Showing posts with label Monmouth County.
Showing posts with label Monmouth County.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Backed up on the road to Sandy Hook

On a warm summer Sunday, we weren't surprised to run into people just trying to make it to Sandy Hook. What surprised us was how long ago they'd started their trip and the massive delay they suffered -- maybe New Jersey's first huge traffic jam. Certainly, it was the biggest hassle anyone has experienced in trying to get to the shore.

We'd started the day avoiding all things beach. In fact, we were at a sod farm in eastern Mercer County, looking for 'grasspipers' - a general description of the shorebirds that hang out in grasslands. The fields weren't quite as productive as we'd hoped, leading us to wander a bit aimlessly until we found ourselves in the western Monmouth County community of Allentown.

Full of Colonial, Georgian and Federal-style buildings dating to the earliest days of the nation, Allentown was built around an old grist mill on Doctors Creek. A picturesque mill pond offers a nice focal point to downtown and, of course, is irresistible to intrepid birders. The part downtown isn't quite so interesting -- it's the part that extends back to the residential areas that's tempting.

Finding the right road wasn't hard -- it's called Lakeview Drive. Before we got to the lake, though, we noticed an old graveyard by the side of the road. The landscape is well tended, the grass is short, but its old stone border wall has seen better days, and its grave markers are well worn. In a lot of ways, it's not much different from any number of other small cemeteries dotting the more remote areas of New Jersey.

Not exactly a rest area, but sufficient for the need.
What got our attention was a shorter stone flanked by two American flags. According to the plaque affixed on top, we'd stumbled on the pit stop for somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 travelers who were just trying to get to the shore during some of the hottest days of June.

This seeming horde of Bennies weren't headed to sun, fun and maybe some debauchery on the Boardwalk. They were members of what was acknowledged to be the best trained fighting force in the world: the British Army of 1778.

Led by General Sir Henry Clinton, the troops had left Philadelphia and were on their way to the British stronghold of New York at Manhattan. Originally, the plan had been to evacuate troops via ship down the Delaware River and around New Jersey northward, but a shortage of transports forced a change of plans to an overland route. Crossing the Delaware, the troops moved in a northeasterly direction through Mount Holly and beyond.

The trip was arduous. Heavily encumbered by a 12-mile long wagon train of equipment and supplies, the Brits and had been struggling to make their way despite demolished bridges and harassment by local Patriots. Even nature seemed to be conspiring against them: thunderstorms, mosquitoes and oppressive humidity made the trek especially onerous.

After encamping at Allentown overnight, Clinton decided to direct his troops toward Sandy Hook. It was a logical move: the British had captured the peninsula over a year before and fortified it against attack, though Patriots occasionally attempted raids to disable Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Several British naval vessels were usually stationed offshore as further protection, and from there, safety in Manhattan was just a reasonably short sail away.

Clinton and many of his troops eventually made it to Manhattan, but not without a serious fight, and that's an understatement. General George Washington, seeing an opportunity to strike, advanced the Continental Army to confront the British at Monmouth Court House - present day Freehold. The battle that ensued on June 28, 1778 was the largest artillery battle of the American Revolution and one of the longest engagements of the entire war.

Consider that the next time you're stuck in shore traffic.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Summer with the merchant class at the Strauss Mansion

When summer finally gets its grip on New Jersey, the idea of whiling away a warm afternoon on the expansive porch of a rambling shoreside Victorian 七乐彩彩票app下载 starts to sound pretty good.

That was the thought that came to mind a few weeks ago, during the Weekend in Old Monmouth when I found my way up a steep hill to the Strauss Mansion, 七乐彩彩票app下载 of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. I'm a sucker for Queen Anne-style Victorian 七乐彩彩票app下载s, and this one is the only mansion of its kind in Monmouth County that's open to the public. The closer I got, the more I could see the wear and tear on the house, but its pleasantly jumbled arrangement of turrets and gables drew me up onto the broad wrap-around porch and inside. The prospect of walking into one of these 七乐彩彩票app下载s brings out the little kid in me: how awesome would it be to play hide and seek there?

I was just as awed when I got inside as I was when I saw the house on the drive up. Welcoming me into the expansive entry hall, a Historical Society member shared a brief history of the 七乐彩彩票app下载, which was just one of several "cottages" built in the neighborhood by prominent New Yorkers seeking a respite from steamy Manhattan summers. Built in 1893 for the family of importer and merchant Adolph Strauss, the 21-room mansion was designed by Solomon Cohen and built by Adolph Hutera. Strauss himself would stay in the 七乐彩彩票app下载 only on the weekends, returning to the city by ferry during the week for work while his wife Jeannette and seven children would remain in Atlantic Highlands. They were part of a Monmouth County summer enclave known to some as the Jewish Newport on the Jersey Shore, with their specific group known as the "49ers" after their 49th Street neighborhood in New York. Other 七乐彩彩票app下载s in the neighborhood of similar vintage are still well maintained, and a nice drive around Prospect Circle will give you a good idea of the community where the Strausses relaxed during the warmer months.

Following Mr. Strauss' death in 1905, the house was sold, eventually becoming a rooming house in the 1960s. By 1980 conditions in the building had become so dire that the town condemned it for code violations, leading the Historical Society to wage a campaign to raise funds to purchase and save it. The house by that point was a shadow of its former self: asbestos shingles covered the original cedar shakes on the exterior, the roof was in serious need of repair, wall-to-wall carpet covered its floors.

Some of the original flooring. Wow!
The house's current stewards are candid about the limitations of their preservation work to date, and as you walk through the rooms on the first and second floor the need for new plaster work and paint are evident. That said, the potential is enormous. You can't help but be impressed by the craftsmanship of the Victorian-era builders, hidden for many years. The hardwood floors are laid in intricate patterns not seen in 七乐彩彩票app下载s built these days, and the original stained glass has been returned to its rightful place after having been sold by a previous owner.

Much of the house is curated to reflect the Strauss era of ownership, with beautiful furnishings and clothes representing the 1890s and early 1900s, but a good portion of the second floor is dedicated to local history. Everything from Sandy Hook's lifesaving history to 19th century tools and hardware to the old 20th century White Crystal diner is represented in the Historical Society's varied collection. They've also assembled an impressive reference library and archive that's open for those interested in researching aspects of the town's history (yearbooks and maps are always fun to peruse!).

And for those like me who'd love to while away a summer evening on the porch, the Historical Society a series of concerts, suppers and other gatherings. With such an amazing asset to help them raise restoration funds, they're taking a creative - and fun - approach to bring people to the house.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

None shall pass! Sandy Hook's hidden fort

Our birding excursions at Sandy Hook usually lead us close to the tip of the hook, where Fort Hancock's Nine Gun Battery and Battery Peck continue to molder, unrestored. Part of the search for interesting species takes us close to the Coast Guard base, where, if you look in the right direction, you might notice an odd bit of construction: a very sturdy granite block structure topped by a water tank.

The big stone walls seem like a bit of overkill to protect a water tank, both regal and like a discarded part of the set of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Then again, they probably stood up well to the surges of Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't until recently that we noticed an additional, less medieval-looking wall coming out from one side and continuing eastward for a short bit, looking rather vestigial beneath overgrown vines.

Ni! A portion of the old Fort at Sandy Hook.
We did not bring it a shrubbery.
I didn't think much of it until my recent visit to the in Atlantic Highlands (more on that to come), where I came upon a 19th century map of Sandy Hook. Rather than illustrating the location of Fort Hancock's many batteries and functional buildings, the map portrayed a pentagonal structure at the tip of the hook, labeled only as "fort." Part of the location matches the site of the still-standing walls. After a little research, I realized we'd inadvertently stumbled on the remnants of the Fort at Sandy Hook, the Civil War-era predecessor to the army base that had operated from the late 1800s until 1974.

The fort's intended shape is illustrated
near the top of this 19th century map.
Who knew? Sandy Hook's strategic location near the entrance to New York Bay makes it a perfect defense location, so it's not surprising that Fort Hancock wasn't the first Army base there. To start the tradition, the wooden-walled Fort Gates was built there in 1813 to protect the harbor and city. The rather obviously-named Fort at Sandy Hook was part of the next generation Third System U.S. fortifications as advances in weapons technology drove construction of granite-walled defense systems. Construction began on the hook in 1857 as part of a larger network of forts within New York Harbor that was designed to protect shipping channels into the city along with Forts Richmond (now Battery Weed), Tompkins, Hamilton and Lafayette near the Verrazano Narrows.

As the map portrays, the fort's pentagonal shape was highlighted with bastions at each corner. Though construction was far from complete at the start of the Civil War, the Army outfitted the fort with more than 30 cannons of various sizes and capacities. 七乐彩彩票app下载 E of the 10th New York Heavy Artillery was assigned to the fort in April 1863. By July 1866, the fort was vacant again, apparently never to be used again.

Three years later and only 70 percent built, the Fort at Sandy Hook was declared obsolete. New artillery technology, in the form of rifled cannons, could easily destroy the granite-walled fortress, rendering it useless. However, portions of the fort were reportedly incorporated into the still-standing Nine Gun Battery built in the 1890s through the early 1900s.

For safety reasons, Nine Gun remains closed to the casual visitor, so it's not easy (or prudent) to figure out exactly where the old fort walls exist in the newer construction. However, there's still that wall below the Coast Guard water tank, visible from Lot M at the base of the Fishermen's Trail near Battery Peck. Look carefully to the east of the tank, and you might be able to follow a line to additional parts of the fort wall. Don't attempt, however, to get too close. While the Coast Guard base is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the site remains an active military installation, and you can't just walk in. Even if you bring a shrubbery.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Doc in the box: Dr. Robert W. Cooke's very small clinic

County historical weekends are always reliable and often a scavenger hunt. They're reliable in that they all promise a bevy of local sites, many of them house museums where you can learn about life in a given town during the 1700s or 1800s. The houses are all wonderful in their own way, playing an important part in helping people appreciate local history. That said, there's only so many times you can hear about chamber pots and bed warmers before you start yearning for something a little different.

That's where the scavenger hunt comes in.

This past weekend, I checked out the Weekend in Old Monmouth, the two-day event encompassing more than 40 open sites on four separate driving routes in the county. Finding all of them would take a navigator or a GPS, and with Ivan on an out-of-state birding foray, I had neither. Thus, I picked a few spots and hoped for the best.

Eventually, my strategy had me heading for the doctor's office. The Holmdel Historical Society contends that Dr. Robert Woodruff Cooke's office, built in 1823 or thereabouts, is the nation's first and oldest building used exclusively for a medical practice. In fact, they're so confident in the assertion that they're willing to give a cash reward to whoever can prove them wrong. Okay, the reward is only $25, but hey, they're willing to back up their claim.

The building as it looked in 1940,
courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey.
I was prepared for an old building when I drove up. What I wasn't expecting was how small it was. Boasting impressively detailed Federal-style architecture, the structure nonetheless looked more like a children's playhouse than a doctor's office. Indeed, when I walked in, I discovered that the entire first floor consists of a reception area, a smaller side room where examinations presumably took place, and a closet. A door next to the fireplace opened to an extremely steep staircase leading to a second-floor bedroom that may have been used for overnight patients. How an ailing patient would be able to negotiate those steps was beyond me.

A view from upstairs, over the railing and looking down.
The second generation of his family to go into medicine, Dr. Cooke was born in Newton, grew up in Somerset County and attended medical 七乐彩彩票平台 in New York. Ready to start his own practice after an internship with an older doctor, he purchased 14 acres of land in Holmdel in 1823 and built the office building. He later married and built an impressive house nearby for his growing family.

One of the doctor's four children, Henry Gansevoort Cooke, followed him into medicine and took over the practice when Robert died. The younger Dr. Cooke was also a Civil War veteran, serving first with the 29th New Jersey Regiment at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and later as a volunteer surgeon at the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. (Family history courtesy .)

As unique and interesting as the building and its history are, the real treat of the visit was talking with the members of the Holmdel Historical Society. Cooke family members have very kindly lent some of the doctors' medical instruments to help tell the story, and one of the docents almost gleefully explained their use (tonsil snipper, anyone?).

Situated near the corner of McCampbell and Holmdel-Middletown Roads, the building was actually moved a few years ago to accommodate the construction of a McMansion development. It's now safe on the grounds of the Village Elementary School and listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, hopefully preserving its place in history permanently.

Likewise, the historical society folks seem genuinely excited by this little gem they saved, and eager to discover more of its story. I had to wonder why Dr. Cooke had built a totally separate building for his practice, rather than designating a room or two in his house to see patients, as some doctors do today. Had he, perhaps, actually lived in the building before he got married? And had any of the building served as a de facto post office during the 19 years the elder doctor was Holmdel postmaster? The folks I met there had their own theories, but the facts are still to be proven. Like any great piece of local history, the story of Dr. Cooke's office continues to develop.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hitchcock on Sandy Hook: My adventure with The Birds

Spring this year has been hit and miss, with very few warm days. Any nature lover with a flexible schedule would have headed to a favorite birding spot when the temperatures promised to reach 75 degrees on a sunny day.

For me, that's Sandy Hook. It's one of the state's top birding spots any time of year, but during spring migration, it's especially promising. I had no specific reason to believe it would be spectacular today, but you never know. And to paraphrase a popular saying, a mediocre day at Sandy Hook is still better than a great day in a lot of other places.

What I didn't realize was that my visit would land me a screen test for a remake of a Hitchcock movie. No, not Psycho (I'm not that obsessed with birding). Yes, The Birds!

Now, over the past several years, Ivan and I have seen plenty of large flocks of small avian visitors, and smaller flocks of large avian visitors, and sometimes they take flight in ways that might be scary to those who aren't familiar with their general behavior. Like anyone else would, I sometimes make Tippi Hedren jokes, especially when gulls or blackbirds are involved, but I've never felt stalked.

This time, though, I got a fish's view of a predator, totally by mistake.

Sandy Hook's varied habitats offer several different places to bird, depending on what you'd like to see. My first choice today was an area at the tip of the hook called the locust grove, known to attract warblers and other songbirds. It's nestled between Battery Peck and the northern end of Nine Gun Battery, accessible from a gate in the chain link fence, and it leads out toward the pond on the Fisherman's Trail.

An Osprey overhead -- photo not taken
during the event described in this post.
The farther north you go on the hook, the more likely you are to see Osprey, and I was thrilled to see a half dozen or so in the air as I got out of my car. Where it was once news to see one nesting pair at Sandy Hook, the population has soared in recent years. By my informal count, there are at least five active nests on the hook this year. Some are on platforms built by the National Park Service specifically for the Osprey. Others capitalize on existing man-made structures like a radar tower on the Coast Guard base and, despite the efforts of the NPS, the chimneys of a few Fort Hancock buildings. Their success says a tremendous deal about the improved health of Raritan Bay and the efforts of environmentalists to make the region more hospitable to the ol' fish hawk.

Thing is, there are so many of them that you have to wonder where else they're nesting. A couple of years ago, I was scolded away from Battery Kingman by an angry Osprey parent protecting its young, and there are other platforms tucked away in locations less accessible to human wanderers. I think that's how I got into trouble today.

I was probably about a third of the way down the locust grove path when I heard insistent peeping from the sky. Looking up, I saw three Osprey -- two circling broadly and a third hovering almost directly above me. I kept walking, only to look up again to see the same bird over me, now flapping its wings busily. I'd seen that flap before, but over water: it's the maneuver of an Osprey readying itself to strike at a fish.

Hmm. Perhaps it's time to look for birds elsewhere.

In the Hitchcock masterpiece, the birds' hostility comes out of nowhere. My experience is easily explained. The closer I got to my car, the less disturbed the Osprey seemed to be, leading me to conjecture that I'd unknowingly approached a nest. By this point in the season, they're well-established and already incubating two or three eggs, one parent keeping the unhatched offspring warm while the other guards the area or goes fishing for the family. They've got enough to worry about from predators without having to warn me off.

A big part of birding is understanding the place of the human. We're there to observe and enjoy but not to disturb or harass. When a normally-quiet bird like the Osprey starts to vocalize, or a usually sweet-sounding songbird calls harshly, it's a cue to depart. We know our intent is pure, but the bird doesn't.

Birding is good all over the hook; I had no specific need to be on the locust grove trail. If the Osprey wanted me gone, I was more than happy to cooperate.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Birding with a beret: the Bohemian Waxwing at Sandy Hook

Ah, the Bohemian Waxwing.

The name sounds like something out of one of those caricatures about nutty bird watchers: "yes, we saw the crimson-bellied saw whet and the Bohemian waxwing."

Thing is, it's a real bird, and at least one, maybe two, have been sighted over the last week or so at Sandy Hook. Normally, this time of year it's somewhere in lower Canada or the northern states of the Midwest or Western U.S. These misguided avian visitors apparently decided a trip to the Jersey Shore was a good way to spend part of the winter.

Yes, they spent Washington's birthday weekend at the Sandy Hook that's been totally frozen this winter. According to the many hearty birders who've seen the Bohemian there, it's been very cooperative, happily eating berries from the hollies near the flagpole at the scout camp.

Bohemian Waxwing, courtesy Lisa Ann Fanning.
A combination of the weather and workload kept Ivan and me from taking a look, until the unusually warm (for this winter, anyway) Sunday of Washington's birthday. Though I'd wanted to hobnob with George and Martha at his in Morristown I wanted to see the waxwing even more. This beautiful creature, even more distinctive than its dapper cousin who's a New Jersey regular, has been on my "must see" list for quite some time.

"Bohemian" brings up thoughts of bongos and smoke-filled Greenwich Village coffeehouses, but this bird eschews the hep cat life for a diet of fruit in the winter, supplemented by insects during the breeding season. The first part of their name comes more from their said nomadic journeys, much like the European Bohemians of old. The "waxwing" part comes from the crimson markings on some of its wing feathers, which makes them appear dipped in red sealing wax.

Seeing either waxwing, common though the Cedar waxwings are, is always a treat. Unlike the usually stark differences evident between feather colors on most birds, the waxwings' bodies appear almost airbrushed, greys evolving into browns, and the yellow of the Cedars' breasts gently transitioning from the brown surrounding it. If your only exposure to one came from a painting, you'd be excused for thinking that something so beautiful couldn't exist in nature.

The Bohemian, while still very dignified, is larger and more colorful than the Cedar, making it a "want" not just for my own life list, but because I want the joy of seeing it for myself. Enough that yes, I'd be happy to head to ice-encrusted Sandy Hook to see it.

How cold was it? Sandy Hook Bay was frozen.
So, off we went, thankful for the 40 degree weather that usually passes for "normal" this time of year in New Jersey. Reports were also that a Vesper sparrow was hanging out near one of the parking lots at the base of the Hook, but the Bohemian was our top priority.

We weren't the only ones looking. After stopping at the Nike base on a hunch that a guy with a scope set up had the bird in his sights, we found a scarce spot in the small parking lot near the camp. Other birders returning to their cars said they'd heard the bird was with a flock of robins, but they hadn't seen it.

Thus started a couple of hours of wait and see, wander a bit, chat with other birders, and just one sighting of a waxwing of either kind. The hollies at the camp flagpole were still pregnant with berries, but alas, no birds were there to feast on them. Perhaps the waxwing had decamped to a spot deep within Sandy Hook's enormous holly forest, far from the prying eyes of appreciative birders. Wherever it was, we didn't find it. My usual mantra about chase birds once again came true: if it wants me to see it, it will be there. I guess it just wasn't my time.

The Vesper sparrow on the other hand, was a bit more cooperative, though barely. Flocking with a bunch of Song sparrows, it finally sat long enough for us to spot it among some weedy grass on the north end of B lot. While it already made my life list just before Hurricane Sandy, they're not always an easy find in New Jersey, so this little guy was a nice consolation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The wild goose chase: a rite of winter birding

In New Jersey, the onset of winter brings the spectre of the wild goose chase.

"What?" I can hear you wondering. "Why would anyone make the effort to see geese when they seem to be everywhere?" As any casual observer or office park manager will attest, they've become fixtures in New Jersey, much to the frustration of anyone who's dodged, uh, goose bombs while on a stroll.

Thing is, some pretty remarkable birds are out there if you take the time to look. Some of the Canada Geese you see in the winter months actually are from the northern reaches of the continent, though they might not look that much different from the Jersey guys. Flocks migrate south as their ancestors have done for centuries, sometimes mixing in with the resident population to loiter at athletic fields or farm acreage dotted with mown-down, decaying cornstalks. And with those 'foreign' flocks sometimes come the proverbial needles in the haystack: the rare goose species that literally made a wrong turn at Greenland. Best guess is that some of the "not like the others" birds get caught up in a southbound flock and decide to stick with it rather than attempt to find others of their own species.

The Greater White-Fronted Goose, courtesy
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Kramer
That's what makes them so attractive to a doggedly persistent breed of birders. There are folks who will stand at the edge of a big field, using a spotting scope to scan hundreds, if not thousands of Canada Geese in the hopes of finding a stray Greater White-Fronted, Pink-Footed or Barnacle goose. Those out for a real challenge will seek out a Cackling Goose, which looks essentially like a smaller, shorter-necked Canada Goose. It's a hobby that's not for the faint of heart, especially when you're struggling to hold your ground against arctic-temperature gusts as you slowly scan a massive flock that won't stand still.

That's why I was relieved to hear about the presence of not one, but four different rare goose species frequenting fields over the weekend. Reports were that a Pink-Footed and a Ross' Goose were sighted at two locations in Wall Township. We needed both for the year. Another Pink-Footed was said to be with a Barnacle and a Greater White-Fronted on a farm in Monroe, but we chose to head for the shore instead.

The Pink-Footed is a relatively new visitor to New Jersey; the first sighting of the species was in Bergen County less than four years ago. It ordinarily winters in Great Britain or the Netherlands after breeding in Greenland, but the word seems to be out in the Pink-Footed community that New Jersey is a welcoming place. The species has already been sighted in a few places around the state this fall. From my relatively novice perspective, it's a welcome visitor, as it's easily distinguishable within a big flock of Canadas: it lacks the white chinstrap and black neck, preferring shades of brown instead. And, of course, its feet and legs are pink.

The Ross' Goose, I knew, would stick out like a sore thumb: it's nearly all white. The only other bird you might confuse it for is the larger Snow Goose, so I was good with ID as long as none of the bigger guys was there.

We set off at mid-morning and promptly ended up at, well, the wrong spot due to a miscalculation by yours truly (long story short, mea culpa). After roaming a few spots on the Shark River estuary, we grabbed a late breakfast in Belmar and stopped to check out Wreck Pond in Spring Lake. While there was a fine assortment of ducks, a Great Blue Heron and Great Egret, the only geese were Canadas, a couple of Snow Geese and a pair of domesticated Egyptians (cool, but not countable).

Somewhere in our wandering, we found some birding acquaintances who pointed us in the right direction. The Pink-Footed, it turns out, was seen in a few places within about a mile of the location we'd originally tried to find. Perhaps if we went back and made a right turn instead of a left at a crucial intersection, we'd find the bird. Worked for us. We had about two hours of daylight left -- not a lot of time.

Sometimes finding the bird is a matter of finding the birders first. We got to the first place in the directions to discover several cars pulled over on the shoulder against a broad grassy field, with several spotting scopes already pointed toward a large flock of geese. Pay dirt. The assembled birders told us that both the Ross' and the Pink-Footed were milling among the hundreds of Canadas on the slope just above the pond.

I got the Ross' Goose without trying too hard, its whiteness a stark contrast to the assorted black and browns of the Canadas. The Pink-Footed was a bit harder, but it wasn't long before Ivan had it spotted with the scope. At one point, the two rarities were so close together they could be seen well without moving the scope at all. Considering it was my first time seeing the Ross' and the third time for the Pink-Footed, it was a sight to remember. We could head 七乐彩彩票app下载 with the satisfaction of a successful wild goose chase.

But, for me, the adventure wasn't quite over.

Ivan was committed to do a on Sunday, so I was on my own. What the heck, I thought. I'll head to Monroe and see if I could spot the Barnacle or the Greater White-Fronted. The Pink-Footed would be a nice bonus, but thanks to our sighting in Wall, I wasn't particularly concerned about finding it.

I knew I was heading into an iffy situation, but I was fairly confident about my chances. As I got off the Turnpike and drove past the cluster of senior housing developments just off Exit 8A, I considered my situation. I was heading out badly equipped: Ivan had the sighting scope. But, I figured, if the birds were present, there would be birders with scopes there, too.

Indeed, when I reached the area and made the turn to drive along the edge of the designated field, this is what I was confronted with:

The farm field in Monroe. Those black spots are all geese. Your guess is as good as mine.
Yup: an undulating cornfield with a conservative estimate of several hundred geese milling about, pecking at the ground, a couple hundred yards away. To make matters worse, the farmer seemed to have cut the cornstalks a little higher than average, giving the geese more space to hide. The two birders already there had a spotting scope but were packing up. They hadn't found anything: not the Barnacle, not the Greater White-Fronted, not the Pink-Footed. Me, with my decent but not spectacular binoculars? I figured I'd stick around and see what happened.

Luckily, a few minutes later another birder showed up, though he also lacked a scope. Together we scanned what we could see from our vantage points, until he announced, "I think I have something." The Greater White-Fronted Goose happened to be scanning the space between two cornrows that ended right about where the birder was standing. The result was a nearly perfect though distant view, as long as the bird stopped for a moment or two. After he gave me a couple of landmarks to gauge from, I found the bird in question and agreed, first that it wasn't a Canada from the orangey legs, and then, after a few frustrating attempts to see its neck and face, I was sure.  

Satisfied that the identification was a strong one, I decided enough was plenty. Finding the Barnacle Goose in that flock would be enough of a challenge in good light, and the combination of clouds and early-setting sun were not my friends that day. Add to that, the Barnacle's plumage is nominally close enough to the Canada's, so playing the avian version of "one of these things is not like the others" wouldn't serve me well.

The fates seemed to want to give me one last treat before I headed 七乐彩彩票app下载. Just as I was turning the car around, I noticed a slender raptor gliding overhead, toward the field of geese. Pulling over again and jumping out of the car with my binoculars, I tried to confirm my suspicion that the bird was, indeed, a harrier. The setting and the behavior was right, I considered as the bird decreased its altitude to coast just several feet above the field, but with the light and distance I couldn't call it definitively. As in so many other cases before, I couldn't be sure what I'd seen. All I knew was that I'd enjoyed seeing it.

(FYI, photos of the Pink-Footed, Barnacle and Cackling geese mentioned here are available with an article on Pete Bacinski's excellent  blog on the New Jersey Audubon website.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A cool drink of water: stumbling onto Molly Pitcher's spring

If you grew up in New Jersey, or driven on the Turnpike for that matter, you've heard of Molly Pitcher. Young history buffs first learn of her as a hero of the Battle of Monmouth during the American Revolution, bravely staying on the field of battle as cannons roared around her. Fought in the area outside Freehold on June 28, 1778, the conflict was one of the largest of the entire war and certainly the biggest in New Jersey. As we learned from a recent visit, the day's weather put a woman with a pitcher in a good position to become a legend.

Molly's feats vary, depending on which account of the day you hear. One story has her repeatedly bringing water to her husband and his fellow soldiers on the oppressively hot, humid summer day, keeping the Pennsylvania artillerymen hydrated as many troops on both the American and British sides succumbed to heat stroke. Another version has her taking the place of her injured husband in a gun crew of the 4th Continental Artillery Regiment. She may also have been fetching water for the cannons themselves. Their barrels needed to be swabbed after firing to clear errant sparks and spilled gunpowder, a task especially important during what was to be the most extensive use of artillery in the entire Revolutionary War.

Molly herself is commonly assumed to be a woman named Mary Ludwig Hays, whose husband was part of a large gun crew. She was among the many women who accompanied the troops, cooking, repairing clothes and caring for injured and sick soldiers. Given the hectic nature of battle, it's entirely possible that she stepped in to help when a gunner was injured or suffering from the heat.

We weren't thinking much about tracking Molly down when we set out to explore the battlefield's trails and interpretive markers. Portions of the battlefield are still used as farms and orchards the way they were back in 1778, leaving an impressive viewshed for you to consider from the back side of the visitor center. Miles of hiking trails, roads and field edges offer places to get some perspective on the battle.

The weather was a bit raw on the day we visited, so we decided to check out the park's almost 3000 acres by car. A few roads traverse the area to make it easier to explore, but there are still plenty of wooded sections and farm fields to help you envision what Washington and his troops came upon when they marched into the area. There aren't a lot of interpretive markers along the roads, but the park map showed one not far from a small parking area just off Wemrock Road, near a rusting railroad overpass.

The gravel lot was only large enough to accommodate a couple of cars, but we were the only ones there. Looking around for the interpretive sign, I saw something unexpected: a stone flanked with small faded and aged American flags. The side closest to the car clearly said "MOLLY PITCHER," with some additional printing below it. A closer examination revealed the word "SPRING" painted closer to the bottom of the stone. On the other side was more printing; though chipped by age, it manages to still say "THIS MARKER PLACED BY ALEXANDER JAS___ AND _____M D. PERRINE."

Several steps away, a bramble-covered area was divided by a series of wooden planks across a small running stream. Its source was obscured by vegetation, but it seemed we might have stumbled upon the spring where Mary fetched the water that sustained several American troops during the heat of battle.

I'm always a little wary of unofficial markers, but this one got me curious, especially given its condition. While the stone has seen better days and the state apparently hasn't seen fit to replace it, the presence of the flags, however weathered, led me to believe that someone's been paying at least cursory attention to it.

Turns out it's been there for more than 75 years. According to the Red Bank Daily Register of July 6, 1966, the stone and an interpretive sign were placed there by William D. Perrine and Alexander Jasco, Sr. in 1938, well before the state purchased the land for a park. The sign, now missing but said to be well-maintained 50 years ago, noted "From this spring, Molly Pitcher (Mary Ludwig Hays) carried water to her husband and thirsty soldiers."

What's more, there's another well or spring somewhere on the battlefield that's also claimed by some to be Mary's water source. Neither is marked on the official park map, but I suspect that if we'd wandered a bit more, we'd have found it eventually.

Before we left for the day, we agreed to return to the Monmouth Battlefield once the weather gets warmer. The fields and woods may just be a nice stopover for migrating birds in the spring, and the trails look promising for both good exercise and a ground-level experience on one of New Jersey's great contributions to American independence.

We may even try it on one of the challenging humid days we seem to get in droves in late June and early July. Considering the ordeal our ancestors went through to ward off the British and Hessians that day in 1778, the least we can do is leave the relative luxury of air conditioning to get a deeper understanding of what happened there.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The woman on the wall: Captain Eleanor Alexander and New Jersey's Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Of the 1563 fallen service members commemorated on the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel, only one is a woman: Captain Eleanor Grace Alexander. Every name on that wall has a compelling story, but viewing a female name, and learning about her, make a special impact on those who visit the memorial with no expectation of seeing a woman honored for her sacrifice in a war decades ago.

七乐彩彩票app下载NJ Vietnam Veterans Wall Captain Eleanor Alexander
Captain Alexander's name on the
New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Affectionately by family members as "a tough broad," the Queens-born Alexander moved to River Vale with her mother after graduating with a nursing degree from D'Youville College七乐彩彩票平台. Six years later, she'd achieved a measure of success as a cosmetic surgery operating room supervisor and was engaged to be married, yet felt compelled to enlist in the Army Nurse Corps. Friends suggested that she could offer her services in a safer environment by serving in the Peace Corps instead, but she was resolute in her desire to take the military route. In fact, she approached all of the services to see if they'd send her to Vietnam but only the Army would guarantee it. As her sister in law Suzanne Alexander later told the New York Times, "She told me she was going to do this before she had any obligations. She insisted on going over there for six months. She had to do this."

She enlisted in May 1967, leaving behind her hope chest and wedding dress, and bringing a great deal of enthusiasm for the challenge ahead. Assigned to the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Qui Nhon, Vietnam, she was part of the team responsible for stabilizing seriously wounded patients, whether they be American, allied or enemy. A colleague recalled that "Rocky," as Alexander became known, was "top notch... never got rattled... even managed to look well groomed" in the chaos of field hospital work.

Captain Alexander's D'Youville College七乐彩彩票平台 yearbook photo, class of 61.
A nursing scholarship was established there in her name.
Five months into her enlistment, Alexander grabbed opportunity from coincidence, a decision that one could say cost her her life. As fighting intensified at the Battle of Dak To 60 miles away, the 85th was to send an emergency medical team to nearby Pleiku to treat the wounded. Another nurse was part of the team but couldn't be located in time, so Alexander took her colleague's gear and ran to join the departing group. She and the team worked grueling 14 hour shifts, an exhausting yet exhilarating regimen for the enthusiastic nurse. "The troops around Pleiku are getting hit quite hard," she wrote to her mother in mid November. "For the past three days, I've been running on about four hours sleep. Funny thing is, I love it."

After six weeks, the team was returning to the 85th when their plane encountered rain and low clouds that would prevent their landing at Qui Nhon. They were diverted to another airstrip with better landing conditions but crashed into a mountainside while attempting to get there. Alexander, the other 21 passengers and four crew members were all killed in the accident. She was 27 years old and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star.

Accounts of Captain Alexander from those who served with her say much of her commitment and poise; it seems that many of the enlisted men at the hospital were enthralled by her beauty. Most touching is a written to Alexander in 1991 by the Army nurse whose place she seized for the Pleiku assignment. "How did you keep it together? You know, the guys really leaned on you," she wrote. "You and I triaged, organized, drove the men and prayed... I really admired your strength and envied it." The same nurse acknowledges that had events been a little different, she, herself, might have perished in the crash, and Alexander survived. She tells of the complex mix of guilt and sorrow she continued to feel, decades later, and her struggles to make a positive impact on the world in Alexander's memory.

We often think of the sacrifices men made, and the fact that but for a twist of fate, an injury that prevents a deployment, a roll call missed, one soldier survives while the one who took his place dies or is injured. Until very recently, with women being further integrated into combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of us didn't consider that the beneficiaries or victims of fate could be female.

Last September, the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedicated a new monument for Captain Alexander, ensuring that more visitors will learn about her dedication and sacrifice. She's a true example of the power of commitment and the unstoppable desire of some to make a positive impact on those around her.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sabotage on Sandy Hook: our oldest lighthouse's Redcoat past

Standing as it does within a decommissioned U.S. Army fort, it's difficult to imagine that the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was once the target of sabotage by loyal Americans.

How the heck did that happen? Did the government cover up some sort of invasion on the Jersey Shore? No, not quite. The pieces start to come together after you consider the history of Sandy Hook and the lighthouse itself, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year.

The oldest operating lighthouse in the United States, Old Sandy was originally conceived in the early 1760s by New York merchants weary of losing incoming cargo to shipwrecks. Approaching New York Harbor by ship can be a tricky prospect, even today, but it was downright hazardous back then. Importers lost about 20,000 pounds sterling in merchandise to the shoals in just a few years, leading them to petition the Colonial Assembly of New York for funds to construct a lighthouse on the hook. (Why didn't they appeal to the New Jersey Legislature? The borders had yet to be settled, so the jurisdiction for the Hook was up for conjecture, and the merchants no doubt went where they felt they'd have more influence.)

Drawing on a popular funding mechanism for the time, the legislature authorized two lotteries to raise the £3000 to pay for construction. Its ongoing maintenance and a salary for a resident keeper were funded through a tax on cargo entering through New York Harbor. The lantern on the 105 foot New York Lighthouse, as it was called then, was first lit on June 11, 1764. Combined with the efforts of the Sandy Hook Pilots organized 70 years earlier to help ships navigate the shifting sand bars on the approach to the harbor, the light proved to be an effective aid to navigation.

七乐彩彩票app下载Sandy Hook Lighthouse, Hidden New Jersey, Gateway NRA
Sandy Hook Lighthouse, ca. 1937
(photo by Historic American Buildings Survey
photographer Nathaniel R. Ewan)
The tower operated peacefully for twelve years before it metaphorically landed in troubled waters. New Jerseyans and New Yorkers were starting to take sides: remain loyal to Great Britain, or advocate independence. By early 1776, rumors of a British military invasion of New York were beginning to take hold. The powerful British Navy would likely attempt to sail into New York Harbor, led by ship captains unfamiliar with the intricacies of the waters south and east of Staten Island. Destroying the light at Sandy Hook would deprive them of a vital navigational aid, leaving them prone to grounding and shipwreck.

Seizing this strategic opportunity, the independence-minded legislatures in Trenton and Albany sent troops to dismantle the New York Lighthouse lantern and remove the lamp oil, confiscating whatever they could take away. The troops, led by Monmouth County Militia Colonel George Taylor and New York Major William Malcolm, completed the task and departed the Hook, leaving the lighthouse unguarded.

In the weeks that followed, foraging parties of British sailors would periodically land on the Hook in search of fresh water, often being ambushed and captured by American troops. The British responded by capturing the lighthouse in April 1776, fortifying the grounds to repel additional attacks and ultimately repairing the light by June to welcome additional naval vessels to the bay. As further protection, the Redcoats stationed several additional ships in the waters surrounding the Hook, adding potent firepower to the defense.

Undeterred, the Americans continued their attempts to take out the lighthouse, with a half dozen or more attacks in 1776 and 1777. National Park Service historians will emphasize the sturdiness of the lighthouse's six-foot thick walls by highlighting the unsuccessful use of artillery trained on the tower, but one has to consider the relative size of the cannons to get a true sense of the threat. The patriots' six pound guns (known as such for the six pound cannon balls they fired) were small in comparison to other artillery available at the time, and likely not up for the challenge, though they did do some damage to the lighthouse's walls.

In any case, the patriots found themselves no match for British forces on the Hook, especially when the firepower of the surrounding warships was taken into account. The peninsula became a refuge for a motley assortment of New Jersey loyalists, thieves, smugglers and raiders until the end of the war. Patriot privateers would occasionally attempt foraging raids on the Hook but lacked the firepower to attempt any harassment beyond stealing British supplies.

You can get a taste of the lighthouse's revolutionary past during its birthday celebration on June 14, when Revolutionary War reenactors will be on hand with musket and cannon-firing demonstrations. Though it doesn't sound as if any NPS-sponsored smugglers and raiders will be on hand, the event looks to be a fun time for all.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Getting crabby on Raritan Bay

I have a lot of respect for horseshoe crabs, in a "prehistoric creature that fascinates me" kind of way. They're survivors, having roamed the ocean floor for at least 300 million years. As other species have evolved and others have gone extinct, these helmet-shelled arthropods have largely stayed the same and managed to survive.

To be honest, though, they kind of freak me out. They're not the most attractive creatures out there, and, well, they're creepy. Most of the time, the only onshore sign of them is their molted shells, but in the spring, they're very active. Coming up the beach and out of the water, they lay and fertilize their eggs in damp sand, looking like some sort of automated armored toy as they move. I can appreciate their efforts, as their eggs play an important role in the larger ecosystem. After the crabs spawn and return to the water, the endangered Red Knot and other migratory shorebirds feed on them, regaining energy they need to continue their treks to breeding grounds far to the north. The remaining fertilized eggs develop into larvae and then baby horseshoe crabs, continuing the cycle of life.

The other day, I was just about done with a visit to Sandy Hook when I decided to check out the bayside beaches toward the south end of the hook. Out beyond the grassy dunes, I discovered nearly a dozen stranded horseshoe crabs, laying on their backs. They'd apparently been rolled over by the waves lapping up against the beach.

Since they were larger, I assumed them to be females, which made their survival all the more important. As the has discovered through their survey of Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays, the ratio of male to female horseshoe crabs in those waters is seriously out of whack. Where a natural ratio is about five to 10 males for every female, the bay region's population is about 20 to one. The issue becomes even more critical when you consider that they generally don't mature as adults until the age of 12, leaving them with about six years of fertility before they die at around age 18.

Scientists aren't sure what's causing the disparity in the genders, though the theory is that humans are playing a role. It's illegal to harvest horseshoe crabs in New Jersey, but it isn't in New York, where individuals can capture up to five a day for personal use. Egg-bearing females are especially prized as bait for eel and whelk fishing. Considering that Staten Island has a considerable shoreline on Raritan Bay, the answer may be right there.

As I was standing on the beach at Sandy Hook, I knew nothing about the troubling male-female ratio, just that the individuals stranded there clearly needed help. While there was a small chance of them being righted eventually by the gentle waves, it was more likely that they'd be picked at by gulls. Despite my squeamishness, I figured I had to be the one to turn them over, but there was no way I was going to pick them up. Nudging them over with my booted toe didn't seem right either, so I looked for a stick to do the trick. Fortunately a good sized driftwood branch was sitting on the beach nearby, perfectly bent to provide the right amount of leverage.

The first crab I approached was still wriggling her legs, apparently trying to build up enough momentum to roll over. Using the branch, I gently rolled her upright, and she rapidly walked back into the approaching waves. The next one wasn't as animated, but her book gills were panting, showing signs of life. She flipped over easily with a little help and was on her way. Another had stuck her spiny tail straight up, perhaps attempting to use it to right herself with no success. She was breathing, too, and responded well once I got her right-side up.

It looked as if I'd gotten there in time to help out all of the beached horseshoe crabs -- every one of them made her way back into the water after she got back on her feet.

I share this story not for any kind of praise but to share a simple way that we all can make a positive impact on the survival of horseshoe crabs and, by extension, endangered shorebirds. If you're on the beach and you see an overturned horseshoe crab, don't assume it's a molted shell or already dead. Check to see if it's alive (the moving gills are a good indicator). Then carefully flip it over by the shell, avoiding the scratchy, pointy tail. And remember: though it may look creepy, it's harmless. It's just a survivor of another age who's continuing to keep our ecosystem alive.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Happiness is a camp in Leonardo

While looking for the Conover Beacon, I found an interesting little enclave of cheerful looking one-story white buildings nestled among the suburban houses of Leonardo. They looked a lot like the kind of cabins or bunkhouses you'd find at an active summer camp, or maybe a church retreat center. Had they been more Victorian in style, or older, I'd have thought I'd stumbled on another shoreside Methodist camp meeting association, but they appear to have been built sometime in the first half of the 20th century.

The sign out front declared "Camp Happiness - NJ Blind Citizens Association." However, no tents were pitched on the property that I could see, and there seemed to be plenty of activity. Was this really a camp? And if not, what exactly is it?

To consider the need for a place like Happiness, one needs to consider the vast changes the community of blind Americans has experienced over the past two centuries, enabling them to participate fully in society. At the start, very few 七乐彩彩票平台s addressed the needs of blind students. Even if parents knew about the academies, many lacked the resources to send their children for a specialized education. Mobility was an issue, too. Concerted efforts to train guide dogs only began after World War I, when combat injuries left many soldiers sightless. Without thorough education and the means necessary to get to work on their own, many blind people were relegated to their 七乐彩彩票app下载s, dependent on family and friends for assistance.

In that atmosphere, a group of Hoboken men joined forces in 1910 as the New Jersey Blind Men's Club, the predecessor organization of the New Jersey Blind Citizens Association. Their goal was to help sight-impaired New Jerseyans with training and other resources while building greater public awareness of their needs and abilities.

Two decades later, the club helped blind adults enjoy what many New Jerseyans consider to be a basic right: the ability to spend a week or two down the shore during the summer. Camp Happiness on Sandy Hook Bay was designed as a beachside haven where the state's sight-impaired residents could also build skills in independence and make lifelong friends. And with generous support from the Lions Club and other benefactors, campers could participate at no cost. For many campers, it was the first time they'd met other blind people, giving them a chance to share their life experiences with others who truly understood the conditions they faced every day.

Thanks to decades of work by the blind and their advocates, accessibility laws and greater public awareness, sight-impared New Jerseyans are more independent than ever, and Camp Happiness has evolved to stay relevant with its clients changing needs. That's why I was seeing so much going on there on a weekday in May. The Wobser Day Camp meets year-round, with a host of activities in fine arts, gardening, computer skills and fitness in a well-equipped gym. Addressing the special concerns the blind face, the camp also offers a peer support group as well as help in navigating medical issues and access to healthcare.

Finding Camp Happiness got me thinking about all of the great organizations that operate in small enclaves around New Jersey, largely hidden from broad view but tremendously effective in changing lives for the better. Who knows how many similar bastions of bliss we might find if we all looked?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The WACs of Fort Hancock: Sandy Hook's women soldiers

You may not notice at first glance, but Sandy Hook's Fort Hancock is, in many places, a study in uniformity and symmetry. With golden-hued brickface and green woodwork, most of its buildings share a common look, regardless of their size. Officers Row is organized so that the smaller lieutenants' houses are on the outer flanks, the intermediate-sized captains and majors near the middle, with the commanding officer's 七乐彩彩票app下载 standing as the largest building in the middle.

Fort Hancock-based WACs receive
good conduct medal outside Barracks 25.
On the other side of the parade ground stand four much larger buildings: the barracks designed to house 70 enlisted men and a handful of non-commissioned officers each. Erected in the late 1890s as some of the fort's first 32 structures, the barracks were later supplemented with separate mess hall buildings, moving food prep to open up bunk space for an additional 38 soldiers. Today, one of the barracks is used by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium, while the others remain unrestored and empty.

Uniformity being a big thing with the military, there was nothing about the barracks' exteriors to distinguish them from each other. As alike as they appear, however, the northernmost one, Building 25, holds a special place in history. During World War II, it was 七乐彩彩票app下载 to the 70 female recruits of Fort Hancock's Women's Army Corps (WAC) detachment.

Organized to fill administrative roles within the Army to free up male soldiers to go into combat, the WAC (originally the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, or WAAC) was the first of the service corps to enlist women for the war effort. The concept met with resistance on several fronts, among them the manufacturers who needed women to work in defense plants, and clergy who felt that mixing the genders in the service would lead to morally questionable situations. Many WAC recruits enlisted despite the disapproval of their families, though others were pleasantly surprised to discover their parents were proud of their commitment to serve their country七乐彩彩票登录.

Like their male Army counterparts, WACs were expected to be in general good health, but other physical requirements indicated that they were not going to be taking on jobs that required heavy labor or exertion. Eligible women were between the ages of 21 and 50, anywhere between five feet and six feet tall, and weighed between 105 and 200 pounds. The educational requirements for WACs exceeded those of Army recruits: women had to have earned a high 七乐彩彩票平台 diploma, while men could enter the service without one. In reality, many had their college degrees, as well. What they all had in common -- men and women alike -- was a desire to do their part to defend the United States.

By June 1943, when the first seven WACs came to Fort Hancock, their "auxiliary" status had shifted, and the women were on the same rank and pay structure as their male counterparts. They were on Sandy Hook to support the 1225th Army Service Unit, Second Service Command, which provided administrative and logistical support to tactical commands. Thousands of male soldiers had already swelled the base's population to over 7000, but the women remained well outnumbered until the end of the war, with ranks of approximately 70 at their height. They fit comfortably (if anything in the Army could be "comfortable") into Building 25, which one WAC declared to be a "honey" of a place. Only small concessions were made for their gender: sheets, shower curtains, toilet stalls and a laundry. Well, that and the fact that the adjacent barracks was converted to post headquarters to conform with Army regulations requiring 150 feet separating mens' living quarters from womens'.

Army leadership had envisioned WACs as a clerical force, but the women proved their mettle in more than 400 of the service's 625 occupation codes. Following an edict from Fort Hancock Commanding Officer Colonel J.C. Haw, women soldiers easily took on their assignments at the motor pool, commissary, finance office, post exchange and elsewhere around the base.

Oral histories collected from Fort Hancock WAC veterans indicate that they were well accepted around the base, and aside from the usual bad apples one runs into in any job, their military experiences were positive. Like many of their male counterparts, some capitalized on the GI Bill to get their college degrees after the war, and some met their future husbands on the base.

According to the National Park Service's historic structure report for Barracks 25, the WACs appear to have left Fort Hancock by the time the 1225th departed at the end of 1949, about six months before the base was deactivated. Maintenance records seem to reflect the WACs' return to Barracks 25 in 1955 to support the reconstituted 1225th, but their further history isn't clear. What the role of women was at the fort by the time of its decommissioning in 1974, well, that's a story for another day.

(For another example of the contributions New Jersey servicewomen made in World War II and beyond, check out our story on Womens Airforce Service Pilots veteran Marjorie Gray.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Visiting our favorite Easter Peeps*: the Piping plovers

Easter seemed like the perfect day for a trip to Sandy Hook for the annual nesting season of the Piping plover. It was a beautiful day, breezes on the shore were soft and reasonably warm, and, well, who doesn't like a good Peep?

These impossibly cute shorebirds return to New Jersey every spring to mate and raise their young, and Sandy Hook is one of their favorite breeding spots. In fact, they were the mascots, of sorts, of New Jersey Audubon's late, great Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, which used to sell t-shirts emblazoned with the plover. (As an aside, the shirt was a great conversation starter in Hawaii, scoring me a few pointers for locating the endangered Nene goose.)

Piping Plover adult. U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Susan Haig.
Besides their overall loveableness, Piping plovers deserve our regard as a federally threatened species, with fewer than 2000 breeding pairs in the Atlantic population. Over-development along the shoreline and indiscriminate human behavior on the beach are among the biggest perils to these little guys, so state and federal parks are usually the best places to find them. It's always good to see them return in the spring, and every successful brood is cause for celebration.

The top of the hook -- North Beach and above -- is generally a reliable place to find the plovers, which means a hike along Fisherman's Trail. It's a good workout, tromping a sandy path over small dunes and mounds that shift below your feet. Who needs the gym?

Neither Ivan nor I had been to the end of the trail since Hurricane Sandy came through, but the beach seemed to be in pretty decent shape. Inland from the water's edge, a wide expanse of sand was cordoned off for the explicit use of nesting protected birds. As always, a variety of gulls was making their presence known in the sky above and on the beach. American oystercatchers were easy to find, their orange bills and dark backs and heads contrasting nicely with the sand.

The plovers, not so much.

Imagine trying to find a tiny bird, the color of wet sand with some white thrown in, on a damp beach strewn with shell shards. It ain't easy. On the plus side, it gives you a real respect for the power of camouflage. But you're left scanning yards and yards of what looks like empty beach, hoping to detect some movement that's not a stray piece of paper or plastic fluttering in the breeze.

Some knowledge of their habits helped us eliminate part of the beach right off the bat. We figured they'd make themselves scarce among the gulls and oystercatchers, both of which are known to dine on plover eggs and chicks. Passing a good stretch of sand, we got to some yardage seemingly free of all life but for random dune grass in the distance. And then... there was movement.

They weren't easy to focus on, but about a half dozen plovers were rushing among the beach detritus, looking like house hunters power-walking to the next real estate listing. We felt reasonably sure they were still checking out neighborhoods, because the usual unmistakable signs of nesting weren't yet there.

The thing about Piping plovers is that depending on the time of season, the nests can either be near impossible to locate, or darn easy. Unlike the construction of twigs or grass that most birds generally use, plovers' nests are pretty much just uncushioned scrapes in the ground, their mottled tan and white eggs laying in a slight depression that might be decorated with shells or pebbles as camo. That makes them almost invisible. If the area wasn't cordoned off, folks might mistakenly step on a nest without realizing it.

Ironically, it's the benign hand of man that makes the nests easy for birders to find. On Sandy Hook, for example, the National Park Service reserves parts of ocean-facing beaches with regulations and signage to keep the birds from being harassed. The dunes are roped off from March 15 through Labor Day, and visitors are reminded that dogs are allowed only on the bay-facing beaches, where the plovers don't nest.

If you wait long enough in the season, your search for Piping plovers is aided by the large chicken-wire structures the Park Service erects around the nests the birds create on the beach. The holes in these exclosures are large enough to allow the plovers to leave easily to forage for food, while being too small to allow predators in. Raccoons, cats, skunks and foxes are all known to go for plover eggs and chicks.

Piping plovers generally lay clutches of two to four eggs, which hatch in about 25 days. Born with pinfeathers, the chicks are mobile almost immediately and will follow their parents around as they graze for food. In about another month, the youngsters will be ready to fly, provided they survive predation. Parents will feign a broken wing to distract predators from the nest, as the little ones lay motionless in the sand, nearly invisible thanks to their camouflage. That's not to say that Piping plovers won't stand up for themselves. Other birds who approach the nest will be chased, bitten or pecked, possibly leaving an enduring injury.

Like us humans, plovers are generally off the beach by the middle of September. They often gather in groups in quiet staging areas before heading south to the gulfshore and beyond. For now, though, they're counting on us to share the beach with them as they start another generation of adorable birds.

*Technically, Piping plovers aren't included among the shorebirds generally categorized as "peeps" by birders. Those would be a certain group of Sandpipers. I just couldn't resist the Marshmallow Peeps reference.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Beyond the aids to navigation that are still operating (and a few that are far off shore, like Ship John Shoal) New Jersey is 七乐彩彩票app下载 to a number of decommissioned lighthouses that are, alas, no longer lit. The Monmouth County bayshore, for example, once hosted lights at Keansburg and Leonardo, right on the waterfront. On a recent ride 七乐彩彩票app下载 from Sandy Hook, I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to seek out the Conover Beacon and the Chapel Hill Lighthouse.

There's a good reason why I chose to look for both on the same trip. The pair once worked together as range lights to help guide ships through the Chapel Hill channel west of Sandy Hook. Ship captains would look for both lights -- Conover at sea level in Leonardo and Chapel Hill more than 200 feet up in the Navesink Highlands -- and when the lights lined up one directly above the other, the sailor knew he'd successfully guided his craft into the safety of the channel. Two additional sets were constructed, at Keansburg and New Dorp, Staten Island, around the same time, for the same purpose.

Water-side Conover Beacon was going to be the easier one to find, if it was still there at all. The area was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, and the neighborhood close to the waterfront still shows signs of rebuilding. Having not done my 七乐彩彩票app下载work before making the trip, I didn't know how tall the beacon was, or exactly where it was, and I wasn't seeing any indication of a tall tower anywhere. When I made it all the way to Leonardo Harbor without finding the beacon, I feared it had been washed to sea in Sandy's 10-foot-plus-high storm surges.

Then I turned around. Retracing my path and heading along Beach Avenue I found it: a 45-foot tall white and red capped metal tube braced with a skeleton frame. Conover Beacon is a bit battered, pushed off its base by Sandy, but it's still standing. The beach around it still looks rather storm-tossed, with broken concrete strewn nearby.

The original light, a hexagonal wooden tower and keeper's house, was built in 1856 on land purchased a few years earlier from Rulif Conover. Ironically, the first keeper's name was Marsh L. Mount, a moniker that you might say foreshadowed the fate of the ill-conceived tower. After a few years, the wood at the base of the tower started to rot in the damp seaside environment, and the light had to be braced with metal mounts. Design flaws extended to the tower's white/red/white daymarks, which became confusing to sailors when the beach was covered in snow. To improve visibility from sea, the Lighthouse Board erected 25-foot tall black screens on either side of the beacon.

The beacon itself is no stranger to moving, having previously served at Point Comfort in Keansburg as the front end of the Waackaack Range Light system. When the wooden Conover structure was retired in 1941, Keansburg gave up the Point Comfort tower ( in town are apparently still a bit sore about that), which was moved four miles westward.

Most likely, the beacon would have met the same fate had it not moved at all. The Coast Guard deactivated Conover Light in 1957, and it's sat quietly on the beach since then, reportedly the last tower of its type still in existence. Various sources note that property ownership was transferred to Monmouth County in 2004, and a friends organization was assembled to manage and hopefully restore the beacon, but it appears that beyond a new coat of paint several years ago, not much has been done.  

Conover's partner, Chapel Hill Lighthouse, has fared much better in the intervening years, its location and design working heavily in its favor. Constructed in 1856 on what was once known as High Point, Chapel Hill Light stands more than 150 feet above sea level, giving its lantern room an impressive 224 foot altitude over the bay. The design was rather plain -- a rectangular house about two stories high, with a square tower rising in the middle to accommodate the light. Painted white, it suffered the same "invisibility" complaints as its Conover partner: sailors couldn't discern it from surrounding snow in the winter. Rather than painting the house a different color, the Lighthouse Board erected black screens on either side of the house, just as it did at Conover.

Chapel Hill Lighthouse is now a private 七乐彩彩票app下载, obscured
by trees, though I'll bet that rusting fence is original to the
days when the government owned the property.
Aside from the snow issue and expected storm damage from time to time, Chapel Hill Light seems to have had a reasonably reliable tenure until it was decommissioned and replaced with an adjacent steel tower beacon in 1957.

The next chapter of Chapel Hill Light's history is a classic case of the ideal property finding the right buyer. When the Government 七乐彩彩票app下载 Administration auctioned the site, the winning bidder was a man who bought the property for his son, an amateur astronomer. Natural altitude and the towering lantern room looked like an ideal place to gaze into the stars.

Nearly 60 years and several owners later, the lighthouse stands quietly in the affluent neighborhood that's grown around it. Hidden behind landscaping and accessible only by a long, gated drive, it's clearly not looking for visitors, and I respected that when I found it. My research revealed a virtual tour on the of a contractor who's done some work to enlarge and update the house, showing it's being well cared for. Whether the lantern room is used for any specific purpose is anyone's guess, but I think you'll agree that Chapel Hill Light is in good hands.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

If the first really, really nice day of March is a gift, this year it's the winning lottery ticket. After the winter we've endured -- bone chilling cold interrupted by repetitive big snow storms, or the combination of both -- the prospect of frolicking in 60 degree weather is totally irresistible.

That's exactly why I ended up at Sandy Hook earlier today. Well, that and the fact that the Osprey should be returning any day. Among the first raptors to capture my imagination many years ago, the good ol' fish hawk is generally expected to arrive back at the Hook around March 15. Given the harshness of the winter, I wasn't really sure whether they might be delayed, but it was worth a shot. Would they resettle on the nesting platform near the still-not-replaced boardwalk deck at Spermaceti Cove? Could they already be staking out the usual spots on Officers Row and the Officers Club? (Hmm... with 七乐彩彩票app下载s like that, could it be that Osprey are the Hook's full bird colonels?)

And besides, I might get a chance at seeing the straggler seals in the bay before they head north for the summer.

These prickly pears will soon be livening up for the summer.
Usually we're so busy looking for signs of spring -- crocuses, the first robin, budding trees -- that we don't consider that our winter visitors are getting ready to leave for points north. I was wondering whether I might be able to see both today: maybe some winter ducks and seals, within view of newly-arrived osprey and other recent migrants.

Actually, it didn't take long for me to experience the overlap. Parking at Lot C and walking the path between the dunes to the bay, I heard the call of a Red-winged blackbird just as I spotted a group of seals sunning themselves on a distant bayside beach. True, some Red-wings stick around in the colder months, but their song always puts me in the mind of sunny July mornings on the Hook.  So... mission accomplished there.

My next stop was the bayside beach near batteries Kingman and Mills, where I supposed some straggler ducks might be hanging out. A quartet of Brant swam near the water's edge; a pair of Buffleheads farther out were alternately floating along and diving. Remembering the overhead scolding I got last May, I was optimistically hoping to find an Osprey or two near the nesting platform inland of Battery Mills, but alas, it's a little too early in the season for setting up housekeeping.

This Officers Row house is being fitted with a new porch.
You can see PVC piping in the chimneys above.
That said, I wasn't too confident I'd find any down at the garrison, either, a feeling heightened by some surprising activity atop the houses on Officers Row. Several houses already sport PVC piping emerging from chimneys, perhaps a means of ventilation to stabilize ongoing decay, and a crew was fitting yet another house as I passed. While I'm all for whatever it takes to preserve and restore these amazing 七乐彩彩票app下载s, I'm a bit saddened by the prospect that Osprey will lose their long-time nesting spaces as a result. Allowances may already have been made: one of the houses appeared to have been skipped over, and I think it's the usual nesting chimney.*

Still, though, I hadn't seen a single one of the birds that prompted my visit. I was just about passing the Officers Club (no luck) when I saw something gliding through the sky. Right shape? Right size? Pretty much. Right markings? Well, that was the question. As I pulled the car over near Nine Gun Battery to get a look, the mystery raptor's circling widened, bringing it farther away from me. Just my luck.

Patience is a virtue with birding, and I decided to wait a little to see if it would return. A clutch of Turkey vultures glided in, a few alighting on the Battery. Trying to tell me something, guys? Then I saw it: either the same mystery bird or a friend, approaching for a fly-by, but I couldn't get a bead on it. My binoculars have been temperamental lately, and they picked this moment to be especially difficult. I thought I saw the distinctive black eye stripe of an Osprey, but I didn't catch enough of its other markings to be sure. Birds, of course, don't care about your optics issues. You may get another chance, you may not.

Shaking my head, I got in the car and continued southward, in the direction the mystery raptors had flown. They seemed to be heading to the Gunnison parking lot, which, not surprisingly, held a couple dozen cars on this sunny, warm day. The vultures seemed to find the area amenable. I sat, waiting.

Well, it's often said that when you look for one bird, you often find another one that's just as interesting, and that's exactly what happened. Among the couple of "I'm not sure, but I could make it a juvenile osprey" individuals was one much different: a Red-shouldered hawk. And this fella wanted me to be absolutely sure, gliding above me so I could get a good look at his orange-tinged body and striped tail. On his departure, he wheeled to let me see his distinctive red shoulders, nicely displayed in perfect sunlight. If I wasn't entirely sure about the Osprey, the Red-shoulder was a nice consolation.

As I got back into the car, I looked in the distance to see two raptors flying a tandem pattern, apparently getting to know each other better, or maybe looking for a nice place to nest. Though they were too far off for me to identify decisively, I'm sure they were Osprey. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

*Update, April 10: the Osprey are undeterred! At least three pairs have or are attempting to set up shop on the chimneys, incorporating the PVC piping in their nest design. Scuttlebutt is that the piping was placed to discourage the birds as the National Park Service is moving to lease the houses to entities that will restore and reopen them.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Surfer dudes at LBI: finding scoters at Barnegat Light

Birders often find themselves taking a counter-intuitive approach to normal human instinct, at least in terms of where to hang out. Take, for instance, the shore. Most people would head to Long Beach Island in the summertime, when the warm sun and inviting waves beckon visitors from far and wide for relief from seasonal humidity.

No longboard needed: the surf scoter
Conversely, virtually the only people you'll find on LBI's shores in the dead of winter are fishing enthusiasts and birders looking to spot and identify waterfowl.

We humans may think it's too cold to be in the water, but for the ducks, loons and various shorebirds who spend their breeding seasons in the upper reaches of Canada, New Jersey may just as well be Florida.

Some really colorful and fun waterfowl especially like the area just off the jetty at Barnegat Light, on the northern end of LBI. So much so, that it's a reliable spot to get one's annual look at a couple of species, most notably harlequin ducks. Ivan's been making a regular wintertime trip there; I've tagged along for the past few years, including this past Sunday.

While they're pretty much guaranteed to be there in January, getting to the ducks takes some doing. If you've been to Barnegat Light State Park, you'll remember the concrete walkway that extends southeast of the lighthouse. To see the more interesting waterfowl, you'll need to walk to the end of that path, climb under the railing and continue along the bare rip-rap jetty. Navigating those boulders is somewhat like the old video game Frogger, but often with stiff gusts of wind wreaking havoc with your balance as you listen to the sea water rushing through the cracks as waves pound the rock.

Part of the thrill is that there's always potential for a bonus beyond the harlequins. Last year, we'd been treated to a good view of a seal, as well as a surprising fly-by from a brown pelican. The not-knowing is a powerful motivator to keep stepping one's way farther down the jetty, carefully avoiding the crevices between the rocks.

The harlequins didn't take long to find, their distinctive colors showing beautifully as they swam alongside the riprap. Then there was another duck I didn't quite recognize. Maybe I'd seen one before, but his large bill looked like some kind of funky road construction camouflage, with a splash of bright orange along with white and black markings. His body was mostly black, though it had white spots on its face and neck and orange legs to match its bill.

"Surf scoter," Ivan observed, noting that we'd seen them through the viewing scope on another birding foray. Ah, that's it: while I'd gotten a distant look before, this one was so close I could study and enjoy every bit of that unique looking, colorful face. I soon noticed another similar bird, all black with an orange bill -- the black scoter. While Ivan made his way farther down the jetty to find purple sandpipers, I carefully sat down atop the rip rap to visit with my new avian friends a bit more, relishing an opportunity that probably won't come again very quickly.

And while we didn't get the pelican or razorbills we'd been delighted to see last year, another rare winter visitor was around. At least one snowy owl has been reported at Barnegat Light on and off since November, so when another birder reminded us it was there, we couldn't help but take a look. It was seen easily enough from the top of the jetty, though a couple hundred feet away. Sitting calmly in the dunes, among the browned beach grass, the owl looked like a mound of snow that had yet to melt in the relative warmth of the day. He was the third we'd seen that day, after spotting two at Forsythe NWR, and the seventh of the season.