Issue Date: Apr 13, 2004
By Amy Vames
“Bird migration time in New Jersey is always a time of release — just before the heaviest green of spring, when the weather can still lean back toward winter and when, crisp, yet warm and brilliant, it feels like a new beginning.”
From “Lifebirds” by George Levine, professor of English and director of the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture
With the vernal equinox, a new beginning indeed has arrived at Rutgers. The last patches of stubborn, grubby snow are gone, revealing precious snowdrops and brilliant crocuses as they push their way up through the muddy ground. And, as they do every year at this time, migratory birds are visiting parks, waterways, forests and fields on and around Rutgers’ three campuses.
Although Camden, Newark and New Brunswick are densely populated urban areas, there are plenty of spots on each campus or very close by that offer excellent birding, say several Rutgers professors, who also happen to be expert at sighting avian life.
“The wonderful thing about birding is that all you have to do is look up,” muses Joseph J. Seneca, university professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. “The river, the fields on Busch campus, the gardens at Cook are all good places to find birds. There are lots of opportunities to see interesting birds if you just look up.” On the banks of the Raritan, one can see a wide variety of water fowl and shore birds, including herons, egrets and ibises, which came back to the area last month and start breeding in late April and early May. At low tide, many gulls and other shore birds rest on the sandbars in the river.
Seneca also recommends visiting the Display Gardens on the Cook campus to see warblers, which are on their way north, and the fields at Busch and Livingston for snow buntings and horned larks; they spend the cold months in New Jersey as their version of going south.
Joanna Burger, professor of biology on the New Brunswick campus, also enjoys seeking out warblers around campus. You can see as many as 15 to 20 different species of the tiny birds around campus. But they are just passing through, staying in the area for only a few weeks. “They are coming from South America and Mexico,” says Burger, who is the author of “A Naturalist Along the Jersey Shore” (Rutgers University Press, 1996), among other books. “Some will go to upstate New York, others to Canada.” She recommends taking your binoculars and a field guide this month to Buccleuch Park at the northwest end of College Avenue or to the Display Gardens to get a glimpse of some warblers.
Early morning, she says, before the sound of too much traffic invades the park, is the best time to hear and see birds. Colin Beer, a psychology professor on the Newark campus, says the best birding site near that campus is Branch Brook Park, just a few miles away. Along with the common birds, such as gulls and crows, visitors can see more elusive birds like warblers and nighthawks. “I saw my first and only chestnut-sided warbler in that park in 1960,” he says wistfully. Beer, who teaches courses on animal behavior and is an expert on gull communication, says a wide variety of gulls can be seen along just about any waterway in the state, including laughing, herring, ring-billed and black-headed gulls.
Birders on all three campuses say New Jersey is also an excellent place to see raptors, or birds of prey. Michael Lang, chair of the public policy and administration department at Camden, says the area’s rivers, streams and wetlands attract such species as bald eagles, ospreys, red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks, and vultures. His favorite birding haunts are city parks along the Delaware River; Petty’s Island, which is between Camden and Pennsauken on the Delaware Channel; and Farnham Park on the Cooper River.
Lang has been active in working to secure a strip of parkland around the city near its waterways as part of the Camden Greenway program and is advocating for the National Audubon Society to establish an Audubon Center in Camden. The society is beginning to recognize the importance of establishing urban habitats for birds, Lang says.
“You see an amazing variety of birds in the city of Camden because of the extensive waterways here,” Lang says. “I take my binoculars and field guide with me just about everywhere I go. Just steps from campus I’ve seen bald eagles. In the spring, we get purple martins, swallows, woodpeckers, robins, sparrows, goldfinches and red-wing blackbirds.”
All of the birders interviewed by Focus agreed that you don’t have to go to some exotic locale to see interesting and beautiful birds. So even if you only have your lunch hour to stroll around campus, you won’t be disappointed. George Levine, a professor of English and director of the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture, has been birding for a quarter century and is the author of the 1994 book “Lifebirds” (Rutgers University Press). He advises fledgling birders to visit parks and gardens in the early morning or evening, when the birds are most active. Warm days after a rain are also good times to bird.
One of his favorite places to bird is the Ecological Preserve on the Livingston campus. “I’ve seen a good proportion of my lifebirds there,” he says. A lifebird is a bird someone sees for the first time, and they are coveted by birders just as much as rare coins are by numismatists. Warblers, white-eyed vireos, tanagers, flycatchers and thrushes are common in the woods there, Levine says. But, he cautions, wear long pants and be on the lookout for ticks.
Close encounters of the avian kind
Believe it or not, there’s more to campus wildlife than the Easton Avenue bars on a Saturday night. Birds and their sightings have provided many pleasurable and memorable moments for birders on campus. Here are just a few:
Joseph J. Seneca, university professor at the Bloustein School, likes to keep an eye out for chimney swifts during the third week in May as they return to the area after wintering in Peru. Once here, they build nests on the rooftops of university buildings, including at Old Queen’s. “For me, they mark the passage of the year and a new breeding season, and are a reminder to me of the end of the school year,” he says.
Public policy and administration chair Michael Lang on the Camden campus remembers sitting on the banks of Newton Creek once and seeing a stunning example of wildlife in action. “I saw a bald eagle dive into the creek, grab a fish, and then sit and eat it for about 20 minutes,” Lang recalls. “That was right in the city. The inner city is really growing as a habitat for birds,” he adds.
One of English Professor George Levine’s favorite birds to spot at the Ecological Preserve is the blue-winged warbler, a pretty yellow-breasted bird with a blue and white wing. “I can always rely on seeing it there, although it’s not common. It sounds like a cricket.”
And if you’re strolling around campus within the next month or two, take some time to look down in between all the looking up. Biologist Joanna Burger says killdeer, which are shore birds, often nest on campus in the spring, especially near footpaths. “They are remarkably tolerant of people,” she notes. “Listen for the call, a high ascending whistle. It likes to build its nest on the ground. But be careful not to disturb the nest. If you get too close, the bird will get off the nest and do a broken wing display. That’s a ploy to get the intruder’s focus off the nest. Humor them and move so they can return to incubating their eggs.”
This article was published in the Apr 13, 2004 edition of the Rutgers Focus and is available online at http://urwebsrv.rutgers.edu/focus/article/link/1304/