Here is where the wild things are

It’s 5:45 am. I need get out of my car and get to work, but I can’t. I’m alone, on a deserted road in the middle of the woods, and something is moving in the bushes right outside my door. There’s a rustling near the ground, then branches shake on a nearby tree, sticks and dried leaves crackle beneath feet – or paws, maybe claws. Sure, I’m half-awake and it’s barely morning, but these movements sound distinctly non-human and quite possibly threatening.

I have an irrational fear of being eaten by a mountain lion at any moment.

How my brain interprets all sound when I am alone in the woods at dawn. Photo: NY Daily News


I’ll just sit in the car and sip my coffee another minute.


As I caffeinate, I talk sense into myself. My surroundings are only an illusion of endless wilderness where strange creatures might lurk.

The view outside my car Photo: Claus Holzapfel

The view outside my car Photo: Claus Holzapfel


In reality, I’m well aware that I haven’t left the city. The wilderness that apparently surrounds me is actually an old abandoned rail yard in Jersey City, NJ. Due to pollution in the soil, the yard was closed off and left alone to grow wild for decades while the surrounding metropolis grew, creating a secret urban woodland. This 251 acre site sits in the middle of Liberty State Park right across the Hudson River from New York City.


The other view

The other view outside my car.  Photo: Claus Holzapfel

I’ve come to this urban wildland to study birds as part of my PhD thesis. But right now, I’m wondering what other animals (including the human kind) have made this strange place their home, specifically the one that’s skulking outside my car door.

It sounds too big to be a squirrel. Maybe it’s a stray dog or even a raccoon heading back to its den to sleep away the day, but certainly not something more remarkable like a coyote or a deer. How on earth would those big animals get here – the Turnpike? It’s more likely to be the Jersey Devil. I convince myself it’s just the sounds of a really clumsy cat, get out of the car and get to work. The only animals I see for the rest of day are the birds and about ten trillion mosquitos.


An obviously real photograph of the Jersey Devil Credit: People Magazine

An obviously real photograph of the Jersey Devil Photo: People Magazine


I finished my PhD last summer and moved from New Jersey to Boston. Despite the occasional spookiness of the old rail yard,  I missed the absolute weirdness and wonder of the place and found myself back there for a visit this past July. My PhD mentor, Claus Holzapfel, came along with me. As we watched and listened for birds, Claus gave me an update on the state of affairs at my old haunt. It seemed pretty much business as usually. Claus and his students were still trying to untangle the bizarre ecology of places like the rail yard, places people have forgotten and nature has remembered. I enjoyed our outing and the chance to catch up, but nothing too surprising came of our chat – until Claus told me about the trap camera.


Wait, what is that? Photo: Claus Holzapfel's trap camera

Wait, what is that? Photo: Claus Holzapfel’s trap camera


Claus had set a motion-sensor camera out along one of the abandoned roads inside the rail yard to see what kinds of critters wander about when we’re not looking. There are stray cats, raccoons, opossums, and this:


This is a coyote. Photo: Claus Holzapfel's trap camera

This is a coyote. Photo: Claus Holzapfel’s trap camera


Unfortunately, I’m forced to admit this a lot about myself, I was wrong. The pictures don’t lie; there are coyotes in the rail yard – in Jersey City. I guess they took the Turnpike.

Then Claus told me he saw this too:

Okay, so we have deer too. Photo: Claus Holzapfel

Okay, so we have deer too. Photo: Claus Holzapfel


I was amazed. This weirdo place just got weirder in the best way.

For years, I’d been awed by the wealth of biodiversity at this site. I’d spent countless hours surveying the birds, the plants, the invertebrates. Almost my entire dissertation was focused on this one place and still it managed to completely surprise me.

These animals are here, no doubt, but how did they get to this isolated forest? Claus thinks perhaps the woodsy corridors along nearby train tracks might provide a safe passage from the suburbs and more rural areas.

Have these animals been at the rail yard all along? I know coyotes are making their way into the city, but this was still pretty unbelievable. What else don’t I know? I’ll probably never have an answer to those questions, but I like to imagine that, without me knowing, I was sharing this place with an unexpected crew of fellow urban explorers, watching me roll in along an old abandoned road at 5:45 am.



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