Trying to Drive Winter Down the Tubes; Robbing Tom’s Piping Plover to Pay Paul

By JAY MANN | Mar 21, 2018

Our winter is trying to pass … like an oversized kidney stone. You have to admit we’ve been taking a brutish hibernal hit, twixt 2017 and 2018. Even this week’s official calendrical transition into spring is getting dumped on by the skies above. True spring will never feel so good. To even feel the 60s!

Despite this long-lingering frigidity and bouts of frozen precip, I’ll nonetheless offer some ponds with silver linings. I’m talking vernal ponds. The plentitude of winter/spring wetness is dripping with good news for ponderanians – of which I’m a rapt member. We vernal pondaphiles are legion, though for now it’s mainly just me and some guy named Calvin, who scurries off into the shrubbery if he even hears another human. Odd little man.

Just this past weekend, I did some heavy outback truckin’ to check the status of the ponds of spring. I checked all the usual glens, hollows, bogs, gulches, gullies, dells, dales. You name it, if it was lowlands, it got a look-see. That good news: Outback low points are filled to the gills, sporting clean, tadpole-ready waters.

If all goes well, amphibianistically speaking, this summer we should be neck-deep in frogs, toads and salamanders. Cool, huh?

Nothing is better for all of nature than a kickin’ spring mating and egging session for frogs and such, compliments of plumped-up vernal ponds. As go amphibians, so goes much of nature. They’re like newts in a coal mine.

Of course, there’s no hiding from the fact that many a onetime marshy piece of lowlands has been paved over for the dubious benefit of two-leggers. However, I’ve noticed, with mild optimism, the emergence of suburban vernal ponds, compliments of communities that require water-catching retention basins near larger developments. While those manmade hollows are far from prime nature digs, I’ve recorded a burgeoning frog presence within many of them. One manmade water-catch in Stafford Township annually rings out with a puddle-load of spring peepers. How those mini-frogs negotiate the vast paved expanses to reach suburban vernal ponds has the emotional makings of a children’s book, maybe Hoppity Hop’s Great Parking Lot Adventure. I’m recommending any use of the word “croaked” be in a strictly upbeat way. Kids are kinda delicate that way. “Mommy, what are those popping sounds when cars drive through the parking lot?”

Returning to nature, the earliest natural vernal pond tryers-out are exclusively wood frogs (Rana sylvatica). Through some inner cybergenic hemoglobin magic, they can tolerate pretty much freezing to death during hard-frozen nights. It has to do with some natural antifreeze in their blood. The same enigmatic antifreeze prevents the blood of winter flounder from forming lethal ice crystals when overwintering in icy bay waters.

To be sure, companies like Scottsdale-based Alcor are into studying such ice-defying hemoglobin. Since for the life of you, you don’t know what Alcor is, suffice it to go with just the NBC news headlining: “This Company Will Freeze Your Dead Body for $200,000.” Hmmm. I only saved enough to freeze maybe one small part of my body. Hey, get your mind out of the gutter!

On a far less, cold-ass note, the beloved sound of spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) should soon be soaring. However, these famed early-bird pond and puddle partiers, which have been known to peep profusely as early as February during thaws, are getting a real late singing start this year. They’ll likely make up for lost time with an enhanced rumpus. My tape recorder is at the ready. I’m hoping to get close-ups of their calls, to then mix with loads of other N.J. frog calls, finally dubbing them into a rap-like song, with bull frogs as my bass line. What? It can be done.

For you Pine Barrens tree frog aficionados, the threatened species is not a vernal ponder. In fact, they’re among the last to sound off in spring – and almost always near permanent, tannin-loaded pinelands waters. I’ll be videotaping these masked beauties this year, sans handling. I’ll show them on Facebook and at fishlbi.com.

PLOVERS AND CLOSURES: Speaking of natural things aflutter, the southerly Holgate beaches, adjacent to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, have already been closed to beach traffic, i.e. me and my Chevy. Foot traffic is still allowed, i.e. not me, until April 1, when the whole people-access shebang shuts down for arriving piping plover.

Per an LBT message: “Long Beach Township in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has closed the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on the South end of Long Beach Island, to all vehicles. This includes vehicles with beach buggy permits. Only emergency vehicles will be permitted in that area. It is closed for the purpose of protecting wildlife. At this time, it is only closed to vehicles and not foot traffic. Thank you for your cooperation.”

For you linguists, plover can either be pronounce plover, as in over, or plover, as in lover, though the latter sounds kinda stupid. I’ve been criticized in the past when using plover as in over. Birders can be such weird people, as in “I see in your column you’re writing plover as if it’s pronounced over.” What!?

Back to Holgate plovers/plovers, they’ll be luxuriating in vaster-than-ever strands of migrating sand, thanks to the replenishment trickledown effect, technically a north-to-south littoral drift – littoral being homophonically pronounced just like literal, not the way you pronounce it. Oh, I see you’ve been saying it wrong all along, eh, bird people!

As to the gathering Holgate sandiness, the recent hell-and-highwater nor’wester known as Riley arrived just as the Beach Haven/Holgate replenishment project was ending. The storm’s honking north-to-south seas powered tons of just-placed sand southward, onto the beaches next to the refuge. The sand insurgency widened the beaches closest to the parking lot and is moving toward stanching the refuge’s overwash problems, starting about 1,500 feet down. That overwash came that close to causing an ocean-to-bay Island break.

MORE PLOVER DIGS: On the far north end of LBI, the state-owned beaches of Barnegat Lighthouse State Park are also offering new and tantalizing sands. Arriving plovers, oystercatchers, terns and a feral cat or two will soon stumble upon a nesting nirvana in the form of a massive, just-deposited sand spoils area, east and south of the lighthouse.

That new BLSP material is ripe from the bay bottom, dredged during the deepening of Double Creek Channel.

No, I’m not afraid of bucking dredging-based political correctness by using the now dirty and verboten word spoils. OK, so maybe it does have a decayish ring to it. Still, many of us used it freely for most of our Island lives, dating back to the filling in of places like High Bar Harbor. That said, this is likely the last time I’ll use it after catching sure-to-arrive hell from Keith and the “call it dredge material” gang. I’ll now be all, “Dang, I should have eaten this banana earlier. It’s now, uh, dredge material.”

The dredge material deposition zone in the park is like nothing arriving shorebirds have ever seen thereabouts. In fact, it’s like nothing Islanders have ever seen there.

As to what virgin LBI plover digs might mean in bird perpetuation terms, that’s kinda complicated.

It’s fully understood that there is currently “X” number of hanging-on piping plovers in the world, virtually all of them coming our way as we speak. They’re bound for parts well known. Per the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Piping Plovers return to the same sites to breed and to spend the winter. Individuals that return to breed with the same mate often nest within 128 feet of the previous nest site.”

With all due respect to the fine folks at the Cornell Bird Lab – of which I’m a member – there is one, not fully understood penchant common to migrating piping plovers. Being opportunistic little nesters, they’ll readily spy any inviting and well-appointed digs from a mile high.

Conversationally put:

“Whoa, Hon, check out that amazingly sandy spot down there. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Now, Ralph, you know we told the Cornell people we’d be going back up to our good old spot.”

“The hell you say. This is too perfect to pass up. I can taste the worms already.”

“You know, Ralph, I think you’re right.”

“Damn straight. Fasten your seatbelt, we’re going in for a landing.”

In case you didn’t follow that flight of fancy, until plover populations take a quantum leap forward, the delicious-looking sands of Holgate and Barnegat Light will simply snag plover pairs away from other nesting areas … for now!

In sound theory, the Island’s superior nesting terrain could/should lead to better annual plover output, hypothetically boosting the population in the long flight. There might even be enough plovers to someday go around.

Which begs us to revisit the egregious human development that has taken place upon the bird’s beachline habitat, leading to the plover’s waning numbers. Now, this might sound a bit weird, even from me, but things simply can’t get any worse along places like the N.J. coastline – at least not in a loss-of-habitat way. The build-out of beachy coastline areas has pretty much run its course. It’s not like there are miles of secret unused N.J. beachline just waiting to be built upon. Every square inch of coastline is fully accounted for. Thinking in plover terms, it now comes down to making things more plover-inviting in places where the little birds have been driven out. Reuniting of plovers – and other wavering shorebird populations – with their former beach haunts is now being tried, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park being a reunion point where both humans and birds realize a productive coexistence.

Creatures with a propensity for coexistence with humanity have a brighter future.

RUNDOWN: The latest word on the upcoming beach replenishments of Harvey Cedars, Surf City and parts on Brant Beach (LBT) is lateness. Weather has been a bugger, and, looking out the window, it’s not going to be de-bugging itself any time soon.

The Weeks Company is currently placing sub line piping off Brant Beach and is about to bring its dredge down from Mantoloking, weather permitting. I have to think work could carry into June.

I’m hoping this latest beach fix work will be done and gone before the first waves of mongo springtime bluefish cruise the LBI beachline, south to north.

Speaking of bluefish, you might have read how the commercialites are fully bummed over what has been a costly lack of bluefish during their bluefish-netting season. At the same time, we of a recreational ilk are joyfully un-bummed over the unprecedented showing of spring choppers over the past few years. It doesn’t take a graph and laser pointer to show our gain aligns perfectly with the loss of blues for commercial fishing. I’m betting the vast oceanic ecological pot is being stirred, bigtime. Increasing ocean surface water temps are surely playing some sort of role, most likely by shifting the mannerisms of essential forage fish. Where goeth the food, goeth the fish.

In the same forage vein/vain, I no longer have any faith in the spring run of beachfront stripers. Take away the near-beach clams and crabs – which are now gone – and the suds offer little of interest to the cows. It’s off to the bunker pods just off the beaches – and well out of casting range. By the by, I’m getting more into boat fishing this year … out of striper necessity.

I know it’s not huge on the minds of most modern nearshore anglers, but what in bloody hell happened to what used to be one of the most reliable early-season targets: Boston mackerel!? They are famed as one of the finest baits to freeze, easily lasting into fall gamefishing times. I used to nostalgically luxuriate in their flavor when freshly cooked in spring. Not only are they par excellence taste wise, but they’re also top-shelf as a health food fish. The last I heard, foreign mega-ships had been free to harvest Boston macks and herring in our EEZ. I don’t know if that ravaging still applies, but even if the factory ships have been vanquished, they likely did everlasting damage.

Not that I report much on white perch, but talking with some bridge fishermen along the Mullica, there is a fair to good showing of the scrumptious little striped bass relatives – which I think are significantly tastier than their brethren bass. However – and don’t hold this against me, I was young and needed the food – many years ago, I ate some fillets off a foot-long striper. They were delectable, offering a grouper-like flavor, apparently lost as the fish grows out of its flavor, after, say, 22 inches.

jaymann@thesandpaper.net

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