The New Jersey Audubon Stewardship South team headed North earlier this month to participate in a two-day partners training held by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS is an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, created originally as the Soil Erosion Service (SES) in 1933. The SES was formed with temporary funding to address soil erosion by providing practical information on how to protect the land, and expanding important research to find these answers.
Less than a year after the formation of the SES, the Dust Bowl brought suspended dust particles from the Midwest all the way to Washington, D.C. With soil clouding out the sun on capitol hill, founder Hugh Hammond Bennett had the perfect case to appeal for long term funding. NRCS has since grown to a nationwide federal agency with field offices in all 50 states and 8 US territories. They are the go-to technical assistance agency for agricultural producers and private landowners interested in employing conservation practices and as an agency allocate millions of dollars in financial assistance every year.
NRCS’ partners training brought together organization, agencies and private entities from all over our great state. Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Cape-Atlantic Soil Conservation District, US Fish and Wildlife Service, NJ Department of Agriculture, Trout Unlimited, Northeast Organic Farming Association and NJ Resource Conservation and Development were just a handful of those in attendance. The first day of classroom training covered topics including the history of NRCS and its roots as the SES, land use classifications, tips on preparing for site visits, and NRCS’s nine step planning process. This information has already proven very useful in the way NJA Stewardship staff plan for visiting private property to advise landowners, which we do often.
The second component was field training at Terraceland Farm in Hunterdon County. This property is a shining example of the collaboration needed to create a successful, cohesive conservation plan. We spent the day touring the site and meeting with NRCS staff members who all played a different role in the planning process. State Soil Scientists outlined the soil types in the region and demonstrated how to classify each horizon in a soil pit from identifying different properties to using a Munsell soil guide.
The State Agronomist defined erosion issues that presented themselves on the crop fields, and how they were remedied with terracing on this parcel with a 17% slope. To us South Jersey folks, this was perhaps the most striking. Working in a region of primarily flat land, we don’t inherently have to consider the issues arising from a field with such a steep slope. At the base of each terrace was a diversion, redirecting runoff from cascading down crop fields and taking sediment along with it. This property could have looked very different if these practices were not employed to protect the soil!
In addition to correcting erosion issues, NRCS Engineers addressed manure storage in an innovative way by separating clean rainwater and redirecting contaminated runoff from a concrete feed lot. By utilizing underground systems, Terraceland Farms can now move their “dirty” water into a crop field to infiltrate through the ground, thereby cleaning the water before it reenters the water table. Essentially they have created a septic leach field to help deal with animal waste. The farmer gained technical assistance with the beginning of the animal waste process as well, working with grazing specialists to score pasture conditions and devise a plan to ensure a healthy, balanced diet for his livestock.
State biologists emphasized the importance of unifying wildlife conservation with the producer’s objectives. Considering the potential impacts of planned practices on the plants and animals of the area is never overlooked, and is something that we at Audubon are passionate about. By utilizing spatial data, visiting the site and asking the right questions, you can learn a lot about the wildlife in the area and the farmer and or the landowner’s interest in implementing different conservation practices. Having this knowledge can better align project goals and can warrant tweaking the plan to allow for more habitat in some situations.
New Jersey Audubon staff came away from this training with new knowledge and practical skills for working with landowners and farmers, and a fully charged morale for putting more conservation practices on the ground. We would like to thank NRCS and participating partners for organizing and attending this training. It was very helpful to see the collaboration and consider all of the discussions that have gone into making this farm a showcase for conservation.
We have gained new skills that will benefit us in working on NJA’s Healthy Land and Waters Grants, an initiative in the Delaware River Watershed that works closely with NRCS to provide additional technical and financial assistance to farmers and producers in southern New Jersey. We are now better equipped to work with our partners to the full extent and to consider all these aspects of planning. Together we strive to reduce water use, protect water quality, and reduce soil loss on agricultural lands, all while improving habitat and safeguarding wildlife and natural resources. For more information please contact Brittany Dobrzynski at 609-400-3826 or Brittany.firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Brittany Dobrzynski
I am excited to be writing my first blog of the season! I’m Wills, the new summer/fall seasonal land steward with New Jersey Audubon. I have the exciting opportunity to work at several different private and public lands throughout Southern New Jersey, making my job extremely variable given the day and what’s on the agenda.
The first site I will be talking about is New Jersey Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May (the Nature Center), which is, in my personal opinion, a hidden gem. The Nature Center is located in New Jersey’s southernmost beach community on Delaware Avenue, just up the road from the U.S. Coast Guard base. It sits on Cape May Harbor, and is only minutes from all of the excitement of the boardwalk, arcades, and restaurants in Cape May City and Wildwood. If you find yourself East of Lafayette Street, I would recommend stopping into The Nature Center to walk around the trails, check out the visitor’s center and backyard habitat gardens, and take in the views from the 2nd story observation deck, to take in Cape May’s natural beauty.
The Nature Center was the site of my inaugural day with New Jersey Audubon. Upon arrival, I met Gretchen Whitman, the director, and her fantastic group of staff and volunteers. I surveyed the property with Trisha Pitcher, a Stewardship Technician for New Jersey Audubon. Trisha heads the restoration project taking place at the Nature Center, and works on projects eradicating non-native invasive plant species throughout southern New Jersey. Returning to the mid-Atlantic after four years at school in Florida, I was new to invasive plant removal and some of the plant species growing in the region. I realized immediately that there were some plants that seemed more prevalent than others on the landscape. Unfortunately, these were the non-native invasive species. It was apparent by their large numbers and habits of growing over and choking out native vegetation that they had to go.
Habitat restoration and ecosystem health will continue to be the major goal that we hope to achieve at the Nature Center. A list of the invasive plant species that run rampant in Cape May include porcelain berry, common reed (Phragmites), English ivy, mimosa tree, Japanese honeysuckle, weeping love grass, and autumn olive. Both Trisha and I spent countless hours wrestling through vine-ridden terrain, not uncommonly falling trap to thorns, and even worse - ticks. What is that they say, “It’s not a good hard day’s work if you didn’t give it your blood, sweat, and tears?” I think it’s safe to say that I had all of that! Ok… maybe not the tears part, but it is a dirty job.
After two months of hard intensive labor, dense covered brush gave way to more open areas. Native trees and shrubs, such as sassafras and oak that had once been covered completely by porcelain berry have finally become visible. Milkweed could be seen in sections that were primarily Phragmites and mugwort. It even seemed as though the birds were starting to forage more throughout the restored areas, meaning more resources have already become available. The process was not short, but it was well worth seeing our progress.
Stay tuned for more!
Till next time,
New Jersey Audubon’s Stewardship staff have been working with the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to improve wetland habitat for New Jersey’s rarest turtle. The bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) is a small (4 inches in length), secretive reptile that inhabits open, mucky freshwater wetlands throughout the state, but its population has declined in recent decades.
As a federally threatened, state endangered species, the bog turtle and its specific habitat needs have been getting quite a bit of attention. In amongst the vast acres of cropland and pastureland in Salem County resides a bog turtle population nestled within a small, open wetland. Although these turtles have persisted here for quite some time, NJ Audubon and NJ DFW’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) have been working tirelessly to learn more about this population in order to enhance and improve their habitat.
This year, May and June were very busy times for both the staff and the turtles. The beginning of the active season started with survey efforts to locate turtles and outfit them with radio transmitters. Despite one survey conducted during a cold (~50F) rainy day, these efforts turned up one new adult female, as well as a few old friends (two female turtles and two male turtles). Because of these efforts, the total head count of marked turtles reached ten – a seemingly small number, but a huge feat for a species that is slow to reproduce, lives for decades, and can be very difficult to find.
The end of May proved to be just as exciting as the beginning of the month for this population. After a long Memorial Day Weekend, staff from NJ Audubon, along with ENSP worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society from the Bronx Zoo to conduct comprehensive health assessments for individual bog turtles. The veterinarian team took each turtles’ weight and measurements, along with a few swabs of the mouth and a blood sample. These samples will then go back to the lab for analysis to determine the presence of certain diseases. The team tests for diseases such as ranavirus, a group of viruses that is most often fatal to amphibians, but is also known to negatively affect reptiles.
As May turned to June, both female bog turtles with radio transmitters were found to be “gravid,” meaning they were carrying eggs. This afforded NJ Audubon and ENSP staff a rare opportunity to follow the turtles to their preferred nesting sites. After countless hours of surveying and observing, the turtles finally nested in mid-June, which provided staff with intriguing and important information that will guide future land management efforts.
On the restoration front, NJ Audubon staff continued to work towards removing Phragmites from parts of the wetland. This invasive reed often out-competes native vegetation and reduces the amount of sun exposure that is so important for turtles to bask, forage, and nest.
This bog turtle habitat restoration project is a part of a multi-partner, long-term effort to improve habitat for both bog turtles and other plant and wildlife species. Funding for this project has been graciously provided by US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership, and Atlantic City Electric.
By Kristen Meistrell
Photos by Kristen Meistrell and Brittany Dobrzynski
For the second year in a row researchers associated with the Northern Bobwhite Restoration Initiative, lead by New Jersey Audubon (NJA), have confirmed active Northern Bobwhite quail nests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens!
University of Delaware graduate students, Phillip Coppola and Evan Drake, contracted by NJA, discovered six active nests at the Pine Island Cranberry Bobwhite Quail translocation study site while conducting their weekly radio telemetry surveys on the quail.
“The nests are surprisingly hard to find,” said Quail Initiative Researcher Evan Drake. “Even when the telemetry equipment leads you right to them, the nests themselves are remarkably well camouflaged.” The nests consisted of a small bowl-shaped depression on the ground covered with grasses and pine needles to form a “dome”. Bobwhite quail lay an average of one egg a day and the average clutch size is between 12-14 eggs. Once all the eggs have been laid, either adult will incubate the nest.
“Not only is it very exciting to find these nests, but one nest is occupied by a collared bird from this year’s release that has paired up with an un-collared bird which means that bird is from last year’s offspring,” said Quail Initiative researcher Phil Coppola. “Nesting by individuals that were translocated only months ago reaffirms the effectiveness of this tool for augmenting Bobwhite breeding populations. This is a major step in the overall reintroduction effort for this species here in the New Jersey Pinelands.”
Earlier this year a total eighty one birds, (37 females and 44 males) were release at the Pine Island Cranberry study site by NJ Audubon and initiative partners, Pine Island Cranberry Company, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the University of Delaware. This was the second of three scheduled translocations of wild Bobwhite Quail captured in Georgia by project collaborator, Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy, and released at the Pine Island Cranberry study site. In 2015, 80 wild birds were also released on site and through the use of telemetry; researchers were able to confirm 15 nests, 127 eggs laid; and 66 chicks hatched in 2015. Many of which were confirmed to have overwintered at the property and were onsite when the second release of new wild birds occurred.
“We were very excited about this second release because the new birds were released into areas that already have Bobwhite from last year’s release, as well as, the young that were born here last year,” said John Parke, NJA Stewardship Project Director. “Having those birds successfully nest, raise young that overwintered from last year and are still present and are now mating with the new birds this spring only helps increases the likelihood of survival of the new birds in the wild, as well as, adds genetic diversity to this year’s mating season.” added Parke.
In New Jersey the Northern Bobwhite quail is believed to be functionally extinct with the possibility of some birds still existing in southwestern NJ. The decline of Bobwhite, not just in New Jersey but across its entire range, is attributed to the shortage of quality habitat. “With the lack of quality habitat being the most important limiting factor for Bobwhite survival, the Pine Island Cranberry study site provides proof that active management is the key to species recovery,” said Jimmy Sloan, Upland Habitat and Wildlife Biologist with NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife. “Recruitment is important to the long term sustainability of a Bobwhite population so these new nests are a great sign that the Bobwhites on the property are thriving and continue to benefit from the forest management being performed on the property,” added Sloan.
The Pine Island Cranberry site in New Jersey was selected to be part of a multi-state initiative to re-establish Northern Bobwhite in the Mid-Atlantic States because of several factors, however it was a State Approved Forest Stewardship Plan outlining long-term management goals and the extent of existing quality habitat already onsite from years of active forestry work, prescribed burning and agricultural best management practices that made it stand out above other sites in the region. As part of the project, New Jersey has the unique focus of releasing (translocation) wild quail to the Pine Island Cranberry Property for study. Other aspects of the multi-state initiative include evaluating methods of raising captive bred wild parent reared quail; however no captive bred quail will be release in the NJ study.
“This is great news; if the quail are thriving, then we’re taking care of the land just like we’re supposed to,” said Bill Haines Jr. owner and CEO of Pine Island Cranberry Company. “Thanks to the hard work from NJ Audubon and everyone else involved with this project, we’re seeing some real progress on bringing the Bobwhite quail back to New Jersey, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”
For more on the Quail Project and how you can support the initiative see NJ Audubon's Quail webpage
Photos by Phil Coppola, Evan Drake and John Parke
Colleagues from Pfizer, a member of the New Jersey Audubon's Corporate Stewardship Council (CSC), recently volunteered their time – working with the New Jersey Audubon (NJA) – to plant several species of native trees including Sugar Maple, White Pine, American Sycamore and Red Oak at Pfizer’s Peapack campus. These trees are all native to the region and support a multitude of local wildlife species.
Pfizer has been working in support of a forest management plan, written by local professional forestry firm Gracie & Harrigan, since 2014. It is focused on improving the quality, health, diversity and vigor of the local forest. To accomplish this, the plan addresses reducing the quantity and colonization of non-native and invasive plants, as well as improving native plant re-generation. Pfizer and its colleagues are committed to sustainability. Active conservation management, including the native tree planting, is part of a larger environmental sustainability initiative Pfizer is integrating into its business and supplier network.
“New Jersey’s forests are facing many threats that are outpacing the ecosystem’s natural ability to adapt to them,” said John Parke, NJA Stewardship Project Director. “The state of New Jersey’s forests, as shown in numerous scientific reports by the US Forest Service and others, indicates our forests lack diverse age class distribution. This means that because the majority of New Jersey’s forests are the same age, they are more susceptible to disease, pest infestations, invasive species, natural disturbance events, like a hurricane, and are no longer providing habitat for many wildlife species that had previously thrived. Pfizer taking a proactive approach to managing its forest shows their commitment to improving the forest’s future and the wildlife that depends upon it.”
The recent work at the Pfizer campus will provide important habitat to a variety of wildlife including at-risk migratory birds and other species. Work done to date has included large-scale removal of invasive non-native vegetation, timber stand improvement by selective thinning, as well as native tree planting.
All photos by John Parke
The Wattles Stewardship Center, owned and operated by New Jersey Audubon, has been certified as a River-Friendly Farm; recognized for following best management practices that focus on protecting water quality.
The River-Friendly Farm Certification Program is a voluntary program designed to recognize farms that protect our shared natural resources through responsible land management. River-Friendly Certified Farms have demonstrated a commitment to reduce soil loss, decrease pesticide run-off, and prevent manure and fertilizer pollution by implementing practices such as vegetative stream buffers to slow and absorb water before it reaches waterways, reducing bare soil areas on the farm through use of a cover crop, and managing livestock and reducing their access to ponds and streams.
Nestled along the Musconetcong River, the NJ Audubon Wattles Stewardship Center is a 51-acre farm that produces corn, beans, and sunflowers with forested land and a native warm-season grass meadow habitat sprinkled throughout the landscape. “The Wattles property was designed to be a working conservation model farm,” said John Parke, NJ Audubon Stewardship Project Director. “Working with our farmer, Roger Woolf, and the staff of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to utilize a multitude of their conservation programs at the property certainly made it easy to meet the criteria to become a River Friendly Farm,” Parke added. “I highly recommend others in the region take advantage of the free technical assistance and USDA conservation services that are out there and apply for this fine recognition program offered by North Jersey RC&D.”
The cropland at the Wattles Center is farmed by lifetime Warren County resident, Roger Woolf who was very proud to have the property certified after all his hard work stewarding the production land over the years. He said, “We want to maintain soil health. Without good soil we won’t be farming. Healthy soil means healthy plants, healthy streams, and healthy wildlife. [Conservation] is part of the farmer’s job and working with good partners, like NJ Audubon, to achieve shared goals is important.”
For more information on River-Friendly Farm Certification, please contact Kara Hasko at North Jersey Resource Conservation and Development (NJRC&D), (908)852-2576 ext. 126. North Jersey RC&D is seeking more River-Friendly Farm applicants and is available to speak with any interested group or individual about the program.
As part of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, NJRC&D and NJ Audubon are also looking to engage more landowners/farmers for enrollment into the various federal conservation cost share programs for conducting conservation practices on their land; in some cases free plant material may be available. For more information please contact NJRC&D at (908) 574-5368 or NJA Stewardship Project Director, John Parke at email@example.com
Photo: Kara Hasko of North Jersey RC&D presented the River Friendly Certified Farm sign to (From Left to Right): NJA Wattles Staff: Lindsay Gafford, John Parke, Roger Woolf (Farmer), John Cecil, Gylla MacGregor, and Don Donnelly
Free native plants and labor were the words of the day last week as New Jersey Audubon (NJA), the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority/Wallkill River Watershed Management Group (SCMUA-WRWMG) and the NJ Youth Corps of Phillipsburg partnered up to work with private landowners in the Highlands region to restore habitat and improve water quality.
With funding associated with the Delaware River Watershed Initiative from the William Penn Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation the groups worked together and planted over 10,000 native plants along streams at farms in the region at no cost to the landowners.
“The type of plant we are using is dark green bulrush,” said John Parke, Stewardship Project Director of New Jersey Audubon. “Not only is the dark green bulrush a native plant that helps prevent soil erosion when planted along the banks of a stream and provides important food and cover for wildlife, but dark green bulrush helps remove phosphorus on the order of 80% from water.”
Excess phosphorus is a major part of nutrient pollution, which according to the US EPA, is “one of America's most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems.” Although, phosphorous is a natural and essential part of ecosystems, too much can pollute the water by leading algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Excess algae can harm water quality by decreasing the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Additionally significant increases of algae in our water can also impact human health, food resources, and thus impact a region’s economy.
“The restoration work day conducted by NJ Audubon, SCMUA-WRWMG, and the New Jersey Youth Corps successfully created a new chapter for the awesome conservation and stewardship story that continues to grow at farms like the Jorittsma Farm and Summer Solstice Farm in the Delaware River Watershed," said, Nathaniel Sajdak, Watershed Director with the Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority /Wallkill River Watershed Management Group. “With NJ Audubon bringing in the NJ Youth Corps as an on-call labor force for the initiative and knowing that the students are trained in the Waders in the Water program and have experience in on-the ground conservation work, it gives us another tool in the toolbox to get the work done efficiently, cost effectively and move the initiative forward,” added Sajdak.
NJ Audubon has recently partnered with NJ Youth Corps of Phillipsburg and is providing the Corps with service learning projects in support of the Delaware Watershed Restoration Initiative. These are projects conducted in partnership with landowners and farmers in three sub-watersheds of the Highlands region: the Lower Musconetcong, Lopatcong and Upper Paulin’s Kill. These projects will help the overall watershed initiative, increasing the pace of project implementation in the field, and the projects will also provide Corps members with valuable employment skills.
“Working on farms in the Delaware River region has been challenging,” said NJ Youth Corps Member, Stacy Leisner (Age 21). “But it means a lot to me, because I’m one of those people that love animals and the environment, and I want to do what I can to make those habitats and the water better. I don’t want to see our environment go down the drain.”
NJ Audubon and SCMUA-WRWMG are looking to engage more landowners for enrollment into the various federal conservation cost share programs for conducting conservation practices on their land, as well as distribute more free native plant materials. However to be eligible to receive free pant materials properties must be located in the following sub-watersheds of the Highlands region (the Lower Musconetcong, Lopatcong and the Upper Paulin's kill sub-watersheds) and must exhibit a degree of ecological impairment. For more information please contact NJA Stewardship Project Director, John Parke at firstname.lastname@example.org or SCMUA-WRWMG Watershed Director Nathaniel Sajdak email@example.com.
What is a watershed? A watershed is an area of land that catches rain and snow and drains or seeps into a marsh, stream, creek, river, lake or groundwater. Homes, farms, forests, wetlands, small towns, big cities and more can make up watersheds. They come in all shapes and sizes and can vary from millions of acres to a few acres.
Photos by John Parke and Nathaniel Sajdak
The NJA Stewardship Department World Series of Birding team, The Fight'n Femelschlagers, had a great day out in North Jersey racking in 105 species of birds! Bald Eagle, Eastern Screech Owl, Whip-poor Will, Bobolink, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Spotted Sandpiper, Cerulean Warbler, Indigo Bunting, Prairie Warbler were just some of the species we came across on our trek though different habitat types searching for birds. The highlight by far was a Ruffed Grouse encountered in Stokes State Forest that hung around for 10 minutes while we took photos of it from the car!
The birding was great, but we also encountered many other species of wildlife throughout the day, such as Porcupine, Timber Rattlesnake, Five-lined Skink, Pickerel Frog, American Toad and Snapping Turtle, which just goes to show how important it is to remember that it’s not just about the birds when we think conservation. Habitat restoration and stewardship of those lands are important for a variety of species. What makes the NJ Stewardship Department so unique in how we get significant meaningful work done is, although our work is grounded in science, the professional staff at the Stewardship Department consider other factors then just a single target species or resource concern. Meaning, impacts for other species and numerous ecological resources, as well as social, cultural and economic factors are looked at and planned for in order to make a project and the resource we are focusing on a sustainable project with lasting results.
The World Series of Birding (WSB) is an important fundraiser for the NJ Audubon Stewardship Department, raising funds vital to support our Department’s conservation work on behalf of declining wildlife species and habitat in NJ. Please note that your pledge/donation to our team goes directly to funding our Department’s work here at NJ Audubon, specifically for habitat restoration in NJ such as: the Bobwhite Quail reintroduction project in the Pinelands, conservation innovation projects with agricultural producers, sustainable forestry projects throughout the State, native grassland restoration projects, bog turtle habitat restoration projects, snake fungal disease survey projects, Ruffed Grouse restoration and population recovery projects, vegetation management projects for early successional species, water quality and habitat improvement projects in the Highlands and Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer regions, invasive species control projects, the S.A.V.E.™ program and working with NJ farmers and rural landowners to create and restore habitat that also benefits the agricultural community.
Although the WSB is over, you can still donate to our team at Fight’n Femelschlagers
So what is a Femelschlager? “Femelschlag”, is a German term for a forest management practice that is designed to emulate natural disturbance patterns and encourage tree species diversity in multiple-age classes, thereby enhancing ecosystem services and complexity. (A lot of our sustainable forestry work for various rare species involves this management practice here in NJ)
On behalf of the New Jersey Audubon Stewardship Department, we thank you for the chance to present this opportunity to support our work for your consideration and please know that every little bit helps!!
We also would like to thank our Team Sponsors: Ernst Conservation Seeds, Hudson Farm, and South Jersey Gas, as well as to Vortex Optics for the use of your excellent binoculars and scopes!
All photos by John Parke and Lindsay Gafford
New Jersey Audubon’s Stewardship Department is working with the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) in a multi-state, multi-organization survey effort to determine the distribution and extent of the Snake Fungal Disease (SFD). SFD is an emerging disease in certain populations of wild snakes and is associated with the soil fungus, Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola (Oo) and as its name implies, is only known to afflict snakes.
SFD has become a point of discussion and concern among the scientific community, especially after significant declines in localized snake populations across the Midwest and Eastern United States, had been discovered as a result of infection(s) confirmed to be associated with this fungus. In New Jersey several snake species, including Timber Rattlesnake, Corn Snake, Pine Snake, Black Rat Snake, and Black Racer, have been confirmed with SFD.
“Although it remains unclear as to whether or not this fungus is native to our environment, we are certain that over the past decade throughout the northeast it has impacted native snakes forcing them to spend more time basking (and less foraging) and in some cases, one documented in New Jersey, causing mortality,” said Kris Schantz, Principal Zoologist with New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. “While New Jersey has documented only one SFD-related death, research in our state has been limited and therefore, we are not certain of SFD's impact on our snakes. Currently, SFD has been confirmed in snake populations within Ocean, Burlington, Passaic and Bergen Counties and is suspected to be in Warren and Sussex Counties,” added Schantz.
Researchers have identified that the fungus, O. ophiodiicola, survives by eating keratin, the substance out of which snake scales, (and human fingernails) are made. According to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, “The most consistent clinical signs of SFD include scabs or crusty scales, subcutaneous nodules, premature separation of the outermost layer of the skin (stratum corneum) from the underlying skin (or abnormal molting), white opaque cloudiness of the eyes (not associated with molting), or localized thickening or crusting of the skin (hyperkeratosis). Skin ulcers, swelling of the face, and nodules in the deeper tissues of the head have also been documented. Clinical signs of SFD and disease severity may vary by snake species.” In some cases it has been documented to affect the snake’s ability to obtain prey and can lead to malnutrition and die of starvation. Additionally SFD can lead a snake to exhibit behaviors that, in the wild, could cause the snake to spend more time in open areas to bask and thus become more exposed to predation.
Aside from the symptoms, little else is known about the condition, but researchers are now investigating how snakes catch it, fight it and die from it. Although, some snakes have died in association with SFD, it is not yet known what the population-level impacts of the disease are. This is mainly because of the solitary and cryptic nature of snakes. Additionally there is a lack of any long-term monitoring data. According to USGS, while fungal infections were occasionally reported in wild snakes prior to 2006, it is only in recent years that there has been such a significant increase in infected snakes across a much wider range than was originally reported, bringing the issue to the forefront and taking immediate action.
In an effort to obtain better data on SFD in New Jersey, the NJ Audubon’s Stewardship Department has begun working with ENSP this year to systematically survey documented den, basking and gestation/birthing habitats in northern New Jersey, for snakes exhibiting symptoms associated with SFD, record such information and capture symptomatic snakes for testing and in some cases treatment.
“Snakes are a critically important part of a healthy ecosystem basically helping to control prey items such as rodents, not to mention that they are prey items themselves for a variety of animals,” said John Parke, Project Stewardship Director of NJ Audubon. “SFD can be devastating when you consider how other fungal infections have taken significant tolls on other species such as bats with white-nose syndrome and salamanders and frogs with the chytrid fungus. The problem here is since most snakes are secretive and some hibernate in communal dens that are not accessible, you could have a die-off and not know it.”
If you should be lucky enough to come across any snake in the wild, do not approach it or attempt to handle it. However if you do encounter a snake with signs consistent with SFD, NJA does encourage you to take a photo of the snake (from a distance) and note the location of the encounter and send it to NJDFW-ENSP Principal Zoologist Kris Schantz at Kris.Schantz@dep.nj.gov
Photos by John Parke
Chatsworth, NJ – The Northern Bobwhite Restoration Initiative, lead by New Jersey Audubon (NJA), had the second of three scheduled releases of wild Northern Bobwhite quail in early April. Eighty-one Northern Bobwhite that were captured in Georgia, by project collaborator Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy, were successfully translocated to, and released, at the Pine Island Cranberry study site.
After receiving health screening testing and attaching leg ID bands and radio-signal transmitting collars to each bird, a total of eighty-one birds, (37 females and 44 males) were released in groups at the Pine Island Cranberry study site by NJ Audubon and initiative partners, Pine Island Cranberry, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and the University of Delaware.
“We are very excited about this second release of wild Northern Bobwhite. These new quail were released into areas where Northern Bobwhite were released last year, supplementing the newly developing population.” said, John Parke, NJA Stewardship Project Director. “Having those birds from last year at the site only increases the likelihood of survival of these new birds in the wild since the new birds will integrate with them and thus be influenced in their cover and foraging choices, nesting area selection and predator avoidance response in their new surroundings. We did not have that luxury last year.” added Parke.
In New Jersey the Northern Bobwhite quail is believed to be functionally extinct with the possibility of some birds still existing in southwestern NJ. As part of the project to restore Northern Bobwhite to NJ, New Jersey Audubon along with project collaborators, Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy, and project partners the Pine Island Cranberry Company, Pine Creek Forestry, the University of Delaware, and New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, released 80 wild Northern Bobwhite at the Pine Island Cranberry site last year (2015). Through the use of radio telemetry, University of Delaware graduate students, contracted by NJ Audubon for the project, monitored the birds and were able to confirm 15 nests, 127 eggs laid; and 66 chicks hatched in 2015. The birds were tracked throughout the winter by the students and were confirmed to have over-wintered successfully at the study site. It was noted that the quail were utilizing the young pine regeneration growth areas for cover throughout the entire winter season. These young pine areas were the result of vegetation regeneration in areas that had been harvested previously as part of forest stewardship activities performed by Pine Island Cranberry to improve overall watershed and forest health.
“With the lack of quality habitat being the most important limiting factor for quail survival, the Pine Island Cranberry study site provides proof that active management is the key to species recovery,” said, Jimmy Sloan, Upland Habitat and Wildlife Biologist with NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife.
The newly released birds, as well as last year’s quail, will be tracked via radio telemetry in the field to determine movements, predation, site fidelity, habitat use and nesting by the graduate students from the University of Delaware. "I have always been rooting for the quail and the overall success of the project, but year one turned out even better than I expected. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with these hearty, little, birds. Last year's juvenile recruitment into this year's breeding season, paired with low site mortality, adds to the support of this project being successful as years progress. The second release of translocated individuals brings another round of excitement for the quail crew here at the University of Delaware. We are eager to see what the birds have to teach us this season," said Kaili Stevens, University of Delaware Researcher on the project.
The Pine Island site in New Jersey is part of a multi-state initiative to re-establish Northern Bobwhite in the Mid-Atlantic States. New Jersey will have the unique focus of releasing wild quail (translocation) to the Pine Island Cranberry Property. Other aspects of the multi-state project include testing methods of raising and rearing captive bred parent reared quail in other states participating in the initiative, however no captive bred quail will be release at the NJ study.
“We’re pleased with how this project has progressed; the first year went very well. We enjoy working with NJ Audubon and the other partners, and are looking forward to another great year,” said Bill Haines Jr., Owner and CEO of Pine Island Cranberry.
For more on the Quail Project and how you can support the initiative see NJ Audubon's Quail webpage http://www.njaudubon.org/SectionConservation/StewardshipInAction/NorthernBobwhiteRestorationInitiative.aspx
Photos by Kristen Meistrell & John Parke