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Monday, July 22, 2024

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Once a Sand Quarry, Now a Vital Wildlife Sanctuary

Pamela Dollak
‘Stewie’ the swan is one of Cameron Park’s newest residents.

By Pamela Dollak

PALERMO – Nestled behind a modest 18-car parking lot lining a small section of Route 9 in Palermo is the stunning Cape May County Park North–the Richard Cameron Wildlife Sanctuary, commonly referred to as simply Cameron Park.

Part of the Cape May County Park & Zoo, this lesser known relative to the north has its own special reasons for visiting in the summertime – or, really, anytime at all.

Lorraine Matthews has worked for the park system for nearly a quarter of a century as a “park maintenance worker II grounds” and knows every square inch of this 25.6-acre Upper Township haven. She says that, “Every season has something to offer and everybody comes here for different reasons.”

A Quick History Lesson

Several decades ago, the land that is now Cameron Park was a quarry where folks excavated high-quality white sugar sand used for curbing in Ocean City, as well as at bottle factories in places like Bridgeton and Millville. Abandoned for years after, brothers and local builders Richard and William Cameron paid the taxes on it to use, in a manner of speaking, as their own personal aquarium, according to Matthews. No one was permitted to fish, although there were plenty of species living there like largemouth bass, sunfish, and glass eels.

Richard Cameron, who passed away in 1988, willed the land to Cape May County with some specific caveats. The integrity of the entire park land was to stay as-is, with only necessary changes or additions to be made.

One of the new additions was a beautiful gazebo where visitors can rest their bones.

Swan Lake… Er, Pond

What’s there today is essentially what was seen and utilized by the Cameron brothers when they owned it. Very little has changed, said Matthews, though recently gorgeous fuchsia-colored rhododendron shrubs have been planted throughout for brilliant pops of color in an otherwise neutral, natural setting.

Woodland trails, both paved and unpaved, weave around three fresh water ponds. This time of year you’ll see turtles swimming around among the many fish.

There is one primary walking trail with multiple smaller trails branching off. A full loop around the main trail is approximately a 1.2-mile walk. Numerous benches and gazebos are littered here and there, some just off the trail for resting to watch squirrels scamper by or to listen to the chirping singsong of the nesting birds, others sit next to the ponds for a relaxing view of the floating white and yellow water waterlilies or to or see the waterfowl as they dive for lunch. Lately, visitors can see Stewie the swan, the newest resident of the park, as he gracefully glides by.

“I have seen many swans come and go,” Matthews said. “This one (Stewie) seems to like it here.”

The New “Rest Stop” for Pollinators

In the spring of 2023, Rhonda Van Wingerden, along with her husband and two daughters, 13 and 18, reached out to Ed Runyon, director of Cape May County Parks, to inquire about setting up a small

pollinator garden at Cameron Park. The Ocean City family has raised monarchs throughout the years and care deeply about pollinators.

Runyon welcomed the idea and Van Wingerden says that he and his staff have been supporting the Van Wingerdens’ vision ever since.

“We and our daughters have enjoyed going to Cameron Park for years. It’s been an oasis throughout their childhoods,” said Van Wingerden. “We thought If we could just find a space to put in host plants– which don’t need a lot of space—that maybe we could start this project. So we reached out to Ed Runyon and he and the employees at Cameron Park, along with the county in general, have been super supportive.”

Brightly colored rhododendron shrubs have been newly planted throughout Cameron Park.

At first, the Van Wingerdens relied solely on native plant gardeners for native plant donations. Then the county helped by soliciting donations from native plant nurseries. One of the primary lessons the Van Wingerdens were taught by both gardeners and nurseries was to ensure that what they were planting would be free of pesticides.

“When we started learning about pollinators and the need for host plants, we immediately learned how incredibly important it is to not use plants that had been treated with pesticides,” said Van Wingerden. “The last we want to do is attract, then kill, the very pollinators that we are trying to save.”

Originally, the family and Runyon agreed to have four raised beds for this ongoing and indefinite pollinator park project. Within the first year, that number more than doubled. There are now nine raised beds with 60 varieties of wildlife-friendly plants, trees and shrubs—mostly native with a few non-native plants that are still good for pollination.

Thirty-four species of animals have been documented by the family in the park’s pollinator garden by photo or positive I.D. using the iNaturalist app. Anything from hummingbirds to bees and wasps, flies and butterflies, various birds and more are now seeking nourishment during their travels through Cameron Park.

“This is something anyone can do, even with a small pot on their porch,” said Van Wingerden. “I like to think of it as a rest station on a road trip. You can’t just stop at one and think you’re going to make it through the rest of your trip. That pot on your porch is one more spot to stop on a migration to eat or lay eggs. And the remarkable thing is, they will find it.”

Another neat thing about this or any native plant pollinator garden, Van Wingerden claims, is that even when it’s not in bloom, it’s working in other ways. For example, in the winter, the family took the dried seeds and pods and planted them in other sections of Cameron Park, which are sprouting today.

This year the family is creating a spiral, walk-through pollination garden at Cameron Park. It’s just another project that Runyon and his staff were highly receptive to.

“This has been a true group effort,” Van Wingerden said humbly. “When you think of the native gardeners offering plants, and the county and the park workers who help with watering and weeding. When everyone does a small part, you can see that big things can happen. It’s very inspiring.”

A Hidden Gem

Matthews believes that the park always makes for a “good story,” since there is always something going on, whether thanks to people like the Van Wingerdens or Mother Nature herself. She enjoys seeing return visitors, who she claims are always complimentary of the park and love to visit any time of the year. In the summer, they come for the shade, she says, and in winter they enjoy the shelter from the wind and cold.

Dogs, which were never permitted, have recently been allowed in as long as they are leashed. Matthews says that this have brought in even more people, such as Don Bellis of Ocean City, who frequently visits with his two dogs C.C. and Sweetie, both rescued from the park’s nearby neighbor Beacon Animal Rescue.

“It’s a hidden gem and a slice of paradise that you don’t expect,” said Bellis. “For me and my dogs, it’s a respite–like being in a different world. The park is beautiful and well-maintained. The water, the trees–I get the same feeling here that I used to get on the golf course. It’s like being transported to another world.

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