Thursday, August 29, 2013

Birding with the spirit of Bonaparte: our visit to Point Breeze

New Jersey has long attracted birders both professional and avocational, all seeking views of the broad variety of our avian residents and visitors. Due to our strategic position on the Atlantic flyway, the state's airspace is a virtual superhighway for hundreds of species of birds as they migrate between their summer and winter habitats. While the names of many of the early ornithologists aren't well known outside of birding circles, you might recognize those like John James Audubon and Charles Bonaparte, both of whom lived in the Garden State for a time in the early 1800s.

Long-time readers might remember our story on Bonaparte's discovery of the female Cape May warbler. We'd originally found the site of his home, Point Breeze, on our visit to Bordentown last summer, though we didn't venture onto the property. Now the home of Divine Word Missionaries' East Coast facility, access to the acreage is restricted to residents and guests who've arranged permission in advance.

Enter noted birder and Hidden New Jersey friend Rick Wright, who invited us to scout out the property with him and his wife Alison. Believe it or not, fall migration is already underway, and what better place to bid warblers a bon voyage than the former home of a man who shaped birding history? Naturally, I was also intrigued by the property's connection to Napoleon's family and their European exile, so I didn't need to be asked twice. Rick had already gained permission from Divine Word; we were set to go.

The weather was overcast and humid on our arrival; we hoped we wouldn't be rained on, at least until we'd had a chance to explore a bit.

The Divine Word grounds are well-manicured, with broad expanses of grass around the few 1950s-era buildings and a driveway. There's only one building left from the 1800s -- a small stone house built for one of Joseph Bonaparte's advisors next to the area which once held a formal garden. Hearing very little in the way of birds, we decided to check out the trees at the perimeter of the property and explore from there.

Hidden NJ, Point Breeze, Bonaparte, Bordentown NJ
The view from the Point Breeze property.
Those trees blocked what must have been an extraordinary view at one time. Point Breeze was named for its place on a bluff high above Crosswicks Creek, which we could see in spots through the thick foliage. Fortunately we found a wider view on the southern edge of the manicured area, where trees gave way to lower brush on a steep slope that led down to a marshy valley of sorts. According to the 160 year-old surveyors map Rick had found, that expanse had been the site of a small lake created when the Bonapartes dammed Thornton Creek. The vantage point gave us what would often be an ideal view of a nice resting spot for migrants, but the pickings were rather slim. Alison spotted a distant kingfisher perched above a small expanse of water, and a couple of cormorants were visible in the creek beyond.

"Maybe we should try channeling the spirit of Bonaparte," I suggested to the chuckles of my companions. Who knows? Perhaps he'd take pity on us and help some fellow birders find a productive patch on the property.

Hoping for more success in the woods, we found a barely-noticeable break in some nearby underbrush and headed in. Again, but for the constant whirring of the usual annual cicadas, we were hearing virtually nothing but the occasional mewing of random catbirds or a complaining blue jay.

While I was jazzed about birding in the footsteps of a great ornithologist, my real interest in the woods was the potential for finding evidence of Bonaparte's presence there. Much has been made in certain circles of a tunnel system extending from the family mansion's basement to the creekside, but I was interested in finding other structures. Would we find a brick-paved path or perhaps a well?

Point Breeze, Bonaparte, Hidden NJ, Bordentown NJ
This arch probably supported a carriage path through the
woods; it appears that a stream flowed beneath it.
Our path turned into a sandy wash, clearly the route taken by runoff from the higher elevation property. Looking for a vantage point, Ivan scrambled up an embankment that appeared too uniform not to be manmade, and noted that there might have been a path of some sort there. Sure enough, as the rest of us walked further down the wash, we found a brick arch that was built to support what must have been a carriage path.

A look toward the creek exposed some possible aquatic life, but beyond the catbirds, nuthatches and a wren or two, we weren't hearing or seeing much else at all. The day may have been a bust birding-wise, but it was a great scouting expedition and a view into a truly hidden aspect of New Jersey history. Given more favorable conditions, it definitely would be a wonderful place to find a wide variety of songbirds in migration.

And while he apparently couldn't influence the migration, maybe Bonaparte helped us out, after all. Not two minutes after we got into the car to leave, raindrops started falling on the windshield, the start of what became a persistent storm.

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