By Jonathan Klizas
In 1699, the Van Veghten family had little indication that their farm property would become an interesting location for the study of nature three centuries later. Their 18th century Dutch farmhouse, now the headquarters of the Somerset County Historical Society, continues to watch over the floodplain of the Raritan River in Bridgewater Township. In 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers began collaboration with the state of New Jersey on the project known as the Finderne Wetlands Mitigation Project. In essence, this created an area rich in birding potential.
More than anyone else, Warren Township resident and Somerset County birder extraordinaire, Jeff Ellerbusch, has put Finderne Wetlands on the birding map. It was Jeff, who on Sunday, August 28, 2011 stood on a spot overlooking the rapidly flooding Finderne Wetlands as Hurricane Irene was pulling out of the region, and observed a multitude of birds including Laughing Gulls and Common, Least, Black and Forster’s Terns. For those not familiar with the Somerset County avifauna, these are NOT typical species of the county. Some of these were first records for Somerset. Fortunately, Jeff managed to escape as the 30-foot high floodwaters inundated the area.
In calmer weather situations, Finderne is a worthwhile location to visit at any season. Autumn through spring brings waterfowl. Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal are expected and numerous. Cackling Geese are always possible, as Bridgewater Township may be the Cackling Goose capital of New Jersey. Raptors are frequent visitors. At other seasons, Blue Grosbeaks have nested here. Alder Flycatcher has appeared in migration. Eastern Meadowlarks and Bobolinks pass through. Wilson’s Snipe are numerous in spring. Typical shorebird species are here in summer. Little Blue Heron has been here as well as the expected Great Egrets and Great Blue and Green Herons. All of the typical swallow species occur here. Amazingly, Jeff found a Least Tern here again in the summer of 2012. The Raritan Flyway has birding treasures waiting for discovery.
In autumn, this grassy, vegetative expanse of 130 acres is home to sparrows – lots and lots of sparrows. Song, Swamp and especially Savannah Sparrows are abundant. Vesper, Grasshopper and White-crowned Sparrows have been recorded. A Nelson’s Sparrow was present for two weeks in the fall of 2011. Keep in mind that Finderne is a relatively recent birding location and new additions to its bird list are waiting to occur with increased coverage by birders. Already, 172 species are on the Finderne bird list according to eBird! Here’s a link to the hotspot page for more info. Butterflies, Odonates and other insects are abundant and await someone to survey the area.
9 Van Veghten Drive, Bridgewater NJ 08807 is the address for the Van Veghten House (Somerset County Historical Society) and the gateway to Finderne Wetlands. This is accessible from the Rt. 28 exit of I-287 (exit 13). Take NJ 28-W (Union Ave.) to a left turn (south) on Finderne Ave. After 1 mile, turn right (west) onto Van Veghten Drive into an industrial complex. (You have gone too far if you cross over the Raritan River). Look for the Van Veghten House on the left (south). Enter the gravel driveway and go past the brick house. Do not be concerned with the Ford pickup with the license plate JUMBLE2. It is always parked next to the house. Park in the small lot next to the house or continue on the gravel driveway until an opening appears on the left. On the accompanying map, this is marked as Trailhead. It is the start of an overgrown dirt road and is the entrance to the wetlands. Park on the grass keeping the gravel road clear for other vehicles.
Most birders head for Long Pond. This is where the greatest diversity of species occurs. From the aforementioned trailhead, walk south down the overgrown dirt road and walk past a pipe gate. The pond on the left may have Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. Pipits and Bobolinks have been seen here. Shorebirds may be on the rim of the pond when the water level is low. Continue east on the gravel road to Long Pond. Both Green and Blue-winged Teal are here in season. This is where the Nelson’s Sparrow was found in October 2011. Shorebirds are in the pond in summer. Little Blue Heron has been here. Wilson’s Snipe are numerous in season. Blue Grosbeaks have nested nearby. In autumn, sparrows can be overwhelming here. It is productive to walk the length of the pond. Another trail goes east towards the Main Street bridge and the Raritan River. Reversing direction, head back towards the trailhead and continue west towards some smaller ponds on the north side of the trail. Depending on the season, Herons, ducks and sparrows are in this area.
Another way to access the western end of the wetlands is via the Torpey Athletic Complex on Nimitz St., Bridgewater. A road goes to a soccer field in the middle of the wetlands near the Raritan River. This can be a good area to check for geese in the winter. Meadowlarks have been seen in this area. In general, trails cover the entire Finderne Wetlands and are worth exploring.