Bird watchers flock to the Meadowlands Fifth annual festival to be held Sept. 13 and 14

Once a favorite pastime of the privileged leisure class, enthusiasts say bird watching is today one of the most accessible wildlife hobbies available to the general public.

“Bird watching is actually an easy thing to get involved in. It’s not expensive. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment,” said Hackensack Riverkeeper Program Director Hugh Carola. “And the rewards can be just amazing.”

Next weekend, bird watchers of all stripes will descend on the Meadowlands District for the Fifth Annual Festival of Birding, which is being organized by the Hackensack Riverkeeper and the New Jersey Audubon Society with sponsorship from the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC).

In recent years the Meadowlands has experienced a noticeable increase in its rare bird population, and a few species are now even thriving in the region, according to environmentalists. Avid bird watchers for example, have reported seeing a number of birds included on New Jersey’s list of endangered and threatened species – bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons, and Savannah sparrows among them.

Not all of these birds live in the Meadowlands year-round. Some use the area as little more than a rest stop during migration season, sticking around just long enough to feed, while others stay longer to nest and raise their young.

“Mid-September is prime time for migration,” Carola noted. “It’s when you’ve got hawks and eagles moving through. You’ve got lots of shore birds. Then you have the ever-present egrets and herrings in bigger numbers because the young [born earlier this year] are now flying with their parents. So, this is really the best time to get lucky and see lots of beautiful birds.”

The Birding Festival includes two full days of indoor and outdoor demonstrations, hands-on workshops, guided tours, boat rides, and other events designed to appeal to experienced and novice bird watchers alike. Environmentalists from the NJMC and the Hackensack Riverkeeper will, for example, conduct bird walks at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, the NJMC campus in Lyndhurst, and along the Mill Creek Marsh Trail in Secaucus.

One workshop, titled “Birding Basics,” is geared toward the true birding beginners.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge trying to balance the program so that we have interesting things to offer both the novice and longtime bird watcher,” Carola said. “But I think we’ve managed to put together two days of events that will allow a cross section of people to learn something and have a good time.”

Originally the brainchild of Don Freiday, currently the director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, the Birding Festival rapidly grew in its first few years of existence, attracting ever increasing participants. After holding steady with more than 200 registrants for several years, the 2007 festival attracted 150 participants.

Carola hopes to boost participation this year.

“The more you learn about wildlife the more you can understand and appreciate nature in general,” he said. “We just want to get more people outside to enjoy the birds we have here as part of our state.”

And Carola warns participants should be prepared for the unexpected.

“A few years ago,” Carola recalled, “I was doing a birding walk in Little Ferry and a woman said, ‘Wow! Look at that bird there!’ And I looked quickly and said, ‘Oh, that’s a red tailed hawk.'”

He was mistaken. After taking a second look, Carola realized it was, in fact, a bald eagle.

“I’ll never forget, a woman on the walk started to get so welled up and she said, ‘I never thought I’d see a [living] bald eagle in my life.’ And she started tearing up.”

“With all our bad history with pollution, it’s amazing to think that our Hackensack River, our watershed, and our Meadowlands are recovered to such an extent now that we’re seeing eagles, hawks, and endangered species,” Carola stated. “That just makes it all worth it.”

The Fifth Annual Festival of Birding will take place at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (Two DeKorte Park Plaza, Lyndhurst, NJ 07071) on Saturday, Sept. 13 from 7:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Additional events held throughout the Meadowlands District on Sunday, September 14. There is a $40 admission fee, which covers both days of the festival. To purchase tickets, call Lisa Ryan at the Hackensack Riverkeeper at (201) 968-0808 or visit Children and teens ages 10 to 17 can attend free if accompanied by a paying adult. The festival is not recommended for children under 10. The event will take place rain or shine.

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