Here we detail recent conservation issues which may be of particular interest to Cape May birdwatchers and residents. For fuller details of New Jersey Audubon's excellent conservation program click here.

Enhancing Habitat Through Prescribed Fire

As Cape May Bird Observatory's Optics Sale settled down on Saturday, March 15th, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service (NJFFS) geared up to give the Center for Research and Education (CRE) a little tender loving care. With favorable weather conditions and winds in the right direction, the NJFFS set a controlled fire, or prescribed burn, to the meadow behind the CRE building. As an effective and efficient management tool, a prescribed burn will provide several benefits to this small 1-acre field. Not only will this help maintain the area as an open habitat, it will also help reduce the risk of future wildfires, prevent the spread of plant disease and pests, recycle nutrients back into the soil, and promote plant growth.

Prescribed burn at CMBO's Center for Research & Education. Recent legislation is allowing controlled use of fire to be again used as an effective management tool for preserving species-rich grassland habitats [photos by Kristen Meistrell]

One of the biggest benefit prescribed fire can have to an ecosystem is its ability to set back natural succession and recycle nutrients back into the soil. This small oasis provides valuable resources to many plant and animal species that thrive in open habitats, including butterflies, birds, reptiles, and wildflowers. As the years pass, woody vegetation begins to creep in, altering the structure of the habitat. With a prescribed burn, we can help maintain the meadow and allow it to continue to provide resources to those unique species. This young forest habitat is currently very limited in New Jersey as the forests throughout the state are mostly middle-aged. Young forest habitat is essential for many rare and declining species and provides resources for species that might typically be found in more mature forests. The open conditions will also allow stewardship staff to get ahead of any pesky invasive plants that take advantage of the newly available resources created by the fire. As plants begin to emerge from the ground, the stewardship team will be hard at work, removing any non-native, invasive plants before they get a chance to establish themselves.

New Jersey Forest Fire Service crew members wet the edge of the field before igniting the vegetation in order to keep the flames from escaping the prescribed burn area [photo by Kristen Meistrell].

The use of prescribed burning can also help reduce the amount of fuel (e.g. grasses, shrubs, and woody debris) that accumulates in a wild area, preventing the outbreak of larger, more destructive wildfire in the hot summer months. In order to perform a safe and controlled burn, the fire crew wet the edge of the field and set the grasses ablaze in such a way that it would essentially keep itself in check. By creating a barrier around the field and setting the outer edge of the meadow on fire, the flames would begin to move towards the field interior. Once the flames met in the middle, there was nothing left to fuel the fire, so the flames ceased. Because the fuel was rapidly used up in this fire, the meadow will be safer and healthier come summer. 

Prescribed burns can help promote vegetation growth by allowing more sunlight to reach the ground and by recycling nutrients back into the soil. Come summer, the field will be lush with regenerating plant material [photo by Kristen Meistrell].

As March comes to a close, many different plants will rise from the ashes with vigor and strength due to the increased sunlight and resources reaching to soil. The grasses and flowers will arrive just in time for spring and by summer’s end, the meadow will be lush and full of life. The staff at the CRE hopes to keep track of the progress the meadow makes with regular photos and we encourage anyone stopping by to explore, observe the birds and butterflies and tell us of your sightings!