Wednesday, November 15, 2017

American Shad Rebound in the Delaware River

Adult shad in measuring box - DEP Photo

Biological surveys conducted this year suggest American shad are making a strong comeback in the Delaware River, historically famous for a once-prodigious population of this important fish species.

Net surveys conducted during the spring resulted in the ninth largest overall haul of migrating adult shad ever recorded, while summer surveys of juvenile shad that hatched this year were the best in the nearly four decades of monitoring for juvenile shad.

“The strong shad spawning run and record-setting juvenile numbers this summer lead us to be very optimistic about the future of shad, a species that is important to the overall ecological health of the Delaware River,” said Commissioner Martin. “We have worked very closely over the years with our partner state and federal agencies in the river basin as well as numerous nonprofit and community groups to restore this species to the Delaware, the largest free-flowing river in the eastern United States.”

The history of shad runs deep in the Delaware River, with the fish providing food and other essential uses to Native Americans, feeding George Washington’s Continental Army, and supporting a major 19th century commercial fishery that fed the region’s burgeoning population.
But water quality problems that developed in lower, urbanized portions of the river around Philadelphia effectively created a dissolved-oxygen barrier to the age-old spawning runs. Water quality improvements, especially in the 1980s and 1990s resulting from upgrades to wastewater treatment systems, greatly improved dissolved oxygen levels, enabling shad to gain access to the upper river and its tributaries.

The closure of the commercial shad fishery in the ocean by state and federal fisheries managers more than a decade ago in response to all-time lows in shad stocks appears to be another significant contributor to the rebound of shad in the Delaware River.

“Building on our encouraging survey results and ongoing conservation measures, the DEP and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife will continue to work on local and coastwide management strategies that will further the recovery of shad, with the hope of restoring numbers to historic levels,” said Division Director Larry Herrighty.

The American shad is the largest member of the herring family, weighing from four to eight pounds at maturity. They spend most of their lives in the ocean but return to rivers and their tributaries to spawn. The species’ range stretches from the St. Lawrence River in Canada south to the St. Johns River, which flows from its mouth at Jacksonville south through much of eastern Florida.

Adults are capable of swimming some 2,000 miles from ocean feeding grounds to rivers to spawn. They may travel upwards of 200 miles in these rivers to find suitable spawning habitat, usually in rocky or gravelly shallows. Females can release hundreds of thousands of eggs. Juvenile shad spend several years in the ocean, returning to river systems to spawn when they reach sexual maturity.

The fish once supported massive commercial and recreational fisheries in rivers along the Atlantic coast, especially the Delaware River. But, in addition to water quality problems, dams built to generate power, for mills and for other now-obsolete purposes greatly reduced their ability to access potential spawning habitat in the Delaware’s many tributaries.

The DEP has been working with numerous partners to remove dams along Delaware River tributaries, with efforts focused on the Musconetcong River as it flows through Hunterdon and Warren counties.

Steve Meserve, who runs the Lewis Fishery in Lambertville, Hunterdon County, works with the DEP in reporting spring shad runs at this critical point in the Delaware. Netting surveys he conducted in the spring resulted in hauls totaling 1,262 shad, the ninth best in 92 years of reliable record-keeping results and the best since 1,257 were netted in 1995.

Meserve tracks shad as part of a business that sells the fish to people who wait along the riverbank to buy fish he hauls in. His family has been fishing shad in Lambertville since 1888, and is the last remaining operation to do so following a crash in the shad population in the 1940s and 1950s due to poor water quality in the Philadelphia area.

“It’s a much brighter picture than we’ve seen in years,” said Meserve, noting that in 2011 he was catching an average of just two fish per netting operation compared to 30 this year. “It’s certainly good news and we’d like to see it continue, and we will be out there keeping track of what’s going on.”

The DEP also conducts numerous surveys of juvenile shad at various locations along the upper river beginning in late August. This year’s survey resulted in the highest totals in 38 years of monitoring. These surveys counted 24,536 juvenile shad this summer, compared to 2,664 in 2013, and 8,360 in 2016.

Netting hauls conducted in August at Milford Beach in Hunterdon County, for example, were so strong that the total counts of juvenile fish exceeded hauls at that location for all previous five years combined.

Shad, which are very popular as a feisty sport fish, also play a very important role in the ecosystem of the Delaware River, as well as estuarine and ocean ecosystems. Shad are important prey for larger fish and other predators, such as birds. Many wildlife species synchronize their migrations to coincide with shad runs.

Some shad may return to the same river system to spawn two to three times during their lifetimes. Many will die after spawning. When they die, their decomposing bodies return to river systems important nutrients that are essential to other aquatic life.

The Division of Fish and Wildlife uses money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration program to help fund American shad research and recovery projects. Funds for this program are generated by federal excise taxes on fishing equipment, as well as motorboat and small-engine fuels.

For more information on shad and annual shad survey reports, visit:

For a news release on dam removal efforts along the Musconetcong, visit:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Hawk Watch

Every fall since I have lived nearby, I have made my way up to the NJ Audubon Hawk Watch on the Montclair-Cedar Grove border in Essex County.

Though it was no doubt used for observing earlier, it came to be in September 1959 and is the organization's smallest sanctuary at one acre. But it is big in reputation, being the second oldest continuous hawk watch in the nation.

The Hawk Watch will be open between 9am and 5pm, from September through November 30th.

Climbing the stairs
From the street, a short but steep trail and stair climb will bring you atop a stone-filled platform on a 500-foot basalt ledge. This is a ridge of the Watchung Mountains. in Montclair, New Jersey, is a well constructed,  that is the site of the Montclair Hawk Lookout, a sanctuary of the New Jersey Audubon.

This is the first ridge west of the lower Hudson River Valley, and runs from northeast to southwest and migrating birds use the ridgeline and the thermal to move south.

This place is a small oasis in a densely populated county. Looking south and east on a clear day, you have a view of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the New York City skyline including the Statue of Liberty and northeast to the Palisades. 

View to the west

To the north and west, you can see peaks from the Ramapo Mountains and the edge of the Second Watchung Mountain.

Directly north, really across the street, is the Essex County Park of Mills Reservation. A ledge there still has a concrete pad that is the remnant of the Nike tracking system that ran along the Watchung ridge in the 1960s. From the Mills reservation site, the Spring Hawk Count is conducted, as it has the best visibility to the south to see returning birds.

Chris Payne on his watch

The lookout is monitored for three months in the Fall and two months in the Spring. On my most recent visit, I met ​Chris Payne who is on duty for NJ Audubon this autumn.

He said that it has been a good year, particularly for Peregrine falcons who have totaled more than 70 as of early November. Most of them have already moved further south.

He tries to distinguish between migrating birds and those who stay in the area. "Locals" will circle and hunt in the area rather than ride the thermals south.

Red tailed hawk

Red tailed hawk riding a thermal
The numbers for broadwinged hawks are down so far. There are many buteo jamaicensis, or red-tailed hawks, which is the mascot of the nearby Montclair State University. Red-tailed hawks can be found on campus, where they perch in trees and on utility poles.

An unusual sighting for Chris this fall was a Northern goshawk, a species that, as its name suggests, does not usually go south.

You wouldn't think that raptors would be fooled by a plastic owl atop a pole, but Chris told me that the owl is sometimes attacked. Locals learn it is not real and ignore it, but migrating birds will sometimes spot it and attack. This makes for some good photo opportunities and closer looks for visitors.

The day I visited it was late in the day (3:30 pm) and getting cooler, so there wasn't much activity. It is also late in the year for some species to be still moving past this area. But it is still a nice little climb and a great view.

The platform will be closed at the end of November. As an alternative, try the ridge at Mills Reservation across the road.

Using GPS directions to 42 Old Quarry Rd, Cedar Grove, NJ will put you at the street entrance to the Hawk Watch. There is street parking and a small parking area just west of the entrance along the edge of Mills Reservation, which you can enter from that parking area and find a trail to that other lookout. 

Video: A visit to the Montclair Hawk Watch - North Jersey Video 2:55 Oct 12, 2017

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Cranberries and the Pine Barrens

The New Jersey Pinelands picked up the name the "Pine Barrens" because the European colonists found the acidic soil infertile for their crops. But that type of soil and the water-rich area is optimal for cranberries.

I visited the Pine Barrens many times with my wife and young sons, and we went to the annual Cranberry Festival twice. The festival in Chatsworth is still held in October and feels very much like an autumn harvest ritual. Of course, Thanksgiving is also a traditional time to serve cranberry relish with the turkey.

We learned a lot about cranberries and ate and drank a variety of cranberry products. Cranberry growing is a slow process and it takes several years for a cranberry bog to mature.

As they will tell you at the festival, it's not exactly like the image you might have of cranberry bogs from the Ocean Spray commercials. In those ads, two farmers in waders are standing in the bogs surrounded by floating berries.

Cranberries don't grow underwater but on vine runners in the sandy Pinelands soil. After a few cold nights in September, the berries turn red. Farmers flood the fields and ripe berries loosen and float to the surface with little encouragement, but the old "dry picking" method is also used.

Harvesters in waders corral floating cranberries into a mass.
    Photo by Jauhien Sasnou

Cranberries are used for processed foods, including juices. White cranberry juice comes from ones picked just before they turn red. Red or white, raw berries are very tart, not at all like their sweetly processed products.

Only about 3 percent of the cranberry harvest is dry picked from pre-flooded fields in the old way and sold fresh in the produce section. Craisins, Ocean Spray's dried cranberries, were introduced in 1993.

New Jersey is the third-ranked cranberry producer in the U.S.., behind Wisconsin and Massachusetts. Out of the roughly 700 farms overall that grow cranberries for Ocean Spray, about 20 are in South Jersey and they produce between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels of cranberries a year.

Cranberries were eaten by American sailors in the colonial period to ward off scurvy. Today, Now many people eat and drink it for their antibacterial properties in fighting urinary tract infections.

5-year old berry picker, Browns Mills, New Jersey, 1910
Photo from the National Child Labor Committee Collection at the Library of Congress

Native peoples in NJ used cranberries as food, in their ceremonies, as a red dye and as medicine. Cranberries dried with deer meat made a kind of jerky called pemmican. a convenience food that could be kept for a long time. It is very likely that cranberries (fresh, as jelly or in pemmican) were part of that first Thanksgiving. 

Cranberries got their name from the early German and Dutch settlers who thought their blossoms resembled the neck and head of a crane, hence "crane berries."

Cranberry cultivation in New Jersey goes back to 1840 when the State Board of Agriculture report shows that John Webb established a cranberry bog in Ocean County near Cassville. His crop was sold to ship merchants who sold them to whalers. Cranberries were stored onboard in barrels of cold water for the sailors to get Vitamin C to ward off scurvy.

Cranberry grower Elizabeth Lee of New Egypt boil some damaged berries that would normally be discarded and liked the jelly that remained which she sold it as "Bog Sweet Cranberry Sauce."

Friday, November 3, 2017

A "New" Frog Species to NJ

Male Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog - Photo by Brian R. Curry CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia

The Atlantic Coast leopard frog, Rana kauffeldi, is a "new" species to our state, though it has probably been in New Jersey all along.

The Atlantic Coast leopard frog is one of several species of leopard frogs. Its species name, kauffeldi, honors the herpetologist Carl Frederick Kauffeld who in 1936 proposed that there could be a third species of leopard frog inhabiting the New York Tri-State Area. The author team that described the species in 2014 christened it after Kauffeld.

Classified as a true frog, it has smooth skin and a narrow waist. Its range stretches along the northern part of Eastern Seaboard, from Connecticut to North Carolina.

The species takes its common name from the speckles on its legs and back reminiscent of a leopard pattern.

The Atlantic Coast leopard frog tends to inhabit large wetland areas, such as marshes, wet meadows, or slow-flowing water. Its habitat usually includes clear, shallow water and it lives in or around open, vegetated spaces as well, with such plants as cattails, reeds, or river shrubs.

Species Profile

The Atlantic Coast leopard frog is a featured species for Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey (CHANJ)

Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog distribution simplified.png

By Feinberg JA, Newman CE, Watkins-Colwell GJ, Schlesinger MD, Zarate B, et al. - Feinberg JA, Newman CE, Watkins-Colwell GJ, Schlesinger MD, Zarate B, et al. (2014) Cryptic Diversity in Metropolis: Confirmation of a New Leopard Frog Species (Anura: Ranidae) from New York City and Surrounding Atlantic Coast Regions. PLoS ONE 9(10): e108213. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0108213, CC BY 4.0, Link

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Bats Are Probably Only on Video in NJ

Bats are part of Halloween lore, imagery and decorations. But while kids are knocking at your door looking for no trick and a few treats, most of New Jersey's bats have moved underground to hibernate or have migrated south for the winter.

You probably won't see any bats overhead tonight, but you can learn about these interesting - and beneficial! - creatures in a video featuring NJDEP Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist MacKenzie Hall.