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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 19, 2000. All rights reserved.
For Earth Day, `the Brig’
New Jersey birders cherish "The Brigantine"
as theater buffs treasure Stratford-upon-Avon. It doesn’t much matter
what play or cast is on the bill, the performance will always be memorable.
At Brigantine Wildlife Refuge, "curtains" rise and fall with
the sun, and "a ticket" costs all of $4 per car, an admission
fee charged through an honor system. This haven exists less than two
hours from these parts, between Smithville and Oceanville, in South
Formally part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, the
Brigantine is part of 40,000 acres of protected coastal habitat named
for the rare Republican Congressman who passed the bills that collected
the funds that bought the lands now impounded for wildfowl in all
seasons. Among the numerous spots marked "Forsythe Refuge"
dotting New Jersey maps, many are accessible solely by water.
The Brigantine Division celebrates Earth Day 2000 on Saturday, April
22, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with special events that include van tours
by the Atlantic Audubon Society, nature videos in the refuge auditorium,
a puppet show, and workshops that include painting commemorative recycled
Earth Day bags with AmericCorps, making bird feeders from recycled
soda bottles; and a Nature Print Stamping workshop.
The Brigantine, eerily afloat just north of Atlantic City, can be
reached efficiently by Garden State Parkway (Exit 48). For the more
adventurous, you can take the route through the Pinelands with the
help of a map. From the Trenton area, join Route 206 South in Bordentown
and proceed to Route 532 East to Tabernacle; Route 563 South to Chatsworth;
524 East to Port Republic, eventually joining Route 9 South to Oceanville.
The latter route holds unexpected, unguaranteed rewards: such as the
30 mute swans I recently saw afloat on Goose Pond, just above Chatsworth’s
flooded cranberry bogs. Or vivid hooded mergansers and a pair of ducks,
black and white buffleheads, bobbing beside the waterway’s primitive
bridges, opened for boaters with a mere eight hours’ notice.
On any day, Brigantine brochures are plentiful for visitors:
there is a guide to the many variations of the wildlife drive, and
an extensive checklist of possible sightings, with seasonal codes
as to abundance. The game for enthusiasts is to check off the full
day’s birds in the thorough brochure; then enter them in the notebook
next to the glass-covered Brigantine Refuge grid.
Before driving onto the one-way, eight-mile dike road, birders can
stop in the information booth to read the notes left by their predecessors.
Rare finds are listed with grid-marked locations, so that anyone can
go in precise search of an American bittern, an isolate avocet, a
tri-colored heron, or a flock of 48 glossy ibis, clearly recognizable
as fugitives from an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, all spotted on other
days of other seasons.
Few visitors are aware, as they set out upon the South Dike Road,
that it masks a railroad bed. Once this island was connected to the
mainland, with an eye toward attracting hordes of summer visitors
from Philadelphia and New York. Even then, people put aside the grayness
of cities for marsh greenery and ocean blues.
Now, in early spring, the Brigantine (or "the Brig" as it
is affectionately called by area birders) is mostly beige and gold,
tall and swaying phragmites reeds (weeds, also known as "invasive
aliens") ruling the roost. Wind off the bay bears a welcome salt
tang and too much of winter’s chill. Climbing the towers on this spring
day becomes something only a true birder could love, binoculars bumping
clumsily at each metallic step. There’s little to see and less to
hear. It’s not for nothing that this area is known by many as "Subtlety
However something is different this spring day. Controlled burns are
a vital part of salt- and freshwater impoundment management, discouraging
the invasive feathery and lofty phragmites. Easily six-feet tall,
phragmites wave beige-to-toast fronds as they merrily block the views
of passersby. But it’s not only a matter of destroying visitors’ sightlines.
It’s about food and shelter for migratory birds. As a result of snowgoose
devourings, native spartina grasses can no longer hold their own against
their towering cousins. Therefore, for the first time in my experience,
columns of smoke — first white, then gray, then bituminous black
— swirl above the central marsh.
Continuing east on the oyster-white roadway, electrifying flames reach
for grey clouds. Wild red columns dance like the creatures in "Night
on Bald Mountain" from Disney’s animated "Fantasia" (the
original version). Obviously, mice and voles and the like are being
dislodged. The treat of the day, therefore, is the mystery owl abroad
at noon. Huge and pale — though not so large nor horned as the
Great Horned Owl — this imposing bird tips its way above smoke
plumes. The haunting creature is so white, my eyes flinch as it throws
This owl’s sturdy body looks like a loaf of homemade bread, if bread
could fly. The wingspan is more than two feet, less than three. There
are tarnished brass thumb-sized stripes on the tail — but no owl
tails in my bird book. I do love a mystery. Not even the employees
in the refuge office can solve this puzzle. I wonder if I’ll ever
learn its name. Most amazing — even more than an owl sighting
in daytime — is the way it hovers. Like the toasty-brown, white-rumped
harrier who joins it in predation. Like a hummingbird, too few of
whom I have ever seen. And the hunting’s so good, the mystery owl
becomes my companion on not one, but two rounds of the impoundment.
The waters of Brigantine seem primal, under a sky that
stretches forever. And yet, this is the work of Civilian Conservation
Corpsmen, completed back during the Great Depression. Different wildfowl
and their grasses need different salinities — and this area is
managed for variety. Therefore, there’s no such thing as a dull day
at the Brigantine.
This one holds two probable golden eagles (so high, so swift, motionless
in their circling); one common loon (not common at all in New Jersey);
and two red-throateds. Mr. and Mrs. Hooded Merganser — he imitating
a bufflehead in his black-and-white glory; she looking like a redhead
with her finger in a socket or too much hairspray. The most ordinary
looking specimens are cause for rejoicing — so-called "black
ducks." Once seriously depleted, they are making a major comeback
in this area. They’re the ones that tend to feed beyond the fringes
of impoundments: lovely, sooty — actually more charcoal brown
than black — silhouettes.
Dapper northern pintails flaunt their eponymous plumes, dazzle with
the white sickles adorning the long necks. I am treated to another
birder’s triumph: recognizing shovelers by form rather than coloring
or behavior. This means the breed is truly stored inside the mind’s
computer grid, ready to be triggered after enough trips to the Brigantine.
A few herring gulls drop clams upon the nearly empty roadway.
Near the end of the dike road, Jen’s Trail beckons the footloose.
This hiking trail winds up, up, and away from the waters, into unsuspected
hills. A sturdy wooden lookout crowns this walk, fine place for a
picnic in more temperate seasons. This past New Year’s Eve, the gift
of Jen’s Trail was my first New Jersey sighting of a mature golden
eagle. In early summer, pond-side, trailside trees are studded like
Christmas trees with the broad white bodies of black crowned night
herons preparing for sleep. But on this day, the simplicity of silence,
of thick leaves underfoot, of being the only visible human from here
to the sea, are enough.
In effect, this early spring excursion proves to be as much about
what is not here, as what is. Even the acknowledgement of absences
holds excitement. No great black-backed gulls, although they’ve been
here and at Island Beach in every winter month. No red-winged blackbirds,
though it’s well past time for their return even in Princeton; and
I’d seen flocks here in December. Not one single heron of any stripe.
No peregrine this time — normally a refuge regular. No small wading
birds — but this is a question of tides, something this birder
will probably never master. No honor guard of yellow rumped warblers
leading me through the bayberry on the Leeds Trail, out over the marshes,
at the opening of the dike road. The rosy buds on refuge trees are
still scarce. Later, at the Audubon Society’s monthly meeting in Hopewell,
I learn that the this winter’s hard and frequent freezes have emptied
many refuges of over-wintering birds.
There are other sorts of compensation available in the area. Home-made
minestrone and hearty sesame bread, to the hearty family welcome at
Vincenzo’s Pizzeria in Smithville’s shopping center. And always the
array of signs of the route, which seem to sing out, "You’re not
in corporate America any more." A sampling of signs includes:
Tabernacle Farrier Supplies, Heaven’s Way Farm, and Hawkin Road (I
hope I am on a hawking road). At Russo’s Farm Market in Tabernacle:
"Pansy Flats $8: Put Money In Box." Ditto for apples, $3.
I do, their spiciness irresistible, even through the heavy-duty plastic
wrapping. My whole car smells like cider for the rest of the day.
In farm fields, a new crop of red-leafed curly lettuce, along with
Fresh Bait, Hay for Sale, and Goose Pond Gun Club. I detect the scent
of char on the air in the Pinelands — hoping it is a controlled
burn and not a car-thrown cigarette. "Jones Mill Road" was
once home to sawmills, for pine, for cedar, some oak in Pinelands’
heyday. Far too close to Smithville, in the middle of dense pine woods,
appears the sign "Casa Eleganza: Are you ready to live in elegance?"
Mile-on-mile of pine and oak, oak and pine. Sudden spurt of glossy
rhododendron, glistening laurel, spiky holly — acid soil hereabouts.
I pass signs for "Trap and Turkey Shoot, One Mile." And then
it’s all behind, — except for lasting puzzlement over the daytime
dazzle of owl — and I’m back in the full emptiness of New Jersey
bogland. Rare light — watery yet not marine — floods the
air. It must be those light sandgrains, shattering sun. Others who
take this route with me insist that the journey was worth it for boglands
alone. "It doesn’t even matter if we see birds!" And I almost
agree — until we find a blackthroated blue warbler on the way
to Brigantine’s Gull Pond.
On the fringes of the wildlife refuge sits the Noyes Museum of Art,
with its rotating collection of the finest decoys of the last century.
on a rise above a Monet-like pond (water lilies enhanced by great
blue herons), the museum presents the best of regional art. Its often
thought-provoking displays are a catalytic contrast with the primal
reaches and wild exhibits of the Brigantine.
So no matter whether the stage holds a cast of hundreds of thousands
— those dazzling snow geese viewed on New Year’s Eve — or
a cast of 20 or fewer, the Brigantine delivers on its promise of memorable
— Carolyn Foote Edelmann
B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, Great Creek Road, Oceanville,
609-652-1665. Van tours, videos, displays, and puppet show. All-day
workshops: Commemorative Earth Day bags from recycled material; Bird
Feeders from recycled soda bottles; and Nature Print Stamping by the
Noyes Museum. Free. Saturday, April 22, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
From the North: Take Garden State Parkway south to Exit 48 to Route
9 South. Continue on Route 9 for approximately 5 miles. Turn left
at Great Creek Road and continue to end.
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