Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Eagles play the Meadowlands

It may be kind of hard to believe, given the weather, but we've been spending a lot of time outdoors during the past few weekends. Despite the cold, the rain and even some snow, Ivan and I have been toughing it out in spots from Atlantic County's Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge to Wallkill NWR way up on the New Jersey-New York border, all in the name of finding as many bird species as we can before January 31.

After a great start on New Year's Day, the birds have been a little tougher in coming. Pouring rain one weekend kept us from doing much more than scanning large flocks of geese from the car. Trips to normally very reliable spots for winter ducks were a lot less than productive. And then, just as we were beginning to question whether the birding gods were playing tricks on us, we ran into car trouble and lost half a day to waiting for AAA and a long-distance tow.

Al and Alice, as photographed by Jill Homcy.
(Not at interchange 16W, but this is kind of the way
those eagles were perched.)
Little did we know, our luck was about to turn. Maybe we wouldn't see any new species for our January lists, but we ran into one of those classic birding experiences that seem to happen only in New Jersey.

Just as our tow truck driver was steering around the curve on Turnpike interchange 15W, I spied two adult Bald Eagles perched in a tree between the exit ramp and the Hackensack River.

Yes, you read that right. Two eagles were just sitting there like a couple of pigeons (well, big, majestic pigeons), watching traffic just yards away from one of the busiest roads on the Eastern Seaboard.

Finding perched eagles along the Hackensack has become a more common occurrence since a pair started nesting in a tree next to Overpeck Creek. The female, dubbed Alice by the pair's human advocates, came to New Jersey from Inwood Park in Manhattan, a fact known because naturalists gave her an identification band when she was a nestling. A thoroughly modern New Yorker, she was also equipped with a radio that allows scientists to track her location. Where her mate Al came from isn't known, but it seems that he likes city girls; they've been together for at least four years.

Like many folks who've set up housekeeping in the crowded Bergen/Hudson County corridor, Al and Alice have been faced with the potential threat of losing their homes to redevelopment. Their nesting and roosting tree is located on a landfill that's been slated for a mixed-use facility with offices and shopping. In another "only in New Jersey" move, the developer claimed the pair's tree needed to go in order for the site to be cleared of hazardous waste, while environmentalists contended the contaminants on the site posed no risk to birds or people. Ultimately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a report favoring the eagles, but the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection remains silent on the issue.

Al and Alice continue to move forward with their lives, regardless of the human decisions being made around them. According to the Friends of the Ridgefield Park Eagles, the advocacy group working on their behalf along with Bergen County Audubon, they're already preparing their nest for this year's eggs. With any luck, over the next several months they'll be raising at least one new brother or sister to add to the half dozen young eagles they've nurtured in their time living along the Overpeck.

And those eagles? Consider that they've been raised in one of the most densely-populated parts of the state, if not the country. They've grown up knowing about humans and our behavior, perhaps making them more likely to stay in the neighborhood rather than fleeing to more rural areas. Maybe in the not too distant future, we'll see eagles flying over Newark and Paterson and Jersey City just as effortlessly as they soar over the Kittatinny Ridge or the farm fields of Salem County.

We can hope.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Centerton Inn: dining and perhaps a bit of plunder

Forget about old man bars. I've got a soft spot for old inns and taverns -- the historic types where it doesn't take much to imagine the stagecoach stopping along the front porch, or the locals congregating to share news and gossip. We've been to a bunch, from the Merchants and Drovers and the Indian Queen, down to the Indian King and over to the Mill Street Tavern. All were (or had been, in the case of the Indian Queen) on busy main roads in areas that have become highly developed.

That's not to say that the lesser-populated roads don't have their inns, too. Drive through the more rural parts of the state and you may just find an aging hostelry at a major intersection, amid what constitutes the densest concentration of commercial establishments for a couple of miles. That was what I found as I traveled along Route 540 in Salem County. Built sometime in the early to mid 1700s, the Centerton Inn is a three-story Colonial style clapboard building with dormer windows interrupting the roof. Squint a little and you can very easily envision travelers dismounting their horses for refreshment and, perhaps, a night's stay.

In its day, the crossroads where Centerton Inn stands was an important one. Not only was it a significant stop on the coach route between Philadelphia and the then-vital port of Greenwich, it also connected Cumberland County to Great Egg Harbor. The Inn reportedly became not only a gathering and eating place, but a cargo storage area due to its strategic location.

According to some sources, the inn may have actually held munitions for the Continental Army, perhaps those sent by our French allies. Congressionally-approved privateers were doing a brisk business of capturing British supply ships and storing their plunder at Great Egg Harbor, so it's within reason that some of that merchandise could have had a temporary stay at the Centerton. That said, I haven't been able to nail down sources to confirm or deny. Others say that the Marquis de Lafayette frequented the tavern when he was in the area, an assertion that could be even harder to prove, unless, of course, he used his Diners Club card to settle the tab.

Unlike the Merchants and Drovers, Indian King and Indian Queen, the Centerton Inn has modernized somewhat and continues to serve meals to hungry travelers and locals alike. We didn't stop by to eat, as we were on our way to nearby Parvin State Park for some birding, but perhaps sometime in the future we'll have the chance to partake.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rock around the Revolution: New Jersey in Chicago?

No matter where you go, you're bound to run into New Jersey. I just wasn't expecting it on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, embedded in the side of a Gothic building.

Admittedly, I found this one about 20 years ago, back when my New Jersey history maven cred was in its infancy. Yeah, I'll admit it: I was the one hanging around the Excellent Diner in Westfield, reminding people that the state was once home to four, count 'em FOUR pre-fab diner manufacturers. It was well before Ivan and I met, and while I did my share of exploring, it didn't yet involve birds.

Anyway, a friend and I made a weekend visit to Chicago for its annual Blues Festival and whiled away some free time enjoying the city's amazing downtown architecture. As we walked past the Chicago Tribune building, I noticed something very unusual: embedded within the uniform granite blocks of the walls are scores, maybe hundreds of irregularly-shaped stones, each labeled with a description and a place.

At first, I figured they might represent locations in Illinois, but as I sought more out, I noticed they came from many states, and even historically significant places in Europe, Asia and beyond. Tribune publisher Robert McCormick had started the tradition before the building was erected, asking the newspaper's correspondents to deliver rocks and bricks from historically significant places. The tradition continues today, with portions of the Berlin Wall and World Trade Center girders incorporated in the building's walls.

There would be no justice if there was no rock to represent New Jersey. Had the Trib assigned a correspondent to the state, and if so, had he (or she) taken the assignment seriously?

The answer came pretty quickly:

Yup: a stone from the Battle of Trenton. I searched farther and found one labeled ambiguously as "New Jersey Washington's Landing after crossing the Delaware River." Another was flatter and browner -- "Revolutionary Battlefield Princeton, New Jersey." Mixed among rocks from Prairie DuChien, Wisconsin, Great Wall of China, Hawaii's Pearl Harbor and Omaha Beach in Normandy, Princeton actually gets another shout-out from the Trib building, with a squarish rock from "New Jersey Princeton University."

The Trib's New Jersey correspondent was apparently a bit of an overachiever, delivering four rocks back to HQ. Granted, he took the easy way out, grabbing specimens from four places no more than 15 miles from his presumed Trenton bureau office, but their significance is unquestioned.

And, well, from what I can surmise, there are more rocks from New Jersey embedded at the Trib than from any other jurisdiction of its type within the United States, maybe the world. This list gives you an idea of what's there... it may not be complete, but it's still staggering to see how well we're represented, and you don't see a heck of a lot of other Revolutionary-era sites on the list, either.

If you were going to send a New Jersey stone to the Trib building, what would you choose?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Keeping track: railroad vestiges lead to a storied past

It's not all that unusual to run across railroad tracks while wandering around New Jersey. With a few thousand miles of track laid over the past 185 years or so, any trip within the state is bound to have you hearing the "clunk-a-clunk-a" of tires over tracks, or traveling beneath a railroad overpass.

However, when you see tracks that look like this:

you stop and take a look. And when you run into them at two different locations over the course of a couple of weeks, you get curious. The first occurrence was in Hightstown, where the stones and rails were placed near North Main Street downtown. The second was within a 15 minute drive, at historic Dey Farm in Monroe Township. Connecting rails were pulled away years ago, leaving these two segments as utter curiosities. The stone is virtually the same as the sleepers we've seen on old Morris Canal planes, though with gaps in between rather than in abutting blocks, making us wonder when the now-common wooden railroad ties came into vogue. And where did this railroad go?

We'd stumbled on vestiges of the Camden and Amboy, the first railroad built in New Jersey, incorporated in 1830 and chartered on February 15, 1831. How old is it? It's so old that the first train that rode the tracks was pulled by horses.

The Monroe stretch is pretty short
and offers new homeowners
the frustrating reality that while they live
near the railroad, it'll get them nowhere.
The Camden and Amboy was the realization of the ambition of John Stevens, who we know from his earlier forays into steamboats, namely the establishment of the first regular steam ferry service between Hoboken and Manhattan. While he successfully laid a small bit of track on his own property to run a British-built engine, it was left to his sons Robert and Edwin to take the concept to a larger scale.

The first stretch of the railroad linked Bordentown through Jamesburg to South Amboy via horse-drawn cars. Rails were spiked down onto granite sleeper stones reportedly produced by inmates at New York's Sing Sing Prison. Only when shipments were late did Robert Stevens consider laying the rails on squared-off wooden crossbeams, creating a more reliable bed that prompted him to replace all of the granite with wood. Stevens was also responsible for the development of the "T" shaped track and railroad spikes we're accustomed to; used together, they provided a smoother ride overall.

As workers continued laying track, the Stevens brothers purchased their first locomotive, the John Bull, from a Newcastle, England manufacturer. In a situation that's familiar to anyone who's bought Ikea furniture, the engine arrived in several pieces and without instructions for assembly, leaving railroad mechanic Isaac Dripps to reason it out though he'd never seen a locomotive before.

It would be another two years before the engine would serve the line, but Robert Stevens cannily made a test run in November 1831 to give select New Jersey legislators and other dignitaries a chance to enjoy the new technology. This, perhaps, was an early taste of the outsize influence the company would have over government officials in its most powerful years; at one point years later, pundits would jokingly refer to New Jersey as the "State of Camden and Amboy."

In fact, the C&A secured a monopoly on transportation across the state's waist, merging with the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company by a 1831 act of the Legislature that created "the Joint Companies." Passengers would travel by rail, while the canal would handle freight shipments from Bordentown to New Brunswick. The new company agreed to pay the state a $30,000 annual franchise fee that effectively financed government operations. By 1834, the railroad finally reached the breadth of the state between its namesake cities, later buying out rivals to extend its chokehold.

The history of New Jersey's railroad industry is long, complex and loaded with intrigue that would confound J.R. Ewing (consider, for example, Hopewell's frog war). Ultimately, the C&A was bought out by the larger, more powerful Pennsylvania Railroad in its quest to control New Jersey's transportation system, but it had already made its mark as a true pioneer.

Have you seen other portions of the C&A?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Peregrine falcons: making a living in New Jersey

January is always a great time for birders, despite the prevailing cold weather in New Jersey. Those of us who keep lists of species we see during the year start from a clean slate, and a sighting of a common House Sparrow or Rock Pigeon on New Year's Day is just as exciting as finding the rarest of the rare at any other time.

Funny thing is, this year started with an unusually large number of birds not always commonly found. Sure, we'd probably see them at some point in the spring, or maybe even February if we were lucky, but our January 1 jaunt around Morris County and Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge yielded some beautiful early views. For example, we spotted individuals from three different owl species, already more than I'd seen all of last year. Two days later, I got my first-ever look at an Orange-crowned Warbler, an infrequent visitor to the state at this time of year.

This Peregrine Falcon regularly perches
on the Statue of Liberty's Crown
in New York Harbor and visits Ellis Island, too.
The ones that truly got me, however, were the Peregrine Falcons we spotted first at DeKorte Environmental Center in Lyndhurst, and then at Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus. It was the first time I could remember seeing Peregrines at two different locations on the same day.

Some folks may rave over Bald Eagles (and rightly so), but there's a special place in my heart for Peregrines. The world's fastest bird when it goes into a dive to snatch prey, this impressive falcon made its home on the cliffs of the Palisades before falling victim to hunters, egg collectors and the pesticide DDT. Once common, the species was virtually eliminated from the Eastern United States by the 1960s. As with the Bald Eagle and Osprey, biologists worked to reintroduce the species after DDT was banned, aiming to raise the population to eight to ten pairs statewide.

My own interest in Peregrines was piqued about 20 years ago, when a coworker mentioned he'd helped a team from the Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife band some chicks at a nest in Kearny. An adult pair had chosen to raise their young high up on a wall of an electric generating station, and my friend had a video of the process where biologists fit the young with avian ID bracelets for future study. I was transfixed watching the little ones, both fuzzy-cute and fierce, as well as the mother, whose protests were silenced merely by draping an old towel over her head. The leg banding struck me as a ritual that demonstrates the careful balance between humans and the creatures we share the world with. They trust the banders to do no harm; banders respond with care and continued stewardship.

From there, I started noticing more and more references to Peregrines popping up. While some have returned to nest on the Palisades, others have found manmade cliffs -- skyscrapers and bridges -- equally as suitable for bringing up their young. Jersey City's 101 Hudson Street building has hosted a nestbox and nest cam for several years, allowing fans to follow the progress from egg laying to fledging young from a safe distance. Another acquaintance reported being startled by a rapidly diving bird picking off a pigeon not 10 feet away as he was eating his own lunch outside an office building in Newark.

Peregrines are still on New Jersey's Endangered Species List, but their numbers continue to grow. While we were gazing at the individual perched atop a railroad bridge crossing the Hackensack River near Laurel Hill, I wondered whether it was related to the one we'd just seen on a high-voltage tower a few miles away at DeKorte. Had they hatched in Jersey City, or maybe upriver in a box below the Route 3 bridge? Were they related to the Kearny Generating Station chicks in my friend's video? Or maybe they'd come all the way from the Palisades, their eggs laid in nests built where so many generations had started life for eons?

We could have found out, if we'd been able to read the birds' bands for their distinctive ID numbers, but it's just as well we didn't. It's the possibilities that make me truly happy for the Peregrines' viability in New Jersey. In a marshland that is, itself, in recovery, these amazing creatures are making their way.