Taking the Pulse of the Marsh
Wetlands and coastal ecosystems are incredibly dynamic with change being a constant characteristic. Superimposed on their rhythmic changes are intensified pressures related to climate change, sea level rise, and intense human use. As the intensity of coastal storms increases and coastal communities become more vulnerable, calls for fortification of our coasts are increasing. Whether it is expanding bulkheads, artificial filling of beaches, or raising marsh elevations with dredge material, building coastal resilience will undoubtedly impact natural areas and the plants and animals that contribute to their function. Our understanding of these ecosystems and the wildlife that are dependent upon them may ultimately be the difference in the success of coastal resilience measures.
Last year, we expanded our work to study changes that are occurring and what they mean to the wildlife here. Our office is our laboratory and work done here in these marshes and coastal systems is significant and relevant to systems along the entire east coast of the United States. The richness of the fabric of these systems is remarkable. This is a special place at the center of one of the great migrations on planet Earth. The marshes and beaches of Cape May County are critical for a wide range of birds and other wildlife. Whether they are passing through on northbound or southbound flights to breeding grounds and wintering areas, arriving here to nest, wintering here, or are part of our year-round resident populations, the importance of these ecosystems cannot be underestimated. The vast marsh complexes that make this area so rich are also the key to coastal resilience in a complex web where disturbance, human or otherwise, can have a cascading effect.
To become the eyes and ears of the marsh, last year, we installed marsh elevation monitoring stations at the Institute with the support of the Davenport Family Foundation. This year, with their continued support, we will expand the program to include monitoring of key species and their role and relationship to the ecosystem. Information on how these species are influencing ecosystem dynamics and how their roles are changing will be instrumental in guiding engineering decisions that are being made to fortify our coasts. The understanding obtained through analysis of key marsh and coastal indicator species will help guide decisions that will impact the future of these marshes and the coastal communities that surround them.
We couldn’t undertake these projects without the support of our donors, members, and friends. As we come into the season of giving, I hope you will consider how your support can help fuel this crucial work.
by Dr. Lenore Tedesco
As another summer comes to a close, it’s a great time to think about all the remarkable work our staff, volunteers, and interns have done and the impact it has had. As the summer season starts, our staffing ramps up with the addition of seasonal employees, more volunteers, and the arrival of our undergraduate interns. Front-desk staff and volunteers are here to greet visitors, get them booked in programs and excursions, and are ready to answer questions about programs, wildlife rescue, and our mission. The education teams are delivering summer nature programs, outreach events, and traveling education programs. The education interns are busy running visitor programs, coordinating Crabulous Crab Day and working hard on their independent projects that help enhance programming while giving them great experience. Our research and conservation department is stretched thin managing the various research, monitoring and conservation projects that are all in full swing. Staff are out monitoring bird usage at Stone Harbor Point and Ring Island and stewarding the beaches so beach nesting birds can raise their young. They are documenting box turtle usage of the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary, and managing the intense pressure of Diamond-back Terrapin nesting season. From conducting road patrols, to protecting nests from predators, to retrieving eggs from mothers killed on roadways, working to rehabilitate injured terrapins, and working with all of you that bring injured terrapins to the Institute, it’s a whirl wind of activity. The research interns are also working on their individual research projects in the midst of all that is happening here as well.
It’s a pretty remarkable time of year. It’s also a great time to take stock. The reTURN the Favor Horseshoe Crab Rescue program tallied more than 500 volunteer walks that rescued more than 77,000 horseshoe crabs. The Terrapin Conservation Program saved more than 360 terrapins and helped 107 more that were injured. They handled more than 490 road killed females to harvest 776 eggs. The eggs have been hatching from our incubators since the end of July. They will be cared for until they can be released back into the marsh next summer.
People often ask me if our area is better off because the Institute is here. The answer is a resounding yes! Whether it’s because we were able to provide a special connection to the marsh for our visitors, or because of the wildlife that got a second chance at life – the answer is YES. It takes a village to make a difference. All of you – our supporters – are part of that village. We can’t do it without you!
Its spring! Hasn’t quite felt like spring in the marsh through most of April and early May. The marsh got nice and green, but the temperatures stayed cold and the rain just kept on coming. My fingers are crossed that the weather turns glorious.
As I write this column in early May, one thing is certain – the sounds of the marsh are glorious. It’s a regular symphony of sounds and it’s always a fun time of year. Birding by ear is an important skill and especially for the oldest and slowest member of the Marshketeers, something I need to work on every year. So much of the bird life out there is never really seen, but only heard. Of course, each year, I find I have to relearn so many of the calls.
The chirping of the Ospreys followed closely by the chorus of the Willet is a true harbinger of the season on the marsh. Both of these birds are easy to see, and thankfully abundant in our marshes. This year, the new martin house has expanded the colony noticeably so that their chatter is a new and ever present sound on the back deck. They’re such social birds and their vocalizations really do seem to be friendly conversation.
Then there are my favorites. The secret marsh birds – those that we only rarely see – but the well-tuned ear can often hear. The Clapper Rail is one such bird. The term thin-as-a-rail actually comes from these birds. They make their living in the marsh moving amongst the Spartina blades and their bodies are relatively thin so that the grasses barely move. Their call is a loud, rattling noise that is a common sound in our marshes. Nesting pairs enhance their pair bonding by merging their calls until they sound like one bird. A group of clapper rails are collectively known as an “applause”, “audience”, or “commercial” of rails attesting to the dominance of their vocalizations. You won’t see them very often – but a visit to the Institute or some quiet time in the back bays will get you an earful.
I hope you will find the time to hear the symphony of the birds of the marsh. Taking the time to be still and listen brings such richness. Stop by and visit, take a walk on the elevated walkway and be serenaded by all the sounds of the marsh. We’re here every day and the welcome mat is out.
Spring 2016 – Rising Waters – A View From the Marsh – On January 23rd, the southern Jersey shore experienced a strong blast of winter, in a winter that had largely been noted for unseasonably warm weather. Yet again, our communities were battered with storm tides that sadly flooded many homes and businesses. The beaches and dunes, our front line of defense in these storms, did their job and protected the ocean front homes. However, they again experienced significant erosion in the process. Unfortunately, these storm flooding events are becoming more and more common.
The View from the Tower is changing. I see change. The marsh is now routinely flooded over several high tide cycles each month. Maybe you have noticed it too when you are driving on the causeways to the islands. Maybe you notice that your floating dock, if you are fortunate enough to have one, now floats higher than level sometimes. These are all visual evidence that sea level has risen. If we look at long-term records of measured sea level in our area, the trend is clear. Sea level in southern NJ has risen more than 6” since the 1980’s. Yep – 6”. This isn’t a model or a prediction. It’s an actual measurement.
To some that may not seem like a lot, but the reality is that 6” of rise is dramatic. It means that during storms, the water level is already ½ a foot higher before the storm tides come. On the beach, it means that the water already comes up higher on the beach and closer to the dunes. In the meadows, it means that the marsh has already absorbed a lot of water, before the storm tides come. Along the Bayfront, it means that water is already 6” higher on the bulkheads that are helping to prevent flooding of our communities.
At The Wetlands Institute, we are working every day to assess the health of our marshes and their ability to continue to help protect our communities. We are working to test measures to help the marshes cope with rising water levels and to educate our community about how they are changing. We are working to restore animal populations that are important to helping maintain balance in these stressed ecosystems. We are working to help everyone understand and appreciate the importance of these natural resources.
Our coastal ecosystems face constant threats and we work tirelessly to help ensure they are healthy and here for generations to experience and enjoy. If you want to learn more, view my TEDX talk or the Institute video – both are on our homepage wetlandsinstiute.org. The support of our friends and donors is crucial to enabling the work we do. Thank you for being a part of our journey as we continue to build excellence.
Winter 2015 – Early October brought historic storms to the Jersey shore and much of the eastern seaboard of the United States. Relentless northeast winds blew for more than five days and storm tides filled the back bays to levels that were reminiscent of Sandy, but thankfully not as high. As with Sandy, our marshes fared very well. In fact, a quick look out over the vast meadows shows them to be in their fall glory with golden hues and the pink and reds of the pickleweed. The marshes did their job – and did it well, absorbing billions of gallons of flood waters and dampening waves.
As I sat in my office, day after day, feeling the fury of the storm and watching the marsh dissapear into the bay, I was once again reminded of the importance of the marshes, and thankful for Herbert Mills and his visionary leadership. He recognized the value of these meadows for storm protection and set upon a course to preserve and protect them so that half a century later they are still doing their job and protecting us. He was able to achieve his goals because so many people heard his message, shared his vision and stepped forward with the support he needed to purchase these meadows for the public good. I still meet many of you that contributed to that first fundraising campaign and made that vision a reality.
As the seasons change, we are busy working every day to ensure that these marshes remain healthy. We are actively monitoring them, teaching about them, and sharing our commitment and passion for them and the creatures that rely on them. I hope you will take time to reflect on the many ways that the marshes are valuable to you. How would your life be different if these marshes were not here?
I am so grateful to all of our supporters, past and present for helping ensure that these marshes remain. I hope you will consider the value of the work we do as we enter the season of giving.
Autumn 2015 – It’s hard to believe but the rhythms of the season are already leaning toward fall. The signs are already evident in the marsh and the Institute. Migratory shorebirds are already abundant on the beaches and in the marsh – headed southbound after nesting in the Arctic and northern Canada. Beach nesting birds at Stone Harbor Point have successfully fledged their young and are abundant on the flats and in the tide pools. Migratory dragonflies have become abundant, and the first Monarchs have been sighted starting to move south. The Summer Nature Programs have wound down and we are gearing up for the start of school and traveling environmental education and field trip programs. The Fall Migration Festival is just around the corner and we will delight in celebrating one of the last great migrations on earth – right here through our backyard. I hope you will join us for some of the fun.
Speaking of Celebrations, the inaugural Summer Celebration was held on August 1st. After 33 years of hosting the auction at the Institute, we made a break. We combined the Sunset Soiree with the Wings ‘N Water Auction and had a great cocktail party, auction, and raffles. Wear and tear on the Institute, and the desire for a fresh approach to match the fresh approach we have been taking with so many of our programs, fueled the decision to make the move. The event was a resounding success. We met many new faces and caught up with so many of our old friends. Thanks to everyone that donated items and supported the Institute. We more than doubled our fundraising totals this year. It is your support that makes what we do possible. I am so pleased to count so many of you among our supporters.
Thank you! We have made no small plans – and you are all a part of the journey to greatness that we are all on.
Summer 2015 – Summer time has arrived at the shore – and it is a welcome arrival indeed. The Institute has shifted into summer mode and as I write these musings, the marsh and the Institute are a whirlwind of activity. The birds are nesting everywhere – on the grounds, in the surrounding marsh, and at both of the avian restoration projects that we are working on. The horseshoe crabs are actively spawning on Delaware Bay Beaches and the reTurn the Favor program is in full swing with staff and volunteers out rescuing stranded horseshoe crabs. Our goal is to far surpass the 30,000 crabs saved last year. Of course, the warm weather brings diamondback terrapins out of the marsh and up to higher ground to lay eggs keeping our Turtle Patrols very busy.
The summer, with all of its excitement and renewed energy, reminds me how grateful I am for the amazing wetlands and all that live here and visit here. That includes you! We honor your commitment, generosity and your investment in our mission. It is with that spirit that we are honoring our donors in some new ways. The Herbert Mills Legacy Society recognizes those individuals who have notified us of their intentions to name The Institute in their will, trust, or other estate plan. Formerly, simply the Legacy Society, the new Herbert Mills Legacy Society is a tribute to our founder and is open to anyone naming the Institute regardless of bequest amount.
The Institute is pleased to create a new Loyalty Society. The Loyalty Society recognizes those individuals that have made a gift to the Institute, in any amount, for the past 10 consecutive years. We are thrilled to count more than 400 friends in the Loyalty Society. Thanks to all of you for your sustained support.
Finally, we have created a new membership category at the Institute. Lifetime membership is for members that seek to join us at the highest level or for a select group of members whose commitment and belief in the mission and goals of this Institute is apparent in all they do. The Board of Trustees appointed the first class of Lifetime members at their May board meeting.
We hope that these new recognition programs are a fitting way to honor the donors that hold us dear. These donors, along with so many others, were officially recognized at our annual donor recognition event at the end of June. If you have made provisions for the Institute in your estate plan please let us know so we can thank you properly and welcome you into the Herbert Mills Legacy Society. And to everyone that supports what we do – in your own way – we thank you. You are the reason that we Make No Small Plans and are well on our way to becoming a center of excellence for research, conservation, and education!
Spring 2015 – I love to take time to write this column. It provides a wonderful reason to reflect on the status and rhythm of the Institute. The Institute, like the marsh outside my window, has its own rhythm. It’s February and one typically thinks of this as the quiet, perhaps even sleepy time down by the shore. I know that to be very deceiving. Some days the salt pannes out my window are frozen and still, other times they are filled with Great Blue Herons, Black Ducks, Greater Yellowlegs, Red-Breasted Mergansers, and Kingfishers. Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Northern Harriers patrol the winter marsh hunting for their next meal. Deciding whether you think the marsh – or the Institute – is quiet or awash in activity – is one of perspective.
So much is happening both behind the scenes and out in the community. The Stone Harbor Point Restoration Project has just started the construction phase and we are planning extensively for the Beneficial Reuse of Dredge Material project to start field work in a few weeks. The education program with Russia is in full swing now, and Brooke and I are working on travel logistics, establishing relationships with the center partners, and starting the work of collecting education best practices. We head to Russia in mid-April. The education teams are polishing and refining new program components and we are working every day on maintenance and repair work so the Institute is ready to go when school group activity increases dramatically in a few weeks. The applications are rolling in for the summer intern programs and we are working very hard to replace the martin house at the Institute. The martins are already in Georgia and headed north so we only have a few weeks to have their new home ready! The rhythm of the martins is the time clock that we keep. Whether we are preparing for their arrival – or your arrival – all of us at The Institute are collectively wondering what happened to the quiet time?
We have been busy. In the coming days, we will be launching a restructuring of the membership program. We have added an exciting new membership category for Lifetime Membership – an opportunity for us to honor some of our very long-standing members, and welcome others into this group. We have also provided for opportunities to better focus membership dues directly on supporting our mission and provided opportunities to decline some member benefits so that your membership dollars can go directly to program support.
We are also announcing our 2015 Festival and Special Event Calendar in this issue. Like the changing of the seasons, there have been some changes to the schedule, but also many things remain the same. The biggest change that we are announcing is that the Wings ‘N Water Benefit Auction will be moving to a new venue – and getting a new name. The auction will be held at The Reeds in Stone Harbor August 1, 2015, overlooking the marsh with a view of the Institute and a stronger focus on supporting our mission and programs in a festive and exciting new way. Please see the article that presents the events schedule.
The Institute remains busier than ever. I am proud to have my sleeves rolled up and working hard every day to continue to elevate the Institute to new levels of excellence. Our impact to serving this community – plants, animals, and people – is stronger than ever. Your support and commitment to our efforts is a critical driver. We are still Making No Small Plans. Thank you for being by our side and believing in our work. Please come by and see your support at work.
Winter 2014 – As I write this column, The Institute has just shifted to our winter hours. It’s a bitter sweet time for us. The Institute is quiet most of the week and we all miss the energy, excitement and discovery of our visitors.
It’s an important time for the Institute as staff shift their attention and focus to strategic endeavors related to planning and implementing new programs, increasing operational efficiencies, and updating and maintaining the physical plant and our programs.
This winter we are busy repairing and updating the Tower, implementing new operations to support research programs, creating new terrapin-based activities for teachers, designing new signage for the walkway, and creating some new exhibits in the aquarium. We remain very busy and it’s refreshing to change our focus seasonally.
It’s also a time for reflection. We have had an amazing year and have accomplished so much. We have all of you, our members and supporters to thank. The walkway has provided unparalleled access to the marsh we all love without overly impacting it. Your support and donations have made the walkway a reality and enriched all that we do.
We are so thankful to the people that have contributed to our Capacity Building Initiative and supported the growth in staff and the enhancement of our facilities to support the diversification of programs. Special thanks to Ray and Ellen Burke, The Davenport Family Foundation, Dr. Connie Dent, Bert DeVries, Anne Galli, Dr. Ann Gundry, Julian and Betsy Miraglia, Wayne and Kay Renneisen, Chip and Nancy Roach, Hank and Julia Schellenger, Jim and Barbara Summers, Spike and Mary Yoh, and Ken and Jennifer Zeigler.
Major gifts have made it all possible, but we still have a long way to go. Your contributions make a difference for the plants and animals of coastal and wetland ecosystems every day and fuel the achievement of our mission.
If you would like to learn more about the Capacity Building Initiative and how you can help, please contact me. We are making no small plans, and our progress is evident every day. Join us on the road to excellence.
The summer has been screaming by at a remarkable pace. The Institute has been filled with the laughter and excitement of visitors and summer nature program participants, the gardens are ablaze in color, the nest boxes full of hungry baby birds, and the mud flats and marsh teeming with life. It’s a glorious time to be at the Institute to witness another season at the shore.
It’s been a busy summer. The summer intern program is wrapping up and we have had a remarkable program. The energy, commitment and spark that the 10 interns brought to the Institute was impressive and they have all contributed to the growth and development in many ways. Their accomplishments are highlighted in articles in the newsletter.
Our docents, junior volunteers, and adult volunteers provide so much to the Institute and are such an important aspect of all that we do. From leading salt marsh tours or beach and dune hikes, to doing programs at the teaching tank, helping to maintain the aquarium, working with the turtle basking station, helping on terrapin road patrols, patrolling the Institute property for nesting terrapins, being field assistants at the Bird Sanctuary, helping to plant marsh grass, working as admissions greeters, or helping with special events – especially the Wings ‘N Water auction, we couldn’t deliver the quality programs and conservation programs that we do – without you. All of us at the Institute say thank you!
The Wings ‘n Water Benefit Auction was August 2nd and we had a wonderful event. Thanks to everyone that attended and bid generously in support of our programs. The business community in Cape May County was incredible and, along with friends and supporters, donated more than 300 items to the auction. The Washington Inn catered the event and provided a wonderful spread that was enjoyed by all. New this year, we featured a raw bar donated by Atlantic Capes Fisheries. Thanks to all our corporate sponsors for helping to make this year’s event memorable.
Finally, as we look ahead to the promise of the beautiful weather of fall and the onset of the south bound migration, we will be very busy with several new projects and programs. Our Education and Research and Conservation Departments have been awarded several new grants that will diversify our programs significantly. Look for more information and updates this fall as we start an international wetland education exchange program, begin a large restoration project for beach nesting and migratory shorebirds at Stone Harbor Point, and work to monitor habitat creation for black skimmers in our local marshes. All of these projects are in collaboration with numerous partners that make our efforts rigorous, enjoyable, sustainable, and empowering.
We are doing so many new things, while we continue to do the things we are known for. Your support and contributions have help launch these programs and are critical to helping us sustain and enhance them. Each week, I meet with new members and new donors that are excited to join with us to make a difference. If you would like to join with us – please let me know. I would love to show you around and explore ways for you to be part of our winning team. We are making no small plans and we want you to be a part of it.
The marsh has sprung back to life. After a long and cold winter, its exciting to see the changes that every new day brings. The fresh spring green, with all of the subtle shades, make the marsh a magnificent canvas. Thousands of shorebirds spend parts of their day at The Institute and surrounding marshes. We have learned that migrating, and even resident, shorebirds spend high tide in the marsh both resting and feeding. At low tide, they head off to their favored mud flats or beaches. Whimbrel, Short-billed Dowitchers, Dunlin, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, move in beautifully synchronized waves through the marsh. Willet, Greater Yellowlegs, and Clapper Rails provide the symphony to accompany the undulating waves. Willet and Clapper Rails will nest here. The ospreys are back and six of the nearby platforms have nesting pairs – unfortunately our camera platform was not chosen again this year. We suspect that there are just too many birds in the area and their territoriality makes our platform undesirable because if a pair starts to check it out, they are met with challenges from nearby nesting birds.
Another amazing new arrival on the marsh is hopefully here to stay. Our new elevated marsh walkway stands boldly on the eastern side of the Salt Marsh Trail. The walkway builds on our capacity for mission focused research, education and conservation activities. Our goal was to provide access to the marsh ecosystem with minimal lasting impacting. New programs and research projects are being developed to help everyone see the wonders and beauty of the marsh. New research projects to document the effects of sea level rise on the marsh and on the success of marsh nesting birds will be started this year. Others await funding of critical research equipment and infrastructure improvements.
The new dock is open and we are excited to be back to our summer programming schedule. At the end of May, The Skimmer will dock at the pier for the first time since summer of 2012. It’s been a long time and a lot of work to get our dock facilities back. I am so pleased to say that we have built to be better than before. The new dock and walkway are critical pieces of the Plan for the Future Capacity Building Initiative at the Institute. We have made great strides to strengthen the Institute and become a Center of Excellence in Research, Conservation, and Education on coastal and wetland ecosystems. We have so much more to do. Please stop by and see all the changes. Talk with me about how you can be part of the solution. Renew your membership, become a volunteer, or make a donation. We are making no small plans. You can be a part of it.