An Ornithologist Shares the Joys of Birdwatching

Ornithologist Charlie Leck

Those looking to find the “just right” type of activity between the vaccine-softening quarantining and full public exposure, the place to go may your actual backyard or neighborhood.

And since birdwatching has a seemingly limitless number of game to catch by eye, it’s an activity where the sky — along with everything under it — is the limit.

“I think just getting out of doors,” says regional ornithologist Charles (aka Charlie) Leck about birdwatching as a pursuit. “And there are few animal groups you can see at any time, beautiful colors.”

The author of two Rutgers University Press books, “Birds of New Jersey: Their Habits and Habitats” and “The Status and Distribution of New Jersey’s Birds,” and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, where he led classes in animal behavior, ornithology, and ecology, Leck says in April “everything is bursting in song. Wrens are singing away. That’s the sign we’re really getting into spring.”

During a recent telephone conversation from his house in Kendell Park, Leck advises people to get out and find “cavity nesters looking for a nest site — a hole in the tree. That includes a lot of woodpeckers and nuthatches, chickadees — they’re always courting already.”

Additionally, he says look for bald eagles “The numbers are fantastic this year. There have been 30, up to 40 or 50 wintering on the Delaware River, from Ewing south to Bordentown.”

Since eagles mate during the winter, people on the lookout may be able to spot the chicks that began hatching at the end of March. “It’s good now. The young ones will be flapping around trying to fly for the next month or so.”

Other bird activities include the arrival of the migrating Carolina wrens “and woodcock courtship is pretty big. Take walks at sunset. The birds are making noise and flying. There are many other things this time of year. Loons will be calling soon.”

Leck says that birdwatching is an easy pursuit that requires “just a curiosity about the outdoors, binoculars, and some kind of guide book. The Peterson one was famous for years.”

But it works best if the novice goes with a few others who have some birding knowledge. “If it is just one other person, it helps a lot.”

He also says that it is good to be in a group and points to the Audubon Society, the Friends of Abbott Marshlands, and Mercer County Parks.

“Small numbers of people are good,” says Leck, referring to both COVID and effectiveness — too many people will scare the birds away. “A lot of things are good in small numbers, anything smaller than 24.”

Speaking about changes he has noticed since his “Birds of New Jersey” was first published in 1975, Leck says one main thing is the bird population in the Garden State “is way, way down,” according to annual bird counts. “You may get the same number of species, but the (census) numbers are fewer. That’s happened again and again with different groups (participating in the count). You can’t say what group of birds it is. There are fewer habitats to nest, fewer things to feed on.”

Speaking on the book’s pages about local sites, Leck guides readers to locations such as the Institute for Advanced Study woods, where woodcocks are among the first to begin spring courtship. He says in late March “males can be heading on their spiraling flights, which end with a whining 60-foot dive to the ground and abrupt landing. Between courtship flights the males walk about the display grounds giving their distinctive nasal ‘peeent’ call. The female is attracted by the activity and selects a mate. The female then nests and raises four young, with no assistance from the male. The same courtship grounds are used year after year by successive generations of woodcocks — I have seen the same local display ground active for more than 10 years.”

At William L. Hutcheson Memorial Forest, the historic untilled natural preserve in Franklin Township, the male indigo bunting “returns in spring a few days earlier than the female to establish its territory. Joining it is the American goldfinch, which is especially fond of the thistle — in fact, thistle seeds quickly attract goldfinches to feeding stations. This finch is sometimes called the ‘wild canary’ and is well known to bird watchers for its confusing color changes through the seasons. It is the official state bird of New Jersey as well as Iowa and Washington.”

Eagles seen in Mercer County’s online Eyes on Eagles project

A pair of bald eagles in Mercer County Park as seen in the county’s Eyes on Eagles virtual program.

During the interview he adds, “Sayen Gardens in Hamilton is good — in April it will be fantastic. One of the best parks is the county park, Mercer Meadows [near ETS]. The woods near there has regularly had screech owls, horn owls, and short ear owls. They court spectacularly at sunset. Mercer County Parks has owl walks that are quite successful.”

For all year birding, he says, “You can’t beat the Brigantine or Forsythe Wildlife Center and Sandy Hook.”

But people can find opportunities when they look outdoors and notice signs of the changing seasons, such as the arrival of spring food sources: sap flowing through branches, insect activity, budding plants, and worms emerging from the ground.

Leck, who has been observing birds and his surroundings for more than a half century, grew up in Princeton Junction and attended Princeton High School.

The son of an RCA electrical researcher and a stay-at-home mother, he says he often explored the Millstone River, Lake Carnegie, and the woods and wet meadows of Plainsboro, now the Plainsboro Preserve.

He connects his career in ornithology to an incident when he was a Boy Scout attending Camp Pahaquarra on the Delaware River. “You do archery and this and that. Then I saw scouts looking up at the trees. I was astonished with what was there. I couldn’t believe it. The scouts got me going.”

That included pursuing an undergraduate degree from Muhlenberg College, a PhD in animal behavior from Cornell, and a teaching position at Rutgers University’s Cook College from 1970 to 2000.

In addition to writing two books, Leck shares his bird expertise during bird walks organized by the Friends of the Abbott Marshlands, a group founded by his wife and Rider University professor emeritus Mary Leck.

Among Leck’s own bird favorites, number one seems to be herons. “I look forward to seeing them at the marsh.”

Understanding others may want to search out something more exciting — and mitigate the image of the nerdy birdwatcher — he mentions predators, such as the aforementioned eagles and owls as well as peregrine falcons found nesting on bridges.

Thinking of a safe group activity that has a practical outcome, Leck recommends the annual bird count called both the Big Day — aka the World Series of Birding — set for Saturday, May 8, (see the New Jersey Audubon Society listing below).

“It is both a social and scientific effort to raise money for various purposes,” he says. “People pledge so many birds (to count) and money comes in. These Big Days are astonishing. What is good about them is that they’ve been done for more than 100 years, but it is sad because the numbers are down typically more than it was years ago.”

Yet, as he pointed out in his book years ago, “There will be changes in the future, particularly with man’s alternation of the environment. But with appropriate priorities New Jersey may continue to be graced by the richness of birdlife.”

For more information on New Jersey birds, birdwatching opportunities, and organizations, visit the following:

Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, website listings of events, programs, and webcams to view state and regional eagles, hawks, and osprey, 2 Preservation Place, Princeton,

Mercer County Parks, listings of bird hikes at different parks, including Roebling Park in the Abbott Marshlands and Mercer Meadows, and Eyes on Eagles and Owl Photography events,

New Jersey Audubon, state and tristate listing of birding activities including the Saturday, May 8, World Series of Birding, 9 Hardscrabble Road, Bernardsville, New Jersey,

Washington Crossing Audubon Society, website listing of regional events and area birding “hot spots,” Box 112, Pennington,