Ornithologist Charles Leck

Fifty Years of Changes

If You Go

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This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 11, 1999. All rights reserved.

Hutcheson Forest’s Old Growth

This is not "the forest primeval. The murmuring

pines and the hemlocks" of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s familiar

narrative poem, "Evangeline." This is central New Jersey’s

oak-hickory Hutcheson Memorial Forest, pretty impressive all by itself.

What forest director Edmund (Ted) Stiles of Rutgers University calls

"typical of New Jersey today" is a 65-acre tract of "old

woods" purchased by Rutgers in the 1950s. The forest stands in

a larger setting of about 500 acres of "diverse environment"

owned by individuals and Franklin Township, and managed by Rutgers.

Back before Longfellow, New Jersey was covered with forest. Over time,

Stiles says, most forest areas were clear-cut, resulting in single-age-stand

woodlands — or many trees that grew up at about the same time.

In a dynamic state, these trees eventually age and fall, leaving spaces

for light to reach the younger trees that grow and replace them. The

longest-lived trees in Hutcheson Forest are white oaks that can live

for 400 years; although the oldest specimens here are about 100-years-old.

When one of these trees falls, it is left where it lands, first to

serve as shelter for animals, and eventually to rot.

Because the preserve is a private research area, its entrance is purposely

somewhat hard to find (but directions are provided below). Tours are

led by members of Rutgers science faculty, whose specialty areas include

forestry, plant and forest ecology, wildlife biology, and ornithology.

The public walks take place monthly, on Sundays, and last one to two

hours. Most walks begin at 2:30 p.m., but there are also birdwatchers’

tours that take place bright and early, at 8:30 a.m. Judging by a

recent Sunday-morning experience on a perfect summer’s day, the Hutcheson

Forest walks are a pleasure.

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Ornithologist Charles Leck

Happily our Sunday guide, ornithologist Charles Leck,

does not confine himself to all things birdy. Instead, to our group’s

delight, he gives the tour very much as a forest generalist. Into

his avian lore, which includes a surprising ability to imitate bird

calls, he injects both humor and an unlabored grasp of what is growing,

and why, and where everything is going. Those of us on the walk —

a highly diverse group of about 20 — get the big picture as well

as an array of intriguing minutiae. Leck manages to share bits of

information that reach all the group’s specialized interests.

"I hear cedar waxwings," says Leck. His simple comment activates

all the binoculars on the trip.

Hutcheson, Leck explains, is close to being a virgin forest. The only

tree harvesting that has occurred was necessitated by a destructive

hurricane in the 1950s. Now, surrounded by fields that are deliberately

kept in varying stages of development, the forest area is steadily

expanding through purchases, such as those from retiring farmers,

whenever possible. The strategy is simple: "Preserve it today

or it’s houses tomorrow."

One woman among us, who clearly has an itchy history, asks, "What

about poison ivy on this walk?" To this Leck responds, "Why,

do you want some?" At regular intervals over the next 90 minutes,

he horrified her, and others, by pointing out uncommonly hearty examples

of the stuff hosted by Hutcheson’s old-growth trees. Twining up, around,

and out of sight are poison ivy vines thicker than a man’s arm, with

fuzzy appendages that the plant uses to absorb moisture. Their leaves

are big and vigorously green. Leck also shares a story about the day

the teacher of his wife’s basketmaking class brought in poison ivy

vines for raw material. "They were not happy students."

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Fifty Years of Changes

Times have changed since the 1950s, when Leck first came to the forest.

"I can remember when we were excited to see a deer here,"

he says. "We used to tell people, `We had a white-tailed deer!’"

Now he identifies the "browse line" in the trees — indentations

from the ground up to deer-nibble high: "This tree doesn’t normally

look like a lollipop," he says of a string of trees rounded only

at the top. And he points out a "deer highway" — a narrow,

but clearly visible path through the trees beaten by the high density

of deer.

About ticks: "Just keep checking yourself," Leck advises.

This prompts him to point out the wrong way — his own — and

the right way to dress for the Hutcheson Forest walk. The properly-dressed

hiker, who had also been the first arrival, wears crisp khakis tucked

into leather boots under high ragg socks, a plaid shirt, and a baseball

cap. Not only was he the best-dressed of our group, but he was nice,

too, fending off the frequent advances of a Brooklyn visitor. Others

in the group wear cut-off shorts or sports outfits with long pants;

some wear hats and a few carry bird books.

"All the thrushes are good songsters . . . The rose-breasted grosbeak

does sound like a robin. The book will say like a drunk robin, but

let’s just say a happy robin."

Our leisurely walk alternates between wooded areas — with occasional

shafts of sunlight and thriving greenery to left and right of the

path — and the open fields that surround the forest. Like the

birds, systematically caught in "mist nets" for banding and

long-term population studies, and the forest itself, the fields are

also the subjects of research. Nature reclaims the land in about 30

years, Leck says, pointing to an area that was plowed that many years

ago, that is now filled with dense growth.

These days "exotics," or plants from other countries that

are not native, make up 40 to 45 percent of the plant life that grows

back in the once-plowed fields. Why? Leck discusses seed dispersal

via wind, storms, birds, and "one other big component after a

summer plowing that causes 100 species to be growing by fall: the

seed bank — viable seeds still present from when this was last

a field." We learn that some small seeds can live in the soil

for 30, 60, or 90 years. "You plow, then let sunlight hit the

earth, and they grow. It’s always amazing what Mother Nature does.

If you had to have the county park system do this, it would be very

costly," says Leck.

Birds migrate to Hutcheson Forest each year from Central America,

pinpointing exactly where they will stop at both ends of the trip.

"The only problem is if the landmark disappears there, or if houses

are built here." The birdsong so prevalent from spring into early

summer is territorial behavior, Leck notes, and it diminishes once

the babies leave the nest and the parents can move around more.

"You’ll see adult birds flying with a little white sac. When they

have young in the nest, they don’t want the nest to be messy. Very

conveniently, baby birds defecate in, like, a little Pampers bag or

Baggie, and the adult flies away with this little white thing and

drops it somewhere," he says.

"You should be able to spot beech trees: They always have the

nice smooth bark . . . and the carved initials." Of another tree

(whose name I have lost in the thicket of information imparted), "this

wood is prized in the Orient. Japan uses it for wedding gift boxes,

and China uses it for caskets, or the other way around. Whatever the

case, it’s an important wood."

"If a lot of crows are calling, that means a great horned owl

is around. Crows `mob’ owls because the owl likes to eat crow, so

they’re not great friends," Leck tells us. This observation leads

to exchanges of stories among birders in the group — mobbing birds

they have known. Chickadees, for instance, mob smaller owls, according

to one couple. Pointing out that "you can elicit mobbing behavior,"

Leck describes his inflatable snake, Hector, that invariably attracts

this frenzied mobbing by mocking birds. Snakes love to eat bird eggs

and baby birds, he tells us, "so reactions to predators are often

pretty peppy."

Occasionally we encounter wooden walkways and bridges

over dry earth or barely-babbling brooks. It has been far dryer than

usual in Hutcheson, Leck says, making the warning that "the trail

through the woods may be muddy in places" irrelevant this summer.

Groups of pink flags on wire poles signal student projects, one example

being the study of "stilt grass," another exotic plant that

is spreading like that kind of fire, and temporarily at least, crowding

out other ground covers. The "garlic mustard" plant represents

still another quick-spreading exotic, but one whose ubiquitous presence

is more malign. Mustard is a plant food of choice for butterflies,

Leck says, but this exotic variety is missing a key chemical ingredient.

For this reason, eggs that butterflies lay in this plant do not progress

through the full life cycle, resulting in the current concern about

diminishing butterfly populations.

Toward the end of our walk, Leck identifies yet another bird that

serenades us from midway up a tall tree. Nearby chickadees and titmice

pipe in, but they can’t keep up with this tireless bird who sings

all day, starting before sunrise. After doing another effective bird

imitation, Leck moves on to words to describe the serenader’s sound,

"It’s like an endless series of short phrases — `Where are

you?’ `I’m over here,’ and so on," he says, in a sing-songy voice

that suddenly gives meaning to the expression.

By now, I can no longer remember the names of the forest’s numerous

birds. I’m worrying about poison ivy, ticks, and my missed breakfast.

And I can no longer see the forest for the trees. Not to worry. Our

Hutcheson Forest walk ends and the exploration for an appropriate

New Jersey diner begins.

— Pat Summers

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If You Go

Guided Tours, Rutgers’ Hutcheson Memorial Forest,

Amwell Road, Franklin Township, 732-932-7084. Ecologist Steven Handel

leads a walk. No reservations needed. Meet at the entrance to the

woods. Free. Sunday, August 15, 2:30 p.m.

Tours also take place Sunday, September 12, September 26,

and October 10, also at 2:30 p.m.

Directions: From Princeton take Route 206 north, through

Belle Mead and Hillsborough; turn right on Route 514 east. Stay on

Route 514 through Millstone and East Millstone. After crossing the

Millstone River on a white bridge, continue past the Millstone Fire

Department building on the left, and continue one mile, then make

a sharp-angled right turn. The turn will take you under a wooden arch

and up a driveway toward a caretaker’s house. Park in the driveway.

Tours start here.


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