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Wild Princeton: Some Shy Local Residents

By Linda Arntzenius

Photos by Charles R. Plohn

Birders have long appreciated Princeton because of its position on the flight path for migrating species. But the local environment is also home to a number of wild creatures year-round. Besides the ubiquitous white-tailed deer and groundhog, there are signs of beavers by Lake Carnegie, river otters in the Delaware & Raritan Canal, foxes, coyotes and wild turkeys. All of them live in and around Princeton. Some, however, are just passing through, like the American black bear spotted on the University campus last year and the mountain lion that left tracks in the vicinity of Mt. Lucas Road.

Local photographer Charles R. Plohn has been intrigued with wildlife since he observed an “unbelievably tall bird” making a meal of the goldfish in his backyard pond. Since then, capturing the Great Blue Heron has become a photographic passion. “It took me four years to get a picture that I was really satisfied with,” says Plohn, who honed his skills while attempting to show the bird in its natural watery habit. “I shoot full frame and strive for a well-thought-out composition, best angle and best light.”

“Photography literally means writing with light, and seeing something pleasing to the eye is what makes me raise my camera. Wild animals can be challenging; they are unpredictable and often moving, which is where the technical aspect of photography comes in; the right shutter speed, aperture and lens allow you to be more responsive and creative.”

Subsequently, Plohn photographed heron along the towpath of the Delaware & Raritan Canal between Harrison Street and Kingston Lock and off Mapleton Road. Whatever the bird, he always thinks of his first backyard encounter. Far from being angry with the bird that stole his ornamental Koi, he admits to having soft spot for the Great Blue. “And for some reason, I associated the heron with a young friend who had died. Jed was such a prankster and I had a feeling that he had come back in the form of a heron to continue to play tricks on me.”

Filling the Frame

Plohn favors a Nikon full-frame camera, which, although expensive, is well-worth it for sharp clearimages. He uses 300 mm or 600 mm lenses to maintain an unobtrusive distance between himself and his wild subjects. A tripod is a must. It was while trying out a new tripod that he “lucked” into a shot of a coyote. “The coyote was totally unaware of me as it hunted for mice in a field bordering the Institute Woods. It was just before sunset, always a good time. I positioned myself low down and got several action shots. But then he heard the click of my shutter and looked straight at me. I caught that moment.”

Photographing an animal behaving like an animal is particularly satisfying to the photographer, who has found that the early evening is also a good time to spot Princeton’s famous Bald Eagle pair. The birds have such a presence that it’s hard for Plohn to shake off the idea that they are “going out to dine,” when other animals and getting ready to turn in for the night. Plohn has followed them since their arrival in the Princeton area, and observed as they relocated their nest after the tree it was in came down during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Each year, he photographs their fledglings, and the juveniles whose heads have yet to turn fully white. “Animals are creatures of habit; they often have places where they like to perch or to hunt and if you observe them for some years, you get to know their secrets.”

To get great shots, however, the photographer doesn’t have to go too far from his home on Library Place, where he sees a Red-Tailed Hawk almost daily. At night he can hear, but hasn’t yet photographed, a Great Horned Owl. The Springdale Golf Course, is also a miniature nature preserve where he’s seen hawks and egrets. He’s gone a little farther afield for Bald Eagles and Osprey on the Manasquan Reservoir and to Long Beach Island for piping plovers, those sparrow-sized sand-colored shorebirds that nest and feed along the New Jersey Shore.

Challenging Insects

Backyard flowers attract bees and Monarch butterflies, a particular challenge for the camera lens. Plohn uses a macro specialty lens with no magnification for a one-to-one ratio image with very limited depth of field. Monarch butterflies reach Princeton each year after a long journey from Mexico and their numbers have been dwindling in recent years due to habitat loss and herbicidal attacks that have reduced the milkweed their caterpillars need to survive.

The results of Plohn’s efforts have earned awards from a number of juried group and special exhibits, such as the visual Arts Exhibitions at The Gallery at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), the 2012 EarthShare New Jersey Photo Exhibition, and the Arts Council of Princeton’s annual spring Pinot to Picasso fundraiser. He will receive an AFA in Photography from MCCC this year.

Plohn has never felt threatened by a wild animal. And the one time he photographed a bear in Princeton, it was snoozing in a tree. “Mark Johnson, Princeton’s Animal Control Officer was on hand to make sure it remained undisturbed.”

Johnson has been keeping tabs on Princeton’s wildlife for some two decades. He’s seen bear, coyote, fox, and those mountain lion tracks in the vicinity of Mt. Lucas Road last year. But although he receives reports of sightings from time to time—usually in Rocky Hill and Franklin Township it’s unusual to see a big cat, he says. “It’s my guess that the animal was just passing through.” That’s also his assessment of the five bears seen in Princeton last year. Although it was thought that one young juvenile might make his home here, in the end, all of them moved on.

Conflict of Interest

As for coyotes, the most visible pack now in the area is the “Quaker Road pack.” In the past, Johnson has noted up to 12, but recently numbers are down to about four. Two that he knows of were killed by cars on Princeton Pike and one was shot by an officer last spring. That’s something that Johnson finds regrettable. “When they interfere with humans that’s a problem, but some people make mountains out of mole hills, seeing a coyote or other wild animal cross your yard doesn’t mean that it’s rabid, nasty, or aggressive, it’s just going somewhere.” Still, he likes to be notified, because his job is to know what is where.

When wild animals and humans come into conflict, Johnson’s rule of thumb is to let wildlife be wildlife. Sometimes there are unfortunate incidents, as when a pet dog was killed by a coyote in the spring of last year in Herrontown Woods.

Foxes, which Johnson describes as rather shy and timid, are easy to move on, should one entertain the idea of taking up residence in an inappropriate spot, say in a someone’s back yard. “They are easily repelled by noise and human activity,” says Johnson, who gets called out for problems relating to anything from squirrels to deer.

Strange Encounters

His strangest emergency was to recover a pet python that had escaped in one of the Princeton University Eating Clubs. It was successfully returned to its owner. Another python met a different fate. Somehow released in Smoyer Park, it was sighted when it attacked a small dog. Johnson estimated that the snake was between 10 and 12 feet long. He never did catch it, though, and predicts that it is probably dead by now, unless its owner happened to retrieve it.

Sadly, Johnson reports a decline in the number of wild turkeys in Princeton. “We used to have huge flocks of these birds but not now. Fish and Game says it’s because their eggs have been destroyed because of bad weather but I suspect the coyotes might be to blame.” Even so, Johnson admits to a fond respect for the wild coyote. “They are amazingly smart and sly, as wily as their cartoon namesake. They always know where you are and it’s rare to see one.” As rare as a Princeton swan, you might say, since these beautifully elegant birds, have yet to find a home here, although Johnson notes that a pair was brought in to discourage geese on one of the retention basins at the Carnegie Center in West Windsor.

Tell-Tale Signs

Naturalists Charles and Mary Leck have spent their lives exploring the wilder parts of Princeton. The author of Birds of New Jersey, Their Habits and Habitats (first published by Rutgers University in 1975), Charles grew up in Princeton and is a retired professor of ecological studies at Rutgers. He was New Jersey’s State Ornithologist from the 1970s until the turn of the century and there’s not much he doesn’t know about his special interest. Not only that, he can tell you where to look for beavers, where the otters raise their young, where you will seen snapping, painted and spotted turtles, and where the best places are for sighting pileated woodpeckers and eagles.

“One good place for signs of beaver is along the towpath just north of Kingston, where you can see signs of their chewings,” says Leck. “They are nocturnal animals and usually come out late in the day; otter tracks have been seen there too, and there are holes in the bank along the canal where they live and raise their young at this time of year; watch for the remains of the fish they eat.”

Mary Leck is a botanist and photographer who leads botanical and birding trips of the Abbott Marshlands, where beavers have made their lodges almost smack in the middle of Trenton. As for Princeton, spring brought migrating Mergansers and ringneck duck back in time for the mating season. In May, up to 30 species of warblers, some of the prettiest of birds, will find their way from the tropics to the Institute Woods. Both Lecks recommend the look-out tower accessible from the Charles Rogers Refuge as the best place to watch for them. Beyond the common black and white warblers, yellow warblers, and ovenbirds, you’ll see Blackburnian warblers, orioles, and rose breasted grosbeaks.

For migrant visitors as well as year-round wild residents, Princeton has much to offer. One all-year resident, Princeton’s famous black squirrel is pretty rare and found in just a few geographical regions of the east coast and in the mid-west and Canada. They are actually Eastern Gray squirrels in superior garb a befits the locale. The Leck’s advice for seeing birds or other wildlife is to get out there and you’ll see all sorts of things!


The Plainsboro Preserve, NJ Audubon Sanctuary:

For canoe/kayak trips by the New Jersey Sierra Club, and wildlife walks of the Abbott Marshlands, visit:

For field trips and other bird-related events organized by the Washington Crossing Audubon Society, visit:


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