‘Wait, there’s something I want to show you!” Kelly Rypkema calls to the visitors heading for the exit. She has just wrapped up an early tour of the new Tulpehaking Nature Center on Westcott Avenue in Hamilton Township, officially opening on Saturday, October 11.
Stopping short, the group turns and leans forward watching Rypkema, the center’s manager, as she opens a side door leading to a wooded landscape, bends down, and delicately scoops up a palm-sized, white winged creature none of them had seen before. “It’s a Luna moth,” Rypkema says.
It is an unusual find, she says. Known for its beauty, the Luna moth lives for just one week and flies only at night. So it is fair to assume that it landed and died on the doorstep where Rypkema discovered it. Until now, she says, she has seen it only in photographs. For Rypkema, this is what is exciting about nature. You never know what you might discover.
Discovering the mysteries of nature is also what the Tulpehaking Nature Center is all about — and why Rypkema is excited about being a part of it. “We want this to be a place for families and communities to gather and discover things for themselves and be amazed with the Abbott Marshlands,” she says about the center located at the entrance to Roebling Park in Hamilton.
This wetlands area is a regional wonder — the home for several species of plants and close to 400 species of birds, mammals, fish, butterflies, and amphibians, including at least six species of turtles. In fact, Rypkema says, the name “Tulpehaking” is a Lenape Indian term meaning, “Land of the Turtle.”
Area visitors will have several opportunities to explore the marshlands with guided tours, see live marsh animals, and explore interactive exhibits and more when the center opens in October. But one doesn’t have to wait until next month to begin exploring.
This weekend marks the beginning of a three-month series of programs dedicated to the marsh. On Saturday, September 20, the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie in Cadwalader Park hosts “The Abbott Marshlands — More than Meets the Eye,” an exhibit of art, artifacts, and nature displays. The opening reception begins at 6 p.m., and winners of the “Voices for the Marsh” photo contest will be awarded at 6:30 p.m. On Sunday, September 21, Rypkema leads visitors on a guided marsh tour from 2 to 4 p.m.
Several other events lead up to the center’s opening, including a tour of the 1708 Watson House on Saturday, September 27; World Rivers Day walk and lecture on Sunday, September 28; and a canoe/kayak trip on Sunday, October 5.
When the nature center opens on Saturday, October 11, with a “Family Fun Day,” visitors can take part in both indoor and outdoor activities. They can walk through the garden featuring marsh plants, visit the gazebo for orientation, and view live amphibian and reptile displays that will include, of course, turtles. Inside the center families can explore interactive displays in two exhibit rooms that include microscope explorations such as the baby dragonfly pool, a container of marsh water where viewers will find creatures invisible to the naked eye. One can also visit the auditorium, a newly built 2,000-square-foot addition to the facility with seating capacity for 50 guests and large windows for bird watching.
Rypkema credits the nature center’s existence to the combined efforts of several individuals, groups, and county executive Brian Hughes.
“Partnership was key to making the nature center happen,” Hughes says. Operated by the Mercer County Park Commission, the new center was funded by a $500,000 Green Acres grant awarded to the D&R Greenway Land Trust and matched by the Mercer County Open Space Preservation Trust Fund. Several other area groups have worked to make the center a reality, Hughes says, especially Friends of the Abbott Marshlands, Rider University, several environmental groups, and private citizens as well as state and local government.
Though the center’s property — a 1963 ranch house and lot on the fringe of a development — became the property of Mercer County in 2005, groups interested in the marsh had been thinking about creating a nature center since 1999, according to Hughes. When planners discovered the Wescott Avenue home for sale, they were excited because it was so close to the marshlands. Creating a center from an existing facility would also minimize the need for new construction and the resulting challenges of building on ecologically fragile wetlands.
Hughes says that building the addition for the auditorium was a complex process because work had to be done under the guidelines of the DEP to ensure there was no soil contamination. More importantly an archeological survey needed to be done because the site was part of the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark and needed to address issues related to fact that the house — and the entire neighborhood — had been built on what was once the site of a major Native American population center and the famous Abbott Farm archeological dig that began in the late 1800s and continued to mid-20th century (U.S. 1, November 14, 2012). The Trenton-based Hunter Research conducted the study, retrieved artifacts, made recommendations regarding construction that would not damage or disrespect other artifacts, and participated in preparing a display of the discovered materials.
“I see this place as a real learning center,” Hughes says, calling it one of Mercer County’s jewels. Its location, being close to a major archeological site yielding artifacts from 13,000 years ago, and being close to the Watson House built in 1708, is also within walking distance of Trenton, a city that includes buildings from the American Revolution. “The nature center is surrounded with all this history, and it sits on a 3,000-acre marsh that provides food, water, and shelter for several species of plants and wildlife, less than three miles from a modern urban center,” says Hughes.
The interplay between natural and urban environments is a theme that has run throughout Rypkema’s career and continues with her vision for the nature center. “Living in a city environment, there’s so much calling to our attention. But the natural environment is still there. Even if you are in the middle of a city, there are so many things going on around you. That’s one thing I want to share [with visitors],” says Rypkema.
Rypkema comes to the nature center with lofty visions and down-to-earth experience. As the founder of “Frog in my Pocket Productions” she has directed and hosted a video series titled “Nature in a New York Minute.” The videos, aptly lasting about one minute, demonstrate that nature is all around us, even in the concrete jungle.
She traces her passion for nature back to her childhood growing up in Pleasant, Iowa, and later Dallas, Texas. A current resident of Lawrence Township, she recalls that in Iowa, nature was her playground, hiking in the summer, sledding in the winter, and exploring year-round. From an upstairs window in her family’s home, she could look onto a tree and into a robin’s nest and see the powder-blue eggs. “The sun would shine from behind the nest and light up the birds. It was so beautiful,” she says.
Her father, an electrical engineer, and her mother, a registered nurse, encouraged her to explore nature and pursue what made her happy. After high school she continued her education in Texas, earning a bachelor of science degree from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene and a master’s in biology from Texas Christian University in Dallas/Fort Worth.
In the course of her career she has been a naturalist and program coordinator at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, Texas; she founded the aforementioned “Frog in My Pocket Productions” and has been an active volunteer with the New York City Audubon Society and the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.
As the center’s manager and naturalist Rypkema will be inviting guest speakers to host educational events open to the public, and she is planning programs for Trenton, Hamilton, and nearby school districts. She is also in the process of finding rotating and permanent exhibits and planning events for the next several months.
But for today Rypkema’s focus is on Family Fun Day, the nature center’s opening on October 11. At press time, she is still fine-tuning the agenda, which will include the activities previously mentioned plus raffle prizes and give-aways, including a wine tasting package, a pontoon boat tour around Spring Lake, and kids’ outdoor exploration kits. There will be a marsh photography exhibit and nature crafts.
And there will be something else, a display featuring a winged creature considered by ancient lore to be a symbol of transformation, the Luna moth she found at the nature center this summer. And while Rypkema is excited about sharing what she has discovered, she sees the nature center as a place for something more vital, an entry point for visitors to make their own discoveries.
Abbott Marshlands: More than Meets the Eye, Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Trenton, opening reception, Saturday, September 20,and continues Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m., through Sunday, November 16. Free. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.
Tulpehaking Nature Center opening, 157 Westcott Avenue, Hamilton. Saturday, October 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free but donations are welcome. 609-303-0704 or mercercountyparks.org/parks/tulpehaking-nature-center.
For more on the Abbott Marshlands and nature walks, canoe trips, and other events, visit www.marsh-friends.org.
Watch Kelly Rypkema’s videos: Nature in a New York Minute: www.natureminute.com.