SURVEY SAYS: CHERISH OPEN SPACE

Burlington County Times, June 3, 2002

Day 1, 5:00 AM: I awaken to find my hand punching something soft. It was supposed to be the alarm clock button, but it was my husband’s hand. A light sleeper, he had groped for the alarm before I was even conscious.

I stumbled out of bed, somehow took care of my teeth (although I’m not sure if I ever combed my hair), crawled into the clothes I’d put out the night before, made my way, one step at a time, downstairs, and stuck my head out the front door to see what the temperature was like (cool, this early in the morning). I went down the driveway to retrieve the newspaper, and stopped short. The air was filled with the sound of bird song, none of which I could recognize.

This lack of recognition was a major problem. The only reason I was up at 5:00 AM was that I was about to embark on a survey of breeding songbirds for the NJ State Division of Fish and Wildlife. And being able to identify bird songs was a main component of the survey.

Fortunately, by the time I reached my first survey point, at the end of a cul-de-sac in an industrial park in Mount Laurel, my brain had been kick-started into gear, and I was able to figure out what I was hearing. Most of the birds were in the dense tree cover or hiding in the underbrush, so their song was the only way to know they were around.

Unfortunately, the site was decorated with a large billboard from a real estate agency; emblazoned on the billboard was the word (in large, red, bold-face letters), SOLD. Another piece of woodland was about to become another office complex.

The survey, which is carried out by volunteers throughout the State, was designed as a follow-up to an earlier survey, completed a decade ago, which helped identify wetlands, woods, and sensitive areas in order to help local planning and zoning boards decide which parcels to preserve and which to develop.

I spent three days, over a period of a week, doing the survey, from 5:30 AM to 9:30 AM. The area I was assigned was in the Mount Laurel-Moorestown area. Almost all the sites are in the midst of industrial parks or newly constructed housing developments; most are also along busy roads. I suspect that when the survey was first conducted, these sites were isolated and on rarely traveled two-lane country roads. Now even those streets that are still two-lanes have heavy traffic, even early on a weekend morning.

Some of the sites, which were plotted on a computer, were inaccessible because they now run behind private property. I doubt if they will be developed, because of how they are situated. Others will not be developed because they are wetlands. Others are already preserved, either as open space with picnic tables next to office building parking lots, or as part of Green Acres.

But there were several locations similar to the first one. They either had “sold” signs, were for sale, or were in the process of being bulldozed and leveled for mini-mansions.

I was disappointed that I didn’t spot any rare or endangered birds or animals, although I did see a possum running across someone’s lawn. Mostly, I saw (and/or heard) robins. Lots and lots of robins. Except in the areas where there were creeks, in which case I couldn’t hear anything else because of the racket being made by the red-winged blackbirds.

My biggest disappointment is that I didn’t spot the nesting bald eagles, even though one of my survey sites was close to their nest. But this large patch of woods was far from any road and I would have had to trespass onto private property to reach it. Which is why the eagles have chosen that site for their aerie – they moved a few years ago after their former nest, which could be seen easily from the road, became a tourist attraction. I could always tell where they were by the cluster of people standing on the shoulder of the road.

I learned quite a few things from the survey: that I don’t like getting up at 5:00 AM; that the new Dunkin’ Donuts down the street is open that early; that an infusion of caffeine, sugar, carbohydrates, and cholesterol wake me up; that there are a lot of people wandering around – in cars, on bikes, on foot – at dawn; that the State requires an awful lot of paper work even for volunteers.

Most importantly, I learned that our open space is dwindling, that “the middle of nowhere” doesn’t exist anymore, that we shouldn’t take those meandering creeks and stands of woods alongside major roads for granted. Or we’ll have nothing left to survey in the next decade.

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