Saturday, September 29, 2012

Closter to nature: preserving the wild in Bergen County

A couple of weeks ago we headed up to the State Line Lookout of Palisades Interstate Park to make a quick check of the hawk watch area. This has got to be one of the most easily accessible hawk watches in the region: drive up, park your car and stroll a couple dozen feet on level ground. No hiking at all is necessary to get to this spot, which sits at an elevation of 532 feet above the shores of the Hudson River.

Winged traffic was light that day, and we'll be making a return trip in the next couple of weeks. That left us with an opportunity to wander around the northernmost part of Bergen County.

Bopping around a bit, we eventually found ourselves in Closter, driving past what looked like a huge mud puddle. What we discovered was the Closter Nature Center, a 136 acre nature preserve in the midst of upper Bergen County suburbia. A smallish log cabin facing the puddle had a welcoming porch and an outdoor fireplace, a perfect place to view what we assumed had to have been a nice little marshy lake.

The Nature Center was established in 1962, after Closter's town council, worried about land overdevelopment, set aside 80 acres of woods, wetlands and streams for preservation. It was a wise and visionary decision, especially considering the severe lack of open space in Bergen County. Since then, the center has added more land through state and local Green Acres funding, ensuring that community residents always have a place to escape the man-made world and reconnect with the natural.

But why the big mud puddle? We stopped in to find out and luckily ran into one of the organization's officers, who explained that they were in the midst of a major rehabilitation effort. Ruckman Pond, as it's called, is actually man-made, having been dredged from swamp in 1959 as a skating area. (That explained the fireplace on the cabin porch -- it acted as a warming station for chilled skaters and their friends.) After years of sediment, falling leaves and decomposing aquatic plants settling to the floor of the pond, water quality and oxygen levels began to suffer, endangering the wildlife that had made it a home. The only way to save the fragile ecosystem was to drain, dredge and refill it, a process highly dependent on the weather.

Once most of the water was removed from the pond, earth moving equipment shifted the sediment around so it could dry sufficiently to be carted off for composting. It took most of the summer, but the job was finished shortly before our visit. By the time we got there, rain had already started to refill the pond, and a few turtles and birds were exploring their newly-cleaned home.

That leads us to one of the most daunting parts of the whole restoration effort:: relocating the animals that lived in the pond. Can you imagine having to find emergency housing for frogs, turtles, snails and crayfish? That's exactly what the nature center's volunteers and staff had to do, and while some creatures unfortunately didn't survive the disruption, many others have and will be reintroduced to the pond as soon as water levels return to the appropriate stage.

The pond is the big story of late, but it's just part of draw. Three miles of trails bring you through a lovely bit of woods, and while we didn't hear much bird chatter during our midday visit, it's likely a great place for kids or other new birders to discover various avian species in the early morning hours. The center also offers programming to introduce young people to the many creatures and plants native to the suburbs.

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