Come with me. Stroll beside tranquil willows, alongside the lilypad lake. Heed red-winged blackbirds’ territorial “okaleeeeee!” on all sides. Be properly impressed by the mute swan male, wings arced in territorial mode, protecting his mate and nestlings hidden on-shore.
Try to remember, we are on the southern edge of the city of Trenton with Hamilton Township to the east and the heavy traffic of the I-295/I-195 interchange just mile or so to the south. We are in the Abbott Marshlands, a 1,200-acre freshwater tidal preserve.
Here tides, pushed by the Delaware River, surge twice each day, bringing new nutrients and fresher water, removing what I tend to think of as “tired water,” carrying it ultimately to the Delaware Bay. We are surrounded by the hush and rich density of one of New Jersey’s most enticing preserves.
On the brink of the opening of summer. we will be seeking spring’s departure, signs of the new season, and anything Clyde Quin and Warren Liebensperger can tell us of the Marsh above which they have lived, and which they have served, all their lives. Clyde and Warren are both retired now (from PSE&G and the GM plant in Ewing respectively) and both are now energetic volunteers with the Friends for the Abbott Marshlands, visiting almost daily to lead field trips, maintain trails, and reporting illegal activity, including turtle poaching and dumping.
We enter the marsh at the Sewell and McClellen Avenue entrance, a 10-minute drive from Route 1 (specific directions can be found easily at the Friends’ website, www.marsh-friends.org). It’s overcast, which turns out to be a blessing, as summer announces its imminent arrival through both heat and impressive humidity this morning. The clouds look especially appealing in Spring Lake, a non-tidal body of water, alongside which we are walking until we’ll cross a tiny footbridge onto “The Island.” The Island is really the deep woods, and holds treasures in all seasons. Have your binoculars ready. The Abbott Marshlands are Rare Bird Central.
Even without optics, Clyde finds the first important bird: Elegant, lustrous, the evening grosbeak poses on a bare branch right over our heads. It turns to right and left, a gilded celebrity, giving us its best side.
Our friendship goes back to the founding of Friends for the Marsh, at nearby Bow Hill Mansion (home of the exquisite mistress of the former king, Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon). While Clyde and Warren are self-educated amateurs — in the best sense of the word, they are part of a corps of knowledgeable tour leaders who operate year-round: Mary Leck, botanist emeritus of Rider, who’s spent most of her scientific career calling attention to the Marsh and discovering God knows how many new species in its preserved watery acres; her husband Charles, legendary ornithologist of Rutgers; Jenn Rogers, Mercer County naturalist; and Kelly Rypkema, new head of the recently opened Tulpehaking (place of the turtles) Nature Center above the Abbott Marsh.
Most hikes are free, and all are memorable. There isn’t a plant in that place that Mary doesn’t know. Clyde and Warren are rarely stumped, but a unique delicate pale fern astounds the three of us, lifting golden fronds like wands. “Mary will know,” we say in unison
The lake is to our left, studded with greenery — hefty pointy leaves of spatterdock, that golden pond lily the size and shape of a ping-pong ball. It’ll never get any bigger, never open farther. Two fishermen are out in lake-central, poles catching early light. Trees, thick to our right, are full of urgent birdsong. We are treated to further red-winged blackbird commands to honor each territory. We hear the mellifluous “hello everybody I’m back” of orioles, both Baltimore and orchard, providing glimpses, silhouettes.
In the midst of all those fluttery leaves, Warren spots and identifies the tiny, sophisticated blue-grey gnatcatcher. In silhouette, we know this bird by its slender angular tail, long for such a minuscule bird. We have been in the Marsh about 10 minutes.
Clyde informs me that most of trees here, of which orioles and gnatcatchers are particularly fond, are aspens. “Be very quiet,” he suggests. “Even though they are barely moving, you can hear the aspen leaves.” This grove of whispering aspens Clyde and Warren have named Mary’s Cove. Mary being Mary Leck. Trails underfoot, despite the name of this preserve, are dry most of the time. Too dry today, despite two recent downpours.
Clyde and Warren tend nest boxes here, of bluebirds (who fly about their heads like birds in Snow White’s homecoming scene, as the men put up fresh boxes each spring), and Picasso-esque wood ducks. These birds need tree cavities in order to build nests and raise young. In case you haven’t noticed, there aren’t a lot of tree cavities any more. Clyde and Warren put them up, and monitor the young, who leave the nest by jumping down many feet from the boxes, often into water, on their first or second day of life. These men — the Godfathers of the Marsh — put out fires; clean up graffiti; try to repair knife marks in the beautiful new information panels there to educate everyone to the riches of this place.
They immediately recognize new fox denning attempts, the broad “apron” distinguishing fox-work from muskrat-work in the woods. They know where every owl nests, each eagle. They pick up newly chewed beaver twigs, point out just-felled beaver saplings, “the chips still wet.” Clyde’s and Warren’s hands hold the brushes that paint roots white for moonlight beaver walks. They remember when monarchical trees, downed by recent tempest and vandals’ fires, reached the sky.
They have a sixth sense for birds, as well as knowing who prefers what corners and crossroads, what canopy, what part of the understory. We hear varied sounds of hairy, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, drilling to establish territory. We are treated to shadowy glimpses of certain woodpeckers. One parent feeds his offspring a ravenous youngster a mouthful of insects. American crows mutter and complain, and fish crows cry fervent “Uh, ohs!”
Last night was epochal for the turtle clan. Everywhere we find evidence of very recent digging and egg-laying. Sadly for amphibians, all too many new sanctuaries have been discovered. Even at the sooty place of a former fire, ivory shards — museum quality — of former eggs lie scattered like bones after the raptor’s feast. We know it’s the work of a predator because (1.) it’s far from time for eggs to hatch and (2.) natural hatching is immaculate, no shell remnants to be seen.
As we make our way in deep shade as the day grows hotter, Clyde and Warren marvel at how swiftly recently trimmed trails have been re-invaded by healthy new plants. They’re excited to find the flower “Double Cynthia,” bright orange, and quite rare — new to me. On both sides of the trail, it may be a new colony.
“Here’s spiderwort!,” Warren exclaims. This ineptly named gorgeous purple bloom rises on iris-like tendrils. It’s on both sides, spilling all the way down to the water. The men decide this new array of that shy yet vivid plant could have been caused by flooding.
They recount the sad saga of ineradicable Japanese knotweed, despite heroic efforts by Trenton High School students. We puzzle over inexplicably vanished wetlands, formerly famous for frogs.
The best part about being with Warren and Clyde is that they speak the past. It springs to life, their eyes alight. They are boys again, “using cane poles, pulling in fish, sometimes snagging turtles we have to release.”
Of course, long before Warren and Clyde there were Indians here, especially Lenni Lenapes, convening between hunting and gathering seasons, spring and fall migrations. Beginning in their boyhood days these two men have found artifacts, donating them to a local museum. I guess they sensed Indian presence as did Thoreau.
Clyde and Warren lament sounds no longer heard: whippoorwill, bob-white, wild pheasant, clapper rail, black rail, American Bittern. They enriched my knowledge with locals’ names for every twist in these trails, maintained by the two of them weekly if not daily, year-’round.
A handful of days before summer, ferns are at peak. No more fiddleheads, just enormous clumps, catching the light, back into the deep woods. Some of these ferns are taller than we are, but the men tell me ferns used to be 15-feet tall.
We chronicle the departure of spring in spent false Solomon’s seal; the seed pods of vanished trout lily blooms. Clyde hands me a Mayapple, oval and Granny Apple Green. “Box turtles eat ‘em,” he lets me know. “I’ve eaten them. Have a kind of mothy taste.” To me, they smell like green beans.
They take turns reciting the old names: Devil’s Bend; Second Sandy; Cobra, Rooster Tail, The Catwalk, The Springs, Snapper Pond, and Mary’s Cove. The last line of Death of a Salesman comes to me here, “Attention must be paid!” Who will chant these titles, a decade or two from now?
Who else can tell of the dredging of the lake, how “they took out all the muck, dragged it, used mules. Then they put in clean sand… waited for springs and rains to do their work.” “At first, this was just a strolling park. Then people came along and added the amusement park and the chute-the-chutes with the wooden boats.”
We sit on a lakeside bench, so Clyde and Warren may continue to reminisce. I tell them, “There is no one with whom I would rather walk the Marsh.”
They give me exquisite responses, laced with almost breathless gratitude that the wild and the beautiful have been and are being continually preserved, in the heart of New Jersey’s capital region.
Carolyn Edelmann works in community relations for the D&R Greenway Land Trust and takes advantage of every opportunity to hike and kayak through New Jersey’s natural resources.