Blizzards wreck habitat for birds braving winter
A cedar tree in Lower Township on the afternoon of Feb. 6 shows the effects of the storm that hit that morning. The cedar is one of the most important trees to area wildlife during the winter — the berries provide food, and the foliage provides cover. A dense cedar can even prevent snow from getting to the ground under it, giving birds that eat worms a chance at dinner.

You think you've got it bad? Try finding a worm right about now.

As bad as the dual blizzards of 2010 were for people in southern New Jersey, it's a lot worse for the American woodcock. The rusty brown bird, a rare inland shorebird, has to eat its weight each day in earthworms.

While people struggle with power outages, dead cell phones and impassible streets, woodcocks are trying to find dinner under several feet of snow. The birds can be seen probing with their long bills on the few bare spots uncovered by snowplows on the side of the road.

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The woodcocks that stay this far north in the winter gamble that the weather will not be that bad and that they will have the habitat to themselves, experts say - and this year the gamble did not pay off.

"A lot of birds are dying. It's a tradeoff, and a lot of times it works," said Don Freiday, a naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory.

It isn't just the woodcocks dying. Freiday said the frozen salt marshes are killing the birds, such as rails, that winter there - and there isn't one in sight.

"I look out at the marshes of Cape May County and I don't see a sign of life," Freiday said.

Birds that rely on evergreens, such as the Eastern red cedar, also are affected. The wet snow Friday stuck to the foliage of the evergreens, and high winds sheared the tops off or stripped their branches. Cedars tend to be very brittle.

"I hate to lose them because they're habitat for tree birds in the winter," said Jay Schatz, who chairs the Cape May Shade Tree Commission.

The red cedar is arguably the single most important tree in this region during the winter for birds. The blue berries on the female trees provide food. The green awl-shaped leaves, or needles, provide cover. A dense cedar can even prevent snow from getting to the ground under it, giving birds that eat worms a chance at dinner.

"A lot of cedars got killed and that impact is strong and bad. It will affect roosting of owls that like that cover in front of them. Yellow-rumped warbler is a main winter eater of cedars. Cedar waxwings and robins also eat the berries," Freiday said.

The good news is the berries produced last summer are still on the broken trees and they will continue feeding birds. The cedars that survived may take on a more bush-like appearance this year.

Cedars, actually members of the juniper family, are an old tree found all over the world. The Eastern United States is one of its major strongholds and Freiday expects the trees to bounce back. Tree experts in the region give the red cedar the tree version of a four-star rating, which includes D (drought tolerant), S (salt tolerant), N (native) and W (flood tolerant). It's one of the few trees at the shore to be rated at D, S, N and W.

"I don't think it will affect berry production. I think we'll have the same number of trees, but they'll be shaped differently," Freiday said.

The weather has also led to some strange animal behavior. A bat, which probably decided to migrate too late, came down the chimney into a Lower Township home. Field mice are moving into houses. People with bird feeders are seeing unusual visitors.

"I'm hearing people have meadowlarks at their bird feeder, which is crazy," said Freiday.

Schatz said deciduous trees are faring better than cedars and pines unless they are covered in vines. Trees along New England Road in Lower Township were devastated for this reason.

"The vines held the snow," Schatz said.

Bushes in Cape May, many planted to benefit birds and butterflies, were also flattened by the snow load.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is not worried about the impact of the blizzards on wildlife because nature always bounces back.

"It's all part of nature's cycle, as devastating as it seems," DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura said.

Contact Richard Degener:


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