Citizen Science
Raritan/Piedmont Bird and Forest Health Survey

A collaborative effort of New Jersey Audubon and Raritan Valley Community College to monitor bird populations and forest health in the Piedmont section of the Raritan River watershed, central NJ. Funded through NSF’s SENCER-ISE program (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities, Informal Science Education).


  • Document the abundance and distribution of forest breeding birds and the quality of their habitat
  • Make recommendations for improving forest health
  • Involve Community College students and citizen scientists in conservation issues of civic importance


Study Area

The Raritan River is the largest waterway contained solely within New Jersey’s boundaries and covers over 1,100 square miles in the central part of the state spanning three physiogeographic provinces: the Highlands, the Piedmont, and the Coastal Plain.

Forests in the low-lying Piedmont section of this watershed have experienced considerable challenges over time, including near total deforestation in the mid-1800’s and (more recently) suburban encroachment, non-native plants, and high deer densities. Nevertheless, dozens of forest bird species from the common (Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush) to the elusive (Kentucky Warbler, Veery) still call central New Jersey home, as do numerous unique native plant communities.


Deer and invasive plants can both put a strain on forest ecosystems.


Forest Health 
  • 45,000 acres of forest in NJ were lost between 2002 and 2007
  • Urban land uses have made the greatest increases and now cover nearly 30% of the state with suburban sprawl
  • Over 1.2 million acres have been preserved, but the quality of natural areas is not necessarily maintained

The integrity of forest ecosystems is threatened by the effects of fragmentation, which include deer overpopulation and invasive organisms. New Jersey has some of the highest numbers and densities of deer and invasive plant species in the United States. Current statewide deer densities (~28 deer / square mile) are approximately four times the historical background rate.  In central New Jersey, densities are even higher, averaging 78 deer / square mile with local densities as high as 202! The overabundance of deer has led to devastating effects on forest understories. The herb, shrub and sapling layers are completely absent in many places, and deer-resistant invasive plants (such as multiflora rose) have thrived. More than a third of the plant species present in New Jersey today are non-native. However, with careful stewardship, these problem can be reversed. This citizen science-based effort to monitor baseline conditions of our forests represents a first step towards a better understanding of the problem.

See NJ Audubon's white paper on Forest Health for more information.



Bloodroot and Spotted Salamanders both occur in healthy forests. (Photos: Bruce Michael)

 The Study

In summer 2014 and 2015, an army of trained citizen scientists collected data on birds, invasive plants, and deer abundance at over 370 points covering 27 sites in the Piedmont section of the Raritan River watershed (see an online map of points here). Sites were chosen to represent forested tracts covering a range of ages (based on historical aerial photography), topography (floodplain, mountain ridge, or upland), and landscape setting (urban to rural). The citizen scientists collected bird data and conducted a rapid assessment of selected invasive plant species, while Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) students collected intensive data on both native and non-native vegetation present in the same areas. 

Data are still being entered and analyzed.  The results of the study will provide a snapshot of the current state of forests in the Raritan-Piedmont region, and will be useful for targeting management activities. The data can also be used as a tool to track forest health over time in the region. The study model may ultimately be employed in other areas of the state.

 For survey materials, including protocol and datasheets, click here. 

Click to view Poster presented At the Capitol Building, Washington DC, September29, 2015.  

Click to view Presentation at RVCC  of the first year results  


By Jay Kelly and Nellie Tsipoura


Click to listen to Dr. Jay Kelly's radio interview on Hunterdon Chamber Radio

(starts after minute 8) 


SENCER-ISE (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities, Informal Science Education) focuses on the improvement of undergraduate teaching and learning through the framework of civic engagement.

With funding from NSF and the Noyce Foundation, SENCER provided 10 grants to partnerships that integrate the higher education community with informal science opportunities to form long-term partnerships over issues of civic importance.

 Our project was highlighted in the SENCER-ISE News!


Hepatica and an American Toad. Both species that benefit from healthy forests. (Photos: Bruce Michael)