Fair is fowl

At the Plainsboro Preserve, a feast of visual opportunities for bird watchers

By: Carolyn Foote Edelmann
   Park rangers at the Plainsboro Preserve are offering nature experiences, up close and personal, of the kind ordinarily limited to hunters, Pine Barrens folks and Barnegat baymen.
   In the half light of Monday dawns and dusks, Senior Ranger Craig Harley is out setting decoys and employing duck calls to lure waterfowl to settle onto a hidden inlet. Throughout the extended migration season, nature lovers and photographers who have phoned ahead can come to watch silently from waterside hiding places that Ranger Harley has selected.
   Born of the vision and efforts of governmental partners and countless naturalists, including the Audubon Society of New Jersey, the Plainsboro Preserve cradles some 1,000 acres of green space, a wildly wooded setting for jewel-like McCormack Lake.
   Not far from Route 1, this haven for wild creatures thrives in one of New Jersey’s fastest developing areas. Owned by the Township of Plainsboro and managed by the Audubon Society, the preserve is on everybody’s list of significant ecological treasures.
   Out in the wild, visitors follow Ranger Harley along an unblazed trail that plunges directly into woods that could be remotest Maine. One sees tracks of harried deer intertwine with coyote "pugmarks." For tracking, Mr. Harley recommends visits after a new snowfall, when the wintry mix can reveal the wily coyote’s climb up an observation ridge.
   Mr. Harley sets a slow, observant pace, noting where the fox has fed, and distinguishing between deer rubs, which are to be found along stout branches, to remove antler velvet, and deer scrapes, which are to be found on the ground, marking mating territory. Splayed feathers, skulls and bones reveal successful predation.
   But Ranger Harley has his eye out for birds, and what an eye he has: He is able to differentiate green-winged teal from mallards, black ducks from ruddies, while they’re on the wing, against the sun. In a sky peppered with wings, he whispers, "Did you see that raptor?" Only peregrine falcons fall upon prey ("stoop") so swiftly. Stunning a black duck mid-air, both falcon and waterfowl hit the lake with audible splashes and bright geysers.
   A man whose work hours are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mr. Harley arrives well before light on wildfowl observation days. His Monday morning counts are reported to the New Jersey Department of Fish, Game and Wildlife. By his example, he teaches trekkers to move in silence. Whistle-like wooden duck calls rattle against his camouflage jacket. Mr. Harley selects the day’s decoys and calls according to what’s been "up" at the preserve the previous morning and evening.
   Walking the back reaches one blustery January day, a visitor sees waters stretching out uncharacteristically empty on all sides. Shading from tin to pewter to mercury, McCormack Lake proves to be of less interest to mid-morning waterfowl than the nearby reaped fields.
   Undaunted, Mr. Harley sets foot into the gelid water, precisely arranging fake ducks that non-hunters would never realize are Styrofoam and plastic. His favorite canvasbacks, splashed with alluring ice-white dazzles, are set at the farthest reaches — diving ducks need deep water. Dabbling drakes and hens, ring-necks and mallards, bob realistically in wavelets near the shore.
   During his setting process, in unusually high waters, Mr. Harley plunges into dropoffs up to his chest. Neoprene keeps him warm and dry, except for turned-back cuffs and bare hands. Even as he cheerfully sets the decoys, a handful of waterfowl zings overhead, high and silent observers.
   The job of participants is literally to hide, behind cedars and bayberry, within river birch. The job of the ranger is to imitate the calls of wild ducks, using different hand-carved calls, which are among hunters’ most prized tools. These slender instruments, chilled by onshore winds, can sound high and panicky at first, then deepen. Each whittled call creates a different sound. One signals "food here!," another, which sportsmen call "the hook," induces fowl to hook back in for a second look.
   Mr. Harley’s tools are working decoys and calls. They are not the artistic version, made for show, and frequently sold for thousands of dollars.
   "Decoys have to persuade," the ranger instructs. "Those ducks are smart — it’s life and death." Duck shapes of plastic or foam are precisely weighted so as to bob convincingly on the water. "Every time I put out a spread, it’s fresh (different)," he said. Fellow fowl-watchers, tucked behind shrubs and downed trees, "make use of natural cover — nothing man-made. I call them ‘hides’, not blinds."
   Piedad Bernikow, an attorney whose wildlife photography has been published "all over the world," took her first duck-hike with Ranger Harley early this month.
   Ms. Bernikow is a regular preserve visitor because she finds nature "gorgeous — and this place ‘a little bit of heaven.’" What she most enjoyed about her hike, "apart from when the ranger fell in the water," was that "he led us on ‘a trail not taken.’"
   People come from far and wide. Ryan Andrews of Scranton, Pa., confessed that he "had no idea of the vast variety of duck species one can find on Lake McCormack. This is certainly a lot different from watching geese and ducks on a local pond."
   Mr. Harley and his colleagues also earned high marks from Ginger Gold Schnitzer, Plainsboro Township committeewoman, who described her outing as "an amazing experience."
   "Craig was excellent – he taught us what to look for, what we were looking at. He used the feeder call and the hook – and that’s exactly what it does. It’s like an airport, and we were looking at flight patterns. Ducks fly over. Then Craig used ‘the hook’ and it made them circle and come in. We saw the hooded merganser, ring-necks. They were the most beautiful," she said.
   "How often do you get to sit and focus in on what you are really seeing? I’ve been at the preserve in the morning and at dusk. I’m telling you, if you weren’t out there with Craig for the sunrise, you haven’t seen it," Ms. Schnitzer said.
   Such praise from a township official is deeply appreciated by the rangers, who are employees of the township’s Recreation Department, headed by Joanne Lupica.
   With fellow rangers Charlie Gould and Sharon Yanick, Mr. Harley camps out in the preserve’s Education Center — when they’re not outdoors, "in the field." Mr. Gould estimates that they spend only about 15 percent of their work time indoors. Ranger duties include ordinance enforcement and general policing of the preserve, as well as all the parks and open spaces within Plainsboro Township. The rangers also present programs in the West Windsor-Plainsboro schools.
   The township rangers collaborate with the Audubon Society in presenting programs for the public, but the rangers basically focus on programs that they’ve developed independently, such as waterfowl observation. Between the rangers and Audubon, there is a very high level of activity available to the public at the preserve — much of it free, all of it low cost.
   To reserve space on one of Ranger Harley’s free winter treks, call (609) 897-7844.
   Gear should include warm waterproof boots, seriously warm layers (for standing very still), and protective hats and gloves, even face-masks. Trekkers are advised to wear muted earth tones, even camouflage gear, so as to fool waterfowl into believing that they have McCormack Lake to themselves. Binoculars and cameras are welcome.
   The duck calling takes place at the Plainsboro Preserve, located at 80 Scotts Corner Road. The main phone number is (609) 897-9400.
   On the Web: www.njaudubon.org/Centers/Plainsboro/Index.html.
   Directions: Route 1 to Scudders Mill Road, Plainsboro. Make a left at the light at Dey Road (County Route 614). Make a left at the first light, which is Scotts Corner Road. The entrance to the preserve is 1 mile up, on the left.
Carolyn Foote Edelmann of West Windsor is a member of Cool Women poets and an avid amateur naturalist.