March Madness

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month. – Henry Van Dyke

Sometimes the first spring day comes well before the first day of spring. One shouldn’t be too surprised when winter has more to say…

We were blessed with a number of really warm days during February. Sunny days in the 60s, and even the 70s. Daffodils bloomed; trees began to bud. An early taste of spring.

Eager to shake a bad case of cabin fever, I found myself supplementing my customary woodsy walks at a local park with frequent jaunts to Tyler Arboretum. One very warm day, I discovered that the frogs had come out to play. Spring peepers were secretive as always, impossible to see and impossible not to hear. And the wood frogs! Dozens of wood frogs. I’d never seen so many.

They were out of hibernation, looking for love, and finding it. Shortly thereafter, the pond was full of frogspawn.

My cell camera doesn’t zoom in very well; this is the best image I took of the army of wood frogs. (Yes, a group of frogs is called an “army!”)

And why do I only have cell phone images of the wood frogs?

I blame a lack of vision. Not the creative kind of vision. Literal vision – my eye sight.

I’ve been battling rapidly worsening cataracts in both eyes for some time. Cataracts are easily corrected by surgery, but the process has taken far longer than I expected. In the meantime, my impaired vision has dampened my enthusiasm for photography and limited my driving to a handful of nearby locales.

Most of the time, lacking all confidence, I haven’t even bothered to take my camera. Inevitably, I’ve found something neat that begged for a photograph, and I’ve had to resort to my cell phone. That’s been great for my Facebook page, not so much for the Wild Edge.

So the next very warm day, I went to Tyler, with a real camera, specifically looking for frogs. Of course, there were no frogs, but I found other subjects to shoot. The bridge across Dismal Run offered a unique view of a water strider skimming along the surface.

This is one of my favorite spots, a bench under eastern red cedar trees at the top of Pink Hill. After climbing the trail up from Dismal Run, a nice shady place to rest and cool off is welcome.

One warm Saturday, Robb, Don and I found ourselves in a bit of a hot spot. The day was sunny and blessedly free of other commitments. So we went to the Pine Barrens, in search of green trees.

We weren’t expecting to find our chosen trail flanked by the site of a recent controlled burn.

A very recent controlled burn. So recent, in fact, that there were quite a few plumes of smoke where the fire still smoldered.

Controlled burns are conducted in the Pinelands to clear the forest floor of deep layers of pine needles and other brush. If left in place, this duff could fuel disastrous wildfires.

Burns like this help the pine trees, too. Pitch pine cones are serotinous. They require fire with temperatures above 108° to open and release their seeds. This strange cone got the job half done.

One of my favorite views in the Pine Barrens. White sand, tea-colored water, green trees, blue sky. Serenity on the Oswego River.

The calendar turned from fevered February to March madness, and suddenly winter returned. Don’t let the deep blue sky fool you. It was COLD this day at Fort Mifflin. And very windy. We took a walk along the outer seawall, and Don was almost blown into the Delaware River.

After a winter in which we’d had only two light snowfalls, a true winter storm was a rude awakening. Snow and sleet, frozen hard overnight, left an impenetrable layer 6” deep, even deeper to the north.

When the roads cleared, I went in search of interesting snow photographs. With a real camera. Lake Nockamixon and Haycock Mountain, in Bucks County.

Mostly I was looking for red barns. Found one!

Winter grass and snow.

Found another barn!

This one came with a lovely farm pond, flanked by Canada Geese, and, as I learned later, a Great Blue Heron.

Back at the lake I found some of the plants encased in ice.

The snow and ice got me thinking about those wood frogs. Wood frogs can survive freezing. But on the warm days they laid thousands of eggs. The frogspawn was still there on my last visit, masses of strings of dark-centered gelatinous spheres. Will they survive? Will there be tadpoles? Or will the madness of winter following spring be the downfall of this new generation of frogs?

This topsy-turvy winter may not have been beneficial to the frogs. It certainly hasn’t been beneficial to my photography. I feel as if am simply killing time, enduring an endless maddening wait for something just over the horizon, like frogs waiting for a warm spring day.

Waiting can have its own benefits. The lessons I’ve learned from this period of my life? Never take good eyesight for granted. Don’t sit in the house and mope; time in nature heals the restless soul. Don’t overlook the wonders that abound at even the most familiar places.

And don’t leave the camera at home!

White Rock Lake: A New Perspective

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4763acsKayaking, the day after Christmas. Who would have guessed?

Yet that’s the way I spent my holiday this year. Christmas with family in Dallas, Texas is a tradition. Spending time at White Rock Lake, walking and photographing the park and the wildlife there, is a tradition. Getting out on the water there – well, here’s to new traditions!

Last year I discovered two kayaks, hidden away behind my cousin Jensen’s house. I immediately began a subtle (ok, not so subtle) campaign to coax him into an excursion on White Rock Lake over the holidays. All we needed was warmth, sunshine and light winds, the last always essential on a big lake like White Rock.

The day was warm, but the sky was dark and moody, and we even had a brief shower. No matter. The morning was dead calm, the lake as smooth as glass. I was paddling, for gosh sakes, the day after Christmas. All was right with the world.

161226_tx-white-rock-lake-kayak_112937acsAfter years of exploring White Rock Lake from land, this was the perspective I had been itching to see – White Rock from the water.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4761acsMy cousin Jensen, lookin’ good.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4767acsCruising past the marina. Brightly colored kayaks rested among the sailboats, just waiting for someone to liberate them from their land-locked existence.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4771acsJensen knifed through the water so powerfully he threatened to paddle right out of my picture. One-handed, yet!

Elaborate mansions line the shores of the lake behind him, and beyond that, the Dallas skyline.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4777acsA wonderful pedestrian bridge arched over a narrow arm of the lake.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4795acsWe paddled under the Mockingbird Lane bridge, where Jensen tried his hand at a little fishing. The day after Christmas. Imagine that!

After this, my photography went south. To capture images in the darkness under the bridge, I needed to adjust the settings of my small waterproof point-and-shoot camera. I forgot to reset it afterward. Later I learned that this camera can’t handle those settings. Only a few images after that point were even usable, and they’re a little embarrassing.

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4823acsHere’s one of them anyway, which I only share since it’s of my favorite White Rock bird, the American Coot.

Jensen and I paddled a short way up White Rock Creek. We could have explored a lot further up the waterway, but frankly, it got depressing.

Why? Trash. Plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups and other bits and pieces of detritus. Now, I’m used to Darby Creek at home, which draws its fair share of refuse. But not this bad.

img951911acThe scene inspired Jensen and his son Jake to do a little volunteer work a month later.

They spent a good three hours cleaning up trash from a 40-foot section of shoreline, filling two large Hefty bags in the process.

Here’s one of their finds. Way to go, guys! (Photo by Jensen Moock)

170101_tx-wrl-kayak-jensen-and-alex_950923acsSpeaking of family… Jensen’s daughter Alex had really wanted to go kayaking with us. Alas, we only had two kayaks. So she went with her dad a week or so later. As you can see, they had a much prettier day. And Jensen had prettier company. (Photo by Jensen Moock)

Notice the GoPro behind the seat. Alex, soon to graduate from high school, is a talented filmmaker. She starts at prestigious Belmont University in the fall. Can you tell I’m proud of her?

(That doesn’t get you off the hook, Alex – I still haven’t seen footage from your White Rock kayak experience. Or anything you shot from the drone.)

170101_tx-wrl-kayak-jensen-and-alex_9155acsA lake, a fishing rod and a sunset. Jensen, enjoying the serenity of a day with his daughter. (Photo by Alex Moock)

Back to my little White Rock adventure. After the paddle up the creek, Jensen and I returned to our exploration of the lake. He had no luck fishing, but we chatted with another boater who told us a few fish tales. I showed Jensen the dog park, and the arm of the lake I call “Cormorant Corner”, for all the Double-crested Cormorants that roost in the trees there. Funny to think that a lifelong Dallas resident needed to be shown around White Rock Lake by a part-time visitor.

161226_tx-white-rock-lake-kayak_122640acsHere’s a rarely seen sight – me, captured on camera.

On White Rock Lake.

The day after Christmas.

(Photo by Jensen Moock)

161226_tx-white-rock-kayak_4843acsDramatic clouds over the lake. They would part just as we were getting off the water, yielding to sunshine and blue skies.

I ate lunch in my bare feet. The day after Christmas.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

A Texas Ecology Lesson

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7840acsEven in winter, the Blackland prairie habitat at the Heard Sanctuary in Texas was beautiful. Sunlight painted the grasses and plants with glowing shades of amber, russet and pale cream. A bird box awaited the arrival of new life.

I wasn’t expecting an ecology lesson when I wandered through the Heard Sanctuary. I was thinking about the variety of habitats and plant communities that I was seeing. I was also wondering where the critters were. But I soon realized that all the elements of a complex ecosystem were observable here, hiding in plain sight.

ECOSYSTEM (noun): a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. (Wikipedia)

A habitat is the natural environment for an organism. Add a variety of plants and animals, make it interconnected and self-sustaining, and now you’ve got an ecosystem!

An ecosystem is self-sufficient and cyclical; its nutrients go through a series of changes that transport them around the ecosystem in an unending web. Ecosystems need abiotic matter, producers and consumers, scavengers and decomposers. All of these were in evidence on my walk through the Heard Sanctuary.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8157aThis is the black soil of the Blackland Prairie. Soil, sediment and organic matter form the abiotic component of an ecosystem. Here the soil is an alkaline clay of chalk, limestone and shale. In dry weather, large deep cracks form in its surface. All the cycles of life – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, water cycles and more – start with the soil and come back to the soil. Abiotic matter, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7755acsGrowing in that rich dark soil were plants. Pretty plants…

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7759acs… and strange plants. This one has winged stems. Plants are the producers of the ecosystem, taking nutrients from the soil and energy from the sun to grow and reproduce. Their seeds, fruit, stems and leaves become food for the animals. Producers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7538acsWalking along the trail through the woodlands, I heard the twitters of small birds – chickadees, nuthatches, a cardinal. While searching in vain for them, the nubby texture of this tree caught my eye. That big hole looked just right for an owl… but alas, no one was home.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8112aThese are galls, or they may be burls. The two growths are similar, and there are so many conflicting definitions online that I couldn’t sort out the difference. Insects, bacteria or fungi get under the tree’s skin, and an abnormal swelling of plant tissues forms around the invader. These growths are the result.

Most galls are small and appear on leaves or twigs, but they can be large and woody. Burls seem to be exclusively woody. Inside a burl, the rings of the wood twist into lovely shapes that are prized by woodworkers for their beauty.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8117acsI thought the outside was beautiful, too.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7897acsGoldenrod.

In this season, my wildflower guide was not a lot of help. Without flowers on the plants, I couldn’t identify much along the trail.

But I could admire everything! Except critters. So few critters to admire…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then I came to the swamp, and suddenly there were animals everywhere.

Waterfowl swam placidly past. Coots. Mallards. A Northern Shoveler.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7986acsAnd turtles. Lots of turtles, basking in the 82° sunshine. There was plenty of plant material in the swamp for herbivores like turtles and ducks. Primary consumers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7546acsOh, cool! Snakes!

Yes, that’s actually what I thought when I saw this sign. I’ve never seen either a copperhead or a cottonmouth. I was hoping to see one or both, though preferably at a safe distance. Not this day, though.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7802acsI found some droppings on the boardwalk. Why, oh why, you might ask. Why was I interested in this?

Because there was fur and bone in them, the calling card of something carnivorous like a fox or coyote. I never saw the animals themselves. For evidence of this component of the Heard ecosystem, a little scat had to do. Secondary consumers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7785acsWheeling over the prairie, a Turkey Vulture. Even though I see them all the time back East, they somehow seemed appropriate in this dry environment. To our eyes, vultures are ugly birds with an ugly lifestyle – they eat dead animals. Scavengers like vultures play a really important role in consuming and passing on the nutrients that would otherwise remain locked inside an animal’s body after it dies. Scavengers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7541acsNearby, a bracket fungus clung to another tree like the bookshelf of a woodland elf.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8012acsFungi are neither plant nor animal; they make up their own kingdom and play their own part in an ecosystem. Fungi’s role is to decompose organic matter.

The portion we see, the mushroom, is the fruiting body of the fungus.

Decomposers, check.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7915acsThe variety of plants in the swamp, cedar brake and prairie of the Heard Sanctuary was a marvel to behold. Studying it and photographing it kept me busy and happy on a warm December day.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7959acsAnimal life was less obvious. Turtles sunned themselves on logs, while birds sang in the trees. Scat revealed the presence of a carnivore, but the critters themselves were tucked away out of sight.

Soil, plants and animals; swamp, woodland and prairie. All the building blocks of an ecosystem were there in the Heard Sanctuary for me to see if I looked hard enough. A walking ecology lesson!

Lone Star Habitat

2016-12-28_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary-pan-1acsI’ve been thinking a lot about the word “habitat.” My friends and I throw the term around a lot. We talk about pristine or disturbed habitat; interesting, unusual or downright odd habitat; preserving habitat and restoring habitat.

What the heck are we talking about?

The Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, Texas showcases a variety of habitats, from wetlands and forest to prairie. On a recent visit, I took a walk that wound through several different habitats, three of which were unlike anything I see back East. Along the way, I started to muse about the meaning of habitat.

HABITAT (noun): the natural environment of an organism; place that is natural for the life and growth of an organism. (Dictionary.com)

It’s the place an animal or plant lives. It’s comprised of everything an organism, or a population of organisms, needs to survive, from soil, moisture and light to food and shelter. Habitats range from a large area like a forest to a small site, such as the inside of a rotten log.

My friends and I use the term in a wider, more colloquial way to refer to a geographical area of varying size, where the soil, geology and plant communities are fairly uniform. Technically, that’s a “biotope”, but the terms are so similar that we say “habitat.”

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7643aDallas lies in the Texas Blackland prairie region. Before much of the land was converted to agriculture and residential use, grassland, oakland and savanna habitats once covered the area.

At the Heard Sanctuary, the trail wound through remnants of Blackland prairie. A type of grassland, prairies typically have deep fertile soil, on which grasses and wildflowers grow. Trees and shrubs may be present, but cover no more than 10% of the area. For centuries, animals such as bison, pronghorn and deer, as well as wildfires, kept woody plants and trees at bay and preserved the land as prairie.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8179aGrasses found in the prairie include big and little bluestem and Indian grass. In winter, golden browns, russets and tans adorn the land. In the growing months, these hillsides are ablaze in wildflowers.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7931acsAt the Heard Sanctuary, I encountered a swamp for the first time. They call it a wetland, but it’s a swamp. “Wetland” is a term that encompasses any land area saturated with water at some time of the year. Bogs, marshes and swamps are all wetlands, but a bog is not a marsh and a marsh is not a swamp. Marshes, like those at John Heinz NWR near home, are dominated by soft-stemmed herbaceous plants and grasses.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7926acsSwamps like this are dominated by woody plants, aka trees.

The swamp here is ephemeral, meaning it is not flooded the whole year. In the summer, it dries up. During the dry period, annual plants sprout.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7956acsThen the autumn rains come, and the plants die. Their seeds and leaves become an important source of food for the wetland visitors and inhabitants. The swamp is again a watery wonderland.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8015acsFurther along the trail was another interesting habitat, the Cedar Brake. I wondered what a “brake” was. From what I’ve been able to find, it’s a tangle of dense brush and briars. So the cedar brake was a thick cedar grove with a thick brushy understory?

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8022aLife is not so simple. As you can see, there was almost no understory to this cedar brake. Lots of trees, yes, but no brush. Deep in the woods, the trees were bare of foliage for most of their length.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8111acsOnly when I looked to the sky did I see the greenery.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8083acsAbout those trees… They may be called “cedars”, but they are not true cedars. Instead, they are junipers in the Cypress family.

Junipers are evergreen trees or shrubs with small scale-like leaves and cones surrounded by a fleshy covering that looks like a berry.

Junipers often occur in oak-juniper woodlands in Texas, but here it was a monoculture of cedar trees.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_8060acsExactly which juniper tree remains a mystery, to me at least. Identifying junipers is very difficult, even for experts.

 

Possibly Eastern redcedar, Juniperus virginia, which usually has a single trunk.

Ashe juniper, Juniperus ashei, known as post cedar or Texas cedar, is common in Texas, but usually has multiple stems and is shorter.

Both have blue seed cones, and the two species hybridize.

161228_tx-heard-nature-sanctuary_7537aEvery region has its own types of habitat, and exploring different regions of the country is a great way to get to experience distinctive environments. When I am in Texas, I always seek out natural places that have something new to show me. With a wonderful variety of habitats, the Heard Sanctuary did not let me down!

A Woodland Surprise

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6537acsIt started as a typical walk through the woods. After all, the word “woods” is in its name: Hartshorne Woods Park. So we weren’t too surprised to find ourselves walking through a woodland that felt all too familiar.

My friends and I had come to the northernmost tip of the Jersey Shore on Thanksgiving weekend specifically to visit Sandy Hook and the Twin Lights of Navesink. These were places we’d not been before, places with a different flavor than the southern Jersey coast. A visit to nearby Hartshorne Woods, a small Monmouth County park, wasn’t on the original itinerary. Heck, we didn’t even know it existed until we arrived in the area. A short morning walk there was mostly a way to kill time until Sandy Hook Light opened for tours in the afternoon.

It ended up being the highlight of the day.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6656acsNot for the woods, though they were nice enough. We hiked down, up and back down steep hills, more akin to our native Piedmont than the Atlantic Coastal Plain.

The maple, oaks and hickories were still adorned in a smattering of gold and russet, set off by the dark green of abundant American hollies.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6558acsThe first glimpses of blue water through the trees tipped us off: this was NOT a typical Piedmont walk. The trail traveled along the top of a bluff overlooking the Shrewsbury River. Beyond the river lay a narrow spit of land, the town of Sea Bright, and the Atlantic Ocean. Nope, don’t see that in Pennsylvania!

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6549acsA little further along, the Navesink River joins the Shrewsbury. By this time, we were actively seeking a way to get down the hill to the water. If we are anywhere near water, we want to be at its edge. Not up above it.

The bluff was too steep to brave a descent. We continued along the trail until we came to a green lawn that sloped downhill –  to the pier and boat launch of Black Fish Cove. Ah, much better.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6582acsOnce on the beach, the walk suddenly became much more interesting.  All thoughts of completing the 2.3-mile Rocky Point Trail loop were quickly abandoned in favor of exploring along the river’s edge. With views like this? The beach beckoned.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6593acs-copyGolden leaf on sand. Seems a strange juxtaposition to me. Should be either beach, or woods, not both. That’s a South Jersey conceit, though. There are many wonderful places where the two habitats play nicely with each other.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6620acsHere the boundary between woods and beach was quite dramatic. A tall cliff loomed, topped by towering trees that clung to its edge, their roots exposed for all to see.

Don, for scale, risking life and limb under a widow maker tree.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6626acsThe view upriver. The sand was yellowish, picking up the strange ocher tones of the exposed soil above the beach.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6697acsWe ventured downriver, picking our way over fallen branches and trees. There’s only so much erosion a tree can take before it loses its grip and falls. The beach widened, covered in cordgrass and phragmites and cottony groundsel trees. Pathways to the water led us to troves of mussels.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6699acsAt the water’s edge. Weathered white driftwood was everywhere. I wanted to take it all home and decorate my house with its silken beauty. But no – best to leave it where it lies for others to enjoy.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6683acsUnder the water, a bed of pebbles and shells. And what is this on the largest of shells? “A tube worm,” I said, not sure why I thought so. “NO!” said Robb. “It’s not a tube worm!”

Well, guess what? It is a tube worm – or rather the tubes that tube worms used to live in.

FUN FACT: Tube worms are invertebrates in the class Polychaeta. They are sessile animals, meaning they are anchored to a hard surface underwater. Once its tail is anchored, a worm secretes a calcium carbonate substance that hardens into a whitish tube. The worm can retreat into this shell completely. It cannot survive for long outside of the tube. Tubes of some species of polychaeta worms are long and snakelike; other species coil into a spiral.

All too soon, we came to a place where the beach ended, where there was nowhere else to go but up. Up, using exposed tree roots as hand holds and steps. Up, along the Rocky Point Trail. Up, through the hilly woods and back to our car.

161126_nj-hartshorne-woods_6607aNever again will I take for granted a simple walk in the woods.

The Twin Lights of Navesink

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6105acsSeafaring is a dangerous business. Be they sail or steam, passenger or cargo, many ships have gone down along the Atlantic Coast over the centuries. Powerful storms and strong, tricky currents make navigating harbors a challenge that in darkness is nigh unto impossible.

Which is why man made lighthouses.

Towers topped with bright lights visible for miles dot the coasts and Great Lakes of North America. Sandy Hook Light has guarded the southern entrance to New York Harbor since before the American Revolution. In 1828, help arrived: the Navesink Highlands Light Station, otherwise known as the Twin Lights.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook_6154acsThe name says it all – there are TWO lights to this light station. Rebuilt of local brownstone in 1862, the towers are linked by keeper’s quarters. They stand 64 feet high atop a 200’ hill overlooking the Shrewsbury River.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6368acsThe two towers are different shapes, the North being octagonal and the South square.

At night, the two beacons, one fixed and one flashing, were easy to distinguish from the light at Sandy Hook.

They were also easy to see. The Twin Lights were the first in America to use the revolutionary Fresnel lens design, when two of these beehive shaped lights were installed in 1841.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6223acsThe South Tower’s beehive light was replaced in 1898 with an electric-arc bivalve lens. This light could be seen 22 miles out to sea, the brightest light in the U.S. at the time. It was so bright the North Tower light was taken out of service.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6248acsIn 1941 Navesink Light Station was decommissioned and extinguished.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6316aThe 9’ bivalve lens needed its own generator to power it. Today that lens is on display in the Electric Power Station building.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6309acsClose up of the bivalve light.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6254aThe front of the building that connects the two lights. The battlements along the roof and the towers at each end give the Twin Lights a fortress-like feel.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6268acsThe cannon adds to the ambience. On clear days the New York skyline is visible from the Twin Lights site. So is the Statue of Liberty, according to Robb.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6360acsThe view from the top of the North Tower.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6335acsThe South Tower and the Shrewsbury River.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6349acsLooking across to Sandy Hook. The first demonstration of Marconi’s wireless telegraph took place here in 1899, at the America’s Cup yacht races off Sandy Hook.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6375aThe North Tower.

Now a National Historic Landmark, this life-saving light station reminds us of the years it stood watch over the harbor, its beacons a comfort to all who passed.

161125_nj-navesink-twin-lights_6338acsThe Twin Lights of Navesink.

Sandy Hook to the Rescue

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6510acs

HOEK (Dutch): Corner, angle; spit of land.

The long spit of land known as Sandy Hook, comprised of beaches, dunes and maritime forest, is a recreational wonderland. It serves a higher purpose, though. For centuries the spit has guarded the entrance to New York Harbor. The peninsula, owned by the federal government since 1814, has long been essential to the safety of mariners and the defense of New York. There’s a lot of history resting on the shifting sands of Sandy Hook!

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-lifesaving-station_6768acsNew York Harbor is one of the busiest in the nation. Seafaring is always treacherous, and many ships foundered off the Jersey Coast. In the 1870s, the U. S. Life-Saving Service was established, to watch the coast and rescue stranded seamen. Life-saving stations like this one were built along the coast. Spermaceti Cove Station No. 2, built in 1894, housed a six man crew of “surfmen” and their rescue equipment.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-lifesaving-station_6815acsThe Spermaceti Cove station was used by the Life-Saving Service and subsequently by the U.S. Coast Guard until the 1940s. It has served as the Visitor Center for the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area since the 1970s. Damaged in Hurricane Sandy, it’s now closed, to our deep disappointment. We could only admire the old girl from the outside.

Also guarding the harbor is the Sandy Hook Light.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6506acsFirst lit in 1764, it was captured by the British in 1776, withstood an American attack, and was held until the end of the Revolution.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6497acsThe Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters now standing on the site was built in 1883. It also saw life as a U.S. Life-Saving Station.

Sandy Hook Light is still in operation 24 hours a day, using an automated, fixed 3rd-order Fresnel lens. When it was built in 1764, water lapped the shore just 500 feet away. The light now stands a mile and a half from the tip of Sandy Hook.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6894acsWe took advantage of a chance to climb the 103’ tower. Along the way, deep set windows gave peek-a-boo views of Fort Hancock below.

Sandy Hook’s location at the mouth of New York harbor made it the perfect place to build a fort to defend the harbor and New York City.

A wooden fort called Fort Gates served during the War of 1812. Fort Hancock replaced it in the late 1800s.

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6902acsA view of Fort Hancock from the lighthouse. This is Officers Row, a group of yellow brick residences. Enlisted men lived in barracks and a small village of supporting buildings sprouted up over the years. The population of Fort Hancock peaked during World War II at nearly 12,000 military personnel.

Much of the fort’s defenses centered on concrete gun batteries using the most powerful cannons of the day. After WWII, the fort’s mission shifted to an array of Nike air defense missiles. At the end of 1974, Fort Hancock was officially decommissioned. It now is part of Gateway National Recreation Area.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-fort-hancock_6402acsFort Hancock’s Nine-gun Battery.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-fort-hancock_6419acsThese old gun batteries were quite picturesque, in a moody sort of way.

161125_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-fort-hancock_6485acsBattery Peck.

Near Sandy Hook, in Atlantic Highlands, is Mount Mitchill Scenic Overlook. Perched at 266’, the highest natural elevation on the Atlantic Coastal Plain, it offers sweeping vistas of Sandy Hook, Raritan Bay and New York City. You get a feel for the strategic importance of Sandy Hook to the defense of New York and the safety of seamen traveling into the harbor.

Throughout the weekend, from every high point and lighthouse, we searched for the Statue of Liberty. Throughout the weekend, from every high point and lighthouse, Robb claimed to see her.

Atop the Sandy Hook Light,  Robb declared that he could see the Statue. Again,

161126_nj-gateway-nra-sandy-hook-light_6945aDon was skeptical. She never seemed to be where Robb said she was.

After two days of following Robb’s guidance, to no avail, I sought the aid of other visitors to Mount Mitchill. Within minutes, thanks to them, I had found what I was looking for.

At last! Lady Liberty! Let’s zoom in…

161126_nj-mt-mitchill-overlook_7002acs2There she stands, the symbol of freedom, the symbol of welcome to all who come to our beautiful land.

And guarding her flanks, Sandy Hook, ever vigilant.