Phil Rodriguez has lived in Blairstown for the past two years, yet he has a long history of exploring the woodland trails of Warren and Sussex Counties. He’s thoroughly enjoyed the birds of prey and creatures of the forest as he hiked and fished in this scenic area.
As a young boy, Rodriguez would take long walks with his grandmother on an old, abandoned railroad track that made a loop back to her home. It was a walk he did often and that is when he fell in love with the natural world around him. They would see the animals of the forest – deer, foxes and snakes. His favorite was the red-tailed hawk that was often perched in a tree near a field and a pond.
“I remember sitting quietly with my grandmother watching from afar waiting for it to pounce on its prey,” Rodriguez said. “From that time forward, I had my eye to the skies and the trees hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever raptor I could find. I owe my grandmother a great deal of gratitude for taking me on those peaceful walks.”
Nowadays, not much has changed. His interest in birds of prey has only gotten stronger. In his 20s, he began exploring many scenic places in New Jersey and trout fishing in numerous streams and lakes.
“My girlfriend, Darlene, was always included. We would drive about in search of new places to explore,” Rodriguez said.
One fall day, they found a site on the Appalachian Trail called Raccoon Ridge in Blairstown. The birds of prey where in peak migration and the skies were full of migrating birds. They witnessed many types of birds including hawks, falcons and osprey.
“We were blown away by the number of birds we saw that day,” Rodriguez said.
They met Brian Hardiman, who was counting birds for a national database called Hawk Count for the Hawk Migration Association of North America winter raptor survey. Hardiman helped in identifying the birds as they passed by, enthusiastically sharing his knowledge with the couple. Rodriguez was fascinated and excited. This was a life-changing experience.
On the way home, Rodriguez immediately shared his experience of the day with his friend Rob Domenech, a kindred spirit who is a nature lover and birdwatcher. The next day, Rodriguez and Domenech went to Raccoon Ridge. The sightings weren’t as good as the day before but still quite memorable when a merlin, a small North American falcon, flew down the ridge at tree level and attacked an owl decoy.
“It made three swooping circles around the owl, vocalizing its discontent and quickly vanished down the ridge on its way south,” Rodriguez said.
That’s all it took. Domenech was destined to work with raptors one day, and the scene was forever etched into his mind, Rodriguez said.
In the 1990s, the friends went their separate ways. Rodriguez moved to Vermont and then Northern California, always enjoying the natural world. Domenech moved to Montana where he did extensive research on the migration patterns of the golden eagle species, native to the northwest territories of Canada and Alaska, which migrate to their wintering grounds in the southern Rocky Mountains.
About a decade ago, Domenech established a non-profit called the Raptor View Research Institute (RVRI). They are responsible for banding raptors and golden eagles, and in the off-season, rescuing birds of the wild in need of help. For more info on RVRI, check out its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/raptorviewresearchinstitute.
In 2015, Rodriguez moved back to New Jersey and one of the first places he went was Raccoon Ridge. He met Jim Thomson, who was filling in for the lead counter that day. Rodriguez returned the next day amazed to see the lead counter was his good friend Brian Hardiman.
“We came full circle.” Rodriguez said. “We were at our favorite spot and Hardiman was still doing the count so many years later.”
Since returning to Jersey, Rodriguez has spent countless days at Raccoon Ridge and now assists in the count when Thompson can’t make it.
“These days at Raccoon Ridge, the migrating bald eagles are numerous and in late fall the golden eagles are the icing on the cake, a far cry from 25 years ago when they were few and far between,“ Rodriguez said.
In the past couple of years, Rodriguez has taken some of his friends from Raccoon Ridge to one of the banding sites of RVRI in Montana. A remarkable 125 migrating golden eagles in flight have been counted in one day. Amazingly, 13 golden eagles were caught, banded and released in one day, a new site record.
The catch and release numbers of RVRI is a feat not accomplished anywhere in the world. Everyone gets to release a bird after its data has been recorded.
“A thrill of a lifetime for all of us, just like the merlin was for me so many years ago,” Rodriguez said ”We are returning this fall to Montana, a dream come true, and there is no place we’d rather be. There’s no place like nature!”
MB Journe, Contributing Writer
MB has been a resident of Frelinghuysen for the past 22 years. She lives in an old farmhouse on the side of the road. She enjoys the simple life, puttering in her flower garden, practicing Qi Gong under her redbud tree, or creating art on the deck.
MB's experience as a journalist began when her son was quite young, she began writing for The Paulinskill Valley Chronicle, often bringing him to work with her. Her responsibilities were writing articles with photos, selling ads, and billing. This suited her, as a single mother not wanting to be separated from her small child.
She considers herself a lover of nature, often seen photographing its beauty. She has worked as a seasonal employee of YMCA Camp Mason for the past 17 years. She is a teacher and mentor of children, always emphasizing the YMCA’s core values - caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. She tries to listen carefully to each individual she interviews, getting their viewpoint. That is why she likes to write about the interesting people and places that make Warren County such a nice place to live.