PLAINSBORO – It is a typical spring morning at New Jersey Audubon’s Plainsboro Preserve.
Ducks are swimming in Lake McCormick, birds are going through their daily routine within more than 1,000 acres of preserved open space, and the latest school buses are rumbling along the gravel road, passing through the entrance at 80 Scotts Corner Road.
On this particular day, two buses are carrying children from the Francis C. Smith Center for Early Childhood Education in Elizabeth. When the bus doors swing open, 60 pre-schoolers with their teachers and parents bounce out, eager to see what awaits at one of the largest protected sites in central New Jersey.
“Every day, it is like this,” said Nancy Fiske, the center’s director, as she watched the four-year-old children in yellow shirts frolic on the grounds in front of the lake. “Every day, there is another group of children enjoying our preserve.”
On this day, Fiske is being interviewed on camera by Plainsboro Township Administrator Anthony Cancro for a municipal news magazine known as “Eye on Plainsboro.” The preserve, which the township owns, is operated by New Jersey Audubon under an ongoing municipal contract.
“The town is fortunate to partner with an experienced non-profit to operate this preserve on a day-to-day basis,” Cancro said. “We can’t do it without them. This program, with expert staff, is a great opportunity for Plainsboro, the region and the state.”
The focus of the Plainsboro Preserve is the 6,500-square-foot Rush Holt Environmental Education Center, constructed by Plainsboro Township through a fundraising campaign without the need for tax dollars. The center offers natural history programs and workshops, as well as several family orientated programs – all spilling into an expansive outdoor classroom for schools and other groups.
There’s always something to do at the Plainsboro Preserve, such as meeting turtles, snakes and frogs at the live animal exhibit. There is a popular indoor tree house for the kids, and a central attraction: a large deck overlooking Lake McCormick.
In her interview, Fiske was eager to share the many summer programs that are being planned. The full calendar includes the Sourlands Music Festival on June 23, “Birding for Beginners” on July 14 and Moth Night, taking advantage of the full moon for ideal nature viewing, on July 27. (The full schedule is on njaudubon.org)
“This preserve is one of those hidden gems,” Fiske said, as she sat in a wooden chair overlooking the lake. “There are five miles of self-guided trails and an absolutely beautiful lake teeming with wildlife.”
Fiske said the summer would not be complete without the Plainsboro Preserve nature camp, which begins on June 25. There’s sessions for grades 1-3, grades 4-6 and special programs for children as young as 4 years old. There are also “senior naturalist” programs for kids entering grades 7-9.
“A lot of these kids who come here have never been able to just roam free to explore woods and fields and see what lives out here,” Fiske said.
On this particular spring day, the children from Elizabeth had a full schedule for their 60-minute program. In what is called the “Sensory Safari,” the children engaged all five senses to hike the Orange Trail, focusing on how using the senses is a great way to learn about the environment. They also had a chance to learn the magic of birds.
The tour ended at the large green in front of the lake, the ideal setting to open the coolers, unwrap the turkey sandwiches, put the straws in the juice boxes and enjoy the sun-kissed serenity.
“The kids are having a great time learning about birds,” said Paola Condina of Elizabeth, joining the class trip with her four-year-old son, Anthony. “We have a great park by us, Warinaco Park, but nothing like this. This is a great opportunity for the children.”
The Plainsboro Preserve was created in 1999, beginning with 530 acres of land, featuring a quarry, formerly owned by the McCormick Company. The township and Middlesex County steadily acquired the adjoining properties through 2003, which were formerly owned by Turkey Island Corporation and Walker Gordon Laboratory Company, to add to the preserve, bringing the open space to more than 1,000 acres.
“The Plainsboro Preserve is one of the region’s most significant ecological treasures within minutes of the busy Route 1 corridor,” said Eric Stiles, president & CEO, New Jersey Audubon. “It is our pleasure to have this terrific, working relationship with the township and the county, to the direct benefit of the community at-large. We hope many will visit us this summer.”
You can see “Eye on Plainsboro” here.