Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sugar sand and tundra swans: exploring Whitesbog

Now that we've both got our year birding lists over 100 species, we're increasing our focus on finding birds that are generally only found in New Jersey in the winter. Last weekend, the big one was the tundra swan, but Forsythe NWR, Ivan's usual no-miss site for them, is mostly out of commission as the impoundment pools are still off limits due to hurricane damage. The good news there is that the government has already started to repair the pockmarked and breached Wildlife Drive, and refuge staff expects the work to be completed by spring migration. The bad news: if tundra swans are there, you can't see 'em from the few areas of the refuge that are accessible to the public.

Still, though, we need to find the swans while they're still somewhere in New Jersey, so I reached out to the good folks at Brig for their suggestions. They recommended we try Whitesbog in Brendan Byrne State Forest. Ah, yes. Makes perfect sense: it's not all that far away, as the swan flies, and Whitesbog Village was once the state's largest cranberry producer. Cranberry growing requires bogs that are flooded over the winter to protect the plants, essentially creating shallow lakes where aquatic birds can gather. And, of course, the whole situation is a perfect Hidden New Jersey adventure, blending birding with a unique industry that many people know little about.

The General Store
Driving around the Pinelands, it's not hard to find cranberry bogs (you might recall I ran into a harvesting crew a few years back) using the industry's latest techniques. What makes Whitesbog different is that it's a step back in time. When you pull into the community, you're greeted by a clutch of small buildings and a general store, all preserved to the early 20th century, when its owner, Joseph White, was already an acknowledged leader in the cranberry industry. His daughter Elizabeth made her own mark on agriculture by successfully developing the first cultivated blueberry at the farm in 1916.

Just our luck, everything is pretty much closed up at Whitesbog during January, so we couldn't get the full experience (the Whitesbog Preservation Trust runs a series of events and tours during the year). Still, we were able to walk around and see the exteriors of some of the restored workers' houses and a few pieces of vintage equipment, and there's also a short bog trail that brings you into a small wooded area across from the general store. It was a bit, uh, soggy during our visit, and some of the boardwalks that would have gotten us over the waterier parts were out of place, so we weren't able to explore the whole thing.

Some of the workers' houses
Most important to our trip, though, the bog roads were also totally open to us. The Preservation Trust warns that visitors are taking the risks on themselves, a wise thing to consider before venturing out. You're going to be driving on berms and sugar sand that make for a sometimes pockmarked and rutted road surface, and the track is mostly only wide enough for one vehicle. These roads were intended to carry the trucks needed to maintain and harvest the crop, not to get people from one place to another. In other words, if you get stuck, you're on your own.  

Somebody in Whitesbog is a Rutgers fan!
If you go, you'll see an intersection in the middle of town with a sign denoting the bog road. Be sure to go to the right, or you'll be driving into an unending pine forest, as we did by mistake. After that detour, we got on the correct road and soon passed Elizabeth White's house, Suningive. Shortly after that, the wooded area opens up to a broad expanse of flooded bogs, which we hoped would yield flocks of tundra swans.

Except they didn't. We drove atop the berms for what felt like miles, with no birds of any kind in sight. This was supposed to be a reliable spot, yet it was completely devoid of avian life. Perhaps a little farther out? Nope. Meanwhile, we were getting farther and farther away from town, and we saw no signs guiding us to the next turn in what we thought would be a loop tour route. In Whitesbog's defense, their website directs visitors to get a map in town before hitting the road, but the visitor center and general store were closed, and the only information at the outdoor kiosk was for past events (and not a map).

You can sense a bit of our confusion in this video. (Well, I was so confused I wasn't talking straight.)

After a while, we began to wonder if we'd somehow missed a turn and ended up trespassing in someone else's bog. Regardless, we weren't seeing any tundra swans, and we'd seen enough bog to satisfy us for quite some time. The GPS would probably be totally useless in these circumstances, so we were totally on our own. "Too bad they don't have live Google Earth," Ivan lamented. Yeah, if that were the case, we'd know where the tundra swans were.

Somehow we made our way back to our starting point, but not without a few bumps and k-turns along the way. We could be extremely thankful that the gods of sugar sand smiled down on us, preventing us from being mired in a soft spot on the berms, but we were still a bit frustrated by the dearth of swans. It's been one of those months: getting some pretty unusual, rarely-seen birds while missing what are traditionally easy species to spot. In any case, I'm sure we'll get to Whitesbog again, when it's a little livelier and things are actually open.

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