“I love the serenity of winter on the refuge,” said Lia McLaughlin, Deputy Refuge Manager of Great Swamp NWR. “Crisp, cold mornings, where the frost gathers on the brush and grasses are my favorite. You can see birds flying from branch to branch, and hear every rustle and crackle of leaf and twig as the squirrels, voles, and, if you are lucky, weasels and foxes forage for food.”

Scraped from the earth by the receding fingers of the Wisconsin Glacier 25,000 years ago, and then wrestled from the grasp of developers by grassroots organizations in the mid-20th century, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is the first designated Wilderness Area (under the Wilderness Act) within the U.S. Department of Interior. Encompassing around 7,700 acres, the refuge is home to a host of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, who ebb and flow with the changing seasons.

For those who don’t mind a little nip in the air, winter offers a stunning contrast to the dense, lush greens of summer in the Great Swamp.

“Winter is beautiful on the refuge,” said Lia McLaughlin. “Winter scenes are also perfect for photographers. Friends (The Friends of the Great Swamp NWR) host an annual Photo Contest and winter pictures are frequent winners.”

With the naked branches of the refuge’s old oak and beech trees, and stands of mountain laurel shorn of their summer foliage, winter is also an optimal time for birdwatchers to snatch a glimpse of some of the 244 species of birds who reside in the refuge or use it as a migratory stopover.

“Many of the migratory ducks and other waterbirds are gone,” Lia McLaughlin told us, “but wood ducks, Canada geese, and mallards remain. Black ducks also overwinter here, and can be seen around the refuge’s impoundments. Resident birds like cardinals, tufted tit-mice, and nut hatches abound. It is also a good time of year to see wood peckers. Downy, hairy, and red-breasted wood peckers are all quite common throughout the winter. This year we have had several sightings of a northern shrike. This is a predatory song bird that overwinters in New Jersey, but is not commonly seen on the refuge … Hawks, owls, and bald eagles are also present throughout the winter.”

There are eight miles of trails to explore in the Great Swamp and it can be a spectacular winter venue for cross-country skiers and snow shoe trekkers. Shushing along through the hushed stillness of the snow-muffled landscape you may feel like a solitary traveler in a sleeping wilderness. But if you look closely, you’ll notice the crisscrossing tracks of the refuge’s hardier residents and may come across white-tailed deer, raccoons or foxes, in their thick winter coats, or even the occasional foraging black bear, roused from a winter slumber.

“The Wilderness Area trails are great to explore in winter, the lack of leaves improves visibility and the bugs are not around,” offered Lia McLaughlin. “Inside the visitor center we often offer volunteer-lead programs, and there are hands-on crafts and activities for children. Usually, early morning is the best time to visit the refuge, shortly after sunrise. In winter, later in the day can be better though, as things warm up,” she added.

Because of large numbers of visitors in spring and fall, the winter offers an ideal time to observe, study, photograph, and enjoy nature in a more intimate environment during a time of year that has a stark and mysterious beauty all its own. Great Swamp NWR is open year-round, sunrise to sunset. The refuge’s Helen C. Fenske Visitor Center is also open year-round, 7 days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Please come visit any time, any season! Visit www.friendsofgreatswamp.org for more information.

Winter on the Refuge

Article by C.G. Wolfe ​
 Photos Courtesy of the Friends of the Great Swamp Wildlife Refuge


Abigail Villa helps on the family farm.

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