Nature Sketches Along Great Bay Boulevard
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What You Will Expect To See Along Great Bay BoulevardThis page is dedicated in loving memory of Lynn Hunt, avid birder and writer of these wonderful monthly captions about nature.
Click on this link and learn about the different species found along this spectacular scenic road and Behold Nature's Wonders!
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The Great Bay Boulevard Wildlife Management Area
The Month of Mayin May...
In May, approaching First Bridge Marina and beyond along Great Bay Boulevard, most of the landscape still maintains its wintertime shades of tan and brown. The most obvious exception being the native evergreen trees growing along both sides of the road. These are Eastern Red Cedars(Juniperus virginiana). The common name is a misnomer because they are actually Junipers. There are no true cedars native to North America.
The Red Cedar is the most widespread conifer of North America. It is a sun-loving tree that will die if overshadowed by larger trees. Thus it is a pioneer species that is one of the first trees to sprout in abandoned fields and along unmowed roadsides, eventually reaching heights of 40 to 60 feet.
Juniper has two types of needles(leaves); one scale-like, the other prickly and sharp, and both kinds are often found on the same tree. Its trunk is straight with stringy bark. Another distinguishing characteristic is its pungent, light blue, berry-like cones.
Red Cedar is an excellent wildlife tree. Over 60 species of birds field on the berries as well as several mammals. The bark is used to insulate nests, and white-tailed deer brouse heavily on the foliage.
The distribution of cedar along Great Bay Boulevard is influenced by two factors, the main one being the salinity of the roadside soil. From about the half-way point of the road on the south there are no cedars growing because of the frequent salt water intrusion due to low elevation. The other factor, if you look closely, is the distribution of seeds by perching birds. There are more trees growing on the roadside under the utility wires than on the opposite side. Seeds passed through bird digestive systems are three times more likely to germinate than seeds that have fallen from the tree.
Historically, Juniper has had many uses. The berries were used as herbal remidies, cooking spice, and for flavoring Gin. The wood is used in boat-making, and for fences, shingles, chests, pencils, and carving.
Bird migration in New Jersey during the month of May is at its peak and the area surrounding Great Bay Boulevard is one of the best places along the coast to observe this nature phenomenon. The species passing through or stopping here to breed are to numerous to list in this space. However, there are two species which are immediately obvious on the salt marsh because of their size, numbers, and strikingly brilliant white plumage.
The Great Egret is large, slender, and long-necked with yellow bill and black legs and feet. It is 39 inches long, has a 51 inch wingspan and weighs 2 pounds. When feeding, it assumes a stalking, forward-leaning pose, with extended neck. Its prey is mainly fish.
The Snowy Egret is smaller, slender, and has a black bill, black legs, and yellow feet. It is 24 inches long with a wingspan of 41 inches, and weighs 13 ounces. Its forraging habits can be either stationary and crouching or rushing about, shuffling feet to stir up fish.
Both egrets breed along the coast and winter in the southern United States and Mexico. There is a breeding colony acrosss the bay on the barrier island. The populations of both species have recovered very well after long persecution from plume hunters. Check Out Related Books!
The Month of June
The Month of Julyin July...
As you approach First Bridge Marina on Great Bay Boulevard and then atain mid-span of the bridge, you will notice that the predominate landform in a flat, green saltmarsh. During July the marsh reaches its most verdant hue. The prevailing vegetation here is spartina grass of which there are two main types - salt hay (spartina patens) and saltmarsh cord grass (spartina alternaflora).
Salt hay is a fine, wing grass appearing as densely matted in the higher parts of the marsh. It stands 1'-5' tall and sometimes forms swirled mats. Historically its uses included insulation,mulch, packing material, feed, and paper making.
Cordgrass is an upright, broad-leaved grass, growing in the zone nearest the water. Being 4 7 feet high and restricted to the edges of the creeks where it is subject to daily tidal flooding, it is valuable for its ability inhibit erosion. Its uses have included compost, cordage and insulation.
These two spartinas have the ability to produce 10 tons of organic matter on every acre in a year. By comparison, wheat yields 2 tons and hay 4 tons per acre per year. The saltmarsh is one of the most productive spots in nature on earth.
One of the most common but noteworthy avian inhabitants of the saltmarsh in July is the Willet. This strictly coastal species of shore bird is a large, heavyset wader. This sandpiper weighs 8 oz , is 15" long, and has a 26" wingspan. It is a semi-colonial nester on the marsh and feeds by walking in shallow water or on shore and shovling the mud with its bill for bottom dwelling invertibrates. The eastern population was considerably reduced by hunting in the 1800's, but has recovered well. Even with its comparitively large size, the Willet on the ground is grey and non-discript, sometimes hard to see. However you will know it immediately when it takes flight revealing a striking white and black wing pattern, and loud, singing, repeated call of pill-will-willet!
The Month of Augustin August...
Traveling south from First Bridge Marina on Great Bay Boulevard, you will notice growing in patches along the road edges, often obscuring your view, a tall, course plant with a feathery seed head. This is Common Reed Grass or (Phragmites australis). Reed grass is a non-native, invasive species found mainly in acres that have been disturbed.
Phragmites becomes established by seeds, but spreads aggressively by creeping underground rhizomes. Thus it is able to form dense stands up to 12 feet high, out competing native vegetation and making it very difficult to control.
Reed Grass, native to Europe, is found throughout the world in tidal and non-tidal marshes on every continent except Antarctica. Its uses include thatching, codage,paper making and dried arrangements.
Feeding on and flying over the tidal mudflats of the saltmarsh creeks that cross Great Bay Boulevard, you may notice small and large flocks of shorebirds (sandpipers, plovers,and related species). You are witnessing part of the southbound Fall Migration of these birds which peaks in August along the Jersey coast.
Some of the species present are semipalmated, least and Pectoral sandpipers; black-bellied and semipalmated plovers; Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; Sanderling;Short-Billed Dowitcher. These long-range migrants have recently left their Arctic Tundra breeding grounds and are stopping over here to feed and rest before continuing to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. The local marshes provide an invaluable service to migratory shorebirds in this regard.
The Month of Septemberin September...
Some days during September along Great Bay Boulevard especially south of First Bridge Marina, you may wittness hundreds, sometimes thousands of small birds perched, making festoons of the roadside utility wires. These are Tree Swallows, an abundant fall migrant who winters along the Gulf Coast and in Central America. While here they roost in phragmites and feed on bayberry bushes.
The bird has a slim, streamlined form, long pointed wings, short bill and notched tail. It is blue-green on its back and clear white below. The immature has a brown back. It is 5 3/4 inches long, has a 14 1/2 inch wingspan and its voice is a liquid twitter.
If you are able to observe it, a large flock of Tree Swallows buzzing vociferously while alighting to feed on bayberry bushes is an unforgetable spectacle. Although normally insect eaters, Tree Swallows have evolved the appropriate enymes to digest the waxy fruits of the bayberry. The only other Northern Americanland bird capable of doing this is the Yellow-rumped Warbler.
While still one of our most numerous birds, numbers seem to be declining with coastal development and its attendent destruction of food plants such as bayberry.
Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica) is a tall, coastal, native shrub with dark green leathery deciduous leaves 2 1/2 to 4 inches long and 1 to 2 1/2 inches wide. The female plant produces clusters of small, waxy, bluish-gray fruits. Both leaves and fruits are frarantly spicey.
This aromatic bush is often found growing with Beach Plum, Groundsel Tree, and Poison Ivy. It can be found all along both sides of Great Bay Boulevard and there is an extensive stand at the end of the road.
The waxy coating of the fruits is actually a type of vegetative fat, and this supplies the Tree Swallows with important energy for their migration. In the early days of this nation this wax had a commercial value in the manufacture of canles.
The Month of Octoberin October...
October, as elsewhere, is the colorful month on the saltmarsh. Along almost the entire length of Great Bay Boulevard, from the upland maritime forest, past the First Bridge Marina to the end, grows a tall, green, branching shrub covered with what at first appears to be white flowers. This is Groundsel Tree (Baccaris halimifolia). Upon closer inspection it is evident that the bright white growths are the silky clusters of hairs attached to seed capsules which are dispersed by the wind.
Groundsel is mainly a coastal species found near the upper edge of the high saltmarsh, often in association with Marsh Elder, another salt-community shrub. Together they are collectors of flotsam and debris left by flood tides. Groundsel is in the Composite Family, grows to 15 feet high, and bears male and female flowers on different plants. It has thin alternate leaves. The upper leaves are small and lack teeth, whereas the lower leaves are larger wedge-shaped, and are irregularly toothed. In autumn the Groundsel Tree is a very marked feature of the landscape.
During October the spartina grasses of the flat marsh itself are turning from dull green to brown. This drabness is however, punctuated by large patches of vivid red. Glasswort (Salicornia europaea) is the plant responsible for this eye-catching display. Glasswort, or saltwort, occurs in the drier, sandy, saline areas of the marsh. It is an odd looking, branching, leafless, succulent herb growing from 6 to 15 inches high. The stems have the ability to retain a comparitively large volume of water helping the plant maintain a critical water balance neccessary because of where it grows. It is edible but very salty. There are three species of Glasswort here, all the color of jade during the growing season, but only S. europaea turns deep pink or ruby red in autumn.
In late October along the boulevard it is possible to wittness a portion of a spectacular statewide migration event. At first a Shrill Gabble, barks and yelps draw your attention to the distant sky. Then long, flickering strands of white birds appear in flocks of several hundred to over a thousand. These are Greater Snow Geese headed from their Arctic breeding grounds to their wintering grounds at either nearby Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge or the Deleware Bayshore. The Snow Goose is a stocky, short-necked, large-headed, white bird with distinctive black wingtips. By comparison it is about 2/3 the size of a Canada Goose. Their population has expanded dramatically in recent years due largely to increased availability of wintering habitat in agricultural areas. At last count there were more than half a million Greater Snow Geese and increasing at 5% per year.
Snow Geese love saltmarsh cordgrass. Their serrated bills are excellent at grubbing and ripping the grass out by the roots, thus creating vast bald spots in the saltmarsh called "Eat-Outs". They are litterally eating the heart out of the marsh. The population increase has also caused the distruction of plant communities on the tundra where they breed. Like human beings, the Snow Goose is destroying the very habitat upon which it depends.
Lynn Hunt (Local bird and botany enthusiast)
Spring, Summer, FallAll along Great Bay Boulevard growing in patches is a native perenial plant in the sumac family. It has been referred to as "a noxious weed", the worst weed of the woods", "snake of the weeds". All parts of the plant in all seasons of the year contain a toxin which, if you are allergic and you touch any of these parts, will cause a severe skin rash and blistering. This is of course the ubiquitous Poison Ivy (toxicodendron vadicans).
The leaves of Poison Ivy are its most identifiable feature. The old warning "leaves of three-let it be" is excellent advice, but the plant is not really three-leaved. Its leaves are compound and are so made up with three leaflets to each leaf. Every leaf is attached to the stem of the plant by a petiole (leaf-stem). The leaves are alternate on the stem, glossy green in color, and quite irregular in outline. They can appear elliptical or ovate or tapering to a point. The edges may be slightly serrated or wavy.
Late Summer-Early FallAs you travel along Great Bay Boulevard in late summer, you may notice, as you look out over the saltmarsh, what appears to be a low, pale-purple mist. This is an assemblage of the delicate blooms of Sea Lavender (limonium mashii) that grows in the narrow tidal zone which is flooded twice a month. Marsh Rosemary is another name for this perenial herb.
The tiny five-petaled lavender flowers appear in a much-branched cluster of bare stems. The leaves are lance-shaped growing in a rosette 2-4 inches high and 4 to 8 inches wide. The flower stem is 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 feet tall. Sea Lavender is salt-tolerant, has a vertical taproot, and reproduces from seeds.
Because the flowers retain their color after drying on the stem, they are prized for bouquets and dried arrangements. Lamentably, this gives rise to over-collecting which causes the population to dwindle throughout its range. Remember, it is unlawful to harvest or disturb any vegetation on publically owned land here or elsewhere.
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