Conserve Wildlife Blog

Critter Chaos Round 3 & 4 Update!

March 30th, 2022

by Christine Healy, Wildlife Biologist

It’s been a chaotic week in our tournament with contestants undergoing two rounds of battle to
determine the champion that will be representing each division in the semi-finals. For those who
missed it, here’s the breakdown:

Shorebirds & Raptors Division:

First up in round 3, it was least tern vs. peregrine falcon. Our shorebird “terned” heads and
sparked outrage when it defeated fan favorite, the bald eagle in round two. Unfortunately for
least tern, the representative this week was only a baby! Patiently awaiting the return of mom,
our competitor was hiding in vegetation when an off-road vehicle drove by and scared the chick
away from its shelter. Cruising around on the hunt for pigeons, the movement did not go
unnoticed by our keen-eyed peregrine. The raptor stooped down on tern and quickly snatched
the victory.

Next, we had eastern screech owl vs. black skimmer. The skimmer, our #6 seed, also upset
some fans with a shocking win over the #3 seeded osprey last week. Like the least tern,
however, the shorebird’s shot at the trophy was dashed when beach litter, strewn about by
vacationers, lured hungry rats and gulls toward their nest. Screech owl opportunistically
snagged a rat for dinner, but a gang of gulls closed in on our skimmers, viciously driving the
parents away while smashing and feasting on the eggs. Just a friendly reminder to all those with
plans to recreate on the beach this summer (or in any natural area) to be courteous and
respectful guests!

Eastern screech owl and peregrine falcon then went head-to-head in round 4. Deciding to try a
different path while hunting for lizards in the NJ Palisades, eastern screech owl failed to pay
heed to mother falcon’s angry warnings that he was getting too close to her nest. Father falcon
stooped in to teach our owl a lesson about trespassing, stealthily slamming in to him from above
and sending the feathered pair spiraling toward the ground. Screech owl disengaged from the
falcon’s talons and high-tailed it off the battlefield, leaving the peregrine falcon the win and the
title of champion for the shorebirds and raptors division!

Peregrine Falcon and Ben Wurst. Photo by Northside Jim.
Reptiles & Amphibians Division:

The first matchup for round 3 in the reptiles and amphibians division was all about the turtles! It
was fan-favorite diamondback terrapin vs. lucky “under”dog, bog turtle. This battle was rather
unconventional, as it occurred at a head start facility where conservationists were attempting to
hatch eggs for release into the wild. A series of unfortunate events led to the incubation area
experiencing very high temperatures all summer long. For bog turtles, this didn’t matter so
much, as sex is determined genetically by chromosomes, however, like many other reptile
species, terrapins have temperature dependent sex determination. All hatchling terrapins were
females, while there was a healthy mix among the baby bog turtles. As diversity is important for
recruitment, the bog turtle was deemed the winner.

Northern copperhead and eastern tiger salamander then entered the arena to put their toxins to
the test. Or would have, if they ever encountered one another. The salamander dipped into a
vernal pool to deposit her eggs, while northern copperhead lazily enjoyed the warmth of his
hibernaculum. Our venomous snakes’ failure to turn up left tiger salamander the de facto
winner.

Bog turtle’s unbelievable streak continued due to very sad circumstances in round 4, when
opponent eastern tiger salamander was squished by a careless ATV rider. In pursuit of an epic
splash picture to post on social media, he drove right through a highly sensitive vernal pool
habitat, causing untold damage. Please stick to designated trails, folks!

Bog turtle advances to the semi-finals as the champion of the herptiles, leaving CWF biologist
Christine Healy absolutely dumbfounded… It was the #9 seed!?

Bog Turtle. Photo by Lynn Sambol.
Mammals Division:

First up for the mammals, it was river otter vs. bobcat! As was the case in round 2 against the
red fox, the river otter had the upper hand in this aquatic competition. Though bobcats are more
at home in water than other felids and will happily hunt for beaver in the shallows, pursuing the
speedy river otter through deep water was simply not worth the calories…

Our two relative behemoths, harbor seal and black bear, accidentally met on a beach in Jersey
City, after black bear’s dispersal along an abandoned railway brought him to uncharted territory.
Mistaking the hauled out seals for moving rocks, black bear got too close, which prompted a
divide in seal behavior with some taking to the water and some adopting vigilant stances. Safety
in numbers and the bears’ confusion allowed our marine mammal to seal the deal.

In round 4, river otter and harbor seal found themselves several miles from the NJ coast.
Capable of diving >1,500 ft to fish in the mesopelagic zone, harbor seal felt right at home in the
deep water, while river otter, whose diving ability is still impressive at 60 ft, was totally out of his
element. Best of luck to river otter at getting back to shore and congratulations to harbor seal on
his advancement into the semi-finals as mammal division champ!

Grassland Birds & Invertebrates Division:

The first battle for this division took place at the Atlantic City Airport, where our competitors,
cowbird and grasshopper sparrow, were thriving due to recent management activities. Cowbird,
a young and inexperienced female, jumps at an opportunity to parasitize grasshopper sparrows’
nest, where she deposits a smaller than typical egg. Recognizing the imposter upon her return,
grasshopper sparrow was able to push the heavy egg away from her own eggs and out of the
incubation area. Cowbird left the battlefield to plot her revenge.

In the last round 3 battle, our final invertebrate, frosted elfin, took on bobolink. Poor frosted elfin
missed out on the hat trick due to extensive herbivory by white-tailed deer. A herd found their
way into a managed grassland along a powerline through a weak point in the exclusion fencing.
Bobolink could do nothing but watch the habitat destruction occur.

And finally, in the last battle of the quarter-finals, it was bobolink vs. grasshopper sparrow. A
vigilant non-parental helper from the previous brood warned grasshopper sparrow about danger
near her nest! Returning swiftly, grasshopper sparrow adopted a broken wing display, in the
hopes of luring the threat away, not realizing that “threat” was actually just bobolink, trying to
return to his nest with a juicy caterpillar for his chicks. The spectacle did, however, attract the
attention of a northern harrier that had been hunting nearby. The harrier’s swift predation on
grasshopper sparrow’s nest propelled bobolink on to victory.

So, it’s peregrine falcon vs. bog turtle and harbor seal vs. bobolink in the semi-finals. We’ll soon discover the worthy winner of the prestigious CWF Darwin Award- stay tuned!

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