NJ Cabin Owners Working to Save Endangered Birds

(Editor's note: When multiple landowners cooperate to make habitat for wildlife, the impact of their habitat creation efforts is increased. Conservationists working to help New England cottontails, American woodcock, and other young forest wildlife may learn from and be inspired by the article that follows.)

By Michael Izzo, NJ Daily Record

A group of Jefferson Township cabin owners are taking action to rescue an endangered species of bird by making their property an ideal habitat.

golden-winged warbler male

Male golden-winged warbler./NRCS

The Longwood Lake Cabin Owners Association is cutting trees on 38 of its 700 acres in an attempt to attract the golden-winged warbler, a bird once common in northwest New Jersey but now endangered in the state and on the brink of being listed as endangered nationally.

The area, which includes 85 individually owned cabins, is situated in dense forest. Don Donnelly, stewardship project director and forester for New Jersey Audubon, said the large property size of Longwood Lake and the diversity of its forest makes it uniquely suited for this project.

“These birds are . . . very area-sensitive. They need a large forested landscape – at least 70 percent has to be large tracts of forest, but also pockets of newly emerging [younger] forest within it,” Donnelly said. “In Jefferson there are those large swaths of forest, but not those pockets. So we’re going in and removing trees, mimicking disturbance pockets, and letting the forest grow back naturally.”

The golden-winged warbler was once common to New Jersey, but as of three years ago there were only about 25 known pairs in the state.

The owners of the cabins have teamed up with New Jersey Audubon to create the habitat, working to secure a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The grant will help the cabin owners and New Jersey Audubon remove two aging sections of the forest totaling about 38 acres. One section is being completed by contractors and the other by the cabin owners, with federal and state officials overseeing the process, which is guided by forest stewardship plans.

“This land is strategically located near other large parcels that could collectively serve as a stronghold for golden-winged warblers if the land is managed correctly,” Donnelly said, adding that the initiative is similar to what is being done for the species throughout the Appalachians and northeast part of the country. “It’s a targeted strategy to try and recover this bird through habitat improvement. And habitat-wise, this area is an ideal range.”

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Blackberry, shrubs, and young trees grow in thickly following timber harvest on Sparta Mountain WMA in New Jersey. Such habitat could attract and support golden-winged warblers within the next few years./D. Donnelly

The partnership began several years ago when Longwood Lake officer Ken Rosenfeld reached out to New Jersey Audubon to see if they could help create useful habitats for an area in which a utility company was pushing to extend power lines.

Upon seeing the land, Audubon foresters and staff members immediately identified it as a prime habitat for the golden-winged warbler. The Longwood Lake Association was encouraged to apply for a federal grant to support the project, which they ultimately won.

It normally takes about five years for the new habitat to grow in, but the process is trending in the right direction. The blue-winged warbler has already returned, along with hybrid forms of the blue-winged warbler and the golden-winged warbler. Stakeholders hope a true golden-winged warbler isn’t far behind.

Donnelly said if the conditions to attract the golden-winged warbler are met, many other species will also be drawn to the area.

“The important thing about this project is there are similar species in decline,” Donnelly said. “The golden-winged warbler is a focal point because it is part of a national initiative, but in helping them other wildlife in danger will be saved too.”

Jeff Galloway, who was president of the Longwood Lake Cabin Owners Association when the initiative began, said taking better care of the local forest will boost the health of nearby undeveloped lands. He hopes this project will bring about a forestry revival in northwest New Jersey.

“We’re citizens of this entire area, so having a forest of natural resources that is both attractive and sustainable is something that many of us value,” Galloway said. “Beauty is kind of a funny word to apply to an area where some trees were strategically removed, but it is beautiful. You can see the changes in topography. You can see vistas and new flowers and animals. It doesn’t look like a disaster area. We are creating young forest, and it’s exciting.”

Longwood Lake will continue to monitor the areas over the next three years to combat invasive species and curb any erosion in hopes they will see the golden-winged warbler soon. Their project may also become a model for others to follow.

John Cecil, vice president of Stewardship for New Jersey Audubon, said there is opportunity to create young forest for the species throughout the state’s forested habitat as long as there is active management from land owners, managers and conservationists.

In partnership with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Audubon is creating another area of golden-winged warbler habitat, at the Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area. They are also working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide technical guidance to forest landowners for habitat management.