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When Nature Migrates…. North!

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When Nature Migrates…. North!

10/17/2013 09:04

What is the most common woodpecker in New Jersey? After the Downy Woodpecker, the second ranked species would have been less certain. Except in recent decades, the Red-bellied Woodpecker has seen its population explode since I was born in 1961. That is when the Red-bellied Woodpecker was confined to Cape May County now, you can see them everywhere from the northernmost corner of the State, Sussex County to Cape May County.  So, in half a century, they have marched the length of the State and today are making inroads in New England.  But they are not the only ones!

The Carolina Wren breeds in Pennsylvania, a diminutive brown bird that sings loudly, “teakettle, teakettle, and teakettle!”  There was a time when, if the winters were harsh, with ample snow cover and bone-chilling colds, they would not survive. Carolina Wren would return in small numbers in the spring, breed, and then, brave individual birds would try to survive our winter.  Today, male Carolina Wren will sing as early as in mid-February, find a mate and nest by early March. Recent winters devoid of snow for extended periods mean that the Carolina Wren will perish locally.

Take the Golden-winged Warbler, a colorful songbird of mountainous clearings and wetland. It is disappearing dramatically from the Poconos of Pennsylvania and the Highlands of New Jersey.  In fact, the Golden winged Warbler is disappearing from its historical range south along the Appalachian Mountains into Georgia.  Yet, its home range is expanding into southern Ontario and Manitoba in Canada! 

Even butterflies are getting into the movement north! In 2008, I photographed a large swallowtail along a stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Vernon, New Jersey.  Once circulated on the web, the picture of a Giant Swallowtail excited butterfly enthusiasts to flock to the northwest corner of the State to catch a glimpse for themselves. Apparently, this was the northernmost occurrence of Giant Swallowtail, the largest butterfly in North America. It had migrated north from the State of Delaware to New Jersey.  It didn’t stop there; there are reports of its being seen in Massachusetts!

There is much ado about the elevated babble among pundits and believers as to whether global warming exists. Yet, to a whole constellation of citizens, nature lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, naturalists , birders and other earthy brethren, we knew the world was warming long before someone coined the terms climate change, global warming etc.. The consequences and complications of global warming are difficult to assess short or long term, but their implications are clear: species of plants and animals are on the move, northward!

For the Wissahickon Creek watershed, global warming merits some serious consideration. Do our preserved lands allow for a continuous corridor so that animals and plants can migrate from southern areas northward?  Probably not, with man-made urban centers and suburban sprawl dominating the region. Protected open space is limited in size and surrounded by development. Our natural landscape is much reduced from the time before Columbus discovered North America.

Today, WVWA is preparing for the future. We are conducting ongoing studies that will determine the species of plants and animals that live on our preserves. The Morris Arboretum is conducting a natural resource inventory to identify plant species. WVWA staff conducted a breeding bird survey this past spring that logged 57 species breeding on WVWA lands. Looking ahead to 2014, we will be launching a herpetological study (reptiles and amphibians) and etymological study (insects). All these studies gives us a baseline appreciation of the fauna and flora of our preserves.

We are exploring what trends are occurring in the region. What species are increasing or decreasing? What types of habitat are disappearing? What habitats are replacing them? How much longer will time pass before we feel more like the summers of North Carolina than those southeastern Pennsylvania!

Bald Cypress SaplingsThe experimentation has begun. The WVWA Stewardship staff has planted a number of Bald Cypresses, an ancient evergreen tree of the swamps and marshes of the southeastern US.  With its northernmost occurrence at Trap Rock State Park in Delaware a mere 37 miles from the Wissahickon Creek watershed, it would not take a great deal of warming for this species not only to survive, but to thrive in our region. Already, Bald Cypresses have survived and re-generated saplings for years at a forest grove just around the corner from our office in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

While we are now experiencing the fall migration of birds and butterflies as the summer wanes, a more subtle migration has commenced. We are living in an age where our civilization has changed the natural order of things with our man-made landscape.  As we manage our preserves to protect our biodiversity we may have to give nature a helping hand to migrate north; giving the Bald Cypress and similar plants a head start by planning and planting for their arrival is the new business that we should be and are in!

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