Photo Essay: Finding Pristine Moments in New Jersey’s Urban Landscape

By Ray Hennessy
March 19, 2021
Philadelphia skyline from across the Delaware River in N.J., and Chestnut-sided Warbler b Ray HennessyPhiladelphia skyline from across the Delaware River in New Jersey and Chestnut-sided Warbler. Photos by Ray Hennessy.

From the Spring 2021 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Most people think of New Jersey as crowded, and it is the most densely populated state—thoroughly urban with high-rises dotting the skyline. But New Jersey is also a key stopover region for millions of migratory warblers, as well as home ground for several warbler species that choose to stay, breed, and raise their young.

Marshes outside Atlantic Coty, new Jersey. Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow Warbler (left to right). Photos by Ray Hennessey.Marshes outside Atlantic City, New Jersey. Birds from left to right: Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow Warbler. Photos by Ray Hennessey.

In the Shadow of Skyscrapers

Where I live in Jersey, the landscape is the epitome of urban sprawl. Yet I’m continually amazed at how some warblers have managed to scratch out survival amid the precious few green spaces tucked in the shadows of cities, such as the open marshes just outside of Atlantic City. Forest birds can be found here, too, such as Ovenbirds in the postage-stamp woodlots that haven’t been sold off as real estate yet.

Habitat oasis near Ocean City, New Jersey with birds (left to right): Yellow-throated Warbler, Northern Parula, and Black-and-white Warbler. Photos by Ray Hennessey.

A Habitat Oasis Near a Power Plant

The area around Ocean City is densely developed with several towns and a prominent power plant (now decommissioned). Ironically, there’s a halo of green space within eyesight of the smokestack. A saltmarsh near the old power station is bordered by a strip of forest that’s brimming with warblers in spring and summer. Every year many thousands of day-trippers and vacationers drive right through this area to the beach towns, unaware of all the fantastic birds that live nearby.

Power lines in New Jersey, and birds (left to right): Blue-winged Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Prairie Warbler. Photos by Ray Hennessy.Power lines in New Jersey, and birds (left to right): Blue-winged Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Prairie Warbler. Photos by Ray Hennessy.

Ribbons of Brushy Nesting Grounds

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Powerlines crisscross northern New Jersey leading to and from the state’s industrial hubs. Beneath the electrical wires, shrubby corridors sprout and are regularly maintained by annual brush-cutting—creating stand-in nesting grounds for the warblers that specialize in early successional habitat. As a bird photographer I’ve learned that spending a few minutes bushwhacking into a powerline cut in spring and summer is nearly guaranteed to yield a warbler of some kind. And when I do, it never ceases to amaze me: so many warblers are struggling to survive as their habitats are ever-shrinking, and yet every spring they show up in Jersey to try again.

Professional photographer Ray Hennessy lives in southern New Jersey.

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