Friday, October 28, 2016

The Statue of Liberty in Butler: the story evolves

Longtime readers may recall our surprising discovery of the Statue of Liberty on the balcony of the Butler Police station. To sum up, this eight foot-high replica - which looks pretty accurate at a distance - stands proudly in a prominent part of town, with no apparent connection to the community besides a general air of patriotism. A street in town is named for the statue's sculptor, Frederic Bartholdi, whom we later discovered was a friend of Richard Butler, the community's namesake whose rubber factory was once the largest employer in town. However, there's no prominent signage to describe the link to curious passers-by.

A bit more digging led us to discover that Mr. Butler had his own connection to Liberty Enlightening the World, as the statue is more officially known. The rubber magnate was the Lee Iacocca of his time, playing a major role in raising funds for the construction of the Statue's pedestal. As secretary of the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, he donated the services of his rubber factory to ship miniature Statues to contributors. In recognition of his service, the French government named him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

That solved one mystery, but we were still left to wonder about the origin of the police station Liberty. We figured she probably wasn't actually manufactured in Butler, since the statuettes the rubber company shipped were made by the Newton Bottle Stopper Company of New York. Still, she looks too accurate to have been crafted by a well-meaning fan.

It took us a while, but we got the answer during a visit to the Butler Museum during Morris County's recent Pathways to History weekend. According to the Butler Historical Society folks, their Liberty was one of several that were used as decoration on Liberty Island for the Statue's rededication celebration in 1986. How it got from the celebration to Butler is another question for another day; our friends at the Historical Society invited us to come back to review their substantial collection of Statue-related documents, ephemera and artifacts.

We kind of like this mystery and where it's taken us. Sometimes uncovering the story in pieces is even more fun than getting to the bottom of it in one swipe.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Winter birding turns balmy at Barnegat Light

If you're a birder in New Jersey, chances are you make the same trip every winter: you take the walk along the jetty at Barnegat Light to see the Harlequin Ducks.

They're cool little ducks that look like a paint-by-number project, with well-defined blocks of colorful plumage. Big fans of the rough-and-tumble waters next to rocky coastlines, they hang out next to the rip rap that forms the jetty protecting the eastern end of the tip of Long Beach Island from massive erosion.

Brr. This is the usual frigid jetty walk.
That dot to the right is Ivan.
Usually, Ivan and I visit Barnegat in January for a reliable look at the ducks along with Great Cormorants, Common Eiders and Purple Sandpipers. Without fail, the weather is cold and blustery, with gusts coming off the ocean, but Ivan's a man on a mission to see 100 bird species before the end of the month. More often than not, I only walk halfway down the jetty before I give up and climb down to the beach, while Ivan swings his spotting scope on his shoulder and tromps down to the birds' preferred haunt, the end.

This season, we thought we were in luck. On our planned Barnegat Light day, the weather was in the downright balmy 50 degree range, and the predicted rain was holding off for at least a bit. Would this be the year we got the birds without the frostbite? Or would we discover that the desired birds hadn't yet arrived since their more northern territories hadn't frozen up yet?

Our first stop was just outside Barnegat Light State Park, where we discovered a large group of Boat-tailed Grackles perched on the power lines. Hearing a gentle "plop" in their general direction, I warned Ivan that we might be in for a Mel Brooks "High Anxiety" moment, but fortunately the birds played nice. Still, though, their presence was a bit off season, adding a bit of concern about whether the ducks were around.

After Ivan's customary pause to pay homage to Civil War General and lighthouse architect George Meade, we turned to start our way down the concrete platform that wraps around the northern edge of LBI and leads to the jetty on the eastern edge of the park. A few birders were clustered at the bend in the walkway, but nobody was going any further down. In a moment we knew why: waves were crashing against the jetty with such force that buckets of salt water were leaping over the walkway. Neither of us had ever seen puddles on the land side of the jetty, yet here they were.

Oh crap. We weren't seeing any water-borne birds from our vantage point. They all notoriously prefer the area farther south of where normal people would hang out, and the frequency of the breaching waves was enough to nix any thought of making a run for it and hoping for the best. I myself wouldn't feel comfortable risking the walk across the rip-rap jetty.

The view looking north from the beach.
That water to the right is what washed up over the jetty.
Never one to declare defeat easily, Ivan reasoned that we'd just have to walk down the beach. Fine by me. Maybe we'd be able to get on the jetty farther down, or maybe the birds would be someplace we could see them. Either way, we weren't giving up. We'd driven all that way, and the chances of getting back to Barnegat before the end of the month were pretty much nil, so we had to make the best of this visit. Maybe we'd find some unexpected species along the way. You never know.

And indeed we did, hiding in the detritus along the tideline. If I hadn't seen the movement out of the corner of my eye, we would have missed a couple of Ruddy Turnstones foraging for food. Maybe they were a little freaked by the weather, too, as they didn't appear too worked up about us being just steps away.

Our reward for all that walking was a host of ducks braving the rough waves in the waters off the beach just west of the end of the jetty. Difficult as they were to focus on as they bobbed up and down on the surface, we eventually ID'd not only the Harlequin and the Common Eider, but found some Black Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks, too. And a Great Cormorant was perched, as is customary, on one of the towers out in the water.

Satisfied, we made our way back toward the lighthouse, happy to have made the call to walk the beach. Nature wasn't done with us, though. As if on cue, a small bird flew past us to perch on a bush along the dune. A run of the mill sparrow perhaps? No, a Snow Bunting, a bird we thought we'd have to make another long drive to find this month. Maybe the birding gods were smiling on us after all. At least we got our reward for persistence.