Special Features... Nature: Wait, Look, Observe

written and photographed by Carl Reader

The two predators picked out a young deer, one they knew they could take down. At the right moment, they charged, lunged and tripped up the deer, tumbling all three together into a cloud of dust that after a short time became still.

That’s a scene that could have come straight out of Africa’s Serengeti Plain or the hills and meadows of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. That particular picture of the workings of nature didn’t take place in either Africa or the American West, but it did unfold not long ago just north of Stockton, New Jersey in Hunterdon County. Dr. Roger Locandro, who’s taught ecology at Rutgers University for the past 39 years, said he witnessed it in a field near his home several years ago.

Although dramas like the one described above of two coyotes hunting a deer are a sight most likely seen by those who spend their life observing nature, many of the beauties and dramas of nature are available to those who take the time to wait, look and observe in places along the Delaware River in both Bucks and Hunterdon Counties.

“I always like to come back to Stockton,” said Dr. Locandro, who’s observed wildlife everywhere from Alaska to Africa to New Zealand. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful, diverse areas in the entire world.”

Where there are prey there will be predators, and Dr. Locandro said over 500 deer were counted on a farm near his home recently. That is most likely the highest concentration of deer anywhere in the world, he said, so in one way Hunterdon is a kind of Serengeti.

While you might have trouble keeping the deer off your bumper as you drive up Route 29 out of Stockton, so numerous are they, you also have a chance of seeing coyotes, black bears, foxes, wild turkeys, rabbits, grouse and lots of squirrels. Dr. Locandro said there was even a moose sighted near Highpoint several years ago. The moose spent the day and ambled off.

“I was being interviewed by a young reporter in my driveway and I saw an eagle,” Dr. Locandro said. “I said to her, ‘Did you ever see an eagle?’ ‘Oh, no, no,’ she said. ‘What about that one right there?’ I asked. She almost died.”

Eagles are still a rare sight, but they fish the river, along with osprey, especially when the shad and herring run in spring. The Delaware is a major flyway for all sorts of migrating birds, so you never know what you’ll see in the trees if you take up a pair of binoculars here. Dr. Locandro saw a rare painted bunting in his backyard, but a visitor honking her horn drove it away.

One of the best places in the country to see migrating warblers and vireos in spring and fall is Bull’s Island just north of Stockton. Participants in the World Series of Birding regularly put it on their stop list. American red starts nest here, and you’ll likely see palm warblers, yellow warblers, worm-eating warblers, common yellowthroats, Philadelphia vireos and many others. The small side roads off of Route 29 also offer up birding surprises, since many birds from the flyway stop in places other than parks.

The entire stretch of Route 29 north of Stockton offers postcard views, all the way up and beyond the scenic cliffs of Milford. You can stand on top of those Milford cliffs and view a grand stretch of the Delaware below. Although there are cliffs in many places along the drive, Dr. Locandro said he didn’t know of any peregrine falcons nesting on them. Peregrines do come through the flyway.

If you go down to the river to view birds or to cross it, you’ll see plenty of wading birds, including mergansers, cormorants, golden-eyed ducks, Canada geese by the thousands and snow geese. By the New Hope-Lambertville bridge, mute swans have found a home and are easily viewed or photographed.

In Pennsylvania along the river, there are more of the same sorts of wildlife in Bucks County as there are in Hunterdon County. Rare least weasels might scurry in front of your car on Route 32, and one woman reported red foxes having their pups on her farm for six years straight. Another woman had red foxes bringing up their young in her backyard in a development near a patch of forest for three straight years. A black bear has been making nearly a yearly foray along a ridge in Ottsville, Pennsylvania through Bucks, across the river, and into West Amwell, New Jersey.

Pennsylvania parks offer a more structured environment to view nature.

The Bucks County Audubon Society runs Honey Hollow Environmental Center and has programs and trips for the public. It’s located on Upper York Road in Solebury and can be reached at (215) 297-5880. Peace Valley Nature Center has 300 acres and 9 miles of hiking trails, with woods, fields, a wildlife blind and a nature store. It’s on Chapman Road in Doylestown and can be reached at (215) 345-7860. Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve has various nature walks and lectures. It’s located off River Road south of New Hope and can be reached at (215) 862-2924.

Near the center of Bucks County, Nockamixon State Park is dominated by a 1,450-acre lake. It offers hiking, biking, equestrian trails, family cabins and a pool It’s on Mountain View Road in Quakertown and can be reached at (215) 538-2151. Tyler State Park on Route 413 and Swamp Road in Newtown has 1,700 acres with paved bike trails and a fishing lake. It can be reached at (215) 968-2021.

At the center of this overflow of nature in Hunterdon and Bucks Counties is its lifeblood, the Delaware River. It has the finest muskellunge population anywhere, according to Dr. Locandro, along with shad and herring, catfish and even some steel head trout. Years ago, according to Dr. Locandro, the herring were so thick in their spawning streams that you couldn’t put a finger between them. Overfishing in the oceans has depleted their populations, but that’s not the Delaware’s fault.

“The health of the river is excellent,” Dr. Locandro said.

And that helps keep the rest of the area teeming with all the beauties of nature.

Copyright © 2007 Bucks County Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

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