Behind Secaucus High School, near the Hackensack River, is one of nature’s niftiest laboratories.
Until a few years ago, the 42-acre tide-restricted marsh was wall-to-wall Phragmites, an invasive reed that overran the region in the 1900s. Although some birds and butterflies like these tall reeds, they are too dense to attract the diversity of species that native grasses bring.
All that changed when the N.J. Meadowlands Commission ripped out the Phragmites, opened the site to the tides, and planted native grasses and other plants.
Although the marsh has been attracting lots of great birds — from warblers to rails — an experience this summer underscored just how crucial a change in habitat can be.
Story continues below.
During a survey in the marsh, NJMC Naturalist Mike Newhouse saw a rare sparrow called a seaside sparrow. In fact, just about the only place you can find this bird is in saltmarsh grasses.
He asked if I could go into the marsh and photograph the bird. Like a fool, I agreed.
It turned out that tide was high, and as I waded into the marsh, brackish water quickly poured over the tops of my rubber boots. I was quickly swallowed up by the marsh grasses, and I felt as though I were in the middle of nowhere, just miles from Manhattan.
In seconds, I spotted a sparrow in the distance — one I had never seen before. I managed to take a snap off a few photos before it flew.
Over the next half-hour, I searched futilely for another glimpse. I saw a lot of neat birds in the marsh, including several marsh wrens and an Eastern kingbird, but the sparrow had high-tailed it.
I waded back to dry land and sat on a trash bag the entire drive back to my office at DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. I downloaded the photos I took, including a couple of the prized sparrow, and sent the best to Mike Newhouse for his approval.
There was just this one problem. I really hadn’t gotten a good look at the sparrow — I had just figured that it had to be the one we were looking for because I sure didn’t recognize it.
Mike reported back quickly: The bad news was I had photographed the wrong sparrow. The good news was that the bird I photographed was arguably even rarer — a saltmarsh sparrow.
Like the seaside sparrow, the saltmarsh sparrow is attracted to a particular grassy wetland called high marsh. It has been in decline ever since humans starting draining and filling wetlands a century ago.
The State of New Jersey considers the saltmarsh sparrow a bird of special concern when breeding, and a regional priority the rest of the year.
We believe that the bird nested in the Secaucus High School Marsh this summer. And we’d like to think that upgrading the marsh was part of the reason.
NJMC Communications Officer Jim Wright maintains the Commission’s daily nature blog, featuring beautiful photography and the latest info on the region’s natural wonders.