Waterfront Sunsets, or, Birding Like Grandma

The weather has been pleasantly cool this week, so we took a couple of waterfront walks, perhaps inspired by last weekend’s kayaking adventure, that turned into some lovely opportunities for both bird watching and romantic sunsets!

The Other Liberty Park

When we were both done work by 5pm, we decided to take a quick constitutional down in Liberty State Park, but when as we turned in, we found the parking lots full, the sidewalks streaming with bicycles, the people of Jersey City out en masse to picnic on the grass. “Keep going,” I said, waving towards the south end of the park. “No, not yet. All the way down!”

It was a good choice. The Hudson River Waterfront Walkway and publicly accessible portions of Liberty State Park follow a reverse L-shaped coastline on the Jersey side of the river, and the southern foot of the L was much less crowded than the longer arm of the park that faces Manhattan. We turned inland, towards the slowly descending sun, and strolled along the water’s edge.

“Next time,” he said to me, “we’re bringing a picnic dinner down here!” There were a lot of couples and families on the grass, particularly from Jersey City’s substantial South Asian community, in saris and hijab. There was a small class of women having a yoga class on one grassy promontory, men fishing on another, and a sole middle-aged man under a tree doing advanced sun salutations — with the three-legged down dog and that thing instructors say about “floating up” to your forward bend — with deceptively easy speed. There were kids on bikes and an elderly man whose wife and daughter had brought him to the parking lot to get some steps in with his walker.

Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry

And then there was this common tern, as we came down near the boat launch, that would wait on a fence post till I was just a couple feet away, then glide down to the next post and wait for me again.

But most of all it was a beautiful day, not too hot, with a nice sea breeze and these fluffy little clouds that caught the sinking sun just so…. It was a lovely evening to sit on a beach by the water and watch the sunset with my person.

When it reopens to visitors in the fall, maybe we’ll come back and explore the southernmost end of the Waterfront Walk and the boardwalk across the preserve at Caven Point to the left of that sunset.

Mill Creek Marsh

The next evening, GPS had us winding through the back side of a mall in Secaucus, between empty employee parking spaces and empty loading docks, till we found ourselves here:

The raised, red dirt trail through the Mill Creek Marsh was an easy stroll, and a feast for the eyes. Green, water, sun, fluffy clouds, and occasional vistas of the New York City skyline at a distance.

Lots of flowers, too, including hibiscus, honeysuckle and my beloved thistle (that’s another story for another time), and a monarch butterfly that let us get just inches away to snag this shot. The reclaimed Mill Creek Marsh is a popular breeding ground for the endangered species, who love milkweed and other species now thriving in this site. And I recently learned from a friend that the two dots flanking his thorax low on this guy’s wings show that he’s a male.

The most notable characteristic of the marsh is the dozens of ancient white cedar stumps that dot the waterway. They are the last remnants of a primeval forest that once covered a third of the area for hundreds of years. Today the rot resistant stumps serve as perches for egrets and shorebirds, making the marsh an especially popular destination for bird watchers.

New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority

Decline of these majestic trees in the meadowlands began in the mid 18th century when the durable Atlantic White Cedar wood was used to make roads and houses. Later, swaths of the cedar forest were burned to eliminate hiding places for pirates.

Exploring Secaucus Mill Creek Marsh

I’m not a birder, but not for the first time in these New Jersey adventures, walking in the marsh got me thinking about my grandparents who were. I was remembering the Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification that Grandma kept by her kitchen window, the bay window that looked out on her garden designed to attract hummingbirds, and the wooden birdfeeder Grandpa had built for her. That book was full of little notations in her neat cursive script. She would point out this or that kind of bird — finch, grosbeak, cardinal — and then open up the field guide to show me where she’d written down the date and place that they had seen that species for the first time — near their homes in Maine or Massachusetts, or their condo in Florida, or as far away as their visit to Alaska.

Grandma recognized some of their songs, too, when we were out in the hard or hiking the knobby little mountains of Maine. “Do you hear that? Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!” or the plaintive lowing of a loon down on the pond across the street.

But I think it was ducks and water birds she really loved. While I can only identify a mallard, a Canada goose and a great blue heron, and sometimes tell a loon from a cormorant, Grandma seemed to know a dozen kinds of ducks and more on sight! Even with these guides in front of me, I could still only identify a mallard, though in fairness there wasn’t much light left by then….

Birding comprises some of my favorite memories, too, from our year of homeschooling. Midway through a six-week teachers’ strike, my parents had pulled us out of school for the year. It gave us the opportunity to expand the week of Spring Break we had been planning to spend at my grandparents’ new condo in Florida to a whole month. My parents, who majored in Forestry and Marine Biology respectively, turned it into a month of ecological field study. We listed out all the biomes in the South Florida environment, and made plans to visit and study each one.

We each kept a shell collection and a leaf collection, and our own running lists of all the birds and other animals we encountered in our explorations. “Look, another long-legged white bird!” became our new family motto, and then we would consult the taxonomy in our field guide to determine which species of long-legged white bird we were looking at.

So here’s some of what I think I saw in the Mill Creek Marsh…

one of these things is not like the others….

Sunset Romance

And finally, I’d just like to leave you with another romantic evening’s worth of sunset shots. I’m finding in my commute-less social isolation that New Jersey, even right up close to the I-95 corridor and Amtrak lines in Secaucus, boasts some stunningly beautiful landscapes.

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