Conserve Wildlife Blog

April 7th, 2022

Critter Chaos: Round 5 & 6 Update + FINAL RESULTS

by Christine Healy, Wildlife Biologist

Our exciting tournament came to a conclusion last week! For those of you who have been following along, here’s the update on the final battles.

Round 5: Shorebirds & Raptors vs. Reptiles & Amphibians

The start of the semi-finals featured a rather surprising match-up as the #1 seeded peregrine falcon took to the arena against the #9 seeded bog turtle. Our peregrine pair habitually nested on the Delaware Memorial Bridge and were thus quite familiar with the surrounding area. Father falcon was in the mood for red-winged blackbird and flew to a wetland where he knew they were plentiful. On the way, he reminisced about a most unusual creature, distinguishable from the mud by two orange patches flanking its tiny head, that he had once seen nearby. Upon arrival, he noticed that the wetland, formerly characterized by tussock sedge and sphagnum moss was now thick with tall phragmites. The invasive vegetation rendered the habitat unsuitable for bog turtle, and forced a once-thriving population to abandon it. Peregrine falcon successfully caught his dinner but was left wondering why his opponent never turned up. Habitat loss eliminated bog turtle from the competition, propelling our mighty raptor into the championship.

Round 5: Mammals vs. Grassland Birds and Invertebrates

The semi-finals continued with the harbor seal vs. the bobolink. This unlikely duo met in Atlantic City after unseasonable temperatures encouraged bobolink to begin its migration back from Bolivia earlier than usual. Upon entering NJ airspace, a severe gale blew bobolink off course and nearly out to sea! Finding shelter underneath a patch of dune grass, bobolink waited out the storm. Unbeknownst to him, he caught the eye of a nearby harbor seal. Mistaking the black and white bird for a tiny eider, which seals will occasionally eat despite their largely piscivorous diet, harbor seal quickly captured bobolink who was no match for his unbelievable bite force.

CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND!

And so, it was harbor seal and peregrine falcon that ultimately earned the right to compete for the prestigious CWF Darwin Award! Both animals are adapted to make them favorable competitors within their respective niches. Though not one to spend much time on the beach, peregrine falcon was lured to Liberty State Park by the promise of an easy meal of seagulls. The seagull that had caught his eye also happened to be the target of harbor seal’s attentions, though our marine mammal was much more interested in the large fish that the gull was picking at. Harbor seal approached the bird at the same time that peregrine falcon stooped down on it- mutilating it and causing absolute bedlam among the flock. The motion and noise were too much for harbor seal, who quickly fled back to the security of the surf. Peregrine was left with the seagull, the fish, and the glory, as he became the worthy winner of the competition!

Congratulations to Peregrine Falcon and thanks to everyone who cheered all of our competitors on from the sidelines!

April 7th, 2022

2022 Amphibian Crossing Season Update

by Christine Healy, Wildlife Biologist

Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum)

Rainy nights with evening temperatures edging into the mid-40s or above. Seems easy to plan for rescue nights, doesn’t it? Certainly not this year!

CWF’s Amphibian Crossing Project targets the earliest breeders in northern New Jersey, including wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and Jefferson salamanders. These vernal pool obligates must find their way from forested winter habitat to ephemeral wetlands each spring in order to successfully reproduce. Snowmelt and warm, moist air signal individuals to resume activity after a long winter’s brumation (hibernation for ectothermic “cold-blooded” animals) underground. As soon as they emerge, they head to the pools which, in our increasingly fragmented world, often means entering into a real-world game of Frogger. The stakes are incredibly high and many do not make it out alive.

Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)

To combat this problem, our team of devoted volunteers has been braving the elements for the last 20 years, ferrying slow moving amphibians across busy roadways during the earliest wave of the annual migration. Their efforts not only increase survivorship and breeding potential, but also raises awareness and contributes valuable data to justify the construction of long-term solutions. This season, 103 participants were involved in the project, working across three CWF managed roads in Byram, Liberty, and Hampton Twps. and one site in Hardwick Twp. organized by Blaine Rothauser, a senior ecologist for GZA GeoEnvironmental and Dennis Briede, stewardship manager at the Land Conservancy of New Jersey. All together, we assisted with the movement of 2,456 amphibians of 9 species, 26% of which represented species of concern.

Without a doubt, these numbers are impressive, however, I can’t help but reflect on this season with agitation. Late February and March featured dramatic temperature swings, characterized by sunny days in the 70s followed by cold snaps with snow and ice. Freezing conditions can damage amphibian egg masses and fluctuating weather may punctuate and elongate the migration, making movement difficult to predict. Lightning storms and heavy wind kept us off the roads during a few of the seasons peak nights, though based on the results of morning mortality surveys, the same cannot be said for drivers…

While amphibian rescue events do localized communities a lot of good, seasons like this one really highlight the need to remove a dependence on humans from the survival equation, especially as global climate change continues to cause deviations from “normal”. We’re anticipating the first frog/salamander-specific wildlife passage in NJ to break ground at our Byram Twp. site in the summer of 2023, after years of planning by the Endangered and Nongame Species program and many partners.

We can’t wait to see the impact this project has on the population of amphibians reliant on New Jersey’s largest vernal pool and how it inspires similar projects in the future.  

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

April 3rd, 2022

Great Horned Owlets Get Some Help

by: Larissa Smith, Wildlife Biologist

We received a call about a homeowner who found two great horned owlets on the ground. They had fallen out of a nest located in a pine tree in her backyard. The female owl was still sitting in the nest with one chick. Great horned owls use the vacant nests of other bird species and this nest was too small for three growing chicks. At this age the young owls are defenseless from predators, plus a rain/wind storm was predicted for that evening. The plan was to keep the owlets overnight in safe location and renest them the next day.

We met Ray Byrant, with Tri-State Rescue & Research, raptor renesting team at the nest site. Due to crowding the owlets would end up on the ground again if placed back in the nest. A basket serving as a substitute nest was secured in a nearby tree that was sturdier than the nest tree. The two nests are close enough that the adults can go back and forth between nests caring for the young. The female owl watched us closely the entire time and the owlets were “clicking” with their bills, so she knew they were there.

The homeowner will keep an eye on the nests to make sure the owlets remain in them until they start to branch. She reports that the adult has been at the basket nest several time since the renest. Thank you to the homeowner for calling to report these owlets, Vicki Schmidt, Matt Tribulski, Ray Byrant and Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research. It takes a team.

April 1st, 2022

Piping Plovers (Joey and Hamlet) Return!

by Sherry Tirgrath, Wildlife Biologist

As the piping plovers of New Jersey return to their coastal breeding grounds from their wintering range, a familiar pair has been spotted at the National Guard Training Center (NGTC) in Sea Girt. The pair, dubbed “Joey” and “Hamlet”, have nested at NGTC for 3 consecutive years and are back for their 4th nesting season in 2022. The first of the pair was noticed on site on March 22nd, seemingly resting after a long journey. The second plover was spotted the morning of March 25th and the two have been foraging and roosting together since. The same day that the second plover of the pair arrived, 7 more piping plovers were found roosting near the south boundary of NGTC’s beach. That group has moved on, but Joey and Hamlet have remained to reclaim their territory.

Joey and Hamlet were both banded as chicks in 2018 at Sea Bright, NJ. They have successfully raised chicks at NGTC since they began nesting there in 2019. Prior to their initial arrival, piping plovers had not nested at that site for over a decade. Upon their first arrival at NGTC’s beach in 2019, Joey and Hamlet were paired with different mates. Joey nested with an unbanded female and fledged 2 chicks, while Hamlet nested with a male plover named “Bo”. However, the chicks from their nest did not survive to fledging. Joey and Hamlet paired up in 2020 and fledged 3 chicks together that year and 3 again in 2021. Overall, the pair is highly productive at this site, which signifies that piping plovers will continue to nest here in the future.

Other beach-nesting birds also frequent the site. Least terns, a state-endangered species, and American oystercatchers, a species of special concern, have both nested on site in the past. However, in 2019, predation by red fox resulted in a least tern colony losing 14 nests and 5 chicks, with only one chick surviving to fledge. Since then, the terns have roosted on site but have not attempted to nest. American oystercatchers also roost on site each year but have not had any successful nest attempts in the last few years. Red fox caused nest failures in 2019 and 2020, with no attempt made to nest last year in 2021.

To encourage beach-nesting birds to return and nest at NGTC, a variety of management strategies have been carried out to provide a more optimal nesting habitat. Vegetation thinning was performed in an established protection area to create more space for shorebirds to choose from with plenty of vegetation left to provide shelter and camouflage from people and predators. Shell fragments were deposited in the habitat for use by the shorebirds for lining their nests. The fragments are used to disguise nests as the eggs blend in well with the sand and broken shell pieces. Least tern decoys were also placed around the protection area to encourage the terns to roost and hopefully nest on site again. Although plovers are territorial and won’t nest together, least terns prefer to roost and nest in colonies to maximize protection and defense. The decoys may draw them to investigate the site and stick around.

Fingers are crossed for another productive season for Joey and Hamlet at NGTC, and there’s hope for other beach-nesting birds to return to utilize the site for raising chicks, as well.

April 1st, 2022

They’re Back: Barnegat Light Ospreys!!

by Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager

Viewers of the BL Osprey Cam this morning saw two males confront each other at the nest. Both with fish that went flying!

By now, most people who live along the coast of New Jersey have seen an osprey. They have returned to claim their waterfront homes and spruce them up. April is the season of upside-down osprey (more on this in a few), and for those who haven’t seen an osprey, then you should tune in to the drama unfolding at the Barnegat Light Osprey Cam! Both a male and female have returned to the BL Osprey Cam nest, but only the female (Daisy) is the same as last year. There have actually been several males seen on the nest so far and just this morning, two confronted each other above the nest!

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