Monday, January 30, 2012

Bird by bird, finding life among the chill

This month's kind weather patterns have brought some magnificent days to get outdoors and see what's around us. Though we had one very cold weekend and another that brought snow, Ivan and I found it relatively easy to roam around the state to collect a pretty impressive list of birds. He ends the month with 112 species, year to date, while I've got 89.

Did you ever imagine that so many different kinds of birds were roaming around in the dead of winter? I'm still astounded by what we can find hidden among the parks and refuges around the state. This weekend we were treated to the sight of a western tanager that's rarely seen in New Jersey, especially in the winter. It's a brilliant yellow bird with a hint of red in the throat, along with black wings that have diagonal white bars near the center. While we were watching it perch on a small tree at Allaire State Park, two bluebirds flew up and set down just above, almost as if they wanted to share in the attention. I don't think we could have been faulted for confusing January 29 for April 29 at that very moment.

We were reminded, too, that even during the coldest, darkest days, life renews itself. This is prime owl season, with many of them starting the breeding process in mid to late January. On an evening stroll through my suburban neighborhood, we heard a screech owl in a tree just yards from us, calling for a mate. We also happily were able to spy a barred owl sequestered high in a fir tree among the woods at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. It's downright cool to train your binoculars toward one of them and see him staring right back at you.

By its nature, birding forces you to observe what's around you. When you're out looking for different species, you can't help but notice berries on the holly bushes, or even sprouts starting to inch themselves above the soil. Best of all, you're outside, among life, when you might ordinarily have cocooned in your house, watching reruns. The days are getting longer, folks. Put on a parka... or maybe just a sweater, and get out and enjoy them.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Living closer to nature at Craftsman Farms

I've always like the basic aesthetic of the American Craftsman design movement, an extension of the British Arts and Crafts style. Visionaries like William Morris and Gustav Stickley crafted simple and straightforward textiles and furnishings in reaction to the industrialization and ornate design of the Victorian era. Drawing from natural materials and the green and brown shades of the outdoors, Craftsman designs employ centuries-old wood jointing methods, including dovetailing, pegs and dowels in place of nails and screws.

More than a century after Stickley and his brothers entered the furniture business, the enduring popularity of his designs keep a factory in upstate New York busy filling customer orders. Until a few years ago, though, I had no idea there's a New Jersey connection to the Craftsman movement just off Route 10 in Parsippany.

The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms not only preserves Gustav's work, it represents one of his lesser-known concepts: a self-sufficient farm school for young men. Ivan and I visited the museum recently to learn more about the man, his vision and how he came to choose New Jersey as the location for what he called his Garden of Eden.

Once you're off the highway and past the entrance to a townhouse development, you feel as if you've been transported to the countryside. For me, it brought back memories of arriving at Girl Scout camp in Sussex County. You get the feeling that the lodge was designed to be a gathering place as much as it was to be a home, but something about it felt a bit backwards, as if we were coming in the wrong way.

As it turned out, that feeling was spot on, and we'd approached the property from behind, not as Stickley had intended. The lodge is situated atop a hill, its front porch overlooking a clearing that slopes gently downward to a wooded area. A carriage path meanders up from below, intended to bring guests from the Erie Lackawanna railroad tracks hidden at the property line at the base of the hill. Stickley himself would flag down a passing train for his commute into New York City.

It's not surprising that the rustic lodge blends so neatly into its surroundings: the chestnut wood and stone it's constructed from were all gathered from the property, consistent with the Craftsman aesthetic. A walk through the first floor of the home reveals a spacious enclosed porch, a sizeable living room that would probably be called a great room in today's McMansions, and an expansive dining room. Furnished with authentic Craftsman furniture and clad with natural wood grain lovingly restored to Stickley's original intent, the rooms are somewhat dark but extremely inviting. One can imagine many cozy winter evenings by the fireplace, as well as many comfortable summer days with cooling breezes flowing through the many windows.  By contrast, the whitewashed kitchen is both bright and large enough to produce a meal big enough for an army.

And, in fact, that's what it was designed for, kind of. Stickley wanted to build a farm school for boys, an agricultural community that would include cows, chickens, an orchard and a vegetable farm. Encouraged by Homer Davenport, a political cartoonist who lived nearby in Morris Plains, Stickley bought 650 acres of property there in 1908 and proceeded to build and design his own natural utopia, including a home for his family. Only thing was, not many other people took to the concept. With no students, he was left with the lodge, three cottages, stables and other farm buildings. He changed his plans and made the lodge into his family home, maintaining the farm to supply food to the restaurant in his Craftsman Building on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Stickley's impact on the property is lasting, but his own presence there was short. Business troubles forced the sale of the farm to the Farny family in 1917, and while they largely made only cosmetic changes to the lodge, they sold off much of the farm, leaving just 30 acres intact. As with so many other culturally-important places, the growing popularity of the area made the broad expanse of land very attractive for other uses.

In fact, it was the encroachment of potential development that led to the preservation and restoration of Craftsman Farms, the sale of the property to the town of Parsippany-Troy Hills, and the creation of the Craftsman Farms Foundation that manages and preserves the lodge for future generations. The grounds are now a township park that's open seven days, and the Stickley Museum is open for tours on weekends during the winter and from Wednesday to Sunday the rest of the year. (Check out their website for more precise dates and times.) While there are no farm animals on the property, the park also hosts a wide range of events and activities that everyone in the family can enjoy.

There's so much more to the story, as we learned from the very knowledgeable docent who conducted our tour. Whether it's the restoration of the house, how various pieces in the collection were acquired, or stories about Stickley, his family or the Farnys, we clearly could have stayed another few hours to learn all there is to know about Craftsman Farms. Stop by and check it out -- you're sure to find something that piques your interest!

Many thanks to Foundation trustee Lynn Leeb for arranging and hosting our visit!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Edison's West Orange house: a real steal!

Thomas Edison's 29 room Queen Anne style mansion stands as a true Victorian-era gem in the exclusive, gated West Orange community of Llewellen Park. While members of the inventor's family lived in the home for over 60 years, it wasn't built for or by the Edisons, and in fact, its origins have a distinctly criminal bent.

Thomas Edison houseGlenmont, as the estate is known, was the dream home of Henry C. Pedder, a confidential clerk in the offices of New York retailer Arnold Constable and Company. Pedder and his wife Louisa spent close to $400,000 in 1880 to purchase 13 acres at the crest of a hill in Llewellen Park, hire famed architect Henry Hudson Holly, and build and furnish the home with the finest materials. The entryway alone is paneled in oak and mahogany, and papered with gilded, embossed wallcovering. An aspiring writer, Pedder had an opulent library built on the first floor, with hand-stenciled walls and ceilings, as well as glass-doored bookcases filled with rows and rows of leather-bound volumes. Even the servants quarters were among the best to be found in a grand house of the time.

One would wonder how a department store clerk could afford to spend nearly a half million dollars building a luxurious home. Truth was, he couldn't. Pedder used his trusted status at Constable to siphon the money from the company books, not just for the house, but for trips to Europe and prime beef for his three dogs. It was estimated that he spent about $30,000 per year to keep up the lavish lifestyle he shared with Louisa, her widowed sister and the sister's three children, and none of the neighbors suspected a thing. It seems that he was living a bit of a double life, as neighbors and townspeople assumed that he was a partner in the company because of his supposed income. At the same time, Constable executives knew little of his home life, given that West Orange was considered to be countryside in those days, and not many New Yorkers would have visited the community.

Eventually, though, Pedder's forgery was discovered, along with similar thefts made by other Constable employees. Forced to sell the property to the company for a dollar, he was given the choice of going to jail or leaving the country, and he prudently chose a life outside the United States to a future behind bars. He'd enjoyed just four years of graceful living in his custom-built home.

The estate languished on the real estate market for two years before Thomas Edison bought it for half the price it took to build and furnish, as a wedding gift for his second wife, Mina Miller. He declared it as far too fancy for him, but not nearly fancy enough for his young bride. She became the household executive, running the estate while he was focused nearly exclusively on his new laboratory just a mile away on Main Street.

Mina made substantial renovations to the house over the years, but curiously, she left Pedder's library untouched. It was used mostly as a place for visitors to sign the guest register, though daughter Madeleine often hid in a small alcove in the room to read racy novels her mother disapproved of. Today, visitors can see the same leather-bound books in the same glass-fronted bookcases that Pedder himself purchased and arranged. When I've volunteered there, I've often stood alone in the room and wondered what kind of inspiration he got from all of those learned words. Was it worth possibly going to jail over?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tories: the first beach bullies on LBI

As if our Brigantine adventure last Saturday wasn't enough, we stopped at Barnegat Light to see the numerous waterfowl that usually winter there. We were pretty well assured of seeing longtails, harlequins and loons if we were willing to brave the icy gusts buffeting Long Beach Island.

We dropped the car at the lot near the lighthouse, and I caught sight of a historical marker I hadn't noticed before.

The October 1782 date had me a little confused about whether this attack was, in fact, related to the  Revolutionary War. The British Commons had formally voted to end the war six months earlier, and while the Treaty of Paris wouldn't be signed until September 1783, the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 had effectively ended hostilities.

So what's this Long Beach massacre about? A few possibilities came to mind:

  • Somebody didn't get the memo that the war was over.
  • Animosity between the sides was still quite high, and someone was looking for a fight.
  • Someone forgot his beach tag.

From what I can tell, the conflict wasn't related to the war at all. Captain Steelman and his crew were sailing near LBI on the privateer galley Alligator when they noticed a grounded vessel. Further investigation revealed that while nobody was aboard, the ship still held tea and other valuable cargo, so Steelman and a detachment of men went to the mainland to recruit others to help them unload it. Some stayed at the scene after assessing the situation, while others chose not to participate. Among those who left, it's surmised, was a local Tory sympathizer.

The Americans worked through the day, and while many of them returned to their own homes for the evening, Steelman and some of his crew stayed on the shore overnight, possibly drinking. What they didn't know was that the sympathizer had reported the grounded ship to John Bacon, one of the most feared and hated men in the Pinelands region.

Who's John Bacon and what makes him so influential? From what I read, he put the "tory" in "notorious." He'd gotten his criminal start under the auspices of the Board of Associated Loyalists that was chartered by Colonial Governor William Franklin before the war. The Tory-aligned Board authorized Bacon to raid British military targets in New Jersey, supporting the cause of the Crown while freeing up troops to directly engage the Americans. Apparently he enjoyed the fruits of his work so much that he continued practicing it after the war concluded.

As Steelman's group was retiring for the night, Bacon and his group were laying in wait on the bay side of the island. Early in the morning they made their attack. The knife-wielding Tories set upon the sleeping men one by one, awakening the others in the process. The Americans attempted to fight off the attackers but were at a serious disadvantage, even with help from their crewmates, who came to shore after hearing the melee from their ship. Before leaving, the Tories had succeeded in killing Steelman and most of the salvage party, whose bodies were largely abandoned on shore as the Alligator departed.

So... the next time you're on the northern end of LBI, consider that you may be laying your beach blanket on a centuries-old crime scene. I haven't heard any ghost stories attached to the incident (perhaps because phantoms can't afford a beach tag), but if a drunk apparation offers you some 230-year old iced tea, take my advice. Turn him down.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Finding the elusive shrike

Tired from our long journey from Brigantine, we got a somewhat late start on Sunday. We figured to spend a couple of hours birding in Morris County, and Ivan had a few ideas for stops within Boonton Township, but for the most part, we were playing it by ear.

First we stopped at the Tourne County Park. Or rather, we made two stops at the Tourne ... one at the level field area near a Christmas tree farm, and the other in the hillier area of the park. Both stops were largely unproductive, as the birds apparently thought wiser of going out in the chilling cold than we did. I don't know where they could have hidden, but I conjured a mental picture of a bunch of them hanging out in some kind of finch coffeehouse, sipping at warm drinks and reading the Sunday Times.

We also tried the field near Kincaid Woods, which, ironically, we'd passed up as too hot to hike around during our July visit to the Spoon House. This time around, the presence of frolicking dogs and their people made the spot unbirdable. It's not that we don't like dogs -- we do -- but no self-preserving bird does. Given the cold, we weren't about to wait for the pups to get tired and head back to their people.

The northern shrike. Photo by Jonathan Klizas, .
Our next option was Johanson Memorial Field. You might recall our last visit there, a jaunt that revealed an important yet obscure portion of aviation history. It's not on the typical New Jersey birding circuit, but the variety of habitat seems amenable to a wide range of avian life. And let's face it, what bird could resist landing at the site of a historic airstrip?

I pulled onto the park drive from Powerville Road, and just as we reached a clearing, Ivan tensely told me to slow down. By now, I know what that means: important bird in sight, do nothing to spook it.

On the other end of the clearing, atop a cedar tree, was a light-colored bird. I couldn't make out any detail since my binoculars were in the back seat. Ivan, on the other hand, wears his bins like a natural appendage and quickly announced that this could just be a shrike. Which kind, he wasn't yet sure, but a shrike, not a mockingbird.

For the uninitiated, a shrike is a predatory songbird that breeds in the Canadian tundra and winters in the northern US and southern Canada. New Jersey is pretty much the farthest south it will go on the east coast, though there are rare sightings as far down as the Carolinas. Here we're lucky to get a handful in a given winter, so if Ivan was seeing what he thought he was seeing, it was big news. The bird's perch-to-ground-to-perch behavior was characteristic of a shrike, and it appeared to have the appropriate markings. The question then became whether it was a loggerhead shrike or a northern shrike, and the width of the bird's dark eye mask would settle it.

To settle that, we'd need a closer look, and unfortunately we hadn't brought the scope. Getting physically nearer could spook the bird, but we had to take the chance. I parked the car in the nearby gravel lot and Ivan headed out to check. The bird, however, wouldn't cooperate, and after a double-check look at a field guide, Ivan wasn't comfortable making a judgement call. Maybe it would be best to go to another park and come back in a bit, when the bird wouldn't be so wary.

That's exactly what we did, roaming the area and discussing that a shrike needed to be reported to the appropriate birding authorities post haste. People would want to see it, and another set of better educated eyes than mine would be helpful in corroborating the find.

When we returned to Johanson, I edged the car up toward the clearing again, both of us prepared to see the bird in question perched on the cedar. He didn't disappoint, and we weren't going anywhere. As Ivan scanned for telltale markings, I stopped the car and cut the engine to reduce the heat shimmer that was distorting his view. From the drivers' seat, my view was distorted by the windshield, so I slid open the moon roof and slowly lifted my head and binoculars through.

Perfect. Not only did the bird stay atop the tree, he did a little pirouette, almost, to allow us a better view of his face and body markings. There was no doubt, especially after another peek at the field guide. This was a northern shrike, and it was our find. Well, it was Ivan's find... I was just along for the ride, but it was pretty darn cool.

What was even better than finding it was having it corroborated by the other birders who also saw it after seeing our reports on Birding on the Net and MocosocoBirds .  It's still around, too, perhaps even for the winter season. Maybe now more folks will check out Jimmy Doolittle's old field in Boonton for aircraft of a different sort.

Monday, January 16, 2012

An abundance of life, all in the cold

We've been really fortunate this January. Relatively mild temperatures and the lack of measurable snow has made it much easier to explore and go birding in some of the more traditionally productive January target spots. Yeah, we've had to put on a few layers, but the air has been pleasantly brisk, rather than punishingly cold.

This past weekend was the exception. Below-freezing temperatures combined with biting gusts to create some pretty harsh wind chills, despite the bright blue sky. I guess the upside is that all of the precipitation we've had to date has come when the temperatures are warmer. I can deal with the cold as long as I'm dry.

It was in that environment that we headed to the shore for a birding trek to the Brigantine Division of Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. As longtime readers might recall, we made a few trips last year to Brig, as seasoned birders call it, for ducks and found a bonus bittern and my first bald eagle for good measure. Not bad, overall. Ivan figured we'd pick up snow geese and a few other first-of-the-year species on this jaunt.

On arrival, we found that the refuge was participating in the Federal public lands Fee Free Weekend, where National Parks and Wildlife Refuges waive their normal entry fees to encourage Americans to explore the historic and natural wonders we all own. A sizeable group of people was already in the parking lot, so we headed in the opposite direction, onto the Leeds Eco Trail. Just before we walked into the woods, I noticed what I thought was a snowy egret, standing quietly in the water near a boardwalk. Figuring it wasn't anything huge, I said nothing to Ivan. We're fortunate to see so many egrets that they've become unremarkable.

How wrong I was. After we'd made a fairly unproductive swing through the woods, Ivan spotted that same bird and identified it as a juvenile little blue heron. There went my usual rule of thumb that among the local egrets, the herons are the non-white ones. By now I'm used to this: the young often don't look a heck of a lot like their elders. I guess you could say this adolescent hadn't lost his baby feathers yet. His bill was the real giveaway, though: rather than being yellow like the great egret's, or dark like the snowy's, it was kind of grayish. That was a good lesson for me.

Our next surprise came out in the distance. Ivan noticed some activity on an osprey nesting platform and a nearby perch. We've been seeing so many unusual-for-January birds that it almost seemed plausible that the ol' fish hawks could be setting up shop a full two months before they generally return. Could it be that like so many summer bennies and shoobies, they were setting up their summer shore rental while the best locations were still available?

Or were they not osprey to begin with? Perhaps they were peregrine falcons? My optics and identification skills aren't nearly as good as Ivan's, and I wasn't going to make any pronouncements after my egret/heron miss, but I had a gut feeling. Fortunately another friendly birder was parked nearby and got his scope for a closer examination. Were the characteristic sideburns there? We took turns at viewing the best closeup we were going to get and agreed: these were most likely peregrines. A flight would give us more information to make the call, but all we'd seen so far is a short hop from the perch to the platform. Maybe one of them would entertain us, but the pair seemed more focused on eating the brunch they'd already brought in. Plenty of other raptors were more accommodating, with a few harriers patrolling the marsh in the distance.

Then we saw the granddaddy of all raptors, or, more accurately for this one, the bully kid. An immature bald eagle made its way toward our area, its plank-like wings unmistakable. Our platform diners noticed, too, and one took to the skies to chase the eagle away. For about three minutes, the two put on quite a show for us, the peregrine swooping toward the eagle to hurry the larger bird out of the area.

We all couldn't help but marvel at the sight. Forty years ago it would have been a miracle to see those two engaging with each other, and here it was, playing out in front of us, as natural as could be. It's times like that when I'm grateful for our National Wildlife Refuges and their diversity of life. When you see so many youngsters, you realize how welcoming and healthy the place is, and the presence of so many raptors indicates the robustness of that health throughout the local ecosystem. Everyone goes where the food is, and Forsythe is clearly a pretty good supermarket. That's clear even if you can't identify the birds.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Duck! It's Paulie Walnuts!

Waterfowl loom large on the New Jersey birder's mind in the winter. While we see mallards, geese and egrets most of the year, the state's lakes, ponds and shorefronts are now liberally flocked with gadwalls, pintails, grebes, coots, and others that generally only winter here.

To the lesser-informed observer, some species look very much like other species, immature specimens of one may look like a mature member of another species, and females of one species look like males of another. It all gets a bit confusing, though others are so distinctive on their own that you can't help but remember them easily.

Then there's the challenge of remembering the names. I usually count on mnemonics, or something about the bird that reminds me of something else.

For instance, there's the Hooded Merganser. It's a perfectly nice duck and doesn't bother anyone. In my mind, though, it's represented by a sociopathic gangster:  Paulie Gualtieri of the Sopranos. You know who I'm talking about. Good ol' Paulie Walnuts.

Ivan laughs at some of my descriptions of birds, but this one is especially apt. When he's not puffing up his bouffant in mating season, the hooded merganser has those same back-swept white streaks in his head plumage that Paulie does. All the duck needs is a track suit, and they'd be virtually indistinguishable. Take a look and let me know if you disagree.

Hooded merganser - Lophodytes cucullatus (male on left)

Peter Paul "Paulie Walnuts" Gualtieri - Sociopathicus maximus

Now, I've never known a hoodie to hurt anyone, or even make a remotely threatening move, but this comparison does give one pause. Next time we're in the Meadowlands, or the Pine Barrens for that matter, I'll have to pay special attention.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When is a hotel not a hotel? When it's the Cranford Hotel!

Go to the downtown business district in many of the older towns on the Raritan Valley railroad line, and you'll see a Victorian era building that might or might not still have a restaurant or a bar, or both. During the the late 1800s and early 1900s when the line was part of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, those were important stops for city dwellers who came out to the 'countryside' for a weekend or maybe longer. Cranford is no different, with the Cranford Hotel standing a few dozen feet away from the elevated railroad tracks.

Today, the Hotel is a local meeting place with reliable dining options and two friendly bars, but it doesn't take in overnight guests anymore. That got me curious. Did the building always offer hospitality? Who stayed there? When did they stop taking in guests? What's upstairs now? I had the chance to get a rare behind-the-scenes chat and tour recently with the Hotel's general manager, Dave Carracino.

Forebears of the current owners bought the Cranford Hotel
in the 1940s for less than $3000. 
The current Cranford Hotel building was constructed in 1893, replacing an earlier structure on the South Avenue side of the block, which had burned down. The railroad tracks were just outside the front door, at grade level in the days before the entire line was elevated to eliminate conflicts with road traffic. In addition to sleeping rooms, the hotel included a bar and a produce store on the ground floor. Visitors today might notice that the room housing the J-shaped upstairs bar has a section called the Tac Room. Barely noticeable now, that separate space is where the produce stand was, and it was still a separate room within the bar until the 1980s. Where the name comes from is a mystery; there doesn't seem to be any connection to horses.

The real surprise for me came when we went to the basement level bar. Evenings there can be a bit boisterous, with sporting events usually playing on several TV monitors, and apparently it was even more so during the Hotel's early days. The cozy fireplace dining area was originally a bowling alley, and the dartboard on the wall near the entrance was once the site of a grill that served quick meals. A relaxing game of ten pins, a burger and brew: what else could a guy want after work?

As you walk around the public areas, you can't help but notice the old-time craftsmanship and details that newer restaurants and bars attempt to recreate for atmosphere: vintage photos, exposed brick walls, wood-fronted beer coolers with those neat metal pull latches. Dave also mentioned that the acoustical tiling in the Tac Room obscures a 12-foot tin ceiling along with the air conditioning ducts.

Guests often stayed for weeks, as noted on these
40+ year-old registry cards.
All of this was very interesting and cleared up a lot of questions in my mind, but my real interest was in the upstairs rooms the public never sees. Dave was kind enough to give me a quick tour, starting with a stop at his office to check out the guest register. Opening a wooden box and pulling out random cards from the late 1950s and early 1960s, he pointed out the numbers printed at the top and bottom of each, representing days of the month. Many of the people staying there were long-term boarders, some living at the Hotel for years. They might have been working in the area and essentially just needed a place to sleep before they moved onto another job someplace else. A few of the cards were bundled together in a rubber band, with a note saying they were in arrears. Somebody owes the Hotel $150 for ten weeks of rooming!

Both the second and third floors have about five rooms apiece, plus a shared bathroom holding a toilet, sink and shower stall. Some of the rooms are larger than others, and all have sufficient space for someone who just needs a basic place to stay. Occasionally, the Hotel gets phone inquiries from travelers looking for lodging, but the building hasn't taken in overnight guests since the early 1970s. In these days of Residence Inns and Homewood Suites, most people wouldn't be satisfied with a small room and a shared hall bathroom. That's not to say that the space can't still be attractive to the right tenant for the right purpose. While the paint and plaster could use some updating, the place is sturdily built and not going anywhere any time soon. The rooms are mostly used for storage now, but you could see where they'd make good office space for small businesses, or maybe lawyers or accountants.

Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind setting up a Hidden New Jersey editorial office there, myself. Proximity to good burgers, New Jersey brews and the Newark-bound train, all in a great old building. What more could we need?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Hidden Trifecta in Raritan

Fresh from our greater white-fronted goose sighting, Ivan and I spotted a small truss bridge and historical marker on the side of the road. Wait! Stop! Turn back! Tiny bridges have always brought interesting stories, and I didn't want to pass this one up.

A Hibernia Mine bridge in Raritan? Isn't that Morris County territory? Had we stumbled on a Hidden New Jersey gem linking two non-contiguous counties? Ivan started reading the marker through his binoculars, but I couldn't help myself. I got out of the car to find out.

Talk about a span with a history! Not only is this an old bridge, it's survived its own obsolescence twice. Originally, it was part of a railroad started in 1863 to move ore from the Hibernia iron mines in Morris County to the Morris Canal and later to the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CRRNJ) at Wharton. The mines were pretty much tapped out by 1916 and closed in 1930, the same year CRRNJ bought the line to serve the area's industries.

By then, though, the bridge had gone on to its second use as a vehicular passageway across a railroad right of way in Hillsborough. It served that purpose for more than 100 years before being dismantled and stored. For the past four years, it's been exclusively a footbridge within the Somerset County Park System, enabling pedestrians to easily cross the Raritan Water Power Canal.

The what canal? When we were in Duke Island Park, we'd wondered if the canal we crossed was simply a portion of the Delaware and Raritan Canal, or maybe a feeder, given the proximity of the Raritan River. I didn't know of any other canal in central New Jersey, so when I read the Hibernia bridge marker, I was stumped. Logic and lessons learned from my many visits to Paterson's Great Falls led me to reason that water had been shunted for industrial purposes, but that's as far as I could figure when we were standing at the bridge. I doubt the Raritan ever supplied the mighty wattage of the falling Passaic River waters, but heck, I could be wrong.

Further research cemented the link: Alexander Hamilton. According to the Raritan Borough website, Hamilton visited the community after the Revolutionary War and thought the river's power could be harnessed to bring industry to the community. Local leaders were less than convinced, but the idea stayed alive and the three-mile long Raritan Water Power Canal was constructed in 1840. Predictably, factories started springing up along the river, taking advantage of cheap power and the proximity of the railroad. That's our link to Passaic County, courtesy of our first Secretary of the Treasury.

Raritan hosted one of the country's largest textile manufacturers, the Raritan Woolen Mills, which supplied the army during the Civil War and World War I. I can't find a direct source confirming the mill used water power, but it was located close to the Raritan, making it likely the Water Power Canal was a factor in its operation. Today, the property is site of a condominium complex. I wonder how many of its residents know their tenuous connection to Alexander Hamilton?

Friday, January 6, 2012

A goose we wanted to find: the Greater White-Fronted at Duke Island Park

"What are you doing this afternoon? There's a greater white-fronted goose in Bridgewater."

Sometimes you have to put everything aside and go after a chase bird, even if it means you'll probably be scanning a huge flock of grounded Canada geese. That's why I said yes to Ivan and made the trip to Duke Island Park on Wednesday. As I mentioned in a past post, I've joined the insanity of keeping a life list, and this new goose would be an addition for me.

Bordered by the Raritan River and traversed by the Raritan Water Power Canal, Duke Island Park is an active recreation area, with several picnic areas, a bandstand and a couple of ballfields as well as some hiking trails. The weather was cold and blustery when we visited, so the only other park users were some dog walkers and a runner or two. Odds were good, then, that our birding would be uninterrupted by others who might inadvertently flush out the species we were looking for.

Two gatherings of multitudes of geese were visible as soon as we drove into the park, one being within binocular range of the road. No greater white-fronted goose there, and no place nearby to park to get to the other flock easily. We'd have to drive several hundred feet farther to deposit the car, which normally isn't a problem, but in this cold it felt like an imposition. Hopefully our investment in frostbitedness would pay off.

Maybe in a typical winter, the 20 degree temperature wouldn't have seemed so bad, but given the unusual warmth this season, it felt downright polar. I was bundled in a parka with ski gloves, plus a hood that covered my Elmer-Fudd-type polar-tec baseball cap with ear flaps, all of which made it hard to hear or to focus my binoculars appropriately. Conversation went something like this (from my perspective):

Ivan:  *sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher*
Me: (pulling up earflaps and straining) "Huh?"
Ivan: "Wow, it's cold."

In all honesty, it took maybe five minutes to walk from car to vantage area for that second set of geese. I found myself regretting that I hadn't taken another look at the bird in the guide so I'd be sure to spot the right one. Then I remembered that the best course of action was to play the old Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the others" game: spot the one goose that looked out of place. Unlike a cackling goose or a brant, the greater white-fronted looks nothing like a Canada; the only white on its upper body is the facial outline around the base of the bill, and its legs are an orangey yellow. It should stand out like a sore thumb in any flock of standard lawn geese.

It didn't take long for me to find it in the flock, and yes, I was the one to find it (yeah, me!), innocently plucking through grass with its Canada cousins. Life bird for me, year bird for Ivan. While not once-in-a-lifetime rare in the Eastern US, these guys show much more frequently out west, making them a nice find in New Jersey. We were also fortunate to see a pair of killdeer scouring the ground nearby, the sound of their voices a nice treat for the afternoon.

While we were there, we checked out the Raritan but found only a huge flock of Canada geese going with the flow and a determined pair of mallard ducks swimming against traffic. The nearby trees and brush were far more productive, with red-bellied woodpeckers, plenty of juncos and nuthatches, and a bonus brown creeper to add to my life list. All in all, our impromptu trip netted some great January finds and a promising new birding spot to revisit in the spring. Not bad, overall!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

No EZPass on the Dingmans Ferry Bridge

I was one of the EZPass holdouts until October, when I got this while using a staffed tollbooth:

Ridiculous as it is not to be able to use paper money on the Parkway, I finally relented and picked up a transponder. I still keep pocket change in the car, though, as there are places in the region where EZPass has yet to extend its tentacled detectors.

Take, for example, the Dingmans Ferry bridge, which links Layton, Sussex County, to Pennsylvania in the Delaware Water Gap. This privately owned river crossing is decidedly low tech, with not even an automated collection basket. One toll collector stands on the line between the two lanes at the Pennsy side, taking tolls from both directions, protected by an awning. The north side of the awning is held up by a little toll house, while the south side is essentially a trellis with signs posted for the next Kiwanis pancake breakfast or Girl Scout fundraiser. It's been this way pretty much since the bridge was constructed, the fourth in a series that runs back to 1835.

Starting a century before that, Andrew Dingman ran a successful ferry service between Layton and Pike County, PA, until one of his descendants opened the first of the bridges. Seemingly, neither that bridge nor the two that succeeded it were constructed to withstand the elements brought by the Delaware and the occasional flood. Today's bridge was built in 1900 of sturdy steel and is closed for inspection for a few days every year to assure its safety. So far, it's held up in four major floods, and one would surmise that with that kind of record, it'll be around for a long time.

Back to the toll taking, I wonder what do they do overnight? Is there an evening toll collector? What kind of traffic does he or she see? And how do they manage in foul weather?

According to the company website, those traveling to church or funerals don't have to pay the toll, but I do wonder, though, if the Dingmans Choice and Delaware Bridge Company people will eventually succumb to EZPass. Perhaps the toll taker will stand in his usual spot and hold a transponder reader to essentially bar-scan people across the bridge.