Flora and fauna in a former factory town

Going green with the Bayonne Nature Club
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The Bayonne Nature Club meets frequently to take nature walks through Rutkowski Park and Lefante Way. Search the group on Facebook. Photo by Mike Gondek (seen above snapping pictures through the bird blind).
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Various birds and other wildlife can be seen at Rutkowski Park.
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The Bayonne Nature Club meets frequently to take nature walks through Rutkowski Park and Lefante Way. Search the group on Facebook. Photo by Mike Gondek (seen above snapping pictures through the bird blind).
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Various birds and other wildlife can be seen at Rutkowski Park.
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Bayonne, a former industrial city, is also a preserve for a surprising array of natural wonders. Every week, those ecosystems are celebrated and observed by the Bayonne Nature Club and anyone who wants to join. Birders and nature walkers met up at the entrance to Rutkowski Park at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, July 19.

Yellowlegs, egrets, mockingbirds, sparrows, robins, and many other bird species were in abundance at low tide, when organic materials on the bed of the inlet are exposed. The park, which opened in 2006, is designed for birding, as migratory species make pit stops, and birds who build nests in the nearby Hackensack River estuary fly in to grab a bite to eat.

A quarter-mile walkway loops through the park where photographers have excellent views of wildlife, and wooden bird blinds are set up along the path with slits to poke a camera through.

“A year ago, we were driving around to all these places. And now we’re finding there are so many places within 30 minutes that are so beautiful.” – Maria Markatos

“I learned a lot today. I’m still learning,” said Maria Markatos, a recently retired professional photographer who traveled from Maplewood to join the Bayonne Nature Club for the morning. She enjoys taking pictures of things she hasn’t seen before, like the kinds of birds at Rutkowski Park. She’s slowly learning the names of the species, but isn’t quite there yet. “Like, OK, what is this thing? I can’t just say bird. I can’t post it on Instagram as a bird. I can’t post it on my website as a bird.”

“It’s a beautiful walk and beautiful scenery. Nice to be outside. Got some nice shots too,” said Markatos, who’s been rediscovering the beauty of New Jersey. “I love it, and I didn’t realize there are so many places so close to home. A year ago, we were driving around to all these places. And now we’re finding there are so many places within 30 minutes that are so beautiful.”

To the naked eye

While anyone visiting the park will enjoy its serenity, in order to get the full package, you need a guide. Patricia Hilliard fills that role in the community. She leads the Bayonne Nature Club walks, often with her husband, Mike. They lead nature walks through both Lefante Way on Bayonne’s eastern shoreline and Rutkowski Park. Hilliard, unlike most, can point to aspects of the park invisible to the naked eye.

She points to milkweed plants along the path. “Monarch butterflies count on this,” said Hilliard, who recently started a butterfly farm on one part of the path. As society continues to destroy natural habitats, monarch butterflies are having more and more difficulty migrating.

“Without these milkweeds, they can’t finish their migrations,” said Bayonne resident Nancy Arbitblit. “We need more milkweeds out here so monarchs can continue their path.”

To the untrained eye, much of the park looks pristine, as if it has looked this way for thousands of years. But that’s not the case, according to Hilliard.

Signs of human presence are obvious, like the famous Elco crane used for launching PT boats, and the plastics that wash up along the shoreline and get caught in the weeds. Hilliard showed the group native and invasive species in the park, such as the red knot and rose bush, which are from China, the crabapple, which is from Europe, and the Atlantis, the same tree referenced in the book, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

Recreation and nature improves

The pond renovation comes from a $1.7 million investment from Hudson County and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’ (NJDEP) Green Acres Program to improve not only the pond, but Lincoln Park and Gregg Park. The pond was drained to add a new sodium bentonite liner layered with sand to prevent water from leaking into the soil, as well as coir logs that allow plants to grow around the pond’s edge, which also entails a new walkway.

“The pond was filling up with muck and leaves,” Hilliard said. “When you have an artificial pond like that, you have to maintain it. You have to dig it out every so often. That’s what they did finally. And now they’re fixing it up with plants. It’s going to be really good. I think it’s going to be really nice. I’m looking forward to that. It also attracts a lot of birds so that’s a good thing, too.”

Meanwhile, the city’s effort to link all the parks on the western shore with walkways is moving forward, as Bayonne recently secured a $1 million matching grant from the NJDEP Garden State Preservation Trust to help fund two quarter-mile walkways, one connecting Veterans Park to the Sunset Trailer Park, and another extending the 16th Street Park walkway down to Robbins Reef. The city is matching the $1 million from the NJDEP with another million dollars from an environmental remediation fund. The fun was created from the $225 million settlement of a pollution lawsuit against Exxon Mobil in 2015 for the damage to wetlands and marshes caused by an oil refinery that operated in Bayonne since the 1870s and Linden since the early 1900s.

Rory Pasquariello may be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com. Follow him @rory_louis.