Monday, August 18, 2014

Learning About New Jersey's Great Swamp

The Great Swamp was created approximately 15,000 years ago. The Wisconsin Glacier pushed its way during the Ice Age and in its melting poured into the natural basin known as the Passaic Valley to form Glacial Lake Passaic.

What we call the Great Swamp is what remains of that huge lake which has continued to drain via the Passaic River and many other smaller rivers and creeks.

If the name Great Swamp doesn't sound like an appealing place to visit, you need to look beyond the name. It is not entirely swampland but rather a mixture of marshes, meadows, dry woods and brush-covered swamps.

These four habitats are what make the Great Swamp unique and allow the area to support a wide variety of plant and animal life.

The Great Swamp is one of NJ's 5 National Wildlife Refuges. Their website offers this advice to visitors:

People are encouraged to observe, study, photograph and walk with nature in designated public areas. The best times for observing wildlife are early in the morning and late afternoon. Because of large number of visitors in the spring and fall, wildlife viewing on Sundays is often less rewarding. The refuge has close to 10 miles of foot access trails, with varying difficulty from which wildlife can be viewed. There are also three wildlife observation blinds and one wildlife overlook. Pleasant Plains Road is a good place to view wildlife from your vehicle. The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge also recommends that you visit the Raptor Trust (for information please call 908-647-8211), the Somerset County Environmental Educational Center (for information please call 908-766-2489) and the Morris County Outdoor Education Center (for information please call 973-635-6629). There is also the Watchung Reservation, Morristown Historical Park, Sherman Hoffman Aubudon Center and several other outdoor recreation areas located close to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Frelinghuysen ArboretumIf you visit, there are well maintained trails and even boardwalks that allow you to observe without doing harm to the habitat. (This is not a place to bring pets.)

Plants vary in size from the tiny duckweed to the towering red oak. As the seasons change, so does the color of the area - yellow marsh marigold to the blue iris.

One way to learn more about this living, breathing botanical and zoological resource is with a visit to the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center. which is part of the Morris County Park Commission and offers many environmental programs for all ages.

 If you live in the area, you may want to become involved in the volunteer opportunities there too.

Download the refuge brochure (pdf)

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Big Ten Rutgers Tomato

At Rutgers’ Snyder Research Farm, a seedling variant
in the search for a reborn Rutgers tomato.
Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser via
Last week I received alumni mail about Rutgers' inaugural Big Ten football season. I also read a NJ Monthly article about attempts being made at Rutgers to bring back the famed Rutgers tomato.

Rutgers football may be just entering the Big Ten this fall, but the Rutgers tomato was in the Big 10 of tomatoes starting in the 1950s. For several decades the Rutgers tomato reigned in popularity for its Jersey tomato taste. It was tart, sweet, tender, round, red and ripened on the vine.

Companies, like Campbell Soup, loved them for juice, soup and ketchup. So why use the past tense when talking about this variety? It fell victim to commerce.  As the interstate highway system expanded in the 1950s, more produce was being trucked longer distances. The soft Rutgers tomato did not travel well. Scientists worked on developing varieties that did travel.

Those newer hybrids were firmer with thicker skins and interior walls and could be ripened after picking.  And they tasted lousy.

I have been a backyard gardener since I was a kid helping my father. We planted Rutgers tomatoes. My father saved seeds from the best ones for next year. But I moved on to buying plants at the garden center and at some point in the 1980s the Rutgers plants disappeared.

Lots of cherry tomatoes in July. Pop them in your mouth right in the garden

My tomatoes only travel about 100 feet, so "shippability" doesn't matter - taste does. The next generation tomato from Rutgers was the Ramapo, developed in 1968 which had a good ten-year run, disappeared and the was reintroduced in 2008. It tastes like a Jersey tomato, but doesn't ripen until August. Gardeners and farmer like a product in July.

"Heirloom" tomatoes were big for a few years. Those are varieties that go back pre-WWII. Nostalgic, but flawed for the same reasons that they fell away in the 1950s; they cracked, softened in heavy rain, got fungus and other diseases and you ended up throwing too many away. So much for nostalgia.

It probably surprises folks that New Jersey, even with its disappearing  farmland, still ranks fourth in the nation in value of agricultural products sold per acre.

The tomato that we often find in stores now is pretty dreadful compared to what I can pick in my backyard.  Stores, and many consumers, want firmness and picture-perfect fruit. Now that a lot of production is in Florida, California and Mexico,  those supermarket tomatoes are picked green and then gassed with ethylene to turn a sickly red, then refrigerated for shipping. Tomato gardeners know that you never refrigerate your tomatoes unless you want to halt ripening.

I have to plant one yellow tomato for my sister - a fan of the "low acid."
My mom showed me the gassing method without knowing the science. Put some half-ripe tomatoes in a brown bag with a few slices of an apple and close it up. She couldn't tell you why it worked, but it did. It didn't taste like one picked off a plant, carried into the kitchen, sliced and eaten with a little salt, or olive oil and some oregano., but better than the store-bought ones that she called "greenhouse tomatoes."

The Rutgers agriculture people have been working to resurrect the Rutgers tomato we once knew and are down to a dozen or so contenders from several hundred. It will be a Rutgers tomato reborn.

They have been having a Great Tomato Tasting for the past few years (this year's will be at the end of August) where regular folks taste and rate.

The new name is still undecided. "Rutgers250" is a possibility to mark its debut in 2016 which is the 250th anniversary of the college. We'll see if it tastes like the summer of 1962, but hopefully it will taste like summer.

This post was first posted at my Weekends in Paradelle blog in a slightly different form.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Are Bees Endangered?

I was having a conversation with some friends about this blog and someone said, "Why don't you write about bees. Aren't bees endangered?"

Turns out that people are paying attention to the news articles about the disappearance of bees. But bees (and there are so many species - and we don't mean wasps and yellow jackets) have not made the official endangered lists.

Even kids that watch Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie know that one-third of our food depends on the services of a pollinator—bee or other insect, bird, or mammal.

Bees are the most important pollinators in the Northeastern U.S., and there are hundreds of species of bees that live in our state.

National Honey Bee Day is August 17. It's a good time to celebrate honey bees that pollinate many of our important food crops like apples, broccoli and blueberries - and then there is that wonderful honey.

You might have read that there have been many problems with bees in New Jersey and across the country. Scientists are still not sure if the cause (or causes) are fungal, viral or from toxic pesticides.

Bees are one of the issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In 2006, beekeepers became vocal about disappearing bees. Seemingly healthy bees were abandoning their hives, and this became known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Estimates are that nearly one-third of all honey bee colonies in the country have vanished.

Scientists have not come up with a definitive answer to the the problem. Factors seem to be pesticide exposure, invasive parasitic mites, an inadequate food supply and a new virus that targets bees' immune systems.

We know from other endangered species that when species disappear it is often an early indicator of problems that will affect humans. For example, bees that pollinate crops that are sprayed are more likely to die off than bees that pollinate in the wild.

Have you have ever thought about having your own hive? Check out the  NJ Beekeepers Association which has chapters throughout the state. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Open Space

Legislation to advance open space funding passed the state Assembly today by an overwhelming margin. The Assembly voted 58 to 9, with one abstention, in favor of a measure to allow voters to decide on funding for preserving parks, open space, farmland, historic sites and flood-prone lands. According to the NJ Conservation Foundation , without the Assembly's critical bipartisan vote, there would have been no chance of renewed land preservation funding for another year.

Established in 1960, New Jersey Conservation Foundation is a private, not-for-profit organization. Our mission is to preserve New Jersey's land and natural resources for the benefit of all. Through acquisition, stewardship, advocacy and partnerships, we save land, manage environmental resources, promote strong land use policies, and forge alliances in order to permanently protect open space, farms and urban parks all over New Jersey.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

5 National Wildlife Refuges in New Jersey

New Jersey
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Region encompasses 13 states from Maine to Virginia. About 70 million people, nearly a quarter of the nation’s population, live within this area where the Service’s nearly 1,000 employees work in the regional headquarters, field offices, national wildlife refuges or fish hatcheries. Many of these 132 facilities are open to visitors and can provide exciting opportunities for wildlife dependent education, recreation and interpretation.

Part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Service conserves, protects, and enhances fish and wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations. Service biologists contribute to the health of our environment — and consequently our quality of life — by protecting and restoring important habitat, safeguarding endangered species, minimizing environmental contamination, and restoring fish populations. In addition, the Service provides funds to support state fish and wildlife programs and enforces federal laws protecting wildlife.

In New Jersey, we have five Wildlife Refuges: Cape May National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, the Great Swamp NWR, Supawna Meadows NWR, and the Wallkill River NWR.

Tidal Wetlands, Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge - photo

Not as well known to residents as the Great Swamp and Cape May Refuges, the Supawna Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located in Pennsville, New Jersey. The refuge area is found along the Delaware River estuary just north of the Salem River in Salem County, NJ.

It is part of the larger Cape May National Wildlife Refuge and recognized as wetlands of international importance and an international shorebird reserve. The refuge currently owns approximately 3,000 acres. The tidal marshes that comprise nearly 80 percent of the refuge provide waterfowl with an important feeding and resting area, particularly during the fall and spring migrations.

The refuge supports visiting populations of black ducks, mallards and northern pintails during winter. Sandpipers and other shorebirds use the refuge marshes as a feeding area in summer and throughout seasonal migratory travel. Delaware's nearby Pea Patch Island Rookery hosts over 6,000 pairs of nine species, which make it the largest rookery of colonial wading birds on the east coast north of Florida. The marshes provide valuable foraging habitat for these colonial wading birds during the nesting season.

Warblers, sparrows and other migratory birds use the upland areas of the refuge as resting and feeding areas during migration and for nesting during the summer. Thousands of tree swallows forage on the refuge in the late summer. Ospreys, bald eagle, northern harrier, short-eared owl and barn owls also nest on the refuge.          Download the refuge brochure

USFWS Facilities in New Jersey:

Ecological Services OfficesRefuges and Wildlife Offices
Red Star-Shaped Bullet
New Jersey Field OfficeFlying Goose-Shaped BulletCape May NWR
Law Enforcement OfficesFlying Goose-Shaped BulletEdwin B. Forsythe NWR
Red Star-Shaped BulletElizabeth Law EnforcementFlying Goose-Shaped BulletGreat Swamp NWR
Flying Goose-Shaped BulletSupawna Meadows NWR
Flying Goose-Shaped BulletWallkill River NWR

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hurricane Sandy Restoration: Middle Township

via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  also see the USFWS Northeast website
Hurricane Sandy taught us that the coast is an ever-changing environment, vulnerable to sea-level rise and powerful storms. Since Sandy made landfall in October 2012, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with other federal agencies and conservation partners to restore the Atlantic Coast by enhancing habitats that protect our coastal communities and sustain people and wildlife. These efforts are supported by funding from the Department of the Interior through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013.

Recognizing the interconnected nature of our conservation work, today we launch the first in a series of videos highlighting communities impacted by Hurricane Sandy and their journey toward recovery. This first video outlines a $1.65 million beach habitat restoration project along the shores of Delaware Bay that is already benefiting native horseshoe crabs and migrating shorebirds. At the same time, the project will help local communities like Middle Township, New Jersey, whose Mayor Tim Donohue describes how strengthening natural defenses will in turn protect homes and support the area's ecotourism industry.

This project and others like it are designed to support decisive and informed actions now with our partners to safeguard our coastal communities for years to come.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

At Birthday #350, Some New Jersey Firsts

Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

New Jersey celebrates its 350th anniversary and Michele Byers did a post on New Jersey "firsts." You might know that Thomas Edison did the first phonograph, incandescent light bulb and the first motion picture projector. (The first town in the world to be lighted with overhead wires was Roselle, NJ.)

Lesser known firsts include NJ claiming the first cultivated blueberries, developed by Elizabeth White and Dr. Frederick Coville in the Burlington County Pine Barrens in 1916. They are our state fruit.

But the part that caught my eye were 4 first in the area of parks and conservation.
  1. The Morristown National Historic Park, where George Washington's troops spent the winter of 1779-80, is America's first historic park. 
  2. The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge includes the first federally-designated wilderness area east of the Mississippi. 
  3. The New Jersey Pinelands are America's first and only national reserve. 
  4. The Essex County Park System was the first in the country.

At the Morristown National Historic Park
 That's important for this first and only state where all counties are classified as metropolitan areas and we rank an unenviable first in population density in the U.S. (with an average of 1030 people per square mile).

That leads to another first, one that’s not so exciting and fortunately has not yet happened. New Jersey is on track to become the first state to reach full build-out, the point where all land is either preserved or developed. It’s crucial to keep saving parks and open spaces so when the Garden State does reach build-out, most if not all of our most critical lands are preserved rather than paved.

For more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Automeris io - Io Moth - Hodges#7746
Automeris io - Io Moth - At Wells Mills County Park in Waretown, NJ by Shawn Wainwright

This is the close of National Moth Week. It was instituted to celebrates the beauty, life cycles, and habitats of moths. This year, National Moth Week is spotlighting Silk Moths around the world. Many of the silk moths are stunningly beautiful but many are also in decline. Silk moths are distantly related to the moth that is used in silk production. The adults also have greatly reduced mouthparts and do not feed. They simply find a mate and die.

This article from The NY Times has a title that says a lot about the moth - An Exaltation of Moths, Much-Maligned Kin of the Butterfly.

Lepidoptera is a large order of insects that includes moths and butterflies. Taxonomically, moths are not easily differentiated from butterflies.

Many attempts have been made to subdivide the Lepidoptera into groups but these names have failed to persist.

There are four butterflies on NJ's endangered species list: Mitchell's Satyr, Neonympha m. mitchellii, Silver-bordered ritillary Bolaria selene myrina, Arogos Skipper Atrytone arogos arogos and the Checkered white Pontia protodice

Scientists estimate there are 150,000 to more than 500,000 moth species. Their colors and patterns are either dazzling or so cryptic that they define camouflage. Shapes and sizes span the gamut from as small as a pinhead to as large as an adult’s hand. Most moths are nocturnal, but some fly like butterflies during the day.

Hyalophora cecropia - Cecropia Moth - Hodges#7767
Hyalophora cecropia - Cecropia Moth from Shawn Wainwright's incredible
collection of NJ moth and butterfly photos on Flickr

Nocturnal insectivores often feed on moths; these include some bats, some species of owls and other species of birds. Moths also are eaten by some lizards, and by cats, dogs, rodents, and some bears.

As beautiful as moths can be, many of them are pests. In New Jersey, the Gypsy Moth is a serious pest that feeds on hundreds of varieties of trees and shrubs. The moth prefers the oak as a host tree - such as New Jersey’s state tree, Northern red oak.

The Gypsy Moth, originally from Europe, was introduced to Massachusetts in 1869 by a French botanist trying to develop the silkworm industry. Once the insects escaped from his laboratory, they colonized and spread. Currently gypsy moths populate 19 states. Without intervention this pest spreads at a rate of about 13 miles per year.

Adult male gypsy moth  Lymantria dispar dispar