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Showing posts with label phragmites.
Showing posts with label phragmites.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Conquered by mosquitoes: New Sweden's Fort Elfsborg

Not a cloud in the sky, and temperatures were expected to hit the mid 80s -- perfect beach weather. No doubt, the sandy expanses of Long Beach Island, Wildwood, Asbury Park and Sandy Hook were already reaching peak capacity.

. On the way, I'd passed several residential garages and driveways, evidence of a shore community whose more photogenic side was pointed toward the lovely bay view.

New Jersey has its share of forts that don't exist anymore (we've shared the stories of the Revolutionary-era forts Billings and Mercer along the Delaware River), but Elfsborg is the granddaddy of 'em all. Not only is it not there anymore; it was the product of a colony that most New Jerseyans are unaware ever existed.

I first discovered the existence (or maybe the concept) of Fort Elfsborg many years ago on an aimless drive through Salem County, where there are still reliable signs at crossroads to tell you which towns are in which direction. One, somewhere, pointed to Fort Elfsborg. My trusty WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey noted that Elsinboro Point was the site of the first Swedish settlement in the state. The colonists built a fort there in 1643 "to force Dutch trading ships to haul down their flags."

Colonizing Swedes came to the Delaware Valley in 1638, with hopes of getting their share of the lucrative New World fur trade, despite the fact that the Dutch had already claimed the area and built Fort Nassau near current day Gloucester City along the Delaware, then known as the South River. The Swedes chose to build their fort closer to the mouth of the river, figuring they'd force the Dutch and English to get their permission to sail past, rather than having unfettered access to their own territory.

It was a perfect case of "looks good on paper" - an idea that probably seemed so logical that the Swedes might have wondered why the Dutch hadn't already secured the area. Reality proved different. The true adversary did not reach the Swedish settlement by ship, but by air, as evidenced by the name the colonists gave their fort: Myggenborg, or Mosquito Castle. The marshy land on which the fort was built was so rich with the pesky skeeters and gnats and their stinging so relentless that it was said the garrisoned soldiers appeared to have been afflicted with a horrible disease. It's small wonder that the fort was abandoned not long after.

Historians suspect that the actual fort site is underwater, somewhere off the Salem County coastline. In fact, PSE&G, the Swedish Colonial Society and the New Sweden Centre funded a 2012 expedition that explored both the Delaware Bay and the phragmites-infested coastline for evidence of human habitation. While they discovered portions of smoking pipes and arrowheads, none could be linked to the Swedish settlement. Given changes in sea level, the inevitable depositing of silt and whatnot over the years, impact of storms, what was close to the surface in the 1600s is likely well buried at this point, and the complex root systems of the phragmites are unlikely to give up any secrets.

As for the beach itself, the public portion is relatively small, but serviced by a gated 10-stall paved parking lot courtesy of PSEG Nuclear (that's right - free beach parking brought to you by the wonders of nuclear power!). Fans of natural beachscapes will appreciate the rustling phragmites and the dried-out bay vegetation along the high tide line, but that's about it. It's beautiful and somewhat secluded, but best left to the locals.

The WPA guide notes that Oakwood Beach was a summer colony, named for large oaks that once stood there and were taken down to build ships before the Civil War. Given the tidy upkeep of the 七乐彩彩票app下载s there today, one has to believe that folks still enjoy living the shore life on Delaware Bay, hopefully without the relentless pesky insects.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A white pelican in the Meadowlands? You bet!

You might recall that a few weeks ago, we were a bit surprised to see a brown pelican flying past us at Barnegat Light. They're not an extraordinarily rare sight in New Jersey, but they're not common, either, especially in January.

I thought that was pretty cool, until I heard there was a white pelican sighted in the marshes of Kearny. I'd been fortunate to see one in the Everglades last spring, and while they're occasional visitors to New Jersey, I'd missed the ones reported at Brig in the past. If there was a chance to see one, in January, no less, I was going to give it a shot.

Regular readers know that Ivan has introduced me to several interesting spots and showed me a new side of other places I thought I already knew well. That said, contributors to the online birding bulletin boards sometimes give cryptic descriptions for where they've seen interesting birds. If I'm seeking them with Ivan, no problem. If I decide to explore on my own, well, it can be an adventure.

The Kearny pelican situation was one of those times. I had the day off, Ivan didn't, so I decided to check it out on my own. The bulletin board post said the bird was observable from the abandoned railroad tracks at the edge of the marsh. Great. What tracks, and where on the tracks? Another post said the bird was seen flying over Gunnar Oval, off Schuyler Avenue. Okay, that I can work with. I headed over to check it out.

When I got to the Oval, I saw something I can only describe as a cross between Field of Dreams and The Sopranos. The parking area was fronted by a wall of phragmites marsh grass, with a barely-discernible path into the mass of tall, light tan growth. It looked as if one of two things could happen any moment: Ray Liotta could come walking out wearing a vintage White Sox uniform, or Michael Imperioli would stomp out as Christopher Moltisanti, complaining he lost a Gucci loafer in the muck.

Seriously, though: what could happen? I peered into the reeds and found nothing but more reeds, and a small inlet off to the distance. Walking in, I felt the way the birds must feel when they nestle themselves away from humans. Some trash was mixed among the muck, but mostly the path was either mud or fallen phrags. An abandoned railroad track offered up a mostly unimpeded path, but I had to stop and turn back when the ties were overcome with swamp water. Any alternate route there might have been was blocked by fallen trees. Sadly, the rest of the marsh was obscured by walls of phragmites. Obviously I was in the wrong place.

I drove up and down Belleville Turnpike to see if there was an alternative, but while you can see the marsh really clearly, the bird was nowhere to be seen. Taking the Turnpike back 七乐彩彩票app下载, I drove above another set of tracks that just might have been the right ones, if they were at all accessible. There had to be a secret that experienced birders know that I don't.

Turned out I was really close. Another set of tracks, this one elevated and perpendicular to my set, was just a hundred or so feet away from where I'd started out, at the end of the next street. Ivan and I drove over and instantly knew we were in the right place: two cars with personalized Conserve Wildlife plates were parked in the cul-de-sac. Oh, and there was a very steep dirt trail up to an elevated railroad track.

Track across the Kearny Marsh.
I'm not a big fan of climbing dirt trails, and this one was especially challenging, with very few embedded rocks or tree roots to provide a foothold. As I scrambled up, I considered all the times we'd chased a notable bird, only to find nothing when we got to its reported spot. The pelican, at least, was large enough to see even if it was a distance away. Still, it had better be there, I thought to myself.

Once we were topside, we saw other birders gathered several hundred feet down the tracks, one looking through a spotting scope. This could be a good sign. Walking down the train ties, another movie came to mind: Stand By Me. It took all I had not to start singing "Lollipop, lollipop mmm lolli-lollipop..." The tracks were a straight shot across the marsh, and definitely a good place to check for aquatic birds.

And... our climb paid off. My big fear was that the pelican would be obscured by phragmites or so distant that it would look like a big white blob at the far edge of the marsh, but it couldn't have been more cooperative. Perched on a small clump of something in the water, it was easily seen through a pair of binoculars, though a spotting scope gave a nice detailed look. It shifted around a bit to give us a good view and then rose up to fly above its surroundings, giving us a nice look at the black patches on the trailing edges of its wings. As large as they are, pelicans are very graceful flyers, soaring almost effortlessly, and I kept my bins trained on our bird to marvel at its glide through the cold air. What an amazing sight, with the skyscrapers of Newark on the distant horizon behind it.

shows very few in the northern part of the state, and those were seen in spring and summer months. It could be that the pelicans have been regular visitors to Kearny and haven't been spotted, or this individual is an explorer checking out new territory. In any case, he's been hanging around for several days, which says a lot about the overall health of the marsh. White pelicans eat about four pounds of freshwater fish a day, and this guy appeared pretty well fed.