Mower, May I ?

Along the South Branch

May 2022

Mower, May I ?

A children’s game, now fading from collective memory, where an authority figure stood facing away from the players who would ask permission to take steps forward. The question included the refrain, “Mother, may I”. The reply might be, ‘take one giant step forward’ or ‘take two baby steps back’. This game is said to be inspiration for Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, when he said, ‘One small step for man. One giant step for mankind’.  

The months of May and June are the time turtle step forward, one small step for that turtle and a giant step for preserving that species genetic future as they seek a location to lay eggs.  

Turtle species have relied on thousands of years of evolution to reach a relatively stable set of behaviors that has seen them through a millennium of environmental change before the appearance of humans.  

If change occurs faster than a species can adapt, it ceases to exist. The changes turtles face today were never included in the genetic mapping that made them so successful for thousands of years.  Roads and highways, farming and land development have thrown a curve ball to confound the turtles’ evolutionary success via gradual change. Mower blades spinning at 3,500 revolutions per minute sound a death knell to the species in general and elimination of threatened and endangered reptiles from an already shrinking home range. 

The presence of a turtle, no matter the species, is a miracle to behold when you consider it is a time traveler, unchanged in appearance from prehistoric times, who stepped through a wormhole in space into the 21st century. 

The most common species found crossing roads, as evidenced by unsuccessful attempts, is the ubiquitous snapping turtle. An aquatic species whose genetic GPS directs it to favorable high ground away from the vagaries of floods and droughts to lay its eggs. Perhaps it is the distance traveled to lay eggs that has made the snapper so successful and vulnerable to predators, among them autos.  

Another turtle commonly found crossing roads is the eastern box turtle. Box turtles are often concentrated in upland areas. A terrestrial species, it follows the rule of not laying eggs in the area it normally lives. I speculate that predators know where to find their prey and the prey know that the best chance for eggs to reach term would be somewhere away from the general population.  So it is that each spring, female turtles will leave home grounds for a suitable nursery in which to incubate their eggs. Eastern box turtles are assigned a ‘concerned’ classification, given a shrinking environment and loss of genetic variation due to populations isolated on islands of habitat. Continuity of habitat is a critical concern and a prime reason to establish and preserve greenways along rivers and streams.

The wood turtle is classified as endangered by state and ‘under review” by federal US Fish and Wildlife Service and is found locally. Aquatic and terrestrial, it spends time in meadows and uplands near rivers and streams making it more vulnerable to mowing not only during spring egg laying but throughout the season from April to October. Wood turtles are long lived and do not reach reproductive age for several years. This makes wood turtle populations very sensitive to loss of any mature adults. Research finds the loss of one or two adults may mark the end of that population over time. From the Wisconsin DNR website  “Wood turtle populations are particularly sensitive to removal of reproducing adults, and Compton (1999) determined that removal of only two adults annually from a group of 100 individuals would result in extinction of that population in 76 years, and removal of three adult individuals annually would lead to extinction in 50 years.” 

The meadows and uplands along our rivers are prime wood turtle habitat and any mowing must be evaluated for benefit vs harm. Walking trails trod by hikers is preferable to mowing. A mature wood turtle was killed on open space land when a path was mowed for the convenience of some local walkers. This act may have signed a death warrant for the wood turtle population in the area. In this game of survival, the wood turtle may ask ‘Mower, may I ?” when traversing our meadows during egg laying and feeding. 

Check these websites, one from Wisconsin and one from New Jersey for more information about Wood Turtles,

and most interesting, the electronic tracking of a female wood turtle at the Great Swamp National Refuge by the US Fish and Wildlife Service!. 

https://www.fws.gov/media/wood-turtle-transmitter-colin-osbornusfwsjpg

  

This wood turtle on her way to lay eggs was killed May 16, 2014, by a mower. Considering she was at least 10 years old, the situation is even more tragic. Wood turtles are a natural treasure hidden in plain view and tall grass, who deserves far more than just our consideration. 

Another wood turtle barely escaped being run over by a white van in the same area along the South Branch. The location of both turtles was reported to the state, which tracks wood turtle populations. This turtle is missing a left front foot, though well healed over.

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Race to the sea!

Along The South Branch

April 2022

Race to the sea!

Imagine a colorful fleet of canoes and kayaks gathered at the confluence of the north and south branch in anticipation of the start of a dash down the Raritan River to the sea. Described as a sojourn, dash, race and tour to accommodate all levels of experience, the finish lines for each class can be a different take out along the way. Classes for racers, timed for placement and simply celebration upon reaching any chosen finish line for the touring dashers. Distance or time become the personal feedback for participants who may wish to improve their last year’s performance. In that way the ‘race’ has the elements of developing into a tradition where dad’s and daughters, moms and sons, look forward to next year and maybe in anticipation, focus on improving their health and physical conditioning.

The paddler’s intimacy with the Raritan brings with it a deeper appreciation of the river, which has existed as more of a concept to most people who may only glimpse it at a distance, while passing over a bridge on the way to work. With intimacy comes consideration and concern about all things impacting the river and its watershed.

The possibilities to grow a network of support for the treasure that is the Raritan River, are limited only by imagination. Photographs and art work inspired by the river’s appearance through the seasons could be celebrated by riverside towns, restaurants, schools and galleries to be dispersed far and wide. Like seeds in the wind, the beauty and appreciation of the Raritan may be an inspiration to awaken distant communities to the riverine treasures in their backyard.

One example of a successful effort to market a once polluted river, is the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, held each April, in Maine. At one time salmon and eels returned from the sea via the Penobscot River to the Kenduskeag stream. By the time Thoreau walked he shores of the Kenduskeag in the mid 19th century, tanneries and flour mills blocked and poisoned the stream and continued well into the 1960s. A group of local canoeists came up with the idea for a canoe race to showcase the Kenduskeag and bring attention to its health. Eventually the race expanded to be televised and enjoyed by hundreds of viewers and attendees. The salmon run is making a comeback and even Sports Illustrated found room on its cover to celebrate the longest early season canoe race in New England. I participated in this race for eighteen years and carried the seeds of inspiration back to the Raritan. It is no small coincidence that Henry David Thoreau left indelible footprints along the Raritan River and the Kenduskeag for future generations to follow.

The crowd of streamside supporters bundled dry and warm, cheer on canoeists who await the countdown for the start of the Kenduskeag Stream Race. The countdown to the start of the race, 5. 4. 3. 2. 1.gets the adrenaline flowing. This is a scenario that may someday be played out at the confluence of the Raritan River.

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Raritan River Birthstone

ALONG THE SOUTH BRANCH

March 2022

Raritan River Birthstone

During one, six thousand year moment, in the eons of glacial expansion and retreat, the Queen of Rivers was born. So described by an early nineteenth writer, inspired by the bucolic Raritan River. The beauty of the river’s pastural floodplain dotted with colorful native flowers and grasses, stood in contrast to the intermittent high, red shale cliffs. Spring floods scrubbed the red shale soil from its banks to turn the raging river into a semi solid crimson torrent. The contrast in color is dramatic where gravel lined upland streams tumble into the main river current.

 From sweet water freshet to the brackish tide water of its bay, the Raritan’s unimpeded flow expressed its seasonal moods in uninhibited water colored brush strokes across the landscape as if it were a living canvas.

The Raritan’s headwaters arise from two major sources in the north, the South Branch from Budd Lake and the North Branch from a swamp in Chester. The confluence of these two rivers join to form the Raritan River. Facing upstream at the confluence, the river on the left enters from the south and is so named the South Branch, despite its origin in the north. The river on the right comes in from the north and is aptly named the North Branch.

At one geological period between glaciers and climate changes, the ancient Hudson River emptied into the Raritan River near Bound Brook. So, the Raritan River proper, as it is defined today, deserves the recognition of a natural wonder, a reference point in geological history, worthy of attention in a state marked by an everchanging man made landscape.

If ever a natural wonder needed to be celebrated it would be the Raritan River. Toward that end I always imagined a rough stone marker of an age befitting the river queen’s origin be placed at the confluence, “the meeting place of waters”, Tuck-ramma-hacking”. Informal and primitive to match the uninhibited behavior of this ancient watercourse, a perfect partner to mark the celebrated river’s place of birth: a monument that will be submerged during spring floods and bear the scars of ice flows.

I imagine a bronze plaque bearing the name of the river and its birthdate set among petroglyphs of animal tracks and wild flowers carved into the stone by local artists to represent the community the river serves.

Bringing a dream to reality often turns fantasy. At least now an attempt is now being made to explore the possibility of placing such a stone at the apex of the North and South Branch Rivers. Through a network of well-placed friends, we have approached the state with this request to determine feasibility. A labyrinth of permits and permissions remains to be navigated if given conditional approval. At the very least, the ship has left the dock and we will soon learn if it is seaworthy.

A stone, not yet chosen, has been promised and placement will be included.  A dream or a fantasy, we await reality. The river deserves to have a name and birthstone. Erroneously, the North Branch has official signage that declares it to be the Raritan River, if nothing else it would be a worthy accomplishment to establish the correct identity.

“Like a pine tree winding the lonely road, I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name…..”go the lyrics a song. What is in a name is respect. It is our nature to treat anonymity differently than familiarity.  Walk through a field, not knowing one plant from another, go from point A to point B and we naturally take a straight-line course. Eyes planted on the far side, anything in the way gets stepped upon. Guarantee that if a plant is identified to the trekker, whether it be fleabane or little bluestem, the path will be adjusted to avoid stepping on the now identified plant. So it is with names that emerge from anonymity, they project some kindred link that brings conscious thought to bear. A good reason to identify the Queen of Rivers and engender some new found respect for a natural wonder that will be here after we and our kin are long gone.

The beginning of the Raritan river at the confluence of its north and south branches. The North Branch on the left and the South Branch on the right, join to form the Raritan River. The birthstone will be placed at the apex of land, on the right, where the north and south branches meet. Images taken on flight provided by LightHawk at invitation of No Water, No Life.

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Natural Treasures Hidden in Plain View

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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. 

  Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com. 

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faqEAavMO40 [youtube.com]

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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