we returned back to the car, making a note to return later in the year when more birds would likely be there.

Supawna is also home to the Finn's Point Rear Range Light. Built in 1876, it looks much like an oil well or a black stovepipe supported by brackets, but it's actually designed as an aid to navigation and was once paired with a front range light on a standard lighthouse-type building, as well as another set of range lights farther south. While lighthouses help guide ships to shore and point out difficult areas, range lights help mark channels. Captains on ships coming up the Delaware River from Delaware Bay would sight both lights and determine they were on the right route when the two lights lined up.

The Finn's Point Front Range Light was demolished after damaging floods in 1938, and the nearly 95-foot rear light continued operation intermittently until 1950, when the channel was dredged and enlarged. After a persistent campaign by local citizens, the rear light was added to the National Historic Register in 1978, and fully restored by 1984 with money dedicated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In years past I've climbed the tower's 130 steps during New Jersey Lighthouse Society Lighthouse Challenge weekends (usually in October), and it's a humbling experience to tread those steps knowing the lighthouse keeper did it twice daily for years to light and then extinguish the beacon.

Reports conflict on whether the tower is open for visitation; it wasn't while we were there, and as with any site run by a grassroots group, staffing can be spotty. If you're in the area, though, it's worth at least taking a look. And definitely let me know if you hear any birds while you're there.

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