I took a commuter train to work at jobs in New York City and then Jersey City almost every weekday for 10 years before I noticed the Meadowlands.
Unlike Central Park, this is no man-made wilderness but until the last decade or so it was a man-made disaster. Towns dumped their garbage. Industrial complexes dumped toxic chemicals in the Hacksensack River and the many small creeks. The tallest point, known by some as Snake Hill, was shaved down, as you can see in this photo my husband took. It was a mess.
New Jersey Transit tracks plow through a section of it once it leaves Newark. When I took the train in I read the newspaper. Coming home I read a book or slept.
One afternoon when we passed through the Meadowlands I happened to put down my book and looked out the window to my right. In a tree over a canal was a redtailed hawk. I was stunned. A redtail? Here?
What had I been missing all this time?
Quite a lot, I learned. Since then I always put the paper or book down when we go through this little slice of the Meadowlands and have been rewarded by seeing, among many others, greenwinged teals, shoveler ducks, great and snowy egrets, great blue herons, redtails, assorted sandpipers, osprey and, thanks to the train going very slowly, a least bittern.
You haven't lived until a harrier is flying parallel to your train at the same speed, at eye level.
Robert Sullivan published an excellent book in 1998, "The Meadowlands," about the area's history and the fight to clean it up, bringing back the fish and frogs that in turn drew the birds. Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, and his group (www.hackensackriverkeeper.org/) have been working hard to keep the area from further abuse - suing companies found dumping, running eco-tours to highlight the area's beauty. (I've taken one; they're great.)
In Lyndhurst, the Richard W. DeKorte park, part of the NJ Meadowlands Commission, was carved out of several dumping sites, It provides a large, liquid rest stop for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds next to a gas pipeline while raptors, including roughlegged hawks and bald eagles, cruise over the aptly-named Disposal Road. (You can check sightings on the park blog, http://meadowblog.typepad.com/.)
Sometimes it pays to put down the newspaper (or the BlackBerry) and connect with the world around you.
Do you have a favorite unlikely birding spot? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org