Thursday, February 14, 2013

Quoth the Raven: Secaucus' Laurel Hill?

If you want to find a raven in Northern New Jersey, Laurel Hill is the place to go. I wasn't aware of this until Ivan suggested we head over to try our luck after our successful white pelican venture a few weeks ago. We hadn't yet seen one of these large corvids this year, and while they're not as rare here as they once were, it's not as if they're hanging out with the sparrows in your average city park.

You might know Laurel Hill by another name: Snake Hill. It's that big craggy rock that juts out of the Meadowlands adjacent to the western spur of the New Jersey Turnpike, and it looks imposing enough to be home to the somewhat sinister-looking raven. Formed from a volcanic eruption hundreds of thousands of years ago, it now bears the scars of human habitation and abuse. From 1855 until 1962, it was the site of Hudson County's jail, almshouse and institutions for the physically and mentally ill, evidenced now only by a crumbling brick smokestack. Quarrying also took place at the site, from the late 1800s until the mid-20th century, with an asphalt factory operating there for about 20 years. Interestingly, the county had reportedly contracted with a company to level the hill altogether, erasing one of the region's most intriguing landmarks. As it is, it's estimated that the hill we know today is only about 20 percent of the size it was before human disturbance.

Turnpike travelers will also recognize Laurel Hill as Fraternity Rock, for the decades-long tradition of pledges spray-painting their Greek organization's letters on the sheer stone walls. I always wondered how the guys got up there to make their marks. No way could they have pulled their cars over on the shoulder of the Turnpike and climbed over the side barrier; the chances of getting nailed by State Troopers are just too good.

That brings up the logical question about the ravens: how could we get a good view without pulling over on the western spur? Fortunately we've got an advantage that decades of frat boys didn't: Laurel Hill Park. While quarrying regrettably obliterated a significant amount of the hill over the years, it left behind a level area along the Hackensack River, perfect for a playground in the Meadowlands. Ball fields and a well-equipped playground have been laid out in the shadow of the rock, and there's also a dock and canoe livery for the Hackensack Riverkeeper Paddling Center. Protective fences circle much of the hill itself, given the somewhat unstable nature of the remaining rock, but the shrubs and small trees growing on it are still well visible from a safe distance.

The Laurel Hill ravens -- nest at left, bird at right. (Thanks
to Lisa Ann Malandrino for the photo!) 
Ravens like to nest in the cavities of craggy cliffs, and it seems that they've gotten so accustomed to Laurel Hill that some have made it their year-round home. You can imagine that even when the rock was bustling with the activity of the county institutions, these somewhat spooky corvids would prefer living there.

We visited on a distinctly sunny, non-spooky day, but there's always something about looking at that rock that brings a little chill to my spine. I always seem to show up when no-one else is there, and even with Ivan along, the place felt oddly isolated, even though we could hear the rush of Turnpike traffic in the near distance, just on the other side of the hill. The mood was perfect for finding the bird that Poe used to such mysterious effect.

At first, it appeared that we were going to strike out, as the only life on the rock seemed to be a small mixed flock of sparrows and juncos picking through some sparse grass. Then I looked a little farther up, to the branches of a bare, spindly tree. Sitting on one of the branches were two large, dark birds that were unmistakably corvids. The question was whether they were both ravens, or a raven and a crow. Ravens are larger, with shaggier neck feathers and more substantial beaks than crows, so the question was whether the smaller of our pair was perhaps a juvenile.

Fortunately, they both generously accommodated us with brief flights to display their unmistakable fan-shaped tails, and we were confident that we'd found two ravens. Given that it was the day before the Super Bowl, I figured it was a good omen for Rutgers alum and Baltimore running back Ray Rice.

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