Urban oasis

I went on a *special excursion* today with NJ Audubon to the NJ Meadowlands. I don’t know how far the reputation of this area travels outside of NJ, but it’s not a pretty place. All those awful things people like to say about NJ are because of the Meadowlands. If you’ve ever flown into NJ via the Newark Airport and traveled on the Turnpike you know what I’m talking about. A mess of chemical plants and trucking companies, factories and warehouses, and garbage dumps. Lots and lots of garbage dumps. All of this in the middle of a marsh and meadows.
Times being what they are, all but a very few of the landfills have been capped and closed and environmental groups are working to mitigate the damage done through years of environmental abuse. Despite its history as a wasteland, the Meadowlands is a thriving ecosystem that supports many wildlife species, some of whom are endangered or threatened. There are some 8,000 acres of wetland that remain and which constitute one of the largest tracts of open space in the NYC metropolitan area.
The point of our trip today was to get a special peak at the area and learn more about the research NJ Audubon is doing in the area, including an avian abundance and contaminants study. Our plan was to explore some of the nature trails through the marsh and wetlands, and then to take a cruise on the Hackensack River in a pontoon boat. Unfortunately it was pouring rain most of the day and the trail walk was abbreviated and the boat trip cancelled. But we had a nice free lunch. Here we’re walking in Harrier Meadow which had been the disposal site for rock from the construction of US Route 280 in the 60’s. Next to the meadow is a landfill, once the repository of municipal waste, that will one day be capped and turned into a golf course.
Feeling wholly unsatisfied after driving two hours and braving the wilds of North Jersey, I set out on my own in the rain to see what I could see. The impoundments around DeKorte Park had lots of waterfowl and newly arrived Forster’s Terns, and gazillions of newly hatched midges. I’m terrible with grebes, but I think this might be an Eared Grebe in fancy breeding plumage.
Tree swallows were everywhere, but I particularly liked this cheeky one! One of the scientists at the environmental center told us that she puts out between four and five hundred nesting boxes for tree swallows each spring. They were feasting on midges and busy setting up housekeeping today. We also saw some barn swallows and chimney swifts. Strangely, they have trouble attracting purple martins.
Finally, a very suspicious black-crowned night heron that had been feeding along the edge of one of the impoundments with a few egrets until I came along. The egrets high-tailed it across the marsh, but this guy hung around looking at me from his perch on an old tire. I spotted a few peeps and some yellowlegs also.

Aside from the birds, there should be lots to see here later in the season – fiddler’s crabs and diamondback terrapins and butterflies and dragonflies. Part of the park is actually built on a garbage island; a landfill site that has been capped and revegetated. There is the faint odor of garbage on the breeze and the roar of the NJ Turnpike in the background, but the wildlife seems to like it anyway. Oh and I got a raincheck on the boat ride, so look for sunnier pics sometime in the future.

Just a reminder that tomorrow is Good Planets Day at Vicki’s. Be sure to stop by and cheer her on for her hard work.

16 thoughts on “Urban oasis”

  1. I really like the Meadowlands. It is kind of New Jersey in a nutshell. You have places of great natural beauty right next to post-industrial wastelands, with reminders of urbanization all around. It is great to see how much it has sprung back over the past few decades.

  2. Oh yes I know the Meadowlands. Every time we go to Newark Airport, or to NYC, we go right past it.
    I always wonder about the living creatures there–and your description assuages that curiosity. It is amazing how life thrives in the least likely places. Maybe someday the Meadowlands will be meadow lands.
    I am glad you got to take your trip–and enjoy your day off.

  3. So glad you got to have your trip and share these neat photos. ‘Meadowlands’ – it’s such a pretty name. Isn’t it curious that the wildlife doesn’t share our sense of aesthetics? Bless them.

  4. I read a book titled “The Meadowlands” a few years ago. I can’t remember the author’s name, but it was a fun read about his explorations and little off-beat bits of history. If you want to read it and can’t find a copy, I can send you mine.

    I love that photo of the night heron on the tire. It looks so post-apocalyptic. It’s good to hear Audubon is studying contaminants. I can’t help but think all kinds of nasty stuff is leaching into that water.

  5. John: I think I ought to try and spend more time there. The trip there is just so awful – the traffic and crazy roads intimidate me. I went to college up that way and worked in Newark when I was first out of college, but since then I hardly ever get up there other than to visit Garret Mountain or my mother’s relatives.

    Susan: Maybe for you out in the middle of nowhere – lol! – but here at the coast they’re easy to find. There’s always lots at Sandy Hook. I’m surprised this one stopped for a photo.

    KGMom: It is an awful view of our fine state! The Meadowlands have quite a history.

    Monarch: So is it an Eared Grebe or a Horned?

    Wish it wouldn’t have rained like it did.

    Cathy: I’m not so sure it’s just a simple matter of aesthetics – more of necessity, probably. I’m sure they’d prefer the marshes and meadows to be pristine, as would we.

    Mojoman: I think I may have just finished reading the book you mentioned. I read most of it the other night while my students were doing their final exam. Good book that worth a few laughs. A lot of the things he mentioned sounded sort of familiar to me – my dad grew up in Jersey City and used to tell stories about some of his adventures in the marshes and along the railroad tracks.

    I think most of the Meadowlands looks apocolyptic! Glad you liked that pic – ordinarily I would have tried to get a view without all the garbage in the background, but felt like it was important to not *crop out* the realities of this place. I have loads of pics from today like that – shorebirds feeding on mudflats with the turnpike in the background, swallows at a nestbox with a landfill in view. Lots of high tension wires and waste transfer stations. Fun stuff.

    The studies that NJ Audubon is doing in the area are fairly recent, I think, or enough so that they haven’t made any conclusions yet. They’re studying swallows because they’re so abundant, and marsh wrens and mallards. They’re finding high levels of mercury and other pollutants, yet there’s more than 200 species of birds that use the area.

  6. Fascinating images, Laura. Sorry the trip didn’t work out the way it was supposed to but you got some fantastic images. That Night Heron is marvelous and Tree Swallows. WOW!

  7. I’m looking at the *garbage* in the background of the night heron pic and see a shoveler and maybe a ruddy duck – anyone else see that?

    DKM: My goodness! I’m all thunk out! Thanks.

    Liza: It was still fun, Liza – better than a day at work. I love the swallow shot the best.

  8. Yes, that’s the NJ that used to come to mind before reading your site.
    A golf course near a wetland would not be my first choice of reuse of that land, but it could be worse I suppose.

    I loved your spunky swallow too. Very expressive.
    In my NPS days, on night patrols, I found I could quietly walk right up to a night heron once I put my flashlight beam on him.
    I’ve stood two feet away from a blinking night heron as he tried to figure out what was going on.

  9. You describe New Jersey as I have seen it. But I’ve never given it a bad name! Baltimore is an industrial city and I marvel at the wildlife who seem to love Bethlehem Steel and the inner harbor. Ughhh.

    At least you didn’t stay inside and grade papers all day, Laura!

    You got some great photos, too.

    I look forward to some scenery from the pontoon boat.

  10. been to Newark airport; traveled on the Turnpike to Dover in Morris County. Never knew the Meadowlands held such diversity of life. Great bird photos, Laura. I wish more people knew how beautiful most of NJ is — well, maybe not, cuz then they would invade even more. I have always been captivated by NJ and its landscapes and history.

    Hope you take advantage of that rain check – it should be great and I’d love to see photos!!

  11. I’m late commenting as I’ve been… ahem…rather tied up with the bioblitz. I like to visit these kinds of sites as they give us an opportunity to see how the natural ecology can be restored – how long and in what way. At the end of May, I’ll be going out to do a bioblitz with a large group of high school science students. In previous years, we’ve done stream surveys of fairly natural sections of a local river. This year, I suggested something a bit different — that we’d do the blitz at a site which has a bit of wetland, some oldfield, and a bit of woodland. The best place I could think of close to the school is a conservation area that has been established on a former sewage lagoon site. Should be interesting! (-:

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