HOBOKEN, NJ — One of the great misconceptions about Hudson County is that the only way to appreciate nature is to, well, leave.
While the area is the most densely populated part of the state, there’s no need to flee to the Catskills or Poconos to observe natural wonders, says Jeffrey Train, an outdoor enthusiast, avid birder and high school teacher from Hoboken.
“Most people are surprised to think of nature in a city setting, but nature is all around you,” said Train.
Growing up in suburban Bergen County, Train had easy access to the outdoors. If he wasn’t spending time exploring the backyard, Train was venturing off to hike or hunt with his dad.
But, moving to the more urbanized Hudson County led him to engage with — and appreciate — the environment in a much different way.
“I’ve really always been into nature, but I didn’t fall in love with birds until I was in my 30s. After that happened, I started to see all the elements of nature where you live are connected,” he said.
Six years ago, Train and his son were cheering his wife as she ran in the city’s Thanksgiving Turkey Trot when a red-tailed hawk perched above them on a tree branch caught their attention. Soon after, they observed the bird capture two mice.
“It surprised us that there was a mouse running around in the wood chips on the pier in our city. It blew our minds,” he said. “We got a book, started identifying birds and shared our excitement over discovering their names and behaviors. The process of learning together was infectious.”
“So, now I pay attention to birds. I pay attention to the trees. I pay attention to the insects,” he explained. “That leads me to care more about every single thing in Hoboken because it’s all connected.”
After such a great experience with his son, Train, who teaches English and positive psychology at Northern Valley High Regional High School in Old Tappan, began thinking of ways to help others find — and appreciate — nature in unexpected places.
That prompted him launch Mr. Train’s Life Lessons for Better Birding & Beyond, which is a curriculum-driven program that not only celebrates nature but empowers people to connect with the environment through kindness, gratitude and awe.
While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020 cancelled his first-ever bird walk for children, Train offered virtual programs for families until it was safe to begin leading in-person activities. He also continues to engage online, posting videos for his followers.
During walks, Train introduces families to the city’s avian population, or, as he describes them — the “neighbors you haven’t met.”
“Some call Hoboken home for a year, some a few days, some a few months. But the more you pay attention to that, the more joy and appreciation you’ll have for your city,” he said. “And, I think that’s what I’m really trying to show people and I think that’s what they see. Once they start to kind of cue in on a bird, they realize that all of nature is connected.”
One of Train’s favorite parts of the program is when parents and kids have that “aha moment” after seeing their “spark bird” (species that triggers one’s interest in birding).
“I love that moment because suddenly they’re paying attention because all [of a] sudden something that was familiar is now completely brand new. And, there’s joy, there’s awe and they start to ask questions,” he said. “And, in that moment you can see they’re going to take that with them to another place.”
Local parent Michael Blasekewicz can’t say enough about the benefits of Train’s program.
“Mr. Train uses birds and nature as a vehicle to teach kindness, compassion and empowerment. It’s a vehicle for helping kids understand many greater concepts, aka life lessons, through mindfulness. The best part of the program is it teaches kids (and adults) patience. Not every nature walk results in spotting a new bird, yet his students still learn to appreciate the moment,” he said.
The family first became acquainted with Train’s program in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown, when they “most needed a connection to the outside world.”
“We didn’t realize how impactful his online sessions were until our son Marcus, then 6 years old, was quoting him and making his own ‘Mr. Train-like videos’ on our block,” he said.
Two years later, Marcus still “has that spark of wonder whenever he observes something new outdoors,” Blasekewicz said. “Marcus learned how to use curiosity as a superpower. He learned that not everything pops up right in front of your nose (like a Pokémon). To us parents, it’s the lesson of taking thoughtful and mindful moments in order to fully appreciate who we are as humans by understanding that world around us.”
Here in the Garden State, we are lucky enough to live in one of the best places in the country for bird watching.
Thanks to our diverse habitats and location in the Atlantic Flyaway, a migratory route along the Eastern Seaboard, New Jersey is home to over 480 species of birds.
Birding— which is one of the most popular activities in the U.S. — can also boost your mental health.
It’s been well documented that being outdoors can help improve physical health, but research has shown that experiencing nature can decrease stress by giving us a chance to switch off from the modern world, reboot our brains and take a much-needed breather.
Train believes it also helps instill greater sense of environmental stewardship by encouraging people to think more sustainably and to become better caretakers of their surroundings. And, it can prompt them to become more observant and ask questions when they notice the environment is being disrupted.
“I think it’s easy in this day and age for people to say ‘I don’t matter and what I do doesn’t matter.’ People kind of use that as an excuse so it lets them off the hook because A) then I don’t have to speak up and B) we don’t have to change behaviors,” he said. “I think the minute you start to realize your actions do matter and your words do matter, then you can make a difference and I think that opens you up to beginning the process of making an impact,” said Train, who is also a co-founder of Freedom Birders, a movement that seeks to change the culture of bird watching by developing a racial justice curriculum and accompanying bird education program.
“Are you going to transform and change the world overnight? No. But, you can impact this habitat right over here by planting some flowers or seeds and gardening so that the bird starts to thrive and have chicks,” Train said. “Then, those birds start to have more habitat and so on and so forth.”
Mr. Train’s Guide To Better Bird Watching
“You don’t need anything to bird, that’s one of the reasons it is such an empowering activity. But two things can make birding a tad more enjoyable: binoculars and a field guide,” he said.
Train’s recommendations for binoculars can be found here and here.
He also has several suggestions for resources that will help you enjoy the process of discovering your feathered neighbors. His favorites include ones from National Geographic and Sibley.
Additionally, there are many smartphone apps that can assist with identifying birds visually and with sound, such as Seek and Merlin.
For more information about Train’s programs, click here.
This story was co-produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project.