By Jonathan Madden
Somerset County, a land-locked county in central New Jersey, may not seem too vibrant to search out places where one could go out and enjoy the surrounding environment. Yet in actuality there are a few points of interest you shouldn't pass up.
The Great Swamp
The Great Swamp is a big wetland left behind from glacial Lake Passaic from about 15,000 years ago. This watershed spans across Morris and Somerset counties including 10 different towns and is a compilation of five streams; Upper Passaic River, Black Brook, Great Brook, Loantaka Brook, and Primrose Brook which flow and meet with each other within the Great Swamp. But perhaps what the Great Swamp is most recognized for is its wide variety of plants and especially animals. The Swamp is home to about 39 different types of animals which include wild turkey, otter, beaver, muskrat, wood duck, and pheasants. Birdwatchers may also find locations within the Great Swamp intriguing as it hosts over 90 species of birds, including birds of prey such as ospreys and red tailed hawks. To these birds, the Great Swamp acts as a safe haven and a place to live, as well as a key part in the migration route of many species who reside there temporarily. Yet of course this section of mother nature is also at risk, according to Naturalist Cathy Schrein, for a number of reasons, some of which include acid rain, water pollution from surrounding rivers and water run-off, and invasive species of quick growing non-native plants which choke out other species.
The Environmental Center in the Great Swamp
Located in the heart of the Great Swamp is Lord Stirling Park, where the Somerset County Park Commission set up an Environmental Education Center nesting in the tall grasses of the surrounding swamp. This building, which is maintained and operated by the Commission, is about 18,000 square feet and is home to a number of naturalists offices and a wealth of information about the Great Swamp including its long history. For years these naturalists have created classes and provided instruction to the surrounding community about the environment and the importance of conservation. The Environmental Center in the Great Swamp is also known as an educational center as well, hosting its own form of pre-school for children who live within the area.
"Everyone who lives in Basking Ridge knows about the Environmental Center and have been there on multiple occasions because there is just no place like it nearby. My little girl attended pre-school there and in some cases, I think we got more than we originally bargained for since she got the education necessary while also learning about the environment and the importance of conservation, something I wish they taught me in school." said Kim Madden, a teacher in Bernards Township and mother to 5 kids.
What seems to attract most of the attention to the Environmental Center lies outside the facilities' walls. There one can take part in a satisfying and unique experience while hiking, using the center's 8 1/2 mile trail system. No more than 100 feet in, the hiker is engulfed by tall grass as the boardwalk pathway weaves around the swamp to places otherwise unreachable by other means as you navigate from start to finish through an experience you ordinarily might have had to travel a fair distance for. If hiking by yourself isn't enough, throughout the summer the Environmental Center offers guided nature walks hosted by a naturalist, so a visitor not only has a chance to see the swamp first hand, but can learn about it and it's wildlife simultaneously.
While at my visit there I had the opportunity to speak to a college grad of the local Ridge High School, David Cymer, who told me that he still visits here on occasion because of the unique experience this area offers. "I moved away from this town after college, having frequently visited this refuge, I still find it a necessity to come back here whenever I'm in town to visit family. This place is one of those places that make you wonder why people don't do more to preserve the environment," said Cymer.
To find out more information about the Environmental Center and Educational programs, visit: http://www.somersetcountyparks.org/parksFacilities/eec/EEC.html
A Unique Experience to See Birds of Prey at the Raptor Trust
While in the area of the Great Swamp, one can also not pass up the opportunity of seeing first hand, some species of birds you may only read about in books or see from a long distance. The Raptor Trust is located in Millington, New Jersey near Lord Stirling Park. The Raptor Trust is an non-profit organization to protect and nurture birds of prey, created by Len Soucy. In the past, many states including New Jersey, looked at birds of prey-also known as "raptors" as vermin and killers. In some cases, states would place bounties on these birds for their destruction. Now the Raptor Trust is home to a wealth of information about these amazing species of birds, as well as 70 exterior cages and aviaries which house 130,000 cubic feet of space where visitors have the opportunity to get a close look at some of the greatest predators of our skies. The Raptor Trust also offers a series of classes to educate the public on things such as the story behind the organization, raptors, and the hawks and owls of New Jersey. What the organization is best known for is its rehabilitation program for injured birds. The Raptor Trust encourages anyone who has come across an injured bird of prey to contact them so they can take it to their rehabilitation center where it can be nurtured back to health, or if unsuccessful, has a permanent and safe home.
During my visit to the Raptor Trust, I had the opportunity to speak with a volunteer, Tom Fritz, who told me about the importance of this organization and what opportunities it presents for visitors. "The Raptor Trust is an excellent way for the people to see up close these often miss-understood predators of the sky. So many times I hear around me a child pointing up to the sky at an encircling hawk and saying mom what's that... well, here's an opportunity for the children to see what Hawks and other species actually look like first hand," said Fritz.
To find out how to donate to the Raptor Trust or seek additional information, visit: http://theraptortrust.org/home/
Of the many places one can visit to experience the environment by their own means, any interested person native to central New Jersey shouldn't pass up the Environmental Center or Raptor Trust and the unique opportunities it presents. It's not often you have a chance to see what an owl actually looks like first hand or go on a hike that navigates its way through the swamp on board walks above the water.
Jonathan Madden is a senior at Ramapo College of New Jersey, studying Journalism and Media Studies. He has had a variety of classes dealing with audio, video, and production and aspires to one day be a magazine or newspaper columnist.