WEST CAPE MAY — Think of rapid response teams and fires, oil spills, lost children and terrorist attacks come to mind. In the bird migration country south of the Cape May Canal, there is a strike team for habitat threats.
Birding is a multimillion dollar business in southern Cape May County, and the loss of habitat is considered a major threat. Many birders move to the area known unofficially as Cape Island, an 8.35-square-mile land mass that includes Cape May, West Cape May, Cape May Point and part of Lower Township, just to enjoy the migrating birds.
One goal of the Cape Island Habitat Restoration Task Force is to stop invasive plant species. The same birds that bring so much money and enjoyment to the area also tend to bring the undigested seeds of invasive plants; those invasive plants get a foothold and wipe out native plants. While many come from migrating birds, another source is backyard gardeners who plant non-native species not realizing the danger that they could spread.
When the invasive plant kudzu showed up in sections of West Cape May east of Broadway the task force created the Early Detection Rapid Response team. This unusual strike team’s job is to combat kudzu, which is known to have spread and overrun native species in the southern states where it can survive the mild winters.
“That’s why we launched this. It’s a critical situation. You try to control and get rid of it as quickly as possible,” said Suzanne Treyger, of the New Jersey Audubon Society.
Pesticides and mowing were quickly employed to attack the kudzu before it could get too established on Cape Island — as other invasive species have already, including porcelain berry, clematis, Japanese honeysuckle, multiflora rose and many others. Biological control methods can also be used, such as finding a beetle that will eat an invasive species, but Treyger said testing is still being done to find one that will attack kudzu.
The task force includes government agencies such as the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Pleasantville. There are also nonprofits including New Jersey Audubon and The Nature Conservancy involved.
These groups reach out to locals, including members of environmental commissions from Cape May, Cape May Point and West Cape May. The task force works on public lands, but also works with private landowners to eradicate non-native species.
“They’ve actually come in and spoken with us and are working with our environmental commission. It’s a good thing,” Mayor Pam Kaithern said.
You sometimes need experts just to know an invasive species has arrived. Treyger said the kudzu was found by accident by New Jersey Audubon employee Jean Lynch, who had just moved here from North Carolina and was familiar with kudzu. Lynch was renting a house in town and found kudzu in the yard.
“She noticed it on the property and then in other backyards. She took her dog for a walk on Elmira Street and noticed it there too,” said Treyger.
It’s still unclear how the kudzu got there. It can spread by seed or underground roots called rhizomes. Kudzu can’t withstand cold winters but Treyger said there is concern it could survive in South Jersey counties such as Cape May County and Cumberland County. It also been found near the Wildwood Water Works property in Rio Grande.
“It can’t take long periods of freezing below 32 degrees. That’s why it hasn’t spread throughout the Northeast. There was a climate barrier kind of containing it, but with milder winters here there is a concern. This far south on the peninsula. We have a milder climate,” Treyger said.
The fact that it has appeared near Cape Island Creek, an important watershed for migrating birds, has everybody’s attention. The task force wants to especially protect important bird habitats such as maritime forests and waterways.
There was no response years ago when porcelain berry first showed up on Cape Island. The berry is now taking over areas of the island.
Treyger said for years there were only small patches of porcelain berry. One at Higbee Beach was known as “catbird corner” because catbirds loved to use it for shelter. Nobody back then knew the problems it would create as birds ate the beautiful blue berries and spread them around. Nobody tried to eradicate it when it was only in a few areas.
The task force has a list of 14 invasive species it targets. Many produce berries and can be spread by birds. They often thrive in a county buffered in winter by ocean and Delaware Bay waters.
“Cape May County has the highest number of invasive species in the state because of the climate. Because we’re surrounded by water it keeps it temperate here,” Treyger said.
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