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;  

https://www.avianreport.com/?fbclid=IwAR1VU5WgqJf4BjvVXEun1pHils9QNYcaEXPHXIg9e9a82BKgMmt7yl6zjA8

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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Let there Be Light

Along the South Branch  

January 2021 

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“I love life”, perfectly describes the transition of life from elemental components to an existence as a living organism. Practically and symbolically, life begins and renews with the birth of light at the moment of greatest darkness.

Let there Be Light 

    The eternal cosmic clock, rewound by the choreographed dance of celestial bodies, precisely marks the rebirth of light and the start of winter. 

The runway for January’s landing is lit nine days before, during the winter solstice. The lights grow brighter as the spinning earth tilts in relation to the sun. This delicate earthly pirouette is anything but a solo performance. Only in a state of cosmic equilibrium, held firmly in place by gravity, can the possibility of life occur.  

The relative stability of atmosphere and repetitious seasonal changes found on earth, provide the predictability and time, life requires to evolve and adapt.  

While the January first rewind is a human convenience, all life forms, humans included, have evolved to key in on the periodicity of increasing and decreasing day length.  Light, along with atmosphere, temperature, and gravity dictate the detailed specifications that must be met to exist. Life on the other hand, has no bargaining power and must somehow develop a form that embraces all the requirements set forth by the cosmic design as found on earth. 

Successful adaptation is critically dependent on the stability of environmental conditions. Life forms whose ability to adapt, lags behind the speed of change, simply go away. The constant effort to achieve existence,  results in an almost infinite variety of life, whether it be a blade of grass or an elephant. Each develops unique mechanisms to deal with seasonal changes in atmosphere and light.  New life forms are constantly being discovered while other life forms go extinct.

I find it amazing our existence depends on heavenly bodies, light years away, hurtling through space in well-choreographed orbits controlled by gravity. Even more amazing is how oblivious humanity is to its existential condition, hanging only by an invisible thread. Though cosmic events are out of our control, its link to our existence sparks imagination and wonder. The curiosity that arises when we look toward the heavens has a gravity of its own which draws us in to seek deeper knowledge. Imagination and creativity are set afire when faced with a gap in information. We are compelled to temporarily bridge the unknown with subjective theory, a vestige of our innate survival skills.  

As humans we are surrounded by natural wonders whose intended or unintended purpose is to fire our imagination and fuel our creativity to enhance our survival. In that way nature is teaching us how to fish as well as providing our daily bread. 

Wise words spoke of rendering to Caesar and following that advice we celebrate January first as a nod to society. Let us also be inspired by the brightness of January traced back to the winter solstice and that moment of perfect equilibrium between light and darkness. A celebration of the moment life began to stir on a planet spinning in the blackness of an infinite universe bounded only by our imagination

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Coloring Time

Along the South Branch

September 2020

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Self portrait of a paddler navigating a sea of goldenrod during the late September color blast. Much care was taken to not get yellow on the black canoe. 

Coloring Time

The rise of Venus in the early morning eastern sky is the celestial harbinger of a pre autumnal dawn. As if a conductor raising her baton to stir the first musical strands of an orchestral performance, Venus instead, transforms sound into symphony of color.

As the dark sky lightens, a fluorescent orange orb slowly struggles skyward appearing to have escaped from the earth’s fiery core.

Once free of the earth’s grasp, the sun’s blaze orange begins to fade, dissolving in the atmosphere, melting into a wild spectrum of ever-changing pastel tints. Tints that concentrate in intensity as they fall to earth and color the late summer greenery with splashes of vibrant golds, yellow and purple variants.

The summer green mantle, which covered open fields for the past three months, was worn as a uniform of sort to make differentiation among grassland vegetation a difficult task.

With the imperceptible fading hot breath of late summer, vast expanses of vibrant yellow appear, as goldenrod reveals itself as an actor would at the end of a play. Depending on the species, goldenrod’s display of brilliant yellow may vary even further with soil conditions. NJ.GOV/pinelands lists six species of goldenrod, a feast for late season migrating pollinators.

Splashes of vibrant purple fresh from dawn’s display of pastels, stand in brilliant contrast to appear as delicate embroidery in the expansive blanket of golden yellow and green. Purple loosestrife, an invasive non-native plant, has established itself along the river and moist, overgrown pasturelands. Though loosestrife blooms from June to September, its presence in late-summer, is for some reason, more spectacular, perhaps its vibrant color is now more intense.

Artists use light and composition to direct attention to the main subject and then allow that focus to diffuse and absorb all the fine details so critical to support the entire work of art.

In nature we see the same strategy, which speaks more to revealing the innate human thought process than it does to suggest nature exhibiting intent. That thought aside, the beauty that surrounds us, is in itself, best felt emotionally rather than seasoned with logic and rationality.

The broad bold colored brush strokes painted across wide swatches of meadow and grassland are sufficient to capture attention and compel a search for the finer details.

Standing tall above the rest always garners a first glance among the crowd. Common mullein is another late season bloomer, pale green, tending to gray, with a long thick wooly stalk upon which a whorl of yellow flowers appears. The plant has many medicinal and practical uses. It seems the color yellow, dripped from the rising sun, is natures favorite, after green and blue. Ask which came first, insects evolving to adapt to yellow flowers or yellow flowers dominating because of insect choice.

Another example of fine art is Joe-Pye-Weed. Again, a tall plant which bears a large globe of tiny flowers tinted light pink to purple. The color taken directly from the evolving pastels displayed at dawn, even freezing the subtle movement seen as colors travel their spectral paths allowed by visible light. That long moment of change, as if time was captured in the still portrait of a Joe-Pye-Weed floret.

Ironweed is another common wildflower blooming in late summer. Small patches of this tall plant bear fluorescent dark purple flowers. The color stands in contrast to the earth tones of brown, tan, gray and green that dominate nature’s palette.

Cardinal flower, a native wildflower, blooms in moist areas in late August to September. Appropriately named, this plant bears several dark red cone shaped flowers that glow with such intensity and depth comparable to fresh drops of blood. The intense red coming directly from the glowing orb seen at dawn as it breaks free of the earth’s molten core.

Late summer and early fall are marked by changes in color. Colors previewed and mixed in the sky from effluent of the rising sun. As these colors emerge on the landscape, they mark the passage of time as effectively as a modern day calendar.

Instead of relying on standard numeric measures of time, we might say, the red is on the cardinal flower and the purple is on the iron weed and in doing so we color time.

 

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The Rivers Were Here First

Along the South Branch

July 2020

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The Rivers Were Here First

Imagine glistening water appearing on the south face of a retreating glacier at the end of the last ice age. The warming atmosphere sent a cascade of water onto the bare earth where it pooled to create an echo chamber, sounding the arrival of each drop of icy water. This scenario describes the theoretical birth of the Raritan River watershed.

The rivers were here first, post glacial retreat. Consider the main branch of the Raritan River, the South Branch, was formed at the start of a brief ten-thousand-year moment of post glacial, relative geologic stability.

The weight of megatons of glacial ice removed, the now unburdened earth began to squirm. Seeking to ease tension and reach a state of equilibrium, mountains, valleys and ridges were formed and reformed as tectonic plates shifted. Low areas filled with glacial melt and rainfall till overflowing. Large lakes formed as water accumulated, the weight of water then destabilized the ground to breech these impoundments. The sudden release of water further altered the topography of the land. Over time equilibrium was reached where water accumulation and flow were balanced. Gravity then directed the relatively constant overflow downhill, seeking a path of least resistance dependent on soil structure and around hard rock to reach sea level. The current source of the Raritan, which arises at Budd Lake, is approximately 933 feet above sea level.

Source of the main branch of the Raritan River arises from a glacial lake 933 feet above sea level and flows for fifty miles to its confluence with the Raritan and North Branch  at 50 feet above sea level.

The South Branch of the Raritan flows from Budd Lake, aka Hattacawanna, to its mouth, aka Tucca-Ramma-Hacking, aka, the meeting place of waters. Standing at the convergence of the the two branches, each is named for the direction from which it joins to form the Raritan, though both the North and South Branch begin north of the confluence. Aerial image courtesy of flight provided by LightHawk and No Water No Life

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Tucca-ramma-hacking, the meeting place of waters. South Branch on the right, north Branch on the left. Raritan begins at the confluence of the North and South Branch.

Looking at the stability of today’s river we must appreciate the almost evolutionary natural selection of its watercourse. Locally we see deep valleys far outsized in comparison to the small streams flowing through them; Holland Brook and Pleasant Run are two examples. Somewhere in the past these pastoral rills were raging rivers, perhaps overflow from the volcanic vent that formed Round Valley.

The outlet of the Hudson River was determined at one point to be in the area of Bound Brook and formed what is now the lower Raritan River. The South Branch of the Raritan eventually meandered through rock and rill to merge with the Raritan River, orphaned by the mercurial Hudson in its adolescent stage.

The first rivers and streams were simply situated where the combination of elevation/gravity, rate of flow, soil structure and rocky obstructions were random. Flora and fauna had no stable conditions upon which to flourish.

Once the river course stabilized, it provided ideal conditions for an interdependent community of plants, animals and eventually humans. Undeniably the river is referenced in every aspect of planning and development. Suffering good and bad decisions, its endless flow serves as innate immunity, susceptible to remediation and full recovery.

Human habitation along the river has to be considered dramatic as human intervention has the greatest impact upon the environment in any given era. Whether it be the first colonial dams which were burned because they blocked the upstream alewive migration or twentieth century chemical effluent from industry which poisoned our waters and the cascade of life from which it arose.

The river is an immovable constant which provides stability when change rages in an ebb and flow of perceived progress. This watery touchstone provides a north star upon which to re-direct an awareness of community and balance.

Look closer at the flowing water and realize what appears as an enduring entity is made up of endless stream of new water molecules. A river looks static in that its bed is always filled with water. I just find it fascinating to realize I am looking at the closest thing to infinity, as unique water molecules have passed by the same point for eons. The individuals come together to create a seamless enduring entity.

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A great place to contemplate the river and come to the realization each drop of acrobatic water bubbling over the boulders is new to the journey to the sea. The river is alive and constantly renewed! Never the same.   

It is mind boggling to consider that view, but helpful to see life as a continuous flow of new recruits and how decisions made today will impact the future. It also provides a new perspective from which to view an issue. Too often problem solving suffers from restricted contributions.

Our rivers provide tangible benefits as well as being a source of inspiration to expand our imagination and fire our creativity for the benefit of all. The rivers were here first and life grew up around them in an expanding spiral of interrelated communities.

 

 

 

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Pollinators in Disguise

Along the South Branch

May 2020

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One fox says to the other, “Huh, my nose fits perfectly in your ear!” Something along those lines a humming bird might say to a trumpet vine flower. 

 

Pollinators in Disguise

The midsummer morning dew covered the green meadow grass with a transparent layer of condensation. In the light before sunrise the green grass appeared to be covered with a dull silver wash.

I was making a morning pilgrimage to an isolated jumble of trumpet vine in hope of capturing hummingbird images.

The freshly made trail of an animal, passing through the tall grass caught my attention. Its fur wiped off the droplets of moisture clinging to the meadow grass. The image was that of a long single brush stroke of dark emerald green overlaying a dominant pewter green tinted background.

In the distance near the trumpet vine I saw a fox repeatedly bounce in the air as if on a trampoline. I edged closer hoping for a better view with binoculars.

The fox sat up and turned its attention to the tangle of vines covered with large trumpet shaped orange flowers.

As if out of curiosity the young fox stretched forward and sniffed among the vines and actually stuck its nose up one of the flowers. A closer look revealed a smudge of orange pollen on the tip of the fox’s wet black nose!

 

I knew what to look for or I would never have noticed the telltale pollen dust. Whenever I identified a flower for my daughter, she instinctively held the flower to her nose. The weaker the scent the closer to their nose it was placed. Curiosity then demanded another flower be sniffed in comparison to the first. Inevitably she would comment on the scent totally unaware the tip of her nose was smeared with bright colored pollen. In doing so, genetic material from one flower was transferred to another in an act of incidental pollination by a pollinator in disguise!

Flowers have evolved along with primary pollinators for mutual benefit. The flower’s structure provides an ergonomic accommodation resulting in an automatic pollen dispenser. This is essentially a primitive method of artificial insemination, where genetic material is collected from one individual and dispensed to another.

When we think of pollinators, honeybees and butterflies first come to mind. There are however, scores of other insect pollinators along with highly adapted birds, hummingbirds being a prime example. Bats and orioles also listed as pollinators.

Primary pollinators and flowers have developed unique structures that fit together perfectly to serve the needs of both.

Bees have pollen baskets on the side of their legs while hummingbirds have the ability to hover motionless over a delicate stemmed flower and feed by way of a highly adapted beak and tongue, avoiding damage to their food source.

Flowers use color, shape and placement of reproduction structures to accommodate specific pollinators. Flat faced zinnias are perfect for bees and butterflies while the cone shaped flowers of trumpet vines are best suited for the long thin probing beaks of hummers. Specificity and dependence between species in nature often comes with a price. Where major crops like blueberries are grown, a die off of honey bees will result in a poor harvest. In this case, the relationship between pollinator and flower expands to include agriculture, economics, commerce and consumers.

The beauty of flowers extends to their adaptability to recruit incidental pollinators. When a non targeted pollinator, fox or human, walks though a field of flowers, pollen will collect on fur or clothing and brush off on other flowers. Not an efficient method of genetic transfer, but some pollination will occur.

If the inquisitive fox were to sniff another trumpet vine bloom, genetic transfer would be complete.  That flowers can use a fox to transport pollen makes one wonder if an argument could be made that flowers are an intelligent life-form.

Consider that flowers are living things that in some magical way recruited man to further their propagation in exchange for a glimpse of eternal beauty, dreams and imagination to expand the universe of human potential with unbounded creativity and expression.

More detailed information on pollinators in NJ may be found at Conserve Wildlife New Jersey’s website.  http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/protecting/projects/pollinators/

 

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If you look closely you can see a smudge of yellow pollen top center of the hummer’s head as it feeds on cardinal flower. The pistil containing the pollen is perfectly positioned just above the hummer’s head. As the bird will visit multiple flowers it carries pollen from one flower to the next.

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Thin blue Lines

 

Thin Blue Lines

A plaque, inset in a concrete bridge constructed in 1923, spans the nameless stream, which now appears on the map as a thin blue line.

Its name long forgotten, an anonymous thin blue line drawn on the map comes to life.

The last image shows the stream as it exists today, just before it empties into the South Branch of the Raritan.

If all the water that ever flowed from the Raritan river drainage could be measured, its contribution to the depth of the ocean would be impressive. Think of that watershed as a collection agency for the world’s oceans.

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The South Branch flows into the confluence from the right, the North Branch from the left. They combine to form the Raritan River. This natural formation was an important landmark to the Lenape Tribe, which referred to this place as Tucca-Ramma-Hacking, “the meeting place of waters.”

 

An aerial view of the Raritan River clearly shows its two main branches, the South Branch and the North Branch. From the perspective of the confluence, its two main branches get their name, despite both arising north of their meeting place. The confluence marks the beginning of the Raritan River.

 

A closer look reveals the larger tributaries which feed the main branches; Rockaway creek, Black river/Lamington River and the Neshanic River, all of which are clearly noted on maps.

 

No less important are the numerous smaller brooks and creeks whose contributions are significant and whose names may appear only on old maps or engraved on marble plaques set in structures that bridge their banks. Peter’s brook, Chambers brook, Pleasant Run, Prescott Brook, Assicong Creek, Minneakoning Creek, Holland Brook and the First, Second and Third Neshanic Rivers, are identified on some maps though only Holland Brook has one sign along its nine mile winding course. Hoopstick and Bushkill are lesser known streams, within plain view, that bear no identifying signage and are often represented as nameless blue lines.

 

There are dozens more minor streams whose names appear nowhere except in obscure archives. Each one eventually feeds not the Raritan or its two main branches above the confluence. Knowing someone’s name is a sign of respect.

 

Calling someone by the wrong name can be embarrassing. However, the signs that misidentify the North Branch of the Raritan River as the Raritan River proper, have failed to embarrass those responsible for posting such signs.

 

Many smaller seeps and springs whose names have been lost to the ages add to the accumulated flow. Driving along the Lamington River for instance, there are endless watery traces arising from springs within the woods that empty into larger tributaries. Many are just moist creases worn through the soil over time, which collect rainwater and snowmelt to supplement the downstream daily flow.

 

Maps show endless springs, which make the cartographers final draft as thin blue lines. Often a network of converging shorter lines, each with a defined beginning, join to form larger streams like Pleasant Run and Holland brook.

 

Obscure water sources fascinate me simply because their anonymity and remote locations arouse my curiosity about the natural communities that might exist in such rarely visited places. Their presence represents a convergence of habitat types that attract birds and wildlife. Though they bear no labels to honor their faithful contribution to the next blue line and ultimate confluence, their importance must not be overlooked.

 

Many springs which appeared on old maps, no longer exist, eliminated by construction of sewer lines or otherwise diverted or filled in. As maps are revised and generations fade, these streams exist only in a cartographer’s archive.

 

My appreciation for these disappearing thin blue lines was heightened when I recently discovered that as a kid I walked over Slingtail brook every day on the way to school. At some point this little stream which bore a name, was diverted through a sewer line under the pavement. More amazing, even older residents had no memory of that stream, its presence and name lost to the ages. I did find a reference to Slingtail Brook in the Woodbridge, New Jersey newspaper archives dated 1939. The property through which a portion of the stream flowed was up for sale. A clause by the seller stipulated the brook not be diverted or covered over.

 

“Conveyance will be made subject to the following condition: That the course of Slingtail Brook as now existent, be not changed or diverted from its course or that said stream and flow of water therein be not blockaded, dammed or otherwise restricted.

Take further notice that the Township ………… “

Fords Beacon, May 12, 1939”

 

Somewhere in time the requirement that Slingtail remain unmolested, was lost to progress and legal wrangling. Such is the fate of so many smaller streams, especially when their names only exist in oral history and no signage marks there presence.

 

 

 

One small trickle of a stream that has miraculously retained its nature and name, is Cattail Brook.

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Cattail brook arises from a convergence of network of bubbling springs, supplemented by runoff from rain and snowfall. It begins as hardly more than a trickle, directed by gravity, from the south facing ridge of the heavily wooded Sourland Mountains, near East Amwell, NJ. Cattail brook gives birth to Rock Brook, a tumultuous and moody stream that joins the more sedate Bedens Brook on its way to the Millstone River. The Millstone joins with the Raritan River to make its final contribution to the earth’s deep blue oceans.

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Rock Brook derives its character from the influence of gravity and its bed of stone, which can change its mood from this idyllic mountain brook into a raging torrent

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Where water trickled most of the year, a biblical flood now ensued on Rock Brook.

 

An extended winter freeze, preserving snow from a previous storm beyond its expected stay, was interrupted by a thaw and heavy rain. The melting snow joined the torrential downpour as it flowed over frozen ground to collect in every shallow crease leading to the river. The water’s velocity was enhanced by the decreasing gradient of deep well worn pathways etched into the earth.

 

 

The banks of successfully larger streams barely contained the accumulation of water delivered from the network of anonymous thin blue lines. Acting as a single entity, the collection agency, if you will, of the Raritan River drainage, faithfully delivered its contribution of sweet water to the world’s salty oceans.

 

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The Raritan River becomes the Raritan Bay downstream of the New Jersey Garden State Parkway Bridge. With a poetic flourish, the salt water bay and lower Raritan River are stained blue, saturated with the blue ink used to represent the thousands of nameless pale blue lines drawn on maps of the extensive Raritan River watershed.

Aerial images taken on flight provided by Lighthawk compliments of No Water No Life

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By the Light of the Silvery Spring Moon

Along the South Branch

March 2020

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In the dark of night or by the light of a full moon, screech owls are on the prowl for food. Spring peepers sound a dinner bell for a hungry owl and are the perfect size for the diminutive screech owl.

By the Light of the Silvery Spring Moon

The last full moon of winter rose in the night sky to escape the clouds which hung just above the horizon. As the moon passed above this dark velvet curtain, an infinite army of dark shadows suddenly appeared and stood tall in contrast to the silver-gray tinted background. Though the moon light turned night into day, all color melted into shades of gray.

 

A chorus of spring peepers provided backup music to solo performances by pickerel frogs, toads and green frogs. The sound ebbed and flowed with brief moments of sudden silence as if to gather audience attention. The amphibian love fest seemed heightened by the silvery mood light hovering high above. The calls professing infinite amphibian love, also attract predators whose love extends only to a dietary delight. The flash of a low flying owl, was revealed as moonlight reflected off its white under feathers during a sharp turn. This aerial pirouette coincided with a dead silence from the chorus of frogs. When the sounds of love returned, haltingly at first, then to full volume, it was impossible to tell if there was now one less second tenor.

 

Turning back from the meadow, I began to scan the moonlit surface of the gently flowing river. Any disturbance in the perfectly smooth, glass-like water surface would reveal the presence of some otherwise elusive creature or unfolding drama. Locally common aquatic furbearers, mink, beaver, muskrat, along with land dwellers, especially raccoon, are most active at night and may be occasionally be seen.

 

There was a substantial inventory of sticks and barely exposed rocks causing irregularities in the smooth water that had to be checked off as false positives It became a game of concentration to recall which disturbance to ignore. One sure sign of interest is the half circle pattern of ripples moving out from the shore, perpendicular to the water flow. Many a muskrat leaving its submerged bank den will send telltale ripples to preface its appearance. Same goes for mink or raccoon investigating nooks and crannies in the labyrinth of tree roots. One night, a large wake appeared to reveal the presence of a barge size raccoon, paddling from shore to island. The moonlight revealed a perfectly dry ball of fur, slowly swimming, as if to not get its hair wet. It soon disappeared into the deep shadows of the island’s trees.

 

Another moonlit night, during very low water, the smooth water flow was interrupted by something walking from shore to island a distance away and partially obscured by branches. I fully expected to see a deer as its relatively long legs dismissed the possibility of a raccoon. I was shocked to see a fox walking in the water. The digital image captured is visual blur but clearly shows a red fox willing to get its feet wet for something its nose demanded to investigate.

 

Though the natural world is a never ending, non-stop feature film, we see only out of context isolated frames which are inadequate to understand the complexity and co-dependence of the natural community of which we are an inseparable part.

 

The light of a full moon becomes the movie projector used to provide an opportunity to see what goes on in the dark of night and add needed perspective to our knowledge of the natural world.

 

Note some moon fun facts. The diameter of the moon is less than the width of the United States. A case of “objects in the mirror appear closer than they really are.” The moon’s axial rotation matches exactly the time it takes to orbit the earth. The moon is capable of raising and lowering the sea level, triggering migrations and influencing animal and human behavior. Bird migrations are associated with the full moon and in the case of woodcock, provide a well-lit stage for a display of early spring mating flights. A recent study has found that a protein exists in birds’ eyes which allow it to actually see and navigate by the blue light generated from the magnetic poles. The influence of moon phase on migration and animal activity is well documented.  See Solunar Tables by John Alden Knight, Also Richard Alden Knight https://www.usprimetimes.com/theory.html  for more information on sun, moon and tide affects on behavior.

 

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