Southern New Jersey Young Forest Habitat Network

Birds In Passage Point the Way

It’s a dramatic sign of autumn: the southward migration of birds. In the East, millions of these migrants follow the Atlantic Flyway down the coastal seaboard east of the Appalachians.

Female American redstart

Birds like this female American redstart migrate huge distances in both spring and fall, with many passing through southern New Jersey./E. Guthro

A critical part of this route runs through southern New Jersey, where birds funnel down the Cape May Peninsula to the mouth of Delaware Bay. There, they face 12 miles of open water. If the wind is out of the west, the birds may stay put for days, feeding to build up the fat they’ll burn when crossing the bay and continuing south. All sorts of birds drop in for a meal: American woodcock by the thousands, along with dozens of types of songbirds including finches, warblers, tanagers, sparrows, and thrushes, some of which will fly to wintering ranges as far south as the Caribbean islands and South America.

Good Habitat Helps Inexperienced Youngsters

“A lot of the birds coming through southern New Jersey are young ones,” says Eric Stiles, president of New Jersey Audubon, a private organization dedicated to protecting the state’s natural areas and wildlife. “It’s their first long journey. As conservationists, we want to make it easy for them – we want to provide habitat where they can find plenty of food amid dense vegetation, where those inexperienced youngsters are less liable to get picked off by predators like hawks or outdoor-roaming housecats.”

Image

Food and protective cover attract many kinds of wildlife to young forest and shrubland./N.J. Audubon

Lee Widjeskog is a retired biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife who now works for the Wildlife Management Institute. Widjeskog has lived and worked in southern New Jersey since the mid-1960s. “Songbirds have a pretty small gas tank,” he says. “They need to refill it often. And one of the key settings where they can do this is young forest.”

New Jersey Audubon, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, and other organizations and agencies, as well as a growing number of private landowners, have joined forces to create this special growth stage of vegetation in southern New Jersey. These proliferating sites complement the 11,000-acre Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, an important habitat for birds and other wildlife near the mouth of Delaware Bay.

A Crowded, Complicated Landscape

Southern New Jersey has lost much open land to development in the past five decades. In this complicated and crowded landscape, biologists and habitat managers are creating and rejuvenating young forest on state wildlife management areas, many of which were purchased through New Jersey’s Green Acres Program, a bond-supported state program to acquire and protect natural land.

American robin feeding on dogwood fruit

Birds need reliable sources of high-energy food, such as the fruits of American dogwood, during migration./E. Guthro

Conservationists hope these habitat demonstration projects will inspire private landowners to join the cause – something that’s already happening, according to Jean Lynch, a regional stewardship director with New Jersey Audubon. “As people learn about the importance of young forest and shrubland, we think they’ll start creating that kind of habitat on lands they own,” Lynch says. She reports that 10 property owners in her part of southern New Jersey have already begun making young forest and shrubland with help from New Jersey Audubon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

An array of different techniques are being used to make habitat. At Salem River Wildlife Management Area in Mannington Township, Salem County, a 320-acre former commercial nursery is being transformed into young forest for migrating birds and local wildlife. Hydro-ax machines cut down middle-sized trees, spurring a dense regrowth of smaller trees and shrubs. Old fields are mowed every few years to keep them in grass, wildflowers, and shrubs. To fight exotic invasive shrubs, workers carefully hand-cut the aggressive non-native plants and then spot-apply herbicides, a method that can swing the balance toward more-beneficial native vegetation on a given tract of land.

Eric Stiles of New Jersey Audubon points out that invasive shrubs such as multiflora rose and Asian honeysuckle tempt birds with fruits that don’t offer as much food value as those of many native shrubs. In southern New Jersey, an important local native is bayberry, whose high-fat berries help migrating birds fuel up for the long haul.

hand-planting trees and shrubs

One way to make young forest and shrubland is to hand-plant seedlings of small trees and food-producing native shrubs./N.J. Audubon

Conservationists and habitat managers are also planting native trees and shrubs. And they’re harvesting carefully selected areas of woodland, so that younger trees and other plants will spring up thickly in the sunshine newly allowed to reach the ground - vegetation that affords more food and better escape cover to wildlife. Managers are letting formerly mowed fields grow back in shrubs – again, taking care to suppress non-native invasives in favor of native shrubs that better benefit wildlife.

A Network of Projects

At Higbee Beach and Peaslee Wildlife Management Areas in Cape May County, managers are cutting back trees growing along the edges of fields to create broad, densely regrowing field margins – great habitat where birds like wood thrushes and scarlet tanagers can rest in and find food while heading for their winter homes far to the south. Or for woodcock to land in and probe the ground with their long bills to glean their favorite forage, earthworms, while the thick cover shields them from hawks and owls overhead. That same kind of cover provides feeding and resting habitat for all sorts of birds as they come north again in springtime.

At Gum Tree Corner Wildlife Management Area in Cumberland County, managers are cutting 50-foot-wide patches through the woods, creating strips of regrowing hardwood trees – mainly sweet gum and red maple – that provide the good, dense habitat that so many kinds of wildlife need. The same thing is underway at nearby Dix Wildlife Management Area.

Says Eric Stiles of New Jersey Audubon, “Even a casual birder knows that birds use a mosaic of different habitats – different kinds of shrubs and trees, and vegetation of different ages. The natural disruptions that gave rise to abundant regrowing forest in the past – for instance, wildfires and extensive flooding caused by beaver dams – have largely been halted. Now it’s our responsibility to carefully recreate those kinds of habitat-making events.”

Brad Smith is director of land management for the New Jersey chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “Historically, agriculture provided a certain amount of early successional habitat, through fields going fallow for a time and coming up in shrubs, woods being cut, and old fields being abandoned. Today, with smaller homestead-type farms becoming more scarce, we’re losing that source of edge and old-field habitat.” To buck that trend, The Nature Conservancy is mowing cover to maintain fallow-field habitat on some of their lands, including South Cape May Meadows Preserve, Lizard Tail Swamp Preserve, and Cape Island Creek Preserve.

hydro-ax removing exotic invasive shrubs

Hydro-ax removes exotic invasive shrubs. Managers will follow up by planting or encouraging native shrubs that offer more benefits to wildlife./N.J. Audubon

Says Stiles, “It’s less about who owns the land than how it’s managed to favor wildlife. By managing for young forest and shrubland in a mindful way, we can have a profound and lasting impact on stewarding the nature of today for the people of tomorrow.” Not only does an increase in young forest and shrubland help migrating birds, it also benefits locally grown species that don’t migrate, including bobwhite quail, wild turkeys, cottontail rabbits, and many reptiles and amphibians. “The goal is to grow more wildlife,” Stiles says, “for watching, for hunting, and for the health of the land.”

Adds Lee Widjeskog: “We need to keep making young forest and shrubland continually, because specific areas of habitat will gradually grow older and turn into mature forest.” He points out that conservationists need to identify places where it makes economic and ecological sense to return vegetation to an earlier growth stage, and then use the best techniques – whether logging, mowing, or planting – to create young forest and shrubland. "It’s a job that doesn’t end. We can’t just say, ‘Okay, we’ve made a field of native shrubs,’ or ‘We’ve logged a tract of woods and gotten it to come back as dense young forest,’ and then call it quits,” Widjeskog says. “We owe it to the wildlife – both native species and migrating birds – to keep making this kind of habitat for them, now and into the future.”

Funding and Partners

New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, New Jersey Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute

How to Visit

For information on young forest habitat projects in southern New Jersey, contact New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist and land manager Laurie Pettigrew, 856-785-0592, laurie.pettigrew@dep.state.nj.us; Lee Widjeskog, Wildlife Management Institute, 856-451-1108, ltwidjeskog@yahoo.com; or Jean Lynch, Stewardship Project Director – South Region, New Jersey Audubon Society, 609-861-1608 x 24, jean.lynch@njaudubon.org.

For information on New Jersey wildlife management areas, including maps showing parking areas, see http://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/wmaland.htm.