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