Friday, May 6, 2011

Finding new things among the familiar: Birding at Watchung Reservation

I'm always rather pleased with myself when I can introduce Ivan to a new birding environment. It's fun to spot a particular bird before he does, but it's even better to bring him someplace he's never birded. That was the case last Sunday when we closed out a very eventful excursion with a stop at Watchung Reservation in Union County.

Located between the first and second Watchung Mountain ridges, the Reservation is nearly 2000 acres of hilly and mostly wooded land, with a couple of ponds, a stable and the recently renovated Trailside Nature and Science Center that focuses on the flora and fauna of the area. It's also home to a deserted village which has had lives as a resort, a factory town and a Revolutionary-era farm. While the hiking isn't as strenuous as you might find in more northern parts of the state, it's a convenient place to spend a few hours on the trail if you live locally. Given we were already on Route 78 as we headed east from Phillipsburg, it was a logical stop.

I've hiked Watchung many times, but I'd never focused much on the birds there, other than enjoying their songs as I headed down one trail or another. Given its acreage, I figured there could be some lesser-seen (at least for me) species enjoying a migratory stop-over, or maybe even nesting. On any given hike I wouldn't know many of them by voice or by sight, so why not have the Dean of Birdology identify them for me?

We parked on Tracy Drive, across from Surprise Lake (surprise!) and started walking through the woods at the water's edge. While hosting a nice variety of trees, the path is reasonably level and free of potentially tick-infested brush. As you stroll, you'll also come upon a couple of rustic building foundations. These stone walls are what's left of the boathouse and bathhouse that served the lake for the first several years of the park's existence. Informative wayside markers provide information and photos of the structures to guide your imagination.

So how was the birding? Not bad, overall. Though we saw a preponderance of robins and sparrows, we also found warblers including the black-throated green. I also got to see my first Baltimore oriole of the season, which was a nice balance to the orchard oriole we'd spotted at the Water Gap.

For those who'd like to check out the route we took, it's the dark pink trail that runs on the eastern side of the lake, from the road to about 100 feet short of the spillway. Beware, though: this trail is mired in controversy. The actual trailhead is nearer to Trailside Center, and it skirts a moraine, passes by a copper mine and runs through the ravine below the Deserted Village, but at some point before getting to Surprise Lake, it just disappears. Some say that an organized group (of who knows whom) took it upon themselves to blaze the route without bothering to inform the county so it could be placed on the official trail map. In any case, take care not to get lost along the way: pick up a map at Trailside or carry a GPS with you to help guide you back to the established trail.

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