Category Archives: Wanderings

Come walk with me

I spent a few hours wandering around some nearby farmland that was purchased in the last few years to become part of the county park system. I’ve only been there once before and today it was just as deserted as on my prior visit. There’s no soccer fields or playground here, so it tends to be very quiet but for a few runners or dog walkers.

There is a small wooded hillside on the property that was bursting with trilling juncos today. The remainder of the area is farm fields, some of which are leased out to grow corn mostly. It’s a good spot to visit in summer for butterflies. Today when I stepped out from the woods to the edge of the field above I immediately heard insects humming and saw thousands of these flying about low over the field.

I have no idea what they are, but they look like some sort of bee. The fields edges were covered with holes that looked like anthills, and when I got close enough for photos I saw the bees going in and out of the holes.

They weren’t at all concerned with me. Thank goodness because there were lots of them. Anyone have any ideas? I haven’t looked in any of my insect guides yet, but doubt I’ll have much luck sorting these out.

At the edge of the property is a small brook that one can walk along for a few miles. Most of the land that this brook runs through is protected as a *greenway* and it connects a few different county parks that I visit. I thought I might be able to find some wildflowers blooming so I walked in the wet woods along the brook for a ways and found these blooming – I think they’re spring beauties?

I found great patches of periwinkle in the shady woods. At least, that’s what I think it is. It reminds me of the vinca that people plant beneath large trees in their yards, so these pretty purple flowers must be escapees invading the woodlands.

I also found many patches of these beautiful purple flowers, but haven’t been able to sort out what they are. I took lots of *artsy* photos, but none to help with ID. Maybe someone will recognize it anyway.

I could have walked for hours today, but worried about running out of light on the walk back to my car. I didn’t see another person until the very end of my walk, when I came across a group of very muddy kids with their mom, sifting for shark’s teeth and other fossils in the brook. Looked like fun, but a bit too chilly for me! It was just nice to see kids out doing such a thing, and it reminded me of something we might have dreamed up to do as kids on an early spring day.

Where is your Walden?

Thoreau believed that we all have our solitary places; places we go to in order to escape a world that closes in on us; a place neither physical nor geographical, but instead mental – a state of mind that exists within all of us and which offers the chance to think and to listen.

Thoreau called his place “Walden” and I’m wondering about what name I might give to my solitary place. Where is it that I take myself to be away from the here and now? Would it be a place like this sand trail through the Pine Barrens? Is that solitary place more about being very present in the moment and separate from memory and its weight? What view in my mind’s eye quiets the thoughts and endless questions from an overactive mind?

There is a place that I feel peace and safety apart from the world, but I don’t know that it’s one that I can photograph. It’s part blue sky and loneliness, the music of water and birdsong, the dazzle of sun and the whisper of wind, and the question of what lies ahead, just around the bend and out of view.

Pine Barrens birds

I mentioned that I had gone on a bird walk in the Pine Barrens yesterday. While I’ve spent a fair amount of time wandering around there on my own or with a friend who knows the place well, this was the first time I went with a group of birders led by a naturalist from NJ Audubon. The weather was perfect and there were only 8 of us in the group – a plus as far as I’m concerned. I hate birding in big groups of chatty women and hardly ever bird that way anymore. I’m glad I went along though, as I learned a few new spots to visit again on my own.

I don’t ordinarily share trip lists here, but we had a few special sightings that make this list worth reading. Going to the Pine Barrens isn’t really about seeing huge numbers of birds; the habitat doesn’t lend itself to great variety, but I think that makes each new species worth the effort of walking through all that sugar sand!

Pied-billed Grebe
Tundra Swan*
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Ring-necked Duck
Hooded Merganser
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper (singing!)
Carolina Wren
Eastern Bluebird
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Not bad for a late winter day in the Pinelands! The singing Brown Creeper was a treat, as were the Bluebirds, and the Bald Eagle. I was most thrilled to find the Tundra Swans that I’ve been looking for since late November – there was a nice group of about 40 birds feeding in one of the cranberry bogs at the Franklin Parker Preserve. We also found a pair of Wood Ducks way back in the preserve in one of the dikes, but they flushed before I was able to really take in their beautiful colors. I don’t see Wood Ducks often at all, even though they’re a very common nester here in NJ. Anyway, it was a good day.

Saturday’s rewards

There’s this sort of game I play with myself so that I can get things done that I don’t really want to do. Most weekends it’s cleaning the house and doing the grocery shopping. Today it was a visit to the dentist and grading mid-term exams that were on the *don’t really want to do* list. So in an attempt to balance out the negative emotions involved in those two activities, I spent a few hours after the dentist wandering around a state park that I don’t often visit.

It’s a very urban park, but with a nice mix of habitats – a sample of the more southern pine barrens forest with lots of pitch pine and a dense stand of Atlantic white cedar, plus the upland hardwood forest with beech, black birch, red and white oak and old growth white pine. There’s also a fairly large bit of salt marsh and a freshwater marsh that I can admire from the Garden State Parkway at 70 mph as it passes through the park.

The trails were very wet; that was the only tangible sign of spring that I found today. No spring azures, no fiddleheads, no skunk cabbage or hint of buds on the mountain laurel or swamp azalea. It’s supposed to be very easy to find pink lady’s slippers here and trailing arbutus, but I’ll have to go back later to find those beauties when spring isn’t just in my imagination.

I came home to the stack of mid-terms happy to have had a few hours out, but disappointed that I hadn’t found more to put me in mind of the coming season. Maybe it’s just as well that I don’t catch spring fever quite so soon. There’s still six more weeks of students and papers for me to contend with.

What is it about Cape May?

A few of us (Susan, Lynne, Pam, and Mary) are trying to put together a plan to visit Cape May together this fall for NJ Audubon’s Bird Show (link to last year’s weekend). I think I’ve been appointed the official tour guide because I’m local. The pressure of that has me a little nervous; I love Cape May, but do I really know it well enough to show off all that it has to offer? No, not really. I have my favorite spots and favorite times of year to visit, but probably those aren’t the best times or places to see birds – which is what people visiting Cape May from afar will want to see. They’ll want to experience the spectacle that Cape May is known for.

I don’t think that the best of Cape May can be experienced in any one season – each has its own unique experience to offer. While I can jump in the car on a late May day to see shorebirds on the Delaware Bayshore or migrating monarchs in late September – what does it offer in late October/early November that will give a sense of what it is that makes Cape May so special?

Recently there’s been a discussion on NJ Birds about the top places to bird in NJ. I’ve been pleased to see the discussion turn more to the merits of some of the top bird-related experiences one might have in NJ, rather than relating it to any one particular place in the state. Considering the vagaries of weather and migration, I would agree that it’s difficult to limit the discussion to a particular time or place.

In an effort to further entice you guys (or maybe some others who might like to join us) I’m including a list from the NJ Birds discussion of some *experiences* that we might witness in Cape May in the late Fall. I’d like to see those of you that know Cape May as well or better to add to the list. Maybe we can come up with a top ten list of sorts?

  • That near-mythic, near-annual “big” day somewhere around Halloween when every scoter, and other littoral migrant in the western north-atlantic decides its a good day to fly past the Jetty in Avalon.
  • A late fall Buteo flight- the kind that produces Ravens and Golden Eagles.
  • Bald Eagles doing just about anything just about anywhere in NJ- remember when there was one nest in an undisclosed location in Salem County, and 5-8 was agood fall?
  • Fall warbler fallout
  • Short-distance migrant flight/fallout (kinglets, robins, hermit thrushes, yellow-rumps, etc)
  • Major nocturnal migration of thrushes and other land birds
  • A marsh at dawn
  • A peregrine hunting
  • Gannet/scoter migration

Can you add to this list?

Photo of the lighthouse at Cape May taken in late September/early October – my favorite time of year for a visit.

Eagles on the horizon

No pics, but I did get to see lots of eagles today. The distances are just too great for photos. The pristine, undiked and unditched salt marsh that these gentleman are scanning into stretches for five miles to the west where it meets Delaware Bay. The various wildlife management areas that I was driving the inland edges of today make up one the largest contiguous protected areas in NJ – more than 30,000 acres of prime raptor hunting and nesting area. Not to mention the shorebirds and wading birds and waterfowl that use the area in other seasons. At the horizon in this photo is a nice group of snow geese that were brought up from their feeding by an eagle overhead. In the middle of all that sky and grass often the only clue of an eagle’s presence is that the waterfowl suddenly all *get up* and the birder knows to scan above the flock for an eagle.
I spent most of today either freezing cold on the marsh or warm, but lost, in my car. I had maps, but none of them seemed to jive with reality. I asked for directions more times than I can remember and drank too much coffee, but saw some incredible things. About 5 minutes from home I saw my first bald eagle of the day, soaring over the Navesink River. I considered going home and going back to bed at that point, thereby saving myself hours in the car, but decided instead that it must be a good omen. Eagles do nest within 10 or so miles of me, but the site is not viewable from any public property. There’s another nest at a county park close to where I work that I visit fairly often.

What draws me to South Jersey at this time of year is the numbers. At one point today I had four eagles in view in my binoculars at the same time. Pretty cool, huh? If you look closely and use your imagination you’ll see the eagle’s nest in the tree left of center in this pic – see that one that looks a bit darker than the others? There weren’t any eagles housekeeping (or having sex) at this nest site, but at another place there was a nest visible on a small wooded island in the marsh – the eagles were doing some housekeeping there, sitting in the nest, and copulating on the ground at the edge of the marsh with a juvenille eagle looking on from above. I couldn’t really see that that’s what they were doing, but it sure looked like it.
I wish I’d had more daylight and wasn’t so worried that I’d never find my way back to civilization – there’s so much to see here – so long as you like looking at the horizon and the miles of salt marsh in between. I *just missed* a Golden Eagle (as usual) but watched red-tails harassing bald eagles and harriers hunting over the grass and diving down every so often near a muskrat lodge. I feel really lucky to be able to see these things at all and can’t imagine why everyone isn’t out there in the cold with me.


I really enjoyed the bonsai at Longwood Gardens. The simplicity in this display was quite refreshing after all the dazzling Christmas colors in the other areas of the conservatory. My eyes were glad for a rest.

Each of the 15 or so specimens is displayed on a simple wooden bench that runs the length of the space. The collection is kept behind glass which made photography difficult, but I’ve tried to crop out as much of the reflections as possible. I was puzzled by the glass and my husband and I both assumed it was meant to protect the trees from too much fondling by passerby or to perhaps keep them from being stolen. The outdoor bonsai display at my local horticultural park is kept chained for this very reason. After reading a bit of the history of Longwood Gardens I found out that the collection is kept behind glass so that it’s visible during the winter months while allowing the plants to be kept cool and dormant. The glass panes are removed during the more temperate months, I assume.

The grouping of trees in the pic above was my favorite, but of course I didn’t include the botanical label in my photo so their name is a mystery to me now. I want to guess that they’re some variety of Sycamore because of that bark, but the collection, of course, is heavily biased with Japenese trees so who knows.

Another interesting plant is this Japense Zelkova pictured at right. I’d never heard of them before, but my husband has been saying lately that he likes them. He’s seeing that a lot of towns are using them as street trees to replace the ornamental pears that are such popular but weak trees. Zelkovas are in the Elm family (according to the label) and this particular specimen has been *in training* since 1909.

I think it’s easy to forget the amount of work and foresight that must go into training a tree for nearly a hundred years so that it will look this way. The gardener has to prune the roots and branches to prevent it from outgrowing its container while also maintaining the tree’s natural shape by wiring and bending the branches. Very cool, but not something I’m prepared to try anytime soon!

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A gentle reminder to anyone who means to submit photos for this week’s Good Planets on Saturday. Please email them to me at lc-hardy AT comcast DOT net by sometime on Friday. Please don’t be shy about sharing the beauty around you with others via this carnival.

A wish for the new year

Abandoned cranberry bog at Whitesbog in the Pine Barrens

“No year stands by itself, any more than any day stands alone. There is the continuity of all the years in the trees, the grass, even in the stones on the hilltops. Even in man. For time flows like water, eroding and building, shaping and ever flowing; and time is a part of us, not only our years, as we speak of them, but our lives, our thoughts. All our yesterdays are summarized in our now, and all the tomorrows are ours to shape.” – Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

My friend Kathy and I went to Whitesbog yesterday hoping to see the Tundra Swans that winter there. We didn’t find any swans, nor did we find any sign of winter. The closest we came to any waterfowl were a few shed feathers – white – on the shoreline of one of the abandoned bogs about two miles into our walk. So the swans are there somewhere in that big emptiness. The Pine Barrens feel truly barren at this season; there is nothing but the wind and the sun, and yesterday, the company of a friend.
A more results-oriented person might say that we saw nothing yesterday in our six hours of wandering; because we didn’t see the swans we set out for, but I would disagree. Turkey vultures were our chaperones as we followed deer and raccoon tracks along the elevated dikes of the bogs and there was the play of sunlight on the tea-stained water of the bogs. We caught glimpses of the pygmy pine forest along one of the many roads that bisect the barrens and found pitcher plants amid the spaghum moss at Webbs Mill Bog. Even in this time of rest that should be winter but is not, even in this barren place there is beauty and promise for spring and the new year.
My wish at year’s end is that we shoud all find hope and beauty, even the unexpected, in the coming new year.

A Longwood Christmas

Comparing the conservatory at Longwood Gardens to a greenhouse gives the wrong impression. When I think of a greenhouse, I think hoses and dirt and uncomfortable heat. The conservatory at Longwood is a 4 acre garden that just happens to live under glass. You stroll from garden to garden hardly aware that you’re inside at all, except for the occasional temperature change when entering one of the areas with plants that have special needs.
The only other *famous* garden I’ve visited is the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, so I don’t have much to compare it with, but I was very impressed. Everywhere I looked there was something beautiful and absolutely no sign of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into caring for a garden of this magnitude. I did not see a single insect and every plant, every leaf was in perfect condition. How do they do that with more than 200,000 visitors during the Christmas season?
The photos I’m sharing today were taken in the main holiday display areas – the Orangery, the East Conservatory, and the Exhibition Hall. The other areas also had holiday displays, but they were more subtle and in keeping with each garden’s theme. The pic above is the 25 foot Douglas Fir decorated with a living garland. Of course I didn’t write down the name of the plant and can’t remember what it was, but it reminds me of an artemesia.
Poinsettias were everywhere, of course, and while I don’t much like this plant, I do have to say that they looked very pretty. Narcissus, amaryllis, primroses, and lilies were heavily used. I liked all but the lilies; too strongly-scented and associated with Easter (and funeral homes) in my mind to enjoy them.
Here’s a plant combination you’d never see together but under glass – tulips in the foreground and winterberry holly in the background. The holly was used in most all of the displays and was striking! Does anyone know if winterberry holly is deciduous? I don’t grow it, but my husband was surprised to see a holly without any leaves and I wonder if they weren’t removed just for effect. Will have to look that up in one of my garden books.

I bought a few of the books for sale in the gift shop that describe the history of the gardens and have pictures from all seasons. Were my first visit in the spring or summer I don’t know that I would have even bothered to go into the conservatory – the outdoor gardens and fountains are so beautiful in the photos. I plan to visit again and see it at all seasons.