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My Column: Helping Our Natural Areas

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When I set out to write a "Bird Watcher" column for The Record about the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge near Wallkill, N.Y., I expected to write something more upbeat. 

But when I got there, I found more than the magical short-eared owls that the refuge is known for... The advice in the following column applies to all natural areas in our region.

By Jim Wright

Special to The Record

One of my 2021 resolutions is to go birding in different places. Because of the pandemic, hikers and other folks looking for exercise or fresh air have been flocking to my usual haunts in North Jersey.

 I’m finding that even places an hour’s drive JWright Record 010721away are feeling the squeeze. Take the 600-acre Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Wallkill, N.Y.  It offers superb winter birding, including breathtakingly beautiful short-eared owls. 

There’s just one problem. Although the Shawangunk refuge is large, owls and other winter raptors require a lot of territory to hunt and thrive. Like so many nature preserves in our overdeveloped region, this vast patch of grasslands has become a human refuge as well. 

Alas, many new visitors are unfamiliar with how to conduct themselves in natural areas. That has led to problems not only too many visitors at peak times, but also with some folks ignoring rules and simple civility. 

The Shawangunk preserve, maintained by volunteers, has gotten so crowded on weekends that half of the more than three miles of trails may well be closed at the time of this writing (mid-December). 

A possibility even exists that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the preserve, will close it altogether if too many visitors continue to flout the rules.

One recent example: Someone brought their own bird-viewing enclosures and a propane flame heater to keep warm. Did it never occur to them that the surrounding grasslands could easily catch fire?

If you plan to visit any nature preserve in the age of COVID, here’s some advice -- for everyone’s sake. 

*Bring a mask, and wear it whenever you are near others. 

*Don’t visit a nature preserve to walk your dog, fly a drone, ride a bike, run or jog. Such activities can disturb wildlife. Most trails are narrow and intended for nature appreciation, not recreation. 

*Keep your voice down. Nature preserves are not playgrounds. If you insist on shouting, please go elsewhere. Birds -- especially owls -- have amazing senses of hearing.

*If you take pictures with a digital camera and use continuous shooting mode, set your shutter for silent mode if you are around others. Again, common courtesy.

*Avoid visiting on weekends or other busy times. Otherwise, you’ll only add to the problem.

Says Mary Buskey, a volunteer board member for Friends of Shawangunk Grasslands: “It’s a beautiful, peaceful place all of the seasons. We’d just like to see people be a little more respectful.” 

 The Bird Watcher column appears every other Thursday. Email Jim at celeryfarm@gmail.com.

About the Refuge

The Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge refuge is free and open to the public from dawn to dusk. According to Ralph Tabor, a volunteer who has been described as the refuge's "heart and soul,” it was once the site of a military airport and a training ground for federal agents and the U.S. Military Academy.

The refuge entrance is at 902 Hoagerburgh Road, Wallkill, N.Y.

More info: https://bit.ly/3420SMr.

 

You can download a pdf of the column here:

Download JWright BirdWatcher TheRecordBergenEdition_20210107_LF03_0

 

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