President's Corner | Sharyn Magee

President’s Corner: Where are the Birds?

This fall has been notable for the scarcity of birds. Baldpate Mountain, the Sourland Ecosystem Preserve, Cedar Ridge, St. Michaels’s, the Watershed Institute, and Mount Rose Preserve, the places I normally see good numbers of fall migrants, have been strangely quiet. The lack of warblers has been especially notable. One wonders where they have gone.

Along the eastern migration corridor, the traditional fall migration pattern for long distance migrants is that hatch year birds follow the coast and mature birds follow the mountains. Migration is partially innate and partially learned. Following the coast is innate. Birds that survive the first winter follow mature birds north along the mountain route, learning as they go.

It is possible that young birds have been pushed inland by the unsettled weather patterns this fall. Radar studies of migrating birds have shown birds being pushed into the central flyway this fall both before and during the atmospheric disturbances caused by Florence. Birds are very sensitive to atmospheric pressure and will alter course to avoid areas of low pressure. More normal flight patterns resumed after Florence. Unfortunately, radar gives no information on demographics.

Bird banding stations which study demography are essential for determining if the birds are changing route or if there was widespread nesting failure. Most fall migrants studied at Hannah Suthers’ Featherbed Lane Bird Banding Station in the Sourlands are hatch year birds, a pattern that has held for four decades. The majority of fall migrants studied at the Powder Mill Bird Banding Station in western Pennsylvania are adult birds. This fall the number of birds at Featherbed Lane is significantly down, but Powder Mill is reporting only a small decrease in the number of birds. While banding records show that the number of birds and number of species are showing long term declines, sharp short-term declines are especially worrisome since they may indicate widespread nesting failure.

This summer Featherbed Lane showed the lowest population recruitment in the history of the banding station. The summer of 2017 had the second lowest population recruitment. A wet late spring followed by a brutally hot summer may have been a factor in 2018. Hopefully, this extreme weather pattern is not the new normal. A study in California showed that resident birds were tracking global warming but that migrants were not, indicating that migrants will be especially hurt by climate change. The Featherbed Lane data supports this study, showing low numbers of hatch year Neotropical migrants, especially warblers and thrushes. In contrast, resident woodpeckers had a good breeding season. Juvenile pileated woodpeckers were the bright spot in an otherwise drab and depressive breeding season.

Habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation continues to be the primary cause of bird decline both on the breeding and wintering grounds. Despite active measures to improve habitat at Featherbed Lane, habitat quality continues to decline, largely due to the opening of the canopy by dying ash trees and the subsequent invasion of Japanese stilt grass. Unfortunately, this scenario is playing out over the entire central New Jersey region as ash trees succumb to the Emerald Ash Borer, opening up the understory to non-native invasive plants. Birds that depend on the leaf litter for nesting and feeding are especially affected as the thick growth of the stilt grass denies the birds’ access to the leaf litter. Ovenbirds are declining where stilt grass is invading and are eliminated in areas of heavy growth.

The data shows that bird numbers are down this year and indicates that nesting failure was a factor in this decline. Bird banding station data is essential in documenting this decline. Since bird banding stations are few and far between, eBird data is essential in determining if the banding station data is local or reflects regional trends. While it is not as much fun to bird when birds are scarce, the data collected is essential to solve the puzzle of bird decline.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS

President’s Corner: Importance of Sensitive Lands

The Musconetcong in Hunterdon County has been proposed for a gas-fired power plant. The Musconetcong, a C-1 stream, is considered by many anglers to be the best trout stream in New Jersey. The scenic Musconetcong Gorge, just below the proposed power plant location, is the heart of the Musconetcong Gorge Important Bird Area (IBA), which has breeding Louisiana Waterthrush, Worn-eating Warblers, Hooded Warblers, and Cerulean Warblers. The gorge is one of the seven IBA’s targeted by the proposed PennEast pipeline. The gas-fired power plant proposes to use water from the stream to cool the power plant, which would raise the temperature of the stream and make it less suitable for trout. It is hard to imagine a less suitable site for a power plant.

The PennEast pipeline also threatens Baldpate Mountain which has the highest density of nesting Neotropical migrants in New Jersey. In the 2017 breeding season, Washington Crossing Audubon citizen scientists added Canada and Cerulean Warblers to the list of breeding Neotropical warblers at Baldpate, for a total of fifteen species. In 2018, courting Barred Owls were documented at Baldpate. Baldpate Mountain is a jewel that should be left undisturbed.

Hopewell Township has proposed building high density housing on the Bristol Meyer fields adjacent to the Stony Brook. These fields are a critical corridor for linking the Pole Farm IBA, Rosedale Park, Curlis Lake, Baldwin Lake, and the Watersheds Institute. None of the preserves are large enough to support an eagle pair but when linked by the Stony Brook corridor, together they support a nesting pair of Bald Eagles.

These examples show a disregard for biodiversity in planning our infrastructures. New Jersey is a mostly built out state. Our remaining wildlands and waters are essential for protecting New Jersey’s unsustainably diminishing biodiversity. Yet developers, industrialists, and politicians continue to act as if there is no biodiversity crisis and one species can take all lands and waters for its short-term gain with no consequences. Meanwhile we continue to lose flora and fauna at an unsustainable rate.

Birds are indicators of a healthy biodiversity. If bird populations are declining, so are the populations of the native plants and insects upon which they depend. The State of North American Birds 2016 report states that thirty-seven percent of North American birds are at high risk of extinction and forty-nine percent are a moderate risk of extinction if no action is taken. Hannah Suthers has forty-one years of data from the Featherbed Lane banding station in the Sourlands that show central New Jersey is not exempt from this loss, as bird numbers have declined steadily at an unsustainable rate.

The loss of biodiversity is not limited to birds. The little brown bat population crashed in New Jersey last year. Emerald ash borer is decimating ash trees. Many reptile and amphibian species continue to decline from habitat loss, illegal collecting and automobile hits. Over abundant White-tail Deer continue to decimate the forest understory, driving many plant species to local extinction and destroying the habitat of creatures that need a healthy ground and shrub layer for survival.

To slow or reverse this loss, our ecologically sensitive lands need to be off limits to housing, retail developments and industrial infrastructure, pipelines and power plants alike. The effect of development on biodiversity should be a major consideration in all planning and zoning. Until it is, New Jersey will continue to lose biodiversity at an unsustainable rate and we will all be the poorer for it.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS

President’s Corner: PennEast Revisited

In January 2018, a Conditional Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity was issued to PennEast by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC), giving PennEast the right of eminent domain. This certificate was issued without a thorough survey of the flora and fauna of all affected properties and waterways. With only 35% of the properties surveyed, it is impossible to accurately assess the environmental impact of the PennEast pipeline. Many of the unsurveyed properties are lands that were preserved because of their value for protecting New Jersey’s unsustainably diminishing flora and fauna. These properties include Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) that protect threatened habitats which harbor many New Jersey species of conservation concern and threatened and endangered species. Washington Crossing Audubon Society (WCAS) has documented many of these species in our filings to FERC. WCAS citizen scientists have made the most extensive surveys at Baldpate Mountain. WCAS has repeatedly made the argument that if the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is proven to be significantly deficient in the best studied area, the FEIS must be considered to be so incomplete as to be invalid. The NJDEP has not issued the final permits needed for this project to proceed. The certificate should not have been given on the basis of a flawed FEIS and before all the needed permits were issued.

PennEast is expected to request permission from FERC to start tree cutting along the proposed route before the final permits are issued. WCAS is concerned about the environmental damage that preliminary tree cutting would cause along the pipeline route. WCAS has urged NJDEP to tell FERC that no tree cutting is allowed before the final permits are issued. Unnecessary and significant damage would be incurred along the proposed route if the pipeline was not built or if the route was altered.

WCAS is also concerned about the proposed horizontal drilling proposed at the Moore’s Creek tributary crossing on Baldpate. Significant blasting could alter the hydrology of the system of small creeks that drain the north slope of Baldpate and eventually flow into Moore’s Creek. Several of these streams flow year- round, providing a critical source of water in water stressed times. The presence of breeding Louisiana Waterthrush indicates the high water quality of these streams. PennEast has stated that they will try horizontal drilling twice and then use the open trench method, which could cause significant and permanent damage to the fragile raised wetland bordering the tributary and the amphibians and reptiles that depend upon it.

WCAS is especially concerned about the effect of preliminary tree cutting and other ecological disturbances at Baldpate Mountain, which is highly sensitive to environmental disturbances due to its small size, its long and narrow shape which enhances edge effect, its fragile thin diabase soils, and the raised wetlands perched on top of nearly impenetrable diabase bedrock. WCAS has documented several species of conservation concern in the direct path of the pipeline route.   The pipeline route would bisect a cedar woods used as a winter roost by the New Jersey threatened Long-eared Owls. Long-eared Owl winter roosts were also documented at two sites in Hunterdon Count adjacent to the pipeline route in a joint study by WCAS and NJ Conservation Foundation.

A pair of the state threatened Barred Owls was heard duetting in March in the vicinity of the pipeline route. Barred Owls were also reported at Baldpate in the springs of 2013 and 2014. The timing of the reports track the Eastern Chipmunk population explosions of 2012 and 2017, suggesting that Baldpate is an important hunting ground for these owls in breeding season, especially in years when chipmunks are abundant.

NJ listed birds documented as confirmed breeding in the pipeline route during a ten-year breeding bird census at Baldpate include NJ special concern species Wood Thrush, Veery, and Worm-eating Warbler. NJ special concern Yellow-breasted Chats breed in the Hunter meadow and along the powerline ROW adjacent to the pipeline route. The endangered breeding Red-shouldered Hawk bred on the north side of Baldpate in the 2017. Clear cutting the pipeline route would bring the edge closer to the breeding territories of interior woodland specialists Hooded and Kentucky Warblers. Baldpate is a stronghold of these species.

Several Eastern Box Turtles were found along or adjacent to the pipeline route in the breeding season by WCAS citizen scientists. The location of the hibernaculums is not known but considering the small range of the home territories, the hibernaculums are almost certainly in or adjacent to the pipeline route.

~ Sharyn Magee

President, WCAS