Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Good Owl Year is Bad for Owls

Serious birders know that crashing rodent populations in the Arctic mean northern raptor species moving south for the winter to find sufficient prey sources. It was known early in the 2008 season that lemming and vole populations were not sustaining the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) populations in the north, and so sightings of the birds started to occur early and fairly often. Four or five reports from Ontario during October turned into multiple "snowies" as far south as Maryland by mid-November. Since then the numbers of sightings on the east coast have continued to increase. New Jersey has seen it's fair share and just yesterday another two sightings were recorded.

These owls are looking for habitat that resembles their Arctic homes. Tundra-like landscapes are perfect for these diurnal hunters, and the beaches in New Jersey that remain relatively undisturbed (I stress the word relatively) by encroaching development may become popular winter destinations for the snowy owl. Unfortunately most barrier islands along the Atlantic this far south have become heavily developed tourist areas, drawing large numbers of residents and visitors during the warmer months of the year. This leaves little habitable space for the birds, who must find places like Island Beach State Park and Sandy Hook National Recreation Area in order to survive.

Photo taken by David La Puma (c) 2004

Birders salivate at the chance to catch a glimpse or a photograph of one of these Arctic breeders. Rodent populations are somewhat unstable, and even in a down year with multiple sightings there is no guarantee any individual birder will be able to relocate the bird. So when there are this many snowy owls around it's considered a "good owl year". Unfortunately it's just the opposite for the birds. It's a bad year for them in terms of prey abundance. They have less food, which in turn means less energy. They need to fly further south than they're used to in order to find suitable habitat. That habitat may include dangerous roads, towers, and utility lines that contribute to bird mortality. Birders and other wildlife enthusiasts may flock to the area of a reported sighting putting even more stress on the birds. This is not to say all bird-watchers and nature lovers are only out to get a glimpse of a snowy owl and will stop at nothing to attain their goal. In fact, for the most part these groups (of which I am proudly apart of) are respectful and careful about how they approach and observe wildlife. As in any other group of people, however, there are a few bad apples. People willing to scare the bird and force it into flight again and again so they can get a closer look or capture a dramatic photograph are certainly around.

Being able to observe and appreciate these marvelous creatures is an important reason why so many people support environmental organizations, but education is an integral part of the process. If a bird seems startled or is changing its own behavior due to that of a person, the person is most likely too close. For some birds this distance can be very small. Chickadees will curiously fly to people to investigate. For some birds, though, the distance can be vast. This is usually the case for raptors like owls. They can see great distances and may notice people approaching from up to a mile (or perhaps even more) away. These birds are already under great stress and the added pressure of humans can spell trouble. Snowies have already died this year in Maryland and if trends continue more will suffer the same fate.

It is certainly possible to appreciate the beauty of nature and the fascinating ecology of wildlife without needlessly disturbing and harming it. Become educated on the animals you are watching, act respectfully, and remain aware of their behavior when trying to approach them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

High Point during the fall

My wife and I drove up to High Point State Park two weekends ago and we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day. Arriving early at the monument, we took in the striking views in every directions. It's hard to believe that there is a place in New Jersey that grants such magnificent views. The leaves were changing but from that high up the majority of them still seemed green. I am sure they are absolutely radiant right now and will be for another week or two before the leaves really start to fall off in big numbers. If you haven't been up there this season, make the trip! It's well worth it.

After leaving the monument we visited Kuser Natural Area. Interestingly, the entire park was actually the summer home of the Kuser family before they donated it to the state of New Jersey. The natural area offers a short hike (the main loop was no more than 1.5 miles) but doesn't skimp on the views. Walking through the forest you could really appreciate the different colors and hues of the leaves. The highest elevation Atlantic White Cedar Bog also exists here.

From Kuser Natural Area we drove through the park and stopped at a Black Spruce Bog, which is a very rare ecosystem for the area. The views were breathtaking, and the location is now among my favorites. The layers of texture and color throughout the small bog were truly works of art. Although pictures cannot do it justice, below is a photograph of my wife admiring the view:

On the way home we stopped at one of the many roadside stands and purchased apples, cider, and some delicious pumpkin butter.

It was a perfect day for fall hiking, and we made the most of it. Get out there and enjoy the autumn season before it's time to start enjoying winter!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hidden gem in Somerset County

If you've ever driven down Amwell Road in Franklin, you may have noticed an old arch above a steep driveway heading back into a clearing. Or you may not have noticed it, considering the arch is almost covered by vegetation throughout most of the year. At the top of that driveway is a small house and a handful of trailheads that lead into the William L. Hutcheson Memorial Forest.

The Hutcheson Memorial Forest is one of the last tracts of virgin (uncut) forest remaining in the mid-Atlantic region. It is also one of the only uncut and unburned White Oak and American Beech forests remaining in the entire country. The area is listed as a Natural landmark with the National Park Service.

Rutgers University currently owns and looks after the forest. The small house at the top of the driveway is a base for graduate students and faculty to do field work in the forest and surrounding areas. The tale of how Rutgers came to own the property and where the land originated is quite interesting, and can be read here:

There is currently a "no management" policy with regards to the forest. This means that only fallen trees can be removed from paths. Nothing else can be done in the forest. Nothing can be removed, hunted, harvested, or otherwise disturbed. In theory this is a great idea; keep this virgin forest clean and untouched by man. Unfortunately, the reality is that the forest has been disturbed by man in many different ways. The farmland surrounding the forest gives wind and storms the chance to knock down older trees, and while a buffer of newer forest protects the old-growth parcel to a certain degree, these edge effects still creep in. White-tailed deer are a major pest, and with no natural predators left in the area, they are free to graze on any new saplings trying to grow. This means that when a tree does fall, instead of native trees reaching maturity and filling the gap, deer eat them and allow them to be replaced by Ailanthus (also known as Tree of Heaven). Ailanthus is a fast-growing and resourceful non-native species that aggressively occupies the areas where oak, maple, and many other native species try to grow. The forest is home to many non-native or "invasive" species, such as Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium), Japanese Barberry (Berberis), Multiflora Rose, and a slew of others. However these plants and animals are free to reign supreme, often wreaking havoc on the ecology of the forest. Many would be able to overcome attempts to quell them, while others may succumb to these efforts. There are many people currently fighting for the management policy to be altered; whether it will be or not remains to be seen.

The forest and the land surrounding it is a truly wonderful place. Farm fields on the edge are mowed at certain intervals so researchers can study succession in that type of ecosystem. Visitors can follow along and see the variety of plants, insects, and birds that inhabit the different stages of succession. There has been a vast quantity of research conducted here, and it is easy to see why. The ecology of the region comes alive as you pass through the different habitats, finally entering the old-growth, uncut forest.

Hutcheson Memorial Forest is usually NOT open to the public, however tours run every few weekends and those are open to anyone. They are guided by faculty and graduate students, all of whom are very knowledgeable in their field of study. Each walk is unique and will offer different information, opportunities, and personalities. One walk may focus on plant ecology and invasive species while another may be a leisurely bird-watching trip. The area offers a wide variety of bird life, including a relatively large number of sparrow species during fall migration. The spring is also a great time to visit, and there are almost always birding tours offered during May.

Check out the tour schedule online and try and make your way to one or more of the walks. Working your way through this unique and interesting ecosystem with a knowledgeable guide is always a rewarding and fun way to spend a weekend afternoon.

Tour Schedule:

Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Please check out the official NJ Green website at

It offers information on a wide variety of topics including recycling, green energy, wildlife conservation, global warming, open space, farmland preservation, and much more.


As a lifelong NJ resident, I have been able to experience the vast and wonderful diversity that the Garden State has to offer. The state offers a taste of everything, from the Atlantic Ocean to the unique Pinelands ecosystem and from the highlands and mountains to the bird migration mecca known as Cape May. There is much more to the state than the Turnpike and tomatoes.

For those of you reading this that reside in NJ, you may already know of some great spots and activities. I hope we can help each other enjoy the outdoors. Please do not hesitate to share this information with me and with others. Feel free to email me or comment on this blog with any upcoming events and or interesting sitings.

For those new to the state, or outside of it, I hope you will find this blog interesting, insightful, and most importantly helpful! There is a wealth of natural wonder to enjoy both in NJ and elsewhere.

I will be writing about birds and birding, the ecology and ecosystems of the state, as well as anything that has to do with being outside in New Jersey. That includes but is not limited to hiking, bird-watching, herping, visiting road-side farmer's markets, strolling around Cape May, and much more.