Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ticking away at Negri Nepote Grassland

Franklin Township (Somerset County) is one of those massive towns in the middle of the state that just seems to go on and on. Its reach is so vast, in fact, that it includes several unincorporated communities and three of the state’s six area codes hold sway there. With a history that goes back to colonial times, the township was largely rural for many years, until a building boom in the ‘80s that brought condo and townhouse development. Fortunately, though, there are still a few sizeable farms, and much of the open space is being preserved by the township and other entities so that about 75 percent of the acreage is still undeveloped.

It was one of those preserved entities where Ivan and I went for some light hiking and birding. He’d seen reports of dickcissels at the Negri Nepote Grassland and wanted to check out a new spot.

While I know some of Franklin Township, I wasn’t entirely sure of the exact location, and I was tickled to find it’s not far from the Trojan Cow. Yes, you read that right. Somewhere off South Middlebush Road, there’s a dairy farm with a massive Holstein cow in the yard. When we passed, it was standing, proud and freshly painted, with its living counterparts clustered around it. I don’t know anything about it; I’ve been aware of it for many years but haven’t yet had the guts to drive up and ask the farmer about it. Frankly, I’d rather keep the mystery going in my mind.

In any case, the Negri-Nepote property itself is largely grassland with some wooded areas thrown in for good measure. There’s also a very small, apparently man-made pond with an elevated blind; when we were there, the water level was pretty low and a lone mallard was hanging out. The field is traversed by a set of high-voltage transmission lines, which buzz ominously a hundred feet or so above you as you walk. (Old power company joke: Why do transformers hum? They don’t know the words.)

The path starts out as a gravel bed from a small parking lot, eventually turning into a wide swath of mowed grass when it veers to the right. After some of the places we’ve been, it was a bit of a relief not to have to bushwack or be overly concerned about brushing past high grass, but it’s no place to let your guard down. As we walked, we picked up a fair number of ticks that seemed to be laying in wait for us. Together, we must have attracted close to 20 of the suckers. Thank goodness for light-colored hiking pants.

Approaching the humming path of the transmission lines, Ivan noted a red-tailed hawk sitting atop one of the towers a few hundred yards away. Curious whether it might be keeping tabs on us, I took a quick scan of the other towers and found a large stick nest perched atop one of the higher-voltage towers. I could just about spy some feathers up there, but I couldn't tell whether it was the other parent or maybe a chick.

Not long after, we got our answer. We heard the distinctive scream of one of the parents, who’d taken wing ahead of us, warning us away from the nest. Little did he/she know, they’d selected what is probably one of the safest places around to raise a hawk family: not only would it be a tough climb up that tower, the surrounding voltage would quickly fry anyone foolish enough to try the ascent without the appropriate safety gear. Good luck to anyone who wants to band the chicks in that nest.

The dickcissels were quiet, perhaps because it was midday, but we saw a fair number of tree swallows and more than a couple of bluebirds making use of the nesting boxes off in the fields. We also spotted a kestrel perched on a ladder rung of one of the transmission towers. She obligingly took flight so we could fully appreciate her plumage.

All in all, it would have been a nice, leisurely walk in the field, but for the ticks hitching a ride on us. Next time, I’m bathing in DEET before we go… and perhaps wearing a Tyvek suit.


  1. Hi Sue,
    Just wanted to let you know that I think your blog is fabulous. I do something similar for libraries, archives, and museums on mine. Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Deb!


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