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The long awaited forest thinning project at our Hovnanian Sanctuary is finally underway.

Sunny skies and warm temperatures provided a near perfect day on Wednesday June 22nd, for NJ Audubon staff members to guide a tour of the forest restoration project that is now underway at the Hovnanian Sanctuary. Attending the tour were representatives from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, New Jersey Forest Fire Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, local residents and reporters. The activity is clearly obvious right from the roadside of Davenport Road in Berkeley Township, so we didn’t need to walk very far before the discussion began.

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This stewardship project aims to restore approximately 300 acres of pineland forest to a more typical, fire-adapted savannah type ecosystem. The pinelands forest evolved as an ecosystem that was historically subject to frequent forest fires. As such, the plants and animals native to this area are specialized at surviving in this unique environment, and in fact, their numbers begin to decline when fire is excluded from the region. Our restoration project will provide better habitat for a variety of threatened and endangered species known to exist in the area, but whose populations have declined as a result of the changing environment.

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The Hovnanian Sanctuary hasn’t seen forest fires or any other type of active management in at least 30 years. Fire has been excluded from the property due to its proximity to nearby homes. Simply reintroducing fire at this point is not an option due to the excessively high levels of fuel (vegetation) within the forest, and if a fire were to break out now, it might be uncontrollable and catastrophic to the local residents. Therefore, the first step in the process is to mechanically reduce the amount vegetation by selectively removing the less vigorous trees. This is similar to weeding a garden. The process improves spacing among the residual trees and allows sunlight to reach the forest floor. The increased light will stimulate a more diverse herbaceous and shrub layer. Once the fuel load is reduced to a safe level, prescribed burning can be employed to really restore the site to a pinelands fire-adapted ecosystem. The photo at the right shows treatment area on the left vs. untreated on the right.  Note how dense the vegetation has become in the absence of fire or other management.  Overall, the project will take several years to fully implement.

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Thinning contractor John deRouville uses a large feller to cut and bundle low quality trees. The trees are chipped onsite and trucked to a facility to be converted into mulch. A recent study was conducted at the University of Chicago using mulch produced from a NJ pinelands thinning project similar to ours. The results indicated that the pine mulch was comparable to peat moss as a soil amendment or growing medium. We think that this is exciting news since the pine mulch is a much more environmentally friendly option than peat moss, which is mined from bogs and considered a non-renewable resource. While it is exciting that we are producing a renewable resource as a byproduct of achieving our restoration goals, it certainly does not generate anywhere near enough revenue to offset the costs associated with completing the project. In fact, without the generous support of our partners, this project would not be feasible. Our partners include; Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, New Jersey Forest Fire Service, and USDA Forest Service.

We’ll have more updates as the project progresses.

Photos taken by Don Donnelly at the Hovnanian Sanctuary.

Salem River Wildlife Management Area

Suzanne and I left Cape May County well before sunrise for our bird surveys at Salem River Wildlife Management Area. We’re working at three sites with funding from a number of sources, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corporate Wetland Restoration Program, and the Wildlife Management Institute, and DuPont. Of course, the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife is our main partner on these projects.

Stop 1 (or stop 2, if you count Wawa) was the former dairy site right beside the Salem River in Pilesgrove Township. Shortly after we arrived, we flushed a female turkey and her young—one of whom flew up and landed, looking confused, in a tree. There’s a big kingbird hangout up the hill, near the entrance to the large open field, and we see lots of Fowler’s toads and plenty of mammal scat, too. 193[1]

We’ve seen a lot of the major grassland birds in the large field—kestrels, grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, and more. This site already has a nice grassland component, but we’re working with NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife to expand the size of the grassland. Many grassland species require very large grassland areas to nest, and here we have an opportunity to manage more than 80 acres for grassland-dependent wildlife. Bobwhite quail should benefit from this project as well. 153[1]

Stop 2 was a former commercial tree nursery that is now part of the WMA. I love this spot because it’s so strange—creeping junipers, ornamental cherries, arborvitae, and a whole mishmash of native landscaping trees or their cultivars keep company with species they wouldn’t normally hang out with. This is one natural area where the normal plant associations do not apply, and as long as the plants in question are not invasive, that can make a site visit different and fun.

Common milkweed in flowerOf course, some of them are highly invasive, and for those ones we’re working on reining them in. We just did an enormous job removing about 15 acres of autumn olive from the fields, and now we’re following up to keep the autumn olive and honeysuckle from taking the fields right back. My favorite part of this stop this week was watching six monarch caterpillars do a number on a cluster of 14 milkweed plants. Some of the plants had been completely stripped of leaves and some leaves were just half-eaten. These were very hungry caterpillars. 168[1]

We made a couple more stops that day—to another WMA site that we are converting to native grassland, and to a large riparian buffer project on private property. All the sites look good, all will have more work done to them, and their habitat value will just keep getting better and better.

All photos taken at the Salem River Wildlife Management Area by Jean Lynch.

Posted by Jean Lynch, Stewardship Project Director, South Region

Things Are “Hopp’n” At The Wattles Stewardship Center

American toads by the thousands are emerging from the newly constructed vernal pool at the Wattles Stewardship Center in Port Murray, NJ!  The young toads are the first of many amphibians species emerging from the newly constructed habitat feature, which is also supporting other amphibians (adults and young) such as green frog, wood frog, spring peeper, Northern gray tree frog, and spotted salamander. clip_image002[7]

In 2010, NJ Audubon implemented the construction of this vernal pool utilizing funding from USFWS Coastal Program, USFWS Partners in Fish & Wildlife, Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership, PSE&G and a donation of plant materials from Pinelands Nursery of Columbus, NJ.  NJ Audubon was able to take an existing (but dilapidated) defunct in-ground swimming pool that was left on site when Audubon took title of the property and convert it into a functional vernal pool. This converted pool is serving not only as prime suitable breeding habitat for amphibian species, but it also is used for educational purposes to promote the importance and ecological significance of vernal pools.

poolwattlesNJ Audubon believes it essential to bring public awareness to vernal pools because, even though the NJ Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act has been in place since 1989, it has done little to protect vernal pools because wetlands smaller than 1 acre (most vernal pools in NJ are less than 0.25 acre) were exempt from the regulatory protection and many were filled. Fortunately, we can re-establish vernal ponds that look and function like their natural counterparts, thus, restoring an important component of the landscape. Incentives to restore or establish seasonal wetlands are plentiful - to prevent flooding by holding rainwater; to have a place for specific species to utilize as part of their lifecycle. Not only do vernal pools provide suitable breeding habitat to various species but they also provide foraging grounds for various wading birds and reptiles. Replacing this vanishing part of our landscape is as rewarding to us as it is essential to the health of theclip_image002[4] environment.

Also confirmed utilizing the pool are many mico-invertebrates such as dragonfly larvae, water-boatman, water strider, and diving beetles. Additionally great blue heron, mallard duck and snapping turtle have been noted foraging in pool, not to mention several dragonfly, butterfly and songbird species also utilizing the area.

All photos taken at Wattles Stewardship Center by John Parke

Reforestation and a Partnership Grows at Drew University

On April 15, 2011 the last piece of a four year long forest restoration project was completed on the campus of Drew University in Madison with the Reforestation_0009installation of over 1,100 native trees and shrubs by Drew students, faculty, community volunteers, volunteers from Pfizer (a member of NJA's Corporate Stewardship Council), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and New Jersey Audubon staff. The project was the vision of Drew Professor of Biology Dr. Sara Webb, who recognized, while conducting classes and research in the 80-acre forest preserve, that the forest conditions were degrading rapidly, thanks to overabundant deer in the preserve.

With no method of deer control little native undergrowth/regeneration remained to collect runoff and prevent erosion; or provide suitable habitat for forest interior species. To add insult to injury, invasive wisteria and Asiatic bittersweet vines were thriving in these conditions choking and toppling dozens of native trees each year which in turn lead to forest gap openings that were only being filled by other non-native invasive vegetation that the deer would not browse. Only with intervention would this ecosystem regain the structure and diversity that could again provided suitable habitat for native species and maximize groundwater replenishment, minimize sedimentation of receiving surface waters. (NOTE: the Drew Forest Preserve, which includes the Zuck Arboretum and the recently named Christine Hepburn Forest Restoration Area, is critically important for groundwater recharge and runoff reduction within the Passaic River watershed and the Buried Valley aquifer area.)

Though the USWFS' Partners in Fish and Wildlife Program, Drew, NJ Audubon and USFWS entered into an agreement to remove invasive vegetation and reforest the area. But it wasn't until a generous gift from former Madison residents and NJ Audubon Life Members, Christine Hepburn and her husband Ken Martin, that the project really came together with the installation of fencing around the entire 17-acre restoration area, thus excluding deer but allowing for movement of other wildlife though the small openings of the fence material.

"I am so excited; this is a long-held dream come true." said Christine Hepburn about the project. "For many years, the Drew woods provided me with Pileated Woodpeckers, Wood Thrushes, and other delights. This patch of woods brought me peace and joy but also sadness and frustration from seeing virtually all of the native understory mowed down by the deer again and again. I'm anxious to see how wonderful these woods become now that so many different new plants will be able to grow."

Brain Marsh of USFWS echoed Hepburn's remarks, "This project will reverse serious degradation of the Drew University Forest Preserve, thereby improvingToad at Drew the forest’s capacity for hydrologic stabilization while also enhancing habitat for the native flora and fauna, including migratory birds and aquatic habitat species associated with the preserves' ponds and vernal pools.

"It is thrilling see ecological integrity and biodiversity returning to these woods. The rescue of this forest required intensive intervention that could not have happened without support and expertise of New Jersey Audubon, USFWS and environmentalist Chris Hepburn. My hope is that this project will inspire our university students and to inform the broader community about the value and complexity of natural ecosystems." said Professor Webb.

All photos taken at Drew University Project site.  Photos by Lynne Delade and John Parke

Eagle Ridge Golf Club Takes Action to Provide Important Habitat for Bird and Pollinator Species

Eagle Ridge Golf Club (Eagle Ridge), assisted by the New Jersey Audubon Society (NJAS), has entered into a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to partake in a habitat restoration project on their Lakewood, Ocean County, NJ facility. Through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, Eagle Ridge, NJAS and the USFWS, will be restoring natural wildlife communities, that will create important habitat for migratory birds as well as for various pollinators, such a butterfly species.

"The golf course lies within the Service’s Atlantic Coastal Bay focus area of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. The golf course represents a large tract of open space with a mix of early successional and edge habitat. Foraging and nesting habitat are available on the course to a variety of migratory birds, including purple martin, eastern bluebird, and eastern kingbird." said Brian Marsh, Private Lands Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The USFWS commends Eagle Ridge's interest in creating and restoring wildlife habitat on their property.”

Earlier this spring Eagle Ridge and USFWS installed numerous nest boxes throughout the property for purple martin, bluebird and American kestrel, all of which became fully occupied by mid May.   "My love of wildlife, in particular birds, has caused me to really focus my attention on the environment. I am encouraging nesting for the native wildlife at Eagle Ridge in hopes of increasing species populations, and I believe it is working. Golfers are coming up to me saying they have never seen so much wildlife here at Eagle Ridge compared to other courses. It is a labor of love for me." said Jerry Kokes, President of Eagle Ridge.

The site is very interesting in that it’s not your typical golf course -care was given to protect and support a diverse array of native plant life.  An example of this is the abundance of the native wildflower species Pink Lady's Slipper orchid at the site.  100_3906However, as with all areas in NJ, Eagle Ridge and USFWS still had to implement removal/controls of invasive non-native herbaceous vegetation that included, non-native grasses, spotted knapweed, and mugwort, from areas of the property. Non-native invasive vegetation invade areas, shading out and killing off existing native plants thus creating a simplified ecosystem that will not support a diverse set of native animal. In an effort to enhance the course’s value to migratory birds and pollinators the partners are establishing a native meadow consisting of native wildflowers and warm-season grasses on the several acres that received the invasive vegetation removals. Warm-season grasses are ideal cover for land managers and wildlife because they do not require fertilization or irrigation, provide erosion control, are drought tolerant, grow mostly in the middle of the summer when other grasses are dormant, add color and texture to the landscape, remain upright during winter, and provide foraging and nesting cover to migratory birds. Additionally their extensive root systems soak up excess nutrients, thus aiding in water filtration as well as allow them to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground. Warm season grasses are highly effective carbon “sinks” — they are, in fact, called “C4” grasses because they absorb an extra molecule of carbon while cool season grasses are labeled “C3.”

"Eagle Ridge is demonstrating an outstanding commitment to sustaining native wildlife populations." said John Parke, Stewardship Project Director for NGrasshopper Sparrowew Jersey Audubon. “What is really exciting is the amount of grassland dependent bird species that are using the restoration areas, like grasshopper sparrow and meadowlark. Congratulations to Eagle Ridge for solidifying a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding community to foster environmental awareness and a conservation ethic while enhancing wildlife systems in New Jersey."

All photos shown here were taken at Eagle Ridge Golf Club.