Wet winter, spring bring critters out in Cape May County
The flooded pond at Cape May County Park attracts Canada geese Friday. The wet winter and spring mean ‘it will be a good year for waterfowl all the way around,’ biologist Kurt Anderson says.

Romance is in the air, and it sounds a lot like peeping.

In fact, the sound of romance is somewhat deafening at Cape May Point State Park, an expanse of 190 acres of freshwater wetlands where the mating call of the Northern spring peeper is almost hallucinogenic.

Record winter snow and spring rain have led to an explosion of the tiny frogs with a mating call that explains how they got their name.

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There are so many frogs this year that they are not even waiting until the cover of nightfall to seek a partner. They do not seem concerned that winter ice and snow squashed cover foliage that normally hides them during this vulnerable time of year when they have to give their presence away with each peep.

Maybe concerns about getting eaten by a predator are not as important with such numbers. Maybe it doesn't even matter.

"The park is so saturated the trees are falling over. I'm not sure if the frog predators made it through the winter," park naturalist Matt Pelligrine said.

Snakes have not been spotted in the park this spring, leading to speculation that they were flooded out of their underground hibernation spots.

Weather creates winners and losers. The big winners appear to be frogs, ducks, otters, beavers, aquatic salamanders and other water-loving wildlife. An expected explosion of mosquitoes and other bugs from the water, and the lush vegetation it will produce, could create a whole new set of winners in a few weeks.

Right now, frogs rule the day and night. But they aren't the only noisemakers.

"The wood frogs quack like ducks. Leopard frogs also quack, but it's mixed in with snoring sounds. The water creates a lot of opportunity for some wildlife," Pelligrine said.

The wet soil also produces losers, such as species that hibernate underground or dig burrows for nesting.

"We've had rabbits hop up in our planters and dig nests because the planters are drained. They're looking for dry soil," Pelligrine said.

The water is good for frogs now, but if it stays too long, it could become a negative. Water that lingers eventually supports fish, which eat frog eggs. The same scenario could hurt the endangered Eastern tiger salamander, which requires vernal ponds that dry up in the summer to eliminate fish.

It's a good problem to have. In wet years, frogs are forced to lay eggs in deeper water where the fish are. This year, tadpoles will develop in areas high and dry in most years.

"By the end of summer, we can better answer these questions, but hopefully the frogs will do well and hopefully the tiger salamanders," Pelligrine said.

Howard Schlegel, manager of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, said wet conditions in December and January were perfect for the salamanders, since this is when they breed. Schlegel said wood ducks, which live in wet forests, and other waterfowl also are enjoying the wet bounty.

"You see mallards anywhere there's water. We've seen them in our parking lot," Schlegel said.

The water could lead to good broods for many species of waterfowl, said biologist Kurt Anderson, of Ducks Unlimited. Anderson said the water breeds bugs, which supply the protein source breeding hens and their hatchlings need for success. The hens switch from grains to bugs before egg-laying. The ducklings will be able to feast on invertebrates born from the same stuff flooding people's yards and basements.

"It will be a good year for waterfowl all the way around. There is early nesting for mallards, pintails and wood ducks. Water can be bad if it floods out a nest, but it improves bug production," Anderson said.

Pete Dunne, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, said twice this week he was out bird-watching and saw an otter. He calls the transformation of southern New Jersey back to swampland "truly an amazing thing."

"Historically, it was a swamp. You add water, enough water, and it goes back to swamp," Dunne said.

The only areas losing wildlife seem to be the ones that are always wet. Birds in southern Cape May County normally rely on Lake Lily in Cape May Point for fresh water, but this year, they don't have to. Francine Nietubicz, who chairs the Lake Lily Committee, said she has never seen so much water in the lake but coots, wigeons and other water birds have disappeared.

"The previous two winters, Lake Lily was full of waterfowl," said Nietubicz, adding, "I'm happy to have all the water. The more in here now, the more we'll have in August."

Dunne is looking forward to watching the water work its magic up the food chain, beginning with a banner year for mosquitoes and other insects.

"Flycatchers are licking their mandibles. Bats will just have a field day. They can just open their mouths and fly. Dragonflies will just have a feast this year," Dunne said.

A good year for dragonflies and damselflies would translate up the food chain to the species that eat them, such as purple martins.

Birds that forage in freshwater wetlands such as herons, egrets and the glossy ibis also will benefit, as they all eat frogs.

"If you want glossy ibis, just add water. A lot of birds love this," Dunne said.

The bad news for frogs is these things tend to go around in a circle. More frogs may produce more predators that eat frogs. Better keep peeping.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

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