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Wild New Jersey Revisited: Salamander Crossing – It Could Be Tonight!

Thursday, March 18th, 2021

by David Wheeler

The spotted salamander is one of the key amphibian species which crosses roads on their journey to reproduce every Spring, prompting road closures and volunteer crossing efforts like the Amphibian Crossing Project.

Wild New Jersey Revisited is a monthly series of excerpts from Conserve Wildlife Foundation executive director David Wheeler’s 2011 book Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State. Today we focus on a springtime migration…of miniature proportions – and one that could be occurring again tonight!

Excerpt from Chapter 22

Wild Nights in Suburbia

It’s not often that I find myself praying for rain on the way out the door. No, when I’m about to spend three-plus hours standing outside on a chilly Sunday evening in March, I usually prefer to stay dry. I’m kind of picky that way.

So if it seems odd that I let out a quick cheer when a few raindrops appear on my windshield as I navigate treacherous backroads in Warren County – well, there’s good reason. Without the rain, there are no salamanders crossing the road. And without salamanders or frogs, the scientists and a truckload of committed volunteers have no reason to be out here in the chilly twilight.

I arrive at the site, and my windshield is dry again. I fear that those lone raindrops were just a big tease. It could be a long night. Somewhere in the distance, a great horned owl hoots. Near the road, a lone spring peeper calls without end like a soapbox preacher. Perhaps he is divining the future for his fellow amphibians, and for us.

After all, this is their migration. We are just here as bouncers, keeping cars and trucks from crashing their party. Tonight, rain is the only question mark. The temperature is in the ideal range, mid- to upper forties. As planned, the night grew dark when the sun went down. (Whew – that’s a relief!) So that’s two out of three needs for the crossing to begin.

All we need is rain. One volunteer checks the Doppler radar weather forecast on his phone every few minutes.

“There’s a system over Lehigh Valley now, but it’s moving our way pretty quickly.”

Another volunteer reminisces about the good old days.

“2002 – that was the best year. We got a torrential downpour.”

A wood frog, held by an Amphibian Crossing volunteer. Photo by Mackenzie Hall.

Salamander Crossing

The volunteers take their places. For the next few hours, each person will walk a roughly 50-foot stretch along the dotted yellow traffic line in the middle of the road. Volunteers will tally any amphibians that pass through by number and species. The salamanders and frogs cross the road to get from their upland wintering areas to the vernal ponds on the other side, where they can safely lay their eggs. These vernal ponds, or temporary pools, dry up for part of the year. That means no fish are present to eat the amphibian eggs and tadpoles.

“We focus not only on salamanders, but on amphibians as a whole, because they are ecological indicators,” says Kris Schantz of New Jersey Fish and Wildlife, who started the migration night surveys in 2002 and has run them every year since. “They play an important role in helping us understand the ecosystem health, water availability, and water quality. If there are problems with the water, we will see it in them first.”

Schantz, along with MacKenzie Hall from the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and Mike Anderson from New Jersey Audubon, works with municipalities to coordinate these rural road closings for two or three nights each year. Yet Schantz is also calling for a permanent solution: culverts underground. Such systems are in place in Massachusetts and Europe, but have not yet been tried in New Jersey, which has more roads per square mile than anywhere else in the country. Culverts would do wonders here.

The first three-hour shift is ending without a single crossing. I say my goodbyes and begin walking back to the car. And then – “Spring peeper!”


A volunteer shines his beam on the spotted salamander, a good six inches of stunning dark blue dotted with bright yellow spots. A few feet away, the spring peeper – a tiny tree frog no bigger than my thumb, with a beautiful darkened X pattern across its olive-colored back – slowly makes its way across the road. It feels great to see these brave individuals, who appear to be testing the conditions for the rest of their groups – perhaps they are the amphibian equivalents of “guinea pigs.”

Oasis in the Forest

While state surveys are manned only by trained volunteers, there’s another opportunity for anyone to experience a salamander migration first-hand. Each March and April in East Brunswick, the town closes down a half mile of Beekman Road to drivers for a handful of rainy nights. Scores of local residents gather to observe the migration, watching spotted salamanders, spring peepers, red efts, and red-backed salamanders.

This unique public event started in the early 2000s when environmental scientist David Moskowitz found his first dead salamander on the road. He told then-Mayor William Neary about it, and the mayor was surprisingly receptive to closing the road. Each year since, the rural road has shut down for up to nine nights, depending on the quality of each mass movement.

The crossing attracts large numbers of participants, largely because it seems like such a different world in the middle of suburban East Brunswick. During my visit to the crossing, the frog calls echo so loudly that I might as well have entered a tropical rainforest.

“On many nights, we actually have a parking problem, so many families want to come out,” says Moskowitz. “Our message is that the perfect analogy of the vernal pool is the oasis in the forest. If you lose a vernal pool, you lose all of those species that go into a vernal pool.”

Ten Years Gone

In the decade since Wild New Jersey was published, the amphibian crossings in northwestern New Jersey have continued each year, though with some scaling back in 2020-21 due to Covid safety restrictions. Christine Healy of Conserve Wildlife Foundation manages the 2021 crossing project, and MacKenzie Hall still provides major oversight – albeit now as a New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife scientist.

The Division has since launched CHANJ (Connecting Habitats Across New Jersey) to address the habitat connectivity concerns mentioned above in biologist Kris Schantz’s remarks, including constructing underground wildlife culverts in places like River Road in Bedminster and an ongoing project at Waterloo Road in Sussex County. The PBS program EcoSense for Living spotlighted New Jersey’s leadership on wildlife crossings in an episode last year.

David Moskowitz continues to manage the East Brunswick amphibian crossing, attracting hundreds of people each spring to safely enjoy the wonders of seeing these unique creatures, including introducing many people to the first close-up looks at a salamander or spring peeper. Visit the environmental commission’s project webpage for a detailed overview and regularly posted updates of conditions and likelihood of the road closing during this time of year.

– David Wheeler, March 2021

*Special Note, March 18, 2021*

Tonight’s forecast calls for relatively ideal conditions, so be sure to check out the East Brunswick salamander crossing updates for the likelihood of a road closure and the chance to visit the amphibian migration tonight!

Stay tuned for April’s installment of “Wild New Jersey Revisited” – a trip to the “Bayshore Bayou” in search of bald eagles!

Read the previous installments of Wild New Jersey Revisited:

Part One: A Predator Returns to the State’s Rugged Northwest

Part Two: A Taste of the Arctic at Sandy Hook

Purchase a copy of Wild New Jersey from the CWF Store.

Wild New Jersey Revisited: A Taste of the Arctic at Sandy Hook

Friday, March 5th, 2021

by David Wheeler

Regular winter visitors to the Jersey Shore, this group of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) and harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus) catch some sun in the tide. Photo courtesy of Joe Reynolds.

Wild New Jersey Revisited is a monthly series of excerpts from Conserve Wildlife Foundation executive director David Wheeler’s 2011 book Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.

Today we focus on a winter visitor from the Arctic.

Excerpt from Chapter 13

Great White Hunter

Pick a sunny but frigid day in the heart of winter. Find a remote, windswept location along the Jersey Shore. Bring a high-powered spotting scope or binoculars, extra layers of winter clothes, and a healthy supply of patience.

Voila! That might be enough to get you a sighting of a seal – or fifty – in the Garden State.

Incredibly enough, seals are becoming more and more common along the coast each winter, eating a daily ration of up to 20 pounds of flounder, other fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Four species visit New Jersey’s coastal waters in a given winter. Spotted most frequently are harbor seals hauling out onto exposed sandbars or dredge spoils along the coast. Gray and hooded seals from as far as the Norwegian island of Svalbard visit less often. Each has a unique look. The gray seal’s large snout earned it the nickname “horsehead seal.” The male hooded seal inflates its nose to attract female seals – and looks like a veritable Bozo the Seal.

The harp seal, on the other hand, is the equivalent of a seal supermodel. You may have seen them many times before. In the 1980s the harp seal’s puppy-eyed white pups served as the adorable public face of the anti-seal hunting movement. Far less common in estuaries than harbor seals, the harp seal usually sticks to the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Nonetheless, young harp seals are found regularly on New Jersey’s coast each winter.

Sandy Hook is a great place for seeing a seal in the wild. Seals often hunt at night and spend their days resting onshore – an ideal schedule for wildlife enthusiasts. That is, for those willing to walk the most windswept waterfront locations in the coldest months of the year. Joe Reynolds, of the Bayshore Regional Watershed Council, is just such an adventurer.

“When it’s low tide on a really sunny day, you have the potential to see thirty to fifty seals out basking together on Skeleton Island,” says Reynolds.

Seals can typically be found in New Jersey from December through April. Photo courtesy of Joe Reynolds.

The Rescuers

Reynolds is also one of around a hundred active volunteers with the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. These volunteers up and down the coast serve as the eyes and ears of the unique Brigantine-based center, which was started in 1978 to rescue and rehabilitate injured or stranded seals, whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. Sheila Dean, the center’s co-director, has worked for more than two decades to help such marine animals.

“We had a little seal – we named her Tak, after the harbor where she was born, Takanassee – that was stranded just after being born,” says Dean. “Her mother left the baby on the beach – there was just no way she could keep people away. We raised it, but she was just too imprinted on humans. We ended up giving her to the Indianapolis Zoo. I felt really bad, but she would not have survived out there.”

Dean wasn’t being overprotective. A dolphin in Florida, after being rehabilitated for nine months, was released into the wild. Sharks killed it immediately upon release, with everyone watching in horror. Clearly nature takes its own course.

Many of New Jersey’s stranded seals are victims of shark bites. In 2009 at least five seals were mauled by the same shark, which was caught off the Sea Girt Reef.

“Shark-bit seals are quite common, and we sometimes get a lot of them,” says Maurice Tremblay, a Marine Mammal Stranding Center volunteer. “We even had one with a bite from an orca.”

After my tour of the center, I realize I just have to see a seal in New Jersey for myself. I had seen seals off the coast of Northern Ireland and enjoyed the fussy orchestra of the famed sea lions at San Francisco’s wharfside, but seals never seemed possible in New Jersey.

I pick the right day: it is absolutely glacial, with a winter storm scheduled to hit within a few hours. My daughter and I head first to Skeleton Island, a long barrier strip on the bay side of Sandy Hook. It is low tide, and the tangy smell of saltmarsh fills the air. Many dark, long shapes pepper the distant sandbars beyond the island, and our hopes are high. A closer look through my binoculars reveals no movement. My “seals” turn out to be driftwood logs and rocks.

We watch gulls drop clams against the rocks and plummet after them, and then we head for the northern end of Sandy Hook near Fort Hancock. Looping around, I drive south along the bay’s edge, peering through the passenger window and hoping against hope for a seal. A male red-breasted merganser catches Kayla’s eye, its green head feathers tussled in the back like a case of bedhead. I pull to the right and back up for a closer look. It is then that I see a dark shape that almost immediately goes under. It does not register as a bird, so could it be…?

I turn the car around for a direct look with my binoculars, and there it is! A clear shot of a seal head, dark black with puppy dog eyes, long face, and whiskers. We watch for a few seconds as it stares back before finally going under. Between the seal and the approaching storm, Sandy Hook might as well be the Arctic.

Ten Years Gone

Seals continue to visit the Jersey Shore each winter, with sightings steadily increasing in recent years. Among the best places to see them each winter are Sandy Hook, Liberty State Park, and Cape May. Sightings typically occur through April, so if you’re interested, best to try as soon as possible!

The Marine Mammal Stranding Center continues to protect and rehabilitate marine mammals and sea turtles along New Jersey’s coastline, with over 300 volunteers. And Joe Reynolds has since founded the nonprofit Save Coastal Wildlife in 2018 to engage people with the biodiversity along the Jersey Shore.

– David Wheeler, March 2021

Read Part I of Wild New Jersey Revisited: A Predator Returns to the State’s Rugged Northwest

Visit CWF’s species spotlight on seals in New Jersey, and interact with our StoryMap on harbor seals in New Jersey.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Wild New Jersey Revisited” – a memorable night spent out in the early spring rain with salamanders and frogs!

Don’t forget to purchase your own copy of Wild New Jersey from the CWF Store today!

Wild New Jersey Revisited: A Predator Returns to the State’s Rugged Northwest

Friday, February 19th, 2021

by David Wheeler

Fisher photo by Josh More via Flickr Creative Commons.

Wild New Jersey Revisited is a monthly series of excerpts from Conserve Wildlife Foundation executive director David Wheeler’s 2011 book Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State. Today we focus on the surprising return of a rare predator to New Jersey, and the late field biologist who foretold it – then documented it.

Excerpt from Chapter 2:

The Carnivore Corridor of Stokes State Forest

On a frosty winter morning, I join a fellow adventurer for a sunrise hike into Tillman Ravine. This cold is the kind that takes your breath away, the kind that makes it hard to notice anything else – until I descend into the ravine. The rushing mountain stream twists and turns, crashing over jagged boulders and toppled hemlocks. Patches of ice coat the surfaces of riverside boulders, some icicles growing upward from the waterfall mist. Heavy recent snows and rains have the stream flowing higher than normal, overrunning some of the trail. This is one wild place.

It is easy, on this early morning, with no sound but the crashing torrent, to imagine the wildlife that lives here. A mother bear warily leading her cubs down the steep mountain slope for a drink. A mink slinking stealthily along the boulders in search of its next meal. A river otter family tumbling in the currents downstream.

One visionary wildlife researcher is doing a lot more than imagining that. Charlie Kontos is seeing it all. Through his motion-detector cameras and wilderness tracking, through his exhaustive historical research and coordination with wildlife geneticists, he is leading the charge to ensure that the species we nearly lost are still welcome here in the wilds of northwestern New Jersey. For Kontos, that safe haven cannot be some isolated pocket of land. We must restore the active wildlife corridor that connects to the Catskills and the Appalachians and the Adirondacks, all the way up into New England and the great boreal forest of Canada.


“Wild New Jersey” Celebrates 10 Years with Monthly Blog Adventures in 2021

Wednesday, February 17th, 2021

Book excerpts each month to be accompanied by timely wildlife updates

by David Wheeler

Growing up in suburban and coastal New Jersey, I was fascinated by wildlife from my earliest days. Whether catching frogs in the neighborhood, or collecting safari cards and watching Nature specials on Komodo dragons, wildlife both local and global captured my imagination like nothing else. My studies and early career focused on other areas, such as writing and communications, but the great outdoors was never far from my thoughts.

When the time was right, I decided to write what would become my book, “Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.” I spent time with many of the top scientists and naturalists in the state, as I devoted all my free time for a year to undertaking a whirlwind journey around New Jersey, experiencing its wildlife, nature destinations, and outdoor activities first-hand.

It has now been 10 years since “Wild New Jersey” was published. In those ensuing years, I became the Executive Director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation, the dynamic organization that had featured so prominently in my book. Many themes I covered then resound even more today. The across-the-board impacts of climate change on New Jersey’s wildlife. Escalating land development, particularly in suburban areas. An even greater emphasis on protecting wildlife corridors and contiguous habitat. An increasing awareness of many species thriving in urban areas against daunting odds.

For better or worse, the populations of most of New Jersey species I highlighted 10 years ago have continued on the same trends of recovery or decline. That’s good news for bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and ospreys, along with bobcats and coyotes. It’s more worrisome for many bat, amphibian and reptile species, as well as many songbirds, shorebirds, and pollinators.

Sadly, a few of the wildlife pioneers and conservation heroes with whom I was privileged to spend time or enjoy conversations while writing my book have since passed away, including field biologist Charles Kontos, Len Soucy, founder of the Raptor Trust, and Dery Bennett, founder of American Littoral Society. Their legacies carry forward today as strong as ever.

David Wheeler and his son on a more recent “Wild New Jersey” adventure in Barnegat Bay. Photo by Ben Wurst

With our past year marked by serious restrictions on both our interaction with others and the activities we can enjoy, many New Jerseyans may have a building list of adventures that we are considering once safety permits. Thankfully, these options haven’t changed much at all over the 10 years since I wrote “Wild New Jersey.” With the right timing and guides, we still can go out and enjoy dog sledding, birding on the open ocean, mountain hikes in bear country, and nighttime treks through a cranberry bog – or, on the more serene side, pontoon boat wildlife tours, river floats, seining, and bird walks led by top experts.

Those kinds of adventures are still out there for the taking in every corner of the state. Some of it can be done right now, while other trips may have to wait until we get further along in our fight against COVID-19.

In the meantime, I am excited to celebrate 10 years of Wild New Jersey with you. For the next year, Conserve Wildlife Foundation will run a seasonal excerpt each month, along with updated commentary giving context to a featured species, habitat, or locale.

Join me on Friday in kicking off our series with a book excerpt and update on the unlikely return of a predator to New Jersey’s wilds.

David Wheeler is the Executive Director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the author of Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.