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Tracks in the Sand: A Piping Plover Love Affair

Friday, September 15th, 2017

by: Todd Pover, Senior Wildlife Biologist

Piping plover tracks in the sand.

Anyone who has monitored or closely followed piping plovers knows these (pictured) tracks well. They have to. Most wildlife leaves behind distinct clues that reveal their presence, but if you are tracking the well camouflaged piping plover, the best, and sometimes only, clue you have are these ephemeral tracks in the sand.

Finding these tracks, especially the first ones of the breeding season in early spring, makes my heart stir, even after 20+ years of searching for piping plovers. They shout, “I’m here, now find me”. These particular tracks happen to be a late season find, sighted just this past week, special in a different way as they were unexpected and may be my last glimpse of them here in New Jersey this year as most piping plovers have now migrated south for the winter. I followed the tracks like I always do and soon enough I spotted three pale beauties resting absolutely still on a nearby sand hummock.

This blog doesn’t contain any earth-shattering conservation message. It is just about my own love affair with piping plovers. I am lucky to have found that magical something in nature that moves me. I hope each of you has your own version, whether it be a delicate monarch butterfly improbably fluttering thousands of miles in the wind towards its wintering grounds in Mexico or a powerful bison lumbering across a grasslands vista out west. One of the main reasons my colleagues and I are engaged in conservation work is so everyone has the opportunity to experience and be inspired by wildlife in its natural habitats.

Piping plovers will not provide a cure for cancer, they will not boost our economy, and they certainly will not be the key to uniting us politically. They will bring a smile to your face, they will evoke wonder, and they may just make your day. Sometimes that is enough.

Oceans Deeply Blog: Ghost gear busters save marine animals

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

Conserve Wildlife Foundation’s Barnegat Bay ghost crab pots project is featured in this blog story covering a wildlife threat killing millions of marine animals every year. Read the full story here

Photo by: AFP/NOAA via NewsDeeply Oceans Deeply blog

Calling all Osprey Lovers!

Thursday, July 6th, 2017
Citizen Scientists Needed to help collect data on nesting ospreys

by Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager

Two young ospreys and an adult on a nest in Ocean County.

This year we are hoping to get a better estimate of the size and health of the osprey population in New Jersey. Up from only 50 pairs in the early 1970s to an estimated 600+ pairs today. Ospreys are an indicator species and as top tier predators, they show the effects of contaminants in the environment before many other long lived species. They are our new age “canary in the coal mine” so keeping tabs on the health of their population is key to assessing the health of our estuarine and marine ecosystems. (more…)

Shorebirds lift off to an uncertain end from Delaware Bay

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

By Dr. Larry Niles, LJ Niles Associates, LLC

Red knot by James Fiorentino.

I am reviewing a new paper by Sjoerd Duijns, a student working on the benefits of being a fat shorebird. Still, a draft, the paper analyses data from radio-tagged red knots leaving the Bay in good condition (i.e. fat) and finds they may leave later from Delaware Bay than lighter birds but arrive earlier in the breeding grounds because they can pick the best time to leave. They are also more likely to breed successfully and survive the Arctic breeding season to the following fall. In other words, being a fat knot on Delaware Bay makes life good.

So, in light of this new information, how did the red knots and other shorebirds fare in this year’s Delaware Bay Stopover?  One must not be firm, with so many unknowns, but here’s a working biologist’s best guess.

By all accounts it was one of the worst years in recent memory, but with a twist that offers a glimmer of hope.

First, the Bay’s water reflected an unusually cool May and never really warmed to the levels necessary for a really good horseshoe crab spawn until the very end. This caused odd occurrences of crab spawning. For example, crabs bred in greater densities at the southern beaches this year, more than in previous years. The spawn at Norburys Landing, just south of the commercial oyster aquaculture development zone (ADZ), was one of the best this year, and knots and other shorebirds used the area in great number. One can only guess the water temperatures warmed over the wide inter-tidal flats provided just enough to elicit spawning. The same process was true of all the creeks on the Bay.

Laughing Gulls and shorebirds feast on horseshoe crab eggs at Norbury’s Landing just south of the Aquaculture Development Zone. (below)The southern portion of the bay was much more important this year because waters warmed faster on the large inter tidal shelf of this portion of the bay.

Second, the knot numbers never really climbed to the levels of the last three years. I’m guessing this was illusory, a consequence of the count being done on two days at the peak. It’s likely many more birds came to the Bay and seeing many birds for too few eggs, left for better resources elsewhere. Those that left were probably short distance winterers – those from relatively close in Florida and other nearby areas. The Bay’s horseshoe crab eggs would help them too, but they can get by on Atlantic Coast clams and mussels. The long-distance birds are the ones that need the Bay’s resources.

Third, when finally, the spawn got underway, a freak concurrence of wind and tide killed many thousands of crabs, potentially damaging the population and very likely ending any possibility of a really great spawn. The cobblestone road of crabs on the water’s edge. We saw none of that this year. Not once.

 

 

The upper graph compares predicted high tides ( in blue) with the actual high tide (in Red). On the night of 26 May. This occurred during the lunar spring tide, the highest in May. Finally, a brief burst of NW wind pushed the abnormally high tide into waves breaking across the beach berm, carrying with it tens of thousands of horseshoe crabs.

In a freak concurrence of wind and tide, waves pushed horseshoe crab over the beach into the marsh by the thousands.

Grim results, but here’s the twist. In good years, knots leave near the 27th of May. One day they jam the beach gobbling up eggs, the next day there gone. In bad years, they linger. In 2003, we caught birds on the June 10th.  There’s a cost to this of course, in lower survival and failing production. This year was a new in between. By the time of departure on May 27th, less than a quarter of the knots were prepared to leave. But they hung on until the 30th, blessed with a new flush of horseshoe crab eggs created by a middling spawn and a northwesterly wind churning up the beaches and exposing deeply buried eggs. Did the birds gain enough weight?

It’s hard to say, our last catch of just 33 knots suggests they might have, but an end-of-the-season catch makes a poor assessment. Once birds start leaving, the ones behind could be the light birds not ready to leave, or the heavy birds waiting for better weather. We won’t really know until the fall counts in the southbound stopover or the winter count in Tierra del Fuego.

This, our 21st season of intense research and conservation on Delaware Bay by all accounts will be like no other. Throughout all of it, the team of scientists and volunteers remained inspired, energetic and resourceful. In this one month, we conducted more scientific investigation and conservation than most projects do in an entire year. Whatever the outcome of this year’s stopover season, our team can look hopefully to the north and know that all that could be done for the birds was done.

Those of us that were paid for our time sincerely thank those who volunteered their time including; the stewards that manned the closed beaches helping hundreds of people understand why closures were needed; the volunteers in the banding team who endured long hours of preparing equipment, making bands, sewing nets and keeping cages and of course counting, catching and processing birds; the volunteers who doggedly pursue opportunities to resight flagged birds to estimate numbers and yearly survival; the volunteers that provided meals every single night, a welcome relief from a hard day’s work; and finally, the volunteers that went out all over the Bay to save horseshoe crabs in weather both good and bad. We all did our best. God help the birds and horseshoe crabs.

Our banding team on a catch at South Reeds.

Dr. Larry Niles has led efforts to protect red knots and horseshoe crabs for over 30 years.


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Help Clean Up Barnegat Bay This Wednesday

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Thousands of volunteers, many of them students, are joining the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) this Wednesday, June 7, for the eighth annual Barnegat Bay Blitz, a day-long cleanup that draws attention to efforts to protect and enhance the bay and its watershed.

The Blitz highlights the focus of the NJDEP and many organizations to clean up and restore the Barnegat Bay Watershed by enhancing public awareness and stewardship of this natural resource. On Blitz day, thousands of volunteers will work to clear litter, storm debris, and illegal dumpsites from the waterways and land of the bay’s 660-square-mile watershed, which spans all or parts of 37 municipalities in Ocean and Monmouth Counties.

Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey is one of the event’s long-time sponsors, along with the NJDEP, New Jersey Clean Communities, the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, Wawa, Waste Management, TowBoat US, the U.S. Geological Survey, New Jersey Natural Gas, Rowbear, Ocean Spray, Suez-United Water; Ocean County government, PS&S, Firestone, ReClam the Bay, AmeriCorps Watershed Ambassadors, the Barnegat Bay Partnership and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Sign up today at www.nj.gov/dep/barnegatbay/bbblitz.htm

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