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A year in New Jersey’s Dismal Swamp

cormorant123110_optBY DAVID WHEELER

On the final day of the year, we can look back on another gorgeous year in the Dismal Swamp Conservation Area in central New Jersey. Surrounded by sprawl and suburbia in the towns of Edison, South Plainfield, and Metuchen, outsiders would hardly expect a place called the Dismal Swamp to be a nature sanctuary. Yet it is a true oasis for wildlife in a sea of overdevelopment. And over the course of a year, I got to spend much of every day within "The Diz", observing and experiencing the more subtle changes that accompany the turning of the seasons.

Throughout 2010, memorable wildlife sightings were backed with the appreciation of some new patterns revealing themselves in the animals of the Dismal Swamp. Beavers, a less obvious encounter in years past, were brazen and wanton in their simultaneous destruction and construction this fall, blitzing our streamside woods and scarcely leaving any sapling unshorn.

The beavers' thoroughfare, the Bound Brook, was a wonder to behold. The stream's sheer power of erosion undercut massive trees and overran its banks during heavy rains throughout the spring. Yet the summer-long drought reduced the stream to little more than a steady trickle. Visually, the stream's reflective powers grew in late autumn in direct proportion to the leaves changing and then falling. Each day brought a dramatically new view from the same vantage point, until a rich reflection of thick green forest had transformed into a stark mirror of angular, jutting tree trunks and branches. Minimalist, yet no less stunning.

bullfrog123110_optWhite-tailed deer continued their expansion in the Dismal Swamp this year, for better and for worse. It is rare for me to not see healthy herds of 3 or 4 or far more each early morning and late afternoon on the meadows. That abundance, unfortunately, continues its onslaught on the dwindling understory of young saplings, which stand little chance to grow tall with so many deer around.

Our other notable regular visitors held true to form throughout 2010, showing up enjoyably and often: snapping turtles and painted turtles, bullfrogs, wild turkey broods, and, of course, groups of scouts, schoolkids, and seniors touring the trails or leading volunteer cleanups during the seasonal times of year.

Nesting birds included killdeer, red-tailed hawks, barn swallows, tufted titmice, and a number of sparrows. In fact, October produced a spectacular fallout of sparrows noted by birders Mike McGraw and Scott Quitel. McGraw also discovered a black racer snake den hidden in the hollows of The Diz.

snakemcgraw123110_optAt the Triple C Ranch, Turtle Pond and the Bound Brook offered their usual daily visits by great blue herons, great egrets, green herons, spotted sandpiper, and wood ducks. The double-crested cormorant — though common along the New Jersey coast — was a surprise overnight guest in early October here on this tiny spring-fed pond. The woods and meadows hosted plenty of cedar waxwings, American kestrels, northern harriers, and Cooper's hawks, along with massive numbers of red-winged blackbirds, rusty blackbirds, and common grackles, while northern flickers and brown creepers surveyed the tree trunks.

Our first Dismal Swamp ruby-throated hummingbirds spent the entire summer and September at the Triple C Ranch garden, enjoying the sugar water filling their specialized feeders. Another newcomer was the pair of ravens I spotted tumbling in the air near a housing development, of all places, early in the spring.

One change that was less welcome is not a surprising one for anyone reading New Jersey's conservation headlines for the past few years. We still saw bats at dusk, though not quite as regularly as years past — making each appearance that much more appreciated as their numbers across New Jersey and the entire northeastern United States continue to be decimated by white-nose syndrome.

Now, another new year begins. I can't wait to see what it brings to the Dismal Swamp.

David Wheeler's book, "Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State," will be published on February 1, 2011 by Rutgers University Press. He is the founder of the daily nature blog, WildNewJersey.tv, and he can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 
Comments (1)
1 Saturday, 01 January 2011 10:47
Zach
Never been to dismal swamp but i can say for certain theres still some great outdoor spots in NJ. Add this to my list of places to check out.

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