Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Vespers at Troy Meadows

Deep in the midst of Morris County suburbia, there's a broad swath of land that was once described as "a wooden swamp with a high growth of marsh grass... a natural bird refuge and breeding ground, reported by the Audubon Society to be second only to Cape May in New Jersey as a natural station for birds in seasonal migration."

That passage from the 1930's era WPA Guide to New Jersey is still true to some extent. Despite development and encroachment, a lot of Troy Meadows still exists as a haven for a variety of flora and fauna, though the site doesn't show up on a lot of the online birding reports these days. Ivan read a report of vesper sparrows there on the day before Sandy hit, so off we went.

Vesper sparrow at Troy Meadows.
Courtesy Jonathan Klisas.
A lot has happened over the years to affect Troy Meadows' status in the pantheon of New Jersey birding spots. First, Fort Hancock was deactivated by the US Army and transferred to the National Park Service in 1974, making Sandy Hook's natural riches more accessible to birders. Second, the meadows themselves have suffered the consequences of development spurred by construction of Interstates 80 and 287. The area had been proposed for National Wildlife Refuge status in the 1950s, but sadly, the designation was never granted, even though the Department of Interior rated the Meadows as being even higher quality wetlands than the Great Swamp. (A comprehensive account of the history of the Meadows is available on the website of its current manager, Wildlife Preserves.)

Degraded though it may have been by the footprint of human roadways and utility rights of way, Troy Meadows still has a lot to offer. We accessed it via a residential Parsippany street which eventually turned into a rutted dirt road lined with brush and phragmites. The track got muddier and more deeply pocked, to the point where Ivan found a safe opening to pull over, and we took the rest on foot. Walking several hundred feet down the road, we finally got to a broad clearing within a larger field of marsh grass and phrags, allowing us a wide view into the distance.

To me it felt as if we'd been transported to the Meadowlands, or maybe to some kind of wetlands version of Kansas wheat fields, with swaying fronds as far as the eye could see. Still, the ground below our feet was carpeted with what looked like tire shreds, dotted with plastic disks and cartridges that had either come from target shooting or fireworks. It's pretty obvious from the scattered beer bottles and wrappers that irresponsible locals capitalize on the relative desolation of the meadows to horse around.

The wind was already kicking up a pace by the time we got there, and wildlife was definitely hunkering down to ride out Sandy's lengthy duration. I honestly wasn't feeling all that good about being in an area where a weakened tree could easily be pushed over by a good gust. Perhaps the sparrow would accommodate my concerns and make him/herself visible quickly, without playing the standard avian hide-and-seek with us.

Given the slate-gray sky, it was going to be hard to identify field markings of birds on the wing, but as it turned out, it wasn't to be an issue. We'd been there about ten minutes when Ivan spied a sparrow investigating the edge where the rubberized clearing met the reeds. If I didn't know better, I'd believe the bird was cutting us a break by giving us an extended, unobstructed and close view. Sparrows can be frustratingly difficult to differentiate by species, and a birder could reasonably expect that fall migration might bring a dozen or more possibilities. Having the opportunity to actually study the bird in the open was a real gift, because we could check all of the markings that ruled out other species.

And, indeed, this very cooperative creature was a vesper sparrow, joined by another for good measure. They were my life vespers, and Ivan's first in a good long while. Mission accomplished, target birds found and cool new birding spot checked out for Hidden New Jersey readers. That was good enough for me. If we were going to be stuck inside for a couple of days while the storm raged, we'd at least be able to savor a very nice find.


  1. Excellent story as always! Sparrows are really hard to differentiate unless you can get a good long look at them, and the Vespers were quite accommodating. Hooray for you & Ivan on finding this interesting birding spot.

  2. Thanks! I'm still learning my LBJs (little brown jobs) and always thank the cooperative birds for their time. One day I'll have them figured out!


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