Winter is the best time to explore the wild, to check out places you haven’t hiked before.
You don’t have to worry about muddy areas — it’s all frozen. There are no biting insects.
And there are few others out, so you are less likely to intrude on each other’s tranquility or disturb a wildlife sighting.
All of these are replaced by one big challenge: keeping warm. Overdressing — long underwear, woolen socks, more layers than you think you’ll need — is essential for the comfort that allows your mind to wander elsewhere.
Midwinter was the perfect time for the state and Nature Conservancy to announce the acquisition and opening of a 5,000-acre tract just south of Atlantic County Park at Estell Manor on Route 50.
I went the following weekend, the last in January, to start exploring the former Lenape Farms gunning club, which for 70 years had been privately owned by members.
The state has added the tract to the adjacent Tuckahoe Wildlife Management area, which already had impoundments and forests on the Tuckahoe and Corbin City sides of the Tuckahoe River.
With the new land, the Tuckahoe WMA becomes the third largest in the state, at 19,990 acres.
There were a few like-minded guys hiking the Lenape Farms section on that Saturday afternoon, getting some exercise and enjoying crisp, clear winter scenery made more pristine by a couple inches of aesthetic snow.
For the next few months, at least, there probably won’t be more than a few people at a time on these thousands of acres, since the entrances are gated to vehicles and only a few can park at each gate. Bright yellow signs welcome you to explore the property on foot.
The terrain at Lenape Farms is similar to the county park next door — pinelands transitioning to marshes, but fewer swampy sections and more grasslands (created by the club for hunting).
A little more than a mile from the main gate, there is a three-story house that served as the club’s center, a dirt parking lot, a substantial garage and several outbuildings.
The scene suggests that skeet and target shooting were central to club life for decades. A standard skeet semi-circle, with shooting stations, looks at least 50 years old.
A new small building nearby is set up to manage a firing line at a field. A short walk away is what must have been a relatively recent long rifle range. One of the boys dug a bullet from a timber on the backstop mound.
My guess is that Fish & Wildlife will find a worker to live in the house and keep an eye on things, at least until the area is brought to public-facility standards.
I didn’t see a lot of wildlife in my first hike at Lenape Farms, which is probably better for solitude and beauty at this time of year.
If you want an easy winter hike with lots of birds, I suggest the Cox Hall Creek Wildlife Management Area, off Bayshore Drive in Lower Township.
The former golf course (and before that, beer magnate’s estate) has paved cart paths that traverse much of the 325-acre property, and there are two parking lots.
Cox Hall Creek is near Cape May and on Delaware Bay, so quite a few rarities turn up there. The past few years have seen white-winged crossbills, Eurasian wigeon, black-headed and Iceland gulls, sandhill crane and Mississippi kite.
Walking there Saturday, we saw about 30 species, including Eastern bluebirds, black-and-white warbler, yellow-bellied sapsucker and American woodcock, with a probable northern goshawk in flight.
The boys claimed to have the best sighting of the day, finding an adult bald eagle perched in the shadows of a quite near pine.
At Cox Hall Creek, you’re also looking at how nature reclaims golf fairways and greens.
At Lenape Farms in Tuckahoe WMA, the hunting club left nature largely intact.
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