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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

back sun.

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

Earth Day 2000 Celebration, The Brigantine, Edwin

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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