Another Feather in New Jersey's Cap: World-Class Bird-Watching

Birds on the brain: Dr. Claus Holzapfel and pal, a double-crested cormorant in the Jersey Meadowlands.  Photo credit: Hadas Parag

Birds on the brain: Dr. Claus Holzapfel and pal, a double-crested cormorant in the Jersey Meadowlands.

Photo credit: Hadas Parag

The next time some smart aleck claims New Jersey is for the birds, just smile and say thank you.

It's true. And you have it on good authority: Claus Holzapfel, Ph.D, associate professor of Ecology at Rutgers University. "New Jersey is one of the top birding sites in the world," he points out. "We're in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway. We can see everything moving through New Jersey in the fall and spring."

Which is why you'll find Dr. Holzapfel behind a pair of binoculars out in the South Orange Reservation this month. He'll be leading students from the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School on the field trip section of his two-part class, Birding in New Jersey. The first section will be held indoors on Wednesday, May 8, when Dr. Holzapfel explains the basics of birds' migration and bird-watching.

The field trip that follows on Saturday, May 11, lets students witness the migrants for themselves. They should bring their own binoculars and dress properly for the occasion: sturdy shoes, North Face-type clothes in neutral colors, like brown or green. "Never white and nothing too colorful -- birds are not color blind!"

In the field, Dr. Holzapfel teaches what he calls "birding by ear. You can hear birds even when you can't see them."

That wasn't always a given: Dr. Holzapfel is quick to credit the late scientist and author Rachel Carson with saving the birds of the world. In her controversial l962 book, "Silent Spring," Carson sounded the alarm over pesticides that were decimating the bird population.

"She turned it around," says the German-born professor. "Now you can see bald eagles flying over South Mountain. Where there were only one or two breeding pairs, there are more than a hundred nesting in New Jersey places like the Great Swamp and the northern part of the Hackensack River."

Today's commuters can also drive past mute swans swimming in the Meadowlands and white egrets flocking in the trees.

"The next time you see an osprey nesting or a cormorant stretching out its wings to dry them," Dr. Holzapfel says, "it's because of Rachel Carson."