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Wildlife Diversity Tour - Highlands Region

The following Wildlife Diversity Tour is adapted from the Highlands Region section of the New Jersey Wildlife Viewing Guide. The guide is available from the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. The tour includes several different viewing areas:

Wawayanda State Park
Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area
Black River Wildlife Management Area
Great Swamp Area
The New Weis Center and Norvin Green State Park

Wawayanda State Park

Description: Enjoy the captivating scenery of the northern Highlands in Wawayanda State Park while hiking miles of marked trails. Located along the New York state border atop the Wawayanda Plateau, almost one-third of this park is preserved in three natural areas - Bearfort Mountain, Wawayanda Swamp and Wawayanda Hemlock Ravine. The remains of buildings from the once-thriving iron-making village surround an 1843 furnace which still stands. A 19.6-mile section of the Appalachian Trail follows the varied terrain of the park.

Diversity Tour Information: Wawayanda's large, unbroken hardwood forests are very important habitat for many species of forest-dependent wildlife including several of New Jersey's threatened and endangered raptors such as barred owls, Cooper's, and red-shouldered hawks. Much of the habitat which these species occupy in the northern part of the state has been impacted by development in recent years making the long-term stewardship of the park's northern hardwood forest ecosystem all the more critical. Public lands such as this area are key in the long-term survival of viable populations of species that need seclusion and space.

Porcupines, coyotes, and foxes are around all year, along with wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, and pileated woodpeckers. The park is also critical habitat for black bears and bobcats. The elusive bobcat roams the rocky ridges and hunts the forests and swamps year round. Bearfort Mountain natural area is one site where the DFW released bobcats captured in New England in the early 1980s in an effort to restore New Jersey's dwindling population. Although listed as an endangered species, the bobcat population in New Jersey appears to be increasing.

You may have to look no further than the visitor center to see black bears or try the Bearfort Natural Area. Bears are seen in the park from late March through December. During the winter months they den in hollow logs or caves, under windfalls or brush piles, or in nests they create in rhododendron thickets. As seasons change, so do bear diets. Wawayanda's northern hardwood forest meets all of a bear's needs for food and cover with its varied habitats.

In addition to being an important habitat component to bobcats and black bears, the wetlands in the park are home to many less reclusive species including beavers, otters, and great blue herons. There is a great blue heron rookery in the park. Herons build large stick nests high in the trees. The nesting herons and their offspring can be seen feeding in the wetlands and water bodies throughout the park. Herons use a "wade and wait" method of fishing, letting fish come to them. When the fish realize the shadow is alive, they veer away instinctively, but it is too late! The heron uncoils its great neck, driving its dagger-like bill down to snap shut on its prey. Like eagles and osprey, the fish eating herons are good indicators of the health of aquatic ecosystems.

Beavers are closely associated with freshwater wetlands like those found at Wawayanda and have many adaptations that allow them to thrive in this habitat. To see the handiwork of the park's beavers, you need look no further than the Wawayanda Swamp Natural Area or take Double Pond Trail and look for signs of beaver from the bridge.

The Wawayanda Hemlock Ravine Natural Area is a steep, shaded, hemlock forest, surrounded by mixed-oak and hardwood forests. Look here to see red-eyed vireo, blackburnian warblers, scarlet tanagers, black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice feeding in the forest canopy. Eastern hemlock needles are quite acidic, accumulating in a soft mat instead of breaking down to become part of the soil. The only plants that can break through this thick, acidic layer are members of the heath family such as blueberries or the rhododendrons you see here. Hemlocks provide feeding and nesting sites for many species of wildlife, as well as shelter from the wind. The cones are a source of food and the insects attracted to the boughs are a feast for many birds. The hemlock forest floor remains moist year round, thanks to the shade of the larger trees. This moist realm is home to lungless salamanders which must keep their skin moist in order to breathe. The hemlock forests also have a surprising diversity of shrews and moles which feed on the abundance of amphibians and insects that like the cool, damp environment.

Several state threatened birds including red-shouldered hawks and barred owls, as well as state endangered reptiles like timber rattlesnakes and wood turtles can be found in the Bearfort Mountain Natural Area. Take the Terrace Pond trails from Clinton Road to see this area with its mixed-oak hardwood forest, swamp, scrub oak forest, and rocky terrain.

The park is open for hunting during prescribed seasons.

Directions: From County Route 513 (Union Valley Road) in West Milford, go north to White Road. Turn left and proceed 0.2 miles to Warwick Turnpike. Travel 6 miles on Warwick Turnpike to the park entrance on the left.

Ownership: NJDEP Division of Parks and Forestry - 973-853-4462
Size: 34,350 acres
Closest Town: West Milford

Amenities: parking, restrooms, (partially) barrier-free, picnic, camping, boat ramp, small boats, hiking, bicycling, horse trails, seasonal entry fee

Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area

Description: Thousands of bats hibernate during winter in a former iron mine on the lower section of the ridge. Hiking trails and overlooks on the upper section of the ridge provide unparalleled views of the forested ridges and lush valleys of the Highlands.

Diversity Tour Information: Park at the lower lot on Sunnyside Road for an easy five-minute walk to the gated entrance of the former mine which is now used by bats. You will feel the cooler air coming from the mine before you see the entrance. The greatest number of bats congregate at the mine entrance during the evening in the spring and fall, before and after their hibernation periods. However, for the protection of the bats and because of wildlife management area regulations, the area is closed from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. An observation platform with interpretive signs is located near the mine entrance and provides the perfect vantage point for watching the evening exodus. Endangered and Nongame Species Program biologists may lead bat watching trips to the mine in summer and fall. Call 908-638-4127 for information.

The Hibernia Mine in the Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area is the state's largest known wintering bat hibernaculum. In July of 1994, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife biologists, in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Bat Conservation International, erected a gate to protect the more than 26,000 bats that hibernate annually in the abandoned mine. The mine is utilized year round by some male bats and non-breeding females. During the fall, however, thousands of mating bats swarm about the mine entrance, the prelude to winter hibernation.

The residents are primarily little brown bats, with a small number of big brown bats, Eastern pipistrels, and state and federally endangered Indiana bats. Indiana bats resemble the common little brown bat, but are more uniformly pinkish-brown with pinkish lips and nose. In the summer, Indiana bats prefer foraging in wooded or semi-wooded areas along streams and often roost in the space beneath loose bark on hickory or maple trees.

There are several trails near the mine that lead to the ridge and the upper portion of the property. An alternative to hiking to the top is driving north on CR 513 to Upper Hibernia Rd. Follow the directions to the trail that leads to the beaver pond. Beaver-created wetlands are focal points for many other wildlife species including muskrats, otters, and raccoons. The importance of beaver ponds to waterfowl cannot be overstated. Mallards, wood ducks, and black ducks thrive in these small woodland wetlands as do many reptiles and amphibians. In addition to their value to waterfowl, beaver ponds provide critical habitat for other bird species such as bluebirds and tree swallows that nest in cavities in the dead and dying trees. Also, beaver ponds provide feeding habitat for fish eating birds like herons and kingfishers.

Continue past the beaver pond trail to the overlook trail for a spectacular vista of the forest and valleys of the Highlands. On a clear day the New York City skyline is visible from this overlook high on the edge of the ridge. This is also a great place to see migrating hawks in the spring and fall as they ride the thermals along the ridge top. In fact, this is aan officialhawk count station of the Hawk Migration Association of North America and is manned by a volunteer nearly every day in the spring and fall.

The breathtaking view of the Highlands is well worth the walk even when the hawks are not moving. The view provides an otherwise hard to obtain understanding of the vastness of the Highlands forest resource and its value to hundreds of species including humans, in northern New Jersey. No other area in north Jersey has the large unfragmented forests needed to preserve populations of endangered hawks, owls, and increasingly rare songbirds. These forests are even more important to the millions of humans living in the urban centers whose drinking water comes from the lakes and streams of the Highlands purified by its forests and open space.

The DFW owns a conservation easement on 1500 acres surrounding Splitrock Reservoir. Hiking, boating, fishing and wildlife viewing are permitted within the easement area. Several trails, maintained by the Morris Trails Conservancy, wind through the WMA and around adjacent reservoir. Hiking the trails through this region, dubbed the Farney Highlands, is an excellent way to experience the geology of the area. Glacial erratics, boulder fields and rugged terrain are characteristic of the Highlands landscape. A parking area and car-top boat launch are located on Splitrock road just east of the dam and provide access to the trails and the reservoir. Canoeing and kayaking are excellent ways to enjoy the scenic vista and view the many species of waterfowl that use the reservoir during the year. Trail brochures are available at the kiosk in the parking area.

ENTRANCE INTO THE CAVE IS PROHIBITED. The area is open for hunting during prescribed seasons.

Directions: From I-80 take Exit 37. Travel north on County Route 513 toward Hibernia for 2.8 miles, turn right on Sunnyside Road. Parking area is 0.1 mile on left. For the trail to Beaver Pond and scenic overlook, continue north on CR 513 for another 1.8 miles. Turn right on Upper Hibernia Road. Proceed through the housing development into the woods and proceed 1.2 miles, turning right at "T" intersection. Parking area for Beaver Pond trail is immediately on the left. Parking for the overlook trail is on the right side of the road in another 0.2 mile.

Ownership: NJDEP, Division of Fish and Wildlife - 973-383-0918
Size: 3,745 acres
Closest Town: Hibernia

Amenities: parking, hiking, restrooms, Wildcat Ridge WMA map

Black River Wildlife Management Area

Description: The Black River is nestled in a valley of small farms and large suburban lots along the Black River. Black River WMA serves as a linear greenway, or travel corridor for wildlife. The meandering river and its extensive freshwater marsh next to upland forests and fields offer excellent habitat for an assortment of wildlife.

Diversity Tour Information: An abundance of breeding and feeding species awaits the curious visitor to both of the Black River Wildlife Management Area's viewing sites. The best seasons to visit the area are spring, summer or fall. However, don't let winter deter you. There are many species of wildlife that remain active year round in this part of New Jersey.

The long "edge habitat", the interface between land and water, of the Black River provides the only continuous wild vegetation remaining in this part of the region and thus is an important corridor for wildlife travel. In addition to cover, this corridor provides easy access to drinking water, protected sites for dens and nests and a sunny spot for berries and other fruit-producing shrubs to grow. The muddy banks are great places to look for the tracks of upland mammals and birds that visit the river throughout the day. Deer come to drink and at night, mink and raccoons come down to hunt for crayfish and turtle eggs. Belted kingfishers find high sandy banks in which to dig their nest, and river otters slide down the banks and dive for fish in the moving water.

River otters are active year round especially from dawn to mid-morning and again in the evening. They swim with the top of their head and eyes out of the water, trailing a V-shaped wake behind them. Otters have a fast metabolism that burns food quickly so they must eat up to four times a day.

The Black River Valley forms a natural travelway for people as well as wildlife. The first settlers to northern New Jersey, as well as Revolutionary War troops, walked these pathways more than 200 years ago. Later, people and goods moved through this valley on horseback and by railroad. The old railroad bed has been converted to a foot trail, part of Patriot's Path. Hike this 3+ mile section, which parallels the Black River. This trail provides some of the best opportunities to view freshwater wetland and forested ecosystem wildlife and riparian habitat. Parking for the rail trail is at the Pleasant Hill Road parking area (see directions).

Another good way to view wildlife in the Black River Valley is from the river itself. Launch a canoe upstream on Pleasant Hill Road and take a leisurely 3-mile paddle to the take-out point in the Wildlife Management Area parking lot (see directions). The entire Black River is popular with canoeists who also refer to the river as the Lamington River. Just downstream of the Wildlife Management Area, the Black-Lamington River flows through Hacklebarney State Park. The shallow, slow-moving river is perfect for a lazy summer afternoon outing.

In the fields and forests portion of the Wildlife Management Area, look for blue-winged and chestnut-sided warblers. Spring migration is particularly good for warblers. Park in the parking area for the WMA off of CR 513. Look for white-tailed deer feeding in shrubby areas at dawn and dusk. Stand still, deer have a harder time pinpointing a stationary object.

The NJDEP/DFW is managing this area to provide habitat for warblers, songbirds, and a variety of other species such as white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and red- tail hawks. Some of the habitat management activities involve enhancing or providing low growing food supplies, escape cover and winter shelter. Fields are used by deer and many other species and managers maintain the openings by mowing or brush-hogging. Agricultural crops such as alfalfa, hay and corn are also planted by area farmers who are required to leave portionon of their crop portionsife.

The WMA is a natural area with no facilities; it is open for hunting during prescribed seasons.

Directions: From County Route 513 in Chester, travel north for 1 mile to traffic light. Follow CR 513 straight for 1.8 miles to the WMA entrance on the left. The entrance is at the southern edge of a large parking area. For access to the Black River, take NJ 24 (North Rd.) north from Chester for 1 mile, turn left onto Oakdale Road. At the stop sign, turn right onto Pleasant Hill Road. Travel 0.4 mile to parking area on the left as you cross the river. This is the canoe take-out point. Access to the old railroad trail is also from this parking area - walk back across the river and cross the Road to reach the trailhead. To launch a canoe, travel 4.1 miles further on Pleasant Hill Rd. Parking lot and access to the river is on the right. ROADSIDE PARKING IS PROHIBITED IN CHESTER TOWNSHIP.

Ownership: NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife - 973-383-0918
Size: 3,079 acres
Closest Town: Chester, Chester Township

Amenities: facilities icons: parking, small boats, hiking, Black River WMA map

Great Swamp Area:
Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center, Lord Stirling Park Environmental Education Center

Description: The Great Swamp is a remnant of the ancient glacial Lake Passaic which once occupied much of the current day Passaic River drainage. Today, marshes, ponds, hardwood swamps and upland forests are home to a variety of wildlife. The Great Swamp complex includes the National Wildlife Refuge and the environmental education centers of Morris and Somerset counties. All three sites offer special events and exhibits interpreting the wildlife and habitats of the area - call for specific programming information. The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge features an auto wildlife tour route, a half-mile of boardwalk trails and two observation blinds. Educational programs offered at the Lord Stirling Park Environmental Education Center and the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center can enrich visitors understanding of the swamp ecosystem.

Diversity Tour Information: The best season to see marsh and water birds in the Great Swamp area is during early spring migrations, before vegetation emerges to hide them. The Refuge has great populations of nesting wood ducks and bluebirds thanks to the hundreds of nest boxes maintained for both species. Other noteworthy residents are red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, barred owls and great blue herons. Summer also offers good wildlife viewing opportunities, but beware of the biting insects.

People can play an important role in providing necessary wildlife habitat. The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was established to provide migration, nesting, and feeding habitat for migratory birds in an area where habitats for many species are highly fragmented due to development. Great Swamp contains over 7,400 acres of hardwood swamp, upland timber, marsh and water, brush, pasture, and cropland. This diverse habitat attracts a wide variety of migratory and residential birds. With perpetual protection of its wilderness portion and continued management of the rest, the National Wildlife Refuge has become increasingly important as a haven for wildlife amidst the surrounding urban areas.

The swamp contains many large old oak and beech trees, stands of mountain laurel, and species of other plants of both northern and southern botanical zones. The National Wildlife Refuge hosts more than 220 species of birds in various seasons. Mammals found include white-tailed deer, river otters, muskrats, raccoons, skunks, red foxes, woodchucks, gray squirrels, opossums, and eastern cottontails. An interesting variety of fish, reptiles and amphibians including wood turtles, eastern and midland painted turtles, and state endangered bog turtles. The state endangered blue-spotted salamander is also found on the National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of the few places in New Jersey where the blue-spotted salamander still exists.

The western half of the National Wildlife Refuge is intensively managed to maintain optimum habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. Water levels are regulated; grasslands and brush are mowed periodically to maintain habitat and species diversity; shrubs are planted; nesting structures are provided; and other habitat management practices are employed. Public access in this area is limited to the Wildlife Observation Center and Pleasant Plains Road to minimize disturbance to wildlife.

Numerous wetland raptors inhabit the Swamp. Look closely to catch a glimpse of the courtship rituals of barred owls or red-shouldered hawks. One good place to start is the 897-acre Lord Stirling Park which occupies the western portion of the Great Swamp Basin. Lord Stirling Park's Environmental Education Center offers an 8.5-mile trail system, including 2.5 miles of boardwalk that allow easy access to wetter portions of the park. Naturalists are available to answer questions and provide information and an extensive range of programs are offered.

Explore the 40-acre Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center located in the eastern portion of the Great Swamp. The center adjoins the National Wildlife Refuge. There are guided nature walks on the grounds of the center and into the National Wildlife Refuge. Inside the center, visitors will find an informative exhibit on the birds and mammals of the swamp plus many interactive games for kids, trail guides, and listings of available programs.

Great Swamp NWR is open for limited hunting during prescribed seasons.

Directions: From I-287 Exit 30A follow the signs to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters. For the Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center: begin from the junction of White Bridge Road and New Vernon Rd. in Great Swamp NWR, go south on New Vernon Rd. for 0.9 miles to Meyersville Rd. Turn left, continue for 2.4 miles to Fairmount Rd., continue for 1.8 miles to Southern Blvd. Turn left and continue on Southern Blvd. for 1.0 mile to the Center entrance on the left. For Lord Stirling Park Environmental Education Center: start from the junction of White Bridge Road and New Vernon Rd. in Great Swamp NWR and travel about 3 miles west on White Bridge Rd. The center is on the right.

Ownership: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Great Swamp NWR) - 973-425-1222; Morris County Park Commission (Great Swamp Outdoor Education Center) - 973-635-6629; Somerset County Park Commission (Lord Stirling Park Environmental Education Center) - 908-766-2489
Sizes: National Wildlife Refuge - 7,400 acres, Morris County Center - 40 acres; Lord Stirling Park - 430 acres
Closest Towns: Stirling, Chatham and Basking Ridge

Amenities: parking, restrooms, barrier -free (NWR), hiking

The New Weis Center and Norvin Green State Forest

Description: The New Weis Center, located on 160 acres, offers the public a unique opportunity to learn about the Highlands Region. There is free parking for hikers in the outer parking lot. Camping is available for groups by reservation only. Check with the Center for cabin availability. Picnic tables in the maple grove and the covered picnic pavilion are available, at no cost to members of the Highlands Nature Friends, and for a fee for non-members. The Center, which is operated by The Highlands Nature Friends, is open to the public for scheduled events, and has guided hikes, nature programs, a summer day camp program, and offers field trips for schools and other groups.

Diversity Tour Information: This is another one of those sites in the Diversity Tours where you could spend a full day, or even an entire weekend. There is plenty of wildlife to see and lots of interesting countryside to explore. Start with bald eagle and osprey viewing over Wanaque Reservoir. The creation of a long-term secure water supply for New Jersey's cities at Wanaque and other nearby reservoirs led to the protection of important habitat for osprey and eagles. Development of the reservoir system resulted in a tremendous increase in not only watershed protection and water quality, but also in the creation of nesting and feeding habitat for these large birds of prey and many other species of wildlife. Sterling Forest State Park, just over the state line in New York but still part of the Wanaque watershed, provides additional water quality protection.

Restoration efforts by the NJDEP/DFW on northern New Jersey lakes, resulted in the return of nesting ospreys. Division biologists conducted an osprey hacking project from 1985-1989, releasing 36 young ospreys on the Wanaque Reservoir and other lakes in the area. Bald eagles also nest at Wanaque Reservoir. An adult pair has been sighted at the reservoir during breeding season every year since 1990. Ospreys and eagles are proven indicators of environmental quality. Feeding largely on fish, their health reflects the quality of a food source shared by humans.

The nearly 5,000-acre Norvin Green State Forest offers splendid hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities in some of the characteristically rugged terrain and mixed-oak forests of the New Jersey Highlands region. These forested ecosystems provide an excellent opportunity to see white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, red and gray foxes, striped skunks, Virginia opossums, and many songbirds and raptors. In particular look for the many kinds of warblers that breed and nest in the deep woods.

The The New Weis Center, located on 160 acres, was created to offer the public a unique opportunity to learn about the Highlands Region. Be sure to pick up a check list of Highlands birds and a trail map. For camping adventures, there are wooded campsites and rustic cabins available for rental by reservation only. Visitors are invited to use the center's picnic tables nestled near a Norway spruce grove adjacent to the parking area.

Visitors can follow the center's well marked trails to diverse locations on the property and in Norvin Green State Forest. Take the Blue Trail to enjoy a scenic view of the Wanaque Reservoir from Wyanokie High Point. This mountain rises dramatically 900 feet out of the valley below. This semi-challenging climb is well worth the effort - visitors are rewarded with a truly breath-taking view in all directions. Usually you can see red-tailed hawks or turkey vultures soaring above this point and occasionally you may also spot a bald eagle or an osprey.

The White Trail is a big loop trail that leads through the southern quarter of the state park through mixed-oak hardwood forests to the most spectacular portion of the Chikahoki Falls. Look and listen for Louisiana and northern water thrushes, blackburnian warblers and red-eyed vireos along the trail.

The Yellow or Red Trail will take you to the Roomy Mine which, since being abandoned, has become a year-round home for many different types of common New Jersey bats. Several species of bats, including little brown, big brown and red as well as eastern pipistrels, are known to hibernate in the mine mid-November through mid-February. Visitors are encouraged to not enter the mine during this period to avoid disturbing bats. During the rest of the year, the best viewing time in the mine is during mid-day or next to the mine entrance at dusk, when the bats leave to feed on insects in the nearby forest.

Norvin Green State Forest is open for hunting during prescribed seasons.

Directions: From I-287 Exit 55 in Bloomingdale, take County Route 511 north for 3.8 miles to West Brook Road. The road is not marked from the south, but is from the north. Turn left (west) and travel for 2 miles on West Brook Road to Snake Den Road. Turn left (south) and go 0.7 miles to the entrance of The New Weis Center.

Ownership: The New Weis Center - 973-835-2160; NJDEP Division of Parks and Forestry (Norvin Green State Forest) - 973-962-7031
Size: The New Weis Center - 160 acres, Norvin Green State Forest - 4,982 acres
Closest Town: Ringwood

Amenities: parking, restrooms (at Weis), picnic, camping, hiking

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Last Updated: April 18, 2017