When fall color is lacking, a sure way to discover autumn’s arrival is to go on a bird-quest. New Jersey is rich in such sites. Our favorite is “The Brig” — short for Brigantine, a.k.a. Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge — just above Atlantic City, off Route 9. We went to Home — Edwin B. Forsythe — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov) for their list of recent sightings, then set off at 7:15 a.m. from Lawrenceville.
We could not, of course, truly know what to expect. Not only birders realize that Cornell Ornithology Lab recently reported a severe dearth of birds in our country. Their website reveals: “Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation scientist Dr. Ken Rosenberg led an international team of 12 scientists in an analysis of decades of data on bird population — and the conclusion is disturbing. In the last 50 years, one in four birds in North America has disappeared. Pesticide use and loss of habitat to farmland are some of the most significant contributors to the decline in bird populations, according to Rosenberg. Although scientists have known for a long time that certain bird species were threatened by human activities, this study reveals that these issues apply to birds of nearly all species.”
For my birding friends and myself, too many regional drives past “The Pole Farm”/Mercer Meadows have proved to be wingless wandering. Such shortages render New Jersey’s nature preserves all the more essential to wild creatures and those who follow them.
It is mean low tide when we enter Forsythe/Brig Refuge. This should mean paradise for shore birds. Initially, though, we are given an abundance of tiny leaping dolphin-like wildly feeding fish. They outnumber anything with wings.
But then, abundance! Dusky angular cormorants to our right imitate a black picket fence, defining Absecon Bay. Thin, intense, all face the identical direction, displaying slanted intensities revealing migration plans. Some, indeed, wave wings like Christ of the Andes. Double-crested and great cormorants must accomplish this to dry off after feeding dives. They are by no means bountifully waterproofed, as are ducks.
Underwater, flying underwater one could say, they have been clocked at 30 miles per hour. Though grounded on this welcome bayside sandbar, come a steady northwest wind, they will rise as one, headed for the horizon. Their band will resemble a blizzard of zinging arrows — headed straight toward southern bounties, toward life itself.
Bright shapes on inland waterways reveal themselves as elegant pairs of mute swans. Favored ‘Brig’ scenes involve these stately couples, oft trailed by a skein of soft grey young — cygnets. Proud parents are nearly blinding against fall-fading marsh grasses and these still bright marsh mallows. Not sweets, these ruffled flowers of the hibiscus family are usually pink; occasionally white. Sometimes magenta. In ancient times, Indians created dessert from these roots.
Our first avian proof of fall’s presence is the array of saucy, elegant laughing gulls, in the air and on the sand. This species is moving at varied rates into transition plumage (from breeding- to winter-). Beaks are losing their former burgundy hue. Black caps are being replaced by David Allen Sibley’s “gray smudges.” White dots on jet-black tails seem larger in this season. In a wildlife refuge, even in breeding season, laughing gulls tend not to laugh — because they are not being human-fed here.
The odd aspect of our autumnal bird-quest, though, continues to be so few on the wing. Admittedly, flags at the visitor center had wrapped themselves around those poles. Birds heading south for winter need strong autumnal northwest winds — literal tail-winds!
Then, climbing the gull tower (despite three new hips between the two of us), we come to “a crowd, a host” — as in hundreds, as in beyond counting — of dignified, motionless great egrets. Each level we attain on the platform increases our range overlooking extensive wetlands of varying salinities. Every turn adds perhaps even 50 of these gold-beaked wonders. Gold — our first autumn hue! Strange to both of us is how motionless remain these “foragers of shallow waters” (Sibley). They are not only not feeding; they are not even examining the scrim of liquid barely hiding black feet. Numerically, they were Sibley-true, indeed: “gathers in numbers where prey is abundant.” But no one is gathering this morning.
All along the eight-mile dike road, we are surrounded by eruptions of thistles, in a winey mood. We have to remind ourselves that autumn to thistles, is proven by rosy hues. Although this plant is essential for goldfinches, we looked in vain for tiny wings. Not only do thistle seeds nourish “distelfinks,” but thistle down generously lines their August nests.
Near the second gull tower, in water more like plastic wrap than liquid, nervous snowy egrets use their “golden slippers” to stir up invisible prey. Even more diagnostic than size, we can distinguish between greats and snowies by the rapidity of the smaller egrets’ search methods. This species, this day, is far more interested in food than in future migration.
We pass osprey nest after osprey nest to our right — such a contrast to their Atlantic City background. Adult osprey left long ago; young later. Parents winter separately; will meet here on the same spring day at their own Brigantine nest. Each pair of “homeowners” has a distinctive style, to which they will intensively add upon return. Occasional herring gulls use vacant nests and feeding poles as observation posts. If we were lucky, the peregrine falcon of Atlantic City would be claiming the entire preserve as his winter feeding place. Mostly, this peregrine must be memory, as he nests in city canyons.
All day, desperate for wings even here, we take delight in the drifty flights of blinding yellow “cloudless sulphur” butterflies, about a third as large as intensely southward flying monarchs.
Terns overhead occasionally dazzle with aerodynamic expertise. We hold our breath with each “stall” above slim waterways; gasp at each plunge, known as “stoop.” Terns baffle with their frankly infuriating similarity to one another. Better birders than I can easily “call” these species.
We’re at the “dog-leg,” that intense nearly final turn rimmed by towering black-green conifers. Here, one searches, with heroic patience, for black-crowned night herons. Muted, all too invisible, these creatures are known for catatonic stillness. Little by little, we perceive pale shapes within the lush groves, forms still as pillows. They come to seem like oversized ornaments on this Christmas tree array. Birding etiquette (honoring the creatures) urges us to use the car as “blind,” so we do not disturb those we came to find.
One or two birds preen assiduously, meaning they feel safe enough. All are living up to Sibley: “Nests and roosts in colonies hidden in trees.” They, also, are by no means feeding. If they were, they’d be down “crouching quietly at [nearby] water’s edge. Little by little, with the help of powerful optics and deep determination, we find some open heron eyes — diagnostic orange, setting this species apart.
Whether scarce matures or bountiful immatures, we have come to black-crowned-night-heron heaven. The few birders standing on the road are grinning ear-to-ear. These serene creatures show no reaction to human presence.
Then, the two of us are rewarded with not only the legendary “two-in-one-glass” reality (two rare birds seen without moving binoculars). We are given “four-in-one-glass”: one somnolent mature and three immatures. We remain silent, stunned pilgrims at this avian shrine. At this moment, in this place, there is nothing we would rather be than birders.
Co-founder of Princeton’s Cool Women Poets, Carolyn Foote Edelmann has photographed and written on nature/travel/history for The Times of Trenton, U.S. 1 Newspaper, The Packet Publications, and Jersey Sierran and New Jersey Countryside magazines.
Her roles at D&R Greenway Land Trust include publicity, community relations, managing Willing Hands; as well as serving as curator of the Olivia Rainbow Children’s Art Gallery. If she were to have an epitaph, it would read, “I’D RATHER BE BIRDING!”