Hastened by the first blanketings of snow, the shortened days of winter in the Skylands afford a chilly but unequaled opportunity to draw closer to nature and to enjoy the quiet that descends with the withdrawal of activity to the indoors. On these cold days, while local countryside vistas remain open and unshrouded by their canopy of leaves, the fields, forests, and woodlands of our region are prime for the pastime of winter birdwatching.
To enjoy this outdoor activity you'll need a little time, a modestly powered pair of binoculars, a little patience, and a little knowledge of bird habitat. But where to start? Habitat makes a good beginning.
The Skylands is composed of three physiographic regions, extending generally from the northeast to the southwest across the northern half of the state. They are, from the north, the Ridge and Valley, the Highlands, and the Piedmont. These regions contain examples of each of five avian habitats, though as we'll see, the terrain and vegetation of a given region can limit the size and number of any individual habitat type. The five habitat types that birdwatchers should come to know are: open fresh water, fresh water marshland, hemlock glen, deciduous forest, and open field.
In the Ridge and Valley region, part of the Appalachian system, open fresh water habitat is largely the story of the Delaware River, though smaller streams, lakes, and ponds abound and are distributed widely. Hemlock Glen habitat is more likely to be found in this northernmost region, while common deciduous forest, open field (the product of three centuries of agricultural production) and fresh water marshland habitats are scattered throughout the valleys. Respectively, the Piedmont of Somerset and Hunterdon counties, with its gently rolling landscape and fertile soil lent so easily to farming, offers numerous expanses of open field habitat. Hemlock glen is rarely encountered, and the open fresh water habitats of significance are the Raritan, Black, and Pohatcong Rivers and the Spruce Run and Round Valley Reservoirs. The Highlands of Morris, southern Sussex, and most of Warren counties offer a more or less even mix of habitats, but are notable for their extensive marshlands to the east and south.
In spring and summer, nearly 300 species can be seen in the area, with the winter population of species fluctuating, given certain weather conditions, at around 100. This fluctuation creates a class of birds called 'winter vagrants'; species that usually winter farther north of the Skylands, but will often move south to find warmer air, open water, and forage unconcealed by snowpack as the cold weather intensifies. Like the Caribbean and, sometimes, African birds that ride the shockwave of buffeting winds that precedes the hurricanes and tropical storms of late summer and fall (and find themselves catching the off season down at the Jersey Shore), these 'vagrants' are pushed down ahead of very extreme conditions. An example of a infrequent winter vagrant would be the Snowy Owl, a magnificent white feathered predator. A much more rare event would be the arrival of a Northern Shrike, a mockingbird-sized predator that feeds on small rodents--primarily in the open field habitat, and which distinctively makes its presence known by impaling its prey on the thorns of hawthorne bushes, so preserving it for later consumption. Rare sightings are usually associated with the aftermath of unusually strong storms or atmospheric disturbances, though sometimes such a sighting is an indicator of things to come. Recently, a confirmed sighting of a Northern Shrike was made in Long Valley, southwestern Morris County. A bird this rare and so far south can be reliably taken as a harbinger of a hard winter upon us!
Around the Skylands certain locations make for good birdwatching. In Hope, Warren County, along Shades of Death Road outside of town is a fine example of open field habitat. In the fields that border the road as it makes its way out toward the Delaware River, species one might expect to see would be Water Pipit, Horned Lark, finches like the Tree and Field Sparrows, Downey Woodpecker, Chickadee, Titmouse, and Red-tailed Hawk. Other notable examples of open field habitat can be found in the bucolic landscapes along the banks of the Black and Pohatcong Rivers of Hunterdon County.
Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, with a temperature advantage conferred by their location at the low end of the Skylands region's vertical climate, are home to more of the temperature-sensitive wintering birds. Deciduous forest dwellers like Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Goldfinches, and Cardinals are likely to be seen in greater numbers than in the Highland, and Ridge and Valley regions to the north.
Many waterfowl will stay in our area for the winter, while harsh temperatures will force the migration further south of species such as Common Merganser and Ruddy Ducks despite an otherwise plentiful food supply. Mallards, Black Ducks, and Canadian Geese will generally stay despite the ice-over of their prime pond, lake, and reservoir habitats. In Hunterdon County the Round Valley Reservoir is a premier location for winter waterfowl activity; and in Morris County, the Jersey City Reservoir in Parsippany/Boonton is a good bet. Some species to look out for: Red-throated and Common Loons, Grebes, and Lesser and Greater Scaup. Also in Parsippany, the Troy Meadow preserve is a spectacular example of the fresh water marshland habitat, and offers many opportunities for sighting a great variety of birds within its swampy precincts. Many wintering gulls can be identified there including Ringbilled and Herring Gulls. Rare gulls to the inland of New Jersey have been seen there as well, such as the California Gull and the Lesser Blackbilled Gull. Similarly, the birdwatching at the southern end of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Somerset is very good, with open field, fresh water marshland, and deciduous forest habitats predominating.
Sussex County usually has a somewhat greater share of winter vagrants, with the low temperature end of its vertical climate a feature of winter weather conditions. There are lots of common overwinterers in the area, staying mainly in the habitat that most resembles their summer nesting areas above the treeline in northern Canada. The open field habitat of the area from Vernon Valley north along the Pochuck Creek on up into Pine Island in New York State are regularly visited by Snow Buntings, Horned Lark, Water Pipit, and Hardy's Sparrow. On Hamburg Mountain, the hemlock glen, or northern conifer habitat, can be explored for sightings of boreal winter vagrants. Snowy Owls make an occasional appearance. Red Crossbills, Pine Siskin, and Redpoll are more common in this habitat, having adapted to eating the seeds from the tree's cones for nourishment. Along the open waters of the Delaware River and some larger lakes, bald eagles fish for their meals and are clearly evident in the absence of foliage. The white heads of the adult birds glow in the winter sunlight as they dive into the frigid waters. Eagle walks are spotted throughout the winter by the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Birds tend to concentrate during the winter months around a reliable food source. Therefore, find a feeder or bushes still holding their berries from the Fall, and sit back and watch. You never know what may fly by, so don't forget your camera!
For bringing your view of distant wildlife in closer, consider a small telescope of 20x to 60x on a tripod mount, or binoculars to a maximum of 10 x 50 power for use in the open field habitat. For the hemlock glen and deciduous forest habitats where the proximity for encountering birds will be closer, pick 7 x 35, or 8 x 40 powered binoculars. You'll want to be able to compare what you've seen to a expert's depiction while the image is still fresh in your mind. The Macmillan Field Guide is a good reference for beginners, while the Peterson Guide, the Golden Guide by Arthur Singer, or the National Geographic Guide are better suited to the more advanced.
To properly enjoy an afternoon in the field seeking out these creatures you'll have to follow the common sense rules for outdoor cold weather activity. Insulated boots (not rubber!) or hiking shoes, thinsulate gloves, thermal underwear, a wool cap, and a layered approach to outerwear are a must. An extra pair of socks tucked away with a thermos full of something hot to drink should be all you need. Remember to avoid bright clothing, as some birds and most waterfowl can see colors. They'll spot you pretty quickly. If you're a dedicated follower of fashion be advised that there is not only no appreciable 'style' of winter outerwear for birdwatching, any attempts at coordinating or organizing one's outfit are considered bad form! If your clothing elicits the reaction of 'how or why or where did you ever get such strange-looking duds?', you're in gear.