Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Walking the boards, somewhere in the swamps of Jersey

Living in New Jersey sometimes means loving things that other people just don't get. Like why, when the Manhattan skyline hovers temptingly on the horizon, someone would prefer to spend the day in a swamp. Especially when it's July, the traditional mosquito season.

Thing is, if you happen to be poking around the edges of Secaucus, you'll find some pretty amazing scenery that's remarkably free of the flying, stinging pests. Who knew?

We've waxed poetic about the Hackensack River before. We even reported on an amazing ecocruise with the Hackensack Riverkeeper, where we saw everything from Bald eagles and Peregrine falcons to Forster's terns and Yellow-crowned night herons. A couple of years ago we reported on the Mill Creek Marsh, a wonder of nature hard against the New Jersey Turnpike and the Mill Creek Mall at Harmon Meadow (incidentally, probably the only development in the state that took the name of a natural site without totally obliterating its namesake).

One place we hadn't yet checked out was just a short gull's flight away. Mill Creek Point Park. It's maybe a ten minute drive from Mill Creek Marsh for us humans, threading through tightly-packed neighborhoods, past the Secaucus town pool and along a phragmites-lined drive to a quiet, well-tended brick pathway along the waterside. Decorative fences are festooned with silhouettes of birds common to the surrounding area, and an active recreation area features plenty of nature-themed features for kids to climb on, along with educational signs describing various animals, bugs and plants.

True to its name, Mill Creek Point was once home to an active tidal sawmill, one of several that dotted the Hackensack River in the 1800s. Each had a dam and sluice system that would trap water at high tide and then release it at low tide to power the mill. In the 20th century, the park site was home to a restaurant that eventually closed in 1986, perhaps the origin of the remnants of concrete still evident by the old pilings near the water's edge. Cormorants and terns perched on wooden pole tops as we tried to reason it out, perhaps keeping an eye out for the bass and other fish frequenting the river and creek.

Past the brick and playground equipment is where the really beautiful part starts. A well-maintained boardwalk leads strollers onto the Secaucus Greenway, where you almost feel as if you're being transported over a carpet of marsh grasses. As we walked along, enjoying a bug-free July afternoon, we heard more than our share of Marsh wrens calling loudly not far from the path. Even better, a few graced us with some extremely good views, a real treat considering how painfully elusive I've found them to be in my birding.

Take a look around as you walk the boards, and you'll see just how close you are to civilization, yet still far away in some respects. The Meadowlands Sports Complex looms to the west and across the river, while the view to the east includes the building-filled rise of North Bergen and, peeking through in places, New York skyscrapers. Somehow it makes this expansive patch of nature all the more valuable, and prized.

As we were strolling along, drinking it in, a pair of bicyclists stopped to ask whether we'd seen any interesting birds, always a conversation starter when you walk around with binoculars. Feeling rather responsible for promoting the Meadowlands, we rattled off the roster of familiar birds we'd sighted in Secaucus on this trip and others, though a lot of them had been absent that day. I don't think I'll ever get over the looks of surprise and pleasure that register on people's faces when they learn how varied and abundant life is in a corner of the world they'd never considered to be all that remarkable. Hidden New Jersey: Wild Kingdom. It has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

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