Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mill Creek Marsh: the shorebirds' preferred Turnpike rest stop

On a hot Saturday morning, with not a cloud in the sky, we headed to the Meadowlands to find some shorebirds. Believe it or not, their migration season has already begun, and surely some would be making a pit stop in the area for rest and refreshments.

Our first stop was DeKorte Park, home to the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, but it wasn't as productive as we'd hoped. Despite the substantial trail network there, much of our expected route was off limits, and besides, it was high tide. The sandpipers and plovers didn't have much space to peck about in the mud, because it was essentially flooded for the time being. It was time for plan B, Mill Creek Marsh off the Hackensack River in Secaucus.

Mill Creek is just a few miles away
from downtown Manhattan, as the crow flies.
If you've used the eastern spur of the NJ Turnpike just south of the Vince Lombardi Service Area, you know Mill Creek, even if you don't know its name. Tucked away in the Harmon Meadow shopping area near Bob's Discount Furniture, this spot indicates what the Meadowlands was like in the days before landfills and rampant development. Shoppers looking for great deals can easily take a walk back in time and learn a bit about the natural climate that predates the retail complex.

What we didn't see at DeKorte we saw at Mill Creek in abundance: sandpipers, yellowlegs, and both snowy and great egrets. Never having seen both kinds of egret together, I was amused to see that the great is quite a bit bigger than the snowy; but for the difference in beak color I'd have thought the snowy was the great's offspring. We also were treated to the sight of an immature Baltimore oriole, its orange markings not yet darkened from the juvenile yellow.

Marsh wrens, though clearly making their presence known vocally, were frustratingly difficult to spot. It seemed that every time we approached a substantial patch of spartina, one or two would start to sing, but they never came up to introduce themselves. After a few instances, I mused that there had to be some sort of trip wire along the path that triggers a recording of the song every time someone gets near. Well, even if we didn't actually spot them, I enjoyed their song.

Mill Creek offers a lot, even if you're not into birds. The area was regraded and restored to highlight the beauty of its original tidal flow, and this time of year you'll see plenty of blooming marsh mallow along the path along with healthy marsh grasses. Surprisingly, on our visit it wasn't buggy at all; while we saw the average number of dragonflies and butterflies, we were unscathed by mosquitoes. Proper tidal flow and ample insect-eating birds are doing their job, it seems.

Marsh mallow and other wetlands greenery
overtake an old cedar stump.
Once you get to one of the pools closer to the highway, you'll also see remnants of the Meadows' historic past -- the stumps of American cedar trees. Long ago, the marshes were home to large tracts of these fragrant hardwood trees, and their demise is the subject of a few interesting Colonial-era stories. Some say that the colonists burned the forest down before the Revolution, to root pirates out from the many hiding places on streams within the swamp. Others say that the forests were cut down to the point of extinction, their highly-prized wood sold off for various uses. The scientific answer is that human intervention (namely the construction of the Oradell Dam) changed the water composition, turning the marsh brackish and cutting off the fresh water the trees need. Regardless of what happened, the stumps remain, creating an interesting landscape of gnarled and weathered roots and perches for cormorants and the like.

The only real down side to Mill Creek is the incessant hum of Turnpike traffic, but you can still hear the sounds of the marsh without much trouble (where are those truck noise cancelling headphones when you need them?). It doesn't take much to see that the Meadowlands is on the rebound after years of environmental abuse. Just ask the birds: they're finding plenty of healthy food to eat, and the marsh is clearly on their maps.

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