September 17, 2007
Birds of the Meadowlands dazzle festival visitors
By Kathleen Lynn
Just a few feet from the western spur of the New Jersey Turnpike, an egret and a great blue heron perched at water's edge Sunday afternoon, watching intently for fish. Cormorants bobbed in the water nearby, also looking for an early dinner. Gulls swooped and screeched.
The drivers speeding by never saw this scene in the Saw Mill Creek marsh. But about 20 nature lovers got close to these birds and other marsh dwellers on a canoe and kayak paddling tour that was part of the fourth annual Meadowlands Festival of Birding.
The festival, sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society, the Hackensack Riverkeeper and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, brought birders and other nature lovers to the Meadowlands for two days of events that included nature walks, boat tours, the "Bird Song Grammys" and classes on binoculars, bird feeders and butterfly gardens.
"It's hard to believe this is available right here," said Barbara Kerner of Livingston, who took the paddling tour Sunday afternoon. "I used to think of the Meadowlands as landfill and turnpike, and it's really this spectacular nature preserve."
"I drive the turnpike every day, and I never knew this world existed," said Jeff Liebman, a medical writer from New Providence, who attended both days of the birding festival.
Sunday's paddling tour was run by Hackensack Riverkeeper project manager Nick Vos-Wein. He led a small flotilla of 16 canoes and kayaks around the creeks that wind through the Saw Mill marsh, which is fed by the Hackensack River. Birds could be heard rustling in the tall grass -- called phragmites -- that is the main vegetation in this part of the Meadowlands. It is one of the few plants that can survive the lower Hackensack River's blend of fresh water, flowing downstream, and salty water, washed upstream from Newark Bay by the tides.
As the paddlers made their way around the marsh, they saw red-winged blackbirds, gulls, egrets, herons, cormorants, plovers and sandpipers. Sometimes the birds, startled, would be flushed from their hiding places and rise with a sudden rush into the air.
Vos-Wein led the group down a narrow creek into an open area, a bowl of water surrounded by grasses. It's a great spot for birds, he said, because the grasses give them a place to hide from predators.
When the tide goes out, much of the Salt Creek marsh turns to mud flats, making it easier for birds to find fish.
These idyllic natural scenes, of course, are surrounded by one of the most densely populated areas in the world. No matter which way you turn, the backdrop to the Meadowlands is always manmade: the roar of traffic on the turnpike, the planes overhead from Newark Liberty International Airport, the elegant spire of the Empire State building, or the black industrial bones of the Pulaski Skyway.
Cheryl Campbell and John Alberto traveled from Bangor, Pa., a much more rural area near the Delaware River, to take the paddle tour. Campbell, a high school science teacher, said she was interested in the revival of the Meadowlands.
"We came here because there's been a lot of work done on this area," she said.
The Salt Creek marsh looked very clean Sunday, with almost no garbage beyond a couple of discarded tires. Vos-Wein said that's partly the result of regular cleanups. Nonetheless, he said, the water in the Meadowlands is considered safe for swimming by state pollution standards most of the time. The tides and the reeds do a fair job of cleaning the river, he said, though it is still polluted when sewage is discharged from combined storm and sewage systems on rainy days.
The birding festival drew a range of people, from those have been birdwatchers for decades to absolute beginners.
"I met one person who knows only five birds," Vos-Wein said Sunday. "And I think she learned them all yesterday."
Interested in Meadowlands wildlife? The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission recently released the first comprehensive ecotourism guide to the region and the Hackensack River. To request a copy of "Birding and Wildlife Trails: Meadowlands and More," call 888-NJM-BIRD.