COURT HOUSE – Plants don’t move, but if it’s birds, reptiles, amphibians, or mammals you’re looking for, you have to know the hours they keep and where they like to hide.
Visitors here last weekend were keeping their eyes peeled for snakes, skinks and toads and their ears alert for woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds and bullfrogs.
It was the second day of the Bio-Blitz co-sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Fish and Wildlife Division, and the Nature Conservancy, a national organization, partners in the ownership of this 800-acre tract on Courthouse-Dennisville Road.
Larissa Smith was setting up a greeting station at the entrance to Lizard Tail Swamp Preserve to the sounds of birdsong and cricket frogs making their presence known at 5:35 a.m. June 10.
Smith is a biologist with the division’s endangered and non-game program. The day before at 3 p.m., she had set-up shop along with Suzanne DeCoursey, a conservation science specialist with the conservancy, to greet volunteers who came from as far away as Andover, in Sussex County, to inventory everything that flies, crawls, creeps, hops or just plain grows on land that 10 years ago was slated for development.
Plans to build 400 homes on part of the site by Morey Associates went by the wayside with a turn in the market some years ago and in September, 1997, the state and the conservancy each paid $1 million for 334 acres.
The only remnants of a possible housing development are stone walls at the entrance way, about a mile west from the entrance to the county park and zoo.
Frogs now serenade from trenches that were probably dug to drain nearby wetlands on the site, according to Smith.
This two-day event is part of a new program the division is hoping will become an annual event, she said..
The goal in identifying what lives on any site is to better manage it, said Smith. This preserve is open to the public and to hunters.
Annual blitzes would replace a statewide “herp volunteer” program, that’s short for herpetologists, those who study reptiles and amphibians, said Smith. In effect for about six years, herp volunteers were assigned an area measuring two and a half miles by two and a half miles to record creatures observed there.
Scott McClain, a lawyer from Andover, was a herp volunteer and came here with his wife to be part of the blitz. Originally from the West Coast, he said he has always been a naturalist.
Dave Golden, also a biologist, works with Smith out of the division’s Tuckahoe office. He was the second to arrive that Saturday morning and an hour’s walk down one of the few trails established on the tract that is wild, barely passable wetlands in part, produced sightings of two white-tailed deer, two Fowler’s toads and a tick which attached itself to Golden’s shirt sleeve.
He kicked aside brush piles to check for evidence of salamanders, but didn’t find any. Further away from the road, there are a number of ponds on the property and Golden said one was large enough for fish. There was also a population of turtles there, along with the frogs.
Trenches exist and some wooden bridges have been installed on the trail to cross over them. Golden said that they were dug since, while such ravines might be natural in north Jersey, they are not here.
Ellen Creveling, a conservation science coordinator for the conservancy, works out of its Chester office. She said she was at the site till about midnight the Friday night before working with Dale Schweitzer, a lepidopterist, one who studies moths and butterflies.
They had seen some 80 species of moth, said Creveling. The Luna moth, with its characteristic long tail was one, along with common tent caterpillars, she said.
Three different types of traps were set up; one was simply bait put on trees. Creveling said the bait was a concoction of Schweitzer’s that contained yeast, beer and some rotten bananas.
Another trap used mercury vapor lights to attract the moths and then trap them in a bucket below, after they fly into plastic baffles hanging with the lights. A generator had to be put on site to run these, said Creveling.
Although she anticipated more volunteers, Smith said mid-morning that about two dozen people would be participating and that most of them were experts in one area or another.
She had some observations posted at that time but said that one birder had completed three of the inventory sheets and she didn’t have those returned yet. Along with the sheets, each volunteer got an aerial map of the preserve.
Smith expected more birders that morning and said the “plant people were coming between 10 and 12.” They can come anytime, she said, since the plants don’t move.
For those identifying creatures by sound, night is best for frogs and dawn or dusk is best for birds. But high winds and cooler temperatures that morning kept birds quiet till a bit later.
Smith expected to wrap up the event about 3 p.m. and said she wouldn’t have the numbers tallied until some time the following week.
Among the bird species spotted by 9 that morning were laughing gull, turkey vulture, glossy ibis, osprey, titmouse, American crow, red tailed hawk, red-winged blackbird, blue jay, turkey, cat bird, veery, ovenbird, great crested flycatcher, chickadee, and kingfisher.
The herps observed or heard a black racer snake, five-lined and ground skinks, and bullfrog, green frogs, Fowler’s toad and northern gray tree frog.
Red-spotted purple, silver spotted skipper and tiger swallowtail were the few butterflies noted by then. And not surprisingly, white tail deer and gray squirrels were also seen.
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