A lot of people don’t go outside in the winter because it is cold but the sounds and smells of the wintertime are some of my favorite things,” says Brian Vernachio, sanctuary director and one of the founding fathers of the Plainsboro Preserve, 631 beautiful acres of open space in the heart of New Jersey’s sprawl center, the Route 1 corridor. “The bare trees form spectacular patterns against the gray sky. Opening their eyes, helping them to see things like that, is a gift we can give people to take with them. We are putting lots of people in touch with the natural world around them.”
To encourage an exploration and appreciation of the beauty of winter, the preserve hosts three winter programs for families: Seeing the Preserve on Skis, Mammals of New Jersey — Tracks and Signs, and Full Moon Night Hike.
The preserve, which opened in the fall of 2000, boasts five miles of trails meandering through mature beech woods and wet meadows, as well as the scenic 50-acre McCormack Lake and more than 150 species of birds that call the preserve home. The winter program highlights the best features of the wildlife sanctuary.
“Seeing the Preserve on Skis,” a free program, is offered on three Sundays, January 16, January 30, and February 13, at 2 p.m. Participants are advised to call before coming to make sure there is enough snow. Bring cross-country skis, a camera, and binoculars to witness the natural beauty of the preserve in winter. Vernachio says the lake is filled with waterfowl in winter. “It attracts hawks that feed on waterfowl. There is also a pair of bald eagles that nest in the preserve.”
Mammals of New Jersey — Tracks and Signs, takes place on Saturday, January 22, 10 a.m. to noon, and is recommended for ages nine to adult. Native Americans and primitive peoples throughout the world relied on their tracking skills as a means of survival. Course participants will learn how to spot and interpret animal tracks, something that can be done right in your own backyard. Dress for the outdoors. The cost is $8 for members and $12 for nonmembers. “We have a resident beaver,” says Vernachio, “so you’ll probably see lots of signs like beaver tracks and beaver chews. We have a resident river otter and another more discrete resident, a coyote, and red and gray foxes.”
A hike in the woods by the light of the full moon will be offered on Tuesday, January 25, 7 to 8:30 p.m., $6 for members and $10 for nonmembers. “It is a great opportunity to see the preserve in a different light, so to speak,” says Vernachio. “It is a wonderful experience, whether you are listening for owls or learning how nocturnal animals live in the dark. It even teaches the most simple concept of not being afraid to go outside in the woods in the dark.” Hot chocolate and coffee will be offered to warm up cold hands and toes upon return.
Vernachio lives in Beachwood, south of Toms River, with his wife, Nikki, and their three children. Growing up around the wildlife at the Jersey shore fostered his love for nature and a determination to help others enjoy it.
“As a kid I spent lots of time outdoors with my dad fishing and hunting, and it made me appreciate the world around me. We also had a close family friend who had a love for the Pine Barrens and who introduced my family to the native animals and plants. It made me want to study and share it with other people. Instead of becoming a field biologist, I decided to become an educator.” Vernachio attended Richard Stockton College in Pomona and studied environmental science, graduating in 1992.
During his last semester he interned with the New Jersey Audubon Society in Cape May with the hawk watch. His job was to monitor hawk migrations as they passed New Jersey heading south. Shortly after graduating he started working with the Audubon Society fulltime.
Vernachio says one of the preserve’s biggest challenges is raising money. The primary source of funding is through membership. The New Jersey Audubon Society, which has nine centers throughout the state including the Plainsboro site, has 20,"000 members and is actively trying to grow its membership.
Walking in a winterland is just one of the gifts the preserves offers families, and Vernachio says families is the operative word. “The preserve is a great place for families to come together, ideal for an area that is very family oriented.”
— Euna Kwon Brossman
Plainsboro Preserve Winter Programs: Seeing the Preserve on Skis, three Sundays, January 16 and 30 and February 13, 2 p.m.; Mammals of New Jersey — Tracks and Signs, Saturday, January 22, 10 a.m. to noon; Full Moon Hike, Tuesday, January 25, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Unless otherwise noted, there is a preregistration requirement and advance payment of $10 for New Jersey Audubon Society members or $15 for nonmembers. To register, send payment to Plainsboro Preserve, 80 Scotts Corner Road, Cranbury, 08512, call 609-897-9400, or visit www.njaudubon.org/Centers/Plainsboro.