From the Meadowlands to the Pinelands, from Sandy Hook to the Sourlands, New Jersey is a major stopover for birds migrating north. With four county-level National Audubon Society chapters in the state leading free, public walks in scenic birding hotspots, residents can witness firsthand the natural phenomenon known as spring migration.
Incorporated in 1905, the National Audubon Society is one of the oldest nonprofit environmental groups dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats. Of its more than 450 chapters nationwide, four are in New Jersey, and are run by volunteers. The groups offer optional membership ranging from $10 to $20 a year, with funds going toward conservation efforts in their local communities. However, anyone may attend walks and presentations for free.
In addition to walks, which range from the beginner level to those for the experienced birder, the chapters offer meetings and other events throughout the year and are a vital link in helping to restore and protect bird habitats in the Garden State.
Here are four chapters in New Jersey with interesting offerings this spring.
Don Torino is a self-described Meadowlands kid who used to ride his bike past warehouses and abandoned cars. Today, as president of the Bergen County Audubon Society, he leads walks through estuary parks in the Meadowlands, where paths wind through native plant gardens, and boardwalks snake through restored marshland.
“You never saw a bald eagle or an osprey or a peregrine falcon when I was a kid,” he says. “Now, they’re almost commonplace.” What prompted this remarkable, natural comeback? Although it took many years, the change was enabled by the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, the passage of the Clean Water Act, and enforced protection of the habitat.
During his 10 years as president of the Bergen County chapter, Torino has grown the 80-year-old group to more than 2,000 members. Often armed with a birding field guide and accompanied by members eager to point out birds, Torino leads walks at Richard W. DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst, Mill Creek Marsh in Secaucus, Overpeck County Park in Bergen County, Losen Slote Creek Park in Little Ferry, and the New Jersey Botanical Garden in Ringwood.
The group also maintains butterfly and hummingbird gardens, installs nesting boxes and signage in parks, and offers a backyard certification program designed to restore wildlife habitat. It also runs free events, including Butterfly Day for families in July, and a birding festival in September.
On the social-action front, the chapter has worked to protect hawks from methane gas flames in the Meadowlands and prevent state Department of Transportation highway maintenance crews from mowing down milkweed, an essential plant for monarch butterflies, which migrate through New Jersey from September through November each year. “The great thing about our chapter is we’re really a grassroots effort,” he says. “We’re the conservation organization right here in your neighborhood.”
With some 850 members, Monmouth County Audubon Society welcomes spring starting with trips to birding hot spot Sandy Hook, the 6-mile peninsula atop some 27 miles of coastline that draws osprey, egrets, herons and songbirds. “It’s still quite forested, especially when you consider the rest of coastal New Jersey,” says Colette Buchanan, president of the 48-year-old group. “So it’s a major stopping point for spring migrants.”
In May, the group moves inland to watch colorful songbirds at Thompson Park, which, she says, “has some nice trails and a good mix of birds.” Buchanan has spotted indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles and scarlet tanagers at the park.
In June, the group often schedules trips to Big Brook Park and the Dorbrook Recreation Area, where meadow habitat is maintained for grassland birds such as grasshopper sparrows and American woodcock.
At monthly meetings, experts cover such topics as birding and racial justice; butterflies; native plants; and the bog turtle, which is listed as endangered in New Jersey. Scholarships are awarded annually to two county high school students continuing their education in a field related to wildlife conservation.
While much of spring migration is focused along the coast, some 50 miles inland are meadows, fields, bogs, freshwater marshes, and one of the largest contiguous tracts of preserved forest in central New Jersey. “We have birds that come here specifically for those habitats,” says Juanita Hummel, president of Washington Crossing Audubon Society.
Walks are held at the Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain, which is Mercer County’s highest mountain and a great place to see migrating warblers. The group visits Pole Farm at Mercer Meadows for grassland birds and Abbott Marshlands for waterfowl and marsh birds.
Beginner walks are offered in spring, along with loaner binoculars. “But all our bird walks are open to anybody of any level,” Hummel says.
Its Holden Grant program has funded the construction of boardwalks in parks, meadow restoration at Thompson Preserve, invasive plant removal, reforestation, and the construction and installation of nest boxes for the American kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America, which is threatened in New Jersey.
The 1,440-member group also conducts monthly bird censuses on properties managed for birds and was instrumental, along with other groups, in getting the PennEast Pipeline Company to cancel its project to construct a 116-mile-long natural-gas pipeline that would have run through Baldpate Mountain, which is an important breeding habitat for birds.
Programs in the past have featured guest speakers from Rutgers and Princeton universities and the North American Butterfly Association, and a special series focuses on where and why certain birds live in New Jersey.
“We’re incorporating more discussions of habitat along with our of birds because the two are closely connected,” Hummel says.
With the 47,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge nearby, Atlantic Audubon Society has access to its fields, maritime forests, and freshwater and saltwater marshes, and therefore, to a variety of birds. “Different habitats increase your chances of seeing different bird species,” says Becky Hedden, president of the chapter. “It’s nice and close, and really a fantastic place.”
The 48-year-old chapter began as a group of adults from the community and students from what was then Stockton State College, now Stockton University. Today, it has about 500 members from Atlantic, Ocean, Burlington, Gloucester and Cape May counties.
Spring is greeted with Saturday-morning walks leaving from the Forsythe visitor center, which can provide loaner binoculars. Among the birds you’re likely to see are egrets, herons, osprey, ducks, shorebirds and songbirds.
The chapter holds monthly programs on topics such as tools for improving birding skills. It offers scholarships to Stockton students, as well as female high school seniors planning science careers. In addition to walks, Atlantic Audubon runs field trips to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, as well as traveling field trips through Forsythe. Other programs include trivia nights at the Atlantic County Library.
Long-time birder Monica Cardoza plans to go on field trips with all four county-level Audubon chapters in New Jersey this spring.
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