updated 10/20/2006 11:07:52 AM ET 2006-10-20T15:07:52

The great egret — with its long neck, yellow beak, black feet and white plumage — perched gracefully atop an old cedar stump in the muddy water.

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A half-dozen more egrets found nearby resting spots, as mallard ducks swam by and a belted kingfisher flew into a setting that includes the New Jersey Turnpike, industrial parks, a Wal-Mart store and the Empire State Building in the distance.

As birds migrate south for the winter, their path takes them through the Northeast to the vast preserves of New Jersey's Meadowlands, along with more traditionally known birding spots in New York like Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

But urban birding is also popping up here in an unlikely place: downtown Newark, on a tree-filled spot on the campus of Rutgers University.

September and October are the peak migrations times to see birds passing through from their breeding to wintering grounds, said Gabriel Willow, a senior naturalist at the Prospect Park Audubon Center, the society's first urban birding center.

"We're right on the eastern flyway, which is a migratory route where birds pass north and south," he said. "These birds tend to hug the coasts to their wintering grounds to the tropics."

In his 2 1/2 years at the Newark campus of Rutgers, Professor of Biology Claus Holzapfel has noticed them too on early morning walks.

He's recorded 83 different species, many of which are using the campus for foraging and stopover sites on their migration to warmer places.

"It's one of the few places that looks fairly green to them," he said. "They can rest during the day and forage as well."

Holzapfel has been leading expeditions on a leafy two-acre spot of campus on Wednesdays at 7:30 a.m. this October, attracting a handful of birding enthusiasts.

On a recent tour, Holzapfel spied an American Kestrel falcon on the roof of a new dorm. He pointed, and the crowd of six whipped out their binoculars to gaze upward.

"He might hang out her for a while and leave when it gets cold," Holzapfel said, handing out green cards with lists of birds seen on the campus. "It's like a restaurant menu. You won't see all of them today. That's my disclaimer so no one is disappointed."

Jack Chapman, a lab technician at the school, said he was surprised to see migratory birds species in Newark.

"I have always lived in more country areas," he said. "I'm used to seeing a variety of different types of birds in a different place, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan."

Holzapfel led the group to a tree where he's noticed yellow-bellied sapsuckers, similar to woodpeckers, which spend the winter here.

"This is its favorite tree," he said. "See all the holes? A lot of sap oozes out."

A few hundred feet away is another area where he has seen the black-throated blue warbler, a small bird with a white belly and a white spot on its wing. As the bird explored a large tree, a ruby-crowned kinglet flew by.

"There's a rich diversity of species migrating through," he said.

Downtown Newark isn't the only hotspot in New Jersey for birds on their way south.

The area around the Hackensack River in northern New Jersey is home to about 260 bird species, including 26 threatened and endangered species in New Jersey.

Egrets, cormorants, a black duck-like birds, and the occasional bald eagle use the Meadowlands as a migratory stopover, said Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, a naturalist with the Meadowlands Commission.

She said the birds begin their voyages far north of New Jersey, in Canada or Maine, and some end up as far as South America.

As she walked through Mill Creek Park in Secaucus, she spotted several species that will stay in the Meadowlands area — a 32-square mile area in Bergen and Hudson counties — until the weather turns cold.

A yellow warbler, migrating to the tropics, flew by. A few steps later, she saw yellowlegs with their stilt-like legs, and sandpipers, a small shore bird.

A red tail hawk and a Peregrine falcon also appeared in the sky, an occasional sighting during migration season.

"This is the time to come to see rare birds, in the last few fall warm days," Bennett-Meany said. "It's not freezing cold yet."

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