President's Corner | Sharyn Magee
It is a time of discontent for those of us who love the natural world. It seems every day brings a new threat to the environment and concern that the natural world itself is under siege. Our best efforts to protect the land and its inhabitants that we cherish seem to be for naught. Rather than despair at the present circumstances, this is a time to step back and celebrate what we love about the natural world. Only this gives us the strength to continue fighting for what we love.
As I write this, spring is approaching; it is a time of renewal, a time of hope. Already the buds are swelling on the maple trees, bringing the promise of the renewal of life. My resident birds who have clung to my feeders all winter, are now dividing their time between my feeders and the trees, where they hunt for the small insects that emerge with the opening of the buds. The male birds who have co-existed at the feeders all winter are becoming feisty. Already the dominant titmouse is chasing away potential rivals and has begun to sing. While two or more pairs of cardinals are still peacefully occupying the hedge nearest the feeders, the alpha male will soon assert his dominance, joining the Carolina Wren and titmouse in a growing spring chorus that will greet the coming of dawn around the world, reminding us that life is not so easily suppressed.
The Great-horned Owls are nesting, the earliest species to do so. The males are nest guarding this time of year. If you stumble upon one in the woods, he will stare you down with his yellow eyes, daring you to challenge him. He is the guardian of his realm, a fearless top predator, and he knows it.
Already the first migrants are headed north, following an ancient instinct that has survived the waxing and waning of glaciers. Soon the Long-eared Owls wintering in evergreen groves near open fields, will grow restless and start to move. Only time will tell if any of this threatened species stay and nest in the more secluded of our evergreen stands or depart with our winter visitors, the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Brown Creepers, Winter Wrens, and others who have graced our woods, hedge rows, and fields this winter. The Pine Warbler, first of the wood warblers to nest in our area, will soon be singing at Baldpate and in the Institute Woods. Wintering in the southern states and barely into the Neotropics, Pine Warblers arrive at their nesting ground in late March. Louisiana Waterthrushes are the next to arrive in mid-April. They need to fledge their young before the streams, which support the invertebrates they feed to their young, dry up. Other species follow in late April and early May as the stream of migrants that began as a trickle becomes a torrent. Life, following ancient instincts, struggles onward.
The skunk cabbage has already bloomed. As the forest floor warms up and before the trees leaf out, spring ephemerals, among our most beautiful and delicate wildflowers, will bloom. Bloodroots, Trilliums, Hepaticas, and Virginia Bluebells give us reason to look down, as well as up, in the early spring. The Mourning Cloaks, the first butterfly of the year to be seen in the woods, appear concurrently. Baldpate Mountain and the Sourlands are strongholds for these species, yet another reason to fight for the ecological integrity of these lands.
While this is a time for vigilance against the many threats to the natural world, it is not the time to despair. There still remain places of great beauty brimming with wondrous life. Go out this spring and celebrate the world around you. It will give you the courage to fight for what you cherish.—Sharyn Magee, President, WCAS
Washington Crossing Audubon Society volunteers have spent hours in the field conducting citizen science research, including monitoring bird populations, conducting biosurveys, mapping breeding birds, and banding birds at Hannah Suthers’ Featherbed Lane banding station. Special emphasis was placed on searching for threatened and endangered species and species of conservation concern in the Important Bird Areas (IBA’s) threatened by the proposed PennEast pipeline. It was gratifying to see that our efforts paid off when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) cited our research, especially the 2008 to 2016 breeding bird survey at Baldpate Mountain, in their critique of the PennEast draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). USFWS recommended that the pipeline rerouted to avoid IBA’s where migrants are concentrated in any part of their life cycle. This does not stop PennEast but it does put another obstacle in the way.
WCAS has conducted monthly biosurveys at the D&R Greenway’s St. Michael’s Farm Preserve for the past seven years and monthly bird and plant surveys at the Mt. Rose Preserve For Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space since September 2015. These surveys show which bird species are present on the preserves, which habitats they are utilizing, and for St. Michael’s, how the populations are changing over time. St. Michael’s has been especially important for the New Jersey threatened American Kestrel, both for breeding and migration. Participants in our September 17 field trip were treated to a spectacular display of at least ten Kestrels hunting in a field. This knowledge can be incorporated into management plans to help maintain or increase biodiversity in these preserves, an important consideration when overall biodiversity is decreasing at an unsustainable rate. We are fortunate to partner with land trusts that understand the importance of protecting our local biodiversity.
While our successes have been gratifying, much remain to be done. We are fortunate to have so much preserved land in central New Jersey but our preserved lands are under- surveyed , especially the smaller preserves. The Rock Hopper Trail Preserve off Route 518 has some of the highest quality understory in the Sourland Mountains (Blue & Red Trails) and a maze of creeks that look like prime Louisiana Waterthrush habitat (Yellow Tail) but remains largely unexplored. The small grassland preserves such as the Thompson Preserve and the Cider Mill Preserve are also under- birded. Our members can help by birding any of these preserves and recording the results in eBird. Our cumulative records add up to a powerful argument for conservation.—Sharyn Magee, President, WCAS
Baldpate Mountain is a very special place.
Surrounded by a biological desert, Baldpate Mountain is a hotspot of biodiversity. Baldpate is part of the Greater Sourland Mountain Ecosystem, a high area formed by erosion resistant diabase after the softer surrounding rocks eroded away. As a raised wetland with poor drainage, this ecosystem has resisted development, leaving the two largest contiguous forested areas in central New Jersey. Because of its steep slopes and history of deer hunting, Baldpate Mountain has retained the greatest expanse of healthy understory in the Greater Sourland Ecosystem. The Sourland Mountain has a greater area of contiguous forest, but Baldpate has a larger expanse of high quality understory with four areas of extensive understory dominated by native plants, primarily Spicebush. Because of the combination of contiguous forest, high quality understory, and its location as the meeting place of Southern and Northern species, Baldpate Mountain has the highest concentration of nesting Nearctic-neotropical birds in New Jersey and the largest number of species of breeding Nearctic-neotropical migrants in central New Jersey. The interior forest has breeding Hooded Warblers, Kentucky Warblers, and Worm-eating Warblers, Wood Thrush and Veery, all New Jersey species of conservation concern. The forest has a mosaic of habitats, with naturally occurring treefall gaps supporting a tangle of vegetation that supports a different group of species, including the American Redstart. Baldpate also supports edge breeding species, especially where there is a soft edge between the forest and the open areas, giving a total of thirteen breeding wood warblers, which makes Baldpate a birding mecca. The area attracts large numbers of species of migrating Nearctic-Neotropical migrants, as well. Several New Jersey threatened raptors, including Barred and Long-eared Owls and Redshouldered Hawks, use Baldpate for at least part of their life-cycle. Cooper’s Hawks, a New Jersey species of conservation concern, breed at Baldpate.
Baldpate Mountain was designated as an Important Bird Area due to all these factors. For an area to support this number of birds, it must support an intact ecosystem with other taxa, especially native plants and insects, having healthy populations and diversity. In addition to rare birds, Baldpate supports rare reptiles, including NJ species of special concern Eastern Box turtle and Northern Copperhead, and rare amphibians, including the Fowler’s Toad.
While Baldpate has an intact ecosystem, it is also highly stressed. Baldpate is at the lower size limit for an interior forest habitat and its shape is long and narrow, increasing its vulnerability to edge effect. Increased edge effect increases the number of invasive species, especially non-native plants, and the Brown-headed Cowbird, a nest parasite. Any reduction in size of Baldpate would have serious consequences, both by threatening native plants and increasing the incidence of Brownheaded Cowbird nest predation. Nest predators, such as the Eastern Chipmunk, which have higher concentrations on the edges and in disturbed areas, would thrive. The proposed PennEast pipeline runs along the north slope of the mountain and would change one of the high quality interior forest habitats into edge habitat and bring the edge closer to the other areas of high quality habitat, seriously degrading an already stressed ecosystem.
We are going to walk along the powerline and then into the woods, initially through edge habitat and then through high quality habitat to show you what is at stake. Thank you for your interest in Baldpate. (Notes from the April 17 Baldpate Mountain, PennEast Guided Walk can be found on the WCAS website.)