Natural Treasures Hidden in Plain View


Along the South Branch

January 2022

Natural Treasures Hidden in Plain View

A short rapid at the head of an island on the South Branch demanded my immediate attention, though it was an easy and familiar passage. A few quick draws and paddle strokes allowed the canoe to negotiate the exposed rocks without a scratch. The smooth open water below the rocks, this day, appeared to be non- navigable as a herd of Holstein milk cows stretched from pasture to the far bank.  The cool water must have felt so good on their udders they were reluctant to move and remained motionless, all eyes watching me silently approach.

I did my best to avoid starting a stampede and shunned the thought of owning the notoriety of being the only canoeist ever to be churned into oblivion by stampeding bovines, while paddling down a quiet river. It would certainly be an inglorious and unexpected end to a peaceful canoe trip.

The cows did give way, grudgingly, as they shifted position to allow my passage, each cow substituting for a slalom gate on a downriver run.

That scenario will never happen again as the dairy farm was sold and new environmental regulations barred cattle from rivers and streams.

So it was the proliferation of dairy herds dwindled to change the perception of the character of the region from rural to land prime for development.

The absence of cows from the landscape was taken as signal that nothing remained to be saved in terms of nature or wildlife. The land without cows was sterile and devoid of life, a waste of space, only to be saved by ratables.

Unbeknownst to most, the open space and river corridor teemed with viable populations of wildlife that existed long before the cows came and remained in viable populations after the cows passed.

A common misconception about wildlife is, if you don’t see herds of animals, they don’t exist, except as anomalies. The facts are, many wildlife species, mink for example, exist in healthy populations across the state.

Animals that dominated stories of frontier days, sans mountain lions, still live among us. Tales of coyotes, black bear, otter, beaver, turkey whitetail deer and eagles belong to wild country, pristine wilderness rarely visited by humans. Even the sound of migrating wild geese, flying a mile high in a V formation, still make the heart beat faster. The geese were travelers from the far north on a winged journey, whose eyes had seen wild places we could only dream about.

The symbol of our country, the bald eagle, until recently, existed only as marketing brands, has now established territory along our rivers, one nest producing fifteen fledglings over seven years. Eagles of all ages are now a common sight.

Trees gnawed by errant beaver looking for a permanent home line the rivers. Transients pass through each winter, occasionally homesteading for a few years. Beaver were the main attraction for early settlers and provided impetus to explore and settle the early wilderness. Again, a local animal whose lineage is associated with mountain men, wilderness and American history, remain and thrive despite the absence of cows.

As I paddled down the south branch, an oversized raptor perched on a dead tree branch extending over the river. I could not identify the species and wanted to get some images. I set the boat to drift on a course that would pass directly under the bird. To my surprise it tolerated my presence as I took my limit of images. Still thinking it was some variety of hawk, I continued on my journey. Only when editing the images, I realized I was within intimate distance of a juvenile bald eagle! I had no idea eagles even existed locally; the only one I ever saw was fifty years ago on the upper Delaware River. Consider the misconception created when the most common image of an eagle, as seen exclusively on branding, is that of an adult with a white head and tail. It is easy to ignore or mistake juvenile birds as it takes about four and a half years for the plumage to change to pure white.

The thought then occurred, beside eagles, what other unexpected wild life or endangered and threatened birds and animals existed in our midst? Rivers serve as ancient migration routes for birds and animals, the pathways imprinted in their DNA. So the opportunity exists to observe unusual species during times of migration and the possibility some may decide to take the exit ramp and remain. 

Our natural treasures are hidden in plain view, their legacy continues if we recognize their existence and the importance of protecting the land along our rivers and open space. 

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A a glance, the note hanging from the cow’s ear appeared to be a cartoon bubble expressing the animal’s thoughts. The cows are gone, never to return, unlike the diverse collection of wildlife populations reconstituted along our local rivers and open space.

You may not see him but rest assured he sees you! The howl of coyotes in the night, strikes a primitive cord in our DNA as we share the emotion felt by our paleo ancestors, huddled around a fire, bridging the unknown with magic and mythology.                             

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Memories are Where You First Met Them

Along the South Branch
 November 2021

This maroon shale cliff forming the river’s bend, serves as a memory retrieval bank for times gone by. I was canoeing with my late friend Jimmy, who caught and released a feisty smallmouth bass just upstream of that shale prominence. Memory storage may be why the shore of a river is referred to as a ‘bank’.

Memories are Where You First Met Them

Over the course of time everything we experience is stored as a memory. Having limited capacity for recall, it is the most impactful memories that linger. By no means are memories ever lost, they are stored in pristine condition in unconscious archives. The key to recovery can be a scent, sight or a sound. Prompted by clues hidden in unrelated conversations, a single phrase or word can bring an experience back into sharp focus. Old, faded photographs of no particular beauty or composition can instantly bring the past into laser focus as the prompts to our memories are as individual as fingerprints.

So it is that each time I paddle the river, it becomes a physical journey through the accumulated memories collected over hundreds of miles, paddled on the same stretch of river. Each trip is like opening the old family album to add new photographs and seeing the older images as the pages are turned. It is as if a gravitational pull compels you to linger a bit longer in the realm of old memories.

 There is hardly a location on the river that does not hold a memory for me. Digital images and photographs, abound, however, it is being present on the river that provides access to memories not captured by the camera or pushed aside by the endless flow of freshly minted memories.

Every time I pass the drainage above the mouth of Pleasant Run, my mind immediately plays the video of the snowy winter day I pulled out of the current into the safe harbor of a drainage stream to warm my hands under my arms. The heavy snow quickly covered me and my boat as I leaned forward, folded arms resting on my thighs. I felt safe and comfortable as the canoe was stabilized in the heavy slush and well within the six-foot-wide drainage stream away from the main current. The snow was almost a foot deep along the high bank and to my surprise a dark brown mink was porpoising through the deep snow toward the drainage and my canoe. The mink came within arm’s reach before it realized the convenient bridge and large lump of snow was an existential threat.

 One summer day I had my young daughter in the bow of my canoe, as we approached the tower line near home, a large fish jumped clear of the water, hit the gallon jug of juice she was holding, bounced off the opposite gunnel and fell back into the river. Her expression was priceless, as was mine, to witness a scene that could only happen in a cartoon. Can’t pass under that tower line without reliving that moment! Though many years have passed, the clarity and even the emotion of that comedy is still retained in the tower line archives.

 On an initiation canoe trip with my four-year-old grandson, I paddled close to a high shale cliff, as in my experience cliffs were a major attraction to young boys. Sure enough, Caleb was impressed and asked how to get to the top. Before I could answer I noticed a large animal on the narrow shelf at water’s edge below the cliff. We closed in on a supersized beaver munching some delicate vines growing on the cliff face. The beaver slowly moved into deeper water but not before swimming on the surface a few yards in front of the canoe. You will not be able to see it, but when I pass that cliff, it reveals a crystal-clear video of that priceless moment. Of course, the next day Caleb never mentioned the beaver to mom but was totally impressed by Grampy carrying the canoe over his head.

One early spring day after ice-out, the river was running high, and the only ice that remained was found in deep cuts into the bank where trees were washed away. As I rounded a sharp bend in the river, I kept about three feet off the left bank to avoid the main current. Immediately on my left was a large ice-covered cove about twelve feet into the high vertical bank. I could not believe what I saw! Standing in sharp contrast to the empty expanse of graying ice, was an otter!  As it ran toward me, I realized its only escape route was into the water next to my canoe. At less than two feet away I watched the otter dive into the fast-moving muddy water in the narrow space between my boat and the ice shelf. I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps hypothermic. I never saw an otter on the river before or since. Consider, this bend in the river

projects the memory of my close encounter with an otter, exclusively for me. It is my personal archive, available to no one else.

Memories are where you first met them, they are safe from prying eyes and remain where you last left them. The storage capacity is infinite and the keys to unlock them are everywhere.

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Can you Imagine an Entire River System?

Along the South Branch 

October 2021 

Can You Imagine an Entire River 

An elephant is like a tree, No! an elephant is like a snake, No! an elephant is like a wall. So claimed the three of the six blind men from Indostan, when they were asked to describe an elephant. In this case their blindness is representative of a loss of perspective and in that way, reflects on our nature to define the world into segmented parcels.  

Being gravity bound to the earth provides a limited view and so, it makes sense to parse the world via man made contractions. For instance, take a local county road, built to traverse through several counties, towns and cities. To ensure continuity it was given a numeric designation. County route 514 is an example. However, as it crosses geopolitical borders it gets christened with a local name. Amwell rd, Hamilton Boulevard, Woodbridge avenue and Main st, etc, collectively are the same road, county route 514.  

It is human nature to tease out pieces of the whole to better grasp an extensive subject. Our education system has honed specialization of studies to create unique disciplines and professions, each treated as unrelated kin. 

Over time we have lost perspective of the whole and dismantled the larger puzzle into its component pieces, forgetting that all disciples are related and taken together, are additive and complementary. Formal education has handed each disciple of its hallowed halls a critical piece of the puzzle. Much like a treasure hunt, where a map is torn into pieces and handed out to individuals to ensure all participants must bring their scraps of paper together to find the hidden gold.  

When we look at rivers, our earth bound position shapes our view. We see the north branch of a river apart from the south branch, each stream that feeds into a larger waterway gets a name. As a watercourse passes a political jurisdiction, that flow of water may, in some unusual cases, get a name change, not unlike our numbered county routes. Trace a stream back to its source and discover it doesn’t get a name on a map until it crosses a roadway. 

I had the opportunity at the invitation of No Water No Life founder Alison Jones to accompany her and Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership president, Dr Heather Fenyk on a complimentary flight provided by LightHawk to photograph the entire Raritan watershed from its two main sources all the way to Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook. 

The transition from a ground dweller to eagle was as breathtaking as it was revealing. Instead of only seeing only puzzle pieces, the entire picture of the watershed miraculously appeared. Each segment lost its defined edges as the resolution increased; as if going from a pixilated image to a crystal clear picture. 

Though intimately familiar with each section of the river, I was lost when asked where we were at any given moment. I tried to rely on referencing the last known position but the speed at which we travelled, and the new cloud high perspective was surprisingly disorienting. It takes about an hour and ten minutes to drive to Sandy Hook from the point of the confluence of the Raritan and its main branches, it took only a few minutes to fly there. That alteration of time and distance also serves to overcome the linear relationship of diminishing interest over increasing distance, a lingering, innate human survival mechanism focused on serving the moment to save the day.      

The value of gaining a new perspective, where the threads reveal the weave of the cloth, provided an avenue for a holistic approach to temper human impact on the watershed as an entity. A change to any geo-politically defined segment must now be considered as systemic rather than an isolated local impact. Impervious surfaces increase upstream from housing developments and parking lots to flush more water into the river and exacerbate extreme weather flooding. Crops planted in the flood plain right to the edge of the river, cause erosion and silt build up to force flood waters further from the main river course.  

A good lesson to remember is the literary relationship of the word river to rivalry. The word for people drinking from the same stream or river was rival in French and rivalis in Latin.  When a downstream village’s drinking water was contaminated by the village upstream, it created a rivalry. Even in early times, the wisdom of what flows downstream was well ingrained in riverine communities, a lesson somewhat lost today. 

In lieu of boarding a plane, fire up your imagination. Imagination is a magic carpet that transcends available opportunity, bad weather and poor visibility to deliver needed perspective. Imagine if you can the water in the entire Raritan River watershed replaced with blue injection molded latex as a giant hand reaches down and grabs the main trunk of the Raritan River, pulls it from the earth, and holds it aloft as if it were a giant oak tree, its crown represented by the ocean. The fine mass of hairy threads leading into primary roots and finally forming a main trunk.  See the river as a tree, its form and function more similar than different.  

A River’s watershed or tree, both a conduit for flowing water, perhaps an alternative way to grasp the concept of the extent of a watershed. Overlay this image on a land map to visualize a watershed, whose dimensions are typically presented in incomprehensible numeric values. Original artwork by Richard Reo

Loss of perspective is a demon that transcends all issues and stunts efficient problem solving, leads to false conclusions, lost time, and energy.  

Perspective may be gained in several creative ways, though it takes imagination and an open mind to intellectually take flight to see the whole picture. Once we realize our world is one entity and the smallest change has a cascading effect far downstream beyond where we figured the ripples terminated, we are better prepared to approach business, technology, relationships, education and nature while promoting the sage advice of ‘first do no harm”.  

New York City as seen from the lower Raritan river begs a hand to reach out and touch it, as opposed to driving for hours on congested toll roads and across bridges. When distance and time reduced, it brings a new perspective and increased interest. Flight compliment of LightHawk and No Water, No Life.

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Fencing Hummers

Along the South Branch

September 2021

Fencing Hummers

A small patch of red monarda grew wild in one corner of the fenced in garden, survivors of at least one deer who decided their minty flavor to be a perfect palate cleanser.  Much to the dismay of the late season hummingbirds, their over browsed food source left fewer opportunities for nourishment at a critical time, just prior to migration south.

The ownership of this last loaf of bread on the shelf, further intensified the territorial disputes that typically take place among hummers.

A young of the year male was feeding on the monarda, his dining strategy was to circle to the right, probing each scarlet tubule, then pulling back to hover for a moment, before repeating the flight pattern around the next floral head. Suddenly a second immature male appeared and the two began aerial acrobatics almost too fast to follow. Each bird disputed the property claim of the other. After close face to face sparing, they took off out of site, separated by no more than a few inches.

It was impossible to differentiate one darting hummer from another, though the aggressor appeared to be the same bird, how many different challengers was in question.

Five minutes later another hummer appeared and began to feed with uncharacteristic speed, as if knowingly violating another’s territory, stealing as much as it could before the expected challenge from the self-proclaimed owner.

As expected, the challenge ensued. This time the interloper was inside the garden fence while the claim owner hovered outside the fence. So intense was their dispute, each floated in place commencing an aerial duel, with their needle like beaks, separated by the fence. It was a high noon showdown with unloaded weapons, as neither could be intimidated nor vanquished. The spectacle continued for a full minute until the aggressor realized the futility of his efforts and flew over the wire barrier to engage the trespasser. The two fencers immediately drooped their foils in favor of high aerial maneuvers to settle this territorial dispute.

While most hummingbird disputes consist of posturing and aggressive aerial pursuit end harmlessly, another unexpected threat targeting hummers lurks among the flowers.  The brown Asian preying mantis, an introduced species, will on occasion attempt to take and kill an unsuspecting hummer.  Having read about the relationship of mantis and hummer, it seemed a rare occurrence of low probability until one early September afternoon.

A female hummer was feeding on the blooms of native red cardinal flower. Being aware of how individual hummers have the own feeding strategy, circling always to the right or left, pulling back for a moment before going on to the next flower or just moving on to the next bloom without a slightest hesitation, I noticed something odd about this hummer. She seemed to take sideways glances diverting attention from the business at hand. Sure enough, there was the focus of her attention. A light brown Asian preying mantis whose body length exceeded that of the hummer. Likewise the mantis appeared aware of the hummer and waited to strike. As the hummer worked the flower, she always maintained awareness of the mantis and at one point face it directly. All ended well for the hummer, though it is easy to imagine a new fledged hummer falling victim to this insect predator.   

Two hummers in this image, one perched, the other making an intimidating fly by.

As delicate and diminutive hummingbirds appear, they are tough, aggressive creatures whose late summer-early fall southward migration defies the imagination.  Hummers are as close to magic and myth as anything in nature. The ability to hover and maneuver with almost invisible wings and float in the air probing brilliantly colored flowers, while robed in iridescent feathers that seem more metallic than organic and change color with movement, surely earns mythical status. As is within a hummer’s personality, it will often initiate a face face introduction as it stays suspended in mid air inches from your nose, looking directly in your eyes. It is a wild thought that the hummer has captured the image of your face as readily as you hold his image in memory, to be recalled and reviewed, perhaps in a future pleasant dream, whose memory fades upon waking, leaving only the hint of a smile on your lips.  

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Summer Rain 

Along the South Branch  

July 2021 

The gentle summer rain falling on the reflective water, lined with muted shades of gray and green foliage, combine to create a scene so peaceful, you must remember to take a next breath. 

Summer Rain 

The mid-summer sunlight dimmed, as amorphous white clouds, heavy with moisture, washed over the blue sky. Deep shadows settled in among the layers of leaves that blended the crowns of oaks and maples into a coarse, solid green curtain. The leaves of the Norway maples on the outer edge of the woodlot appeared pale matte green in the dim light and hung motionless at a sixty-five-degree angle as the atmosphere held it breath in anticipation of the impending rain.   

As the rain began, the earliest errant drops chose random dance partners among the leafy branches. Though not a breeze was evident, individual leaves began to dance while others remained perfectly still. Partners were exchanged and switched until the full burst of rain fell from the clouds to engage all the leaves to move to the rhythm of the falling rain. 

A gentle summer rain is a perfect complement to a warm summer day. Clear blue skies and unfiltered sunshine heat the earth and plants to further warm the air from below. Pollen and dust, at the mercy of the breeze, settle everywhere. 

The heat rising from the earth mixes with the already warmed atmosphere to create a layer of suffocating air. The promise of relief comes, when in late afternoon, billowy white clouds appear on the horizon in dramatic contrast against the unobstructed azure blue sky. The transient clouds, directed by upper atmosphere winds, obscure the sun as they drift across the sky, trailing rain in their wake.  Immediately the stifling temperature falls as cool raindrops hit the dry earth. Each drop a micro explosion, as dust and pollen are washed away and reconstituted into the soil. In the aftermath, on the field where the clash of violent heat transfer and exploding dust particles flew, a veil of white mist hangs low over the battleground as the sunshine returns.  

While the rainfall was sudden, it was expected. In fact, the coming rain was preceded by a distinct odor.

Researchers claim the familiar scent that sometimes fills the air prior to a coming rain is ozone being pulled to earth from high in the atmosphere and most often occurs after a dry spell. 

In the temporary shelter under a full leafed tree, another odor, distinct from the ozone, fills your nostrils. It is best described as organic and to me, smells like what I think rich moist soil smells like. Even without rain, upon entering mature woods there is that same odor, enhanced by the heavy foliage which contains the moisture in the air as it mixes with the natural composting of decaying plant matter. The odor, initially after a rain begins to fall, is from the composting bacteria in the soil mixed with ozone, the combination named petrichor. 

Sun showers are a summer event where magic seems to partner with nature to produce a contradictory reality. The sun shines while the rain falls, no clouds obscure the sun. A meteorological phenomenon that is best left unexplained to be thoroughly enjoyed. Consider it a momentary truce among the elements who constantly clash for dominance in the atmospheric heavens.       

Whether a sun shower, cloud burst or late afternoon thunderstorm, refreshing, best describes a summer rain, it is an invitation to step out and feel the cool gentle rain on your face, and try to catch a few drops on your tongue. It is life, composed mostly of water, who recognizes itself in the heaven sent drops of rain, especially during a warm and gentle summer rain.     

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The Eagles Have Returned!

Along the South Branch

June 2021

 Eagle chick is alert as it is prepped for a physical exam by Dr Erica Miller, DVM. The two eagles were determined to be males and banded with green anodized aluminum leg bands inscribed, H-04 and H-05. H-04 had the green band placed on the left leg, H-05 on the right leg. The intent is to make identification at a distance easier. Both eagles passed the exam with flying colors and were rewarded with two whole fish placed in the nest compliment of the NJ Endangered and Non Game Species Program, headed by Kathy Clark.

The Eagles Have Returned!

Not that the eagles ever left, however, their nest of six years was removed, which gave rise to wild speculation as to their fate.

High tension towers were being replaced, one of which held their nest. Though in past years, the nest had been removed accidently, remodeled and relocated from the left to the right to the center by the eagles themselves, the middle of the tower arm seemed to be the final site.

Much to the eagle’s surprise, the home tower dating back to the 1920s was removed and a new style tower constructed in its place. Though ‘science’ says eagles bond and nest in January, our eagles were never polled and began to bond and touch up the nest in October. Just as the power company took down the tower.

The eagles appeared upset, one screeching at the other as they were perched nearby. Hearts were breaking in sympathy. Before the old tower was deconstructed, the giant nest was cradled, lowered by crane and stored on site. The plan was to return the nest on a new style platform as encouragement for the eagles to return. That was the plan but would the eagles agree?

We watched that pair daily and never once did an eagle land on that tower. It didn’t look good.

Then a new nest was started a mile downstream and hopes soared for our faithful pair. During one twenty minute period, the suspected male brought six large branches to the nest where both eagles discussed their placement.  

The nest grew larger and finally looked like it was move in ready. Still, no eagle would land on the nest platform in the new tower. It was in a way, comforting, to see eagles nesting in a giant sycamore tree rather than in non organic, cold metal tower draped with high tension wires.

During nest construction many images were taken and shared. On one occasion, a pair of adult eagles was observed downstream of the nest and another pair at the nest in the sycamore. Were there two pair of eagles or did the eagles seen downstream make it to the nest before the observer could?

Sure enough photo evidence and direct simultaneous observation revealed there were two pairs of eagles seen at different times on the new nest. Now what?

Then one day an eagle was seen perched on the rail at the nest on the tower! Would eagles occupy both nests, would there be a territorial dispute?

One eagle on the tower nest was hopeful, but why would they go through the trouble and wasted energy to construct a beautiful downstream nest?

It was a confusing time, as we all concluded the sycamore nest was the nest of record. Then both eagles were seen on the tower, the suspected make bringing material to the rebuild the nest. January twenty-third was the last date eagles were recorded on the downstream nest while activity picked up at the tower.

Now the question was, who were the eagles at the tower, the interlopers or the faithful pair? Try as we might from images and observed past individual behavior, we could not definitively conclude their identity.

The original pair had an easily seen size difference, the conclusion was the larger bird was the female. This is a generalization which may not be true in every case. This pair was closer in size to each other. The original larger bird had a unique expressive head movement not seen by the bird identified as the female.

Was the male from the original pair with a new female? We concluded there was no sure way to tell.

Now a fully prepared downstream nest awaited tenants, hopefully, the other eagle pair. No such luck as the nest was now declared abandoned. At one point a local red tail hawk and then an immature eagle briefly visited the nest.

The other eagle pair left the area though several un-banded immature eagles were commonly observed.

Now all attention was on the pair of eagles nesting at the tower. When the nest was relocated in the new tower, an eagle cam was installed but failed to function. The plan was to remedy the camera during the banding session.

When the eagles were observed mating, the countdown to egg laying began. Hatching followed on schedule and the day to conduct the banding of the chicks was set.

May fourteenth, a crew from PSE&G the state zoologist heading the project and the state veterinarian along with eagle project volunteers participated in the banding of two eagles determined to be males. Each bird given a thorough physical exam, blood samples drawn, beak, talons and primary feather measured, weights taken.  Green aluminum bands, H-04 and H-05 were placed around the legs. The concerned parents circled the tower while the banding was in progress.

When the eagles were returned to the nest, a consolation prize of two large fish was left as a compensation for their trouble. After everyone left, the parents returned to the nest and as in past years, continued to care for their young. This year, the world will stand witness to the rearing and eventual fledging of two young eagles whose shadows will glide over the earth to the amazement and wonder of our children and grandchildren.

Thanks to PSE&G we now have a live webcam, an incredible gift to the world of nature and environmental education. The eagle webcam may be accessed at []

This will spark curiosity to ignite the desire to seek deeper knowledge, not just about eagles but the entire interrelated community of nature, of which we are a part; a benefit to all. 

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Scent by May

Along the South Branch 

May 2021 

Surrounded by colorful tree buds, a newborn great horned owl left its nest to begin ‘branching’. The owl will walk, hop, flap its wings and glide short distances in preparation for its first flight, only a few weeks away.

Scent by May

The gentle month of May steps out of character to finally terminate winter’s lease on the land. May does what March and April were unable to do and does it with authority and grace. 

Winter has been served an ironclad, last frost warning, and nature celebrates. Delicate plant life now bursts from its dormancy to join their hardier kin who dared unpredictable early spring conditions. 

Floral scent now fills the morning air to conjure pleasant memories of warm weather suppressed by winter doldrums.  

Walking through the meadow grass, canoe balanced on my shoulders, the scent of multiflora rose fills the air. My path meanders around these thorny bushes and prickly eastern redcedar as if I were a bouncing around in a pinball machine. 

As I walked into the wind, aromatic meadow grass replaced the floral scent of the scattered bouquets of wild rose. A three-strand barbed wire fence, intended to keep generations of dairy cows honest, now delineated the lush meadow, but could not contain the whimsical direction of the perfumed air. I slid the boat under the sagging bottom wire, laid face down on the grass and inched to the other side.   


The river was flowing gently, sun sparkling off its rippled surface which lay just beneath a parallel current of air which carried, intermittent quantums of the unmistakable perfume of black locust blossoms. 

Though my olfactory senses were immersed in the current of scent, I had to walk further into the river to set my boat in water deep enough to float, with me aboard. I had to walk-in ankle-deep water to the main channel and each step sent a cloud of muddy water downstream, while upstream, the water ran clear. A pickerel frog escaped my intrusion by lying motionless on the bottom of the shallow water. His spots blending in so well among the small stones. Fresh water clams showed telltale depressions in the mud that revealed their presence. I stopped for a moment to pull up a clam, check to see if it was alive and set it back down to watch it bury itself out of sight. 

I had been dragging my boat by a short bow line through the shallows. As I near the main flow and deeper water the current swung the stern downstream. I pulled the boat back up to the center seat to set my paddle in against the forward thwart and snapped my spare into clips mounted on the seats pedestal. Then secured my pack behind the center seat with a figure eight knot and two half hitches. Swinging the boat around with the bow now facing downstream, I gingerly got in, sat down, picked up the paddle and just drifted for a long minute before I made a correction. I began to slowly paddle downstream, careful to take in a 360 view. The clear water, blue, cloudless sky, both lush overgrown river banks and the water ahead all held my interest.  

May is the time of year to see young creatures of all species and thier parents gathering food to feed hungry pups or kits freshly weaned.  

The first week in May I saw and photographed a mink transferring her kits to a new den. That was certainly unexpected. Fox will also move pups from one den to another.  One den with six pups, situated in the pasture, was abandoned after two weeks. The pups were moved further uphill and closer to human habitation. As the meadow was really a flood plain, the vixen made a smart move, perhaps for the wrong reason, but her pups did survive the next week’s flood.  

A high vertical bank, perhaps constructed by a muskrat and remodeled by a groundhog, now served as harbor for a daydreaming raccoon. A masked face momentarily peered out as a face might be seen glancing out behind the sheer drapery of a window in a high-rise city building. Yellow, white and purple flowers screened the den’s doorway.  

Further downstream a flightless great horned owl perched in a tangle of a fallen tree beneath a red shale cliff. It was now old enough to ‘branch’. The stage where the owl leaves the nest and begins to walk, climb and flap its wings, strengthening them for a first attempt at flight.  

The sights sounds and smells that appear in late spring under the banner of May, whether from the perspective of the rivers or backyard gardens, are the first floral wrapped gift box, filled to the brim with new life, to be opened after winter’s reign has ended. 

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Flowers by the Big Green Door

Along the South Branch

April 2021

There is magic in the first wildflowers which dare to dance in April’s cool breeze. Look closely at the pinstriped Spring Beauty to see the face of an impish sprite staring back. The native columbine decorates the red shale cliffs to appear as, ‘flowers in her hair’. 

Flowers by the Big Green Door

The doorway to spring is unlocked at the time of the vernal equinox and begins to slowly open on creaking, weather worn hinges. As the door opens, winter’s final icy breath rushes though without hesitation. The cold gusty wind is an intruder who is soon vanquished by spring’s eternal promise of warming conditions favorable to the earth’s explosion of new life.

March is handed winter’s eviction notice as it departs, however, given ten days to respond, little if anything is changed. The task then falls to April to conclude winter’s lingering intrusion.

April wrestles mightily with remnants of last season’s cold, the winner of each daily round, is at best unpredictable.

Though the battle is as real as the chill in the air, the spectators have bet their life on the eventual outcome.

Tension still remains, fired by doubt, despite eons of evidence, that winter’s grasp on the earth will not this time, be broken.

Deep within April another doorway appears. Stepping through, a closer look reveals a vestibule and rooms beyond, colored with every conceivable tint of green. Stare long enough and isolated clusters of bright colored blossoms and wildflowers appear within the green expanse. Pink and white apple blossoms serve as irrefutable evidence the profusion of life may proceed unimpeded.

As we step though late April’s green garden gate, its reflective surface allows a momentary rearward glance of winter finally and completely consumed in a distant vanishing point. 

A collective sigh of relief is expressed as the promise of spring is delivered.

In the same way pens are handed out when ground breaking documents are signed, the profusion of wildflowers that appear are the reproducing instruments nature provides as mementoes of spring’s return.

Spring beauties, trout lilies and native columbine are the visualization of invisible changes taking place triggered by increasing daylength. They are bookmarks and gauges that map the path of the season.

Diminutive spring beauties decorate the meadows and open woodlands, their five white petals marked with delicate pink pinstripes. Growing in scattered patches among the short meadow grass, their presence, when discovered is like finding a lost coin. It is not the equivalent of finding a fortune in gold, but as with a found silver

coin, it adds enrichment, satisfaction and a smile. A moment of escape from your incessant busy thoughts is a spring beauty’s most powerful affect. Consider that respite from consciousness an inherent medicinal property.

Trout lilies are appropriately named as their appearance coincides with the opening of trout season. Also called dogtooth lilies, they are found in moist areas along streams and rivers. Trout lilies are short plants with thick green, mottled brown leaves at the base. Each plant features a single bronze colored stalk bearing a lone yellow flower. The yellow flower hangs upside down to reveal a bronze underside. I notice these plants in the more pristine areas and link them to my memories of early trout seasons past.

Native columbine grows on the face of the red shale cliffs that line the river. A beautiful red flower, shaped like a crown, which like the trout lily, hangs upside down. I wonder at the age of some of these plants that grow out of creases in the cliffs. How many springs have they ushered in, how do they survive in such a specific environment, how did they seed themselves in such a precarious place? The bloom is short lived and occurs at a time when hardly anyone passes by, so these plants are rarely noticed. The momentary appearance of this delicate beauty in such an unexpected place enhances their magical qualities. Surely these flowers would be welcome in anyone’s version of a secret garden. The brief appearance of ephemeral spring wildflowers, make them especially precious.  Swaying in the cool spring breeze, these native flowers are the starting flags waved to initiate a race.  And so begins the cascade of life renewed, as it ebbs and flows through the entire living community found behind the green door of April.

Native columbine grows on the face of the red shale cliffs

Base leaves of trout lilly, green leaf mottled with brown specks.

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March Re-gifted

Along the South Branch 

March 2021 

A male ring neck duck makes a rest stop on a local pond during its migratory flight to summer breeding grounds. Be assured the duck has no idea it is the month of March. Its survival depends on the predictability of increasing daylength as a constant upon which to base evolutionary adaptation

March Re-gifted 

The messenger of spring magically appears out of the gray face of a late winter blizzard, wearing ragged white robes, shedding skiffs of pure white snow and shards of blue tinted ice.   

The visage of spring’s early march forward from the bowels of deep winter, presents a menacing image whose heart will soon melt to reveal the bright colors of spring.  

March is a character of ill repute whose final dying act redeems its ice-cold legacy of unpredictable weather. A child of contradictory parentage, whose annual re-birth brings forth a new genetic balance favoring one or the other parent is the rule. 

Each March conducts its business of shepherding in the promise of spring from winter pastures in its own unique style. Warm sunny days with blue sky, endless gray days threatening snow squalls and subfreezing temperatures are the ingredients each iteration of March combines in varying amounts and serves cold. 

The third month is thus difficult to characterize, however, it is a month which hosts a cosmic time piece to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring, down to the millisecond.  

When winter turned on its light, to give hope on the darkest day, daylength began to steadily increase. Two months later, at the time of the vernal equinox, daylength and night reach perfect balance, but just for an instant.  

The ever-increasing time between sunrise and sunset is a welcome gift that is rewrapped, regifted and accepted with enthusiasm and anticipation.

Once the white wrapping is removed and the gift box opened, the colors of early spring emerge. At a distance, the wash of maroon, orange and red appear as broad-brush strokes across the dull gray and light brown canvas of wooded hillsides. A closer look reveals the bright colors to be pixilated, each dot an individual tree bud.  

In the absence of foliage, colorful migratory warblers fluoresce against the bare branches and leafless thickets along the river corridors. Their movements like intermittent flashes of a strobe light, reveal their presence. Gold and ruby crowned kinglets, yellow throat, parula and magnolia warblers are a sampling of transient feathered jewels strung across the treetops at peak migration. Redstart, indigo bunting and scarlet tanagers are a portion of the natural treasure of exquisite rare feathered gems whose beauty makes their identities irrelevant. 

A less colorful migratory bird is the woodcock, an odd collection of parts that specialize in probing the soil for earthworms. Mating flights of the males in the fading light of day are a spectacle of sight and sound to behold in this month.    

Now is the time to scan the rivers, ponds and flooded fields for waterfowl not usually seen locally seen except during spring migration. Blue and green winged teal, ring neck ducks, widgeon, brandt, grebes and coot have been known to briefly grace us with their presence. 

Though the arrival of March each year and the gift of light it brings, is a foregone conclusion, the content of its character is always a question.  

What is not in question is the measurable instant daylength outpaces the night. This cosmic event serves to provide the predictability which allows all life to adapt and evolve and thereby exist.  

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The Eagle Has Landed

Along the south Branch 

  February 2021 

No mistaking this eagle for a hawk. Given that the bald eagles’ characteristic pure white head and tail do not emerge until they are three and a half years old, juvenile eagles are easily mistaken for hawks. A two year old eagle with traces of white beginning to emerge on the head and tail.

 The Eagle Has Landed 

It was a fine day on the river, blue sky, light breeze, air temperature in the 60s and a perfect water level. 

Having paddled several times a week throughout the winter in preparation for a canoe race inMaine, this mid spring post-race trip down the South Branch was a soothing balm to mind and body. 

After the trout season opener, the South Branch was closed to fishing on Tuesdays during in-season trout stocking. So, Tuesdays were my choice to paddle and be assured no human company would spoil the sense of wilderness the river trip provided. 

Though not in race mode, the smooth rhythm of my paddle stroke and resultant speed was mesmerizing as well as a distraction. I would zone out asif each stroke was a repetitive chant in a litany. So, for short periods, my attention would drift away from observing the world around me. Who knows how many deer or mink watched from the woody bank as I passed within yards of their position? 

 On a long straightaway, as I transitioned from hypnotic state to consciousness, I was shocked to see a very large raptor sunning on an overhanging dead branch under which I would pass. The sun silhouetted the bird as I traded paddle for camera and a chance at a very close photo op. I set the course with one hand on the paddle and the other holding the camera. Keeping movement to a minimum was critical as the canoe drifted perfectly into position. The bird seemed huge as the distance closed. I figured the ‘hawk’ would soon fly off, but to my surprise It tolerated my presence. I turned the canoe to face upstream and take more images. The ‘hawk’ spread its wings to sun itself but gave no intention of flying away. 

For the rest of the trip, I kept wondering about the size of the bird and extra large beak, never thinking it was an eagle. Eagles were not a possibility, at least on the course of the river fromClintonto South Branch. Eagles frequented the upperDelawareand weren’t that commonly seen and never on the South Branch. Aside from no known local eagle sightings, this bird was primarily brown, and everyone knows bald eagles have white heads and tail feathers. 

The closer I looked at the images later that day; it became clear the ‘hawk’was a year-old bald eagle! 

Even the celebrated nest at Duke Farms, discovered in 2004, was thought at first to be an osprey nest. 

Bald eagle fledglings start out covered with brown feathers. Each year more mottled white appears on their body and not until the thirdyear does the head and tail begin to turn white, though still marked with brown streaks. To see an illustration of plumage changes by year, check out;

My eagle 2011 encounter was a prelude to the construction of a nest on the lower South Branch of theRaritanin 2014. That nest has fledged eleven more eagles to cast a shadow over the wilds ofNew Jerseyand states far beyond. Last year an eagle banded in 2017 on the South Branch, was seen paired with another eagle inConnecticuton theConnecticut River 

Today eagles are a common sight along any of our major waterways. Given that the bald eagles’ characteristic pure white head and tail do not emerge until they are three and a half years old, juvenile eagles are easily mistaken for hawks. 

Consider, you may have been given the privilege to see and eagle and not known it. If able to get a close look, its beak in comparison to any other hawkis huge. Keep an open mind to unexpected possibilities and know, for that reason, many self professed birders have missed the thrill of seeing their first eagle. 

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