New Jersey Audubon connects residents with nature

Armed with binoculars and a field guide, strangers meet up on a Saturday morning to enjoy a favorite pastime together: birding.

“The birds are amazing. There are so many different species. There are so many different types of birds, their calls,” said Suzanne Graffigna of Basking Ridge.

The bird watchers are on a guided walk at a New Jersey Audubon sanctuary.

“When you look in New Jersey, wildlife dependent recreation is a multibillion dollar industry. There is study after study that show how people crave spending time outside, and there’s nothing like birds and the zen of feathers to draw you in,” said New Jersey Audubon President and CEO Eric Stiles.

Founded about 120 years ago by a group of women, New Jersey Audubon has about 30 sanctuaries throughout the state. Their headquarters in Bernardsville sits on 276 acres and the sanctuary, which is open to the public, has multiple trails. In the spring, birders typically spot 40 different species while out on their morning walks.

“It’s almost like an Easter egg hunt, so spring migration you’re going out there and you’re not sure where the birds are going to be, you know what might be there. The colors are just explosive, from blues to red to vivid yellows,” said Stiles.

Aside from binoculars, patience and quiet help in spotting the graceful creatures.

“One of the keys is to just walk and listen for the bird songs first, especially in spring. You’ll more often than not hear them rather than see them,” said New Jersey Audubon Program Director Stephanie Punnett. “Then you’re going to go and look in that direction, then look for movement. You may not be able to see the bird right away, but you’ll see it move and when you do, then you can raise your binoculars up and look for the bird.”

The nonprofit has 20,000 members and more than 900 volunteers. Stiles says New Jersey Audubon focuses on long-term wildlife conservation and connecting people with nature wherever they are in the state. They also work with hundreds of schools.

“There’s this whole phenomenon — no child left inside, nature deficit disorder,” said Stiles, “we’re now inside 95 percent of the time looking at our screens, talking on the phone, so when people go outside, whether that’s to go bird watching, fishing, hiking or kayaking, that’s like a recharge for the soul.”

To make it easier for Bernardsville students to access the nonprofit, the borough funded a new bridge that now connects trails behind their school to the Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, an outdoor classroom.

“We want to preserve our environment and open space here in Bernardsville and have our community enjoy it together,” said Bernardsville Mayor Kevin Sooy.

And to enjoy the beautiful birds, too.

“We are in this mecca for bird watching filled with people, filled with birds that really don’t care about borders,” said Stiles. “We have this celebration of birds coming from Central and South America, it’s really birds that unite us as a hemisphere. They tie us together as peoples.”