A Walk Through The Raptor Garden

Now that I got what I wanted, I’m not so sure it was such a great idea.

The best part about heading out to the Holgate refuge is that you never know what is waiting out there to surprise you.

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Like Stewart the Bald Eagle. Shot at the Raptor Garden.
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Or the first Bald Eagle I ever saw at Holgate. Also shot at the Raptor Garden.
Iz Bridgette!!!111!!
Or the first time I ever met Bridgette, the bird with a backstory. Shot at the Raptor Garden.
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Who, incidentally, got turned into a giant mural out near Philly.
"I iz Jo Durt, from House Flower Pot, unpin Crest of the Wild Woode. Eater of Burd!" he said.
Or the first time I ever met Jo Durt. She was just a baby. Now she is Queen of The Causeway and the BOIS Igloo. Shot at the Raptor Garden.
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Or met a Snow Owl so fresh from the Arctic it didn’t even know what I was, so was curious, and happily landed right above my face, staring into it, apparently attempting to hypnotize (successfully!). Shot at the Raptor Garden.
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Or the time I noticed a Snow Owl sitting on the Easter Bunny, and then realized it was wearing an iPhone on its back and it turned out to be Baltimore, the world famous Snow Owl. A sighting so cool it even made it into a film (where you can see the Raptor Garden!). Shot at the Raptor Garden.
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Or maybe you see two Snow Owls trying to murder each other. Also shot at the Raptor Garden.

I think you get the point. Or points. Holgate is a surprising place. And the Raptor Garden is an especially magnificent little corner of it.

But every once in a very rare while, the surprise awaiting you at Holgate doesn’t come from the wilderness.

It comes, surprisingly, from the peoples.

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Murderball. A new trail cut right through the Raptor Garden.

And so it was last evening when I checked in to see who might be loafing around the Raptor Garden waiting to surprise me, and instead discovered some mysterious plastic trail markers. I have no idea where they came from. They weren’t there in the morning. Yet here they are now.

It appears a walking trail has been put right through the Raptor Garden.

And it’s a dream come true.

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Trail Through The Raptor Garden

It is a trail so short and so tiny, it certainly does not justify the above trail map. Yet it is kind of a big deal. Because the traditional setup of the refuge is that while you can freely stroll its front beach, the inner sanctum is exclusively protected for wild plants and animals and is totally off limits. At least according to the signage. The entire 2.5 mile stretch is marked by a symbolic fence with no place to cut through (legally) to the other side. Until now.

I’ve long suggested to Kathy Clark at NJ Fish & Wildlife that we pitch the refuge on creating such a trail for limited use reading raptor bands. Since I spend most of my best time at Holgate reading and reporting bands, it is extremely frustrating when the raptor is perched bayside, just far enough out of reach that the band is unreadable. Even just an extra 50 feet would make the difference in many cases.

And now suddenly that wish has come true and I have unfettered access to the single most important and active acre of the refuge for raptors.

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Overwashed. Shot at the Raptor Garden.

If you love Holgate’s raptors, the Raptor Garden is the crown jewel. This tiny acre-or-so of overwash near the middle of the refuge is the absolute heart of its raptor activity.

I’ll put it to you this way: If you see an Eagle flying in from the inlet and it is flying south, you head straight to the Raptor Garden because that’s where it landed. If you drive in at sunrise, you turn off your headlights and slow to a crawl as you approach this sacred space because something wonderful is bound to be there and you don’t want to spook it. If there is nothing going on at Holgate and I don’t feel like going home, I park at the Raptor Garden and wait. Because something will happen. It always does.

Tiny as it is, it is a highly contested space amongst Holgate’s raptor population. If you want to see a fight, between Snow Owls, or Snow Owl & Peregrine, or Eagle & Peregrine, or Eagle & Osprey, or Harrier and Snow Owl, the Raptor Garden is the place to watch. All of my best photos of these interactions occurred there. In fact, an enormous percentage of my most well know and well loved photos were taken there. And most of my best band sightings also happened there; Jo Durt, Baltimore, Bridgette, Red, and even recently, BE/40, all were in the Raptor Garden. When I went out trapping with Project Snowstorm, Scott Weidensaul set up just off the Raptor Garden; because of course, that’s where Mr. Handbersome, the beautiful white male we were targeting, was hunting.

I can’t say for sure why this place is so special to the raptors. Though I can make a few guesses. As you can see from the map, it is the narrowest point in the refuge. It is one of the most consistently overwashed areas, so is always flat, open, and clean, dotted by a few short perches and a few tall ones, with excellent views of the ocean and the bay. Perfect visibility in every direction. The backside is a giant mud flat with some protected waters so it is always full of ducks, brant, herons, and others.

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First Sundown inside the Raptor Garden

Upon discovering the trail, I immediately called home. I, of course, wouldn’t be home for dinner. I wanted to watch my first sunset from  inside this habitat that I had stared into so longingly for so long… so many evenings, stuck out on the front beach, while some Snowy or Peregrine or Eagle perched at rest deep in the Raptor Garden, smugly staring at me, helplessly stranded outside the symbolic fence.

As any wildlife photographer who knows Holgate well will tell you, you are lucky if you get a raptor on the oceanside of the garden; so you proceed with caution. One wrong move, that raptor will just hop to the bayside where it will sit, laughing at you and the terrible photos you will now get, for the rest of the day, confident in its own safety.

To find this trail was indeed a surprise. But the biggest surprise of all came as I walked the path through that long-forbidden zone for the first time. The surprise was how I felt.

Even with all of my excitement and having this dream-come-true, I actually felt kind of… sad.

Now, I’ve known a few Catholics who abandoned their faith. And while they were able to rewrite most of their own personal rules, they were never quite able to shake the powerful sense of guilt their upbringing had embedded deep within them. Maybe my sadness came from something like that. Maybe it will just take time to accept that strolling through the Raptor Garden is actually legal.

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Why violating the symbolic fence matters, as covered in The Trespisser

Yet I also felt sad being back in that protected space because I’ve watched so many animals seek refuge in this very, very specific place so consistently for so many years. And I know these animals understand how the refuge works and what the symbolic fence means for them. While they probably can’t read the signs, repeated observation and experience suggests a Holgate raptor learns quickly that perches adjacent to the front beach are dicey and that they will experience less disturbance bayside. And when we trespass, we blow their tiny minds and destroy their entire worldview.

It should come as no surprise that when I walked this tiny trail, I flushed all 50 or so birds out of there simply by my presence. Even the gulls fled, seeming to recognize that something wasn’t quite right with this situation.

Whether this new trail is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, and certainly isn’t for me to decide. The trail was most likely put in by the refuge itself, and I’d assume they have a much broader mandate than simply giving wild birds a safe space. I believe they also have a responsibility to make those places accessible, and to give the public access to enjoy the many treasures of the wilderness area.

I just couldn’t shake the feeling that all of these animals from the Raptor Garden that I’ve been featuring here for so many years have just lost much more than we’ve just gained. Which will be a struggle for me, as I most certainly am drooling at the increased access I have long wished for.

There is a good chance that at least some the animals will become habituated to humans walking through the Raptor Garden and will get more comfortable with us being there.

Or maybe they’ll just find someplace else to go. Which would be sad. Because it is clear the Raptor Garden was their first choice in a world where they are rapidly running out of choices.

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Sunset on the Raptor Garden

For now I’ll keep the faith. Long live the Raptor Garden!