Some bird advocates are questioning the state Forest Service’s effort to remove dead trees and hazardous limbs in the area’s state forests at the height of nesting season.
Work to remove dead and hazardous trees and limbs began a few weeks ago at Wharton State Forest, which stretches through parts of Atlantic, Burlington and Camden counties, and other forests. But two members of the Atlantic Audubon Society said noise from heavy machinery near Batsto Village has caused a bluebird to abandon a nest with eggs in the process of hatching.
“I know it sounds like a silly thing, ‘Oh, it’s just a bird’s nest,’ but it’s a law that you’re not allowed to disturb a bird’s nest as long as it has eggs in it,” said Diane Kristoff, the coordinator for the bluebird trail in Batsto with the Atlantic Audubon Society.
The clearing project involves removing several thousand dead trees that are over roads or near picnic areas or buildings, particularly in Bass River and Wharton state forests, Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Ragonese said. The project also involves removing trees that are infested with the pine bark beetle, he said.
The work must be complete by Sept. 1 to meet deadlines for the $600,000 federal stimulus grant that is paying for the project, Ragonese said, and workers are trying to complete the job before the peak of the summer tourist season begins.
Kristoff, however, said that if the work had been delayed by just two weeks, the disturbance would have avoided the most critical time during the bluebird nesting season. Kristoff said she has monitored bluebirds at the park for years and it was troubling that no one contacted her before the cutting began.
“They didn’t even consult the naturalist, who is a state employee at the park,” she said. “He would have told them the same thing, or referred them to me.”
Last week, Becky Hedden, also a member of the Atlantic Audubon Society, rescued a bluebird nest that had been abandoned just two dozen yards from where heavy machinery was operating. In the nest were several eggs in various stages of hatching.
Hedden said she also was worried about the tree removal occurring in areas that are habitat for the red-headed woodpecker, a species that is considered threatened in New Jersey and nests in dead trees.
“People think dead trees are worthless, but dead trees are very valuable because there are a lot of birds that nest in them,” she said.
Ragonese said the DEP had identified the areas where the trees would be removed based on the hazards they were creating, and the overall safety issue was paramount.
“We’re trying our best to be as unobtrusive as possible,” Ragonese said. “There is a real balance needed to deal with the habitat ... if we want to keep a healthy forest and a safe forest, we have an opportunity to remove the dead or dying trees and we’re trying to take advantage of that.”
Kristoff said she heard state environmental officials were working to craft a new policy that would address how crew members respond to a tree scheduled for removal with an active bird’s nest.
However, Ragonese said, no such policy was being created.
He said officials could not check each tree before cutting it down, but if a nest is spotted, officials would work to ensure the birds or eggs are not injured.
Staff Writer Caitlin Dineen contributed to this report.
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