According to the Golden-winged Warbler Project (GWWP), a conservation initiative coordinated by Indiana University of PA- Research Institute, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the American Bird Conservancy and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), “since 2012, over 500 private landowners in 5 different states have created 8,800 acres of young forest habitat through various NRCS conservation projects…” as part of a regional initiative called the Young Forest Initiative. This multi-state conservation effort is focused on creating habitat necessary to meet the critical needs of a multitude of at-risk species.
In New Jersey, several properties, both publicly and privately owned, are participating in the initiative. The majority of these NJ properties are located in the northern portion of the state, with several sites concentrated on or near Sparta Mountain in the New Jersey Highlands region. Sparta Mountain is of particular importance because of the area’s use by various resident and migratory wildlife species, including many at-risk species. In fact, the Sparta Mountain region also contains some of the last known populations of the State Endangered Golden-winged Warbler, which has suffered one of the sharpest population declines of any bird species across its entire range since the 1960s.
Indiana University of PA recently released results from the Golden-winged Warbler Project’s 2017 bird monitoring of project sites in NJ. Monitoring was conducted by biologists from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, the American Bird Conservancy, and NRCS. The forest treatment areas underwent science based planning to harvest trees, stimulate new growth and forest succession and create patches of young forest; providing the diversity and structure of vegetation that is needed as critical habitat components for the initiative’s target at-risk species. According to NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife Song Bird study, “Healthy forests, just like healthy human populations, are sustained by a diversity of ages. Each group has their own role to play in maintaining the whole community over the long term.” These areas of young forest embedded in older aged forest are not only important to target at-risk species, but are also vital to life cycles of many other species, including forest breeding interior birds.
Results from the 2017 Golden-winged Warbler Project’s survey revealed that 33 bird species were detected in the treatment areas, with 13 of the species detected considered at-risk species. Of the 33 species, several are considered forest interior species. Similarly, ongoing surveys conducted at the same sites by biologists from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife found that bird species diversity doubled, and at-risk species diversity doubled in less than 3 years as a result of the creation of young forest habitat.
Photos (all taken at Sparta Mountain Forest Treatment-Regeneration Areas) by John Parke
On Wednesday January 10, 2018, after a week of record below freezing temperatures and the largest snow event of the season so far in the NJ Pinelands, NJ Audubon staff and research partners, University of Delaware, and the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, were able to verify only one weather related mortality of the remaining radio collared Northern Bobwhite at the Pine Island Cranberry study site. All other radio collared birds being tracked were alive.
Using telemetry, the radio collared birds were tracked and found to be together and alive as part of coveys. Tracks in the snow also verified that the quail utilize cover provided by young pines in areas where forestry had occurred, which was observed in prior years as well. The lower branches of the young pines were bent and bowed by the snow creating a patchwork of evergreen “lean-tos” with the pine needles blocking out snow drifts and providing cover from wind.
Recent research has found that a severe winter weather event can have long-lasting impacts on Northern Bobwhite populations. In winter during periods of low temperatures, and ice and snow cover, Bobwhite face three significant challenges to their survival: thermo-regulation, food availability and predators. These three challenges can be overcome - provided the Bobwhite has suitable habitat.
Like many species, Northern Bobwhite need to burn more energy to stay warm in winter. However, they are unable to dig through the snow like deer or turkey to get to food sources buried beneath. Thus, quail may have to venture out into the open to look for food, which makes them more vulnerable to predation.
One way quail combat the cold and overcome these challenges is by grouping together in coveys. A covey functions as a unit: birds forage in the same area, rest together in the same cover, and roost together at night. As a covey, the birds seek out areas that provide the best cover and forage availability. These areas typically provide thick cover adjacent to reliable food sources. The conservation group Quail Forever has found that typically “the temperature inside a high-quality shelterbelt (area of trees and shrubs that provide thick cover) – ideal cover from the cold – can be 5°F warmer.” This is consistent with observations of quail at the Pine Island study site as the quail are utilizing young pine stands for cover and are foraging in adjacent fields and forest.
Acting as a covey also provides the quail with ‘more eyes’ to detect predators, and when roosting, helps each individual maintain body heat throughout the night. When roosting, the covey forms a circle, their tails together and their heads pointing outward like spokes from a wheel hub. If disturbed, the birds flush in all directions.
ANSWER THE CALL and be part of this historic reintroduction and recovery of this beloved iconic species and support the Northern Bobwhite Restoration Initiative! Go to NJ Audubon's Northern Bobwhite webpage: https://community.njaudubon.org/pages/quail-restoration-initiative-donation-page
Photos Courtesy of TWildlife and John Parke