Not long after our pontoon boat pulls away from observing an osprey’s nest perched high on a radio tower, the fish-eating bird of prey flies toward us, clutching its catch in its talons.
This scene didn’t occur in some faraway place, but rather in Secaucus’ backyard, with the New York City skyline in the distance. Even so, the Meadowlands are still often thought of as a place of bad smells and the resting place of Jimmy Hoffa.
“What’s great about …the ospreys [is that] they all eat fish, and 40 years ago none of these birds were here because there were no fish in the river,” said New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) Communication Officer Jim Wright during the boat ride.
The NJMC is a state agency that helps oversee zoning and planning in the Meadowlands region, including 14 municipalities. The Hudson County towns include Secaucus, North Bergen, and Jersey City.
“What most people find when they are out here in the Meadowlands is that it’s incredibly unbelievable.” – Gabrielle Bennett-Meany
The 30.4 square miles of the Meadowlands district are a haphazard segment along the Hackensack River, where highways like the Turnpike cross one way, commuter rail bridges cross in the other direction, and defunct remnants of the area’s former industrial past spread throughout. The region is a montage of natural areas that have defied the pollution and the public’s doubt and are recovering from years of neglect.
“What most people find when they are out here in the Meadowlands is that it’s incredibly unbelievable once you are here up close, as opposed to driving on the Turnpike, which you see straight ahead,” said Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, the NJMC’s senior natural resource specialist, who guided the boat tour last Tuesday.
Wildlife returns home
The osprey who flew past us was one of five or six that have been seen in the Meadowlands recently, and he wasn’t the only interesting species.
“I guess if you really want the big story, it’s seeing the bald eagles,” Bennett-Meany said.
A few years ago the first sighting was a “flyover,” meaning the bird was heading to more hospitable environs. But since then, the bird has been seen more often, perhaps finding the Meadowlands to be a “fish bowl” of easy hunting.
Peregrine falcons, the fastest bird in the skies, have opted to live beneath the bridges that cross the river, apparently electing the noise of traffic over close contact with people. We spotted one beneath Route 3 perched high above us.
All three of these birds that are now showing up in the Meadowlands have fought back from the brink of extinction.
Many species migrate to the area, including waterfowl from Canada in the winter, as well as the Marsh Wren and tree swallows in the spring. The male Marsh Wren, a songbird, could be heard twittering last week. Bennett-Meany said that the male arrives earlier than the females in order to make several different nests so when its mate arrives, she picks the one that suits her best.
Species of egrets and herons are also present in the area.
The area isn’t just home to birds. Mud, fiddler, and blue crabs live here, along with catfish, trout, perch, carp, and eels. You can even see turtles.
Remembering what was
Bennett-Meany didn’t just point out the busy ecosystem surrounding us, but explained the history behind a place that has seen much change.
For one, the Meadowlands weren’t always the salty marsh they are now. Dams further upriver cut off much of the fresh water that once flowed through the area.
“Unfortunately, [the] wetlands were never perceived as these productive wetlands that we know today,” said Bennett-Meany, explaining over half of these natural areas in the United States have been lost to development.
Early colonists drained and diked sections and used them for farming or livestock. They saw the area as a convenient location to ship goods to New York City, and other urban areas close by.
Mucking up the environment
Invasive vegetation called the common reed, which looks like 15-foot stalks of hay, probably was transported to the area on early schooners and took root in the drained marshland.
Then a nor’easter struck area in the 1950s, flooding many of the drained areas with brackish water and destroying early colonial structures.
Through that destruction, the native marsh plant, Spartina grass, which is lush and present in marshes down the shore, returned to take root in the area and is naturally starting to battle the plant that kicked it out. Bennett-Meany said that this is the first time that has ever happened without human help.
Bald eagle sighting
In the 1970s the NJMC had to beg the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Service to see the area and why it was worth saving, although it had been so badly polluted by sewage discharge and factories.
There are still problems to be dealt with. Currently, water run-off from highways and from communities can have a negative effect on the improved water quality that has allowed the Meadowlands’ growth, said Bennett-Meany.
To this day, the NJMC is still coaxing the public to come out and see it for themselves, so that maybe their visit will transform them into stewards, who will work toward saving this large piece of open space by giving their time or donations.
As our pontoon pulled into the dock at Laurel Hill County Park in Secaucus, a bird of a rare feather, a Bald Eagle, flew overhead north toward marsh lands along the town’s coast, an awe inspiring sight.
Tricia Tirella may be reached at TriciaT@hudsonreporter.com.
Info on boat tours
The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission is scheduled to host pontoon boat tours through September, with upcoming tours on May 24 and 26, along with June 3, 7, 9, 22, and 24 at 5:30 pm, along with 8:30 a.m. on June 4.
Trips are for ages 10 and up at a suggested donation of $15.
They also offer canoe and walking tours.
Reservations are necessary and forms can be found at www.njmeadowlands.gov/enviornment/tours.html. For more information, call (201) 460-4640.