Story by Tom Pagliaroli

It’s that special time of ‘twixt ‘n tween: winter reluctantly leaving (Wednesday’s snow and freezing rain) and the hints of springtime’s arrival (Thursday’s 50-plus degrees and bright sunshine). Now through April is prime time for hiking and biking the latticework of trails in any number of state parks and forests, and county parks, scattered throughout New Jersey’s central and southern tier counties.

These are easy paths to hike and bike; i.e. no hills, steep inclines or ankle-twisting rock-studded tracks, like those found in the hiking and biking systems in the myriad state parks and forests in Sussex, Warren, Bergen and Passaic counties in the state’s far northern reach.

To be sure, trekking and cycling the seemingly infinite marked trails and endless sandy roads through the likes of Wharton, Bass River, Brendan Byrne, Penn and Belleplain state forests, and Allaire and Double Trouble state parks are easy duty. This can be as short as half-mile or, if particularly energized, as long as the 50-mile Batona Trail, and every length in between.

This is a great time to observe critters as, with the exception of stands of laurels and patches of pines, the woodlands are clear of vegetation, allowing for mostly unfettered views. A recent hike along the 3.1 mile Poppy Allen Trail in Bass River revealed views of deer and an abundance of bird life. The unmistakable track of a coyote was noticed behind the dainty hoof print of a small deer, both pressed into the sandy soil, and it left little to the imagination as to the inevitable outcome.

Walking to the vehicle after meeting trail’s end, we cut into the day use area at Lake Absegami where a couple of small flocks of ring-neck ducks were dipping and preening, seemingly enjoying some downtime. These were no doubt on their way to breeding grounds way to the north in Canada. Overhead, a bald eagle, its creamy white head in stark contrast to the azure sky, winged silently by. A lengthy chunk of branch protruded from each side of its beak, no doubt to be utilized as building (or repair) material for an eyrie somewhere up along the nearby Mullica River.

To be sure, it’s the time to get outside, shake the winter rust and deeply breath in the revitalizing, intoxicating essence of winter’s wind down and spring’s impending birth. With all sorts of fishing about to get underway and the turkey season looming, this “free” time afield will prove nectar for the soul.

Visit spstrailtracker.nj.gov for an interactive trails map of the state parks and forests.

Last Call for Small Game: The general small game (read: rabbits and squirrels) season concludes half-hour after sunset (6:13 p.m.) this Saturday. Quarry numbers are at their lowest ebbs of the year, the corollary being so are hunter numbers. This translates into decent opportunities if one knows where to look. For bunnies, the services of a beagle are invaluable at this very late stage, as the cottontails will be sticking to the nastiest, thickest cover available and need to be rousted in order to get a shot. Sure, you can “bust the brush”, but many coverts are so dense so as to greatly obviate any significant bipedal intrusions. As such, the rabbits will sit tight and refuse to budge. Get a beagle to squirm in there, pick up the scent and let loose a yowl, and the chase is on!

For squirrels, it’s a matter of finding a stand or two of oaks, get a comfortable sitting position against a tree trunk, and wait for them to show. They’ll eventually be out and about searching for the remnants of acorns buried during the late September through November period. Buds, a springtime staple, will not be available for at least another month, so it’s a blast for the mast.

The daily limit for rabbits is 4, with a 5 count the max for bushytails.

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