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Let’s Take a Hike

It’s a great time of year to enjoy the outdoors and Mauricetown Preserve is a good place to start.

A large depression alongside a huge willow oak is a vernal pool, which holds water in springtime but was dry due to drought in December when this photo was taken. Photo by Author
by J. Morton Galetto, CU Maurice River
Underwing moths are present on the preserve. On a hot day in August preserve manager Brian Johnson took the photo of various underwing moths—Ilia, Mourning and Sad underwings—all of them very well camouflaged against the bark of the tree. Photos: Brian Johnson

Each year on the cusp of winter I share with our CU Maurice River members adventures they might pursue during the colder months and beyond. This year I introduced a number of lesser-known trails in the South Jersey region during our fundraiser challenge.

Top on the list of hiking annoyances are hot, humid days as well as ticks, chiggers, mosquitos, gnats, and other insects. So fall, winter, and spring are delightful times to check out local trails and take precautions to avoid what might bug you. In addition, our winters are often less brutal than in more northern regions, and even cold months are blessed with mild sunny days that are perfect for spending time outdoors.

Over the coming weeks, mixed in with other nature stories, I will introduce you to some fun and easy hiking opportunities.

One non-profit organization that has a number of properties in the southern New Jersey Delaware Bayshore region is Natural Lands (formerly called Natural Lands Trust). The folks at Natural Lands seek to connect people with nature by preserving open spaces. They try to protect parcels with habitat for native plants and animals that have the potential to become an abundant natural community.

Today biologists seek to create wildlife corridors by linking protected spaces for animals to move among habitat types. Nearly all species make use of multiple environments, at various stages of their life or seasonally. Many animals are obligate users of a particular habitat but few use just one type. Corridors help to make passage between such habitats safer by limiting road crossings. This has benefits for both people and animals; fewer road hazards mean fewer accidents. Additionally, more corridors mean more wild places for animals and more wildlife watching opportunities for people. As a result, over the years many Natural Lands purchases were acquired to connect already protected spaces.

Sorid underwing.

Natural Lands has a preserve that abuts the Maurice River south of the Village of Mauricetown, extending southward nearly to Port Norris. The property is known as Mauricetown Preserve, and encompasses 1,000 acres of which 60 percent is tidal marsh. This trail has a variety of habitats on or near it—upland woods, hardwood swamps, tidal marsh, and vernal pools; it also abuts a field.

The trail begins with a straight-away and then makes a loop. A sign at the trailhead helps to orient visitors before they venture forth. Hiking companion Christine Brown and I did the loop counter-clockwise and found that the white trail blazes allow for travel in either direction. The northern edge of the trail borders the marshland but we did not come across any marsh viewscapes.

One of the interesting topographical features is a large depression, 75 feet by 100 feet, next to a massive willow oak tree. It looked as if it could be a vernal pond in wetter years. I spoke to Natural Lands property manager Brian Johnson and he confirmed that it can indeed be a very large pool, even extending across the trail when rainfall is abundant. Vernal pools are important habitats for reptiles and amphibians, especially in the spring and early summer.

The wayside trailhead sign is visible from North Avenue. Note that it has an aerial view of the walking trail, reproduced here. The trail is marked in white on the map and with white blazes on the ground.

Brian told us about some of the species of birds he has observed on the property. Two that are rare in our region are the pileated woodpecker and the red-shouldered hawk. For many years on the World Series of Birding our team traversed portions of this property to listen for the Kentucky warbler, and for a while they were able to spot and check this bird off their list—one might say a real feather in their cap! But Kentucky warbler numbers have plummeted, and in recent years the team has had to leave it unchecked on their list of sightings.

Likely birds to hear or see, depending on the season, are pine warblers, wood thrushes, nesting blue gray gnat-catchers and prothonotary warblers, black and white warblers, oven birds, and the normal cast of characters you would expect such as cardinals, chickadees, blue jays, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, and other forest species. On the marsh there are ospreys, clapper rails, great blue herons, American bald eagles, and kingfishers. Again, the marsh plain is not visible from the trail, but you may hear some of these birds call or see them flying.

CU guides often suggest taking a picture with your mobile phone of any provided maps before beginning a hike. There are several phone applications that provide real-time maps; many of our members use AllTrails. The snapshot, however, can prove helpful if cell reception fails.

A portion of the woods near the trail has hickories, a food plant for underwing moths. This species is a master of disguise, with a forewing that is mottled like tree bark. However the hind or underwing is very colorful (thus its name), which enables the moth to produce a startle effect when it first takes flight, displaying its bright hues unexpectedly, giveing it an extra moment to escape a would-be assailant.

The site has lots of trees that are common in our coastal plain habitat—hollies, oaks, pines, and sweetgum, among others. But one tree on the preserve that is rather unusual for southern New Jersey is ash. Additionally Brian shared that there is swamp oak, which has a chestnut oak-like leaf and bark like a white oak. So there are plenty of things to observe and enjoy.

We think you will find this 1.5-mile loop an enjoyable experience. Let me know if you visit it, and please share your impressions! You can e-mail me at forrivers@comcast.net

Nature Around Us