Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Red-headed Woodpecker goes industrial

Some of my favorite nature preserves are the ones in densely populated places. There's something refreshing about a relatively small tract of land carved out of what might ordinarily have been industrial properties or, let's face it, Superfund sites, especially in some of the most heavily-used portions of the state.

Needing no introduction,
the red-headed
Aside from numerous spots in the Meadowlands, Linden's Hawk Rise Sanctuary has become my favorite go-to refuge nestled within industrialization gone wild. A swampy marsh and wetlands forest adjoining a landfill not far from Route 1, this 95-acre slice of nature yields a wonderful array of birds and other wildlife, made all the more notable by its unlikely location.

My last foray to Hawk Rise came last week, after the report of a red-headed woodpecker working the woods. Striking birds with (yes) entirely red heads, white bodies and block black and white wings, these guys aren't the easiest to find in New Jersey and, indeed, have suffered due to habitat loss. This year, however, there have been a few sightings of red-headeds in Northern New Jersey, and Hawk Rise seemed like as good a place as any for them to be. Though I've seen them in other places, this would be a first for my New Jersey life list, and I was especially tickled by the prospect of cataloging them as a find in Linden.

Unfortunately that trip was a bust, but hope wasn't lost: a host of red-headed woodpeckers was reported less than three miles away, at the Oros Wildlife Preserve in Woodbridge. This site was a new one for both Ivan and me, so we had no idea what to expect. Given the location between Route 1 and the Turnpike, I was hoping for another less-than-typical haven for birds escaping the rigors of urban life.

That it is. Administered by the Woodbridge River Watch, this 99 acre swath of land rests not far from East Jersey State Penitentiary (Rahway State, for old timers), in a light industrial/residential neighborhood. It's easy to reach, but hard to park near, as the curb is yellow-lined for several yards near the entrance. Once you're there, though, you're welcomed by a pleasant butterfly garden and a large map showing the breadth of the refuge. There's even an aerial photo showing trails and the possible location of the first settlement in Woodbridge.

Following directions provided on the American Birding Association's New Jersey bulletin board, we headed down one trail, then the next, soon walking between thick stands of phragmites. (This path wasn't nearly as narrow or daunting as the one I encountered on the search for white pelicans in the Kearny Marsh.)  We were looking for a stand of dead trees within the preserve's 40 acre pond. Well, there were plenty of dead trees standing in the pond, but a specific set seemed to be the favored pecking ground for the visiting red-heads. They certainly had their pick of a good assortment, so, not hearing any characteristic drumming or calling, we surveyed the trees both near and far.

It took a few minutes for us to find the first one, and he wasn't far off. A juvenile, he sported a chestnut colored head rather than the bright red his parents wear, but the pattern was unmistakable. He pecked calmly near the top of a dead tree several yards away from us, looking for brunch. Another came by a little later, close enough to watch bare-eyed, while farther in the distance, an adult flew from tree to tree. Ivan counted four our five in the half hour or so we were there, confirming Woodbridge as a potential hotspot for this usually rare sighting in New Jersey.

I walked away pleased: not only did I have a new bird for my state list, but we'd been introduced to another hidden natural gem. No doubt we'll be back often, as it's a short crow's fly from Hawk Rise and there are more paths for us to explore. Who knows what other rarities an intrepid birder might come across?

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